In July 2011 Total Guitar magazine, Brian gives a video lesson on the cover disk – and this insight into one of his best-known compositions, followed by “Sound Advice” on playing the track ….
Brian May talks exclusively to TG about this peachy slice of drop D sugar. It’s cheeky rock at its very best.
CLICK IMAGES FOR LARGER
QUEEN may be the only band in history in which every member has composed a single that’s ranked No1 on at least one country’s charts, but the author of Fat Bottomed Girls is clear. Obviously written on guitar, it has Brian May’s ‘rock’ stamp all over it. In common with other greats, including AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, May often prefers open-position chords to barre chords further up the neck. And listening to Fat Bottomed Girls, you could picture it sung with an acoustic guitar as a sort of folk ditty, although a Cornish sea shanty isn’t exactly what May had in mind as he told TG.
“I actually conceived it as fitting the ‘swamp; style of the Deep South of the USA,” he reveals. “I admired those guys with a Dobro on their knee and a foot stamp, which I saw as organically congruent with ZZ Top and electric southern boogie. But, yes this kind of single chant works in many folk styles – did you hear the brilliant Hayseed Dixie version?”
Recorded at Super Bear studios in Berre-les-Alpes during ’78’s Tour de France, Roy Thomas Baker occupied the producer’s chair and the whole band was there.
“We did the backing track live in the studio, Roger [Taylor], John [Deacon] and myself, with Freddie [Mercury] throwing in comments,” says May. “Roger and John instinctively rose to the occasion.”
Since the song was recorded en France we couldn’t resist asking May if he got his inspiration from a particular derrière?
“Well, that would be telling,” he quips. “Actually, I’ve always thought it was a bad idea to explain songs too much. I remember being so disappointed with what Paul Simon had to say about his writings – it destroyed my mental images. OK, there were a lot of bottoms involved, and not just the ones in my direct experience. You’ll have to use your imagination a bit, but I can tell you there was a big glint in my eye, because there were inspirations in both camps on tour. And remember, I was writing a song for Freddie to sing! But my prime inspiration was my realisation that it wasn’t just the glamorous beauties who fuelled the rock ‘n’ roll romance that was ‘touring’; in so many cases, it was the unruly kids who devoted themselves to rock bands in a very self-effacing way: the real fans.”
Although May has used techniques such as tapping and slide, we don’t usually associate him with alternative tunings. But Fat Bottomed Girls takes advantage of its written key and first position chord shapes by lowering the sixth string a tone to drop D. Often this happens as part of the studio production process, but not this time. “No it was written that way, swamp-style,” he confirms. “I had most of it in my head so it was one of the easier tracks to make work.”
May tells us that the opening section is two guitars, double-tracked, “but a few more as it grows”. Often, he would use a home-made transistor amp built into a hi-fi speaker cabinet by bassist, John Deacon, dubbed the ‘Deacy’. This time, though, it was his venerable Vox AC30 paired with his legendary Red Special guitar. Pickup selection? Effects? “My usual bridge and middle pickup in phase, no effects.”
Die-hard fans will know that the single version has the guitar fills between the verses omitted and the song fades before the end. With the band’s history of tracks such as Bohemian Rhapsody breaking the ‘three-minute rule’, could they not have insisted on the full version being aired? Pragmatism, it seemed, ruled the day. “It’s just gut instincts,” explains May, “but we felt we wanted it to motor into the main part of the song quicker on the radio.”
Another track on the Jazz album, Bicycle Race, not only celebrates the two-wheeled form of self-propulsion, but also cross-references Fat Bottomed Girls in the lyrics. Any particular reason?
“Just fun,” Brian chortles. “All this stuff was floating around while the Tour de France was coming through Nice. It gave us a kind of mental focus – the image of naked girls on bikes. We were boys. We wouldn’t go into that area now, I would be much too conscious of respect for ladies. But, well, at the time…”
Queen’s sound is unmistakable, and producer Roy Thomas Baker knows why. “If you don’t have that identifiable sound, you get merged in. If the DJ doesn’t mention who it is, then nobody will know who it is, it will just be another band, and nothing is worse than being anonymous.”
Brian elaborates on Girls’ sound specifically: “Usually, we record my guitars with no EQ. But in this case, the more we mixed it, the more the guitars seemed to sink into the mud, so we kept adding more middle, the middle to high frequencies giving clarity and presence. In the end it worked. A rarity on this track is that Roger double-tracked all the drums – even that insane fill that heralds the final choruses.”
Unsurprisingly, the song has become a highlight of Queens hit musical, We Will Rock You, so it’s heard every night in theatres in cities across the globe.
“It”s a nice excuse for us to highlight our Killer Queen’s vocal prowess and exhibit the attributes of the gorgeous girl dancers in the ensemble,” concludes May, “whose bottoms are, of course, anything but fat!” (NM)