Queen: A Kind of Magic

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Few bands could rock with the spectacular grandeur of Queen. Songwriter and master guitar orchestrator Brian May looks back at the band’s glory years with an especially fond remem- brance of his creative and personal relationship with the late Freddie Mercury.

Twenty-five years ago this year, a London quartet by the name of Queen unleashed its self-titled debut album on an unsuspecting early Seventies rock scene. Many people weren’t sure what to make of this new band. Its members—singer Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor—looked like a set of glam pretty-boys, but their music certainly was more ambitious than anything flirty acts like the New York Dolls, Mott the Hoople or Gary Glitter were doing at the time. Were these Queen guys supposed to be prog-rock? Metal? The singer had a thing for operatic grandeur, leavened by heavy doses of campy humor. And the guitar player could somehow make his ax sound like an entire symphony orchestra—an unheard-of feat back in 1973. The rock critic establishment gave Queen the brush, but a coterie of fans knew they were on to something good.

Guess who was right? By the mid Seventies, Queen had established themselves as a major force in rock music, thanks to brilliant albums like A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races and News of the World. Today they’ve attained classic-rock immortality. Masterfully wrought tracks like “Killer Queen,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” have gone into perpetual AOR rotation. Modern rock-guitar icons like Billy Corgan and Metallica’s James Hetfield venerate Brian May to the skies, citing him as a prime influence. And Queen’s popularity is such that May’s lavish, multitracked guitar orchestrations are today among the most instantly recognizable sounds of Seventies rock on the planet.

These days, May leads a peaceful domestic life at Allerton Hill, his stately home out in the English countryside, just 45 minutes south of London by train. The guitarist, who went through a divorce a few years back, has settled in with his current mate, British television actress Anita Dobson (Eastenders), sharing with her a spacious house filled with oriental rugs and Vox AC30 amplifiers. May still looks very much as he did during Queen’s heyday: his mane of dark hair is youthfully intact, and he’s still fond of wearing those Seventies rock star floppy shirts and tight leather pants that well suit his tall, lanky frame.

But Brian isn’t one to dwell in the past. He’s got a brand-new album, Another World, and has written songs for several recent film projects, including the popular British feature Sliding Doors. Queen, meanwhile, continue to be very much a part of his current life. In the years since Mercury’s AIDS-related death in 1991, there has been a steady stream of Queen tributes, memorials and retrospectives, such as last year’s Queen Rocks album, a killer compilation of the band’s heavier rock tracks.

“I thought Queen Rocks would be a nice idea,” says May. “To my mind, the balance is slightly off on the greatest-hits albums because it’s always the lighter stuff that becomes a hit.”

It was May who wrote many of Queen’s best hard rock songs, including “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Brighton Rock” and “We Will Rock You.” His songwriting contributions to the band also include such stylistically diverse tracks as “’39,” “All Dead, All Dead” and “Fat Bottomed Girls.” His voice, whether he was singing harmonies or taking the occasional lead vocal, was an integral part of the Queen sound, but it is his highly original approach to electric guitar playing that stands as perhaps his most towering achievement.

Relaxing at home on a cloudy English afternoon, May recently took time for an in-depth interview with Guitar World, offering a detailed account of how he evolved that amazing guitar sound. He also took the opportunity to offer some candid insights into Queen’s inner workings by explaining the band’s approach to songwriting and telling how Mercury’s embrace of a gay lifestyle in the Eighties affected the band.

GUITAR WORLD All four members of Queen were songwriters. What went into determining whose songs would get recorded?

BRIAN MAY Well, we fought like cats and dogs. That’s the truth. There were times when all our ideas would really work together magically well. Or you’d have a great day in the studio where everybody felt they’d contributed. But then there’d be days when everyone was pulling in totally opposite directions, and it would be very painful. Eventually, three people would have to give way for one person to get what he wanted. That happened a lot, to the point where we all felt major frustration. And, oddly enough, Freddie—who everybody thinks was the great prima donna—was very often the person who would find the compromise. He was very good at mediating. I can remember many times when Roger and I would be pulling in absolutely diametrically opposite directions—no chance of either of us budging— and Freddie would find a way through. He’d say, “Well, you can do this and do this and it will all work.”

