Discoveries Magazine, Michigan
September 1993

Brian May and the Queen Story
Part One

by Gail Benzler

(contribued by JuliePie (who ahs kindly supplid notes i brackets where they are facual errors)

Itt has been a year and half since AIDS tragically claimed the life of one of rock's leading showmen, Freddie Mercury, frontman extraordinaire of Queen. In that time, Queen has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity that the band had not enjoyed in the U.S. for quite some time. Riding the crest of that resurgence is Brian May, who, with his first solo album Back to the Light on Hollywood Records, is making a name for himself as a solo performer.

Back to the Light is an outstanding effort. If you haven't picked it up yet, I suggest that you do so.

I had the opportunity to see Brian perform twice this year, as the opening act for Guns n' Roses in Sacramento April 4th and as the headliner at the intimate (how can any place in L.A. be intimate?) Hollywood Palace two days later. I took a friend to the Palace show, gushing all the way there about how great the show was going to be and what a Queen fan I was becoming as we listened to May's new album and assorted Queen songs during the four-hour drive. Although not a big Queen fan, she went along (o.k., I dragged her) because "Hell, it's free!" After the show was over (incidentally, the show was taped by Westwood One for later radio broadcast), I asked her what she thought of the evening and in particular May's performance over a late dinner at the IHOP [International House of Pancakes restaurant]. "Well, he's a bit of a nerd-- c'mon, he looks so out of place and awkward up there. He didn't know what to do with his hands during that one song where he didn't have the guitar (she's mimicking Brian now to the amazement of the two other customers in the restaurant). He's all legs and hair, not very graceful, but (expletive) can he play!"

When asked what I had been up to recently, I would say, "I'm working on a story about Brian May."

Invariably the response would be, "Who's that?"

"The guitarist for Queen. Legendary guitarist."

"Oh yeah, he's great. Love that Bohemian Rhapsody. Did you see Wayne's World?

To avoid this later, I learned like Pavlov's dog to say, "Brian May, guitarist for Queen." It just saved time.

It struck me that none of this would have occurred in England (or most of Europe for that matter), where for the past 15 years of so Queen has held court as the real royalty there. Their accomplishments were stellar, album sales in the neighborhood of two hundred million dollars worldwide, twenty singles in the U.K. top ten, eight in the U.S. top twenty, seventeen U.K. top ten albums, four in the top twenty at one time, fourteen gold albums in the U.S. (four of which went on to achieve platinum status), playing to sold-out stadiums all over Europe, including the first rock concert ever in Hungary in 1986, scoring two major motion picture releases, collecting two hundred nude female bicycle racers for a video. And nobody in Britain had to ask, "Brian who?"

All of this is not news, of course, to those die-hard Queen fans here in the Colonies, held together by one of the largest and best fan networks I've ever seen. They were at the Palace show en masse. One had travelled all the way from Ohio to see May. They've always kept the faith, these fans. Never mind that before the Wayne's World movie was released featuring the infamous Bohemian Rhapsody clip, May was able to leisurely walk about Los Angeles with nary a second look. Queen just wasn't "happening" stateside. I remember when, not too long ago, my eight-year-old daughter came home with a cassette tape of that Vanilla Ice guy (where is he now?) singing Ice Ice Baby. I played Queen's Under Pressure for her with that percolator riff. "Oh, they copied Vanilla Ice," she said. She loves Queen now. ("I want hair like Brian's," she says. Fickle.) Last year Bohemian Rap [sic] was rereleased in the U.S. in conjunction with Wayne's World, where it topped the charts [actually #2], beating the number nine showing it had originally made in 1975 [actually 1976]. Queen was back, and it seemed as if Hollywood Records' ten-million-dollar gamble had paid off. In spades.

Queen's and indeed Brian May's journey to the highest echelon in rock and roll music began forty-six years ago in Hampton Hill, Middlesex in England, just a stone's throw away from London. Brian, an only child, grew up in the middle-class, suburban comforts that his father Harold provided through his position as an electronics engineer with the Department of Defense. A star student at an early age, Brian obtained a scholarship to Hampton Grammar School at the age of eleven, where he excelled in mathematics and physics. Academics, however, were not his only interest.

