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Favourite Album: Mathematical Logic or Gut Instinct?

Inspired by a blog I came across recently (unfortunately I can’t find the link but there are loads of such blogs around), I have spent the last few days compiling my personal ranking of Queen songs, and I am just in the process of writing it all up, beginning with 185 – 161. I had in fact already started all of this when the Classic Rock readers’ poll listing came out – I am looking forward to comparing my ranking with theirs in due course. At the moment, I am just thinking about what my rankings are telling me about my favourite/least favourite Queen albums.

So I now have a database of 185 Queen songs (I explain here what I did/didn’t count as a ‘Queen’ song) – each one numbered from 185 (least favourite) to 01 (favourite). I decided to see if a bit of elementary mathematics (it would need to be) could help me formulate a ‘definitive’ ranking of albums. I was intrigued as to whether it would confirm what ‘gut instinct’ has always told me, which is roughly something like this:

1-2 Sheer Heart Attack & A Night At The Opera (usually ‘Opera’ at 1 but it seems to alternate in my mind)
3 Queen II
4 A Day At The Races
5 Queen
6-8 News Of The World, The Works, Innuendo
9 The Game
10 A Kind Of Magic
11-12 Flash Gordon OST, Made In Heaven
13 Jazz
14 Hot Space
15 The Miracle

I worked out the mean score for each album (the old-school ‘average’ – add up all the individual items and then divide by the number of items). This is what I got (mean score in brackets):

1 A Day At The Races (45.5)
2 A Night At The Opera (57.2) – but it was 47.5 without God Save The Queen
3. Queen II (63.4)
4. Sheer Heart Attack (67.2)
5. Queen (68.8)
6. Innuendo (78.3)
7. A Kind Of Magic (80.3)
8. The Works (87.3)
9. News Of The World (88.2)
10. The Game (91.9)
11. Jazz (100.3)
12. Hot Space (103.5)
13. Made In Heaven (113.1)
14. The Miracle (115.7)
15. Flash Gordon (138.3)

The big surprise there is that A Day At The Races came out the fairly comfortable winner. I have exceptionally fond memories of the album – it was the first one I ever bought – but I have never seriously considered it my absolute favourite.

I scored the tracks on A Day At The Races as follows: 9, 15, 19, 27, 46, 56, 61, 68, 72, 82. So consistency wins out, at least by this mean measure. I have of course always seen it as a very ‘solid’ album: there is nothing at the very top (the highest is 09 – Somebody To Love), but there is also nothing lower than 82 (Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy).

Ten very good tracks – the epitome of ‘solid’ – whereas a ‘great’ album that includes perhaps twelve or thirteen tracks may still include a couple of weaker songs which pull the overall average down. For example, I scored A Night At The Opera: 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 28, 41, 78, 102, 109, 135, 164. It has five songs in the top ten but the ‘weaker’ songs bring the average down.

I should perhaps make clear that I don’t dislike God Save The Queen (number 164), but I found it an interesting headache where to rank short songs that I really like (such as some of the Flash Gordon songs but also songs like Dear Friends, which was at 141) and the God Save The Queen and Wedding March (170) traditional arrangements – part of a discussion for another time about what criteria we might use to rate a song.

The other thing that stands out for me from the mean list is that I seem to rate the individual elements of A Kind Of Magic higher than my gut sense of the album as a whole. Conversely, I like Flash Gordon as a soundtrack but that doesn’t come through when broken down on a track-by-track basis. The cold logic of mathematics, I suppose. It’s the old adage about the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts: the numbers are struggling to express how I feel about an album as an overall listening experience.

I then ranked them according to the median (list the individual items and the median is the one in the middle). Supposedly this is good for filtering out a small number of outliers that dramatically skew the average and therefore gives you a better sense of where the bulk of the numbers are. This is what I got:

1. Queen II (23)
2. A Night At The Opera (35) – 28 without God Save The Queen
3. A Day At The Races (51)
4. Sheer Heart Attack (65)
5. Queen (67)
6. Innuendo (72)
7. A Kind Of Magic (80)
8. The Game (84)
9. News Of The World (94)
10. The Works (99)
11. Jazz (101)
12. Hot Space (107)
13. Made In Heaven (116)
14. The Miracle (135)
15. Flash Gordon (152)

So this calculation yielded slightly different results. A Day At The Races is closer to where I would instinctively have put it. The big surprise was Queen II coming out top. When I look at how I scored the tracks, I find that it is an album very much of two halves (and I don’t mean the two sides, Black and White): six absolutely fantastic songs and five merely ‘good’ songs. It’s the very opposite of the consistency of A Day At The Races but the good tracks are so good (five in the top twenty) that it ends up winning.

This is how I scored Queen II:

02 – White Queen (As It Began)
12 – Seven Seas Of Rhye
14 – The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
16 – Father To Son
18 – Nevermore
23 – The March Of The Black Queen
88 – Ogre Battle
112 – Some Day One Day
115 – Procession
145 – Funny How Love Is
152 – The Loser In The End (sorry, Rog)

Great fun to do – and I will be doing a lot more analysis in the next few days and weeks.

By the way, Brighton Rock was number 01.

Queen Songs Ranked 160 – 141

Click here for an explanation of the rationale and the ground rules I adopted, and to see numbers 185 – 161.


From 160 to 141…

Plenty of material here that is good but just rather ordinary by Queen’s exceptional standards. Another couple of singles feature, as do some of the better non-album, b-side tracks. Only the first album and A Day At The Races have yet to feature anywhere on the list so far.

160. Dreamer’s Ball (May), Jazz, 1978

Another nod to America from Brian – this time he evokes the New Orleans jazz scene – Dreamer’s Ball (the title sometimes appears without an apostrophe) is in truth one of his weaker efforts, a poor relation of the magnificent big-band sound of Good Company. The rather ponderous feel is perhaps deliberate, conjuring up the image of a cast-off, booze-soaked dreamer at the bar, drowning his sorrows. The acoustic early-take released in 2011 is somewhat leaden, though the finished version features nice multi-tracked lead guitar and backing vocals. Best moment: the guitars from 2:48 to 3:10.

159. Friends Will Be Friends (Deacon/Mercury), A Kind Of Magic, 1986

This song tries a little too hard to capture the anthemic, arms-in-the-air quality of Queen’s best stadium-ready songs (the video is a big clue to its intent – the nearest Freddie ever got to crowdsurfing). Released as a single to coincide with the Magic Tour, it was inexplicably placed between We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions in the set-list – an egregious error. As often, the guitar breaks (particularly at roughly 1:58 and in the outro at 3:44) are the best bits.

158. It’s A Beautiful Day (Reprise) (Queen), Made In Heaven, 1995

157. It’s A Beautiful Day (Queen), Made In Heaven, 1995

Apparently, a half-idea of Freddie’s from The Game sessions (a bit like what became the opening bit to Breakthru), it’s such a shame he didn’t pursue it further. A wonderfully optimistic lyric, less decadent and hedonistic than Don’t Stop Me Now. Nicely moulded into a coherent shape by the band, including samples of early songs on the reprise.

156. Coming Soon (Taylor), The Game, 1980

After his two funky missteps on the Jazz album, this is more typical Roger fare. Propelled along by a driving drum beat, I Wanna Testify-type vocal flourishes and what sounds like Roger on rhythm guitar, this doesn’t quite hit the heights, though the backing vocals at 1:35 and the end are gorgeous. A Human Body would perhaps have been a better choice of second Roger song on The Game, with this as the non-album b-side.

155. Tear It Up (May), The Works, 1984

A sledgehammer of a song from Brian that lacks the subtle shades of his very best heavy songs. A tribute to wild partying but without the wit of Freddie’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Full-on, driving guitar compensates for awful, crashing drums. Despite the lyrical theme, it was an unlikely set opener on the Works tour. Even more surprising that it remained in the set for the Magic Tour. Even more surprising that it was resurrected by Q+AL.

154. Let Me In Your Heart Again (May), released 2014

Another promising but unfinished idea (again, one wonders why), this one from The Works sessions and nicely shaped into something releasable by Brian and Roger. The Anita Dobson version is worth a listen for Brian’s guitars, though perhaps not for the singing.

153. A Dozen Red Roses For My Darling (Taylor), b-side, 1986

An example of where that ’80s big-yet-compressed, dry drum sound works well (taking the lead in this instrumental), this is a delightfully left-field Roger creation. The repeated guitar riff is great, as are the synths and the atmospheric break at roughly 2:09 (sounding like a cross between something from side two of David Bowie’s Low album and the X-Files theme).

152. The Loser In The End (Taylor), Queen II, 1974

Perched at the end of side one on the original vinyl release, ‘The Loser…’ follows uneasily – both lyrically and musically – in the wake of Brian’s magnificently dark and introspective songs, the juxtaposition as jarring as the guitar treatments in the song itself. The theme is typically early-years Roger – the inter-generational tensions involved in growing up and embracing rock-‘n’-roll, girls and fast cars. Best moment: Roger’s percussion, particularly the repeated marimba sounds, for example at 0:06).

151. Feelings, Feelings (May), released 2011

From the News Of The World sessions, this song didn’t make it through the weeding process and at roughly two minutes’ duration obviously remained unfinished and unpolished. It’s upbeat, rocky feel is reminiscent of It’s Late and the latter part of the BBC session version of Spread Your Wings from the same period.

150. The Invisible Man (Queen), The Miracle, 1989

One of Queen’s more ‘humorous’ pieces, it certainly has an infectious bassline and nice guitar from Brian – though, take away the various aural flourishes and it’s not immediately obvious what else. Many people will doubtless disagree but it’s also one of their less likeable, ‘thematic’ videos.

