One On One Interview – Men Of The Year: Brian May


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Interview recorded 16 December 2002

Sky News Editor Adam Boulton is joined by legendary Queen guitarist, Brian May.

ADAM BOULTON: Joining me now, One On One, songwriter, composer, astronomer AND the lead guitarist of Queen, Brian May.

‘Show me the child at seven, and I’ll show you the man.’

Given his first guitar, aged seven, Brian May’s hardly put one down ever since. In the snatched moments not strumming with the band he formed at school, he was studying, graduating from university with Honours in Physics and Mathematics, ahead of him so he thought was a career as a professional astronomer. But preferring hard rock to tracking particles of dust through the solar system, Brian May opted for what has become international stardom. Queen’s huge success in the 1970’s and 80’s has made all four members of the group legendary rock icons. There have been important spin-offs too. For Brian May they include film scores, television and theatre work and a current hit West End Musical. But this Golden Jubilee Year, he’ll be remembered as the man with the guitar on the roof of Buckingham Palace.

<Clip: God Save the Queen – Jubilee Concert>

Brian May from “Inside Buckingham Palace” – Pt1 extract

ADAM: Brian May, welcome. That really was not just a Jubilee moment, really an all-time rock moment, I think probably.

BRIAN MAY: I guess it was, yeah. It was amazing. It was amazing. It was life-changing for me I’ve gotta say. There won’t be another moment like that.

ADAM: Why did it change your life?

BRIAN: Um… it was an exercise in facing fear, actually and actually dealing with it and making the best of it, because there was a huge chance of screwing that up. It was totally live, and you know, in front of a billion people if you make a mistake in ‘God Save The Queen,’ they’re gonna know. You know, so I mean, the whole arrangement thing I did and the interaction with the orchestra was a very difficult thing to pull off.

ADAM: But your idea though was it, the whole thing?

BRIAN: I was – well they asked me to play the National Anthem, but it was my idea to go up there, and I thought they would say ‘No’ but they went ‘Yeah – Okay.’ So then I had to deal with the actual, the pressure, and the wonder of doing it, I must say, because for that one minute fifty seconds I’d never felt so charged in my life.

ADAM: Were you strapped on?

BRIAN: No, no, no. No I wasn’t strapped on. There wasn’t much danger really. I mean, I’d have thrown meself off if I’d make a mistake, you know.

ADAM: I couldn’t quite work out what was on your suit?

BRIAN: It had actually song titles by the great rock icons that I, that I, as I perceived it over the last 50 years.

ADAM: So what, which were they?

BRIAN: Well, Jimi Hendrix, ahh… there’s the Everly Brothers, all kinds of people. Buddy Holly and the Crickets – people who influence me… umm, just everything I could think of… The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, strangely enough. I actually had ‘God Save The Queen’ on – not many people know that, bit it was the Sex Pistols’ song. So they were there too.

ADAM: There’s also of course always been a sort of pun almost from the name Queen and the Queen and…

BRIAN: Yes, its odd. And its something I never really think about. But, yes, there is that strange thing isn’t there, and I think sometimes its been an impediment and I know that Princess Di sort of stepped through that and its probably thanks to her that I was on the roof I think. But- its a very interesting thing. I mean, the name ‘Queen’ wasn’t designed to be anything to do with our Royal Family. Its just ‘a’ Queen and there’s lots of other connotations.

ADAM: Well, what was it actually… I was gonna ask you? [laughing]

BRIAN: Well, I, you can’t really say what it was. It was just a name like The Beatles was a name. Its something which people can hook into and we were very aware that there are all sorts of different interpretations you can put on – you know, the sort of gay thing, there’s the sort of very puffed up sort of wearing clothes thing, you know. So there was that sort of lighter side to what we did, although there are serious sides too.

ADAM: But you, you wanted right at the start to get a kind of gay thing out there?

