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**Thu 29 Jan 09**

50 Greatest Guitar Solos have been picked and charted by Brian May's solos for Bohemian Rhapsody and Brighton Rock come in at 20 and 41 respectively. The number one spot goes to Jimmy Page for “Stairway to Heaven.

29 January 2009

Extract includes quotes:

20) "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Brian May) - Queen Night at the Opera, 1975

“Freddie [Mercury] had the whole piece pretty well mapped out, as I remember, but he didn’t have a guitar solo planned. So I guess I steamed in and said, ‘This is the point where you need your solo, and these are the chords I’d like to use.’ The chord progression for the solo is based on the verse, but with a slight foray into some different chords at the end, to make a transition into the next part of the song. I’d heard the track so many times while we were working on it that I knew in my head what I wanted to play for a solo. I wanted the guitar melody to be something extra, not just an echo of the vocal melody. I had a little tune in my head to play. It didn’t take very long to record.

“The next section of the song, the heavy bit, was really part of Freddie’s plan. I didn’t change what he had very much. Those guitar riffs that everybody bangs their heads to are really more Freddie’s than mine. And at the end of that section, I sort of took over. I wanted to do some guitar orchestrations - little violin lines - coming out of that. And it blended in very well with what Freddie was doing with the outro.

“We were stretching the limits of technology in those days. Since ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was entirely done on 16-track, we had to do a lot of bouncing as we went along; the tape got very thin. This ‘legendary’ story, which people think we made up, is true: we held the tape up to the light one day - we’d been wondering where all the top end was going - and what we discovered was virtually a transparent piece of tape. All the oxide had been rubbed off. It was time to hurriedly make a copy and get on with it.”

41) "Brighton Rock" (Brian May) - Queen Sheer Heart Attack, 1974

Universally venerated for his lavish guitar orchestrations and tasteful British restraint, Brian May kicked over the traces on this high energy rocker that leads off Queen’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack. One of May’s most blues-based excursions ever, the song’s extended solo section grew out of the guitarist’s experiments with an Echoplex tape delay unit. His original goal was to reproduce his multi-part guitar harmonies live on stage with Queen, back in the days before harmonizers were invented.

“I started messing around with the Echoplex, the delay that was available at the time,” May recalls. “I turned up the regeneration until it was giving me multiple repeats. I discovered you could do a lot with this - you could set up rhythms and play against them, or you could play a line and then play a harmony to it. But I decided that the delay [times] I wanted weren’t available on the Echoplex. So I modified it and made a new rail, which meant I could slide the head along and make the delay any length I wanted, because the physical distance between the two heads is what gave you the delay. Eventually, I had two home-adapted Echoplexes. And I discovered that if you put each echo through its own amp, you wouldn’t have any nasty interference between the two signals. Each amp would be like a full-blown, sustaining, overdriven guitar which didn’t have anything to do with the other one.

“So, ‘Brighton Rock’ was the first time that got onto a record. I’d already been trying it live on stage in the middle of ‘Son and Daughter’ [from Queen’s self-titled ’73 debut album], when Queen first toured with Mott the Hoople. It was rather crude at first. But I certainly had a lot of fun with it.”

Full listing:

1) "Stairway to Heaven" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV, 1971
2) "Eruption" (Eddie Van Halen) - Van Halen Van Halen, 1978
3) "Free Bird" (Allen Collins, Gary Rossington) - Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1973
4) "Comfortably Numb" (David Gilmour) - Pink Floyd The Wall, 1979
5) "All Along the Watchtower" (Jimi Hendrix) - The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland, 1968
6) "November Rain" (Slash) - Guns N' Roses Use Your Illusion I, 1991
7) "One" (Kirk Hammett) - Metallica ...And Justice for All, 1988
8) "Hotel California" (Ben Felder, Joe Walsh) - The Eagles Hotel California, 1976
9) "Crazy Train" (Randy Rhoads) - Ozzy Osbourne Blizzard of Ozz, 1981
10) "Crossroads" (Eric Clapton) - Cream Wheels of Fire, 1968
11) "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (Jimi Hendrix) - Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland, 1968
12) "Johnny B. Goode" (Chuck Berry) - Chuck Berry His Best, Volume One, 1997
13) "Texas Flood" (Stevie Ray Vaughan) - Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas Flood, 1983
14) "Layla" (Eric Clapton, Duane Allman) - Derek and the Dominos Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970
15) "Highway Star" (Ritchie Blackmore) - Deep Purple Machine Head, 1972
16) "Heartbreaker" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II, 1967
17) "Cliffs of Dover" (Eric Johnson) - Eric Johnson Ah Via Musicom, 1990
18) "Little Wing" (Jimi Hendrix) - The Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis: Bold as Love, 1968
19) "Floods" (Dimebag Darrell) - Pantera The Great Southern Trendkill, 1996
20) "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Brian May) - Queen Night at the Opera, 1975
21) "Time" (David Gilmour) - Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
22) "Sultans of Swing" (Mark Knopfler) - Dire Straits Dire Straits, 1978
23) "Bulls on Parade" (Tom Morello) - Rage Against the Machine Evil Empire, 1996
24) "Fade to Black" (Kirk Hammett) - Metallica Ride the Lightning, 1984
25) "Aqualung" (Martin Barre) - Jethro Tull Aqualung, 1979
26) "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Kurt Cobain) - Nirvana Nevermind, 1991
27) "Pride and Joy" (Stevie Ray Vaughan) - Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas Flood, 1983
28) "Mr. Crowley" (Randy Rhoads) - Ozzy Osbourne Blizzard of Ozz, 1981
29) "For the Love of God" (Steve Vai) - Steve Vai Passion and Warfare, 1991
30) "Surfing with the Alien" (Joe Satriani) - Joe Satriani Surfing with the Alien, 1987
31) "Stranglehold" (Ted Nugent) - Ted Nugent Ted Nugent, 1975
32) "Machine Gun" (Jimi Hendrix) - Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys, 1970
33) "The Thrill is Gone" (B.B. King) - B.B. King Completely Well, 1969
34) "Paranoid Android" (Johnny Greenwood) - Radiohead OK Computer, 1997
35) "Cemetary Gates" (Dimebag Darrell) - Pantera Cowboys from Hell, 1990
36) "Black Star" (Yngwie Malmsteen) - Yngwie Malmsteen Rising Force, 1984
37) "Sweet Child O' Mine" (Slash) - Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction, 1987
38) "Whole Lotta Love" (Jimmy Page) - Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II, 196
39) "Cortez the Killer" (Neil Young) - Neil Young and Crazy Horse Zuma, 1975
40) "Reelin' in the Years" (Elliot Randall) - Steely Dan Can't Buy a Thrill, 1972
41) "Brighton Rock" (Brian May) - Queen Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
42) "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (Eric Clapton) - The Beatles The Beatles (White Album), 1968
43) "Sharp Dressed Man" (Billy Gibbons) - ZZ Top Eliminator, 1983
44) "Alive" (Mike McCready) - Pearl Jam Ten, 1991
45) "Light My Fire" (Robby Krieger) - The Doors The Doors, 1967
46) "Hot For Teacher" (Edward Van Halen) - Van Halen 1984, 1984
47) "Jessica" (Dickey Betts) - Allman Brothers Band Brothers and Sisters, 1974
48) "Sympathy for the Devil" (Keith Richards) - Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet, 1968
49) "Europa" (Carlos Santana) - Carlos Santana Amigos, 1976
50) "Shock Me" (Ace Frehley) - Kiss Alive II, 1977


**Thu 09 Jan 09**

Brian recently contributed to an article for The Works Magazine. This is a membership only publication of the Academy of Songwriters, so unable to get this in the shops, but you can read the article here.

Republished by kind permission of The Works Magazine.


your call
Dr Brian May

With a musical career spanning four decades, Brian May is a world-renowned guitarist and songwriter. A founding member of Queen, Brian has written 22 worldwide hits for the band, including We Will Rock You, The Show Must Go On, Who Wants To Live Forever and I Want It All.

As a successful solo artist, his albums include Back To The Light, which featured two Ivor Novello Award winning songs: Too Much Love Will Kill You and Driven By You.

In 2007, after a 30-year break, Brian returned to Imperial College, London to complete his doctoral thesis in astrophysics. He is a regular contributor to The Sky at Night, the long-running TV programme presented by his friend, Sir Patrick Moore. In 2005, he was awarded a CBE for services to the Music Industry.

In this specially extended edition of Your Call, Brian takes some time out from his many and diverse activities to answer questions from Academy members.

* How regularly do you practise the guitar and to what degree do you feel musical ability is encouraged by classical instruction?
(Paul K Joyce)

It’s going to sound strange, but I practise very little, and especially little on tour! Once the ball is rolling on a tour, the wear and tear on my hands from two and a half hours bending strings each night produces such pain that I simply can’t afford to practise as well; I wouldn’t be able to play the next night.

The main way I work on things is in the head, by mentally retracing the steps of a show and wondering what I could do better. This is reinforced by soundchecks. Roger and I do a soundcheck, religiously, for every show, working with our production crew to maximise what we can get out of the hall we are working in that night. It’s possible to do a little work on song structures during that hour or so, which the road crew work hard to provide for us, before the doors are opened. By this means, and by discussions between us, the show can gradually evolve during a tour.

It’s hard for me to comment in detail on classical instruction, because I did not have very much! Freddie and I both studied piano to Grade 4 and this undoubtedly gave us valuable understanding of the way music works. However, I think it’s fair to say that most of what you have heard from Queen was the result of instinctive outpourings, influenced by our heroes, and the rich reservoir of music of all kinds which surrounded us when we were kids.

