Discoveries Magazine, Michigan
September 1993

Brian May and the Queen Story
Part Two

After amiably parting company with longtime producer Roy Thomas Baker, Queen released News of the World in 1977, featuring the pounding We Will Rock You, which has become a staple at sporting events all across North America, and We Are the Champions. Jazz was next, considered by many to be Queen's weakest album. For the video for Bicycle Race, one of the singles from the album, the band assembled two hundred naked women to race around a track on bicycles.

The Game was released in 1980 and provided Queen's last two big hits stateside: Another One Bites the Dust, penned by Deacon, and Crazy Little Thing Called Love, by Mercury. The video for this one had a leather/motorcycle motif.

It always seemed as if Queen had more of a following in Europe than in the U.S., where the band had always maintained a loyal following. Perhaps the perception that Freddie Mercury was gay, or at the very least bisexual, was a factor. Mercury had eschewed the pomp and glamor of the seventies for the shorthaired "butch" look he was to keep for the rest of his life. In 1980, he was consistently dressing in leather suits. Mercury wasn't the only member of the group to change his appearance. Taylor and Deacon had both shorn off their long locks. Brian May, however, still opted for wearing clogs. Perhaps many of the fans felt uneasy with the change in style, not only in the band's appearance, but in their music as well. Whatever the reason(s) for the group's decline in popularity in America, Queen last toured in the U.S. in 1980 [sic], supporting The Game LP. From that point on, with the exception of Greatest Hits, released in 1981 (platinum), sales here plummeted. "You tend not to tour places that your albums aren't doing well in, but if you don't tour, then...", May pondered.

Queen had worked hard, scoring the soundtrack to the movie Flash Gordon, and in December of 1980 it was released as their next album. Next in 1982 came Hot Space, a throwback to the disco age that had already passed. This album was notable for the inclusion of the collaboration with David Bowie, called Under Pressure, and for a video for Body Language that was banned by MTV. The Works was released in 1984 and eventually went gold. Radio Ga Ga was an outstanding single, and the video featured footage from the movie Metropolis, but it was the film clip for I Want to Break Free that got the most attention. It featured the band all dressed in drag for a sendup of the English soap "Coronation Street." Brian has said that he felt that this video further alienated the American market.

Queen performed at Live Aid in 1985. Bob Geldof, the organizer of the event, thought that Queen was the best band of the day. "I went outside and I heard this sound and I thought, 'God, who's got their sound together?', and it was Queen. The crowd was going crazy. They were absolutely the best band of the day. They played the best, they had the best sound, they used their seventeen minutes or whatever to the best advantage," he told the BBC.

Two outstanding albums, 1986's A Kind of Magic, featuring songs from the Sean Connery/Christopher Lambert film Highlander, and The Miracle (which debuted at #1 in England), released in 1989, failed to chart here.

Queen continued to fill massive stadiums in Europe during the Magic tour, selling out two shows at London's Wembley Stadium and playing the first ever rock concert in Hungary in 1986. They played their last ever live show at Knebworth Park on August 9,1986, playing to over 100,000 people. Freddie decided that enough was enough and that he had no desire to tour for The Miracle album. "I want to break the cycle of album, world tour, album, world tour," he said.

"We didn't know actually what was wrong (with Freddie) for a very long time," May relates. "We never talked about it and it was a sort of unwritten law that we didn't, because Freddie didn't want to. He just told us that he wasn't up to doing tours, and that's as far as it went. Gradually, I suppose in the last year and a bit, it became obvious what the problem was, or at least fairly obvious. We didn't know for sure."

May began to involve himself in various extracurricular projects in his free time. In addition to the Star Fleet Project in 1985 [sic], featuring jams with Eddie Van Halen, May became involved with producing albums for his girlfriend Anita Dobson and for British comedians "The Young Ones," known musically as Bad News. The Bad News album even featured a send-up of Bohemian Rhapsody. He also wrote and recorded the score for a London production of Macbeth. Resigned to the fact that Queen's touring days were over, Brian began jamming on stage with various artists, notably Jerry Lee Lewis and Black Sabbath. Both Mercury and Taylor pursued solo projects as well. People began to wonder if Queen was breaking up, as rumors of internal conflict were rampant. Amid such rumors, Brian stated that "The thing which holds us firmly together is the fact that Queen is a lot better than any one of us."

