It’s surprising that it took 20 years from Freddie Mercury’s death at age 45 for a major Queen biography to appear. Mark Blake clearly knows the British-rock-supergroup terrain: He wrote the well-received 2007 Pink Floyd overview Comfortably Numb. But Queen’s story has been a tough nut to crack for some time. The band’s excesses are legendary—not least the famed 1978 New Orleans Halloween bash that involved 400 invited guests and legions of strippers.
That story seems underserved by Is This The Real Life?, in ways typical of rock bios of acts that, like Queen, keep their ranks closed. The book’s backbone is in the handful of interviews Blake conducted with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor for UK retro-rock magazines Mojo and Q, but he didn’t re-interview them (or speak to reclusive bassist John Deacon), and Real Life can seem cut-and-pasted more than written. Blake isn’t a lazy reporter—he spoke with several of the band’s associates, particularly a number of early bandmates in pre-Queen groups such as May and Taylor’s band Smile, and he gets in a lot of detail about the group’s gestation. But he leans a little too hard on them, faithfully recording his interviewees’ final Queen sightings, whether they move the story forward or not.
The chapters on Queen’s mid-to-late-’70s peak are actually the least interesting. When the band begins switching from stadium rock to pop and funk (signaled definitively by Deacon’s 1980 song “Another One Bites The Dust,” which ripped off its groove from Chic’s “Good Times”), the book becomes more nuanced. Blake is good on the lingering effects of Queen’s disastrous decision to play South African resort Sun City during apartheid, and the final chapter—titled “A Ferrari In The Garage,” the group’s analogy for operating with an AIDS-stricken Mercury—is smartly handled and genuinely moving, as Mercury makes his friends and associates vow to deny he’s sick, even as it becomes manifestly obvious how frail he’s become. In lieu of roadwork, the band recorded as many albums as Mercury could make. Though Deacon retires, May and Taylor keep hitting the road, eventually taking on Paul Rodgers (Bad Company) to tour their joint back catalogs. As Freddie put it, the show must go on.