* What do you feel about the musical We Will Rock You and how much input did you have?
(Maxine Lowe)

WWRY is entirely our baby - Ben Elton, myself and Roger. We engaged an excellent creative team to bring our dream to life and most of these key collaborators are still with us, six years later, as the show seems to go from strength to strength. It’s very important that the show remains young and relevant, and fresh. Ben actually devotes a considerable fraction of his life, still, to keeping the show moving on, and working on new productions of WWRY in many countries. Unlike most successful musicals, our show is not rubber-stamped … each production has a different script, organically grown from the History of Rock in the place where the show actually takes place. I’m enormously proud of the show and of the amazing family of young actors, singers and musicians who continue to give it their all.

As a new facet of the project, we recently allowed school productions to take place around the UK … and actually offered creative help in putting on the show. The response has been incredible!

* How much did multi-track contribute to the development of your classic guitar tone and which track do you think cemented 'the sound'?
(Steve Levine)

Well, the ‘orchestrating’ of guitars was a dream in my head from an early age and I was lucky to have the opportunity to bring it to life. We were blessed with the latest multi-track machines when we were first let loose in the studio and I seized the opportunity. It’s important, when multi-tracking guitar parts (or vocals, or any instrument for that matter), that every single performance has not only the accuracy, but the expression, and the passion, of a solo performance. Then the sum of the parts becomes full of magic. I think! I think my favourite benchmark in my own work in this area is the solo in Killer Queen.

* I’ve heard Natasha Marsh brings the house down singing Who Wants To Live Forever. Have you considered doing a classical collaboration album, perhaps with her voice?
(Dobs Vye)

Well, there have already been quite a few classically arranged albums of Queen songs, so it’s not something which is high on our list of priorities. However, I do enjoy working with Steve Sidwell in particular, on other projects … he has brought orchestra into my arrangements and productions for Kerry Ellis, currently the brightest star of Wicked and the creator of the role of Meat in We Will Rock You in London. I have not yet heard Natasha’s version of WWTLF … I know she is very talented and this will be something I will look forward to.

* What is the truth about your 'home-made' guitar?
(Tom Cowley)

The truth? I designed and made it with my Dad, working with only hand tools, out of bits and pieces that were lying around. It took two years, starting when I was about 17 years old. It is my pride and joy. So what are the untruths you have heard?!!

* I’m an amateur songwriter/lyricist. I can’t play any instruments, so I realise that it’s important to find a musician/composer to collaborate with and help me develop my songs to the point of producing a demo. Do you have any advice?
(Lorraine Laurent)

That’s a hard one! You need to find someone you have a creative rapport with, not necessarily someone who is technically at genius-level, but someone who shares your passion - and probably someone who shares your influences to some extent. Start looking among your friendships first.

* How scary was it playing on top of Buckingham Palace?
(Dave Hunt)

Extremely! I will not be doing it again!! And I will be watching with great interest if anyone else ever attempts it!!! Ha ha!

* Do you think allowing your tracks to be used in adverts is ‘selling out’, or to be encouraged? Have you ever agreed for your music to be used in this way?
(Sam Sutton)

I can understand a purist thinking that it’s selling out. We have had many discussions about this. But, to me, music is made to be shared and TV is a great medium for getting to a lot of people.

We consider every single approach from an advertiser separately and try to make good decisions as to what to allow and what to decline. There are many criteria. The favourite yeses are requests for charity uses, or ecological campaigns. The middle ground is advertising neutral goods and the decision would be based around how much we think the original material would be compromised, or cheapened. We do not allow changes of lyrics, except in very special cases. The ‘no’ area comes about when the goods being advertised are clearly not doing people any good. For instance, you will never see a Queen track advertising cigarettes, or involved in any activity which is abusive to women, or racist, or depraved. After all this discussion, I’m not saying we always make the right decision (occasionally we are busy elsewhere too and we delegate the decisions) … but on the whole, by keeping a sense of proportion and a sense of humour, I don’t think more harm than good has been done.

* What for you is the single most fascinating thing about astronomy?
(Mark Fishlock)

The edges of astronomy, where the boundary between cosmology and theology become hard to define. But I DO think the boundary is there. Ultimately, I believe that science has nothing relevant to say about God. And I believe that the world would be a better place if everyone’s relationship with his God were his own private matter. In fact, I believe that this is a basic human right. It seems plain to me that the organised religions of this planet are to blame for a high
percentage of the misery that has occurred in the last few thousand years.

But sorry, I digress! It’s fascinating to narrow down the area which can only be mapped by conjecture - the area for which we may never have any observational evidence.

* From a songwriting point of view, which Queen song are you most proud of?
(Vicky Hunt)

Perhaps …. hmmmm … We Will Rock You?!