Dissatisfied with their American label, Capitol Records, Queen signed with Hollywood Records, in 1990, reportedly for ten million dollars. Hollywood's first (and sadly only) Queen studio release was called Innuendo, an excellent album, featuring some great guitar riffs. Released in February 1991, it went gold. One song on the album, The Show Must Go On, seems especially poignant now. "That track was strange. I did most of the lyrics for Freddie to sing, and you can imagine what that felt like," May says as he looks back on a painful time. "I did ask him at one point if he was okay about it and he said, 'Yeah, totally okay about it. I will give it my all.'And he did. I think some of the best vocals of his life are on that track ... He really was very weak by that time, but he could still summon up the strength to sing."

In April, production began on what was to be Queen's last video, These Are the Days of Our Lives. Brian shot his part in Los Angeles and scurried back to London when he heard that Freddie was in dire straits. By now the band had been briefed on the lead singer's real problems with AIDS but were sworn to secrecy to protect his privacy, not even discussing the illness with family or friends. "When your friends look you in the eye and say,'What's wrong?' and you say, 'Nothing,' it's very hard," May remembers. Mercury finally succumbed on November 24, 1991, to the virus that had plagued him for the last two to three years. The funeral that was held a few days later for close family and friends was conducted in the native language of Tanzania [sic]. Mercury was cremated. Brian had this to say about Freddie's death: "Watching him die, the overriding feeling watching that take hold, the inevitable way in which the virus takes over. It was terrible to see how much pain he was in but he didn't want any sympathy, he wanted to be treated as normal." Later at the Brit Awards, Brian May and Roger Taylor announced plans for a concert to benefit AIDS research in tribute to Freddie Mercury to be held at Wembley Stadium. The event was held on April 20, 1992, and was a resounding success. Joining the three surviving members of Queen for the tribute were Guns n' Roses, Elton John, George Michael, David Bowie, Elizabeth Taylor, Roger Daltrey, Extreme, Lisa Stansfield and many others. To commemorate the event, a mini-CD called Five Live, featuring George Michael singing Somebody to Love backed by Queen, and a video of almost the entire show were released this year. All artist royalties were donated to the Mercury Phoenix Trust for AIDS research.

The death of Freddie Mercury signalled the death of Queen. "Internally, we were aware that things would never be the same again. But I think that there was a kind of tacit agreement that Queen couldn't exist without any one of us, especially without Freddie, because he was so much a part of the image of the band. It wasn't like just losing a singer, it was like losing a real heart," May maintained earlier this year. According to Brian, there just might be enough unreleased material from the Innuendo album for a final Queen studio release.

With the demise of Queen behind them, May set about concentrating on his solo career. "I'd wanted to make a solo album for a long time," he says. Back to the Light was spawned from a great deal of personal strife during the preceding five years, culminating of course with the tragic loss of friend and bandmate Mercury. "First my father died, which I found pretty hard to deal with, then my family split up," relates May. "I had to leave my wife and kids, which was just unthinkable for me." Work on the solo project actually began before Mercury's death. In fact, the first song written, Too Much Love Will Kill You, was recorded by Queen with Freddie on vocals during The Miracle sessions in 1989 but was ultimately scrapped.

"In the beginning I wanted to get back to basics and make this record on my own, just to see what happened. In the end I've put this out because I think I actually do have something to say, and it's worth saying. Over these five years, my life and my feelings underwent a catastrophic change. I was determined to be myself," divulges May. Brian thinks that the album still would have been completed and released had Queen continued to exist. "I think the balance would have been a bit changed, but yes it was something I was determined to do, whether or not the group went on." And so Back to the Light became a catharsis, a way of dealing musically and emotionally with some very troubled times. "I gradually realized that a lot of people, in fact most people, went through something like this at some point in their lives, so I began to see the album as some way of talking about it, crystallizing some of those ideas and fears."