149. Sleeping On The Sidewalk (May), News Of The World, 1977

In a sign of things to come, much of this blues-y piece was apparently recorded in a single take. Like many of Brian’s lyrics, he is wrestling with the price of fame and success – though with more humour that is typical in his songs. The live version from the News Of The World tour, released in 2017 with Freddie on vocal, was an unexpected delight.

148. One Year Of Love (Deacon), A Kind Of Magic, 1986

Another of Freddie’s more ‘shouty’ vocals from the ’80s, ‘One Year…’ comes complete with saxophone solo and orchestral arrangement. It is by no means the worst of the ‘mushy ballad’ type but, with its plodding beat, struggles to go anywhere particularly interesting and is sorely missing Brian’s guitar.

147. Crash Dive On Mingo City (May), Flash Gordon, 1980

It may only last a minute or so but Brian’s guitar, joined by Roger on timpani, evokes Flash’s frantic crash-dive through the city’s defence shield, ruining the wedding and killing Ming in the process.

146. The Hitman (Queen), Innuendo, 1991

This certainly sounds like a no-holds-barred Brian rocker, though there is a lengthy quote ‘out there’ attributed to Brian, saying that the original idea came from Freddie with further work from John. It is full-on and relentless, leaving little room for subtlety, though it has some outstanding guitar from Brian.

145. Funny How Love Is (Mercury), Queen II, 1974

The weakest of Freddie’s songs on Queen II, ‘Funny…’ is notable for the Phil Spector-esque ‘wall of sound’ arrangement, courtesy of Robin Cable’s production (also featured on Freddie’s Larry Lurex arrangement of I Can Hear Music). A somewhat slight song, although it comes in at nearly three minutes, the fade-out starts ridiculously early.

144. Man On The Prowl (Mercury), The Works, 1984

A more full-on Elvis-inspired, rockabilly arrangement than Crazy Little Thing Called Love, this is upbeat throughout, and has a great middle-eight (“Well I keep dreaming about my baby…”) and piano solo to finish – courtesy of Fred Mandel (originally of Mott The Hoople fame).

143. Hang On In There (Queen), b-side, 1989

This track didn’t make the Miracle album but is undoubtedly better than some that did. It sounds like a number of studio jams spliced onto a basic song, notably at roughly 2:30 and 3:10 (the latter Brian-John-Roger jam is particularly good, using part of what has become known as Fiddly Jam).

142. Life Is Real (Song For Lennon) (Mercury), Hot Space, 1982

A somewhat uncharacteristically serious ‘price-of-fame’ lyrical theme from ’80s Freddie, the song doesn’t quite do justice to the undoubtedly heartfelt sentiments. Like (say) The Invisible Man, strip away the flourishes and what is left is something rather ordinary by Queen standards, which would probably not have made the cut on any of the first six albums.

141. Dear Friends (May), Sheer Heart Attack, 1974

At just one minute and nine seconds, this is an affecting piano ballad in miniature. One cannot help but feel that, by the ’80s, an idea such as this would have been worked on to bring it closer to a more conventional three-minute length or abandoned. Best moment: the backing vocals from 0:32.

Queen Songs Ranked 185-161

Intrigued and inspired by a blog I came across on Twitter in late-October 2018 – annoyingly, I can’t find the link, but there are plenty like it – I began drawing up a complete list of Queen songs, ranked from ‘worst’ to ‘best’.

Obviously this is all completely subjective, and I don’t doubt that my views will change as I go along. If nothing else, it’s great fun to do and a perfect excuse to listen to and appreciate (to a greater or lesser extent) every single Queen song – especially the ones I usually unthinkingly dismiss and rarely play. I don’t really have a musical vocabulary, but I will try and explain my thinking as best I can. Any time references relate to versions I found on the official Queen channel on YouTube, unless stated otherwise.

First, a few words about what’s in and what’s not. I fully accept that this is a bit arbitrary, though there is a logic of sorts.

  • It encompasses every Queen studio song released either on an album or as a b-side up to Freddie’s death – so Mad The Swine makes the cut.
  • I decided to include God Save The Queen and The Wedding March, even though they are arrangements of traditional pieces of music, because they are very obviously ‘Queen-ified’.
  • On reflection, I decided to include the Made In Heaven album because Freddie was involved in at least some of the recording process. On that criterion, I have also included Feelings, Feelings and the three tracks that featured on Queen Forever. I have not, however, included No One But You, which had no Freddie involvement.
  • There are no live tracks or session tracks – including no We Will Rock You (fast). Boo.
  • To keep things simple, I am counting reprises as separate tracks – except Seven Seas Of Rhye from the first album (which, strictly speaking, isn’t a reprise anyway!).
  • Other than the reprises, which all stand as separate tracks on albums, there are no officially released early takes, remixes or reworkings included – so no Forever (boo…again), for example, and (mercifully) no Blurred Vision, which would otherwise have been propping up the entire Queen oeuvre.
  • I decided against ‘Track 13’, as a piece of ambient music rather than a song as such.

From 185 to 161…

Mainly b-sides, plus incidental and dialogue-heavy pieces from the Flash Gordon soundtrack. There are a number of songs from the Miracle sessions. Two singles (both minor hits) also feature. 

185. Chinese Torture (Queen), The Miracle bonus track, 1989

A Brian experimental ‘thing’ that echoes bits of his ’86 Magic Tour solo (but it’s no Brighton Rock).

184. Stealin (Queen), b-side, 1989

From the Miracle sessions, this has obviously taken shape from a jamming session. A quintessential ‘minor’ b-side song.

183. Lost Opportunity (Queen), b-side, 1991

From the Innuendo sessions, it’s a blues piece that would have been suited to Brian’s first solo album (indeed it has the same feel as Nothing But Blue).

182. Don’t Try Suicide (Mercury), The Game, 1980

My least favourite Queen album track. As an attempt at black humour, it comes up short (“…You’re just gonna’ hate it…Nobody gives a damn”). The brief up-tempo bits (“You need help…” and the guitar solo) rescue it from being completely awful. It would have been far better suited as an exclusive b-side release.

181. The Ring (Hypnotic Seduction Of Dale) (Mercury), Flash Gordon, 1980

180. Arboria (Planet Of The Tree Men) (Deacon), Flash Gordon, 1980

179. Ming’s Theme (In the Court of Ming the Merciless) (Mercury), Flash Gordon, 1980

Essentially mood music. Ming’s Theme contains some fairly menacing synthesizer.

178. Flash’s Theme Reprise (Victory Celebrations) (May), Flash Gordon, 1980

177. Marriage of Dale and Ming (And Flash Approaching) (May), Flash Gordon, 1980

176. Flash to the Rescue (May), Flash Gordon, 1980

Essentially narrative interludes, helping the story along. Marriage Of Dale And Ming includes some nice guitar on the Flash snippets. Flash To The Rescue carries a sense of heightening drama, as if setting up the action to come.

175. Body Language (Mercury), Hot Space, 1882

Queen’s worst choice of single – and a lead-off single at that. By all accounts, this was more or less an exclusively Freddie creation in the studio. Typical of his more aggressive, ‘shouty’ style of singing in the ’80s. There is little or no Brian guitar. When played live on the Hot Space tour, it was considerably rockier and much improved. This won’t be the last time I say those words.

174. Execution of Flash (Deacon), Flash Gordon, 1980

Short and simple – but effective: a few basic notes on guitar (presumably played by John) combining well with a suitably funereal orchestral sound.

173. Hijack My Heart (Queen), b-side, 1989

Another song from the Miracle sessions. With Roger on vocals, this sounds like it could have featured on Shove It! – the first Cross album (but really a Roger solo album). The guitar riff is very Roger.

172. There Must Be More To Life Than This (Mercury), released 2014

Originally part of the Hot Space sessions, this version includes nice guitars and is superior to the version on Mr Bad Guy, but it suffers badly from a weak Michael Jackson’s vocal.

171. Thank God It’s Christmas (May/Taylor), 1984

The fact that this Christmas song only reached Number 21 in the UK charts speaks volumes. It’s middle-of-the-road and unadventurous fare with equally bland lyrics, and lacks any kind of genuine festive spirit (perhaps because it was recorded in the summer). The best thing about it is John’s driving bass.

170. The Wedding March (Arr. May), Flash Gordon, 1980

May’s short Queen-ified arrangement of Wagner’s Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, with a suitably brooding ending (Dale is after all being forced to marry the dastardly Ming).

169. My Baby Does Me (Queen), The Miracle, 1980

Typical of the funky, laid-back feel that Freddie and John were fond of creating in the ’80s, the problem is that it doesn’t really go anywhere, and is seriously marred by vacuous lyrics and a soulless drum-machine backing.

168. More Of That Jazz (Taylor), Jazz, 1978

Their weakest album closer, More Of That Jazz sits neglected and unloved in the musical and lyrical shadow cast by the exuberant Don’t Stop Me Now, which precedes it. Sounding very much like one of Roger’s more-or-less solo efforts, it is hampered by uninspired lyrics and further weakened by the unnecessary inclusion of a hideous montage of earlier tracks.

167. Party (Queen), The Miracle, 1989

The weakest (by far) of Queen’s album lead-off songs, this is based around a heavy, programmed drum beat. It’s rescued by some zippy guitar work from Brian.

166. Rain Must Fall (Queen), The Miracle, 1989

Another of the weaker Miracle tracks with a synthesized drum beat far too prominent in the mix. Freddie’s repeated use of “cool” dates the song. However, the basic track is considerably enhanced by Roger’s percussion, a scintillating guitar solo from Brian and some great bass from John – especially from roughly 3:10 onwards.

