14 September 2017
‘It was extraordinary what it triggered in me’
Dr. Brian May has always lived at the intersection of art and science—and it’s been quite fruitful for the astrophysicist rock star. As a teenager growing up in the early ’60s, his youthful curiosity led him to construct a guitar with the help of his father. It was that very instrument, the famous “Red Special,” that served him almost exclusively as he conquered the world in Queen. Now he’s using technology to bring memories of his remarkable musical journey to life.
The 70-year-old has just released Queen in 3-D, a new book packed with over 300 previously unseen photos that chronicle the band’s career from the early ’70s through their current global treks with Adam Lambert. The project is the culmination of May’s lifelong fascination with stereoscopic photography, an illusion made possible by observing two side-by-side photographs of the same subject through a specially-made device known as a stereoscope. For those who don’t happen to own the Victorian-era gadget, don’t fret! Copies of the book come with brand new viewer designed by May himself.
Having previously produced two historical 3-D photography books—A Village Lost and Found and Diableries—May’s latest creation draws from his personal archive, taken during intimate moments on the road and in the studio. Brimming with memories and passion, it’s the first book about Queen written by a member of the band. With May as a guide, it’s the best backstage pass you can get.
In addition to Queen in 3-D, the group is getting new life on the big screen in a much-hyped biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek as the late icon Freddie Mercury. May spoke with PEOPLE about Queen’s unparalleled legacy, and what’s to come.
What set you on the road to writing this book?
We had some success with publishing books on Victorian subjects, things which I’ve been fascinated with all my life. These are undiscovered treasures which I wanted to bring into the 21st century. But then I realized I had been taking stereo pictures all through my life, and certainly all through the career of our rock band called Queen. So the idea came to mind: how interesting would be it be to treat those photos in the same way we treated had treated the Victorian subjects? We had the expertise to do it, but it was just a case of turning it in a slightly different direction.
Over the years you’ve become sort of the archivist of the band. Was there a point when you made a conscious decision to hold onto things for the sake of history?
I think it’s innate in me. You have to look for deep psychological meanings for this, I guess. Maybe it’s something in my childhood. [laughs] Maybe it’s a feeling of not wanting to let go of things. A lot of the stuff that happened with Queen was a whirlwind. It happened so fast! Things would come into your hands that you had worked so hard to create, and then you had to move on so quickly. It’s like there was no time to sit and enjoy the fruits of our labors. So in the back of my mind I thought, “One day I’ll have the time to sit down and enjoy all of these beautiful things which we’ve made and which have spun off of our creations.” So the archiving instinct in me is very strong.
These photos are so intimate. Not only does it make you feel like you’re there in the scene, but it really shows how close you all were.
It was a voyage of true discovery for me because I really had forgotten a lot of those. The thing about 3-D is that it brings it back so vividly. You really feel like you’re there, transported in space and time. You can look around in that moment again. It was quite extraordinary what it triggered in me, because my memory is very often not that good these days. But seeing these pictures in every case triggered a whole flood of recollections—and also feelings. You remember what was around you but you also remember what was inside you. So it was a very powerful trigger for me and a powerful channel.
You the describe the process of touring as kind of a grind— you see the backstage photos with the fast food debris, and there’s another great shot of you freezing outside of a plane. Is it safe to say that an international rock ‘n’ roll tour wasn’t as glamorous as one might expect?
I think that would be safe in assuming that. [laughs] There was glamour and excitement of course—and the music was the thing that welded everything together—but there was a great deal of what you could call surprising discomfort. But it was fun, we were young and every day was new and different. I guess it’s only after we’d done five or six tours that we got to feel it was getting a bit repetitive. But even then, the stage show was always new and the music was transforming itself. So the musical journey we were on was the current that propelled us through.
How did your approach to performance change as your moved through smaller venues and gradually up to huge stadiums. Or did you and Freddie [Mercury] always treat every pub like Wembley?
There is a transformation that takes place, definitely. You learn your trade, and if your career goes well and you eventually move to larger places you learn the skills to make the most of that. We were lucky. We were a very hard working unit and things didn’t come quickly or easily to us, which I think was a great thing. We’d slog our way across the United States and Europe, and go back to Australia and just about every continent. And we gradually learned how to deal with every situation.
We’re recreating Live Aid for the Freddie movie, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that. What I remember about Live Aid was it wasn’t such a foreign territory to us. We knew how to play a football stadium because we’d already done it in South America. To most of the people who appeared at Live Aid it was very daunting and very difficult because they hadn’t developed that knack of transmitting the energy to a huge stadium, whereas we went on knowing we could connect. That was a great thing for us. I don’t think even we realized how much we’d evolved, but it was apparent after we came off that stage at Live Aid that we had connected in a way that absolutely fitted the occasion.
You’re looking back at your past with this book, but with this upcoming film you’re witnessing these moments in your life recreated before your eyes. That must be a strange juxtaposition of past and present.
It’s amazing! Yes, it’s all happening at once. We’ve been looking at the book a lot to help recreate these moments for the film. It is a kind of taking stock, I think, and it’s amazing that we can do it in the context of still being a live, organically growing unit because we’re still out there on tour. We just did 26 dates in the States a few weeks ago, and we’re about to do the same in Europe and then we’ll do the UK. In the new year we’re touring Australian and New Zealand. Pretty much everything sells out quickly, and there’s this great feeling that we’re looking at the past but also very much living in the present and even thinking about the future. It’s a very healthy place for us to be.
I was lucky enough to see you perform in 2014 at Madison Square Garden. One of the most powerful moments for me was when you sang “Love of My Life” as a duet with taped footage of Freddie.
I enjoy the fact Freddie is such a part of the show, because he should be. He was part of the creation of our oeuvre and it’s just wonderful to have him around. Generally it makes me smile, [but] occasionally it makes me sad. It just depends on the way your brain is working on any particular day. It’s always different, but it’s amazing to look around and see him joining in, singing to my guitar playing. It’s a lovely aspect of the show, an ingredient of the show. It would be terrible if that was all there was, if we were just purely nostalgic, but luckily we’ve got a fantastic frontman in Adam Lambert and thing are always new. I’m very excited with the place we are at the moment, and Freddie is very much a part of it.
My favorite picture in your book is of Freddie sitting in a makeup chair in Japan. It’s such a quiet moment with him, looking very elegant but also very intimate. It was one I don’t think you’d developed until now?
That’s right! I carried some of the [photo] processing equipment with me on tour but I didn’t always get around to mounting everything. And until these pairs of pictures are mounted you can’t view them in 3-D. I was busy on tour and some of them got put away to be dealt with later. One of those boxes was still in an untouched state when my archivist found it. He said, “This is film that’s been developed but it’s never been mounted. What amazing stuff are we going to find?” And this was one of them. I agree with you, it’s my favorite picture in the book.
Your book is filled with so many of these quieter moments with him. What was he really like when no one else was around? Is there a story that comes to mind?
We were very normal with each other, if “normal” is the right word. We’d known each other a long time and we were almost like family. We had no airs and graces with each other. It was generally an easy relationship. Freddie was very extrovert onstage, as we all know, but he was very shy in his private life and liked to be private. He liked those moments of just having a couple of his close friends around. It was always very enjoyable, and there was always so much to talk about. You talk about what’s around you and we had an extraordinary life—just extraordinary in every way. It was the kind of life that you dream of as a boy, and you don’t even know what the boundaries are. You don’t have a complete vision of where you might get to.