The album that emerged showed May to be not only a great guitarist, but an accomplished vocalist as well. Though he had handled lead vocals before with Queen, Brian had been overshadowed by Mercury. May's voice is pleasing to the ear, not as powerful as Mercury's, but fine nonetheless. "Back to the Light isn't a guitar virtuoso album; it is built around the voice, and it is an album of songs which are designed to feature a lot of guitar," May adds. Not only does the album feature guitar prominently, it also showcases Brian's talents on keyboards and piano. Recorded and produced by May at his country studio, the record also utilizes the musical skills of Cozy Powell on drums, Neil Murray on bass and Spike Edney on additional keyboards. Together with Brian, these three musicians formed the crux of May's touring band as well.

The personal feel of the album is what makes Back to the Light work so well. Songs like Back to the Light, Nothin' but Blue, Last Horizon and I'm Scared show an intensity that only comes with experience. Resurrection, one of the best tracks on the CD, is about resolution of conflict.

A children's song, We Will Rock You [sic], is the opening track, followed by the hopeful Back to the Light. Driven by You, the first single from the album, had an interesting beginning as the jingle for a Ford Motor Company commercial in England. "They came up with this slogan, half of which was 'driven by you.' And 'driven by you' just touched off a chord in me, and I probably wrote the song in about ten minutes, the major part of it. I could hear aversion for myself, wherein 'driven by you' meant something about the way I look at life and relationships. So this song is about relationships to me." Driven by You and its follow-up single, Resurrection, have received extensive airplay on rock- oriented ratio. The album ends as it began with the hopeful melody of We Will Rock You (not the Queen song).

Though sales for Back to the Light have been good, they have not been up to Queen standards. May waxes philosophically, "... I'd like to be remembered not just as 'that guy in Queen.' I always had something to say and I'm more proud of this album than anything Queen did because I was totally in control. The sales of Queen's Greatest Hits are phenomenal, but I'm much more excited about my far more modest sales. That's the future, the other stuff is past."

Itching to get out on the road again, May took his band to South America in the fall of 1992 to test the waters, performing a mixture of new tunes and Queen standards. Beginning in February 1993, Brian did something that he hadn't done in 12 [actually 11] years: tour America. The Brian May Band was chosen to open for Guns n' Roses (a band heavily influenced by May and Queen) on their western U.S. dates. May was also booked to headline three shows in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. Playing in the U.S. after such a long absence raised an important question in Brian's mind: "There's always a time when you sort of go, 'I wonder what is out there. I wonder if they still want to see us.' You never know." For the most part the answer was a resounding "Yes!" save for a few hostile GNR audiences, most notably in Austin. "You have to make contact with the people that are out there in those two hours," May says. "You don't get a second chance. If you don't deliver in those two hours, they won't come back." Brian connected in a big way with the audiences for his headlining dates. They were there just to see him.

At the Hollywood Palace show, the last of the U.S. dates, May was in exceptional form, running through an eighty-minute set that included most of the new album along with a few Queen classics, including Tie Your Mother Down, Hammer to Fall, and We Will Rock You. For Love of My Life and '39, Brian let the sold-out audience handle the vocal chores while he sat on a stool and accompanied on guitar, and, needless to say, the guitar playing was riveting.

You could tell that he was truly moved by the experience. The crowd swelled to try to touch him every time he posed near the edge of the stage. You could tell that May was getting used to this frontman thing. His vocal delivery was strong, and it was easy to see that he had been working hard; May changed shirts three times.

The fan who had come all the way from Ohio for the show was elated. He touched May. ("I touched him. I touched him!") Probably still hasn't washed his hand. He was too young to have seen Queen when they were playing in the States. "How did you like the show?" I asked.

He couldn't answer. He was speechless. What I really wanted to know was how he had managed to get the money to travel all the way to California just for a concert. I glanced back at him as I ws leaving the Palace, surrounded by a swarm of people. The look of awe in his eyes said it all.

Brian May has listed Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly, The Stones and, of course, Jimi Hendrix as among his idols. New sensations like Nuno Bettencourt and Slash name May on their idol list. Brian who? He's been around for awhile, spending twenty years with Queen. If the solo ventures are any indication, he'll be around for twenty more.

Brian May is currently finishing up the last leg of his world tour in Europe. There is a possibility that he'll return to the States later this year for a larger headlining tour. See ya there.

Link back to Part 1