Queen interview with Brian May – Goldmine 10 Aug 2001


10 AUGUST 2001


Discs two/three –
Extended versions and B-sides

Albums were Queen’s forte; singles were an enjoyable highlight, and B-sides, said May, “were a nice way to deliver stuff to the fans who like to hear everything, without having to say, ‘Look, this is what we’re all about,’ when it isn’t. They’re a lost art now, B-sides had a validity all of their own.”

That said, Queen did not deliver much in the way of exclusive B-sides. The 1970s saw just one non-album song make it onto wax; the 1980s a somewhat healthier but still skimpy eight. But there was another CD-and-one-half’s worth of non-LP 12-inch mixes, extended and alternate versions flooding out of the studio, some of which were solidly excellent reinterpretations of the songs in question. The band also rustled up a special Christmas single, 1984’s “Thank God It’s Christmas,” for which May continues to profess “a deep affection.” Few of these performances, however, would ever be considered among anybody’s favorite Queen songs, with their general non-appearance among the bonus tracks on the Hollywood reissues prompting only a modicum of outranged handwringing.

One cut does stand head and shoulders over the remainder of Queen’ non-album catalog, though. Indeed, “See What A Fool I’ve Been,” the B-side of “Seven Seas Of Rhye,” is significant not only because, as May said, “It was a little bit out of the scope of our main thrust,” but also because “It really represented us on stage in the early days, doing bluesy things, which was a lot of fun.” He continued, “From the beginning we knew fairly clearly what our direction was, although it was argued about all the time. We always went for the maximum color and experiment and scope and breadth, and things like ‘See What A Fool’ didn’t really belong in that.

“In fact, it was an adaptation of an existing blues standard – you’re going to ask me which one, and I don’t know! I heard it on a TV broadcast. It was one of those things where… I remember hearing how The Beatles heard ‘Apache’ on the radio and wanted to do a version of it, but they weren’t able to remember it properly so they put together an instrumental which became ‘Cry For A Shadow,’ It was the same sort of thing. I heard this song once on a TV program and remembered about a third of it and put together something which, in my mind, is the same thing. And I don’t know how much accurately I did it because I still haven’t found the original! It’s funny. We were actually looking a few weeks ago to see if we could discover what the song was and who the original author was. I’d love to find out, because I’d like to pay the guy!”

Disc four – The remixes

Remixes are a tricky subject. They are, of course, de rigeur today, not only for those boldly thrusting new popsters who are seeking dance floor notoriety, but also among the older pack as well. Indeed, there’s something about a classic-rock back catalog that artists and record companies alike simply cannot resist tinkering with, parceling out the greatest bits to whomever might be the flavor of the month and having them “update” them in the quest for a new generation of listeners.

And so it proved with Queen. In 1991, at the dawn of the band’s relationship with the Hollywood label, their entire album catalog was reissued with fine remastering and occasional bonus tracks. But what oddities those bonuses were – alongside the occasional genuine archive find (a lost retake of “Keep Yourself Alive” and the unreleased “Mad The Swine,” both appended to the band’s first album), lost B-side (“See What A Fool I’ve Been,” incongruously plopped at the end of Queen II) and sundry 12-inch singles (it’s what the 1980s were for), another album’s worth of material was created then divided between the reissues via “1991 remiixes.”

The response from the fan base was predicatable and justifiable disappointment. Even after a decade in which further remixes (“Another One Bites The Dust” shot up for the Small Soldiers sound track and “Stone Cold Crazy” dehumanized by Trent Reznor on a promo single) have more or less desensitized us to further such indignities, the 1991 visitations have few close friends. The band themselves, however, can be counted among them.

It was, said May, a group decision to go this route. “We contacted different people [and asked], ‘Would you like to have a go at something? What would you like to have a go at?’ It was very informal. We’d suggest things. They’d suggest things back. As for why we did it, I think it’s a good idea not to be too precious about things, and it was a good idea to give people who were state of the art at the time, producing and mixing-wise, the chance to fiddle around and see what they came up with – to give it a little bit of a modern edge. I think they were actually quite a good foil – they’re something you don’t have to listen to if you don’t want to but are some interesting little escapades.”

Neither is May swayed by the argument that one of the things that makes “classic” rock classic is the fact that it doesn’t actually need a modern edge, that every possible component is already in place and mere exposure alone will bring new fans running.

“It wasn’t a question of ‘need’ – it was a question of giving a little bonus, with the hope that some of those things might give a new angle to the songs, make people think of them in a slighly different way. Plus, one of the things we’ve always enjoyed is interaction, and the remixes were a way of interacting with some of the modern producers.”

