1 January 2017 by Martin Townsend
Twenty-five years after Freddie Mercury’s death, Brian May wants to bring rock to a new generation
THE TWENTY-FIFTH anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death in 2016 was a significant landmark for rock fans but for guitarist Brian May the flamboyantly talented Queen singer is never far away…
“I think about Freddie a lot,” he says. “He’s very much in our lives and in a very positive way.”
Indeed, just a week before he spoke to the Sunday Express – to mark the release of a new double album, Air Guitar Anthems, which he has helped collate – he attended the cremation of Freddie’s Indian-born mother, Jer Bulsara, who had died at the age of 94. Brian had known Mrs Bulsara for 50 years and paid fulsome tribute on his website to a much-loved mother whom Freddie took “mischievous pleasure” in trying to shock.
The ceremony had left him in a deeply reflective mood.
“I went along and I think I felt like I was saying goodbye to Freddie again because he was very much there in spirit and of course very much talked about,” he says. “They played Queen music throughout, along with these incredibly ancient Persian incantations, so it was a very moving experience.”
Brian says that when Queen play live they still like to keep Freddie as “part of the show” but not “rely” on him too much. “We have Adam (Lambert, the band’s singer in recent years), who’s an incredible performer in his own right. But you know Freddie is part of the creation of all that material and we like to have him appearing now and then to sprinkle some fairy dust on it all.”
The most vivid musical reminder of Freddie’s talents, the epic Bohemian Rhapsody, is the opening track on the Air Guitar Anthems album. It trips so easily from baroque pop to opera to heavy metal, oozing with charm and style every step of the way that it feels, in some way, like a happy accident.
Freddie Mercury’s influence is never far from the stage when Queen perform with Adam Lambert
“It was actually all very planned and deliberate and came totally out of Freddie’s fevered imagination!” laughs Brian. “It was a happy accident in that we were there as a group to interpret it but at the core of it there’s an amazing concept and Freddie really did marshal it into great shape. I still love it, it never grows old.”
On Air Guitar Anthems, Queen is in the company of a number of tracks that are not only equally influential but also rarely found on compilations, including the Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up and Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. Their inclusion is partly due to 69-year-old Brian making a series of persuasive phone calls.
Adam Lambert has performed with the original band members since 2011
“I like the idea that these collections are cross-generational and introduce a lot of people, especially young people, to serious rock guitar for the very first time,” says Brian. “But record companies, especially these days, are usually quite loath to part with their tracks, or even lend them, so my usefulness is that I can ring up people like Joe Elliott (from Def Leppard) or Slash (from Guns N’ Roses) and say, ‘How about lending this particular song?’ and usually they go, ‘Yeah’, and I say, ‘Well, just nudge your record company, will you?’”
It has also put him back in touch with fellow musicians. “I’m a bit reclusive, really,” he laughs, “and I tend not to make these phone calls unless there’s a reason so it encourages me to get back in touch with a lot of dear friends in the business.”
God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols is also included which might seem a little ironic. Weren’t they the punk upstarts who were supposed to sweep away “rock dinosaurs” like Queen?
“Well, they were by some people, I think,” says Brian. “But I remember hearing God Save The Queen and buzzing Roger (Taylor, Queen drummer) and saying, ‘This is something people are really going to enjoy. “No matter what the hype is around punk, this is good stuff’.
Despite his electric stage persona, Freddie Mercury was known for being shy in interviews
They were great players with something to say.
“Strangely enough, the Sex Pistols were in the same studio as us when we were doing the News Of The World album and I used to bump into John Lydon and he was always very respectful to me. I didn’t get any feelings of resentment or whatever. There are some funny stories about Freddie meeting Sid Vicious, though. Sid came in while we were mixing something and he said to Freddie, ‘Aren’t you the guy who’s bringing ballet to the masses?’. And Freddie said, ‘Yes, and aren’t you Simon Ferocious!’. It was a fairly good-humoured exchange…”
Alongside Queen, Brian May’s compilation album features the Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones
There are similarly humorous exchanges between Mercury and former capital radio DJ Kenny Everett on a recent collection of Queen’s radio broadcasts, Queen On Air, revealing him to be a witty but also surprisingly shy interviewee.
“Freddie was shy, I think people forget that,” says Brian. “Right up to the very end there was that element in Freddie which was very endearing in a way because here’s this huge star and superhero but inside there’s still this young boy who was quite tentative. I think the cloak of power was very important to him. Someone asked me the other day what the legacy of Freddie was and I said I think the biggest thing you get from Freddie is he was saying, ‘You can do this too. You can be a small, shy person but you can still conquer the world if you really want it enough and you go for it’.”
In many ways Brian himself embodies that same determined spirit. Although he admits that a “persistent, mysterious illness” has curtailed his activities in recent weeks, forcing him to cancel tour dates with singer Kerry Ellis, there’s a sense that May’s questing mind can’t be stilled for long. He runs his own guitar-manufacturing company, producing replicas of his famously home-made Red Special guitar, and has also been pursuing his love of Victorian stereoscopic pictures with a book of 3D images of Queen taken on and off stage over the years. Then, of course, there is the huge energy he puts into campaigning for animal rights. He is inspired, he says, by the great Victorian polymaths.
When he isn’t performing, Brian May is an animal rights activist and owner of a guitar company
“Most of those great Victorian scientists were significant artists as well as musicians,” he says. “But that notion was almost beaten out of us as kids. You were told you cannot be an artist and a scientist at the same time, you have to choose. I always resented that. I thought, ‘No, I can do what I want!’ To be a complete human being you need it all and you need other things too. You need to understand love and compassion too and unfortunately this country, in common with most countries in the world, is not run on compassion. It’s run on money and selfishness and greed. It makes me sound like an old curmudgeon, which I’m sure I am now, but I do look around and think, ‘My God, we have got most of our priorities wrong’. That’s why I do all this campaigning for animals. Why would we imagine that human beings are the only important species on the planet?”
Air Guitar Anthems is out now on Universal Music On Demand priced around £8. Order on AMAZON.co.uk