Taken from Far Out Magazine (Aug 17, 2021)
Far Out Meets: Queen guitarist Brian May reflects on a life of fierce creativity
by Eoghan Lyng
Brian May. (Credit: Raph PH)
"Let's talk about Rory Gallagher", Brian May begins. "He's in my life always. He also gave me my sound. We used to see Rory Gallagher in Taste at The Marquee every Thursday; I used to go a lot. And the sound that he made, and the contact that he made with the audience. Everything about Rory was just incredible. And I wanted to know how he did it. Do you want to know how I did it?"
May stops, peering into the camera at the Cork-based writer conducting the interview. He smiles affectionately, clearly proud of his life's accomplishments, and possibly even prouder of his hair, greyer but still towering over all these years. He's effortlessly charming, and even goes on to say that I remind him of the Irish guitar maestro - "you could be brothers", he says. But behind that boyish smile lies one of the most inventive guitar players of his generation, and any scoop to hear about his formative influences is definitely worth paying attention to.
"We were boys", May chuckles, "And there were times that they would close up The Marquee after the show and chuck everybody out. So, we hid in the toilets until everyone had gone - and then came out, and accosted Rory, who was packing up his own gear. He used to carry his own gear at the time; his own amp. And I went up to him and said, 'Mr. Gallagher, how do you get your sound?' He said, [imitates Irish accent] 'Yeah, course you can'. I said, 'How do you get your sound, what is it that you do - how do you make it sing like that?' He said it was very simple; 'I have this AC30 amplifier, it's very different to other amplifiers. It's a vox amplifier, it makes a very sweet sound'. And he had his guitar - you'll remember his guitar, it was battered and worn and fits him like a glove. His guitar was a part of him. And then he said, 'There's one more thing: there's this little box that goes between the guitar and the amp'. That was the Rangemaster treble booster, and that kicks up the signal and makes the amp sing. It makes it sustain. So, the next day, I went down Wardour Street and bought myself two AC30's for Â£30 each, which was a lot of money for me in those days! And I found a little Rangemaster treble booster, plugged it up with the guitar that I made with my dad, and that was the sound! Really, that hasn't changed in the forty, fifty years that I have been playing, and that became my voice!"
May, inspired by Gallagher's generosity, credits his success to the Taste frontman. As if buoyed by his example, May shows commendable humility during the course of this interview and treats every question posed with diligence, patience and intelligent reason. He describes his guitar as "his voice", which does overlook the fact that he holds a very pleasant singing voice of his own, one he used so beautifully on 'Who Wants To Live Forever's opening verse.
In fact, what made Queen so unique were their harmonies, as evinced on the towering 'Somebody To Love'. Drummer Roger Taylor typically handled the falsetto vocals, while May backed Freddie Mercury on the lower, denser end of the vocal spectrum. It was uncommon for a 1970s rock band to spend so much of their creative energy on their harmonies, but true to form, Queen were determined to showcase their many talents to the world. John Deacon, who joined in 1971, abstained from the vocal booth, but he was no less involved in the band's writing output. "John was a wonderful player", May states. "I think he's still underestimated - his contributions were immense. And, of course, he was a writer as well. We were all writers, but John penned the biggest hit of all, which was 'Another One Bites The Dust'. If it was a batting average in cricket, he would have the best score. Because he only wrote like ten songs for Queen [sic], and half of those were huge hits! Pretty amazing record".
It's nice to hear May speak so warmly about Deacon, especially since the bassist has been largely retired from the music industry since 1997. But Back To The Light - which May has just remastered - was released in the early '90s and featured Deacon amongst its characters and credits. "John played on one track; 'Nothing But Blue'. I wrote it before Freddie passed away, and it just seemed fitting to invite John in on it, and he did just a beautiful job on it. Yeah, my main support on Back To The Light was Cozy Powell, an incredible drummer, but much more than a drummer. He was a source of energy, enthusiasm, and an incredibly emotional support for me. I wasn't very confident, to be honest, coming out of Queen. I wasn't sure what I could do - I wasn't sure if I could make a solo album!"