BRIAN: No, no, we didn’t want to get a gay thing out, ‘cos we weren’t all gay, in fact and I don’t think any of us thought we were gay at that time. One of us turned out to be gay in the end, which is interesting, but I think…

ADAM: Whose idea was it – Queen?

BRIAN: I think it was really Freddie’s idea the name, but it was something which we all did with, with equal consent because I think in those days, its strange, it was the kind of ‘dandy’ thing was a very current sort of fashion I suppose in Kensington Market and places we came from and it didn’t matter what sort of sexual persuasion you were, and that to me was one of the sort of liberating things of the 60’s. If you look at, you know, the sort of good side of th 60’s it was the fact that it didn’t matter any more hopefully, you know, what race or what colour or what sexual persuasion you were. And that to me was a very important thing, so if we epitomised that, then that was…

ADAM: But you also had the kind of element of a sort of mock Imperial tone?

BRIAN: Yes, a mock Imperial thing?

ADAM: A lot of your songs as well.

BRIAN: Your ‘re right. And that would take… yeah… hum – that’s an interesting thought. The sort of anthemic quality of what we wrote arose from the way the audience treated us really and we discovered that it was great to have a two-way interaction, and we’ve been called ‘the first stadium rock band’ and its because really of this interaction and ‘We Are The Champions’, ‘We Will Rock You’, even ‘The Show Must Go On’, if we’d survived to, to perform that, were all very – things which joined people together, and the fact that they got taken up for football and sport stuff all around the world.

ADAM: Even Flash Gordon also had the sort of theme…

BRIAN: Flash. Yes – its an odd thing. We wrote for our audience, a lot of the time. We were aware of what they liked and what wanted. We didn’t want to give them exactly what they wanted. We wanted to challenge them and they were very up for that.

ADAM: The other thing about the Palace National Anthem, it was really the ultimate Air Guitar moment almost, wasn’t it?

BRIAN: [laughs] Well, if I hadn’t had a guitar, it would have been the ultimate Air Guitar moment?

ADAM: But, no, I mean – small boys will fantasize, you know. They’ll never be able to top that.

BRIAN: Yeah, yeah – that’s interesting, yeah, yeah. I’m very big on Air Guitar. To me its another one of those things that’s on more than one level. On one level its good for kids just to do that, cos every kid wants to do this kind of thing, get into it and imitate it, but on another level the stuff that I’ve been putting together and putting out Air Guitar albums is a collection of THE greatest rock anthems ever. You know, the Rock moments – the definitive electric guitar moments and…

ADAM: What are you doing exactly – getting people to play along, telling them how they…

BRIAN: Yeah – they can do what they want. But its become a thing like Karaoke, that people want to in pubs and clubs and things as well as in their bedrooms at home. It used to be a private thing, and now its sort of become public. But what the young kids are getting is really the catalogue – you know, a catalogue of some of those great rock moments when people discovered a riff, cos the electric guitar is very different form the acoustic guitar and its grown up through these great moments I think.

ADAM: Well you of course never really played air guitar at all cos you had a real guitar right from the start, cos you built one yourself.

BRIAN: Well, you don’t know if I play air guitar really, do you, really?

ADAM: Well I know you had a guitar when you were seven.

BRIAN: [laughing] I did, yeah. I’ve always had a guitar.

ADAM: Is that because you played air guitar from age five?

BRIAN: I played air ukulele before that. [laughs] And my Dad taught me ukulele when I was a kid and that’s where I got the chords from and I transferred it to the guitar and the rest of it happened through competition at school I think, cos everybody had a guitar, and it as illegal at our school, I mean, it as totally against the rules to play guitar. So we used to do it round the back of the cycle sheds and compete as to who could play these things first and fastest and best, and it was fun. (chuckle]

Best Air Guitar Album in the World… II (released 11 Nov 2002)

ADAM: And you built your own, cos you were always scientific as well at the same time.

BRIAN: I built my guitar with my Dad. Yes my Dad was amazing as regards handicrafts, electronics, invention of all sorts and we made it together, yeah.