That was one of Freddie’s great talents. But while he was good at finding roads in the mist, he would certainly fight for things he believed in. Like “Another One Bites the Dust,” which was a bit of a departure for Queen. Roger, at the time, certainly felt that it wasn’t rock and roll and was quite angry at the way that was going. And Freddie said, “Darling, leave it to me. I believe in this.” John had written the song. But it took Freddie’s support to make it happen.

GW In today’s world, people are somewhat more tolerant of gays. But what was it like early on, with Freddie being gay in the macho world of Seventies rock?

MAY Early on, it didn’t exist. Or if it did, we never saw it. And I don’t think Freddie was aware of it, either. He was very much with us. In the early days, we used to share rooms, so I would have known! Freddie had some gorgeous girls. So I don’t think the subject ever came up. It’s odd, isn’t it, to think of that? And it was only later on…I couldn’t really pin down the exact time, but I remember there was a point where we realized that Freddie was leading a bit of a different social life than us. He’d just go off on his own and say, “See you later.”

So gradually, he was venturing off into 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. [pauses] How far do I want to get into this? He was a pretty over-the-top kind of person, and I think Freddie found himself in places where he wouldn’t naturally had got to if that sort of door hadn’t been forcibly opened for him. Do you know what I’m saying? I think he would have drifted into finding himself in a more gradual way if it hadn’t suddenly exploded in on him. So there was a period in his life when he was seemingly completely blown away by it all. I can remember the Mott the Hoople tour [April 1974] 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, you know? I felt like I had no control. I think in a corresponding way, in a gay direction, that’s what happened to Freddie a bit later on.

But it didn’t really change our relationship with him very much, because we were always very close in the studio. And when we spoke of, you know, love stories in the studio, there was no distinction. You could be in love with whoever you wanted to be 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 that would make sense whichever way he saw it.

GW So your writing acquired a kind of…

MAY Yeah, another dimension. In fact, I can remember having a go at Freddie because some of the stuff he was writing was very definitely on the gay side. I remember saying, “It would be nice if this stuff could be universally applicable, because we have friends out there of every persuasion.” It’s nice to involve people. What it’s not nice to do is rope people out, and I felt kind of roped out by something that was very overtly a gay anthem, like “Body Language” [Hot Space, 1982]. I thought it was very hard to take that in the other way. It’s hard to talk about this. But there you go.

GW I think it was maybe difficult for some of the hard rock fans when Freddie adopted a more overtly gay image.

MAY Yeah. It’s a strange area, isn’t it? I mean, you’ve got Rob Halford, who is definitely a heavy metal icon. So it must be strange for people to realize where he’s coming from. But, I mean, it really shouldn’t matter. That’s my feeling. Everybody has their own sexual chemistry that leads them to desire certain things. You cannot attack someone for having desires in certain directions, because they have no control over that, do they. It makes no sense. It’s like attacking someone for having a long nose or being a wrong color. You can’t do that. You judge people by how they behave with the cards that they are dealt.

And heavy metal is a strange thing. There’s a lot of bravado to heavy metal. I think we’re all kind of afraid of women to a certain extent, even the most heterosexual of us. And heavy metal tends to be a kind of safe place where you can make bold statements about “what you did with your chick last night.” It’s a nice, simple world. It’s full of loud stuff and heavy things and strong statements. That’s why it’s such a great release for chaps. I love it. AC/DC is complete therapy. You go to the show and you’re deaf for a week. It’s wonderful. I’m desperately sad that I had to miss a Black Sabbath reunion show recently. It was Black Sabbath and the Foo Fighters, who I love. And Pantera, who I also love. Unfortunately, I had to be some place else.

GW We should discuss the evolution of your layered guitar sound. It’s there, fully formed, on the first song of the first album: “Keep Yourself Alive.” Even on the Larry Lurex single, it’s there in embryonic form. [Shortly before the first Queen album came out in ’73, Freddie Mercury released a single under the name Larry Lurex, with May on guitar.]

MAY You’re absolutely right. It was a dream right from the beginning. I was always into the sound of harmonies, whether it was vocal harmonies or harmonies between instruments of an orchestra. And I always was fascinated with what that did to you— the Everly Brothers, and the backing vocal harmonies on Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ “Maybe Baby.” It sounds very simple now. But it just sent shivers up your spine—a huge emotional impact.

