God knows I’ve been into some questionable music in my time. In my early teens, especially, I would listen to pretty much everything, which maybe sounds quite hip in a John Peel-esque, frequenting back alley record shops to get hold of a Bavarian-Oompah-meets-Kraftwerk experimental 12-inch on import kind of way, but in practice really wasn’t. I spent a lot of time listening to what could charitably be described as shit. I’m pretty sure at one point I had a taped copy of a Christian rock album someone had given me, and – worse – that I listened to it more than once. (Though I also think I later taped over it with a Bronski Beat album, which suggests my sense of irony was developing nicely.) Clearly, I was in urgent need of help, and luckily I got it at the age of 15 in the form of a friend who lent me his copy of REM’s new album Green. Listening to that album – especially ‘Hairshirt’ – really was a kind of Damascene moment for me. I had no idea songs could sound like that, or that lyrics could move so far beyond the banal.
Queen occupy a weird place in the history of my musical development. On the one hand there’s no question they belong to the pre-Green, listen-to-any-old-rubbish phase of my life, but on the other they’re one of the few bands from that period that I’ve not been able to completely shake. I mean, clearly, they’re rubbish in so many ways – ludicrous, pretentious, overblown, pompous: everything that punk came along to liberate us from, in fact. Except, of course, that Queen actually went on to have their greatest success after punk. I think part of the reason for their long term success is that, despite the best efforts and loud protestations to the contrary of Brian May and Roger Taylor, Queen were more-or-less a pop band, or, at least, rapidly became so. Their first couple of albums – the oh-so-imaginatively (and derivatively) entitled Queen and Queen II – are as drearily prog as any you could hope not to hear, but by the time of ‘Killer Queen’ it was clear which direction their future success lay in.
I think that’s certainly one of the reasons I’ve stayed interested in them. The 8-year guitar solo on ‘Brighton Rock’ continues to fill me with the appropriate feelings of homicidal rage and abject despair, and I can’t catch the opening lines of ‘Now I’m Here’ without quipping to myself “I wish you weren’t…” But the melody-driven pop songs – ‘Killer Queen’, ‘Love of My Life’, ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’, ‘Spread Your Wings’, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, ‘Play the Game’, ‘Save Me’, ‘Who Wants to Live Forever?’, ‘The Show Must Go On’, ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’ – I could listen to pretty much indefinitely, I think. Or, well, to be accurate – I continue to enjoy them. After all these years I know them so well I can play them back note for note in my mind without having to do anything so prosaic as actually listen to them.
There are other reasons for my continued interest, too, of course, most notably the whole gay thing. Freddie Mercury was, it seems likely, bi rather than gay – certainly his relationships with women seem to have had more genuine intimacy than the ones closeted and repressed gay men sometimes enter into – but he always projected a very gay vibe. I glommed onto Mr Mercury for very much the same reasons I glommed onto Martina Navratilova at a similar age – they were the most visible, unapologetic and successful non-straight people around at the time. I’ve never felt much need of role-models per se (Mercury was a natural born showman and Navratilova the consummate athlete, which makes both of them about as different to me as it’s possible to imagine), but it was important for me, growing up in a fairly quiet village in the heartlands of conservative southern England, to know that there were other queer people around somewhere. I think the particular quality of that early interest helps explain why I’ve never completely succeeded in tearing myself away from Queen.
Anyway, for all these reasons I was pretty much guaranteed to watch the two part documentary Queen – Days of Our Lives which aired on BBC2 last weekend. Part 1 (covering the years 1971-1980) is on the iPlayer here, and Part 2 (1981-present) here; they’re both available until tomorrow evening (6/6/11) if you want to check them out.
The programmes follow what’s become, I guess, the standard pattern for these kinds of things since The Beatles Anthology TV series 15 years ago – a mixture of old interviews and archive footage of the band going about their business, intercut with present day interviews with the surviving band members and other key individuals. Or, well, it’s sort-of like that – there are present day interviews with Roger Taylor and Brian May (drummer and guitarist, respectively), but John Deacon (bass player) is conspicuous by his absence. Deacon has become very detached from the continuing story of Queen after Freddie Mercury’s death, but, with the exception of a very brief comment from May about him having ‘chosen to be in a very different place in his life’, it’s not clear why his detachment is so absolute that he doesn’t even want to appear in a retrospective marking the 40th anniversary of the formation of the band. (Actually, the anniversaries are coming thick and fast this year. 2011 marks 40 years since the formation of the band, 20 years since Freddie Mercury died – and 30 years since the first reports of deaths resulting from an unexplained collapse of immune function amongst gay men in the United States.)
