I became a Queen fan the winter before my 14th birthday; a friend let me borrow his well-worn Greatest Hits cassette, and by the time I got to song #2 — “Bohemian Rhapsody” — my life had been changed. Obsessive music freak that I was, even at age 13, I promptly set about obtaining all the Queen material I could find — a task made slightly easier by the recent “20 Years of Queen” reissues by their new American record label, Hollywood Records. The pity, though, was that it was February of 1991, and within 9 months, Freddie Mercury would be dead. The band I suddenly wanted to follow forever was silenced.
Since Mercury’s death, “new” Queen releases have been a mixed bag: on the positive side, Queen fans have been presented with the band’s “final” album (Made in Heaven), two relatively strong live albums from the ’80s, a couple of accompanying live DVDs, and the Freddie Mercury Solo Collection. On the negative side, fans (American ones in particular) have been bombarded with seven — seven! — greatest hits compilations (the eighth will be released later this month) and have had to endure the relatively depressing “Queen + Paul Rodgers” incarnation, including mediocre studio and live albums that nobody asked for. Queen fans still wait patiently for archival releases, including a long-anticipated, endlessly-postponed box set of rarities.
The one piece of excellent news for Queen fans arrives in the form of a new coffee table book, Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crown Kings of Rock. I can say without exaggeration that it’s the most exciting Queen release of the past 15 years.
Lovingly written and compiled by journalist Phil Sutcliffe, Queen: The Ultimate… is 287 pages’ worth of illustrated beauty, featuring multitudes of photos of the band throughout their career — many of them previously unpublished — and scores of memorabilia: concert programs, posters, domestic and foreign 45 singles, LPs, backstage passes, ticket stubs…you name it, it’s here, and there are over 500 photos in all.
It’s not just a pretty picture book, however: Sutcliffe has written quite the comprehensive biography of the band. It’s not as thorough as the Queen bio As It Began, but it’s not meant to be, either. What separates this book from others is Sutcliffe’s generous use of band interviews over the years, including many conducted by Sutcliffe himself. And though only the most hardcore of fans would have purchased the books written by Freddie’s partner, Jim Hutton, or his personal assistant, Peter Freestone (yes, I own both), Sutcliffe compiles the best supporting information from each of these books, and also gives special attention the final years of Queen — an especially touching period where the band rallied around Freddie to help him complete Made in Heaven.
Sutcliffe isn’t the only contributor to the book; each album in the Queen canon is reviewed in detail by rock journalists such as Jon Bream, Jim DeRogatis, Gary Graff and Greg Kot, while close friends of the band offer personal recollections. One of the most touching essays comes from Reinhold Mack, producer of The Game, Flash Gordon, Hot Space and The Works: not only does Mack recount the band’s work ethic in the studio, but offers a number of personal photos of Freddie and Mack’s son, “Little Freddie” (I’m not making that nickname up) who was also Freddie’s godson. A Christmas card from Freddie to Little Freddie is one of the most touching inclusions. Finally, the book includes “endorsements” of the band from other artists, such as Geddy Lee, Neil Diamond, Slash, Wayne Coyne, Tom Morello and others. While not entirely necessary (I’m not sure why I care what Adele thinks of Queen), they’re a nice finish to an breathtakingly beautiful book.
Having read numerous Queen books over the years, I thought I knew everything there was to know about this band — but Queen: The Ultimate… has provided me with new anecdotes and stunning visuals at every turn. It’s probably more than any casual fan of the band will need, but anyone with more than three or four Queen albums in their collection will find it to be absolutely indispensable and a welcome addition to their book collection. It is, quite simply, an absolute dream for all Queen fans.