Actually, Jeff [Beck] had a lot to do with this, too, because of his single “Hi-Ho Silver Lining” [1967]. Remember the solo in that? It was double tracked. In those days producers, as you know, would say, ‘Hey, Jeff, double track that.’ Jeff double tracked it, but he deviated in the middle and it became a two-part harmony—full-blown, spikey overdriven electric guitar going into harmony. And I remember thinking, What a glorious sound that is.

I don’t know to this day whether it was intentional or not on Jeff’s part; I’ve never asked him. Jeff hates the track, anyway. Thinks it’s crap. But he sings really well on it. And it has one of the great solos of all time. [sings opening bars] Like a voice. That’s always been my guiding principle. The guitar should be like a voice.

So I’d always dreamed that if you could get three or more guitars working, full blown, as the instruments of an orchestra, making all those harmonies—not just going in parallel, but actually making all those dissonances and crossing over one another—I always thought that would be the most exciting thing to hear in the world. So the first time we ever got in a studio, obviously I was trying it out. I think the first attempt was on “Earth,” which we did with Smile [Prior to Queen’s formation, May and Roger Taylor played in a band called Smile]—a two-part harmony thing. But yes, it was always there. I was always wondering how far I could take it. I still love it. I try to restrain myself. Because if you do it all the time, it could get really boring.

GW What’s involved in getting the sustain necessary to make those harmonies sing like that? Were you using compression? Is it just amp overdrive?

MAY It is just amp overdrive, really. It’s just the way those Voxes behave. I was wedded to these AC30s from an early age. I had a couple of transistor amplifiers when I was starting off. They didn’t sound any good. I used to use a fuzz box to get them to sustain. Then I got a Rangemaster treble booster, the kind that [Irish blues guitarist] Rory Gallagher used to use. And then I went over with my guitar just to try out some amps in Wardour Street [in London]. I must have been about 18 or something when I was just starting out playing in bands. I plugged into an AC30 and suddenly it was there: the sound I’d always dreamed of! It had that warmth and sustain. It would go into overdrive very smoothly. I only afterward found out the reason: The AC30s are a different kind of amplifier from the normal kind of Marshall stack. They’re a Class A amplifier, which actually does give you a high-quality signal at low levels and then very smoothly goes into distortion and saturation. And I fell in love with them.

So there’s really no effect on there. I just use a treble booster and the guitar. The treble boosters are a copy of the Rangemaster, actually, these little silver stomp boxes. I’ve always used one of those. But you’ve got to drive it hard. You can trim the capacitors inside to adjust how much bottom you actually roll off and how much top you roll off as well. They don’t actually transmit the top end that well either, which is good. It’s what gives you that vocal kind of sound.

GW By the time you get to something like “Procession” on the second album [Queen II] it sounds as though you’re using really radical EQ to shape the tone of different guitar layers.

MAY You know what that is? That’s this Deakey amp [points out a small homemade-looking box with a roughly five-inch speaker]. It’s a little one-watt amp that John Deacon built and brought into the studio one day. I had done “Procession” with AC30s, and it sounded just a little bit too smooth. I wanted it to sound more violinlike and orchestral, so I double tracked some of the layers using that little amp. Incredible. I’ve used it ever since on anything where there’s a real orchestral-type sound. And depending where you put the microphone in front of that amp, you can really tune the sound. It’s very directional. It’s a germanium-transistor amp, which is transformer coupled—unlike things these days; that isn’t really done anymore—with silicon transistors. There’s this guy, Dave Peters, who is one of the designers of the AC30 and a real expert on valve electronics and the early days of transistors. I’m working with him trying to reproduce the Deakey amp. Maybe we’ll put it on the market. I have to talk to John about it, as it happens, because John made the thing and he’s very kindly allowed me to use it ever since. It’s pretty magical.

GW Another thing about the sound produced from layering is that the initial onset of notes—the attack—has a pronounced, crisp crackle to it. Does that come as a result of the English sixpence you use as a pick? Is it a coin with ridges on the side?

MAY Exactly. The English sixpence is made of a soft metal, but it has a serrated edge. And if you turn it parallel to the strings, all that disappears, because it’s nice and rounded. As soon as you angle it then, the serrations will give you a very pronounced attack. It gives you that splutter, which I love. It also really connects me to the string. I don’t like picks that bend, because I find I’m not really in contact. I’m not really experiencing everything that happens between the pick and the string. I like the firmness of the sixpence.