However, bolstered by his steady backbeat and the drummer's eagerness to tour with the work, May soldiered on. Coming off the heels of Mercury's untimely death, Back To The Light is replete with emotion, much of it painful, but most of it hopeful. Fuelled by the feeling inside of him, May created what is arguably his bravest work to date, culminating in a sound painting that asks listeners to venture into the pool of despair. Doubtless, like May, they came out of it feeling better about themselves by the time they got to 'Rollin' Over'. "For me, it was nice to finish up the album with something that was pure joy. I was able to be reckless with it because the record's out there, and nobody can spoil that. I can play anything I like, but I'd like to play the way I feel. It has this great [imitates guitar] riff to it. It's archetypal: it's in the river of rock! I like the sentiment, and I love Steve Marriott as a vocalist. He's one of the great unrecognised geniuses of vocalists".
To this writer's ears, Back To The Light feels like a continuation of the Innuendo narrative, spinning tales of hopelessness and despondency through the sound of fiery charged vocalists searching for redemption. And yet there's a niggling sense of familiarity to the record: Throughout the soul-baring and the personal songcraft, the album feels like May's following hot on the heels of The Beatle who wrote the most incendiary codicil of the greatest British band of the sixties. "It probably was influenced by Plastic Ono Band", May admits. "I don't remember being consciously influenced by it, but I'm sure there is, because John Lennon is a massive hero of mine, and I was conscious in his solo work that John was grieving about losing The Beatles in various ways, and I was grieving about losing my band, and losing Freddie! So, yes, I think there's something in there, and strangely enough, when I went out on tour, I borrowed a John Lennon song, 'God'. And he goes, 'I don't believe in Buddha, I don't believe in Zimmerman...' Then he gets to, 'I don't believe in Beatles: I just believe in me'. So, I sang that on tour, converting it to my own purpose, which was 'I don't believe in Queen'. [That]'s the way I felt at the time".
(Credit: Denis Pellerin)
He stops, eager to clarify his thoughts: "I really didn't want to know about Queen, and I think it was because it was too painful. Looking back, it's a bit 'He doth protest too much!'" May looks on wistfully, clearly still reeling from the death of his bandmate and close friend.
"To be honest, [the beginning] is an accident", May says, describing the lingering note that opens his version of 'Too Much Love Will Kill You'. "I'm going [hums], because I'm trying to find my note every time the tape rolls. There must be fifty or so layers of my vocals there, so I just left them all. There wasn't really an influence: it was more of an accident than anything".
And yet the note sounds like an offshoot of the glistening vocal harmonies that padded out such yearning ballads like 10cc's wistful 'I'm Not In Love' and Clannad's excellent 'Theme From Harry's Game'. May recognises the accident as a "happy" one and uses the vocal interpolation to open listeners up to the aching loneliness that comes from his voice. As it happens, Mercury had recorded his own take of the song, but May's delivery is more truthful sounding, showcasing a vocal wrapped in raw vulnerability and genuine bewilderment at the world around him. "It's very nice of you to say that", May beams. "Of course, it's more personal because it came from inside me, and inside my heart. I had some help getting it out there, especially from Frank Musker; but the song was about my pain and my paralysis. The Queen version happened because Freddie liked the song. There was always this question: 'If you have this song, do you keep it for yourself, or do you give it to the band?' Freddie liked it, seized hold of it, and said, 'We have to do the Queen version!' I already had this one in the bag - I already had my own personal version. So, I felt very free, very relaxed, and we could give it the full Queen treatment: It's very big, pompous...I like it, and I love Freddie's vocal. But of course, in Freddie's hands, Freddie's voice, it became something different. Looking back on it, I don't know what was in his mind at the time, but I think he knew".
May picks himself up: "He knew what his future was likely to be at a time when we didn't. So, the song took on a different cloak; it had a different meaning from that point on. It was a meaning which I probably didn't even understand at the time. Listening to it now, it makes sense, and of course, when Freddie went, jumping on many months and years, the idea came up to sing it at the Freddie Tribute Concert. And in that context, of course, it meant what Freddie meant it to be. It was no longer my song, it had become a song of Freddie's, a song that meant something different in the world. It's a complex thing".
"I like my version", May continues". I'll be honest with you; I do because it's very simple, very unadorned, and I did all those little orchestra pieces myself. It sounds like an orchestra, but I just built it up very slowly and carefully with little samplers, or whatever. I'm in no way anything like as good a singer as Freddie, but I guess Bob Dylan isn't as good a singer as Pavarotti, but you probably want to hear Bob Dylan sing his own songs".
But far be it from the writer of operettas 'Father To Son' and 'The Prophet's Song' to dismiss the classical style: "I sang with Pavarotti", May cackles. "I look back on that with great fondness". Wait, the doyen of seventies rock sang with opera's most indelible starlet? "It was 'Too Much Love Will Kill You'", the guitarist reveals. "I don't know if you know this, but Luciano used to give a party each year. It was a music party, and he would invite people to sing, duet with him, and it went out on local Italian TV. He invited me one year, and I sang it in this white raincoat, which I can show if you like...it's here".
