Galaxies of music,
Sir Brian May
Photo credit Guitar Interactive Magazine
Close your eyes and listen to a hit Queen single and you will enter a technicolor world of sound. Walls of vocals, guitar lines, call and response guitar layers, solid rhythm section support, dynamics, a pivotal style in rock history that put its large brushstroke on rock music indelibly.
British rock band Queen originated in London in 1971 while all four band members were still in college. "Keep Yourself Alive" was their debut single written by guitarist, Brian May on the band's self-titled debut album in 1973. Their classic style changed rock music and had an impact on many musicians as the decades unfolded. A Queen song had motifs within motifs, large vocals by lead singer, Freddie Mercury, choral backup vocals, dramatic performances. Queen crowned itself in live shows as bold, unique, an experience. To this day their arena rock songs make an impact.
Worldwide, arena pro football or soccer games have a universal anthem, “We Will Rock You.” The guitar solo by Brian May features his signature sound. That partnership between Freddie and Brian is undeniable as a big part of Queen’s appeal. Freddie’s lyrics and sound was a call to action, and Brian’s passionate playing the supportive response.
When Queen first came onto the rock music scene, the versatility and tone of Brian May’s Red Special guitar (handmade by Brian and his dad when they couldn’t quite afford a guitar) was another voice to be reckoned with. Using a sixpence as his plectrum, Brian added many points of light within songs. Queen's other band members were just as integral to the success of the band. John Deacon contributed dynamic solid bass chops, and drummer (and multi-instrumentalist) Roger Taylor could make his drum kit sound larger- than- life with just a bass drum; along with his clear falsetto vocal for signature backups.
Their songs grabbed the senses of audiences and brought an exciting rock ‘n roll experience. This was a big step, when at that time, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and other legends had already made a big splash in the UK.
Written by Freddie Mercury, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is not only considered one of the most famous songs ever written, it is a landmark single in rock music. Six-minutes of rock and opera, a world of sound released in 1975 from the album, A Night At the Opera. Though people weren't quite sure what they were hearing, they were mesmerized by it nonetheless. A unique rock journey from intro, ballad, Brian’s guitar solo section, an opera section, dramatic background vocals, the hard rock section, then descending into a beautiful outro. What most don’t realize when they hear this great work, is how May, Mercury, and Taylor reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for many hours a day. The entire piece took three weeks to record, and in some sections featured 180 separate overdubs.
In 1977 more creations came forth with “We Will Rock You” written by Brian May, and “We Are the Champions” written by Freddie Mercury from News of the World. Both songs inspired when at their show for the A Day at the Races tour, the audience kept chanting loudly to them, and then sang to the band, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In 1978 Brian May wrote "Fat Bottomed Girls" on the band's seventh studio album, Jazz. The song received a new life when it was featured in an episode on the TV show, Glee. Other songs written by Brian May include “I Want It All,” “Flash,” “Hammer to Fall,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” and “The Show Must Go On.”
In 1990, Queen received the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. Following the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991, by 1993 May returned to the studio with fellow surviving Queen band members Roger Taylor and John Deacon to work on tracks that became Made in Heaven, the final Queen studio album. The band took Mercury's solo album demos and last recordings, which he managed to perform in the studio after the album Innuendo was finished, and completed them with their additions both musically and vocally. Another tribute song to Mercury by Brian May in 1997 was “No-One but You (Only the Good Die Young.”
Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. With each member having composed hit singles, all four were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.
From 1992 - 2000 Brian may has had three solo albums: Back to the Light" Another World" and Golden Days. In 2000 He did a rocking compilation with the Foo Fighters on the Pink Floyd song, “Have a Cigar”(from the Mission Impossible 2 Movie). Sir Brian May also appeared in the video of, “I’m A Woman”, with Kerry Ellis released in 2020 as a charity single to help Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Other collaborations include: Black Sabbath, Ian Hunter, Motorhead, Guns ‘N Roses, Tangerine Dream, and Chris Thompson. He has also produced many albums with various artists.
The Queen-inspired musical We Will Rock You, opened in London's West End in 2002, and is still playing in theatres around the world. Since 2002 over 15 million theatregoers in 17 countries have been thrilled by this awe-inspiring production which is based on the songs of Queen with a book by Ben Elton. Brian May and Roger Taylor are music supervisors
Brian May and Roger Taylor were key advisors for the 2019 biopic movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, which was a blockbuster success. The vocals were a mix of Rami Malek (the lead actor who portrayed Freddie) and Marc Matel.
Brian May was ranked No. 33 by Rolling Stone’s 2023 list of greatest guitarists of all time. In 2001 May was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Queen and in 2018 the band received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
May was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2005 for services to the music industry and his charity work. In 2007 he earned his PhD (having left to tour with Queen in younger years) in astrophysics from Imperial College in London in 2007.
