Queen: Crowning Achievements
In 2002, Brian May took time out to reflect on a Queen box set, a DVD compilation, a stage musical based on Queen’s hit songs and the extra- ordinary legacy of his brilliant band.
October 18, 2002, 11:30 A. M.: A large crowd of people gathers on the street at 6356 Hollywood Boulevard, many of them carrying Queen album sleeves, photographs, makeshift posters and other mementos of the eternally popular British rock group. The Queen-crazed mob lets fly a collective howl of delight the instant the band’s guitarist, Brian May, and drummer, Roger Taylor, step out onto a low, carpeted platform that had been erected on the sidewalk. Mr. Johnny Grant, the honorary mayor of Hollywood, presides as May and Taylor kneel on the pavement and unveil Queen’s brand-new star on the city’s Walk of Fame. The 2,207th such plaque to be fitted into Hollywood’s most famous thoroughfare, the coveted stellar monument places Queen in the distinguished show-biz company of immortals like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Charlie Chaplin.
That night, a party and impromptu jam takes place at a funky Hollywood bar, celebrating Queen’s enshrinement in America’s sidewalk of dreams. Steve Vai, Nuno Bettencourt and Carmine Appice are among the special guests who climb onstage that evening. But the most raucous applause comes when May straps on his venerable Red Special guitar and Taylor mans the drum kit. The duo leads the way through gangbuster renditions of Queen classics like “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Under Pressure,” “I’m in Love with My Car” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” The entire packed house sings along. Young and old, hipsters, rock geeks, smarmy music biz types—everyone knows the words.
“I was really thrilled,” May later says of the ceremony and its aftermath. “In England it would have been much more formal. But in L.A. there’s a more relaxed vibe that I really enjoy. It is a place where I’ve had a home since the early Eighties. So for me it’s a great personal thrill to be part of the fabric of Los Angeles.”
Far more than just another shiny thread in L.A.’s synthetic cultural garment, Queen are integral to the fabric of rock and roll itself. Rock history would be appreciably less radiant had classics like “Killer Queen,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “We Are the Champions” and “Another One Bites the Dust” not been recorded. And rock guitar playing would certainly be a poorer thing without the soaring harmonies of Brian May’s Red Special. The death of lead singer Freddie Mercury in 1991 has done nothing to diminish Queen’s stature. If anything, Mercury’s passing has helped to confirm the band’s place in the classic rock pantheon.
Queen’s new star on the Walk of Fame is just one of many recent band-related honors and activities, all of which seem to be leading up to the band’s 30th anniversary in 2003. “I’ve never had a year like this, where so much has happened,” says May. “So much positivity and creativity.”
May and Taylor spent June 3, 2002, in style, performing at the Golden Jubilee show at Buckingham Palace, honoring the 50-year reign of that other famous English Queen, Elizabeth II. We Will Rock You, the stage musical based on Queen’s hit songs, is breaking box office records in London’s West End. The Queen Symphony, also based on the group’s music and composed by Tolga Kashif, was performed for the first time ever by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall on November 6. May was recently awarded an honorary doctorate in England. Queen’s latest three-CD box set, Greatest Hits I II & III, is selling briskly. And the band’s American label, Hollywood Records, has just put out a DVD collection, Greatest Video Hits 1.
The two-disc DVD package was assembled by two bright young men of British television, Simon Lupton and Rhys Thomas. “They’re two guys who I met purely by chance,” says May. “I did the music for an English series called Fun at the Funeral Parlour, which Rhys wrote and Simon produced. And I discovered they were real, true Queen fans and knew everything about us. So they were a natural choice when we started to put together the DVD. They did a fantastic job. They bring youth, vitality and new angles to it.”
The CD and DVD collections afford ample opportunity to reflect on Queen’s long and stellar career. The band’s stylistically diverse, harmonically adventurous music now seems a timeless part of the classic rock cannon. But as the videos make clear, Queen were very much part of the glam rock early Seventies—both originators and products of the post-hippie Zeitgeist that gave rise to stacked heels, sequin-encrusted stage regalia and tons of makeup for boys. Clip after clip finds Mercury, May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon decked out in androgynous finery, often created by designer Zandra Rhodes.