Mike Wagener, John Luongo/Gary Hellman, the RAK production company, and Jack Benson were among those charged with the task – May admitted, “I’ve forgotten all their names now. But certainly Rick Rubin [whose own chosen credit for ‘We Will Rock You ‘ was “ruined by…”] was a worthy adversary, a very creative guy. I visited a lot of these people while they were doing their remixes, and it was really interesting just to see what they picked up on. Whether the new versions were improvements – that’s not a question worth asking. They were just different and that’s it.”

Disk five – The collaborations

One of the least-documented areas of collecting concerns the band members multitudinous collaborations with outside performers. As early as 1972, Roger Taylor performed on several tracks on the latest album by Al Stewart (then signed to the same production company as the band, Trident), Past, Present And Future.

Since that time, Taylor and May have proven extraordinarily prolific guests; Mercury and John Deacon somewhat less so. All, however, have played their part in some historic – or, at least, highly sought-after – creations, beginning in August 1975, when the entire group descended to produce a session by orange-haired British soul band Trax. Nothing from this collusion was ever released, although that same month saw Mercury officially inaugurate Queen Productions Ltd. by producing the “Man From Manhattan” 45 for singer Eddie Howell (Mercury also supplies piano; Brian May adds some characteristic guitar). Both of these sessions, incidentally, took place at Trident, where the band were recording A Night At The Opera. People looking for the song today need look no further than the 10-CD, two DVD U.K. Mercury solo boxed set.

The following year, during some down-time on the U.S. leg of their latest world tour, Mercury, May, and Taylor dropped by Electric Lady studios in New York to visit Ian Hunter – Hunter’s old band, Mott The Hoople, of course, had given Queen invaluable aid in the early days, recruiting them to open their 1973 U.K. and 1974 U.S. tours. (Queen’s “Now I’m Here.” with its line about “down in the city, just the Hoople and me,” remembers this memorable pairing.) The trio can be heard all over “You Nearly Did Me In,” a cut from Hunter’s All American Alien Boy album.

One of the most legendary of all Queen guest shots took place in 1983, when Mercury joined forces with Michael Jackson to record at Jackson’s home studio. The pair recorded two songs, “Victrory” and “State Of Shock,” but when the latter track made its public debut, it was Mick Jagger who took the co-lead vocal, with Mercury nowhere in sight. Mercury, apparently, had offended Jackson backstage at a Queen show soon after the original session, prompting Jackson not only to shelve the original tapes, but to abandon “Victory” altogether – the song titles The Jacksons’ 1984 reunion album but the song itself remains unreleased.

Mercury made only a handful of outside appearances; Deacon’s extracurricular activities are even more minimal, although the hyper-funky “Picking Up Sounds,” recorded with guitarist Robert Ahwai for release in 1983 under the pseudonym Man Friday & Jive Junior, is an excellent reminder that Deacon was the brain behind “Another One Bites The Dust.” Three years later, this duo then reconvened as The Immortals, adding vocalist Lenny Zakatek to record three tracks for the soundtrack to the movie Biggles Adventures In Time, a truly rip-roaring adaptation of the aviation stories of Captain W E Johns, which quite criminally failed to become one of the biggest movies of the year – it was certainly one of the best. Only one of The Immortals’ contributions, “No Turning Back,” made the final cut; it was also released as a single.

Of all the band members, Taylor is the most prolific – one could make a magnificant box set from his outside work alone, its contents ranging from the 1975 session with Fox that produced the favorite “Survival,” through dalliances with comedian Mel Smith and actor Jimmy Nail, hit singles with Gary Numan and Fergal Sharkey, and even a series of performances with Kansas during 1981/82. (He is heard but uncredited on the Vinyl Confessions album.)

May runs Taylor a close second in terms of outside activity, again with a stunningly diverse host of credits to his name, ranging from a 1979 session with British skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan, at which the still unreleased “Rolling Stone” was cut (alongside a new version of Donegan’s “Digging My Potatoes”), to an apprarance on Fuzzbox’s 1989 single “Self”. Other notable appearances have included recordings with Judy Tzuke, Meat Loaf, Cozy Powell, Holly Johnson, Steve Howe, and Black Sabbath, while he also scored a U.K. #1 as producer of TV comedians Hale & Pace’s “The Stonk.”

Another project that lies extremely close to May’s heart is revealed when, having already reflected on 1984’s “Thank God It’s Christmas,” he revealed the story behind the other Queen Christmas record. Yes, the one you don’t know about.