165. Fun It (Taylor), Jazz, 1978

Roger’s first experiment in funk in which he and Freddie share lead vocal duties. It includes several trademark Roger frills, but ultimately sounds like a demo. Like many of the songs on Jazz, it would surely have worked better with more inspired production. A foretaste of the cold ’80s drum sound to come.

164. God Save The Queen (Arr. May), A Night At The Opera, 1975

Originally recorded in 1974 to close the live show, Brian’s arrangement served two important functions: it was an inspired choice to close Queen’s ‘Sgt Pepper’ and it was surely the only thing that could have followed Bohemian Rhapsody.

163. In the Death Cell (Love Theme Reprise) (Taylor), Flash Gordon, 1980

162. Escape from the Swamp (Taylor), Flash Gordon, 1980

161. In the Space Capsule (The Love Theme) (Taylor), Flash Gordon, 1980

Three great mood pieces from Roger, combining timpani and synthesizer to great effect. There’s a haunting, ethereal quality to the synth sound, reminiscent of his excellent solo track, Fun In Space (which was being worked on at roughly the same time).

 

Bohemian Rhapsody Movie Review

The film’s opening scenes take time to establish [Freddie] as an awkward, restless outsider, stumbling to realise vague dreams of stardom. Far from a fast-paced rollercoaster ride, I suspect that some will find these elements of the film ‘slow’. Above all, there are several scenes exploring the relationship between Freddie and Mary, the pivot around which the whole film revolves. Lucy Boynton as Mary is excellent throughout: the moment when she pretends to take a drink at Freddie’s insistence during a late-night phone call, thus signalling a release of sorts from his spell, is particularly affecting.

Having now seen ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for a second time, here’s an attempt to bring some order to a mad jumble of thoughts – what works and what doesn’t, whether the inaccuracies matter, whether it is fist-pumpingly brilliant or wince-inducingly awful, whether it is respectful of the Queen legacy, and above all whether it is a worthy addition to the Queen canon.

On the whole, I like the film. That was never a given. I am sure that nobody seriously expected a groundbreaking, genre-redefining, Oscar-sweeping piece of art – like the track Bohemian Rhapsody, say – but on the quality spectrum I was crossing my fingers for something more akin to ‘The Doors’ than ‘Spiceworld: The Movie’. It’s short-sighted to wax lyrical about every last Queen product – this replica sixpence, that t-shirt, this vodka, that board game. Some things are high quality and worthwhile; others are mediocre and a bit naff. There Must Be More To Life Than This (the Queen & Michael Jackson version) is ordinary at best. I never particularly got into The Cross. I have not seen – nor do I intend doing – the ‘We Will Rock You’ musical. Objectivity matters, even where ‘classic’ Queen is concerned and even more so in the case of post-Freddie and non-Queen projects.

With regards to the film, I hadn’t paid too much attention to the various high-profile squabbles and sackings over the years. But with the publication last year of a series of appetite-whetting stills, followed by the drip-drip release of various trailers, and finally the recent publicity and hype, I was aware of a consensus of sorts: the four central acting performances (particularly Rami Malek) are amazing; the concert scenes are great; the attention to ‘authenticity’ is astonishing, though they take liberties with the ‘real’ story; plus a vaguer sense that it is going to be a rock ‘n’ roll rollercoaster ride, propelled along by an irresistible soundtrack.

Well, yes and no.

The OST was the first surprise. To be honest, I had expected Queen Productions Ltd to churn out another rehashed ‘greatest hits’ package. What emerged was a well-above-par release, with little nuggets of gold dotted throughout – from the previously unreleased guitar-rich version of Don’t Stop Me Now and the Queen-ified ‘Fox’ fanfare to the delightfully re-recorded Doing All Right and (best of all) the raw, thumping live Fat Bottomed Girls from Paris in 1979 – not even the version from the widely available bootleg video. Definitely promising.

The second ‘surprise’ – if surprise it is – was how many of the rumours were just plain wrong, yet another reminder to consume media tittle-tattle with a large helping of scepticism. Some at least of Sacha Baron Cohen’s version of history appears to be nonsense, though the script (if indeed there even was a script at that stage) will have undergone a million re-writes since his time. Among other canards, Brian’s first wife Chrissy does indeed appear in the film, as do all the ‘wives’ (for use of inverted commas, see below), and the accusations of ‘hetero-washing’ (ignoring or downplaying Freddie’s homosexuality) are way wide of the mark – indeed, scenes of men kissing men probably outnumber those of heterosexual canoodling.

The main weakness is the balance of the script, a symptom of the lack of clarity about what sort of film this is trying to be. I wrote months ago on a fan forum that it was:

…far more important [for me] for the film to portray the power and impact of Queen’s live show.

In my mind, this was to be a film about Queen. But ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ purports to be a ‘biopic’ – a biographical film of Freddie’s life, focusing on the years from 1970 to 1985. In truth, it is a messy hybrid of the two. In part, it is a tongue-in-cheek whistle-stop re-enactment of key moments in the band’s history. Especially with the active involvement of Brian and Roger in the film’s production, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ feels at times like a vehicle for (some of) the band’s greatest hits – a visual jukebox – and will doubtless be enjoyed by many for this very reason.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is also an attempt at a deeper study of Freddie – flamboyant free spirit, creative genius, tortured soul. The film’s opening scenes take time to establish him as an awkward, restless outsider (a regular target for casual racism, for example), stumbling to realise vague dreams of stardom. Far from a fast-paced rollercoaster ride, I suspect that some will find these elements of the film ‘slow’. Above all, there are several scenes exploring the relationship between Freddie and Mary, the pivot around which the whole film revolves. Lucy Boynton as Mary is excellent throughout: the moment when she pretends to take a drink at Freddie’s insistence during a late-night phone call, thus signalling a release of sorts from his spell, is particularly affecting.

Comments by the historian Anthony Beevor, who wrote recently about war films, are interesting and relevant in relation to the film:

The real problem is that the needs of history and the needs of the movie industry are fundamentally incompatible. Hollywood has to simplify everything according to set formulae. Its films have to have heroes and, of course, baddies – moral equivocation is too complex. Feature films also have to have a whole range of staple ingredients if they are to make it through the financing, production and studio system to the box office. One element is the “arc of character”, in which the leading actors have to go through a form of moral metamorphosis as a result of the experiences they undergo. Endings have to be upbeat…

Ironically, the basic Freddie story does loosely conform to this by-the-numbers story arc: meteoric rise followed by downfall, before redemption (here during a Munich storm – the pouring rain a familiar trope, symbolising cleansing and re-birth) and the grand Live Aid finale. However, the script is unable to handle the sheer quantity of source material, resulting in ridiculously contrived situations and jaw-dropping narrative leaps. Thus, Freddie meets the band and (separately) Mary at the same Smile gig – the exact same night that Tim quits to join Humpy Bong. Elsewhere, Freddie and John debut with the band on stage at the same time – the night, coincidentally, of the broken microphone stand. Most ridiculous of all (as Alexis Petrides points out in The Guardian), Freddie turns up unannounced on Jim Hutton’s doorstep to declare his love, and then reconciles with his father over tea and cakes – all on the same morning – before nipping across to Wembley Stadium to steal the show at Live Aid. A busy day indeed.

This brings us more generally to the thorny issue of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts. Broadly speaking, events fall into one of two periods – ‘early’ and ‘late’. Within – and even across – these periods, the chronology is alarmingly fluid, and, as we were pre-warned, whole chunks of the Queen story are ignored, glossed over or turned upside down. A camper van, used for gigging up and down the country, is sold on Freddie’s initiative to pay for studio time: in reality, of course, Queen did almost the opposite, refusing to tread the usual ‘pub and club’ circuit – actually one of the things that immediately set them apart from run-of-the-mill bands. John Reid arrives early (around the time of the first album) and leaves late (at the time Freddie was offered a solo deal by CBS). Rock in Rio acts as a backdrop for Freddie’s break-up with Mary – events probably eight years apart in reality. Before Live Aid, Roger exclaims that the band haven’t played live for years – helping to set up the dramatic finale but, of course, a fiction.

Some of the inaccuracies are more puzzling, seemingly unimportant to the storyline. Freddie is shown smoking in ’75 – several years before he actually started. Dominique Beyrand, Roger’s then girlfriend, is referred to as his wife (they only married in 1988). Journalists raise the spectre of AIDS at a press conference in 1982 – a year before scientists had even formally identified the virus. Jim Hutton is working as a waiter at one of Freddie’s house parties when the two first meet. And photo evidence may provide evidence to the contrary, but some of the costumes just don’t ring true – Brian’s orange Adidas top in the We Will Rock You scene, to name one. Trivial though these details are, they nevertheless sit uncomfortably alongside Greg Brooks’ unwise assertion that “…the Fox team were obsessed with detail; getting every aspect of every scene perfectly right”.

Two figures loom large in the background. The role of arch-villain, as had been well trailed, is assigned to Paul Prenter, the eminence grise, fuelling Freddie’s hedonistic lifestyle and – motivated by infatuation and greed – increasingly blocking all contact between Freddie and the Queen ‘family’, and between Freddie and Mary. Prenter’s real part in the Queen story is well known, but I have sympathy (again) with the critic Alexis Petrides, who argues that the demonization of Prenter necessitates portraying the rest of the band as conventional, clean-living, sober chaps. Perhaps this is the reason why Dominique Beyrand is referred to as Roger’s wife – to juxtapose the band’s growing maturity and sense of responsibility with Freddie’s wild abandon (early scenes make clear the younger Roger’s fondness for partying). We see no wild Queen parties; there is no collective band meltdown in Munich.