He fumbles momentarily but decides to return to the anecdote: "I sang it, and it rained, and I said that it was raining, and suddenly people thought, 'Oh, he is singing this live". He's giggling, but gets more serious when he remembers how well it went down. "Two years later, I got this phone call. It's one of these things, you pick up the phone, and somebody says, 'It's Luciano!' I went, "What?!' 'Cause I don't get phone calls from Pavarotti every day. 'This is The Queen', or this is..."
Summoned by the tenor, May agreed to sing the ballad once more: "He said, 'I will sing in Italian, and we sing it together'. So, it happened. We did the song, and it's eternally in my memory. Incredible!"
His amazement is comparable to Mike Moran, the ubiquitous session keyboardist who remembers how lucky he was to work with someone of Monsterrat Caballe's calibre. "It's one of the great privileges of gaining success in some area, you then get the chance to interact with some of your heroes", May says. ".For me to work with someone like Eric Clapton, who's totally my hero. Those moments never leave you".
But whatever sway the blues may hold on him, it was The Beatles who got there first. Their music seeped into Queen, and they may even have inspired Deacon's jaunty number 'Need Your Loving Tonight' - "I did not know that", May states. He was likely the band's Lennon, much as the more silent Deacon proved their in-house George Harrison, but every one of The Beatles left their mark on the band. "I played with George at a Water Rats, which is a Brotherhood 'Ladies Night'. Ringo? I don't think I've played with Ringo; I'm not sure. I never met John Lennon, but I've met Paul a few times. The Beatles are my ultimate heroes".
Was 'Driven By You' inspired in part by the Beatles of the 'Eight Days A Week' era? With its jangly guitar riff and glistening harmony arrangements, the song could be mistaken for a modern-day Beatle homage. "That's interesting", May replies, ruminating on the comparison. "I've never thought of that. I don't know where 'Driven By You' came from musically; it was just in my head. It was kicked off by the phrase the advertising guys gave me. It came from the Ford commercial: 'Everything we do, is driven by you'. I immediately heard it in different ways. There's the real version, which is in relation to motor cars, and then there's the metaphor, which is the way we deal with each other in relationships. Musically, I don't know where it came from. To me, it reminds me of one of those songs with gaps in, like 'Since You've Been Gone'. But if it's Beatley, then that's kind of nice!"
He namechecks 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' as his favourite Beatle song, describing it as "a very serious piece of work". That said, he's right to single out 'Driven By You' as anthemic, especially since neither Innuendo or Back To The Light are renowned for their levity. But for four minutes - incidentally, almost twice the length of 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' - listeners are invited to leave behind the more sorrowful aspect of May's trajectory and revel in the vibrancy of the vocals and drums. Far Out readers may recognise Powell from his tenure with Black Sabbath, and May joined the band to record the startling 'When Death Calls' in 1989. "I remember going down there; Monmouth, I think it was. It was with Cozy and Tony. Tony's really my best friend in the business, and one of my best friends in the world. It was a great thing to play: Tony's always great to be around. He's another one of these people who has a strong spirit, and can just lift you...so, yeah, spent some good time down there, and played a little bit for them. Headless Cross album, I think that's what it was?"
(Credit: Richard Gray)
Like Gallagher before him, May has nothing but praises for the "unmistakeably great" Tony Iommi. "I'd say he's probably the 'Father of Heavy Metal'", May says. "That first Black Sabbath album is pretty damn good". Fittingly, there are moments of heavy metal guitar heard on Back To The Light: There's 'Love Token', every bit the libidinous rocker of 'Tie Your Mother Down'; there's the title track, which quickly shifts from the hymn-like to the absonant; and then there's 'Resurrection', all galloping guitars and soaring falsettos, the power ballad that now holds a special place in the heart of its 74-year-old writer. "These days, my favourite is 'Resurrection'. Because 'Resurrection' has the peak of finding the light. In the 'Resurrection', you feel all the optimism, all the energy, and the future opens up to you. If I had to choose one track, it would be that one".
Powell, he tells us, came in with much of the backing track. The songwriting drummer left an imprint on May, and the interview takes a solemn turn when he recalls Powell's death. More happily, he's decided to dedicate this re-issue to the percussionist.