“Roger and I both came up with an idea for a Christmas single around July of that year. We went in and demo’d both of them, and we decided that Roger’s was the best one. The other song, my one, became Anita’s Christmas song a couple of years later, ‘I Dream Of Christmas'” – Anita, of course, being actress Anita Dobson, whose staring role in the BBC soap East-Enders provoked first a smash hit vocal rendering of the show’s theme, “Anyone Can Fall In Love,” before she and May united (professionally and romantically) for her 1988 Talking Of Love album. He produced and played on the entire record and wrote three songs – all of which (“I Dream Of Christmmas” included) were released as singles.

1989/90 saw May involved in four major charity operations – Rock Aid Armenia, Artists United For Nature, Rock Against Repatriation and one that he himself inaugurated, in aid of the British Bone Marrow Donor Appeal.

He conceived a new rendition of Queen’s own “Who Wants To Live Forever” after hearing of the death from leukemia of Queen fan Denise Morse. Credited to Ian (Meeson) & Belinda (Gillett), two school children selected from more than 120 hopefuls, the single also featured Taylor and Deacon, establishing it as the first (but not the last) Queen single to star a vocalist other than Mercury. The distinction, sadly, did not help the record – despite a lot of positive publicity, poor distribution left the record stranded at the starting blocks.

Further charity recordings followed Mercury’s death, with May contributing to two singles intended as tributes to Mercury and benefiting the AIDS charity the Terence Higgins Trust: Extreme’s version of “Love Of My Life” and a collaboration with guitar legend Hank Marvin on an instrumental versin of “We Are The Champions.”

Queen as an entire band, meanwhile, scored one of the biggest (and most memorable) hits of their entire career in 1981, when they teamed up with fellow superstar Bowie for the co-credited “Under Pressure” – a song that remains in Bowie’s live set to this day.

“We hooked up with David via one of those lovely pieces of chance,” May revealed. “He was in Montreux. I think he was living in Switzerland at that time, his very early days there, and we’d just bought the studio because we liked it so much and it was a nice refuge away from the hurly-burly of England. And David just happened to be passing [by]. That’s the truth. It wasn’t any more planned than that. He came in and we said, ‘Do you fancy kicking a few ideas around?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, what have you got?’ and we juat started playing in the studio and that’s what happened.”

“Under Pressure” was not the only song recorded that day; also taped at the session was a version of “Cool Cat,” a Bowie-less version of which appeared on the group’s next album, Hot Space. “That really ought to be on the rarities box set,” May agreed. “We’ll have to ask David what he thinks about it. Obviously we could never do something like that without making sure everyone was happy.”

Since Mercury’s death, of course, Queen have shared the stage with a number of performers, most notably at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in April 1992. There are, apparently, still no plans for the entire event to be released on CD, although a video of the event was issued, while several performances recorded on the day have also leaked out.

A tip-top version of Bowie’s “All The Young Dudes” is included on Ronson’s posthumous Heaven And Hull album, while Queen themselves scored a U.K. #1 during 1993 with “Somebody To Love,” recorded with George Michael. (Michael also performed “’39” and “These Are The Days Of Our Lives.”)

Other memorable moments elsewhere in the event include Annie Lennox’s reprise of Merucry’s role alongside Bowie during “Under Pressure,” Elton John and Axl Rose combining for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Paul Young’s “Radio Gaga” and Robert Plant’s heroic “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

Since that time, Queen have made only one live performance, when they reconvened for the gala opening of French ballet legend Maurice Bejart’s Le Prebytere N’a Rien Perdu De Son Charme Ni Le Jardin De Son Eclat, at the Theatre National De Chaillot in Paris on Jan. 17, 1997. Fronted by John, they closed the show with “The Show Must Go On” – reprising one of the most affecting pairings and performances at the Tribute Concert and subsequently released on the admittedly oddball but nevertheless useful odds and sods collection, Greatest Hits III.

Over the last four years, the media has regularly raised the possibility of further Queen reunions/re-formations, with a variety of frontmen mooted as possible replacements for the irreplaceable. All, so far, have been revealed as little more than wishful thinking, but May does acknowledge, “It’s somehting that we think about a lot, and as we interact with other people we find ourselves thinking, ;Hmmm, I wonder what if..’

“I don’t think it will ever be re-forming as such. I think we can do certain things with certain people at certain times.” The most recent of these, following Deacon’s retirement from active involvement, saw May and Taylor alone accompany Williams on a version of “We Are The Champions,” cut for the A Knight’s Tale soundtrack under the old brand name and, while Deacon himself has already condemned their efforts as “rubbish,” May said he is thrilled by the end result.

