As guitars go, they don’t come much more famous than Brian May’s Red Special, the instrument built by him and his father all those years ago. Throughout two decades of international megastardom with Queen, Brian has consistently played this one guitar, eschewing any replacement on all but a couple of handfuls of occasions.
So when a prize was needed as Guitarist’s ‘Guitar Of The Decade’ to crown our 10th Anniversary celebrations, there was a shortlist of one: a Guild copy of Brian’s guitar. Phone calls, faxes and meetings with top USA Guild officials eventually got the construction of our prize green lighted; the next stage was to approach Brian himself.
Most top flight performers, it has to be said, have egos the size of small planets; most are fully cocooned in the becushioned safety of their organisations and many, sadly, believe their own hype long after the die-hardest of fans have stopped buying the records. Brian May is different. Anyone who has interviewed him comes away feeling that, regardless of their musical tastes, he is actually one of the most genuine people in rock, disarmingly sincere, ingenuous and courteous enough to listen to questions, weigh them up and give a considered answer that is true to how he feels and not part of some prepared spiel delivered on cue.
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He also has a shocking lack of perspective on just how popular he is. So when we approached him to – perhaps, if at all possible, if he wasn’t too busy, we’d understand if he said no – sign the guitar, he said: Yes. Wow. Not only that, but he agreed to present the instrument to our winner, thus multiplying the value of the prize innumerably. But while going along with everythi ng we asked of him, he did have one question which is typical of his unassuming nature: Why me?
The fact that thousands of fans packed out his first solo shows last year; millions saw Queen in concert, and even more bought their records seems to prove a public fondness for him. Likewise, the fact that rarely an interview goes by without a modern day guitar hero citing Mr May as a major influence suggests a firm trade liking. But, somehow, Brian remains, at best, unconvinced of his own worth as a musician and star.
“It’s very strange, but you get the full range of reactions,” he says. “I’m not talking about how talented you are, but if you are famous you get the whole gamut of reactions. There are people who think you are God but there are also people who despise you. The music press seize every opportunity to belittle you and then you have everyone in the middle: people who appreciate you technically, or like a certain thing you did, or even just people who like your face. And amongst all that morass of stuff it is very hard to have an opinion of yourself. What I do know is that I can play and I can play quite good; I know the feelings that I have when I play. There are ‘n’ thousand people walking around now who can play the riffs that I play with no problem; there are a lot of people who can play technically better than me, but then there are people who can’t do the stuff I can do. So, I think I’m probably somewhere in the middle. Yeah, I suppose I think I’m quite good.”
Obviously others think the same: at the recent Gibson centenary show Brian was the only performer not “asked” to play a Gibson; you just don’t mess with rock’s royalty. And any number of players can’t help but gush in their admiration for him: Slash, Satch, Nuno – even Eric once confessed to being in awe of “this bloke in Queen”.
“I think the contribution I have made is in creating things,” reasons Mr May. “I don’t think that I’m that clever but there are some things that I have done that I’m very proud of and I think that I have made a contribution to the vocabulary of guitar playing, so I feel proud of that. To have guitarists come up saying, because I did that, they did this, is very flattering. So when Joe Satriani – who I have huge regard for as a player and who is technically way ahead of me as far as I am concerned – comes and tells he was interested in what I did on such and such an album because it inspired him to do something, I find that very rewarding. That’s real to me because he’s not someone who has stars in his eyes; he’s a guitarist who’s in the same job as me and has appreciated something that I have done. That’s definitely something solid to hold on to. Jeff Beck is one of my heroes – always has been and always will be – and if he says he likes something I do, I get really proud.”
As well as obviously impressing his peers, Brian has an awesome reach to many fans’ hearts. The response to Guitarist’s competition was amazing, prompting the most keen attention from female entrants ever in the magazine’s history: almost 50% of postcards came from women (hence the unsurprising result). So, how does Mr May account for his obviously mighty hold over the ladies?
“Well, that’s quite amazing,” blushes our reluctant heartthrob, “but I don’t know why these girls have entered this competition. I suppose it is a high figure, though, especially in a business like this where I think the whole guitar thing seems a boy’s world. The whole heavy metal thing in particular – and I’ll probably be shot down for this – is concerned with boys’ fears, really. It becomes a mask that they can put on, or a club they can join which stops them having to deal with other things – like girls – for some of the time.