It's one thing to reflect on someone's death, but it's quite another to finish their work in their absence. Completing the Back To The Light tour, May joined his surviving bandmates to complete Mercury's final outing, with all the gusto, glory and polish it deserved. But coming off the heels of a solo album - and a very good solo album - it can't have been easy for May to return to the band format.
"That's a very perceptive question", May smiles. "Yeah, it was hard: it was really hard. For both Roger and myself, it was hard, because for each of us, we had an idea that had grown in our head over the months of how it should turn out to be. And for both of us, it was a labour of love. But yes, we had to surrender our autonomy in order to make that work. There was some very difficult moments, where we felt differently about certain issues. We ended up arguing over single notes - that's no exaggeration".
But what an album Made In Heaven was, typifying the grandeur, appetite and verve Queen had boasted over 25 years. The title track, I tell May, is as powerful sounding as any of their singalong anthems. "Thank you for that", he replies. "It's one of my favourite Queen tracks. It's never been released as a single, but my God! The whole world is in that track, and really my heart is in there because that was a Freddie solo track; very simple, him with a synth and drum machine and whatever. And I took hold of that, thinking it could be one of the big Queen epics. I think it worked out in the end. I had a lot of help along the way, David Richards gave me a lot of help. In the end, Roger came in and did some great stuff. It was a great amalgam of effort, but the vision that I had, did come to fruition. I love it, and I never get fed up of hearing that track!"
Queen's legend only continued to grow over the decades, with May and Taylor acting as its proud custodians. In 2011, the duo achieved the near-impossible when they found another fearless, flamboyant frontman to sing in Mercury's place. Adam Lambert has toured almost consistently with Queen since 2011, and May tells us that he hopes the three of them can perform in 2022. "The embryonic version of 'Last Horizon' is on the Back To The Light album. For me, it became a great vehicle during a Queen show, and it still is. We've done it with Adam Lambert, and we will shortly again, I hope. To me, it's great because I can step out on my own and do trippy things. I can go into space, or I can be physically lifted up to various places, and I can drift off into my own space mentally. It's a great foil for all the vocal stuff. I've stuck with it, and it gives me a chance to meander into any place I want, and come out of it again...I don't know where it came from, [because] it was just in my head, but it serves me very well as a platform. It's being able to play how I feel, without any boundaries".
With Lambert filling Mercury's place, May also happened upon another performer who could sing for him. "I think I mentioned to you that I went out on tour, and I was the frontman", May says. "I sang and played, but there came a point where I thought that I wanted to concentrate on my guitar playing. And, I love writing songs, I love producing, and I lost Freddie as a vehicle".
He pauses, clearly moved by what he has said: "Obviously, the greatest vehicle in the world for a song. Then, I found Kerry Ellis, and she was in our musical [We Will Rock You], and I discovered that I could give her stuff, and she would become that vehicle. I put everything I could into writing and producing her. I guess I also encouraged her to find the best in herself, and she's evolved into an amazing artist. Some of those Kerry Ellis/Brian May albums have some of my best work on there. It definitely stands by the best work I've ever done: Some of it is very big, and some of it is also very quiet and contemplative. Basically, it became my solo project after I stopped doing Back To The Light and Another World, I became the person who produced Kerry's voice".
Between writing with Ellis, or rehearsing with Lambert, May is busy re-releasing the catalogue he carved almost entirely alone. He has some surprises for fans".I've polished up three videos, but the 'Back To The Light' video will be a new video, where I am assuming the role of being a time traveller. I'm quite excited about how it's going to come out. Very interesting".
It's time to wrap up the interview, but May decides to leave us with one final aphorism. Behind the trappings of fame is a man still grateful for the many accomplishments of his life. And as if eager to bring the interview full circle, and he returns to the guitar player to whom he owes his sound to: "I find myself talking more about Rory, especially these days. Again, he was an inspirational musician, but he was an inspiration as a person. He was a gentleman. He was kind, he was considerate. He always had time for people. I mean, I was a kid coming up and bother him while he was trying to pack up his gear after a long hard gig. He could have gone, 'Ah, come on: I'm busy!' He just had an endless amount of time, and I got to know him after that. I count that as a great privilege: We did a couple of things together. And he was always the same: he never changed. I said to him once, 'You treat me just the same as when you first met me'. And he went, 'You treat everybody the way you feel'.Completely modest, decent, and a true gentleman. What a lovely guy!"
I could say much the same about Brian May!
The remastered Back To The Light is out now.
... any % of U is as good as the whole pie ...