Dr Bri


**Fri 23 Jan 09**

Brian was recently interviewed by Jonathan Wingate. The interview appeared in both Record Collector last month's issue (dated January 2009) and also Performing Musician magazine:

RECORD COLLECTOR - January 2009 page 66


BRIAN MAY [and PAUL RODGERS] talk to Jonathan Wingate about getting the Queen machine back on the road:  "It's not a marriage, but it's a damn good affair."

When news leaked out that Brian May and Roger Taylor had got together with Paul Rodgers to make a new album, you could hear the sound of the critics sharpening their knives, accusing the band of trampling over their legacy.  Yet the ever-faithful Queen fans have stuck with them, despite the loss of their flamboyant leader, Freddie Mercury, in 1991.

They first toured with Rodgers three years ago, and May was at pains to point out that this was Rodgers “featured with Queen, not replacing the late Freddie Mercury.”  While the idea of Queen without Mercury sounds like it could only lead them into a musical cul-de-sac, the first studio album from the trio (billed as Queen & Paul Rodgers) sees this seemingly unlikely triumvirate clicking together surprisingly well.  It shouldn’t work, but if you ignore a few rather clumsy moments, it does.  Rodgers has had the somewhat daunting task of bridging the huge gap between his blues-rock background with Free and Bad Company, and Queen’s grandiose, multilayered sound.

RC catches up with Brian May at his Surrey home, the day after putting the finishing touches to the new album, and while the reviews have been mixed, May is defiant about the media’s cynicism towards most of Queen’s post-Mercury musical activities.  “I’m not going to apologise for anything that I’ve done.  We’ve always gone with our instincts, and my instinct told me that making this album was a good thing to be doing.”

- 0 – 0 – 0 -

RC: You’ve just finished work on The Cosmos Rocks.  Is it difficult to know when an album’s ready to be released out into the world?

BRIAN MAY: Well, we get to this stage with an album and I can only just listen to it . . . I want it out and I want it off my back.  I was doing the final mixing and mastering yesterday and it was wonderful, but quite terrifying feeling to let it go.  The last stages are always stressful, because most of the difficult decisions have been left to the end.  There’s always bits and pieces that we can’t agree on . . . all sorts of stuff that kind of rankles between us has to be sorted out.

It’s been quite difficult  - in common with every Queen album that I’ve ever made – although you can choose whether you call this a Queen album or not (laughs).  It’s taken us about two years, on and off.  We did a number of sessions, and the last session lasted about three months, which nearly killed me.  We made a conscious decision to do it live in the studio . . . that was the crucial thing.  So few of the albums that you hear these days are recorded by people playing together in a room, and you can tell.  We just thought, well, we can play and we want to play, so let’s do it.

Did you spend a long time debating whether you should rev up the Queen machine again?

We wouldn’t have done it if we hadn’t found Paul.  There were a million people that were suggested to us who could sing like Freddie, and we just didn’t want any of it.  Then I suddenly found myself playing with Paul at the Fender anniversary gig, and there was just chemistry and understanding there . . . a little reminiscent of the way I would interact with Freddie.  There was a distinct ‘light-bulb’ moment, and we thought this could really work.  I immediately phoned up Roger and said ‘you know who we never thought of playing with?  Paul Rodgers.’  Roger we just went, ‘that’s a great idea.‘ We had all been fans of Paul and we loved Free . . . Freddie perhaps most of all.

We actually had the opportunity to try somehting very soon after that, when we were asked to play at the UK Music Hall Of Fame in 2004.  Paul was being awarded something as well as us, so it was all sort of set up for us really.  We did All Right Now, We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, and the penny dropped for everybody at that point and we all went, ‘My God, this actually works’.

It must be interesting hearing him reinterpreting your old songs?

The great thing for me was hearing Paul interpret something like Champions in a completely different way, and suddenly the song has new meaning and depth, and we realised that this could actually be not just a continuation, but something new ... something worthwhile doing for its own sake.

Do you see this as a potentially ongoing project that could have a life beyond this new album?

I think we do see it like that ... the decision was made a long time ago.  People have said, ‘is it a marriage?’ I would say ‘no ...  it’s not a marriage, but it’s a damn good affair’ (chuckles).  It sure is fun, and for the first time, on this tour, we’ll be going out with new material, which puts a whole different light on things.

What would you say is so special about Paul Rodgers?

I can’t really analyse it too much, but he’s such an exceptional singer in so many ways ... his pitch, his tone and his interpretive qualities.  He doesn’t sing in straight lines, and very often if Roger or I have given him a melody, by the time it comes out of his mouth, it’s already been reinterpreted and become something different.  Paul really sings from the heart, and he actually can’t sing unless he feels it, so it’s that sort of soulful blues quality he has which is so outstanding.  He just doesn’t sound like anyone else and I’ve worked with enough singers to know (chuckles).

What would you say are the main differences between Paul and Freddie?