Less expected was the portrayal of Jim Beach. In contrast to Prenter, he is a sober, steadying influence. Jim is an almost ubiquitous presence – during tricky negotiations with the record company, during a critical reconciliation scene in his office, even during recording sessions, dutifully completing paperwork at a side-table. He is there in the background at band rehearsals for Live Aid when Freddie reveals his HIV status to the band (the implication being, of course, that Jim already knew). In a Jeeves-ish final twist, it is Jim who increases the volume on the mixing desk at Live Aid before Queen’s set – in reality, it was Trip Khalaf.

The on-stage scenes are good, though it would be going too far to say that they faithfully ‘copy’ Queen live – the lengthy Live Aid sequence excepted. The use of ‘live’ recordings works extremely well, and the actors’ miming is good, particularly Malek’s lip-synching. Again, some aspects of the live scenes are just fabrications: for example, each member of the band – even John! – is shown introducing themselves to the audience as Freddie holds his microphone horizontally. We already knew about the placement of Fat Bottomed Girls early in their career: it is used to soundtrack a blistering first tour of the States.

Some inaccuracies are no big deal – the lighting rig a cross between the ‘pizza oven’ and the ‘G2 razors’, Freddie throwing his leather jacket across the stage towards the crowd, dry ice during We Will Rock You. We knew about the crowdsurfing from the trailers, of course. How I wished this had found its way to the cutting-room floor. Alas, no. Jim Morrison used to jump into the crowd. Maybe for him it was spiritual – his way of connecting with the audience. Freddie was a showman and entertainer, glorying in his superstar persona, urging us in the midst of ‘70s recession and industrial decline to drink champagne for breakfast. He was not a crowdsurfer.

And what of the band performances? Rami Malek is indeed excellent. The ‘biopic’ format does not best serve Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello, over-accentuating as it does Freddie’s role and importance, leaving their characters somewhat underdeveloped. I also struggled at first to reconcile what I saw on the screen with my own perceptions and preconceptions of my childhood heroes. Only on second viewing did I really warm to their performances. Gwilym Lee certainly captures Brian’s voice and mannerisms. The younger ‘Brian’, however, felt too carefree and jokey: I find it difficult to imagine Brian engaging in witty repartee. ‘My’ Brian is the epitome of solemnity – serious, studious and deeply thoughtful. Mazzello brings out John’s quiet steadiness, though his facial expressions veer uncomfortably close towards gurning at times, and his on-stage ‘Deacy’ moves are overexaggerated. Well done to Ben Hardy for nailing the Hammer To Fall drum parts. However, other than for his Galileos, non-Queen fans may wonder at Roger’s importance in the band. Of the four, his part seemed the most obviously underdeveloped, though he was involved in the film’s funniest exchange (ROGER: ‘So Kash, what are you doing later?’ KASHMIRA: ‘Homework’). I liked the irony around I’m In Love With My Car. Mocked by Brian and John in the film, it has outlasted pretty much every other non-single as a staple of the live set, as well as earning Roger hefty royalty cheques as the original Bohemian Rhapsody b-side.

How, then, to sum up ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’? At times preposterous and cheesy, overreaching in places and prone to missteps, drift and loss of direction. Yet also larger than life, irresistibly ambitious, often majestic and magnificent, and always, always totally compelling.

Rather like Queen, in fact. And rather like Freddie.

Ralph Miliband Biography Review

A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles – not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

‘Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left’ by Michael Newman

Twenty years on, I can still vividly recall scanning the shelves of the university library – me, an eager second-year history/politics undergraduate – in search of a Marxist critique of fascism and happening across a book by Nicos Poulantzas. Three hours, one much-thumbed dictionary, two headache tablets and five pages later, I gave up. My next encounter with the World of Marx was Professor David McLellan’s 1973 biography of Marx himself: well researched and worthy, to be sure, but dense and daunting for the uninitiated. Finding Ralph Miliband was something of a revelation, therefore, for here was a academic – what’s more, an avowedly Marxist academic – with both the ability and the willingness to elucidate Marxist ideas in an accessible way.

Miliband’s most influential book – The State In Capitalist Society – transformed the political sciences in the 1970s and provoked a famous debate with the aforementioned Poulantzas, in part concerning the role and importance of abstract theorising. Poulantzas championed an ultra-theoretical school of Marxism that shunned empiricism and seemed to glory in abstruse theorisation. For these ‘Althusserians’, Marxism had its own discourse, purposely distinct from much of the terminology and assumptions of ‘bourgeois’ debate and thus intelligible only to those who could decode its arcane meanings. Miliband, on the other hand, always sought to test even the most basic of assumptions within the Marxist tradition with reference to the ‘real world’. Moreover, Marxism was much more than a theory for Miliband: it was a guide to action.

As Michael Newman’s book shows, Miliband was an academic, a teacher but, above all, a committed socialist – happiest when he felt he was contributing to the advancement of the left. Thus, in Parliamentary Socialism – the book that secured his international reputation in 1962 – by analysing the reasons for the Labour Party’s failure to implement ‘socialism’, he was implicitly offering a guide to future action. Apart from a brief flirtation with the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennite left in the 1980s, Miliband kept his distance from the Labour Party, highly sceptical as he was of its efficacy as an agent of socialist change. He spent his adult life in the ultimately fruitless search for a suitable vehicle to secure a political breakthrough, wedded to the belief that only a class-based political party could do so.

Born in 1924 into a Jewish home, Miliband’s political consciousness was awakened by the Nazi menace in the late-1930s. Though the death camps cast a dark shadow over his childhood and youth, Miliband was one of a number of European refugees who escaped the clutches of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in Britain and going on to form the nucleus of a radical intelligentsia that helped shape the cultural, academic and – to an extent – political landscape of the 1960s and early-70s. Indeed, Miliband lived through a remarkable, if turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful, period for the left. This book is in part, therefore, also a history of the British left from the twin crises caused by de-Stalinisation and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 through the upheavals of 1968 to the challenge of Thatcherism and the collapse of Soviet-type communism.

In writing the book, Newman had access to family, friends and Miliband’s own letters and papers, including a diary and notes made in 1983 for a planned but never completed autobiography. Newman uses this impressive selection of primary source material to paint a convincing portrait of the ‘private’ man as well as the more familiar public figure. His style is – like Miliband’s own – both accessible and, on the whole, eminently readable. A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles – not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

On the other hand, given the breadth of Miliband’s interests and concerns, judicious editing might have resulted in a more balanced book. Several extracts from Miliband’s work are quoted verbatim and at excessive length. Elsewhere, 13 pages are devoted to ‘the troubles’ at the LSE in 1968 and an entire chapter to his involvement in a campaign for academic freedom. This particular reader frankly hoped for less description and rather more in the way of reflection on matters such as Miliband’s position on academic freedom (which was somewhat inconsistent), his widening disagreements with others on the New Left vis-à-vis the nature and role of the working class by the 1980s and the wisdom of his wish to see a Marxist party of a non-dogmatic nature filling the void between the Labour Party and the Leninist CPGB (which he held in little short of contempt). Tightly written summaries of Miliband’s ideas and actions and relevant narrative would have given Newman more space for his own analysis, commentary and judgements.

This review relates to the edition published in 2002 by Merlin Press. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

Queen Live Killers: Forty-ish Years On

Essential listening in its day…Live Killers is flawed but brilliant nonetheless…Queen’s catalogue of restored and remastered live recordings currently contains a gaping pizza oven-shaped hole…[T]he quality of the Rainbow ’74 box set, recorded five years earlier than Live Killers, presumably on significantly inferior equipment, demonstrates that analogue recordings from the ‘70s era can be cleaned up to an exceptional standard.

Queen played at the Dallas Convention Center in Texas on 28 October 1978, the opening night of what became their Jazz world tour, which came to an end fourteen months later with a concert in aid of Kampuchea at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.

A great photo of the ‘pizza oven’ lighting rig and drum riser, taken by long-time Queen roadie and keen photographer Peter Hince. It is shot either on the European or Japanese leg. The American shows still featured the News Of The World drum skin and the Crazy Tour of Britain used fewer red and green lights to fit the rig into the smaller venues.

Recorded in continental Europe between January and March 1979, Live Killers is an album that I seldom play nowadays, preferring unofficial recordings, some of which are excellent, if obviously flawed in terms of sound quality. With the fortieth anniversary of its release approaching – and with fingers crossed for the appearance of some sort of retrospective late-’70s live package – this seems an opportune moment to re-join Queen on their 1979 European tour, to once again be “transported effortlessly from city to city”1, and to evaluate afresh an album that captured the band at a transition-point in their career – before Mack and Munich, before magic and miracles, before true global mega-stardom and mega-bucks.

In 1981, as a Queen-mad adolescent, I wrote the following in one of many scrapbook ‘biographies’:

In fact, everything about this album is commendable, from the striking cover to the interesting sleeve notes to, of course, the music.

Many people seem to agree with these juvenile scribblings. It’s hardly scientific evidence but, as of August 2018, the Live Killers CD has a four-and-a-half-star rating on Amazon UK. Highly favourable write-ups can often be found in the publications (and websites) devoted to the ‘classic rock’ scene – Prog Rock, Planet Rock etc. With a middle-aged, nostalgia-hungry readership, it is clearly a matter of self-interest to wax lyrical about this ‘golden’ era. Ultimate Classic Rock, for example, offered up this judgement on their website in 2015:

Live Killers was everything a Queen fan could ask for, the perfect memento from their breathless classic-era concerts – whether you got to see them in the flesh back then or not.

The whole piece reads in similarly fulsome fashion. But scroll back to the opening sentence – “Queen had long been known for their out-sized stadium rock shows”. Not true. This ‘review’ (and others like it) is little more than imprecise, cliché-ridden hyperbole. It’s the Queen of legend, the stadium-bestriding giants of later folklore. The reality is that in the late-70s – pre-South America, pre-Live Aid, pre-Magic Tour – our heroes were still very much an indoor arena band.