ADAM: And you’ve still got it.

BRIAN: I still have it. I still play it. Its still my one and only real instrument.

ADAM: I remember you played it, you know, in stadia, as well as…

BRIAN: Every stadium around the world, on top of Buckingham Palace roof, everywhere, every studio session. Yeah.

ADAM: And better – its better than a Fender or anything else like that is it?

BRIAN: To me its better than a Fender or a Gibson. Yeah, it is, it’s a very individual instrument. Nowadays you can – you see I’m advertising now – you can buy them because Burns, Burns Guitars make copies of them – very nice ones actually, so we sell those as fast as they can be made.

ADAM: But you were never into smashing your guitar then, were you, unlike…?

BRIAN: I wasn’t into smashing the guitars. I only had the one – although I did smash one once, which was the first copy ever that I had of mine, and I got so frustrated with it because it wouldn’t stay in tune. I kind of tossed it up in the air. And normally if you toss things up in the air, there’s someone there to catch it, and on this occasion there wasn’t any one and we were on a very high stage, so it crunched down about 20 feet, and was no more.

ADAM: Did you always want to be a musician first or was there a moment where you had to decide whether you were going to be serious or go into the Rock business?

BRIAN: There was a moment, and it – I kind of drifted through it fairly painlessly actually, I mean. I was carrying on my studies, I was doing the PhD, I was teaching in a Comprehensive School to make the money so I could write up the PhD, and I was rehearsing almost full time with the band, plus teaching my girlfriend Maths. [laughs] So you know, there, there’s this period where you’re not sleeping but you kind of know where you’re going…

ADAM: This is what – early 20’s kind of thing?

BRIAN: Yeah, that’s right, and I was at Imperial College, but I think there was a sort of unwritten rule inside myself that when the moment came I had to choose, I would go off and do what I’d dreamed of most seriously.

ADAM: And what was the moment or the opportunity which took you?

BRIAN: The moment was when Queen was actually together as a band and we had the four personalities and we felt we had the strength to conquer the world.

ADAM: Freddie Mercury coming in at the end.

BRIAN: We had Freddie. No actually, we hooked up with Freddie. I had Roger because we’d been in a band before at College. The final link was John – John Deacon. He came into the band and we suddenly thought ‘Look this is right. This is the right feeling.’ And we had this insane belief that we could sort of conquer the world. It’s very odd, but it, you know, something happened and I guess you know…

ADAM: It wasn’t even without contracts or managers coming in and saying, well you, know ‘I can make you stars’ or…?

BRIAN: No – we were very much NOT a put-together thing. The energy came from inside us and we gradually gathered people round us. It’s very different from what happens a lot today, which you see on the TV, the sort of Pop Idol thing. We were drawn together by the fact that we shared such a common dream and ambition, I suppose.

<PLAY OUT PART I ‘We Are The Champions’

Queen – We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions Live


ADAM: Well again, I’m talking One On One to Brian May, of course lead guitarist of Queen, amongst may other things. We were just talking back there about the formation of Queen, and I guess, was it struggle up to the point of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?

BRIAN: It was a gradual uphill thing I guess. It definitely wasn’t an overnight thing. Yeah, the first couple of years were a struggle and I think we got disillusioned at times. Freddie and I used to go on a number 9 bus all the way up to Trident Studios every day to try and figure out what was happening with our record deal and our recording and try an get some studio time. Those were very difficult times and we were seeing other people make great progress. You know, and during that time this whole sort of…

ADAM: The new arrivals as it were?

BRIAN: Well there was a whole kind of Glam thing exploded, if you can call it that. You know, we were sort of trying to put a dramatic effect into our shows and we didn’t – in retrospect it’s lucky because we weren’t a Glam group in the sense that maybe The Sweet or Slade were, but during that time David Bowie did very well – became very successful – and I remember I went to see him at the Finsbury Park Astoria, which was then called The Rainbow, and I thought. ‘My God, if we ever get to this point’ you know, ‘we really will have made it’, and a couple of years later we did, which was great. But I think there was this feeling that we were losing out and that what we had to offer might become not current any more; we might miss the boat in a sense.