Rhythmically, it’s very different, because Paul always interprets the rhythm as well as the melody.  Freddie was an instinctively on-the-beat kind of guy, and his piano playing was rivetingly percussive at times and his singing was the same ... it was like a machine gun.  Paul is interpreting as he goes so we have to really be quite strong to provide the backdrop that he needs.  But we’ve all learned a lot – we’ve come a lot more towards Paul’s way of thinking, and he’s come a lot more towards ours, so we’ve met in the middle in many ways.

Freddie was incredible.  He was a master-craftsman who was always coming up with ideas, but he was never selfish and always giving as a performer.  You know, it takes a lot of skill to be able to improvise and be loose on stage and not lose people that you’re playing with.  He was wonderful in involving us in anything he wanted us to do, picking up on what we were giving and also communicating with the audience.  He was the most fantastic channel – like a transparent lightning rod, really.  He was riveting as a live performer and as a frontman and the frontman is the channel through which the energy of the band connects with the audience, and I would have to say, he was perfect in that.

How important was it to you that The Cosmos Rocks could stand up alongside Queen’s back catalogue?

I can only say that the same criteria were applied ... it’s the pursuit of excellence and the following of dreams, so it’s exactly the same as it was.  It’s hard for me to say whether this sounds ‘like Queen’, because I’m so much inside it.  As soon as Roger and I play together, I suppose we can’t help but sound like Queen.

I think the spirit of Queen is there, and we didn’t consciously try to put it there – we just did what we do and we gave it our heart and soul.  We still feel that Freddie is around in so many ways.  We refer to him so much that I feel he’s a part of everything.

That he’s almost watching over you?

Not in some weird way, no, although he appears in a lot of my dreams in a very matter of fact way, rather than in the sort of supernatural way.  I think he’s with us in the sense that we worked together so closely and we understood each other’s dreams and the spirit of creation so closely that it would be impossible to make music without him having an influence on it.  He’s still very much there.  We have actually dedicated the new album to Fred and Paul Kossoff.

How concerned were you about dissipating the legacy of Queen by doing this?

I’ve never been concerned, and if that sounds arrogant, then so be it.  I know inside me what has integrity and what doesn’t.  I’ve been one of the creators of this thing from the beginning and I have a very clear idea of what is good for our development, and also what is appropriate in the light of Freddie’s legacy.  I don’t have any doubts we can play Freddie’s songs and reinterpret them, and I know he would love it, because it keeps his music alive and even takes it to new places.

A lot of your fans must have thought, ‘what one earth are they doing?’

Well, OK ... I was concerned enough not to get this thing going again for 10 years or whatever it was before we started off with Paul.  How long was it between Made In Heaven and us getting together with Paul?  For that time, I was concerned enough not to want to do anything.  I was quite happy not to perform as Queen, but the moment that thing happened with Paul, I wasn’t concerned because you can only go with your gut feelings.

I’m not going to apologise for anything that I’ve done.  We’ve always gone with our instincts, and my instincts told me that making this album was a good thing to be doing, and so did Roger ... and believe me, there are very few things that Roger and I agree about (chuckles).  We both felt right about Paul and we knew that if Fred was in the room, he would also feel right about Paul.  So we’ve never had any concerns about this . . . the worries have been from other people, really.

Let’s go back to your childhood.  How old were you when you started playing guitar?

I got a guitar for my seventh birthday, although I’d already picked up a bit of ukulele from my dad, who played in the style of George Formby.  He gave me a good instinctive grounding.  I got a big part of my love of music from my father.

I had a little crystal-set radio, which my dad helped me make, and I used to lay underneath the covers at night with my ex-German submarine headphones listening to Radio Luxembourg.  It was a wonderful time to be listening to the radio ... the beginnings of Motown, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Elvis and Buddy Holly & The Crickets which absolutely blew me away.  It had a kind of forbidden air about it, because a lot of this stuff you didn’t hear on normal radio in England.

How did you end up building your own guitar with your father?

My dad was very adept at handiwork, but he was also an electronics engineer, so we had the know-how.  I got some magnets and wound some wire around them, plugged the ends of the wire into my dad’s homemade radiogram and stuck the pick-ups I’d made onto my acoustic guitar.  It worked and it made this wonderful electric sound, and I was absolutely hooked from that point on.

When I built my own guitar, I bought some pick-ups for three guineas each to replace the three homemade ones, and that was the major cost of the guitar ... the rest probably amounted to a couple of quid, because it was all made out of junk that was lying around my dad’s workshop.  The wood we used for the guitar was from a 100-year old fireplace.  We worked on it in my dad’s workshop in our spare time, and it took just over two years.  We’d just go in in the evening and chisel away with his hand tools.

Little did you know that that homemade guitar would go on to become so synonymous with your unique sound.

No, I had no idea.  I knew what I wanted though.  Even in those days, I think it was all there, having heard the beginnings of rock’n’roll guitar.  Your dream takes shape very quickly at that age.  I think it was probably Buddy Holly more than anyone else.