Judging from the more discerning reviews on Amazon and from various posts on fan forums, one recurring strain of thought seems to be that the album slots into the decent-document-of-the-live-show-at-the-time category – in other words, nearly but not quite. Gary Graff, writing in Phil Sutcliffe’s excellent ‘Ultimate Illustrated History’ book, unintentionally (I think) damned the album with faint praise, describing it as “solid and at times striking”2. He’s writing, lest we forget, about arguably rock’s most compelling live act.

The ‘Sounds’ review of Live Killers from June 1979 – a surprisingly positive review. ‘Sounds’ were never big fans of Queen.

Live Killers has had a chequered history. It sold well, if not spectacularly, and some initial music press reviews, at least, were not entirely unfavourable. Its rawness and apparent lack of polish met with approval. ‘Record Mirror’ described it as “a triumph”. Even ‘Sounds’ awarded the album three stars out of five3. However, despite this and a number of grudgingly positive reviews of the subsequent Crazy Tour (of which the Mick Middles review in ‘Sounds’ is a classic example), the music press remained almost uniformly hostile to the band. Punk and new wave might have burned themselves out by 1979-1980, but ska (urban, working-class, multicultural) and the ‘New Romantics’ (synthesized electronic pop, highly stylised fashion) were the coming Big Things. Queen were decidedly uncool.

In particular, Live Killers struggled in comparison with Thin Lizzy’s critically acclaimed Live And Dangerous, released in 1978. There were certainly similarities: even the title ‘Live Killers’ carried echoes of the earlier release. Criticism of Queen’s performance – the apparent bias towards newer material, the use of recorded tape during the show, the lengthy guitar and timpani solos – segued into familiar attacks on the band as pompous, self-indulgent and out of touch. Thin Lizzy, on the other hand, better suited the new wave aesthetic: street-wise outsiders with lyrics that romanticized rough, tough working-class culture.

Criticism also surfaced from within the Queen camp. The official fortieth-anniversary history states that the band were “under pressure to come up with a live album”4. Georg Purvis attributes expressions of frustration and dissatisfaction to all four band members5, though he supplies few, if any, dates and supporting references to provide meaningful context. Elsewhere, in comments attributed to 1983, Brian talks wearily of the inescapability of live albums. On Redbeard’s In The Studio ‘rockumentary’ show about The Game, both Roger and Brian are dismissive of the album. A 2001 remaster was well received but I can find no evidence of anyone suggesting it was a major improvement on the original mix. It was seemingly not deemed worthy of a reissue as part of the 2011 remasters package and, at the time of writing, it does not appear to be available in the official Queen online shop.

Everyone releases a live record. It’s just a filler before the next studio album. It will curb the sale of bootlegs sold at exorbitant prices. It all sounds so remarkably un-Queen-like: the uncompromising perfectionists forced to compromise and to meet the expectations of others. This is hardly the obstinate, headstrong ‘Queen’ whose debut single featured a drum solo, who released a six-minute single (seven minutes when Roy Thomas Baker gets into his stride) against unanimous industry advice and who, filled with unwavering self-belief, walked away from John Reid’s management in 1978 and into the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s highest-paid directors.

Double (even triple) live albums were almost de rigueur: Seconds Out, Strangers In The Night, Tokyo Tapes, to name just a few, all date from this period. Plans for a Queen live album had repeatedly been shelved during their early career. The bootleg often circulated as ‘Sheetkickers’ appears to be a professionally mixed 40-minute edit of the February ‘74 Rainbow show. The November Rainbow shows were filmed, of course, as well as the 1977 Earls Court6 shows. Perhaps the feeling was that film would better capture the theatricality and visual power of the band. The 33-minute Queen At The Rainbow film was shown in cinemas in 1976, but without an accompanying audio soundtrack release. Once the home video market was established in the ‘80s, We Will Rock You, Rock In Rio and Live In Budapest all appeared within the space of three years.

As documented on the excellent Queenlive.ca website, this photo by Koh Hasebe was taken at one of the Japanese shows at about the exact time as the Live Killers front cover shot. The picture of Brian, which was incorporated into the cover image, features in his Queen In 3D book on page 136. John’s hat, barely discernible on the album cover, is clearly visible here.

As evidenced on the excellent Queenlive.ca website and in Brian’s Queen In 3D book7, the stunning front cover photograph is from one of the Japanese shows, subsequently manipulated to incorporate Brian into the shot. The original inner gatefold offered a busy montage of live shots drawn from across the band’s career, though (like the set list) leaning heavily towards recent tours. Impressive stuff.

Much less impressive, on the other hand, are the inner sleeve notes. Useful context and insightful remarks are buried away amidst cliché (“literally fighting its way up the charts”), misleading comment (Now I’m Here…“used as an encore and later dropped” – it was dropped for perhaps as little as a week8 on the News Of The World tour), the occasional baffling statement (Keep Yourself Alive “having gone full circle over the years” – so when was it played significantly differently, one wonders?) and a sprinkling of sugary sentiment (“a very singable tune with sentiments never forgotten by Queen fans”). From the single-minded foursome who supposedly almost wrecked the launch of Queen II by fussing over problems with the cover9, the egregious proofing errors – “eerieness”, “raport”, “his live album”, “form News Of The World” – are particularly inexcusable.

Cue the thunderclap and the album begins at breakneck speed. The fast version of We Will Rock You, previously unavailable, is as exhilarating as when I first heard it at Stafford Bingley Hall in May 1978 and remains my favourite Queen set opener. Let Me Entertain You sits in its rightful place near the beginning of the show. It is baffling why this song was placed as the closing track on side one of Jazz (even more incongruous, though obviously unintentional, is its placing in the middle of thirteen tracks on the Jazz CD). A six-song medley follows. End of side one: a chance to draw breath.

Side two leans heavily on audience participation, a quest for ‘authenticity’ that Roger was keen to emphasise in interviews at the time10. Now I’m Here features Freddie’s call-and-response routine: a later staple of the show (‘Day-O’), it was new on the Jazz tour. The acoustic set slows the pace with its more laid-back, singalong feel. Brian’s guitar solo dominates the magnificent third side, though it’s a shame that Spread Your Wings features its conventional ending rather than the sensational, upbeat BBC session version. Side four brings the show to a close with the obligatory encores.

Given the limitations of space (four sides, approximately 22 minutes each), it is a varied and well-balanced package, relatively faithful to the actual set list running order. However, debate has always surrounded the omissions deemed necessary to fit the show onto four sides. Three songs – If You Can’t Beat Them, Fat Bottomed Girls and It’s Late – were all ‘occasional’ rather than permanent fixtures of the set list over the fourteen-month world tour as a whole – played on some nights and not others, often alternated and usually the first to be dropped to make room for any new additions (for example, current single Don’t Stop Me Now was introduced on the European leg, Teo Torriatte was performed in Japan, and Mustapha, Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Save Me were all in the Crazy Tour set).

None of these ‘occasional’ songs was included on Live Killers. As a solid rather than exceptional track from the Jazz album, If You Can’t Beat Them is perhaps the least surprising, though the live version outshines the original. It’s Late was presumably left out on grounds of length. More surprising was the omission of Fat Bottomed Girls – recent single, inspiration for the Jazz promotional visuals and a full-throated stage rocker. The biggest shock, however, was the absence of Somebody To Love, again presumably due to its length – performed live, it lasted around seven minutes. Roger once commented that the band initially had difficulty translating the song to the stage11. But it remained a live staple almost to the very end, a bona fide Queen classic12.

The ever-evolving medley – not quite “play the Hits” [sic] as described in the sleeve notes – was another staple of the ‘70s show. Pacy and punchy, it featured snippets of singles and album tracks alike. Here, Roger’s vocal on I’m In Love With My Car and Brian’s harmonizer effects on Get Down Make Love are undoubted highlights. You’re My Best Friend, on the other hand, feels rather lightweight and out of place, though Queen fan, musician and YouTube reviewer James Rundle disagrees and singles it out for particular praise. It was dropped for the 1980 European tour.

Taken on the Crazy Tour, this picture featured in one of the British music papers in December 1979.

Elsewhere the rather pointless Mustapha teaser sits incongruously at the beginning of side four. ‘Sounds’ magazine, among others, criticised the inclusion of the taped operatic section of Bohemian Rhapsody, also on side four. Yet it is difficult to see how it could have been left out: as Live Magic later proved with horrific effect, editing songs results in disaster.

The inclusion of the entire three-song acoustic mini-set is also debatable. Only the Magic Tour, which also included a medley of rock ‘n’ roll standards, featured a longer acoustic interlude. Between 1980 and 1982, Love Of My Life was the sole acoustic song, though the semi-acoustic Save Me featured earlier in the set. An obvious alternative would have been to omit Dreamer’s Ball and Brian’s long band introduction before ’39 (included, presumably, as light relief and to illustrate the exuberance of a typical Queen audience). As an aside, how ironic it seems to hear Brian referencing Roger’s tiger-skin trousers.

Based on the 1994 remaster track timings, the original four sides of vinyl add up to 22m 18s, 24m 52s, 22m 01s and 21m 08s respectively. Taking 25 minutes as the upper limit, an alternative track listing for the original vinyl release might have been:

Side One: We Will Rock You / Let Me Entertain You / If You Can’t Beat Them / Medley – omitting You’re My Best Friend

Side Two: Somebody To Love / Now I’m Here / Love Of My Life / ‘39

Side Three: Don’t Stop Me Now / Spread Your Wings / Brighton Rock

Side Four: Keep Yourself Alive13 / Bohemian Rhapsody – omitting Mustapha / Tie Your Mother Down / Sheer Heart Attack / We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions / God Save The Queen

The poor quality of the overall sound is often highlighted – and rightly so. With a few notable exceptions such as I’m In Love With My Car – where the instruments seem separated out and clearer in the mix – much of the album sounds muddied and muffled, like listening through cotton buds rather than headphones. In Purvis’s opinion, “the band sounds muddled, some of the instruments are poorly mixed, and the audience levels are inconsistent”14. Imagine an album restored to the standard of the version of Sheer Heart Attack included in the News Of The World box set15: recorded at one of the Paris shows, it is genuinely raw, pulsating and anarchic.