“We just got in and played it. It was a good experience all ’round because it wasn’t synthetic. We actually did get in there and play it with him, and he sang it live like the trouper that he is. He’s a good boy, Robbie. He’s really turned it around. He comes from a place in [U.K. boy band sensation] Take That [that] I don’t think any of us would admit had any worth, and then gradually you just had to admit that the guy has talent.


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I had a very strong feeling about him from a few years ago, ever since I saw a video of his performance at Slane Castle.

He’s one of the very few people today who can really entertain an audience. He can really capture them in the palm of his hand. He’s very different from Freddie, but he has that common touch in common. He can send himself up, he can have a laugh, but at the same time he can gather the whole thing up and deliver a performance which is arresting.”

Disc six – Broadcasts

One of the msot eagerly awaited Queen album releases of the past decade was 1995’s Queen At The Beeb collection, the first authorized examination of the vast corpus of material recorded during 1973-74 (and, surprisingly, in 1977) for the BBC DJs John Peel and Bob Harris’ shows. Portions of these sessions (most commonly the 1977 effort) have long circulated on bootleg, but the quality was never great. The Hollywood release, in common with other official BBC archive releases, promised breathtaking sound.

Unfortunately, that was about the only one of its promises tht it did live up to – even the sleeve’s excited insistence that “these are versions of well-known numbers that you will never have heard before” was utter nonsense. Forget about bootlegs – what about anybody who actually heard the sessions at the time of broadcast?

The band’s first BBC session took place Feb. 5, 1973 (for broacast 10 days later), two months before the group signed with EMI and featured four tracks later to surface on their debut album – two of which, “Liar” and “Keep Yourself Alive,” would be reprised five months later on July 25 for a Harris session. “Liar,” “Son And Daughter” and, perhaps surprisingly, the then-unreleased slow blues “See What A Fool I’ve Been”, were broadcast Aug. 13; “Keep Yourself Alive” was held over until Sept. 24.

Over the next 18 months, Queen recorded three further sessions (one for Peel, two for Harris), the first two highlighting the Queen II sophomore album and the third, naturally, previewing material from Sheer Heart Attack. It was the second of these sessions, together with the 1973 debut recordings, that was selected for inclusion on Queen At The Beeb – a total of just eight tracks out of a possible 24, which left May musing, “There are tracks which aren’t on Queen At The Beeb which I think will be contenders for the rarities box.”

Queen remained occasional visitors to the BBC over the next three years, appearing on Top Of The Pops in January 1975 (performing “Now I’m Here”) and again during summer 1977 (“Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy”); BBC TV and radio also offered a simulcast (simultaneous broadcast) of the group’s 1975 Christmas Eve concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon and filmed the following year’s Hyde Park free concert. It was fall 1977, however, before the group again recorded exclusive material for radio broadcast, with a return to The John Peel Show.

It was, at the time, a surprising choice – for the previous year, the bulk of Peel sessions had concentrated on either cult heroes of the prog rock past (Van Der Graaf Generator, National Health, and 801 also broadcast sessions around the same time) or the newly emergent punk scene that barely and rarely had any time whatsoever for old-timers such as Queen.

At the same time, however, Queen do have a significant role in punk history – it was their last-minute withdrawal from an early evening television spot Dec. 2, 1976, that prompted EMI to offer the show’s producers another of the label’s rosters, a little known combo called the Sex Pistols. Utterly unaware of what the band represented, the show agreed – and that evening, viewers across London and the southeast sat transfixed as the Pistols assaulted host Bill Grundy with a stream of obscenitites. In the emergence of punk as a mainstream musical style, the Today show remains one of the crucial watershed moments. And it was all down to Queen.

Punk and the Pistols, of course, had no part to play in Queen’s Peel session, as they got down to the serious business of re-creating four tracks from the then-newly released News Of The World album, and more than a few regular Peel listeners were somewhat mortified to hear the likes of “We Will Rock You” and the minor epic “Spread Your Wings” coming over airwaves more traditionally associated with The Lurkers, Skrewdriver, and The Subway Sect.

Peel sessions were recorded on just eight tracks at Studio 4 in Maida Vale, with bands allocated little more thatn half a day in which to get their performance recorded, mixed and delivered to the show’s producer, John Walters. It is intriguing, then, to consider how band such as Queen, relentless perfectionists as they were, contrived to knock out four remarkably accurate facsimilies of their original records in the same amount of time, and on the same equipment, as it took the most basic punk band to get down four of theirs.