“The downside is that you have to consciously swallow this knowledge on stage. For example, playing with Paul Rodgers at the Gibson show, you just knew that every kid there could play those riffs and you felt a bit strange doing it, thinking, What can I do that they can’t do?
“But I suppose Queen appealed very much across the board, to all ages as well, which, I suppose, is what we wanted. We seemed to talk to everyone, and that is why we didn’t fit into any categories. There was a bit of a crossover from the Metallica audience to middle-aged businessmen to young girls, which we liked, and they all found something different in our records. I love that heavy Metallica thing, and it’s in there somewhere, but it’s not all that we do. It’s not that we are clever or anything, but we aimed ourselves in a slightly different direction. We were concerned with songs that mean something to people, so the guitar really was never the prime thing on the records. Even in the things that I wrote, which were more guitar orientated than most of the other stuff, the song was always the most important part. Always get that right first and then look at the guitar.”
Presumably that’s the same work ethic that will be applied to the final Queen album currently under construction by the remaining members.
“Yes, we are doing a final Queen album,” Brian nods. “It’s difficult in many ways, but it’s gradually taking shape. There was only a certain amount of material that Freddie sang on which we can work with so there are very real limits. Also the four us have always had very different ideas in the group, only now we don’t have the strong structure of the group to pull us together anymore. These days we have to work at it together that much more. I don’t know when it will be completed; but we have agreed that we won’t talk about it too much before the album is finished.”
Is it a case of Roger Taylor doing it last year while Brian trod the solo boards and him doing it this year as the roles change?
“Sort of. We’ve kept talking along the way so that we know what each other is doing, and we have a system of swapping tapes to hear where each of us has got to – it’s like recording via E-mail! But we are planning to have some time together to do actual recording and we’ve already had a couple of weeks together at Metropolis. But on the whole we’ve been doing it separately. In fact, I’ve spent the last four months just working on one-and-a-half tracks.”
Wiping all Roger and John’s stuff off?
“Oh, yes, definitely! No, we are very conscious of each other and we have respect for each other. If we mess with each other’s work we are very nervous about it. I think we can still communicate okay, but it’s just that there isn’t that kind of Queen machinery going on anymore. It’s three people looking at what’s left, and basically just trying to make something that is worthy of having the Queen name on it.”
This process could be a laboured one if the ‘Magic Years’ video collection is anything to go by. One segment shows the band recording One Vision, each member painstakingly guided by a very impassioned Freddie. Is that a fair representation of studio politics?
“No, not really. It is, in a way, a bit unfortunate that that is going to be the only example people are going to see. For a start, we weren’t used to having cameras in there and you always behave differently to them. So I think we were conscious of that and wondering how it was going to come out and adapted our behaviour accordingly.
“Freddie got very excited about something, as we all do, and got into saying, You do this, and you do that, but basically that’s not a typical situation. Normally we would be putting ideas into things and perhaps whoever was the author of the song at the time would get very bossy like that. At that time Freddie had a vision and was getting very excited. But in a way it could have been any one of us. If it was one of Roger’s songs then he would be saying, Look, I have this in my head and it’s not sounding right. So it’s not that typical.
“It’s the same with the I’m Going Slightly Mad video. There’s a piece of footage of the recording around which again is very much Freddie, but then that was very much a Freddie track and you tend to want to give the author his head. Even though we said that everything is by Queen, there was still somebody who was basically the original author and everyone else worked on it. It was a good idea as it produced a lot of input, but in the end it was Freddie’s baby so it was natural that he would want to get certain things right.
“But if you had looked at filming a different video it would have been another viewpoint. Mine are the worst! I was always fed up with videos and most of the songs that were mine were much more of a performance; partly because I don’t sit easy in videos and also I think if videos are too specific they tie the song down too much. Sometimes I would rather people have their own picture in their mind.”
With Queen very much on the back burner for the last few years, Brian has had to take full control in his burgeoning solo career. Not only videos became his responsibility, but also the more crucial role of front man for his solo tour fell solely to him. How did he find the audience’s reaction?