“The image and concept of the band were there from the beginning,” says May, “before there even was something called glam. In fact, I remember going to see David Bowie at the Rainbow Theater in [London’s] Finsbury Park very early in his career. I was very excited about what he was doing, but also very apprehensive because I was afraid people would think that we were jumping on his bandwagon. Whereas we’d been on our own for quite a while anyway, although we were not well known at the time. It took us a hellish long time to get our first album out and state our position, musically and image-wise.
“On the radio at the time, there were things like Sweet and Marc Bolan. We didn’t really feel a part of that, because that was basically a pop sensibility. And what we were trying to achieve, I suppose, was a sort of melodic rock, rather than a pop creation. It’s hard to define the difference between pop and rock. But I know what it is instinctively. I think most people do. You feel an affinity for one side of it or the other.”
A studious young man who had planned on an academic career in astrophysics, May did make an unlikely glam icon. But he placed his scientific brain at the service of rock and roll when he built his own electric guitar at age 16, working together with his father. A masterpiece of quirky inventiveness, the instrument’s body was fashioned of wood from an old fireplace. The tremolo arm mechanism came from a motorcycle kickstand. Most guitarists outgrow their adolescent axes, but this homemade, three-pickup, double-cutaway instrument, May’s beloved Red Special, was to become his lifelong, signature guitar. The main component in one of rock music’s most distinctive guitar tones, the Red Special has been copied several times over the years—for May’s personal use as a spare instrument in some cases, and for commercial consumption in others. May is particularly enthusiastic about the newest Red Special model, by British guitar manufacturer Burns.
“Like my own guitar, it has noticeably good sustain, which is part of my style of playing. But I guess the biggest factor is that it’s very cheap. I don’t know quite how they managed to do it, but they did make it at a price that’s affordable by kids. And that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want the Red Special to be an elitist thing anymore. I wanted people to be able to buy it and play it.”
Pumped through a Rangemaster treble booster and a bank of Vox AC30s, the Red Special produces a creamy, sustained tone that has always formed the basis for the rich layers of overdubbed guitar harmonies that constitute May’s towering contribution to rock guitar playing. “It was my dream from the beginning,” he says. “I was always into the sound of harmonies, whether it was vocal harmonies or harmonies between the instruments in an orchestra. I was always fascinated by what the vocal harmonies did to you on records by the Everly Brothers and the Crickets. They just sent shivers up your spine and gave those recordings huge emotional content. Jeff Beck’s song ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ also inspired me a lot. The guitar solo is doubled, but at one point the doubled track deviates from the melody and it becomes a twopart harmony. And I remember thinking, What a glorious sound that is: a full-blown, spiky electric guitar going into harmony. That’s always been my guiding inspiration. The electric guitar should be like a voice: that throatiness, forcefulness and splutter. And I always dreamed that if you could get three or more guitars working as instruments in an orchestra making all these harmonies— not just parallel but crossing over one another and making dissonances—it would be the most exciting thing in the world to hear. So the first time I got into the studio I tried it out. I think the very first attempt was on ‘Earth,’ the  single we did with Smile. It’s a two-part harmony thing, but I was wondering how far I could take it.”
Smile was the pre-Queen band that May formed with Roger Taylor in 1967. The group metamorphosed into Queen when Tanzania-born singer Farroukh Bulsara (a.k.a. Freddie Mercury) joined in 1970. Bassist John Deacon came on board the following year, completing the lineup. In Mercury, May found a singer whose harmonic vistas were as broad as his own. Queen forged a huge sound based on lavish vocal harmonies and countermelodies interlaced with stacked guitars, the whole thing supported by a heavy rock backbeat.
“We were very fortunate in having three voices that gave an interesting blend,” says May. “Freddie had this wonderful, clear, bell-like tone which you can recognize on a transistor radio 10 miles away. And Roger has a remarkable voice also: very raspy, but he could sing very high and be strong in those upper registers. And I have this voice which I suppose filled in the gaps. I probably had more warmth than the others, and I was probably less in tune!”