<Bohemian Rhapsody Background sound>

But looking back on it I think we had time to mature and work on our art; perfect the recordings, perfect the stage show and when the opportunities came, we were ready.

Bohemian Rhapsody was something else, yeah. We were lucky in that we travelled the whole world from the beginning, which was a good input from one of our early managers, Jack Nelson. He said, ‘Look don’t just stay in England. England’s a very small place. Travel the world and you’ll find, you know, that things will happen everywhere.’ And we did. But in England, Killer Queen was a small hit – well medium hit I guess – and then we were in desperate financial problems when we tried to split from our Management Company and eventually we did. Signed with John Reid, and John Reid said , ‘Look go off. Forget all your worries, make the best album you’ve ever made and I’ll deal with the rest’. And we made A Night At The Opera and Bohemian Rhapsody was the single, and it just went like a rocket. You know, it’s, it’s incredible how it went – and all round the world. I guess the video had a lot to do with it, which you know was sort of ground-breaking. It was only a piece of fun for us.

ADAM: In this case, black like this a lot of it.

BRIAN: Yeah, we shot it, you know, for no money and you know very little rehearsal or anything [laughs] and there weren’t huge fees to pay everybody in those days. So for £5,000 we had this vehicle, which was got Bohemian Rhapsody…

ADAM: And it also sounded like nothing else.

BRIAN: It sounded pretty unusual. It did. It was quite a departure. Again, looking back on it in my mind it wasn’t that much of a jump for us and for Freddie because he’d done some strange things. He’d started writing fairly complex stuff on the earlier albums, but Bohemian Rhapsody just hit it. It was the right thing and it is immortal, there’s no doubt about that. It seems to be voted number one song all around the world.

ADAM: What is it about it, do you think, about it?

BRIAN: Why is it? Its just something very mysterious and it goes through so many different shapes and sounds and colours and I think through it all you’ve got somebody singing with great passion. And none of us really know what that song is about. I think that’s something interesting, so you can make of it what you want.

ADAM: How did you write it if you didn’t know what it was about?

BRIAN: Well I didn’t write it, you see, this is Freddie’s baby, you know, and we obviously we contributed to…

ADAM: Did he know what it was about?

BRIAN: Well, of course he knew what it was about, yeah I mean, but it, its an imponderable, and I think that adds to its charm. know that there was something very, you know, important for him in that song, as there was in all his stuff. He always denied it. He always said ‘All my stuff’s fish and chip paper’, but actually if you look at his songs, there’s a lot of great stuff in there.

ADAM: And the other thing which you managed to do is keep up with Science, so would you still regard yourself as a frustrated Scientist?

BRIAN: [chuckle] No, I enjoy Science. I’m actually able to enjoy it better as am amateur than as a professional I think. I worked pretty hard as an Astronomer. I was an Astronomer and I worked on that PhD for four years, but now I keep up with it and I do what I want, and its very enjoyable. No, it’s, it was more frustrating being an Astronomer, cos I don’t think I was that great an Astronomer. I wasn’t, I wasn’t disciplined enough I don’t think.

ADAM: And what is ‘dust’?

BRIAN: What is dust? [laugh] A topical question.

ADAM: That’s what you studied. Dust in the cosmos. Wasn’t that your thing?

BRIAN: Yeah, the dust I was looking at is rotating round the Sun the same as we are. Its part of the Solar System and the project that I was on was trying to determine where this came from. You know, is it, was it created the same time as the Earth, or is it debris from collisions, what is it, or is it dust actually sweeping through the Solar System as part of the Interplanetary Gloomier? I don’t think we managed to answer any of those questions properly [laughs], but…

ADAM: Has anyone answered it since?