“We had a great response all over the world and people were very kind. Audience-wise, London was brilliant. The Royal Albert Hall was a first, but it’s a very tricky place sound-wise. It depends strongly on where you are in there. You can’t put your normal stuff in there, you know; you take it all around the world but the Albert Hall is completely different. If you have too much stuff in there you drown yourself out. It was certainly a one off as regards to equipment. My voice wasn’t up to much because I had the flu. I thought it would stiff, but the audience was absolutely brilliant. In fact, I much preferred it to the Brixton show which is the one we recorded! Although Brixton has a good atmosphere and that’s why we played there, I just think we were a much better band at the Albert Hall.”
With Brian once again concentrating on Queen, the BM Band is on hold. “Well, yeah, they’re pretty much doing their own thing really and we talk now and again. I’m hoping that we can do another tour at some point, but I wasn’t able to make it a permanent thing at that time.
“I do have this need in me to get out and do stuff on my own in some form, but I wouldn’t like to get back in the situation of going out every six months, the way it was with Queen for a while. I think that there has to be a reason for a record, a reason for a tour, like if you have something to say. At the moment I feel that I’m changing very quickly so, when the time is right, I would like to make another statement about it. I don’t want to make a statement if there isn’t one to make.
“But there is a lot of stuff going on in the studio at the moment for me. I’ve got involved in some other projects which are taking my time. I’m doing some music for a computer game called ‘Rise Of The Robots’ which has been really interesting. I’ve written some stuff and they’re using some of ‘Back To The Light’.
“I seem to get attracted to these sort of comic strip things, things that are painted in primary colours. You can go right back to Flash; on the face of it, that’s a very odd song, but within the context of the film I think it works. There is a part of me that likes the simplicity of it all, and I suppose it’s on the verge of kitsch.”
From kitsch to kitchen – the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, home recording studio of the family Zappa, to be precise. Brian did some recording on Dweezil Zappa’s album which proved to be an – ahem – experience…
“Yes, I did; it was horrifically difficult, I have to be honest. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done because he doesn’t write in 3/4. He writes in 1/1/1/1 and I was there for hours. I kept saying to Dweezil, I don’t understand where 1 is and he said, I don’t know either. I think he was pleased with the end result. But to be honest, he’s a bit like me because he likes the effects things make. Sometimes I would play something that I’d worked out and he would say, Yeah, that’s all right. But then I would make a squeak and he would say, That’s it, that’s what I want. He wanted things that were essentially ‘Brian May’, which I can relate to; he wanted ‘personality’ more than anything.
“Dweezil’s really nice and a great player. I didn’t really know his albums before this, but then I got into them. We did it at the Zappa home so I had a chance to meet his dad shortly before he died.”
Does Brian keep up with the new bands?
“To a certain extent, yes, but I don’t find it that easy with some of it. The rap stuff I found very hard to get into, but it’s gradually warming on me. I love having a 16-year-old son, Jimmy, who turns me on to the best of everything that is happening now. I was into the best of everything when I first got into music in my teens and now he’s into everything and I’m glad to say that we do cross over quite a bit. But there are some areas that I don’t understand; NWA, for example, doesn’t mean a lot to me, it doesn’t move me.
“We went to see the last night of the Reading Festival and all those bands I found a lot to identify with. Senser were really interesting and Jimmy is really in to them; they’re a crossover in themselves. I was pretty impressed with Therapy?. I had heard some of their stuff before, but it’s not until you see them and you’re that close to them that you are aware of where they have been and at what stage they are at. I thought they were very polished, very committed and knew where they were going.
“The Chili Peppers were incredible, I just love them. With Henry Rollins, all I knew was that Jimmy had played some stuff and I had seen the ‘Liar’ video and I was more aware of his image than him. But when I saw him I instantly related to him, even though I’m becoming older as time goes by. But if I had seen any of those bands on the bill a couple of years ago it would have been completely foreign to me because I don’t get to it very quickly. I’m very conscious that there’s a lot going on out there and it’s changing very fast. I think that anyone who ignores that and detaches themselves from it becomes like a little island.”
Can we now expect a metal rap album from Mr May?
“What, from me! No, I can enjoy it but I’m not that keen on it. I absorb a little bit and Queen as a band absorbed everything and then spewed it out in our form. I can understand where they are coming from; there is anger and various kinds of aggression driving them, but I don’t come from there. I get angry about different things.”
Subjects like neo-nazism and Sun publisher Rupert Murdoch obviously anger Roger Taylor. Songs on his new album ‘Happiness?’ pull no punches in dealing with these themes.