Queen’s attention-grabbing sound made an almost immediate impact in England via early songs like “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Seven Seas of Rhye” and “Procession,” from the band’s first two albums, Queen (1973) and Queen II (1974). But the band broke out worldwide with its first American hit, “Killer Queen,” from the Sheer Heart Attack album (1974). Recording this track wasn’t easy for May, who had been laid low by the band’s first American tour with glam rockers Mott the Hoople.
“I was very sick the first time Freddie played me this new song he’d written called ‘Killer Queen,’ ” May recalls. “I was laying in my room at Rockfield [the legendary residential rock studio in Wales]. After that first American tour I had hepatitis and then I had very bad stomach problems [a duodenal ulcer—GW Ed]. So at that point I was just feeling sick 20 hours a day. And I remember feeling very depressed laying there hearing Freddie play this song. ’Cause I thought, I can’t even get out of bed to participate in recording this. Maybe the group will have to go on without me. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. It was really bad. But then I did go into the hospital and I got fixed up, thank God. And when I got out, we were able to finish off ‘Killer Queen.’ They had recorded most of it, leaving space for the guitar. So I did the solo, with the three-part guitar harmony counterpoint, where each part has its own voice. Plus there’s another little block of guitar harmony that comes in. I also had strong feelings about one of the vocal harmony bits in the chorus, so we had another go at that. I’m really very happy with that song. It was made in a very craftsmanlike manner. There’s a lot to listen to, but it never gets cluttered. There’s always space for the little ideas to come through.”
The song showcases Mercury’s fondness for the vaudeville and music hall traditions of the pre-rock era. These styles had been tapped in the Sixties by groups like the Beatles and the Kinks, but Mercury reintroduced these genres to rock at a whole new level of over-the-top, campy bombast. Queen’s lead singer was equally in love with the stagey melodrama of grand opera. The early Seventies were a time when many progressive rock groups were drawing on classical music. But where these musicians were generally deadly serious, Mercury brought an outlandish sense of humor and frivolity to his appropriation of operatic forms. A highly capable keyboardist, Mercury, like May, chose to emphasize orchestration and attitude over displays of solo virtuosity. This gave Queen a unique and ideal place in the Seventies rock landscape. Their music offered harmonic sophistication on a par with prog rock but with none of prog’s stuffy self-importance. It was an incredibly winning combination.
In both their humor and their penchant for massive musical arrangements, Queen were well matched with Roy Thomas Baker. The eccentric British producer had been instrumental in signing Queen to a deal with Trident Audio Productions. In Baker, they’d essentially teamed up with the Keith Moon of rock engineering— a man whose appetite for audio excess knew no limits. The Queen/Baker collaboration found perhaps its greatest expression in the band’s next hit. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from the 1975 masterpiece A Night at the Opera, is probably the best-loved Queen song of them all. It has often been voted the greatest rock song of all time by critics and fans.
According to May, the epic “Rhapsody,” with its many segues, mood swings and flights of choral fancy, was “Freddie’s baby entirely. We just helped him bring it to life. He would come into the studio armed with these little pieces of company paper from his dad’s office, with the notes to the chords scribbled all over them in Freddie’s own particular fashion. It wasn’t musical notation, but As and Bs and Cs and sharps in blocks—like buses zooming all over his bits of paper. We played a backing track which left the gaps and he would go, ‘Bum bum bum, that’s what happens here…’ He knew exactly what he was doing all along. He had it all in his head.”
