The viewer can almost feel the heat generated by the ‘pizza oven’ lighting rig (page 135) or reach out to touch the various drums and cymbals that surround Roger on stage (page 151, for example).Diogenes
Brian May is an extraordinary individual. Best known as one of the members of the legendary group Queen and widely acknowledged to be one of the most innovative guitarists in the history of rock music, he is also an accomplished astrophysicist with a PhD in interplanetary dust and a tireless campaigner on behalf of the cause of animal welfare. May is also an aficionado of Victorian photography, his interest in which is closed linked to a lifelong passion for the world of 3-D photographs — stereoscopy.
The result is this magnificent book: lavishly packaged, beautifully presented and full of hundreds of previously unseen photographs — many but not all in 3-D — spanning the entirety of Queen’s career up to the final tour with Freddie Mercury in 1986 and beyond to Brian and Roger’s collaborations with Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert. The extraordinary influence on Brian of his parents — particularly his father, Harold, with whom he famously built his ‘Red Special’ guitar — is also evident through the inclusion of intimate family photographs, including Brian’s first efforts to take 3-D photographs in the back garden as a child and pictures of proud mum and dad visiting Brian on tour in the USA in 1977.
For the reader interested in learning the basics of stereoscopy, there is a full but accessible explanation at the beginning of the book of the principles and techniques of 3-D photography and, throughout, references to the different makes and models of camera used to take various photographs. The real joy of the book, however, is to be found in the photographs themselves — many taken spontaneously — capturing the band and its entourage on and off stage, at work and at play. For the Queen obsessive (like me), there is treasure to be found on every page.
Despite the limitations of camera technology, every phase of the band’s career is covered, thanks in part to May’s (increasing) willingness to lend his camera(s) to others to capture pictures of the band, particularly on stage. The result is that ‘the early years’ are documented visually as never before — from shots of the band in rehearsal above a long-forgotten pub before the release of the first album to moments of relaxation during the recording of A Night at the Opera. Coverage of their tours of Japan is particularly extensive, perhaps because Brian was trying out new technology available over there long before it hit western shops.
Though the older photographs inevitably lack a certain sharpness, the graininess actually serves to enhance their authenticity, irresistibly drawing the viewer into the scene. This book demonstrates that, at its most effective, 3-D photography offers a far more intimate and ‘realistic’ representation of a moment than conventional ‘flat’ photographs. Consider, for example, the feelings of claustrophobia induced in the viewer by the back-of-the-limousine photograph of the band on page 36 and the image of Freddie, Mary and John huddled in an aeroplane crossing the American continent on page 103. The viewer can almost feel the heat generated by the ‘pizza oven’ lighting rig (page 135) or reach out to touch the various drums and cymbals that surround Roger on stage (page 151, for example).
There is a substantial accompanying text (and captions), placing the individual photographs in their historical and geographical context. More than that, the text reads almost as a mini history of the band, sketchy in places but nevertheless packed with insights and anecdotes, many previously unheard, at least by this reader. As May says in his introduction, the text is entirely his own, unmediated by a co-author or ghost writer. His ‘voice’ is instantly recognisable to visitors to ‘Brian’s Soapbox’ on his website and, for the most part, this works absolutely fine. Only occasionally do detours up and down the byways and ‘B’ roads of May’s many passions threaten to distract us on this wonderfully nostalgic journey — recurring references to animal rights, in particular. Less agreeable are references to up-to-the-minute (2017) political issues — particularly Trump and Brexit — the inclusion of which will inevitably date those segments of the text.
Having paid £50 for the book, inevitably I find that the few errors and typos grate — not least, the thank-you dedication to Roger on page 4 (“benificence” … unless that’s an in-joke). There are also references to “Jeff Lynn” and “Max von Sidow”. The involvement of Queen archivist Greg Brooks ensures that the factual history is extremely accurate, though the caption on page 134 that the robot face on Roger’s bass drum was never used in Europe is simply wrong, as many photographs can attest.
This reader did feel that the picture of the stage set-up at Madison Square Garden on page 167 was somewhat misleading. Its appearance beneath a chapter-heading stating ‘1980’ with a caption urging the reader to compare it with a picture taken in February 1977 implies a three-year gap between the two photographs, when in fact the page 167 picture is clearly from the News of the World tour in November 1977 (the magnificent ‘Crown’ lighting rig is clearly visible) – a gap of only a few months.
One puzzle is May’s reference to Led Zeppelin’s dramatic lighting effects on stage; he refers to witnessing a powerful performance of Kashmir in Wisconsin. Kashmir is on the Physical Graffiti album, released in 1975, but May dates the performance to “just before we were a proper touring entity”. Either his memory is faulty on this point or he is suggesting that Queen only really ‘got their act together’ with the live show from the A Night at the Opera tour later in 1975.
Nonetheless, these minor quibbles — hopefully, corrected or clarified in a future edition — pale into insignificance when set against the many, many delights to be found in this five-star book.
Queen songs ranked — plus an explanation of the rationale and ground rules I adopted
Reflections on Queen’s first live album, forty-ish years after its release
The good, the bad and the truly awful. Thoughts on some of the many Queen-related books out there
This review was first uploaded to Amazon in May 2017.