Queen: the complete works, by Georg Purvis

by David Lewis

One of the greatest concerts I had the good fortune to see was Queen, with Freddie, at the Sydney Entertainment Centre – my first international rock concert. And, yes, it was incredible. I still (some *numbers redacted* years later) use it as the benchmark for concerts I’ve seen since. I loved (and still love) Queen’s oeuvre: from the bold statement that makes the first eponymous album, through the glory which is Queen II, the stripped back (? really?) Sheer Heart Attack, the magnificent Night at the Opera, the underrated (but not by fans) Day at the Races… And on…. I knew all the songs, by heart, all vocal parts, and could sing along with guitar, bass, drums and keys… I’m too young to have bought all except those albums from The Works onwards on release. This diversion is meant, in some way, to show my especial qualification to critique the very well done indeed book, Queen: The Complete Works

Purvis has listened to and examined every recorded track that the members of Queen participated on: from their early bands, right through to the various solo projects (both during the original quartet’s run, and after Freddie’s death). This is no mean feat: the music of Queen is superficially inconsequential – fist pumping arena rock, metal, some synth pop, some ballads. ‘Superficially, in that the music and lyrics often betray a depth and complexity which are as elusive to discover as they are rewarding on their discovery. Purvis digs deep into the stories around the music, and a revealing biography of the band appears. Purvis actually finds the story of the band, in a perceptive and almost unconcious way. (Like the band, the book is full of seeming contradictions. This is a good thing.) He examines singles, albums, live concerts, videos, in a probing and intelligent fashion

When you think about it, there are very few bands or artists who really warrant the type of attention that this type of book requires. The Beatles have been well served by Ian McLachlan’s Revolution in the Head. Clinton Heylin’s examination of Dylan’s songs Revolution in the Air is as definitive, if not more so. There is a poor one on the Rolling Stones I have lying around somewhere (and the Stones deserve better, even if you finish with Tattoo You). David Bowie has had one done (rightly). A study like this would be an excellent companion piece to Charles Shaar Murray’s definitive book on Hendrix, Crosstown Traffic. Perhaps Michael Jackson could sustain one. Zappa seems to disqualify himself from a complete works, just from the sheer impossibility of it. Prince would seem to be a candidate. Jethro Tull would as well. Perhaps some of the more progressive bands: Rush, Dream Theatre. Metallica? Slayer? Megadeth? Perhaps. The articles at The Band’s website should be collated and put into a book (Declaration: I actually wrote one of them, but the majority were written by Peter Viney. Others though have also contributed.) Possibly Elvis? Maybe early Elton John (say, up to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, certainly: after then, Elton gets a bit patchy..). Velvet Underground? Radiohead: certainly. REM? U2? I’m not sure… Other suggestions of course always welcome.

Heylin actually traces the development of Dylan’s songwriting, but Purvis is closer to Mclachlan. The main difference between McLachlan’s approach and Purvis’s approach is of course the nature of each band. Whereas the Beatles were longstanding friends who grew up and matured in each others company, and who were a tight-knit, protective circle, Queen were not quite like this. Queen formed later in life: all members had been in less successful bands: May and Taylor had been in Smile, Freddie had been in Wreckage, and John Deacon had been in several groups.

By the time Queen had coalesced, they had passed that age where young men naturally hang in a pack – while close friends, they were a business entity. They learned some harsh lessons about the business (mostly thanks to the Sheffield brothers, and, in a personal slump, with new management, pulled their masterpiece Night at the Opera out of the air – and powered by the unlikely, yet in retrospect, unquestionable, classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the band moved in to real, sustainable superstardom. Changes of direction followed, and the story of their ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ – Freddie’s encoded, yet obvious homosexual appearance; the difficult and uneven album Hot Space, the ill advised and politically mishandled trip to South Africa, and the release of the ‘I Want to Break Free’ video: showing the band in drag, turning the American audience off. This is all redeemed by the iconic and incredible ‘Live Aid’ performance, in which Queen stole the day (watching it as a teenager, I remember feeling quite sorry for the act who followed). Of course, the return to success is tempered by Freddie’s death from AIDS (long rumoured, there was no announcement until the day before he died).

Purvis sheds new light on these, and also introduces new perspectives. Queen of course open up new markets in South America (having been shabbily treated in Australia at the Sunbury festival, they only visited as a band once after 1972, well into the 1980s). And of course, the Queen back catalogue always sells. Queen’s Greatest Hits collection is second only to the Eagles greatest hits in terms of sales. Queen struggle to change and develop with the fans (although they do much interesting stuff as they grow: their later stuff seems to me to be as well-crafted and creative as their early efforts. (I must admit, I prefer the early efforts, but there are some magic moments.))

Purvis has robust and firm opinions. Most of them I agree with: those I don’t are subjective, so I’m not going to argue with him. (I will say I thought the Miracle was their worst album, which Purvis seems to say as well). Purvis shows a band which is professional, unified (if not united) and always willing to push its own boundaries. It is a band with four exceptionally talented and highly intelligent men, driving the band to where they believe the band is best served. The background and personality of the four are slowly revealed: but Purvis avoids the tabloid revelations which might have marred such a work (the marriage breakups, Freddie’s Farsi background and personal life, the children etc are not ignored, but only mentioned in context of albums and songs).

A couple of things might have improved the book. A bit more musical analysis would have helped. (one of the things I really like about McLachlan is his index of songs, which has not only the page number they appear on, but the original key they were written in.) To take Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, there’s a real sense of recontextualised rock and roll, as well as an Italian opera. I assume the licensing for pictures was too expensive, explaining lack of pictures To be fair, there’s not exactly a lack of photos of Queen. I suspect there are minor recordings which are missing, and my setlist of the Australian show differs slightly from Purvis’. (Mine of course, was done in an adrenaline-filled rush the day after, as I relived as much of the concert as I could remember. So I might be wrong.)

These are minor issues in a marvellous book. You can read it as a narrative, use it as a research tool (maybe even a definitive one) or, best of all, browse through it. If you are a fan of the band, a fan of popular music, or even of pop culture, I would recommend this.