The extent to which the tapes were tampered with during the mixing process is a matter of debate. Mark Blake describes Live Killers as “an undoctored account…loud and messy”16. Purvis quotes Brian as insisting “vehemently” that there were no overdubs17. Phil Sutcliffe’s book, on the other hand, quotes Roger that “only the bass drum was live”18 – presumably speaking here with tongue firmly in cheek.

Given Queen’s reputation in the studio, this was never going to be a warts-‘n’-all release. Most – if not all – of the European shows were recorded, with songs selected from different nights. The website Queenlive.ca contains a brilliant track-by-track analysis, demonstrating that individual songs were often made up of recordings spliced together from different nights. I have neither a music producer’s ear nor a high-quality sound system. But even to this non-specialist, the change of ‘feel’ midway through songs and the ‘movement’ of instruments around the stereo mix were giant clues about the amount of general interference.

A great shot of the close of one of the Crazy Tour shows, this picture was published in one of the British music papers.

At times, the studio tampering is blatant. Why, for example, add an echo to Freddie’s introduction to Now I’m Here, recorded in Frankfurt on 2 February? The vocal at the beginning of Don’t Stop Me Now (up to “ecstasy”) has also almost certainly been added later. A tough song to sing, no doubt, and usually performed immediately after a frenetic and gruelling Now I’m Here, it was perhaps used as an opportunity for Freddie to catch his breath at the piano. The opening of the song was generally played with guitar substituting for the vocal. Of fourteen live recordings in my possession from 1979, the only exceptions to this are Newcastle (which includes three words: “Gonna have myself”) and the filmed Hammersmith show on Boxing Night, when he sang about half the opening lines, his voice being generally superb all evening after a four-day break.

My second Queen gig – from the Crazy Tour.

Most controversial of all was probably the inclusion of bleeps to mask Freddie’s use of the word ‘motherfucker’ in his spoken introduction to Death On Two Legs. Again, one really has to wonder why this was included. Bizarre and wholly unnecessary, it could have been edited out or replaced with an alternative introduction during which he doesn’t swear. If it was an attempt at tongue-in-cheek humour, it failed utterly.

Equally extraordinary was the selection of Love Of My Life as lead-off single, edging out Body Language in the most-bizarre-choice-of-first-single competition. From the band’s perspective, it obviously showcased the crowd-participation element of the show, as well as introducing a completely different side of their music to the general singles-buying public. This author has a vague recollection of Roger valiantly defending the single on a Radio 1 ‘Roundtable’ review show. It sank without trace (in the UK at least), their worst chart performance since Keep Yourself Alive. The obvious choice should surely have been We Will Rock You (fast) – new, catchy and a perfect advert for the album. The frenetic version of Keep Yourself Alive – debut single, of course – might also have worked well, an appropriate way to bookend this phase of their career.

A great shot of Freddie and Brian from Munich on 10 February 1979. It features on the Queenlive.ca website. No picture credit is indicated.

Essential listening in its day (it was, after all, the only live product officially available until 1984), Live Killers is flawed but brilliant nonetheless. The original tapes sit in the archives as well as the complete Paris footage, at least according to Brian19. Queen’s catalogue of restored and remastered live recordings currently contains a gaping pizza oven-shaped hole. If there is to be some kind of re-release, it will almost certainly be an enhanced package, not just an improved version of the original Live Killers album. One hopes, naturally, for a complete, unadulterated document of the Jazz tour. Even allowing for Brian’s comments about persistent sound problems on the tour, the quality of the Rainbow ’74 box set, recorded five years earlier than Live Killers, presumably on significantly inferior equipment, demonstrates that analogue recordings from the ‘70s era can be cleaned up to an exceptional standard.

The wait goes on.

The Bibliophile’s Curse

I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes…I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.

First things first: I don’t read enough fiction. It’s not that I don’t try. I do, I really do. Disregarding Christopher Hitchens’ witty riposte to the old adage that everyone has a book inside them (actually said by Hitchens in relation to autobiographies and memoirs, it seems), I am not immune to the urge to write fiction: it is the middle-of-the-back itch that remains unscratched. So I know that I really ought to be immersing myself in the form. After all, isn’t the experts’ advice always the same: read, read and read some more?

Besides, who needs a reason to pick up a novel? I love words. I am in awe of skilful writing, regardless of genre. I enjoy a good story well told, and I delight in piecing together well-crafted, meandering, multi-layered plots. And yet, for all my good intentions, a familiar pattern invariably repeats, like a Newtonian law of reading: barely have I negotiated the opening chapters of a novel before the gravitational pull of non-fiction, usually something historical, political and/or biographical, becomes irresistible.

I hold learned and literary types in ridiculously high esteem, if for no other reason than their assumed ability to handle the question: what should I read next? An adjustment to my work-life balance two years ago created significant additional reading time: a wonderful opportunity but also a source of frustration, as bookish retirees the world over have doubtless discovered. So many intriguing literary avenues along which to wander for the first time; so many interesting new titles to explore, even down the relatively well-trodden paths of modern and contemporary history.

It started here: probably the first history book I ever bought.

At the same time, there are books upon books shouting out to be re-read. Perhaps I didn’t really appreciate or grasp them first time around. Maybe they are just so bloody good. They are here now, sitting impatiently on the shelves around me, vying for my attention. I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader, so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes: to pick a random selection, Volume III of Bullock’s biography of Ernie Bevin (900 pages), Bullock’s earlier biography of Hitler (800 pages), Michael Foot’s two-volume biography of Aneurin Bevan (1100 pages) and Kenneth O Morgan’s history of the Attlee government (a mere 500 pages). I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.

A word about my reading habits. I read every day and usually have three texts (one of which is the daily newspaper) on the go. The ‘classic’ slot kick-starts a typical day, the theory being that my mind is at its freshest first thing in the morning. Hatched as a way of negotiating War And Peace, the plan was then to tackle Dickens in chronological order, having been drawn in by David Copperfield. However, after The Pickwick Papers I was immediately sidetracked by Tess Of The D’Urbervilles (terrific) and The Rainbow (a real struggle). Now this pre-breakfast window is used for anything I consider too intense or ‘high-brow’ to be my main read of the day. For the last three months, I have been working through Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume Main Currents Of Marxism. My ‘main’ read – picked up at various points of the day – alternates between non-fiction and fiction, probably on something like a – crikey – 5:1 ratio.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading fiction, popular as well as so-called ‘middle-brow’. Opening Stephen King’s 11. 22. 63 was like being transported back (sorry) to my teenage years, lapping up King classics such as Carrie, The Shining and Salem’s Lot for the first time. Gripping, all of them – or so it felt to my fourteen-year-old self. To experience the frisson that comes with not wanting to put a book down – rushing home from wherever, desperate to discover what happens next, recklessly staying up late to devour another chapter. To suffer the exquisite torture of reading a book that is almost literally unputdownable – at once exciting and excruciating. It’s the best kind of legal high, recommended for young and old alike.

It was the horror genre that weaned me away from football and music magazines and hooked me instead on reading books for pleasure. Back in the late ‘70s, virtually all horror films were certified ‘X’ (re-labelled as ‘18’ in 1982). This was before home video so, as a teenager, they were off-limits at the cinema. But no such restriction existed on books; the horror section of Wigan’s main bookshop quickly became a regular stop-off during Saturday-afternoon trawls of the town’s record shops. Stephen King was an early favourite, though I eventually tired of his formulaic writing style, as were James Herbert and even Dennis Wheatley from a different era. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist scared the shit out of me. Impossible to see at the cinema, of course, but nobody even lifted a disapproving eyebrow at the bookshop. Speaking of Wheatley, black magic films, as opposed to gory horror, were more likely to be shown on television. I consider The Devil Rides Out as the acme, Christopher Lee as the noble white knight playing wonderfully against type.

And so to The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Why this particular book – and why now?

Cover quotes from The Independent and The Observer, plus the accompanying back-page blurb, did their job in piquing my interest, though references to The Da Vinci Code were mildly off-putting and any combination of words – usually involving ‘effortlessly’ or ‘seamlessly’ – about weaving together past and present must qualify as a cliché by now. Anyway, Kate Mosse has since set the back-and-forth-in-time bar dizzyingly high with Labyrinth. The Rule Of Four has a modern-day Princeton University setting but links back to Renaissance Italy.

Although modern history has always been my passion, I have strayed with increasing confidence over recent years from the familiar world of twentieth-century politics. Well-researched historical fiction is an accessible and enticing way into other historical worlds and, if the writing itch is ever scratched, my novel will likely be – at least in part – historical. As an aside, Jim Naughtie’s recent Meet The Author interview with Alison Weir was illuminating. An acclaimed (Tudor) historian who inhabits both writing worlds – fiction and non-fiction – it was fascinating to hear her discuss the different disciplines and methodologies involved.

Magical, in more ways than one. But, at 1000 pages, have I time to read it again?