GW Early on, were you combining layered overdubs with other tape-manipulation techniques? On something like “Ogre Battle” [Queen II], it sounds like maybe there’s some backward-tape stuff happening there.

MAY Yes, there’s a lot of backward stuff there. We were like boys let loose in a room full of toys. I would sometimes say to Roy [Thomas Baker, Queen’s first producer], “Just give me that tape backward on cassette, and I’ll go home and learn it backward.” I would learn it backward and play on it the next day. Sometimes the mistakes came out better than the actual thing you’d planned. That’s one of the things you lose when recording in digital. And you can’t do the stuff where you’d lean on the reels and it would go eeeooouuuggghhhh.

GW Tape flanging.

MAY You can’t do that with digital tape. And we used to do a lot of tape flanging in Queen. We loved manipulating [analog] tapes. I do miss all that. You can do some of those things in other ways, to a point, when you’re working on digital, but it’s not very manipulable. I recently started getting into analog recording again, actually.

GW Did Queen’s layered vocal sound develop concurrently with the layered guitar thing?

MAY Concurrently, I think. Freddie and I shared the feeling that harmonic content was a magic thing. Freddie started off as a showman almost before he was a singer. Maybe I’ll get shot for saying this: I don’t think any of us realized what a potential he had for being a singer until we got in the studio. As soon as he was able to hear himself and work with his voice and multitrack it, he just grew exponentially. He became so skillful at using his voice as an instrument. All of a sudden he was in there doing all these harmonies. And a lot of them we would do together because we were very fortunate in having three voices that gave an instant blend. Some of those things which sound like a 100-piece choir were just the three of us doing each line twice. And that’s why it remains kind of in your face. It’s not like a big football crowd; it’s a more intimate sound. And it was just a lucky combination. Freddie had this really wonderful clear, bell-like tone, which you can recognize on a transistor radio 10 miles away. I still can. I know when it’s Freddie. And Roger also had a remarkable voice, a very raspy sound, but Roger could sing very high and be very strong in the high registers. And I had this voice which, I suppose, filled in the gaps that the others didn’t have. I had probably more warmth, and I was probably less in tune. That’s my theory, anyway. And somehow the three just worked together. Although Freddie did some of that stuff on his own. The first thing you hear in “Bohemian Rhapsody” is just Freddie multitracking himself. He could sing so accurately, double tracking, that it would phase. Quite amazing.

GW What do you recall about coming up with your guitar bits for “Bohemian Rhapsody”?

MAY Freddie came in pretty well armed for that song. He had these little pieces of company paper from his dad with the notes of the chords. As I remember, I don’t think he had a guitar solo as such planned. I guess I steamed in and said, “This is the point where you need your solo. And these are the chords I’d like to use.” Because it’s like a piece of the verse, but with a slight foray into some different chords at the end to make a transition into the next piece that he had. I’d heard the track so many times that, when it came time to play the solo, I knew what I wanted to play, in my head. And I wanted the melody of the solo to be something extra, not just an echo of the vocal melody. I wanted it to be an extra color. So I just had this little tune in my head to play. It didn’t take very long to do.

The heavy part was really part of Freddie’s plan. I didn’t change what he had very much. Those riff things that everybody bangs their heads to are really more Freddie than me.

GW It’s such a guitar riff.

MAY Yeah. A great guitar riff. But Freddie could do that. Freddie also wrote “Ogre Battle,” which is a very heavy metal guitar riff. It’s strange that he should have done that. But when Freddie used to pick up a guitar he’d have a great frenetic energy. It was kind of like a very nervy animal playing the guitar. He was a very impatient person and was very impatient with his own technique. He didn’t have a great technical ability on the guitar but had it in his head. And you could feel this stuff bursting to get out. His right hand would move incredibly fast. He wrote a lot of good stuff for the guitar. A lot of it was stuff which I would not have thought of, because it would be in weird keys. He had this penchant for playing in E flat and A flat and F. And these are not places that your hand naturally falls on playing the guitar. So he forced me into finding ways of doing things which made unusual sounds. It was really good. “Tie Your Mother Down,” which I wrote, is in A. Whereas “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “We Are the Champions” or “Killer Queen” are all in weird keys. So if there are any open strings in there at all, it’s very unusual.