BRIAN: There’s still work going on. Now you would think it would be easy cos you can go up there now with space rockets and collect it, but in fact its so tenuous – there’s only one piece of dust per many cubic metres, and so its actually very hard to collect, so there is still ground based Astronomy going on to study that. I still find it fascinating. Its very difficult to, to push it on farther. I’d like to return to it one day.

ADAM: Oh really. Well go back to – you got an Honorary Doctorate – get the real one Doctorate or finish your PhD?

BRIAN: Yes, yeah, maybe maybe., But I tend to be very busy. I don’t have time to turn around these days. In fact Queen – you would think – you know, we haven’t had Freddie for ten years, you would think that Queen would have sort of disappeared, but I think we were busy this, busier this year than ever and certainly our Manager was. I was too, I have to say.

ADAM: I mean suggestions, read somewhere Robbie Williams is gonna take over on vocals?

BRIAN: No, no one’s gonna take over on vocals. I don’t think Freddie’s replaceable. We know Robbie very well and we did make a track with him. I don’t know whether you know but we did a version of We Are The Champions for a film, which worked out very well. No, I have a great affection for Robbie and I think he’s fabulous as a performer but no one’s gonna replace Freddie.

ADAM: So how can you go on being Queen without Freddie, as it were?

BRIAN: Well the great vehicle that we’ve had this year has been the Musical. We put our heart and soul into that. We didn’t just say, ‘Hey, make a Musical about Queen. It’s something that I’ve been working on, not only this year, but a lot of last year, and it continues to go from strength to strength.

ADAM: It’s the most popular Musical at the moment.

BRIAN: It’s number one which is wonderful, yes, and we’re all very proud of our baby and incredibly proud of the cast. Its a wonderful cast. The voices are magnificent and the acting is magnificent and in my opinion the script is magnificent, which Ben Elton did. He’s been slagged off a lot for it but to see the effect it has on people is awe inspiring and I…

ADAM: I mean its almost become a kind of cult event now with people.

BRIAN: It seems to, and a lot of people go many times know, because it feels like a rock show, I guess, and there isn’t anything like that in town from that. People come out jumping and shouting and big smile on their face, and I think its, you know, I know that the music’s good, you know, its not just me, its not me being big headed. I know the songs are great and they always connect. You can’t go wrong in a sense, but the script also gives you…

Brian May performing with WWRY Musical London cast
Brian May performing with WWRY Musical London cast

ADAM: And there’s also been a Symphony as well?

BRIAN: There’s been all kinds of stuff. There’s been The Queen Symphony, which Tolga Kashif wrote and performed and premiered. Its now out on CD. I had nothing to do with it – so that’s one thing which I didn’t put my heart and soul into.

ADAM: No. What I was really driving at is obviously the music’s there, its all recorded, but as performing as Queen per se.

BRIAN: Performing as Queen we don’t do much of, no. We don’t. We did a little. We were awarded a Star on Hollywood Boulevard this year, and we went and accepted, which was very nice, and we did a gig there. Just a fairly impromptu gig that Roger and I played with some friends. But we don’t do much in that line. We may do, but there’s a slight problem with the singing department. We could get away with it.

ADAM: What would you do? Sing yourselves?

BRIAN: We do sing ourselves a bit. I mean Roger is actually a very good singer and I’m passable. so we can sing the songs ourselves if we want, and we can get friends to guest, which is nice. We have some very good friends who have great voices. We’ll just play it by ear I think.

ADAM: And other than to get your Doctorate finally in Astronomy, your remaining ambitions are what?

BRIAN: Remaining ambitions? <Sigh> To make more and better music I suppose. I suppose you always dream of the one great big one which you’ve never found before. The one thing which will, which will melt everybody’s hearts and actually change the world and stop people trying to kill each other. That would be the great thing, wouldn’t it.

ADAM: Brian May. Thank you very much indeed.

BRIAN: Thank you.

<PLAY OUT: Don’t Stop Me Now>

Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now (Official Video)