Audible evidence of May’s statement can be gleaned from a short film on the new DVD called Inside the Rhapsody. In it, May presides over a playback of the original multitrack master for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” soloing guitar tracks, vocal harmonies and other parts, tracing the evolution of the song in the studio. We hear Mercury on piano, leading Deacon and Taylor through a flawless basic track, played from beginning to end, apparently, without the aid of a click track to establish tempo. Then we hear the layers and layers of guitars and vocals start to pile up. “We were stretching the limits of technology in those days,” says May. “It was all 16-track [analog]. We had to do a lot of bouncing as we went along, and the tape got very worn. The legendary story that people think we made up is really true. We held the tape up to the light one day—we’d been wondering where all the top end was going—and we discovered we had virtually a transparent piece of tape. All the oxide had gotten rubbed off in the course of all those overdubs. It was time to hurriedly make a copy and get on with finishing the track.”
The overwhelming success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” when it was first released in 1975 was boosted by director Bruce Gowers’ groundbreaking video clip—a work that predates the MTV era by a good five years and is generally hailed as one of the most influential rock videos of all time. Kicking off the Greatest Video Hits DVD, the “Bohemian Rhapsody” clip looks as good as ever, and has acquired a new sonic dimension thanks to a DTS 5.1 surround sound remix of the track specially prepared by May and Roy Thomas Baker in collaboration with Elliot Scheiner. (The threesome also remixed “You’re My Best Friend” for 5.1 surround. Fourteen other tracks received 5.1 remixes from Justin Shirley- Smith.) These remixes brought May and Baker together for the first time in years.
“We had a great time,” says the guitarist. “Roy’s a laugh. He’ll give the impression that he’s not paying attention. But he’ll suddenly come up with the most penetrating comment or observation and crucially change the mix. He’s always been like that. He has unusual insights. He’s a very interesting and colorful character.”
Following in the wake of A Night at the Opera’s success, Baker guided Queen through 1976’s A Day at the Races. (Both albums take their titles from 1930s films by the Marx Brothers, who enjoyed a huge revival in popularity during the Seventies.) That album yielded indispensable Queen classics like “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Long Away” and “Somebody to Love.” But Queen struck off on their own for the next album, News of the World (1977), producing the disc themselves, with assistance from their longtime engineer Mike Stone. This shift in direction is dramatically apparent on the album’s opening track, the instant anthem “We Will Rock You.” By this time, the punk rock revolution was underway. And Queen responded with what has become the ultimate boot boy, football hooligan chant. Where earlier Queen hits had been remarkable for their lavish production, “We Will Rock You” is stripped and stark—just voices, stomping and clapping for the most part. Only at the end does May’s guitar come roaring in for a vituperative chordal outro solo.
“‘We Will Rock You,’” May recalls, “was a response to a particular phase in Queen’s career, when the audience was becoming a bigger part of the show than we were. They would sing all the songs. And in a place like Birmingham, they’d be so vociferous that we’d have to stop the show and let them sing to us. So both Freddie and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to write a song with audience participation specifically in mind. My feeling was that everyone can stamp and clap and sing a simple motif, so ‘We Will Rock You’ was based on that. We recorded it at [Basing Street] Wessex, which is an old converted church that has a natural good sound to it. There are no drums on the track. It’s just us clapping and stamping on boards, overdubbed many times over with many primitive delay machines. A bit of singing, a bit of guitar playing, and that’s it. The amazing thing is to go to football [soccer] matches or sports events in general and hear people do it. It’s very gratifying to find that it has become part of folklore, sort of. I’ll die happy because of that.”
Queen got back together with Baker one last time for 1978’s Jazz, an album that yielded May’s folksy tribute to the backstage ladies, “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
“It just kind of popped into my head as a tune and a set of words,” he says. “And it became a song about the girls who help raise the spirits of the performers backstage. The groupies or whatever. I remember thinking, Why does everybody love the idea of having casual sex with people that they otherwise wouldn’t want to be with? Why does that mean so much to them? Where does that come from? And I also remember saying, ‘Freddie’s going to have to sing this, and I’m going to write it so that you can take it any way you like. You can be into anything, sexually, and the song would still make sense.”
As the Seventies drew to a close, Queen’s lead singer was no longer making a secret of his sexual orientation. The fact that Freddie Mercury was gay came as a big surprise to many Queen fans. And to Brian May as well, apparently.
