Although it’s been thirty years since Queen unveiled an album of new material, their popularity only continues to rise, as evinced by Magnifico!: The A-Z of Queen. Mark Blake’s formidable and deeply-researched book digs into the band who arguably came closest to matching The Beatles for diversity, and rapier-sharp wit. It probably helps that Queen carried four songwriters in their ranks, even if keyboardist John Deacon gallantly let the other three tackle the sprawling harmonies, but Queen was never anything less than engaging, no matter whether they were bellowing towards the Live Aid masses, or chatting to television presenters who showed scant interest in their latest single.
Cleverly, Blake structures this book like an “A-Z” guide, sifting from “Another One Bites The Dust,” to the familiar terrains of Zanzibar, the land from whence Freddie Mercury came. “His culture was Jimi Hendrix,” says drummer Roger Taylor, who emerges from the pages as the band’s most thoughtful interviewee, giving accurate (albeit epithet-driven) answers to the band’s history. These days, he stands as joint custodian and even worked with Tim Staffell on the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack (the film starred Rami Malek, who won an Oscar for his performance in 2019). Many of you will recognize Stafell as the man who led Taylor and Brian May to the point of near success, before opting to leave Smile (as Queen were then known as) for another group. May and Taylor appointed Mercury in his place, and from that point, the band’s success was a given.
To Staffell’s credit, he says he never resented the immense success May and Taylor enjoyed in his absence, even though it was difficult for him to reconcile. Deacon too had his moments of darkness and even criticized Robbie Williams’ remake of “We Are The Champions” in the early 2000s. He took Mercury’s death the hardest, although Taylor was also deeply saddened (the achingly beautiful “These Are The Days of Our Lives” shows how much he cared for the band’s frontman), and May even considered calling time on the band following the release of the posthumously produced, Made In Heaven.
Yet Mercury’s ghost lived on, largely because of the gusto from which he appeared in public, but also due to the strength of his compositions. It was Mercury who penned “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the band’s most ambitious single, and most enduring success. Gaining a second lease of life off the back of Wayne’s World, the single floated comfortably amongst the nineties charts, thanks to its idiosyncratic nature and guitar production, yet the victory proved bittersweet because Mercury did not live long enough to enjoy the renaissance. “‘Freddie joked, “I suppose I have to fucking die before we ever get big in America,” May recalled years later, even though both men recognized the acidity behind the gesture.
May, like Mercury, followed Hendrix’s trajectory with tremendous interest, and, fittingly, the guitarist is filed under the letter “H.” Hendrix cast a large shadow over Queen, and only Deacon seemed disinterested in the writer behind “Are You Experienced?”, favoring the guitar work of Nile Rodgers instead.
Queen flirted with funk on their excellent Hot Space album, and Deacon wrote many of the rhythm hooks for the record. Not everyone was a fan, and the most noteworthy single was “Under Pressure,” a probing dissertation on human existence, written under David Bowie’s supervision.
And yet Bowie had a rapport with Mercury that no vocalist enjoyed, except for the eminent Montserrat Caballé. In 1988, Mercury invited the opera star to work on an album that many, this writer included, consider the finest in the solo canon. As ever with Mercury, it was born out of creativity and sheer happenstance, yet the results (especially the shimmering “How Can I Go On” and the lyrical “Barcelona”) showed his resolve never dimmed. ‘This predated the Three Tenors and Alfie Boe, so we didn’t have a clue,’ said co-writer Mike Moran, but like many aspects of Mercury’s wheelhouse, it was brought to fruition by nothing more than gumption.
Mercury may be gone, Deacon may be retired, and the other two may be growing older, but their collective work is still far-reaching and worthy of any comparison with The Beatles.
Photo: Queen (Getty Images)