The effect of the decision, in any case, is to more-or-less deny Deacon the opportunity to put his side of the story, and to tell his version of events involving Freddie Mercury. There are very few historical interviews with him – I guess even back in the day TV journalists weren’t clamouring to interview the bassist – and the lack of present-day input compounds that. Deacon wrote some of Queen’s most successful songs – most notably ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, which substantially broadened their fanbase, and without which it’s unlikely the band would have made a successful transition into the very different musical landscape of the 1980s – but May and Taylor, with their determination to represent the band as a capital-R Rock band, are very dismissive of his songwriting contributions. Taylor, in particular, seems determined to make sure the casual viewer is in no doubt about the depth of his antipathy to John Deacon’s musical tastes, which, given the obvious influence of ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ on Taylor’s song ‘Radio Gaga’, does seem a little ironic. Maybe Taylor’s been told about that influence once too often, and that’s why he’s so determined to stress his complete musical independence from Deacon.
In other ways, though, this outspokenness is one of the things that rescues the documentaries. Quite often band documentaries can take on a very self-congratulatory feel, glossing over failures and absolutely restricting any references to internal dissent. Certainly Queen have issued enough official biographies that take this line before, and the pressure to do so has probably only increased since Freddie Mercury’s death: how to talk about an argument with a dead man without making yourself look like a jerk? In that context it’s quite refreshing to see Brian May, with a definite gleam of schadenfreude in his eye, comment that Mercury’s 1985 solo album was ‘very creatively rewarding for him, but not commercially rewarding’. (Mercury had been going round telling his friends that his solo success would eclipse Queen, and make it apparent that he’d been carrying his bandmates for years, so schadenfreude is not misplaced.)
Another strength of the documentaries is that they include interviews with people who are prepared to criticise the band – albeit relatively mildly. This is most obviously the case with the band’s decision to play at Sun City in South Africa during the time of apartheid, when one interviewee makes no bones at all about the fact that the reason they agreed to play, and didn’t cancel when the storm of protest broke, was not for any high-minded reasons but because they were being paid a lot of money to do so. There’s no question that playing Sun City was an appalling decision, and the band were quite rightly vilified for it at the time. It also has to be said that the criticism that appears in the documentary is fairly muted. Brian May, for example, is given plenty of scope to repeat his bogus defence about how not playing in countries where you disagree with the politicians would leave you with very few places to play – which conveniently overlooks the fact that the opposition to apartheid wasn’t about politics but about human rights.
Slightly strangely, no-one connected with the band seems to have taken the opportunity of the documentary to make a number of points they could quite legitimately have made about the Sun City episode, and the ongoing criticism. They could, for example, have pointed out that there’s perhaps something a little odd in a bunch of white people accusing an Asian – Freddie Mercury, real name Farrokh Bulsara – of racism, especially since he would have been subject to the restrictions of apartheid while they would not. They could have pointed out that white people are usually, for some reason, quite muted in their criticism of other non-white artists (like Boney M) who played Sun City in the apartheid era, but seem not to have extended the same forbearance to Mercury/Bulsara. They could have drawn attention to the strange incongruity between the white people who sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ still criticising Queen every chance they get and the behaviour of Nelson Mandela himself, who is so far over it he asked Brian May and Roger Taylor to be ambassadors for his 46664 Campaign. None of this is to excuse the decision to play, of course – they were absolutely wrong to do so – but I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the band to have asked for it to be put in context, and it’s a little odd they chose not to do so. In fact, slightly worryingly, it raises the possibility that they’re yet to recognise that playing there actually was wrong, which would seem both surprising and disappointing.