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies hold my attention far better than a David Starkey tome, though this may merely reflect my low opinion of acerbic, odious, right-wing historians. The depictions of nineteenth-century England in Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell and The Essex Serpent are enchanting. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night In Winter (set in the Soviet Union) stands out, as does more or less everything – past or present – by Robert Harris. There’s Sebastian Faulks, of course. Human Traces may well be my favourite novel: dense, complex and challenging, it perfectly captures the intellectual temper of the times. I also have a particular penchant for time-travel stories, whatever the medium: Stephen Fry’s Making History and Ben Elton’s Time And Time Again are bona fide page-turners.

Having first engaged with John Le Carré aged seventeen via Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am drawn to the puzzles, politics and moral ambiguities of the espionage world. The plot of The Rule Of Four revolves around a historical mystery – more precisely, a secret hidden within an arcane Renaissance text. Mainstream television usually leaves me cold but I make time for well-written mysteries and detective dramas – the likes of Inspector Morse (plus sequel and prequel), Poirot and Jonathan Creek. The recent Maigret reboot on ITV, with Rowan Atkinson as the title character, is terrific. Lucy Mangan in The Guardian dismissed the pilot as plodding and wooden (‘leaden’, to be precise), but I found it to be deliciously dark and broody.

A prized possession: this cost me £2.95 in 1981.

I am also a Holmesian of sorts. Watching re-runs of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes a couple of years ago found me reaching again for my dog-eared collection of the original Conan Doyle stories. The Name Of The Rose is another satisfyingly dense and intricate novel (complete with a sprinkling of Sherlock Holmes references) that thoroughly merits a re-read. Umberto Eco was, of course, a polymath – an expert in semiotics and aesthetics as well as medieval history and much else besides. In other words, a learned and literary type. My kind of writer.

And so, back to Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset. I am currently on page 204. What’s next on the ‘to do’ list, I wonder…

Aneurin Bevan Biography Review

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator – a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers.

‘Nye Bevan’ by John Campbell

Arguably, Aneurin Bevan, the miner-turned-politician who became in roughly equal measure the darling of the British labour movement and the bête noire of the right-wing establishment, is better remembered than any other member of the historic 1945-51 Labour government – better than his colleagues Ernie Bevin (part-architect of NATO), Stafford ‘Austerity’ Cripps and even the Prime Minister himself, Clem Attlee. This is because Bevan’s name will be forever linked in the public consciousness with the NHS, which, as Minister of Health, he brought into being in 1948.

Unlike every other political issue of that era (it pre-dates serious squabbles over Europe by more than a decade and outlasted the Cold War), the health service continues to excite debate and controversy today. In this splendid biography, John Campbell examines the pertinent issues: the extent to which the NHS was Bevan’s own creation; his dealings with interested parties such as the BMA; the administrative and financial structures put in place to support this audacious social experiment; and the post-1948 political fallout.

Tellingly, however, Campbell devotes a mere 30 or so pages directly to the NHS – though indirectly it casts a lengthy shadow across the latter half of the book and the final decade of his life – because there was, in fact, so much more to this remarkable figure, a combustible mix of self-taught intellectual, instinctive rebel, eager, ambitious minister and charismatic leader. Campbell provides us with a fully rounded portrait of the man as well as analysing his impact on the Labour Party. He tackles with impeccable balance the highs and lows of Bevan’s life: the (relatively few) periods of triumph as well as the more frequent times of struggle, failure and schism – not to mention odd moments of bathos, most notably the publication of an eagerly anticipated book In Place Of Fear in 1952.

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator – a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers. Moreover, it becomes apparent that his judgements about politics, about future developments, about the nature of mankind no less, were often seriously flawed – a consequence of a deterministic Marxism that he learnt in his youth and carried almost to the grave.

The controversies surrounding Bevan did not end with his untimely death in 1960. The party wounds of the 1950s, patched up for the 1959 hustings, were reopened well before the election of Wilson’s unhappy government in 1964. Thus, the first volume of Michael Foot’s biography, published in 1962, brilliantly written to be sure, is hagiographic and tendentious and reads best, as Campbell himself says, as “an episode in the long-running civil war” within the party.

Foot, himself a born rebel and Bevan’s Acolyte-in-Chief, refused to serve in Wilson’s first government and then renewed the fight with a second volume in 1973. In an excellent Introduction, Campbell deals with Bevan’s political legacy, particularly the claim made for Bevan’s imprimatur by a host of Labour politicians (the latest, to update Campbell, being John Reid, Blair’s Health Secretary since 2003) as they re-brand and re-invent policies – or (increasingly) consign them to the dustbin – and seek to sell a new manifesto to a deeply sceptical and conservative movement.

John Campbell is a fine, experienced biographer, scrupulously fair in the judgements that he reaches. The book is authoritatively written and meticulously researched, marred only by a handful of proofing errors. I confess to finding one ‘Wildean’ slip (a reference to Alan Bullock’s book Earnest (sic) Bevin in the bibliography) highly amusing but, as a reader with no knowledge of the publishing world, I am puzzled as to why such errors should remain to blight later editions of published works. This book was originally published under the title Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism in 1987 and re-issued with an abridged title ten years later, presumably to mark the coincidence of the centenary of Bevan’s birth and Blair’s first landslide.

Reading Campbell opens a window on the politics of a bygone era, allowing us to draw comparisons with modern times. Take age, for example. With Tony Blair having been Prime Minister for seven years by the time he reached 50, it is fascinating to learn that Bevan himself was the most junior member of the 1945 Cabinet aged 47. Or, take the press. Setting the headlines Bevan received c1951 alongside the obituary notices of a decade later, reminds one of the kicking meted out to Tony Benn, Bevan’s successor as Labour’s bogey man in the 1970s and 1980s, now rather fondly admired as a harmless, slightly eccentric, elder statesman.

The writer uses a 1997 Introduction to update us on important political developments in the decade since the first edition; the main text, however, seems to be untouched and, as Campbell went to some trouble to relate the political controversies in Bevan’s life to the issues of the 1980s (particularly Neil Kinnock’s battles to modernise party policy vis-à-vis nationalisation and unilateralism), the reader is left with an unmistakeable sense of the ephemerality and sheer unpredictability of modern politics. For example, writing in 1987, Campbell was obviously taking seriously predictions of the Labour Party’s terminal electoral decline (p253 – “Some would say [the 1951 election defeat] was the beginning of the end of the Labour Party”); a mere 14 years later in 2001 it was the Conservatives about whom such prognostications were being uttered.

I thoroughly recommended this marvellous book to political animals and the intelligent general reader alike.

This review relates to the edition published in 1997. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

Rush: An Appreciation

I discovered Rush around 1977, eleven years old and just encountering the giants of what was then being disparaged and dismissed as ‘dinosaur rock’ – the likes of Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. The band’s prog-rock era, with its elaborate pieces, grandiose sweep and multi-layered depths, culminating in the two ‘Cygnus’ albums, represents for me their creative peak. Epics such as 2112, Xanadu and La Villa Strangiato are a timeless joy, forty-plus years after their release.

It looks increasingly like that’s finally and, at least semi-officially, it: Canadian rock legends Rush are no longer a going concern, it seems. Anecdotes about various age-related physical ailments and wanting to spend more time with the family have been circulating for some time but, for this fan, the absence of European dates on the back of the ‘R40’ American tour said it all. It’s impossible in a few paragraphs to do more than scratch the surface of the Rush phenomenon, of course, but – for what it’s worth – here are a few random reflections on (cliché-alert) Canada’s premier power trio.

22 May 2013 – the nearest I ever got to the stage. Rush on the Clockwork Angels tour, Manchester, England.

First of all, ‘rock legends’ – really?! After all, it’s a reasonable bet that more than a few music fans, young and not so young, would probably struggle to identify anything much by Rush beyond those staples of rock CD ‘Best Of…’ collections, The Spirit Of Radio and Tom Sawyer. Not for nothing have Rush been characterised as ‘the biggest cult band in the world’. Yet the statistics – gazillions of album sales over forty years, supported by countless sold-out tours – are undeniable. Deeply unfashionable, maybe, but in a long and distinguished career they have repeatedly reinvented themselves and their music since those early Page-inspired riffs and Tolkien lyrical references.

I discovered Rush around 1977, eleven years old and just encountering the giants of what was then being disparaged and dismissed as ‘dinosaur rock’ – the likes of Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. The band’s prog-rock era, with its elaborate pieces, grandiose sweep and multi-layered depths, culminating in the two ‘Cygnus’ albums, represents for me their creative peak. Epics such as 2112, Xanadu and La Villa Strangiato are a timeless joy, forty-plus years after their release.

In the wake of punk, a stripped-down, simplified, back-to-basics aesthetic revolutionised rock music. In 1978 Yes released an album made up of nine songs; Led Zeppelin jettisoned the extended solos on their 1980 European tour, almost halving the show’s duration; and if there was an overarching theme to Genesis’ 1981 album, it was neatly encapsulated by a stark a-b-a-c-a-b song structure. Meanwhile, a ‘new wave of British heavy metal’ – the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Whitesnake – surfaced in Britain and made it big in America: commercial, catchy, radio-friendly.

Rush too moved with the times. The Spirit Of Radio’s opening riff heralded a decade of musical invention and experimentation. Prog-rock epics were replaced by shorter, streamlined, more accessible songs. Geddy’s increasing use of keyboards, at times challenging the primacy of Alex’s guitars in the mix, coupled with Neil’s embrace of electronic drums, modernised their sound. The early ‘80s – Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals – represent the band’s most commercially successful period, their moment in the sun.

For some, this new sound was too mellow, anodyne, adulterated. Actually I love those albums but, anyway, the appeal of Rush was always about more than just the music. Fiercely proud of their musical proficiency, Rush were also clever, thoughtful and cultured. Take their album artwork and prodigious sleeve notes, packed with witty, sometimes arcane, references – Brought to you by the letter ‘M’ – or the exhaustive inventories, meticulously cataloguing the band’s equipment, seemingly down to the last bass pedal, guitar pick and cymbal. Speaking of the tour programme, how exhilarating it was to read Neil’s word-perfect mini-essays, tracing the gestation of the current album, its musical forms and lyrical themes.

