by Jen Tunney, www.Brianmay.com
CHARLOTTE GREEN: Well it's time now to meet my guest on Classic FM, this week - the very talented Brian May. Now I've thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking to the Queen guitarist ahead of the release of his new photographic autobiography called “Queen in 3-D. It's really amazing and a beautifully produced book. It uses something called stereoscopy to show photos of the band as we've never seen them before - although I hadn't heard of stereoscopy before either, but it is very clever albeit a little hard to describe, but I think I'll leave it to Brian to elaborate on that and to tell you about his love of classical music but we began by discussing how this new book came about.
BRIAN MAY: It was almost an accident really. I didn't set out to document as we went along. I just happened to always have a 3D camera ‘cos I loved it, you know. I'm still fascinated by 3D photography and I had been for well most of my life since I was about 12 I suppose - ever since I opened a Weetabix packet and found a stereo card in there and figured out how it was done, I’ve just loved it, you know. It's in depth and a flat picture is nice - I like normal photography - but a picture in depth in 3D is SO evocative - is so incredibly vivid and you, and you get a viewer with the book so you can see these things like you're looking through a window and you’re actually there at the scene and, yeah, I always loved it. Always carried the camera - different kinds of cameras. I collected the stereo cameras. Apart from anything else I loved the earthiness and there was no plan to it. It was like, “Oh let's take some pictures let's do this”. And sometimes we would arrive at a venue and I would give my stereo camera to one of the local photographers and say, “You snap away and see what you get”, and I used to have to say, “Don't turn it on its side”, cos you can't do that with stereo, otherwise you have to view it on your side. And occasionally they would get some great shots of us on stage and this is Freddie stuff, of course, you know and it's great to see Freddie alive and well and vibrant and you know everything there from the muscles, the sweat. It's so it's so different in 3D. You really feel like you…
CHARLOTTE: It is extraordinary. I mean you're right aren't you. There’s something very evocative about it. Is it because of the depth that you get?
BRIAN: Yeah, well it's the way we see the world anyway you know.
CHARLOTTE: Yes that’s true.
BRIAN: Those of us, unless we're unlucky enough to have impaired vision in some way, we have these two eyes for a very good reason -we've evolved that way - and if you if you cover one eye and keep your head still you quickly realize how much you're missing. The amount of information you get from that stereoscopic experience is vastly more than you would get otherwise, so why would you make pictures in in a flat form when you can make pictures, which reproduce how we see the world? So to me it's kind of a no-brainer. It's gotta be better and you know there's various mechanisms sorry …
CHARLOTTE: I was going to say it is very beautiful to look at and I like physical books anyway. There's something about holding a physical book. I don't find e-books in any way the same.
BRIAN: I'm the same. I love the paper and I love the tactile quality of it. And also this is a very Victorian thing. We've seen 3D in the movies now, and I think James Cameron did a wonderful job of bringing respectability to 3D movies because he did it right, but the best 3D is the intimate Victorian way which is with your viewer. You're on your own with your viewer in your sort of virtual reality space. Now VR is basically stereoscopy. It's the same thing except you've got the 360 trick added on.
So in a sense it's full circle when you're in your VR kit you know, and I make one of these as an OWL VR kit, you're in your own world very much like the Victorians were when stereoscopy was first invented. They all had their viewers. They'd sit in their parlours at night and exchange stereo cards with each other. You can see all the stereo views of that. So to me is very exciting. You’re so keyed in it's like a time machine almost.
CHARLOTTE: Was it difficult to decide what to put in and what to keep out? I know it took you about three years to produce the book.
BRIAN: Yes it did.
CHARLOTTE: A labor of love.
BRIAN: It was definitely, yeah and in the beginning I didn't think we'd have enough pictures. I thought well this is gonna be a small book. you know and I’ll just write a few words and it’ll be a nice picture book and then my archivist - I'm so proud to say I have an archivist - he's like the co-author and looks after all my stuff, he ransacked my house and found literally, well, a number of hundreds of stereo pictures that I'd squirreled away in odd corners and some of them had never looked at ‘cos they've never been properly mounted, including some wonderful ones of Freddie backstage and it's us fooling around a lot of the time, you know, It’s us on stage which is nice,. You have the glory of the lights and stuff with offstage in cars and planes and trains and boats, dressing rooms radio stations - it's all there - and the problem in the end was what to leave out. It is very pretty difficult and I think the outtakes will be on an internet site someplace because there's some great books I didn't manage to put in there. But there's a whole load of stuff in there really. We were able to be very picky.
CHARLOTTE: Yes - and the offstage stuff I think it works so well because you all look so relaxed and as if you have, and particularly Freddie actually having a really good time.
BRIAN: Yes. Yeah.
