Brian May Discusses Queen's Greatest Moments
In this 2011 interview, Brian May looks back on Queen's greatest moments.
"Sorry, my head takes a little while to get into gear,” says Brian May with a little laugh as he begins to mull over the history of Queen. The 63-year-old guitarist speaks gently, endeavoring to answer questions as fully as he can.
May’s academic air is understandable. As a younger man he attended London’s illustrious Imperial College until he abandoned his studies and a promising future in astrophysics to fully dedicate himself to Queen. The band’s estimated worldwide album sales vary anywhere from 150 to 300 million.
Whatever the exact figure, it was certainly a smart career move for the budding cosmologist.
In 1971, bassist John Deacon joined Queen, completing the lineup of May, drummer Roger Taylor and singer Freddie Mercury. Over the next two decades they would become the complete stadium rock act. Mercury expertly worked massive crowds backed by a concrete rhythm section that mixed flamboyance (Taylor) and willful anonymity (Deacon).
May, instantly recognizable either by the sight of his trademark tower of curly hair or the unique tone of his homemade Red Special guitar, would mutter quietly to himself as he strove to perfectly deliver some of rock’s most memorable riffs.
Grandiosity in all things applied very much to Queen’s parties. These notoriously depraved celebrations were typically staffed by half-naked girls, though disappointingly a well-worn anecdote involving dwarves with bowls of cocaine on their heads is entirely apocryphal. “I loved the social side of it and there was a lot of fun in doing things that no one had done before,” May says.
“But there was a side of me that kept to myself, I suppose, and was much more private. Looking back on it, I think perhaps I was a little too much of an island, but on the other hand perhaps it kept me sane.”
In 1991, at the age of 45, Freddie Mercury passed away due to AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia. Six years later John Deacon withdrew from public life, leaving May and Taylor—musical comrades since 1968, when they first played together in a group called Smile—to curate Queen’s legacy.
This year marks the group’s 40th anniversary, and in celebration, Queen’s 15 studio albums are being released in remastered deluxe editions. “I’m quite excited, actually,” says May. “They’re a really lovely bit of work, I think. There are lots of little bits of rescue that have been done to bring these albums closer to the original vinyl experience. You know, when you first opened your LP and it had that particular smell. Unfortunately we can’t quite do the smell yet, but we’re trying to get as close as possible to that sound and that feel. It’s a fascinating project.”
What were your impressions of Freddie Mercury before he joined Queen?
An interesting and flamboyant character who seemed to be very confident, but it was soon apparent that he was very shy underneath all that stuff. Yeah, he was an unknown. Full of enthusiasm, full of energy and ideas. We had no idea if he could sing or not, really. When we actually did see him sing with his old band, I don’t think we felt that good about it because he was very over the top. Of course, that all changed very quickly when Freddie got into the studio and started to hear himself and fashion himself according to his desires. He was very astute at finding the best in himself.
Who did you have most in common with when Queen first got together?
MAY That’s complicated. Once we were all together we had quite a complex, sort of multiway interaction. That’s why it worked, really. I was very close to Roger in some ways because we’d already been in a band together. We are—and we were—kind of brothers. We were so close in our aspirations and the way we looked at music, but of course so distant in so many other ways. So like any pair of brothers we sort of loved and hated each other all along the line.
What was your relationship with Freddie like once he became a band member?
In a way, I was very close to Freddie, particularly in the songwriting area. In the beginning, it was only he and I that were writing the material, pretty much. We learned to interact in a very productive way without treading on each other’s toes. At its best it was a wonderful relationship, I must say.
Some of my best times were producing a vocal out of Freddie, sort of coaxing him in various directions. A lot of the other best moments were Freddie doing the same for me the other way round, him saying, “Brian, why don’t you try this?” while I was doing the guitar solo. He loved what I did, which was very encouraging for me. He kind of saw me as his Jimi Hendrix, I think, which was very flattering for me. Most of my best guitar work was done on Freddie’s material because it was so inspiring. When it came to my own material, I was more concerned with the song.