My least favourite albums are probably those from the ‘90s. Pick up anything from Presto to Test For Echo and expect a collection of maybe ten five-minute songs – including a title track and an instrumental. In a word: formulaic. Yet the ‘90s also produced a sprinkling of undoubted career highs, not least Bravado, Neil Peart’s hymn to heroic failure. Rush were not alone in negotiating creative peaks and troughs but I remain baffled by Planet Rock magazine’s ‘Buyer’s Guide’, which recently [Issue 2: July 2017] featured nothing after 1985’s Power Windows in their Rush top ten. How many groups can boast of releasing two outstanding albums –– worthy of comparison with the very best in the canon – in the autumn of their career? I refer, of course, to Snakes And Arrows and Clockwork Angels.

I came late to the first three albums (repackaged as a collection called Archives after the success of 2112). It’s a story of a band finding its feet and the tale of 2112 as a make-or-break album is well known. I rarely play the first album, despite the classics Working Man and Finding My Way. Perhaps it’s my nod to Neil Peart; his absence makes Rush (the album) feel more like pre-Rush. I delved deeper into Fly By Night (Peart’s first album) after rediscovering All The World’s A Stage – particularly the hidden gem In The End and the album’s tour de force By-Tor and the Snow Dog. So typical of the band’s ambition and early experimentation, the savage fight for dominion is perfectly realised through the snarling interplay of bass and guitar, rival champions of Hell and the Overworld.

Most intriguing, for me at least, is the somewhat maligned Caress of Steel. I Think I’m Going Bald may be a rare misfire but Bastille Day was a raucous live opener in its day (inexplicably nudged out by Lakeside Park on the R40 tour). The Fountain Of Lamneth, originally taking up the whole of Side Two, is a consistently overlooked bundle of interesting, if semi-formed, ideas. Like digging through The March Of The Black Queen on Queen II to unearth the roots of Bohemian Rhapsody, this bold twenty-minute musical experiment, with its discrete sections, frequent mood changes and complex time signatures, foreshadows their coming masterpiece.

I only saw Rush in concert in the latter years; ‘R30’ was my first tour. Their live show is exceptionally well documented on film and CD. Has any other group released quite so much live material during their ‘active’ years, I wonder? The musicianship was always exemplary, the visuals compelling and the band’s humour, often self-deprecating, at its most conspicuous. But with only three people, the complexity and multi-instrumentation of the music made it difficult to faithfully reproduce the Rush sound live. Technology to the rescue: but therein lies a quandary. How much of the ‘live’ Mystic Rhythms, to take a random example, was actually being played live? One consequence of overuse of backing tracks was too few opportunities to experiment on stage. Only on the very final tours did the band begin to rectify this, creating space in the set to, well, fiddle around a bit.

Then there are the words.

How grating it is whenever someone lazily pigeon-holes Rush’s lyrics as ‘fantasy/Dungeons & Dragons’. Just as the band repeatedly reinterpreted and reinvented their sound, so Peart’s writing ranged across numerous forms and themes. Yet his words were always crafted with style, wit and intelligence. Take Losing It from Signals, Peart’s meditation on the effects of ageing on the creative process, its wistful sentiments perfectly complemented by the plaintive echoes of the electric violin. Or Closer To The Heart: What better commitment from parent to child than “You can be the captain and I will draw the chart”? Or Afterimage: What more fitting summation of the devastating impact of unexpected loss than “Suddenly you were gone / from all the lives you left your mark upon”?

The lyrical themes of Snakes and Arrows album from 2007 cover similar ground to the book ‘God Is Not Great’ by Christopher Hitchens (also 2007) and Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ (published a year earlier). Peart was wrestling with these issues much earlier, of course. Free Will (1980), for example, rejects the notion of supernatural determinism: “A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance”. Mystic Rhythms (1985) is a paean to what Dawkins himself later called ‘the magic of reality’.

In its time (1976), the lyrics of 2112 – “Inspired by the genius of Ayn Rand” – earned the band a certain notoriety after elements of the British music press condemned its anti-totalitarian message as proto-fascism. While Ayn Rand’s philosophy is certainly associated with the extreme neo-liberals of the postwar years, the charge surely says more about the political and cultural myopia of the left in the 1970s. Following the collapse of communism, who seriously doubts that totalitarianism in all its forms – whether of the left or of the right – stifles freedom and creativity?

Too many themes, too many wonderful lines. Perhaps then it is fitting that the final song on the final album is The Garden – Peart’s nod to Voltaire’s novel Candide – in which the narrator talks (metaphorically) of “a garden to nurture and respect”. For this fan at least, Rush leave us a wonderful legacy of forty years of music worthy of nurture and respect.

Bill Clinton Autobiography Review

A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional – and brief – pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next.

‘My Life’ by Bill Clinton

Jed Bartlet, the fictional US President in TV’s The West Wing, is a political hero of mine, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself instinctively warming to Bill Clinton. The Bartlet character is, in part, a reflection of Clinton – a deeply religious, hard working, liberal internationalist, driven by the desire to serve community and country.

A self-styled ‘New Democrat’, Clinton first came to national prominence as Governor of Arkansas in the 1980s. Architect of the once-fashionable ‘Third Way’, Clinton modernised the progressive message by co-opting core ideas from the conservative agenda (fiscal hawkishness, family values, work not welfare) and infusing them with a strong belief in social justice and opportunity for all. Along the way, he revitalised a factious Democratic Party, forced the Republicans to the wilderness of the radical right and blazed a trail for his soulmate Tony Blair to follow in Britain after 1994.

I approached this autobiography with some trepidation – as well as a dictionary of American idioms and an atlas. Though a keen student of politics, I am a novice with regard to American government; its systems, structures and procedures seem arcane and baffling. Another potential obstacle for the British reader is the vernacular of American politics, a problem compounded by the folksy, conversational style of Clinton’s writing. Hence, I’m still not au fait with the politics of campaign finance reform, ‘soft money’ and the rest and Clinton’s confession that, during preparations for the 1996 Presidential TV debates, George Mitchell “cleaned my clock” just mystified me!

Aside from the Bartlet parallels, it is evident that the Clinton presidency has proved a rich seam of storylines and subplots for The West Wing – as well as helping this reader negotiate his way through the White House labyrinth. Thus, I was suitably prepared for the bizarre tradition of pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving; meanwhile, issues as diverse as brinkmanship in the Taiwan Straits, America’s refusal to sign an anti-landmines treaty and backstairs haggling with Congressional movers and shakers all have a familiar feel.

‘My Life’ is really two books spliced together – the one more enjoyable than the other. The weaker ‘Book 2’ covers the years of Clinton’s presidency. Written as a breathless narrative, this diary of events is a whistle-stop tour of domestic and (especially) international politics – a handy primer, perhaps, for first-year politics undergraduates – with everything from trade relations with South America to climate change negotiations meriting a paragraph or so.

A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional – and brief – pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next. Even opportunities for mourning – whether for family (his mother), close friends and colleagues (Vince Foster) or political leaders (Yitzhak Rabin) – are sharply curtailed in the maelstrom of activity, and Clinton himself questions the extent to which he was truly master of ceremonies.

Less welcome is the overwhelming sense that everyone – but everyone – merits a line; My Life reads in places like a roll-call of thanks, of debts acknowledged and repaid. Yet, we are told that the final draft omitted “countless” numbers of people along the way! Central to Clinton’s survival and success in the cut-throat world of American politics was his remarkable ability, from a young age, to stockpile friendships (the so-called FOB – ‘Friends Of Bill’) and build up networks of powerful acquaintances across the social spectrum who could be mobilised when required to campaign tirelessly on his behalf.

This is a major thread running through ‘Book 1’ – the years before 1993. At times, the young Clinton comes across as almost too earnest: the reader comes to expect each paragraph to end with a lesson gleaned from each experience or happenstance of life. Nevertheless, it’s an appealing story of an intelligent and thoughtful young man raised in a poverty-stricken southern state struggling to come to terms with trends in postwar society, through university (including two years at Oxford) under the shadow of Vietnam and ultimately to a career in politics.

Some readers will buy this book to read about the scandals that bedevilled his time in office. It is, of course, Clinton’s opportunity to present his own version of events but there is enough soul-searching and self-criticism throughout the book to convince me of his basic integrity, humanity and overwhelming commitment to public service. If his version of the ‘Whitewater’ story is one-sided then it is arguably a welcome corrective after incessant mudslinging by a largely hostile and partisan media, happy to accept financial backing from implacable opponents of Clinton and to weigh in with presumptions of guilt. Revealingly, Clinton refers to ‘Whitewater World’. He is implying, in effect, that the obsessives who lived the story year-on-year were ‘on another planet’ but it also suggests a psychological need to ‘box off’ Whitewater in his own mind in order to get on with the day-to-day job of governing.

The absence of prurient detail is welcome but his sexual shenanigans did have a major impact on his life story: they put his marriage under intense strain, almost cost him the Democratic nomination in 1992 and led to an impeachment trial. Yet, the first reference to his adultery only comes during his account of the Gennifer Flowers furore at the time of the New Hampshire primary in early-1992. Politicians are, of course, entitled to a private life that is private but this politician has written his autobiography – ‘My life’ not ‘My Political Life’ – and one is left in this case with a nagging sense of a lack of full disclosure.

This review relates to the hardback edition, published in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in August 2004. The only alteration to the text is the addition of several paragraph breaks and of the word ‘nagging’ in the final sentence.