CHARLOTTE: I like it too.
BRIAN: I think Freddie was actually quite a sort of shy person and very often if there was a cameraman around he would kind of stiffen up to a certain extent that he was doing his face and his pose, you know, but he was so used to me having a camera he was relaxed about 3D stuff and as there's a couple of pictures in there - well there's one particular one where he's taking a picture of me at the same time I'm taking a picture of him and you can see he's just having fun, and that's a precious thing to see now. I never thought that it would become a book. It never occurred to me at the time. It was just fun at the time. It was very instant.
Now Freddie had his Polaroid camera which in those days was a massive deal like that never happened before. You could take a picture and go “Bzzz” and you have your picture there in front of you because up to that time you'd have to send them away and wait for the processing and maybe they got lost in the post. It was a tortuous tau process. Suddenly it's instant and that was a huge deal. We're all used to it now with everyone has a phone camera, so all these stereo pictures were also not instant. I had to send them away and sort of bite my fingernails until they came back,but having got them they’re a precious kind of window to the past.
CHARLOTTE: Well they are wonderful. Well let's pause there ‘cos we're going to play some music now. This is the Adagio from the “Queen Symphony” by Tolga Kashif. Before we play it I wondered what your thoughts were on other people taking your music and giving it the classical treatment?
BRIAN: Interesting. Well we know, we got to know Tolga and he's a fantastic guy and it was obvious from the start that his heart was in the right place and also that he was coming to it from a creative view rather than a sort of commercial view, ‘cos we've had a lot of people - there have been quite a few classical sort of transcriptions of Queen stuff, and generally it's not that successful, you know. You have a strange feeling when they sometimes you got a rhythm section and an orchestra fits very uncomfortably. Tolga came to it with the idea of just creating something using these pieces which were all in his mind, It was, it wasn't academic. It was very much instinctive with him and we instantly took to him and I loved what he came back with. I think it's really great you know. He made no attempt to be complete. It was just “I'm doing something I'm making something out of what I feel when I listen to your music”, so it's great. I love it.
CHARLOTTE: Encompassing the songs ‘Who Wants To LIve Forever’ and ‘Save Me’, that's the 3rd Movement of Tolga Kashif's “Queen Symphony” performed by Nicola Loud and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and I'm playing that because my guest on Classic FM this week is the Queen guitarist, Brian May. Now aside from music Brian has a PhD in astrophysics and I asked him what it was that got him interested in Astronomy in the first place.
BRIAN: Patrick Moore.
CHARLOTTE: Ah was it.
BRIAN: it was definitely Patrick, yeah. You know I used to beg to be allowed [to stay up].
CHARLOTTE: What a character.
BRIAN: Yeah it was 10:00 pm. which was after my bedtime The Sky At Night was on, and it's funny you know this is we're talking classic music aren't we here, you know, the programme was introduced by a piece which Patrick himself chose called ‘At The Castle Gate from Pelléas and Mélisande by Sibelius, and it’s so evocative. It’s so stirring . When I when I heard that, I still when I hear that music my whole body gets a chill and I can see the universe - it’s just - and I think that was a big part of the success of the programme, It wasn't what they chose originally he, I forget what they chose but he went, (imitates Patrick) “No, nonsense, we're not having that, we're having Pelléas and Mélisande” . So he was absolutely my, my hero and I wanted to do that. I wanted to be out there in the stars with him and much later in my life I was incredibly privileged to, to meet him [kinda] socially, not due to astronomy oddly enough but due to the fact that we had a mutual friend who was producing radio programmes, and we became great friends. He became like an uncle to me, Patrick, and I was able to kind of in the end rescue him and stop him going into a home and keep him in his house, which is a nice thing. So we became very close and it's thanks to him that I returned to the PhD. I actually got the doctorate 30 years after I’d started it, and I am now Dr May.
CHARLOTTE: Was he prompting you to go back to it?
BRIAN: Absolutely yeah. He said (imitating Patrick) “You can go back to a Brian. ‘Course you can get your PhD.
I went, “Patrick there is no chance”, you know, “This stuff's gone from my head." He said, “No. Rubbish. Course you can do it .” So I got all my old and writings out - everything was written out longhand, transcribed them all into digital on my laptop on tour so my thesis was all there and then I had incredible good fortune -I've been so lucky in my life - I talked about it in an interview saying that I would kind of like to finish off the PhD and I got a message from the Head of Astrophysics at Imperial College, where I started, Professor Rowan-Robinson, and he said if you're serious about this I will be your supervisor and you can finish your PhD. Now how often does that happen to you in life.
