Queen: Crowning Achievements
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!”
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