May was knighted by King Charles III this year. He is also an astrophysicist, and an advocate for animal rights – opposing badger culling and fox hunting through his animal welfare group he established in 2010, Save Me.
He was a "science team collaborator" with NASA's New Horizon’s Pluto Mission. He is also the co-founder of the awareness campaign Asteroid Day. This year, Asteroid 52665 was named Brian May when he contributed to the OSIRIS-Rex mission, the first successful collection and earth delivery of samples directly from an asteroid (the asteroid Bennu).
Brian May has been a patron for the ABC Trust, joining Jimmy Page as a a judge for the Riffathon event, to discover the best up-and-coming guitarist in the UK. He has also supported the causes of AIDS research, mental health, conservation, poverty, substance abuse, cancer research, at-risk/disadvantaged youths, and more. It was a complete honor to talk with Sir Brian May.
By Abbe Davis, November 2023
Abbe: Congratulations and what a big year for you in 2023! Knighthood and then the NASA mission. Sir Brian May, what was it like when you were knighted by King Charles III? Any silly or interesting stories – Besides the actual being there and how amazing it was, anything where you felt, “Now this is vastly different from what I had imagined it would be like”?
Brian: Oh, it was definitely an honor. Never would I have dreamt of being knighted by the King of England. It was actually somewhat embarrassing. There are so many other people much more deserving of this honor, those who have accomplished so much more for humanity.
Abbe: That is very humble of you, yet you've inspired many people, and each contribution matters so much. This year, in Sept, you had a critical part with NASA on OSIRIS-REx mission, the asteroid Bennu sample, where you created stereoscopic imaging as part of the mission. Can you explain what you were able to do and what the study of that carbon-rich asteroid sample might say about the past or future?
Brian: What I was able to do was create a 3D image of the asteroid which helped the scientists at NASA learn about the surface of the asteroid and locate a large crater in it where the OSIRIS-REx could possibly land. As far as what the sample might tell us about the past or future, I'll leave that up to the scientists who are experts in that type of anatomy.
Abbe: Very interesting, and it sounds intricate and complex! With NASA’s New Horizon’s mission, (and your New Horizon’s single in 2019, featuring the voice of Steven Hawking on it), the mission, why send out signals to the outer reaches of the solar system, what do you personally hope is discovered?
Brian: Well, obviously, we hope to find other lifeforms in the solar system, other planets similar to Earth, capable of sustaining life. I believe there are many other lifeforms not yet known to us.
Abbe: I wonder how any of us might handle connecting to other life forms, or if they are even interested. There probably has to be a higher frequency or something. Steven Hawking said that mankind is running out of space on planet Earth and that we should find other worlds to inhabit. Do you agree?
Brian: I don't necessarily agree with his philosophy but I don't disagree either. I suppose I'm somewhere in the middle. I believe we should first focus our energies on how to save our own planet before we start venturing into the unknown, looking for other worlds. If we all don't come together when I say all, I'm talking about the entire population of the Earth, to put together a plan we can all agree on and put into action, then we're going to be in a whole world of trouble.
Abbe: Yes, I hear you. Getting people to get out of themselves and step into community or a greater picture is complex. It might be the only way to heal so much going on here, preserve, conserve, solve. As you were making music and questioning the universe at a young age, what did you yearn to know exactly? What was perplexing or mystifying to you?
Brian: I suppose I thought about how small we are in the scheme of things, in the infinite solar system. I would look out at the stars and think to myself "are we the only ones in the entire universe or are there other worlds like ours?"
Abbe: Many planets, it's great to see a new era of instruments where research can truly yield some results ahead. Switching gears here, I have to ask you a question about the movie, Bohemian Rhapsody. When you first met Freddie, you said that Freddie said that your band, SMILE, was doing it all wrong. What did he specifically say, the drums, the guitar, all of it? What bothered him? I also wonder, what he felt any true rock band should always have as its framework.
Brian: LOL. Ah, Freddie. That first time we met. He was Freddie from the moment I met him. He was not one to hold back on his thoughts or feelings. He felt we should be more of a theatrical type band, not just standing there and playing, but, rather, playing to the crowd. He was an expert craftsman, not only vocally, because vocally, he was incredible, but, as a showman, he was the best I've ever been around. And, what he told us the first time we met, he was right. What did he feel a true rock band should have as their framework? Great musicianship and vocals, and the ability to read the audience at all times.
Abbe: I love hearing this. It's interesting to consider the connection between performing and how the band is appearing to the audience. He was incredible. Is it true that you wrote “Fat Bottomed Girls” about Freddie Mercury, who was attracted to people with that characteristic, when you showed it to him, how did he respond to it? Were people offended by it at first?