But getting back to “Bohemian Rhapsody”: in the end, I sort of took over. I wanted to orchestrate that. There’s a little bit of orchestration coming out of the last chorus bit. Little violinlike lines. And that blended in very well with what he was doing with the little outro piece. If I were to do it now, however, I would adjust the tuning. It’s not quite right. Things like that bother me a lot these days, because if you get overexcited, the guitars really go sharp. And that’s what happened there. I’m giving away precious secrets. You can tell, because the piano sounds a little flat in the end. And that’s because I was a little over the top in vibrating there. These days I would probably harmonize it down to make it in tune. And that probably would have ruined it.

GW Are there any major Queen songs that you didn’t play on your Red Special guitar? “Long Away,” for instance, sounds like you used a Rickenbacker.

MAY “Long Away” is a Burns 12-string. I couldn’t play Rickenbackers because the necks are too thin. I like a very fat and wide neck. My fingers only work in that situation. I always wanted to play a Rickenbacker because John Lennon did. Roger collects extremely fucking rare guitars, and he has a Rickenbacker, but I can’t play it. So normally I’ve used [the Red Special] for everything. The only other exception is “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” [The Game], where they forced me to use an ancient Telecaster that was lying around Musicland [recording studio] in Munich.

GW What do you mean they “forced” you to use it?

MAY Ah, [producer] Mack [Josh Macrae] forced me. I told him, “Look, I can do this with my guitar, because the bridge pickup has certain tones that sound like a Telecaster.” And he went, “You want it to sound like a Telecaster, use a Telecaster!”

GW This may be a naive question, but what inspired you to write “Fat Bottomed Girls”?

MAY I could give you a glib answer, couldn’t I. But I think the chorus just popped into my head as a tune and a set of words, same as “Tie Your Mother Down” did. I didn’t know what the hell “Tie Your Mother Down” was supposed to mean, off the top of my head, but it became something that meant something: a teenage rebellion song. And “Fat Bottomed Girls” became a song about the girls who help the spirits of the performers backstage, I suppose—the groupies or whatever. In light of what we were saying before about Freddie’s sexual orientation, I remember thinking, Freddie’s going to have to sing this and I’m going to write it so you can take it any way you like. You can be into anything and this would still make sense. And I remember thinking, This is kind of interesting: why does everybody love casual sex with people that they otherwise wouldn’t want to be with? Why does that mean so much to them? Where does it come from? So some of the words are about things that people will possibly remember from their youth.

I saw a smile cross Freddie’s face when he was singing it, but we never talked about it. We didn’t with our songs. You’d think we would talk about our lyrics with each other, but we never did. It was kind of an unwritten law that you really didn’t explain your lyrics to the other guys. But I wanted Freddie to be comfortable with it. And it’s a fun song. But I still wonder how Freddie felt about it. I don’t know if he knew that I wrote things to make it fun for him, too.

GW It’s wonderful the way you married that lyric to a very folksy melody. It’s almost like some old folk ballad—this character telling the story of the loss of his innocence at an early age.

MAY It’s a sort of swamp atmosphere, isn’t it. I love that. I have a great affection for that song, and I played it in my own way when I was touring with Cozy and the boys. [The late drummer Cozy Powell anchored May’s live band for the past five years.] And the girls enjoy it. The girls who sang with me enjoyed it. They were not fat bottomed. but they’re definitely girls. I mean, there’s loads I could say here, but that’s probably enough for now.

GW If Freddie hadn’t died, do you think Queen would have continued?

MAY I think so. I think we would be taking breaks, but I think we would have been soldiering on, and it probably would have been fun. But I think we all needed some kind of release from Queen. Along with the grief at Freddie’s death, I did feel a certain sense of release, because it’s nice in some ways to be chucked out on your own. You have to find new ways of expressing yourself. And I’ve enjoyed that; I’ve enjoyed propelling myself down the road of singing. It’s become one of the most important things that I try to do. But I think, yes, if Queen were still there in the background, we would be coming back to it again and again, because it was always stimulating to work with Freddie. Along with the difficulties of having to share the power, which we all felt, there was a certain magic there. The four of us had a balance. We were a real group. There was a great strength in the band.