“I’ve heard some of Roger’s album, but not all of it. I think you have to be clear what signals you put out. I can understand people taking it the wrong way looking at the cover. It’s hard to be ironic in music, and in art generally. If you say something and you’re being quite sarcastic it often doesn’t come across like that. Things get taken at face value. If they see a word like ‘nazis’ people’s ideas are triggered; you can’t make subtle statements like that in our market. It’s a pity, because Roger’s message was the opposite from how it was perceived.
“There are things I get angry about, actually, but it’s not easy to talk about them. I’m quite comfortable doing work in the professional sense, but doing what we do causes a lot of damage to your private life. It sounds like a gripe, and really I should be grateful, but it does become a pain.”
Is recognition a problem?
“It depends if I’m dressed like a pop star or not. It was really nice when I went to Reading because no one recognised me and it was great. It’s a strange feeling, because you are treated completely differently if you’re not wearing your uniform – if I’m dressed like this, with the hair; this type of jacket and everything. I tend to think of `this’ image as somebody else now. To me it’s something that gets in the way. It’s not the only thing I get angry about, it’s just something I have to deal with.”
As well as Reading, Brian made a trip to Woodstock, but with limited success.
“I did go but we only made it to rehearsals and then I got unwell. When I saw the film of the first Woodstock, it was a shock to realise how little I related to it. Thinking back, Queen were into different elements; we were, in a sense, the next generation. Queen weren’t the sort of band that would get stoned, go on and shuffle around. In a way we were a reaction against it or at least along from that. The bands that I really enjoyed looking at were The Who and Jimi Hendrix, but in a way they didn’t fit into it either, because they were too professional.”
Professionalism drove Queen, in 1989, to adopt joint writing credits for their songs from The Miracle onwards. This was designed to focus the band’s efforts and prevent individuals squabbling over songwriting status.
“It worked very well for the band, although you can pretty much work out who is responsible for what. There are things on ‘Innuendo’, for example, which are obviously me, but by talking about it you obviously destroy what we were trying to achieve. Innuendo started off as most things do, with us just messing around and finding a groove that sounded nice. All of us worked on the arrangement. Freddie started off the theme of the words as he was singing along, then Roger worked on the rest of them. I worked on some of the arrangement, particularly the middle bit, then there was an extra part that Freddie did for the middle as well. It basically came together like a jigsaw puzzle.
“I was obviously involved heavily in Headlong, I Can’t Live With You and Hitman, while All God’s People came from Freddie at the same time as the Barcelona project. The Show Must Go On came from Roger and John playing the sequence and I started to put things down. At the beginning it was just this chord sequence but I had this strange feeling that it could be somehow important and I got very impassioned and went and beavered away at it. I sat down with Freddie and we decided what the theme should be and wrote the first verse. It’s a long story, that song, but I always felt it would be important because we were dealing with things that were hard to talk about at the time, but in the world of music you could do it.”
Around the time of Freddie’s death, newspapers drew significance from the song’s lyrics.
“People do take things out of context which is sometimes a problem, but if you put things out, they’re kind of up for grabs. Quotations are often out of context and people can make them mean what they want. But, no, it doesn’t bother me. I’m glad that album exists as a complete work because it makes a lot of sense now and it makes a statement about the group at a unique point. Not just as musicians but as people.
“A lot of people think that Innuendo is much better than The Miracle but I like them both. I was in a complete state of mental untogetherness during most of the making of The Miracle; I always say that it’s a miracle that I managed to play anything at all. What I did play I’m quite proud of but my input to the material wasn’t as good as it could have been. By ‘Innuendo’ the others were having emotional problems and I was a bit more together so I was able to pitch into the writing a lot more. I think they are both very good albums; The Miracle track, which is mainly Freddie, is a small masterpiece in its own way. And Was It All Worth It I really like. That’s me and Fred, but more him. For that track we did all sit around and try to come up with rhymes and stuff. Roger’s very good at that.”
After kindly presenting our ‘Guitar Of The Decade’, will Brian be around in another 10 years for Guitarist’s 20th Anniversary?
“Wow, I hope so. I’m certainly as committed to all the aspects of playing now as I ever was. I’m still excited by it all. and by this noise I can make.”