Brian: LOL. He loved it! Freddie always had an attraction to both men and women with big bottoms. I suppose some people may have been offended by the lyrics and the meaning, but it was all in good fun and good art.
Abbe: Ha ha. It's a great song. Another song that gets people singing and moving to it. And funny! Did it really take 10-12 hours of about 180 overdubs in three weeks to do the vocals for Bohemian Rhapsody? I read this and was amazed. How long did those vocals truly take? Which section did you dislike singing the most?
Brian: No, that's all true. Roger Taylor, Freddie and I, sang our vocal parts for those 10 to 12 hours a day. It was extremely difficult and very taxing on the vocal cords. And, yes, there were about 180 overdubs. As far as which section did I dislike singing the most? I'd say all of it! LOL It was exhausting.
Abbe: Hilarious! Difficult birth, great kid, ha. I hear that recently there was a big auction of Freddie’s personal things, lyrics, etc, I read how it was hard for you to hear about it. Why didn’t you bid on some items to preserve?
Brian: Yes, it was hard for me to hear about the auction. I felt that those things should have been maintained either in a museum of sorts or with his family. I didn't feel it was my place to bid on Freddie's personal possessions. It was sad. It still is. It hurts.
Abbe: I've lost many very close people to me in my life. That feeling doesn't really go away, you just adjust around it. It is a deeply spiritual feeling to lose a brother in music, and a best friend. Why do a Bohemian Rhapsody 2, when it is about the very difficult end of Freddie’s life? What is the sentiment behind their doing that? Do you feel he would want people to see how it was for him?
Brian: There's a lot more story there, where we left off. At this point, I'm not certain it will happen, a sequel, but, we are looking into it right now. The first movie really moved so many people. We won't do a sequel unless we feel it will move people in the same way as the first. I think Freddie would have really enjoyed the film.
Abbe: It was beautifully done. He must feel the love wherever he is. You’ve created a unique guitar and sound, so I wonder what are some of the best solos you’ve ever heard and from whom?
Brian: The best? Wow, that's a tough question. I mean, there are so many wonderfully talented guitarists, many of whom don't get the recognition they deserve. I've been in small clubs and witnessed some really extraordinary solos by some guitarists who go unrecognized. Those guitarists you hear on the radio aren't the only ones with amazing talent.
Abbe: Ah, I didn't get any one guitarist out of ya, eh? The Star Fleet Project (recorded in 1983 with Eddie Van Halen, Alan Gratzer, former Rod Stewart/Jeff Beck bassist Phil Chen, and Queen’s touring keyboard player Fred Mandel) you years later released it. You said you regret not having done more with that, what would you have done?
Brian: That was a very talented group of musicians who all came together. What could we have done more of with that? I don't know. Maybe a tour of sorts. That would have been a difficult task though, to set a tour with all of those amazing musicians and artists. It would have been a difficult challenge due to everyone's own schedules.
Abbe: Oh ticket sales would have skyrocketed though! Yes, tough to get everyone on board to do it, probably. The Miracle Sessions, unreleased songs, 30 songs, or is there anything you can have spliced together, using technology, to create more of Queen’s previous unreleased work?
Brian: Oh, there is a lot of material tucked away. I suppose it would be a moderately simple task to splice things together with the technology we have today. I really don't know if that's something that will happen though.
Abbe: I'm going to beg now, please do this! Now, you know Freddie would love that. Do you still have many shows ahead for the Queen & Adam Lambert tour?
Brian: We are currently scheduled through the end of November and we've added shows in 2024, including some in Japan.
Abbe: This is great, glad to hear it. In the spirit of the brotherly love that you and Freddie and Roger had for one another, is there one story that you sometimes recall, where you just begin laughing remembering it?
Brian: That first time we met him, and Roger commented on Freddie's teeth and Freddie proudly explained how he was born with extra teeth which enhanced his vocal abilities. That was classic, classic Freddie. There are so many stories but that one really stands out and I smile every time I think about it. I think Freddie would agree with me.
Abbe: I loved that in the movie. So real. Thank you, Sir, for your phenomenal signature guitar style, all of the music by Queen that we still enjoy, and the contributions of the heart (in science, an advocate of animal welfare and more) it has truly been an honor and I appreciate you taking the time today.
Brian: Thank you, Abbe. This has been lovely. And thank you Tru Rock Revival Magazine.
Abbe Davis, Editor of TRR / Musician
Frontperson and songwriter, Abbe Davis, heads her hard rock originals band, Abbe Davis band. Her background in singing has also been classical, blues and jazz, though her main love is rock music. She is always intrigued and inspired by interviews as editor of TRR.
Her band records new singles this winter. Abbe has performed alongside legendary Blues artist, Buddy Guy at the Riverwalk Blues Festival, the Parkland Memorial concert, and recently headlined the Day of Rock Festival.