“Early on, it didn’t exist,” says the guitarist. “Or if it did, we never saw it. And I don’t think Freddie was aware of it, either. In the early days, we used to share rooms, so I would have known! Freddie had some gorgeous girls. And it was only later on…I couldn’t really pin down the exact time, but there was a point where we realized that Freddie was leading a bit of a different social life than the rest of us. He’d just go off on his own and say, ‘See you later.’ Gradually, he was venturing off into these other areas. He was encouraged by certain people who sort of brought him out, I guess. One of whom was our personal manager at the time. He was a pretty over-the-top kind of person, and I think Freddie found himself in places where he wouldn’t naturally have gotten to if that door hadn’t been forcibly opened for him. Do you know what I’m saying? I think he would have drifted into finding himself sexually in a more gradual way if it hadn’t all suddenly exploded on him. I can remember the Mott the Hoople tour [1973–74], which was the first time I ever experienced sex on a grand scale. And it was almost really not my decision. It kind of happened to me. I felt like I had no control. And I think in a corresponding way, but in a gay direction, that’s what happened to Freddie a bit later on.
“But it didn’t really change our relationship with Freddie in the band. Because we were always very close in the studio. And when we spoke of, you know, love stories, there was no distinction. You could be in love with whoever you wanted and the song would still make sense. But from the Jazz album onward, it would always cross my mind. Because I would be writing words for Freddie to sing. And it became a little game for me to write stuff for him which would make sense any way you cared to interpret it, straight or gay.”
Queen are one of the great ironies of rock history. Fellow glam era acts like Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and Roxy Music had limited impact in the States because the homoerotic overtones of their presentation frightened off many American rock fans—although most of those artists have always asserted that they are exclusively or primarily heterosexual. But of all those bands, Queen had by far the largest following in the States—owing, in no small part, to their heavy metal leanings. Yet they turned out to be the one group whose frontman was genuinely gay. And he was increasingly open about it as time went on. Mercury pissed off Seventies metalheads by sporting the gay male uniform of the day: short hair, moustache, muscles and tank tops. Part of the negative response to Mercury’s coming out was plain, simple, ugly homophobia. But, compounding the problem, this was also a time when rock music was in danger of being eclipsed by disco—the dance music of the urban, gay, multiracial subculture that had been brought into the mainstream by artists like the Village People and Donna Summer. With his new look, Mercury could easily have passed for one of the Village People, which made him seem a traitor to rock music in the eyes of some fans. Some disgruntled punters even took to throwing razor blades onto the stage at Queen concerts, offering an unsubtle hint that Mercury should shave off his moustache. As if to rub salt in the wound, Queen kicked off the Eighties with the unapologetically disco/funk hit single “Another One Bites the Dust,” from their 1980 album, The Game. Perhaps the most ironic part of this was that the song was written not by Mercury but by Queen’s reclusive “quiet one,” John Deacon.
“John, being totally in his own world, came up with this thing which was nothing like what we were doing,” says May. “We were going for the big drum sound—you know, things which were quite pompous in our usual way. And Deaky says, ‘No, I want this totally different: a very tight drum sound.’ Originally, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ was done to a drum loop. Because this was before the days of drum machines. Roger did a loop, somewhat under protest, because he didn’t like the sound of the drums recorded that way. And then Deaky put down that incredible bass line. Immediately, Freddie became violently enthusiastic and said, ‘This is big. This is important. I’m going to spend a lot of time on this.’ So there it was. It was the first time one of our songs crossed over to the black community. We had no control over that. It just happened. One New York DJ picked up on it and suddenly we were forced to release the song as a single because so many stations in New York were playing it. The album went from being a million seller to a threemillion seller in a matter of three weeks or so.”
Unlike so many colossal rock acts of the “dinosaur” mid Seventies, Queen were able to make a transition into the Eighties— not only surviving but triumphing. They did so not by “selling out” to disco, as some feared back then, but by being willing to move with the times and reinvent themselves. The Game was the first of many Queen collaborations with the German producer Mack, who was to be as integral to their Eighties career as Roy Thomas Baker had been to their sonic identity in the Seventies. The Game yielded another substantial Queen hit, Mercury’s rockabilly-tinged “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” It was the first record on which Mercury played guitar, although hardly the first time Mercury’s guitar input had had an impact on Queen’s music.