How difficult was it to decide between astronomy and music?

It was very difficult, really, but my solution was to go full pelt at both, and I think that is generally my solution in life.  I’m not very good at making decisions, and strangely enough, I don’t really remember making that decision when I had to give up astronomy – it just happened – so there was a kind of inevitability about it.

We’re kind of jumping forward to the time when I’d already completed four years on my PhD at university.  I’d already tried to submit it twice and been told to go away and do some more work, and I just thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’  But it wasn’t like, ‘right, I’m giving up astronomy now’.  It was just like, ‘OK, that’s in the corner and I need to concentrate a bit more on music.’  I don’t actually remember making a decision that was any more dramatic than that.  It wasn’t like an epiphany, and I never lost my passion for astronomy, so it was incredibly liberating for me to be able to return to it recently and finish that thesis off.

What do you remember about your early days with Smile, the band you were in before Queen?

We had this semi-pro outfit in school called 1984 and our singer was called Tim Staffell.  When I first went to university, I moved away from the suburbs and into central London, which was a convenient breakpoint because I felt like the band had gone as far as it could.  Then Tim and I formed Smile.  I advertised for a drummer, and we wanted someone who could play like Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon.  Roger replied to the ad and said he could do all of that.

Roger set up his drums in the Jazz Room at Imperial College and once he started hitting them, it was quite magical and totally unique.

He had it all ... he was the completely finished article.  He sounded like a record as soon as he started playing.  I’d never heard anything like it, and I was blown away.  As soon as we started playing together, I have to say, there was a magic there, and we both knew it.  The sounds just blended perfectly right away, and all of these things evolved without much discussion.

Obviously the other elements were yet to come.  Freddie and Tim were studying Gaphic Design at Ealing Tech, and Freddie used to come along to our gigs looking very flamboyant and confident, but actually, he was very shy.  He would come up to us after the show and say, ‘well, it’s very exciting, but you don’t wear proper clothes and you don’t do a proper show, and why don’t you communicate with your audience?’  We just thought, ‘what the hell is he talking about?  Can he do this or is he all talk?’

We went to see him sing with his own group, and even in those days, he was running around at enormous speed.  You could hardly keep up with him.  He was being very ebullient and making a big noise, and we didn’t quite know what to make of it (laughs).  I have to say, he was outrageous.  We hadn’t seen anything quite like this before.

Smile broke up because Tim was getting frustrated and he left.  Roger and I were a bit dispirited, because we’d had a record deal, which had turned out to be rubbish, but Freddie said, ‘no, you’re not giving up.  I’m going to be your singer and we’re going to do this and this and this.’  And we just went, ‘Oh, OK’ (laughs).

We played together for the first time in a lecture theatre at Imperial College, and Roger brought along an old friend of his who played bass.  Freddie came armed with a few ideas for songs, and we had a couple of ideas, so we were immediately doing our own material and pretty much nothing else, with the exception of Jailhouse Rock and Hey Big Spender, which were there to have fun with.  The sound wasn’t quite right, and we went through a few different bass players, with the bottom end never quite clicking.

We met John Deacon around ’72.  We did a rehearsal with him, and the minute he plugged in and started playing, it truly was magic, and then we had an organic creature which was ready to rock.  I would say the Queen that you know and hopefully love was really born when John joined … that was when the final brick was in place.

How long did you spend honing the songs and the sound before you released your debut album in 1973?

It took a long time, and it was a very frustrating time, because we made a load of demos and the record companies all went, ‘not bad, but come and see us in a couple of years.’  It wasn’t really setting the world alight.  We went into London’s Trident Studios, who offered to make an album and sell it for us.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but we just got shoved into Trident in dead time when it was free.  ‘David Bowie’s just finished, come in and do an hour, boys.’  So we made the album in a terribly fragmented way, even though we had the songs already.  We felt like we were getting nowhere.

Under Fred’s influence, we were using lights, which most people didn’t bother with, and we were also wearing costumes and putting on a show, all before we were famous.  We were being very dramatic on stage, and we saw things happening with glam rock bands like Slade, and we jut thought, ‘where are we?   We’re nowhere … we don’t know anybody, we don’t have a deal and we can’t get gigs.’  I think we felt a bit despondent and very much on the sidelines, even though we were working very hard.

How did you eventually manage to get a deal with EMI?

We took some of the songs we’d done at Trident around to the same record companies, and suddenly they all liked it.  To be honest, there wasn’t much difference, but I think the world had just changed.  Suddenly everybody wanted us, and we got this message from the head honcho at EMI, who was away in Barbados or somewhere.  He’d heard the demos and he sent a telegram saying: ‘Do not do anything until you’ve talked to me.  I want this band on my record label.’  So EMI signed us up, and Elektra signed us up I America and we were away.

Queen sounded utterly unlike anyone else right from the start.  How conscious were you of that?