So I threw everything up for a year and went back to Imperial College, sat in a little office and became a student and student , you know what? It's hard being a student. I rediscovered it's really, really, really difficult to keep your, your optimism up and I desperately wanted to give up three times I nearly gave up that PhD and that actually that's what PhDs are about. It’s getting through those things…
CHARLOTTE: And focussing.
BRIAN: That’s why when somebody good gets their PhD they want to be called “the doctor”, because they realise that they've been through a kind of war.
CHARLOTTE; Worked really hard, yeah..
BRIAN: Yeah. So…
CHARLOTTE: Was it very difficult because presumably in the interim there must have been a lot of new research being done
BRIAN: Ah yeah it was.
CHARLOTTE: … keep up with that?
BRIAN: I had to rediscover it all 30 years of research. In a sense I was lucky because my area was Zodiacal Dust, which is dust in the solar system and it had become a little bit of a backwater in astronomical research, because everybody got interested in cosmology which is obviously astronomy on a huge scale. My stuff was astronomy in the backyard of our little solar system but what happened in the interim was, just a couple of years before I came back to it, it was discovered that other Suns have solar systems and in those solar systems there are dust clouds as well, the same as ours, so suddenly the Zodiacal Dust Cloud became something interesting again. How do you study dust clouds? Well you study our own one, so I came back at a great time when suddenly it was interesting to everyone again to study the dust we, and of course these dust particles are the smallest members of our solar system there's quite a lot of them. There’s a lot of rocks in our solar system from the big ones like Jupiter, Saturn or whatever, right down too small planets and comets and asteroids, and then these tiny particles which have come off comets and collisions of asteroids so the whole ensemble is there. You have the whole of creation there and the dust is a big part of it.
CHARLOTTE: Are you ever tempted to become a space tourist I know that people are offering these trips now. Does that appeal to you or not really?
BRIAN: It does in a sense. I'm getting a bit old for it . I'm not sure if I can hack it. I don't really fancy being kind of shot up there and having just a few minutes of weightlessness. I don't think that'd be a lot of fun. If I could sit in the ISS for a couple of weeks, yeah, if somebody offered me that, yeah I think I would do that - just watch the world turn. That must be incredible.
CHARLOTTE: I don't think you'd ever forget that experience would you?
BRIAN: No. I've been I've been in touch with some of the people who, you know, Tim Peake, who was up there I met and a couple of the other astronauts. In fact I've met a lot of people who've been up in the ISS and it sounds great. You know there’s a price to pay. It’s… there’s hard sides to that, but I guess it's a bit like going on tour. You don't see your family for a while.
CHARLOTTE: It certainly is true. Well let's pause there again because we're going to play something from appropriately enough “The Planets by Gustav Holst, and this is ‘Saturn’. Why does his music appeal to you?
BRIAN: Ah, I love Holst, “Planets”. I think he was divinely inspired. He was a schoolteacher. How amazing, you know, and suddenly he's written this incredible cosmic music. I've always loved it from when I was a kid and I was only about 10 years old I think when I wrote a little soliloquy, which I read into a microphone with the accompaniment of ‘Saturn’, and nobody's ever heard that. Maybe they will one day. But it was designed to be a soundtrack for a Planetarium show - that was the idea - so maybe one day I'll do that but I've always loved it. To me it's absolutely evocative and as I say it is something completely out of this world. I can't imagine how, I can't imagine how it was imagined to be honest. You know it's, it's not constructed intellectually as far as I can see. It's one of these things which some somehow he instinctively plucked out of the air. There's so much unusual stuff in Holst’s pieces, you know. T here's a lot of dissonance, which wasn't very prevalent at that time but it wasn't dissonance for its own sake as it perhaps became later- well this is my theory anyway. Everything that's in there seems to kind of jolt you into, into being out there in the cosmos. I can't say enough about it really. It's the most wonderful piece of music all of it you know the whole suite is brilliant. Interesting that he didn't do Pluto and, of course, Pluto is now not regarded as a planet anyway so there's no need to put Pluto in there. I got bit upset when somebody did that. I went to the Albert Hall and saw it all and at the end of it they played this Pluto piece, which I thought was completely inappropriate. Sorry guys, but I just thought it doesn't work. Get it out of here. So I don't think anyone's going to do that anymore.
CHARLOTTE: No, no.
BRIAN: There’s no need.
CHARLOTTE: Well we're going to hear it now but Brian thank you very much indeed. This has been a real pleasure. Thank you.
BRIAN: Thank you Charlotte. Great pleasure for me thanks.
CHARLOTTE: Lovely. Thank you very much.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with ‘Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age’ from “The Planets” by Holst and that's a favourite of Brian May who I hope you'll agree was a charming guest.
The “Queen in 3-D” book is out now so do look out for it.
This week, Charlotte Green welcomes legendary guitarist and songwriter Brian May to Classic FM.