“It’s a strange thing,” May reflected. “You work for hours and hours in the studio for days and weeks to put down the structure of a song, but once you have it, it’s not too difficult to re-create it. It’s doing it the first time which is the hard thing. So generally we re-created things quite quickly for a couple of tracks, because time was so short. Then we’d sort of stretch out a bit on the others.” Almost gleefuly, he reiterated, “You certainly couldn’t spend all day in the Beeb because there just wasn’t the time.” He will not be drawn on the relative merits of the performances, however. “I think they were fun at the time, and it’s nice to look at them again. They do have a roughness and a freshness which is enjoyable.”

Coming soon – The rarities

A pause in the conversation as we consider the fact that, in the eyes of the fanatical, completist collector, every visit to the Queen archive this decade can be filed under Ludicrously Lost Opportunity. Where are the B-sides? Where are the radio sessions? Where are the outtakes? Well , right now, they’re all on a row of shelves somewhere in Queen Headquarters, being meticulously cataloged for possible inclusion on the band’s next scheduled project, a box set stuffed to the gills with rarities. May warned, if you thought the recent Mercury box set was expansive – two DVDs and 10 CDs including four of previously unissued recordings – “It is tiny in comparison with the wealth of stuff that Queen have done over the years, because Freddie’s solo career was very much a part-time job most of the time. We spent the best part of 20 years doing nothing else but Queen stuff.”

As with the Mercury collection, the actual job of sifting through the hours and hours of tape belongs to Queen archivist Greg Brooks, and while May openly admitted that he hasn’t yet stumbled across some utterly forgotten shimmering jewel, that’s not to say that he won’t. “It’s too early to say. There’s mountains of material, and that’s without even thinking about the live stuff. We’re just concentrating on the studio recordings at the moment, and the problem is just listening to it all and cataloging it, making decisions as to what’s interesting and what isn’t.”

The bonus tracks appended to the remastered Queen I notwithstanding, fans have already been granted one glimpse into the backstage world of Queen, via Made In Heaven, a posthumous 1996 release that rebuilt a number of demos and otherwise incomplete Mercury performances into a full band record. It was a magnificent piece of work, and today, May acknowledged it as one of his favorite Queen albums. At the outset of the project, however, he was anything but enthusiastic.

“I was very resistant to anything like that for a long time. I was the bad guy in the sense of doing anything under the Queen banner. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the idea. I really didn’t want to make it in the beginning. It was only when I’d heard what Roger and John had done that I rushed in there in my usual arrogant manner and said, ‘Stop! You’re doing it all wrong.’ And once I’d plunged in, it was just massive. It was a couple of years of total dedication to reconstructing and re-creating the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It was a terribly demanding job making that album because obviously your brief is to make it sound like it was no trouble at all. It was spun out of thin air and a few little snatches of tape. It was a projection, an extrapolation – what would it have sounded like if Freddie had still been alive and we were really here making this album? Because it wasn’t only a matter of what we played, it was the construction of the songs because that never stays the same as you’re working on it. A song develops, and if you develop it beyond the point where Freddie’s singing, you’re in big trouble. It was very tricky, but having found it very painful at the time and for some time after it came out, I now love it. I think it’s a really good bit of work.

The new collection, on the other hand, will be almost completely unadorned. “We want to put it out fairly warts and all, I think. Where necessary there may be a bit of remixing and fiddling around in-house, as it were, but the idea is for people to get a feel for what was behind the scenes.”

Every fan, collector and observer will have their own idea of what should be included, although Queen studio outtakes are scarce, even in the world of underground tapes. However, May rushed to warn the world, “There’s no pretence that it will be complete, because that would be so vast, it’d be just too much and it would take forever.”

As for what we can expect to find on it – “Cool Cat” and the remainder of the BBC sessions have certainly been mooted, but beyond that, May cannot say. “We were very critical of what we were doing the whole time, and a huge censorial process was constantly going on. We chucked away loads of stuff – some of it with good reason, because you find you’re going up a blind alley so you just stop and throw it away. But other times, it maybe wasn’t the right time for a particular idea, in which case it might be revisited or it might not. And a lot of the time we were in the studio just messing around, and on a good day we’d find good things and get into a groove just spontaneously. So there’s a lot of stuff that was heaved onto the shelves. But whatever happens, it’ll be a glimpse into Queen behind the scenes at various times. We’re really going to just pick the best of what we can find and make it an interesting and entertaining package.”

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