The documentaries provide a good enough run through the history of Queen, although there aren’t really any particular revelations. I think the only new things I discovered were that Freddie Mercury had come out in the mid-70s to their (gay) manager John Reid – I thought he hadn’t acknowledged an attraction to men until the late 70s – and that he had told their subsequent manager, Jim Beach, that he was HIV positive quite early on, but then insisted that he not tell the rest of the band – I had thought he had revealed his diagnosis to them all simultaneously, and well after they had guessed for themselves what was wrong with him. Brian May and Roger Taylor cheerfully admitted in the film that they had been in the habit of routinely lying whenever questions of Mercury’s health came up, so maybe the details of who knew what when were part of the disinformation campaign.
My biggest criticism of the documentaries is the way they handled Freddie Mercury’s involvement with the gay scene. There was quite a lot of talk of him falling under ‘bad influences’ from the early 80s onwards, and it was clear that those ‘bad influences’ were his gay friends (or his ‘entourage’, as it was rather grandly described). There was a heavy implication that he was being enticed into a debauched lifestyle that would lead eventually to his death. This is, of course, the familiar account of HIV/AIDS and the gay community – that the epidemic of disease and death was avoidable and self-inflicted, brought on by a hedonistic lifestyle.
I’ve become, over the years, painfully tired of making this case, but it stands to be made over and over again: in the early 80s, if you were gay, you didn’t have to be doing anything excessive or out of the ordinary to be exposed to HIV. All you had to do was live an ordinary life, going out with your friends, occasionally meeting someone and having sex. At the time nobody knew that not wearing a condom could lead to death; just like straight people, gay people thought the worst consequence would be an unpleasant burning sensation when they tried to pee and a course of antibiotics. There was probably precious little difference between Freddie Mercury’s lifestyle at the time and the one that Brian May and Roger Taylor admitted to in these documentaries – some drink, some drugs, and some sex. It’s just that, because it involved men rather than women, Mercury’s sex life put him at greater risk of catching HIV.
Now, of course, I’m far too young and far too provincial to have any first-hand experience – at the time I was less than 10, and stuck in my quiet village in the heart of conservative southern England – so maybe I’m mistaken in my assesment of the lifestyle Freddie Mercury was living. But it has to be said that the account of Mercury’s time on the scene in Munich presented by the documentary doesn’t tally at all with the account given by the man he called his husband, Jim Hutton, who was there, some of the time at least. Hutton described Freddie Mercury’s circle there as a family, and his account is completely at odds with a vision of hedonistic nihilism; they may not have spent their evenings engaged in bible study and crochet, but neither was it the drug-fuelled orgy that too many people assume the entire early-80s gay scene was.
In the light of subsequent events, it’s natural, I think, that May and Taylor are ambivalent about the decisions Mercury made at the time. It must be very hard for them to avoid an “if only he hadn’t” reaction when they think about the time their friend spent on the gay scene. That doesn’t change the fact it’s a shame the documentary as a whole took the same tone. According to comments made by Taylor in these documentaries, Mercury had begun to experience early symptoms of AIDS by the summer of 1986; he had certainly been formally diagnosed by spring 1987. Given the delay between infection with HIV and the development of AIDS (anything up to 10 years in people without access to modern antiretroviral drugs), it’s likely that Mercury was infected in the relatively early stages of the epidemic, when little or nothing was known about it. If that’s accurate, there’s little point playing the “if only” game. No matter how little contact he had with the gay scene, if Mercury was having sex at all at the time he was at significant risk of contracting HIV. As with so many other gay men infected then, it was just a question of being in the wrong place. Or, rather, being at the wrong time – if his sexual peak had been ten years earlier (before HIV had spread so far) or five years later (when people knew to use condoms), he’d almost certainly have been safe.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s a relatively small quibble, though. For the most part these documentaries do a reasonably good job of telling the story of Freddie Mercury’s illness and death without getting excessively maudlin, just as they do a good job of giving a run-through the whole career of the band.
I can’t recommend these programmes on the understanding that they contain shocking new revelations, and they don’t go particularly deep – the overall impression is that the interviewees were not asked particularly searching or challenging questions. But then again Queen never were a deep or reflective band, so that’s not necessarily inappropriate. They were always about the surface more than the substance, and it was only very late in their career there was any real sense of them digging into any kind of deeper emotion, with songs like ‘The Show Must Go On’. Or ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’ – a little comic novelty song with a video to match, unless you know about HIV encephalopathy, and pay attention to lyrics like “I’m coming down with a fever, I’m really out to sea…”