Early on, Brian's father provided him with piano lessons and a small acoustic guitar. "All through his childhood, music had been Brian's main hobby, but we had thought of it only as a hobby," Harold May has been quoted as saying. Soon what started as a hobby became more serious as May began jamming with anyone he could, playing in a variety of garage type bands in the early sixties. Unable to afford the expensive Fender guitar he coveted, Brian, along with his father, designed and built a very unique instrument of his own, made from ordinary materials found about the house. The neck of the guitar was carved from a mahogany mantelpiece and the fretboard decorated with mother of pearl buttons scoured from Mrs. May's jewelry box. Father and son then designed a moving bridge to solve the problem of snapping strings. Two motorcycle valve springs were incorporated to help keep the guitar in tune when the tremolo arm was used. Other ingenious supplies used in the guitar's design included a knitting needle and some old bookshelves. The instrument that emerged after two years of hard work had a very distinctive sound that is still prized as Brian's favorite guitar for both stage and studio work.

By 1967, Brian had enrolled in a honors degree program at Imperial College in London with aspirations of becoming a infra-red astronomer. Eager to put his new guitar to good use, May tacked a note on the school bulletin board looking for prospective musicians to join a band. Old friend Tim Staffell from the Hampton Grammar School days was one of the first to respond, and, along with a drummer named Roger Taylor, Smile was born. Tim, a vocalist, had been a part of Brian's first real band, 1984 (also including Dave Dilloway on rhythm guitar, John Granham on bass guitar and Richard Thompson on drums), formed around 1964. After putting in a lot of rehearsal time in what free time they had, Smile began playing the London college and pub circuits. The band was good enough to attract a somewhat loyal following, and, in 1968, after May had received an honors degree in physics, Smile was signed by Mercury Records, a U.S.-owned company, to cut a record. With producer John Anthony at the helm, they recorded a single, Earth, backed with Step on Me, written by Staffell and May. Unfortunately for the group, Mercury Records was devoid of any real base in the U.K., and, after the single made a less than impressive showing in the American charts, to no one's surprise, Smile was dropped from the label. (Earth is now among the most sought after of Queen-related records and can be more easily found on underground recordings, most notably the Tribute bootleg). Brian commenced his postgraduate work in infra-red astronomy, and, disenchanted, Staffell began to pursue solo efforts that never quite gelled. Neither May nor Taylor saw themselves as frontmen, and so the search was on for a lead singer. With Smile on the back burner, Brian took a post at a comprehensive school in London teaching mathematics to make ends meet.

During Smile's brush with the "big time," May had become acquainted with Fred Bulsara, an art student and roommate of Roger's. Taylor and Bulsara, who was born in Tanzania, ran a second-hand clothing boutique in London. Fred, never one to shy away from giving advice and voicing his opinions, constantly offered suggestions on everything from the band's on-stage appearance to why he would make a great lead singer. "You should do more original material," Fred told them again and again, "and I'd love to sing it!" Even though he had no real experience fronting a band, Bulsara, now known as Freddie Mercury, was indeed asked to join the new and still as yet unnamed band. The real genesis of Queen had begun. They began to rehearse behind closed doors, playing only for close friends, looking for a permanent bassist. After what seemed like an eternity, John Deacon joined the band in 1970, solidifying the lineup that would remain unchanged for over twenty years.

One problem still remained: What to call the band? Brian recalled during a BBC television interview that "We just had a list this long of names. Queen was a name that in the beginning I didn't like very much, but we had a lot of discussion about it. We figured if we were talking about the name then it had something which stuck in your mind." Freddie: "The name lent itself to a lot of things - the theater, very grand, very pompous. It meant so much, it was just one precise label."

It was the pompous and grandiose that became Queen's trademark in the early years especially. "When we were starting off, it was fashionable to just go on stage in your jeans and be dirty, play and put your head down, and never look at the audience. If the audience has a good time, then fine, and we were a reaction to that," May has stated. Glam rock was born! Freddie more often than not showed up for live gigs outrageously dressed in platform shoes, wearing complete facial makeup and nail polish (one hand only, dears). Journalists noted that all of the band members dressed in "feminine fashion," Brian especially, with his flaring shirts and jackets augmenting his long and thin physique.

By 1971, the group had started playing live gigs in and around London. According to Brian, Queen had little doubt that they were going to make it big. "I think we always had big egos. I don't know if that's the right word. We always believed that we had something special and that we could do what anybody else did." They were getting noticed.

By the next year, 1972, things had started to move quickly. A demo tape was recorded at De Lane Lea Recording Studios in London (engineered by old friend John Anthony, who'd produced that ill-fated Smile single). Roy Thomas Baker, a fledgling producer with his own production company, impressed with Queen, shopped the demo around, seeking a contract. It would be Baker who would guide the group through their first five albums. After months of searching, Queen finally signed with EMI/Parlophone, the same label that signed the Beatles. Jack Nelson, an American, came on board to manage the band. The rest of 1972 was spent cutting their first album, simply titled Queen.