That’s interesting, because we were accused of sounding like all sorts of people at the time, and I remember thinking, ‘why is it that they can’t hear where we’re at?’  We had a lot of opposition from the press, but I think we were pretty different and we had a very close vision of what we wanted to be and what we wanted to sound like. Our vision was of some strange giant rock sound, but enveloped with harmonies and embodying all sorts of emotions and passions and light and shade.  That vision was there, and we carved what we did out of what was in our heads.

We loved The Who, we loved Free, we loved Yes and the first Spooky Tooth album, and all of the influences that we had when we were children like traditional jazz and operatic music.  It was a huge mixture of stuff which was unashamedly loved and it just all blended together in this strange pot.

How important was self-confidence to Queen in the early days?

Oh, hugely important, because nobody believes in you in the beginning.  You have to believe, and that belief between the four of us was the glue which held us together and the force which drove us on.  I think we just believed that we were special, and for some reason, we had this blind belief that we had something that had never been seen or heard in the world before.  It’s an incredibly arrogant notion for four young blokes to have.

How conscious were you of coming up with your own unique guitar sound?

I had a very clear idea in my head of exactly how I wanted my guitar to sound.  I wanted it to be like a voice…. Like James Burton but more driven.  I wanted it to have vowels and consonants, and I wanted it to sing like Jimi Hendrix or Rory Gallagher, and I wanted it to talk like Eric Clapton.  Really, I have to thank Rory Gallagher.  We used to go and see him every week at the London Marquee, and sometimes we’d stay behind and he would chat to us, and although he was a big star, he was wonderfully kind and completely unassuming.  I remember asking him what made his guitar sing, and he said: ‘Well, you know, Brian, it’s the AC30 and this little box called a Rangemaster Treble Booster’.

The secret of that box was that it took a bit of the low-end of and gave a big boost to the signal without distorting the amp too much  It made it sing and it made it feedback.  So I went out and got a Rangemaster Treble Booster and two Vox AC30s, although I really didn’t know how I could afford it.  I remember it so clearly.  I plugged my homemade guitar into it in the shop, and the sound was there.  I remember thinking that is exactly the sound that I want.

Given that there were four songwriters, how much competition was there between you to get your songs on the album?

Ben Elton picked up on that when he was writing the scripts for our musical, We Will Rock You.  He said: ‘You know you are the only group in history where all four members have had number one hits?’  We hadn’t actually realised.  We were fiercely competitive, and I think it was a great spur to our creativity and it really benefited us all.

You had to fight really hard to get one of your songs on the album, because they would be chosen on merit.  Sometimes it was tough, because if I’m honest we weren’t always constructive with each other.  I think that’s one of our strengths, because if an album came out and the critics laid into it, we never really took it to heart because we’d always said much worse things to each other in the course of the process of creation.  Things had already been pulled to pieces and reconstructed, so we had great confidence that the material was strong.

I think the cool thing was that we never found a formula, and we never went into the studio and made an album the same way we’d made the last one.  I think that was one of the keys to our success, actually.  We deliberately chose ways to create in a different way.  We usually recorded most of it live, and we’d probably spend about three months on an album, although that seemed like a long time in those days.

Queen were one of the wildest bands of the ‘70s, but you never really got into drugs.

No.  That’s an oddity, isn’t it?  I never felt I needed any drugs, because I felt like I was a little bit on the edge of being emotionally out of control anyway and if I added drugs to that then I would really not be in control.  I like to have a modicum of control over my life.  You couldn’t not be aware that there were a lot of drugs around the band.  I’ve never even smoked pot, although I probably breathed quite a bit in second-hand (laughs).

Is it true that you didn’t actually realise that Freddie Mercury was gay?

No, I didn’t know.  I don’t think even he was fully cognisant in the beginning.  You’re talking to someone who shared rooms with Fred on the first couple of tours, so I knew him pretty well.  I knew a lot of his girlfriends, and he certainly didn‘t have boyfriends in those days, that’s for sure.  I think there was a slight suspicion, but it never occurred to me that he was gay.  In those days it was the fashion to be kind of dandyish, and I suppose we had a hand in creating the fashion, so there was this doubt I peoples’ minds as to whether you might be gay or not.  It was a convenient little place to be.

I remember Freddie being asked if he was gay in one of his early interviews, and he said: ‘Yes, darling, of course.  I am as gay as a daffodil.’  It was a neat way of sidestepping the issue, because actually Fred was no fool.  I know that all through his life, Fred didn’t think that whether he was gay or not was important.  He loved music, he loved his work, and he didn’t want anything to get in the way.  Anyone who portrays Fred as purely a gay story is missing a lot of the point.

In retrospect, his hedonistic lifestyle has sometimes overshadowed his music!

