I just finished Mark Blake’s new book Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen. One of the first rock concerts I ever saw was Queen at the Philadelphia Spectrum in 1976.  I was a big fan then, but like many Americans, I lost interest in Queen when they “went disco” with hits like “Another One Bites the Dust” in 1980.

Yet outside of the States, Queen got bigger and bigger.  When lead singer Freddie Mercury succumbed to AIDS in 1991, they had been in existence for 20 years and had become one of the biggest-selling acts in rock history (second only to the Beatles in the UK).

Queen is perhaps best known these days for two career-boosting events: the band’s show-stealing set at the Live Aid concert in 1985, and the use of their first mega-hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in the movie “Wayne’s World” in 1992.  But as I traveled down Memory Lane with Queen while reading the book, I found a document that turns out to be more meaningful than either of those, let alone any of the myriad boxed sets and greatest-hits collections that have appeared since Freddie passed away.

The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert that the remaining band members staged the year after his death is one of the most significant live events in rock history, most closely paralleling The Band’s 1976 Last Waltz at Winterland.  The Freddie Tribute, which benefited his AIDS charity, took place in the UK’s Wembley Stadium and was seen by a billion people on television worldwide.  The three-hour affair featured a jaw-dropping list of artists who influenced or were influenced by Queen, playing Queen covers themselves or being backed by the remaining Queen members.

The concert was recorded and originally released on the long-gone Laser Disc format, then on VHS tape with lesser sound quality.  Eventually it was released as a DVD but with the first half of the concert missing, prompting howls of protest from reviewers and fans.   I really wanted to see the whole thing, so — having gotten rid of my VHS player years ago and never having owned a Laser Disc player — I turned to the dark side: YouTube.

It turns out that many of the important clips from the Mercury Tribute Concert are legally there, in decent quality, on YouTube’s Queen Channel.  But for the rest of it, you have to find the unauthorized camcorded clips that many fans have put up there… and that the remaining members of Queen have obviously let stay up there to help preserve Freddie’s legacy.  The quality of the user-contributed clips is as dubious as the provenance, but it’s all there, chopped up into less-than-ten-minute segments.

The main thing that struck me in watching these clips was the band members’ astuteness in picking other musicians to step in for Freddie’s vocals or cover the band’s tunes.  It all goes to show that regardless of Queen’s signature sound and internal cohesion as a band (20 years with no personnel changes and very few guest musicians), Queen has truly become part of the bedrock of modern music, by channeling its influences and by being a big influence on a younger generation of rockers.

The great choices vastly outnumber the ones that didn’t work.  James Hetfield of Metallica roars through the proto-thrash-metal “Stone Cold Crazy” from Sheer Heart Attack.  Annie Lennox of Eurythmics provides the right mix of elegance and decadence in duet with David Bowie on “Under Pressure.”  Both totally natural fits.

Led Zeppelin was a huge influence on Queen. The medley with Robert Plant  is pure genius: Plant sings Queen’s “Kashmir”-ish “Innuendo,” dropping in a couple of verses of the song that inspired it; then guitarist Brian May plays Jimmy Page on Zeppelin’s “Thank You”; then Plant and Queen segue into the rockabilly-tinged “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” recalling Plant’s own rockabilly foray with the Honeydrippers.

Another moment of inspiration is Elton John singing and playing the piano-based opening sequence of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  As is the case when Queen performed the song live, the middle section with the zillion vocal harmonies is played from the recording.  But then Axl Rose comes out to snarl through the hard-rocking last section… and the unlikely pair of Axl and Elton sing together on the finale.

A reading of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” with Mott’s Ian Hunter on vocals, is also poignant: it recalls Queen’s first US tour when they opened for Mott; it also features Bowie (the song’s author) on sax as well as Bowie/Mott guitar legend Mick Ronson on what turned out to be his final live performance before dying of cancer the following year.

The Queen covers by other bands hold up well, too.  Def Leppard gives the sleek rocker “Now I’m Here” a celebratory treatment, with Brian May stepping in to play the song’s chug-chug riff.  A Queen medley by Extreme shows Queen’s influence on the Aqua-Net-and-lipstick glam-metal scene of the late 80s.

The only vocal substitutions that don’t work are the Who’s Roger Daltrey on “I Want It All” and Axl Rose on “We Will Rock You.”  The finale, “We Are the Champions” (what else?), is sung by one of Freddie’s great influences: Liza Minnelli, who gives it the full Broadway treatment.  Some critics didn’t get this one, but as the cliche has it, Freddie would have wanted it that way.

The real heroes of the concert,of course, are the remaining band members, who played on most of the tunes.  But with Roger Taylor stuck behind his drum kit and bassist John Deacon standing silently at the back in his usual fashion, Queen’s ambassador to the world that night was guitarist Brian May — with his longtime trademarks: his handmade red guitar and massive billows of hair.  May cements his reputation as one of the all time great rock guitarists while dueling with the likes of Slash (Guns ‘n’ Roses) and Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), and graciously ceding the spotlight to, and sharing emotional hugs with, the night’s many stars.   Queen may have been a chameleon of a band while it went through its varied musical phases and styles, but Brian May lives on as its rock ‘n’ roll heart.

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