The band's debut album hit the streets in both England and the States in 1973 and eventually achieved gold status in both countries. A May-penned song, Keep Yourself Alive, was chosen as the first single, receiving limited airplay on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the album was generally panned by critics, Queen contained some real gems, most notably Seven Seas of Rhye, Son and Daughter, and Liar. The album also boasted a May/Staffell song, Doing All Right, from the Smile days. By the end of the year, Queen had been voted the second most promising band in England according to a NME reader poll.

Queen II followed in 1974, and, again, though not considered a critical favorite when first released, it is considered a classic now. A concept album, Queen II features a "white" side of mostly May songs and a darker "black" side of songs written mostly by Mercury. Seven Seas of Rhye was reworked for the album and released as a single, doing well in England, Japan and the States. High on the coattails of their success, Queen headed out on their first tour of America in support of British group Mott the Hoople. Unfortunately, Brian May came down with a case of hepatitis, forcing cancellation of most the band's dates when he was immediately deported [sic]. Disappointed, they returned home to begin work on their third album, Sheer Heart Attack.

It was during the recording of the Sheer Heart Attack album that bad luck again struck Queen and Brian in particular. Recovered from his bout with hepatitis, May developed a stomach ulcer. Recording was sporadic, but once completed the new LP proved to be the real breakthrough that propelled Queen to the top. Killer Queen was chosen as the new single, reaching number two on the British charts. "Killer Queen in 1974 was the turning point," says Brian. "It was the song that best summed up our music, and a big hit. We were penniless, you know, just like any other struggling rock and roll band." Killer Queen was penned by Mercury about what he termed a high-priced call girl. Even with their newfound success, Queen was seen as a parody of some of the hard rock bands of the time, most notably Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Still, they were an engaging stage presence, finally headlining a tour of their own in Europe and North America. It was hard not to become transfixed, not only by Mercury's histrionics, but by the sheer excellence of the music. Seeing a real future as a musician, Brian finally abandoned his astronomy career, never completing his post-graduate thesis.

It was on the Sheer Heart Attack tour that Queenmania finally hit, in all places, Japan. Swarms of fans met the band at the airport, holding banners and photos of their favorite band member. Teenage girls screamed themselves silly at the live shows, finally passing out from all the excitement. Queen sold out two nights at Budokan Arena, sandwiching the rest of their Japanese dates in between.

Queen was by the middle of 1975 a very successful band, and a true force to be reckoned with in the rock world. Even so, problems with their manager Jack Nelson finally came to a head. Despite all of their success, the group wasn't being paid according their worth, still being made to survive on a weekly allowance of about 50 each. John Deacon asked for an advance of 4,000 so that he and his pregnant wife Veronica could buy a larger home. The request was denied. This was the final straw, and Nelson was out of the picture, gone but not forgotten. The opening track on the new album, A Night at the Opera, was dedicated to the ex-manager. It was called Death on Two Legs. [I thought it was about Norman Sheffield!]

A Night at the Opera was indeed an innovative effort, forever immortalizing the Queen sound. The grand Bohemian Rhapsody was an especially good example, with over 180 vocal overdubs and numerous guitar multi-tracking. Coming in at six minutes in length, the final version, spliced from countless takes, was replete with "Galileos" and "Figaros," giving a true operatic effect to the song. "It wasn't all recorded in one go," producer Roy Thomas Baker recalled. "We did the whole of the first section and the rock section, and for the middle part we just hit some drums now and then, after which it was just basically edits. The basic vocal track was done in a two-day period." Bohemian Rhapsody was hardly the only track of note on the LP. May's Prophet's Song, another epic tune, was more of the same. The whimsical '39 is still a live favorite, as is the singalong Love of My Life (both were played by May on his solo tour earlier this year). John Deacon's You're My Best Friend and Roger Taylor's I'm in Love with My Car were also standouts. All in all, A Night at the Opera was a resounding success, showing the group's diversity and talents.

To further promote Bohemian Rhapsody, a video clip was made, bringing the cover of the Queen II album to life. Filmed in about four hours and costing about 4,000 to produce, the film helped to bring about the "video revolution."

By the time that the next album, A Day at the Races, was released in 1976, Queen songs were becoming easily recognizable. Their sound was unique, incorporating Freddie's powerful voice, Brian's distinctive guitar riffs and those characteristic vocal harmonies. May ws known as the king of the guitar multitrack, a technique he used to good advantage.

Link to Part 2