Yes.  That’s a little bit of a sad misunderstanding of Freddie, because he had great joy in everything.  He was a great liver of life.  It was me who wrote that epitaph for him; singer of songs, lover of life.  That’s how he was… he took joy in everything, and I think his greatest joy was his music.  He enjoyed everything to the full, and he had a very free spirit.  I think most of us worry about whether we’re pleasing people or not, but Freddie had the ability to think, ‘No, I’m pleasing myself, and I’m gonna do what I want to do. I have one life and that’s it.’  He totally lived the way he wanted to.

Which of the early Queen albums would you say were the strongest?

I have no idea… I like all of them (chuckles).  It depends on the standards you’re applying.  They were all vital to our development.  One of my personal favourites will always be Queen II, because it was such a giant leap at the time… it was the biggest single leap we ever made.  Suddenly we were able to wield all the power and skills which we’d learned, and we had the indulgence of a little bit of money and bit more time to put them into operation.

All the guitar and vocal harmonies and the orchestration started to take shape on Queen II.  It didn’t make a great thud in terms of sales, because it was so complex, and difficult to put across, which is why we made Sheer Heart Attack very simple.  A lot of people regard that album as a sort of rock upon which things are built, because I think it distilled the rock and roll feeling quite neatly.

A Night At The Opera has a very perfect feel about it, I have to say.  It all dovetails together so well, and the colours all set each other off so well, and musically, there was an enormous jump in complexity.  All the things which we’d started on Queen II we brought to fruition on A Night At The Opera.

What about the later albums?

Strangely enough, a big favourite of mine is Made In Heaven, because we started off with just scraps of pieces of Freddie, although they were very vital scraps.  It was a real labour of love to weave all of that into the things that it might have become if Freddie was around.  An incredible amount of devotion went into that.  It had a feel of tranquillity about it, which was part of the way that Freddie left us.  I also love The Miracle because it had a lightness in the face of impending doom.

What’s your personal highlight from your time in Queen?

I’m just gonna give you a random highlight – the first night at the Budokan in Tokyo, where Freddie had to stop the show because they were rioting and squeezing each other so tight that it looked light they were going to pop.  It was pretty frightening, but wonderfully exciting.  We had been told that the Japanese wouldn’t react or even get out of their seats, and we went on stage and the place erupted into a riot.  We weren’t really rock stars at that point – we were just boys – so to be treated like we were some kind of Beatles phenomenon was astounding.  I remember the chills up my spine to this day.

What are your memories of your performance at Live Aid?

We were given a brief by Bob Geldof, which was quite clear: ‘Play the f**king hits.  It’s a global jukebox.’  We found all of our must instantly accessible hits, and then we put them all together and tailored it to the time required.  Almost nobody else listened to Bob, but because we took his requirement to the letter, it just worked.

We were very focused, and I think we rehearsed for Live Aid for about two weeks.  We used every single second of our time on stage.  I’ve never experienced anything like it.  I remember seeing all those hands in the air and realising that this was not our audience, because most of those people had bought tickets before we were announced.  To see that we could connect on that level, it really did make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Were you terrified?

No, we were just pumped up and full of joy, really.  If Bob hadn’t personally come out and explained what it was really about to us when we were on tour, I  don’t think it would have happened, because Fred was like, ‘oh, I don’t know… who cares?’  He just thought it was going to be a lot of trouble.

Why do you think Queen’s music connects with successive generations of people?

I find myself amazed seeing so many young people coming to our gigs and to our musical.

I get loads of letters from teenagers who completely understand where we’re coming from, which is amazing.  People ask me why I think Queen’s music lasts, and I have really never been able to answer that question.  For some reason our music seems to connect with people on a strange kind of human and spiritual level, and it seems to go across generations as well, which is incredibly lucky, if you want to call it luck.


**Fri 16 Jan 09**

Brian May Guitars have a brand new guitar for a brand new year. The Rhapsody is a small body acoustic, based on the shape of the Brian May Special.

The guitar is fitted with the excellent B-Band pick-up/pre-amp system and available in antique cherry, sunburst and black. Available from Brian May Guitars dealer, priced at £399.

Check out the photos on


**Sun 11 Jan 09**

My Name is Aaron Gallagher. I have recently developed a guitar site

I developed the site to try and help budding guitarists learn to play. Times are tough in the world today and as the economy takes a downturn, people look to other avenues for things they may not have in the past. I have taken this opportunity to try and help some people. I am just trying to spread the word to as many people as possible.

Free and Easy Guitar


**Fri 09 Jan 09**

Check out Planet Rock Radio on Sunday, when Brian May will be on Tony Iommi's show. Possibly repeat of:

Sun 29 Jan 2006


Sunday 11 January, 10pm

Tony Iommi chats to fellow rock gods Brian May, Glenn Hughes, Ian Gillan and Bryan Adams about their favourite songs of all time.


... and as mentioned in Queen News and Soapbox - on Saturday 10 January, Brian will be putting in an appearance at the Dominion Theatre, London, in both Matinee and Evening Perfomances of We Will Rock You.


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