“Freddie could come up with great guitar riffs,” says May. “The heavy part of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ [“So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye…”] was Freddie’s riff. He also wrote ‘Ogre Battle’ [from Queen II], which is a very heavy metal guitar riff. Freddie used to pick up a guitar and he had a great, frenetic energy. It was kind of like a very nervy animal playing the guitar. He was a very impatient person, and he was impatient with his own technique. He didn’t have a great technical ability on the guitar. But he had it all in his head. You could feel this stuff bursting to get out.”
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is also one of the few tracks in the entire Queen catalog on which May did not play his Red Special. (Another is “Long Away,” which was performed on a Burns 12-string). For “Crazy Little Thing” May used “an ancient Telecaster that was lying around the studio where we recorded the album, Musicland in Munich.
“Mack forced me to use it. I said, ‘Look, I can do this with my guitar.’ Because the bridge pickup has certain tones that sound like a Telecaster. But Mack said, ‘If you want it to sound like a Telecaster, use a Telecaster.’ ”
Queen branched out in many different directions during the Eighties, becoming involved in film projects like Flash Gordon and the colorized rerelease of director Fritz Lang’s 1926 silent classic Metropolis. Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor all undertook solo albums and side projects such as May’s Star Fleet Project with Eddie Van Halen and Phil Chen. But one collaboration that fell within the Queen opus was the band’s memorable teaming with David Bowie for the hit single ‘Under Pressure,’ from 1982’s Hot Space.
“David was living in Switzerland, where we were recording in a studio we owned at the time [Mountain Studios] in Montreux,” May recalls. “He basically just popped in to see us. Freddie had met him before. We all had a little chat and then went straight in the studio and started playing around. We played a few old songs and then something new started to happen and we said, ‘Okay, let’s try and record this.’ It was a truly spontaneous thing. We felt our way through a backing track all together as an ensemble. And then David brought up an unusual idea for creating the vocal. He was kind of famous for writing lyrics by collecting different bits of paper with quotes on them. And we did a corresponding thing as regards writing the top line for the song. When the backing track was done, David said, ‘Okay, let’s each of us go in the vocal booth and sing how we think the melody should go— just off the tops of our heads— and we’ll compile a vocal out of that.’ And that’s what we did. Some of the original bits even made it onto the record. Freddie going ‘b-b-b-boom ba,’ that scat singing stuff, was part of the initial track he went in and did off the top of his head. Odd, isn’t it? That’s why the words are so curious—some of them, anyway. There was a point where somebody had to take control, and I think it’s fair to say that David took the reins and decided that he wanted to rationalize the lyrics and make them say what he felt they should say.”
With the success of “Radio Ga-Ga” in 1984, Roger Taylor became the fourth and final member of Queen to write a hit single for the band, although he’d been active and important as a songwriter all along, contributing such indispensable album tracks as “I’m in Love with My Car” and “Sheer Heart Attack.” With four highly capable songsmiths in the band, getting material onto a Queen album was never an easy matter.
“We fought like cats and dogs,” says May. “That’s the truth. We were like four painters all trying to get our brushes onto the picture and falling over each other really. It was a constant state of flux. There were times when all our ideas would really work together magically well, and you’d have a great day in the studio where everybody felt they’d contributed. And then there’d be days when everybody was pulling in opposite directions. That would be very painful. And oddly enough, Freddie— who everyone thinks was the great prima donna—was very often the person who would find the compromise. He was very good at mediating like that.”
Helping propel “Radio Ga- Ga” to the top of the charts was another landmark video. Veteran rock vid director David Mallet used computer imaging to insert the members of Queen into footage taken from the aforementioned film Metropolis. Back in 1984, such high-tech wizardry was very new to the public, as was the idea of rock videos that incorporate scenes from feature films. As with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen had anticipated a visual trend. On the whole, May considers Mallet to be the best of the many video directors with whom Queen collaborated.
