Queen guitarist (and astrophysicist) Brian May tells James Hall why his first solo music in 20 years debuted 4 million miles away.
Brian May on Nasa, Ultima Thule and why Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t ‘all about sex’
James Hall 7 January 2019 by James Hall
You’d expect very little to overwhelm a man who has sold 300 million records, played in front of 250,000 fans and been in one of the world’s biggest rock bands for almost half a century. But you haven’t spoken to Brian May about what he got up to on New Year’s Day.
The Queen guitarist was at the Nasa control centre in Maryland, USA, last week when the space agency’s New Horizons craft beamed back the first grainy picture of a rock on the edge of the solar system. Located 4 billion miles from Earth, Ultima Thule was compared to an unfinished snowman or a peanut. And it blew May’s mind.
“It was 48 hours of sheer wonder, joy and jubilation,” he says. “As a technical feat alone it’s almost unparalleled. Ultima Thule is one billion miles away from Pluto, and they’ve managed to put their spacecraft at the exact place and point the cameras at the exact spot they need to. It’s taken them 10 years.”
For May, the most distant fly-by in history had a personal dimension. As the Nasa probe passed the 21 mile-long rock in the frigid Kuiper Belt outpost, a song he’d composed was beamed into space from Maryland. Also called New Horizons, May’s first new solo work for two decades was co-written with lyricist Don Black and features Stephen Hawking’s voice and May singing. The track is a widescreen rock epic peppered with his trademark guitar shreds and lyrics about “never-ending wonders in a limitless sky”.
The galactically ambitious manner of the song’s release makes May’s 2002 performance of the national anthem from the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee seem like a damp firework. Astronomy is one of May’s many hobbies, about which he’s famously obsessive. He has a doctorate in astrophysics (his thesis was entitled: A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud), has co-authored books, launched an asteroid awareness campaign, and even had an asteroid named after him (the 52655 Brianmay). He got involved with New Horizons thanks to his friend Alan Stern, the $723 million mission’s principal investigator. The musician was initially reluctant when Stern suggested the song, not least because so few words rhyme with Thule (pronounced “thulee”). But the idea of soundtracking the adventure slowly took hold.
Describing the atmosphere in mission control during the fly-by, May conjures the climactic scene of every space adventure ever filmed – when boffins in shirtsleeves lean back from their computers and punch the air in jubilation. “There was the perfect moment when the first proper image came through. Everyone was looking at strings of numbers and then one guy sitting at his laptop goes ‘I got it!’ and everyone clustered around him like a swarm of bees and went ‘Wow’.”
What can this rock actually teach us? Because Ultima Thule is an untouched planetesimal (an object formed by dust and pebbles sticking together), created at the dawn of time, May believes it could yield clues to the origins of life. May, lest we forget, is best known for thrashing out hits such as One Vision and Radio Gaga to legions of adoring fans. Even the Aids-related death of Queen singer Freddie Mercury in 1991 failed to break the band’s stride: May and Roger Taylor still perform but with US singer Adam Lambert as frontman. And yet May still manages to cram a vast amount into his life. As well as astronomy, he is fascinated by stereoscopy, a Victorian technique for making photographs appear 3D (his is one of the largest private collections of Victorian stereoscopic photographs in the world) and has produced a 3D image of Ultima Thule with a member of the New Horizons team. He has also devoted years to campaigning against the Government’s annual badger cull, and runs a blog – Brian’s Soapbox – which features regular diatribes against feckless MPs.
His interest in space was fostered by the late Sir Patrick Moore. As a child he watched Moore’s programme, The Sky At Night, religiously and decades later the guitarist and the astronomer became close friends. Even now, aged 71, May finds spiritual solace in “lying on my back under a starry sky” and looking up.
So has he signed up to Sir Richard Branson or Elon Musk’s manned missions into space? May says such brief jaunts don’t really interest him.
“I might be a little long in the tooth,” he says. “You know what I’d really like? I’d like to sit on the International Space Station and look down on the Earth and have time to contemplate. I don’t fancy being chucked into the air, having weightlessness for a few minutes and then plummeting back down.”
Rock’s great polymath has other projects on the go. May’s London Stereoscopic Company publishes books of 3D photographs, the most recent of which, Mission Moon 3-D, marks the 50 years since the Apollo 11 Moon landings.
But planetesimals and moons aren’t the only vast phenomena in May’s orbit. Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic, is still riding high in the global box office following its October release. It was the surprise winner during Sunday’s Golden Globe awards, picking up best Drama Motion Picture and best Drama Motion Picture for Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury. May admits to being surprised at the film’s colossal success. “We never expected it to be this big. We thought it would do well but it seems to have gone well outside Queen fans. The fact that it has enthralled a whole new generation is.”
The success comes despite critics accusing it of sanitising Mercury’s homosexual lifestyle and glossing over his prodigious appetite for unabashed hedonism. May is having none of this. This argument took root after online “idiots” reviewed the trailer, not the film, he says.
“Anyone who has seen the film knows it’s not sanitised … If you’ve seen it you know we haven’t ducked any issues whatsoever.” The fact that Bohemian Rhapsody was censored in countries like Malaysia for showing too much sex proves his point, he argues.
He doesn’t deny, however, that the film was made with broad appeal in mind. Its 12A rating has been crucial to its success. “It could have been all about sex but no one would have gone to see it. We made a film for everyone that didn’t duck any issues.”
But after the week May’s had, you suspect that his mind is on loftier topics than ticket receipts and critics. He’s got the cosmos to think about. And mankind’s place in it. And his possible space-themed album. Now in his eighth decade, retirement seems as distant to May as Ultima Thule itself. “I thrive on being busy and I’m not good when I’m not busy,” he says. “I feel so privileged that I can be in this thrust of creativity. I’ll be [working] as long as I can walk. Probably longer.”
Brian May’s New Horizons is available to download at https://lnk.to/NewHorizons.
His book, Mission Moon 3-D, is available from londonstereo.com