“The ‘Ga-Ga’ thing was a triumph. The videos always came out better when the creative process started with all of us in a room at one time, hammering out the ideas. You need a lot of creative input at the beginning for the thing to become a good video. And you need someone like David who is technically beyond reproach, who can carry the ideas out and put his own creativity in.”
There is reason to believe that Queen would have made the transition from the Eighties to the Nineties just as easily as they’d segued from the Seventies into the Eighties. They were prevented from doing so by what turned out to be the first in a series of sad losses that the rock community suffered in the following decade. On November 24, 1991, Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia. Griefstricken but determined to move forward, the surviving members of Queen later went into the studio to complete the album they’d been working on at the time of Mercury’s death. This became Made in Heaven, the final studio album in the Queen opus.
“It was very difficult to do,” says May. “But we had promised Freddie we would finish up the tracks.”
The Queen legend has continued to grow in the years since Mercury’s passing. The 1992 feature film Wayne’s World touched off a whole new wave of Queen mania by including “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the soundtrack, bringing Queen to a new generation of fans who hadn’t even been born when the band’s first records came out. Over the years, there have been numerous tributes to Mercury and Queen, and the band’s back catalog continues to sell in substantial numbers.
One of the most recent, and successful, Queen-related works is the stage musical We Will Rock You, currently a hit on London’s West End.
“The musical is just breaking every record,” says May. “I can’t believe it. Monday nights are packed now. It’s a big theater [the Dominion], like, 2,300 seats. To have them packed on a Saturday night is great, but to have them packed every night of the week is outrageous. To see people go away happy night after night is a dream come true.”
According to May, the idea to do a Queen-related play “goes back about nine years. It started almost as a joke: ‘We’ll do a musical next!’ But our manager, Jim Beach, kept the flame alive. We looked at various different scripts and ideas, but none of them rang true—particularly the biographical material. We found that very uncomfortable. We felt we weren’t ready to have the story of our lives, or Freddie’s life, on the stage. And although many of the scripts were good—and they may get used one day—they were not right for the moment. And then Ben Elton came up with the idea for ‘We Will Rock You.’ We jumped at it.”
A popular British stage- and screenwriter, Elton devised a story that takes place 300 years in the future. It weaves Queen songs into a plot about a global corporation stifling human creativity. May and Taylor served as the play’s music supervisors.
“It’s funny,” says May of the play. “And it’s thought provoking. It took our music into the future, almost by definition, at a stroke. Ben is an incredibly fertile creative machine. He basically went away and wrote it in a night, having run the idea by us. But we worked on it a solid year, of which five months was in the theater working with the actors. It was one of the most creatively challenging periods in my life.”
May adds that there are plans to open the play in Melbourne, Australia, next year and eventually to bring the show to Canada and the United States as well. “We’ve had an offer from Las Vegas,” he says. “We would like to go on and do the rock and roll towns: Detroit, Cleveland, etc. And we would like to be on Broadway in 2005. It sounds very ambitious, but you gotta think big.”
Conspicuous in his absence from the latest flurry of Queen activities, however, is John Deacon. “John is a very private person these days,” says May. “He keeps a low profile. It took awhile to get used to, but we have to respect that. He’s not in any way negative about what Roger and I are doing. It would be upsetting if he were. But, for instance, he came down and saw the musical when it opened in London and he thoroughly enjoyed it. He said it was great. But he just quietly didn’t want to be part of its creation process.”
It will be interesting to see whether Deacon comes out of seclusion for Queen’s 30th anniversary next year. But whether he does or not, May and Taylor seem to have plenty on tap.
“We’re in the midst of planning a lot of stuff. There will be the Greatest Video Hits II DVD. And we’re talking about a sequel to the musical. That’s never been done, but we’ve only used half of Queen’s hit songs in the first musical, let alone some of the other tracks. Ben has a great idea for a new show, which is even more intriguing than the first one. So that’s a possibility. I just think life is going to keep on being very busy.”