The full story of Freddie and co...
Brian May talks Uncut through the comeback of the year
UNCUT: How would you describe the reaction to the news that Queen are going to be touring again?
MAY: I think most people have been stunned by the news. When I stop to think about it, I’m stunned. It is strange to me. As the tour approaches, it feels like my whole body and soul have been tipped upside down. Nineteen eighty-six was the last time we went out under the banner of Queen. I’ve toured on my own since then. But it’s now dawning on me that this huge ball is about to roll again. It’s slightly more exciting than scary, though.
Why Paul Rodgers?
For years, I couldn’t see the point of doing Queen again. I couldn’t visualise it. Then we performed some songs with Paul and it was like a door opened in my mind. It suddenly occurred to me that we could do something which will give people a little bit of what they want but will also take it to a new place. I’m starting to wonder why we didn’t think of it before.
Do you expect to be shot down in flames?
Of course. Almost my entire life has been lived amid a hail of bullets. As far as I’m concerned, it’s nobody’s business but ours. If you think you’re gonna hate it, don’t come.
When Queen first started, do you remember making a conscious decision that everything had to be big, big, big?
We knew we wanted to maximise what we were doing. We wanted to be the fulfilment of the kind of band we wanted to see on stage. We’d look at bands like The Who and The Beatles, see how exciting they were, and realise that we wanted to produce that level of excitement and create that kind of vision into beyond. That was there from the beginning, but we had time to design ourselves as something that suited us. Our aim was to be ready when the opportunity came along and to have something that was unique and special. We always had that arrogance about us.
Would you agree with Freddie that Queen had more in common with Liza Minnelli than Led Zep?
We were a mix of both those things. We embraced the value of bands like Free. They were a huge influence on us. But the way we presented ourselves was very different. I’m not sure it was necessarily a showbiz thing. But we did use every device possible to make an audience go “wow!” We used costumes, lights, every dramatic effect we could think of. We wanted to provide a complete entertainment. We wanted people to feel wrung out by the time a Queen show was finished. We felt the need to blind the audience and stun them to the point where they could take no more. At the same time it had to feel like a celebration.
Did “Bohemian Rhapsody” change everything?
Quite honestly, “Bo Rap” wasn’t that big a deal to us. It was a pivotal moment for us. But it was one of many, many pivotal moments. With each album came new territory, a new way of thinking. We needed every album to be ground-breaking for us. When we sat down to start work on an album, the first thing we’d do was pull everything apart. Then we’d put it all back together in a new way. “Bo Rap” was just one of the things that came out of that approach.
When you hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” has yet again been voted Best Single Of All Time, aren’t you tempted to say, “Actually, there’s loads of better songs than that”?
Quite honestly, I don’t think there are any better songs. I certainly can’t think of any. Even the Stones… I don’t think they did anything to match “Bo Rap”. Having said that, I’d agree that The Who were a better band than Queen.
Do you have any idea what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about?
I think I know what Freddie was trying to say in his lyrics. But everyone seems to have their own take on it. For me, that’s the beauty of it. It’s not that I’m trying to preserve the mystery. The mystery will preserve itself no matter what I say. It was Freddie’s baby. He never explained it, and I think he was right not to do so.
Freddie once said that all Queen songs are meaningless except for some of yours.
Well, Freddie did have a lovely way of dismissing everything. He’d say that Queen were completely disposable. But I’m not sure he meant it. As far as our songs go, I don’t think they were enigmatic or meaningless. Queen were never enigmatic. We were always totally upfront about everything. As for being meaningless, I’m not sure that songs need to have a meaning. They’re not like a piece of prose. The best songs speak directly to the emotions and I’m not sure it’s important what they’re supposed to mean.
Did people miss the humour in Queen?
It was missed by some people. Especially the press, who seemed hell-bent on having a dig at us. That still goes on. So I wasn’t the least bit surprised that, before we’d played a single note with Paul Rodgers, people were telling us we shouldn’t be doing it. I suppose Queen are the sort of band that people either love or hate. Nobody ever says, “Queen are OK.” Maybe that’s a good thing.
Why do you think Queen survived punk when so many other bands were put to the sword and never recovered?
I don’t think we were bothered by fashions and punk seemed like a fashion to me. One of our great strengths was that we thought of ourselves as international. Even if punk had made us unfashionable for six months in England, it wouldn’t have mattered because we had the rest of the world. So we never felt threatened by it. If anything, it had a small influence on us in that, after experimenting with very complex arrangements on A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, we went back to a rootsier thing with News Of The World.
It has to be said, Queen knew how to throw a party.
We did like a party, yes. As for what went on at those parties, our standard line is that a lot of excessive things might have gone on but we didn’t see them. The thing about Queen is that we knew when to work and when to play. Life on the road was pretty full-on. To be what we were, we had to live it to the full. We could never have been a weekend rock’n’roll band. It had to be a full-time thing. And, yes, I’d go along with the theory that we were organised in our excess.
Did things get out of control in the early ’80s?
We moved out to Munich to isolate ourselves from normal life so we could focus on the music, and we all ended up in a place that was rather unhealthy. A difficult period. We weren’t getting along together. We all had different agendas. It was a difficult time for me personally. Some dark moments. But it was only after Queen that things properly caved in for me. But I don’t want to get into that…
“Fat Bottomed Girls” and “We Will Rock You” are two of your compositions. What was the thinking behind them?
With “Fat Bottomed Girls”, I was trying to write about the feelings I had about being on the road. Good title, too, in my opinion. “We Will Rock You” came to me in the middle of the night. I just wanted to write a song that the audience could participate in. But the lyrics are about the ages of man and the ultimate futility of violence.
Do you ever hear one of Queen’s songs on the radio and think, “Bloody hell, there’s no escape!”?
Honestly, no. You never get fed up hearing one of your own songs on the radio. It’s always a thrill. Occasionally, it would be nice to step out of being me for a while. Not that there’s anyone else I’d rather be. But there are times when I’d rather not be Brian May the rock star. That would be very refreshing.
In the build-up to Live Aid, were you aware of how important the event was going to be for Queen?
Basically, I took Bob Geldof at his word. He said to me: “You’re the biggest band in the world. We need you on the bill because we need to sell this thing worldwide. It’s a global jukebox so just go out there and play the fuckin’ hits.” So all we did was go out there and give people what they wanted to hear. Compared to most of the other acts, we had the advantage because we were used to playing football stadiums all around the world.
Would you agree that, after Live Aid, the rest of Queen’s career was an anti-climax?
Not really. I mean, a year after Live Aid we filled Wembley Stadium on our own as part of the biggest tour of our lives. Then we finished off with a night at Knebworth that set the attendance record. We had our finales after Live Aid and, looking back, I’m just glad we quit when we were at the top.
Any regrets about dressing up as a penguin for the “I’m Going Slightly Mad” video, or as a housewife for “I Want To Break Free”?
Absolutely not. My attitude was always, “OK, let’s give it a go.” We weren’t afraid to go down any road. The idea for putting us in drag for “I Want To Break Free” came from Roger’s girlfriend. I thought it was a fantastic idea, even though it caused us inestimable damage in America. A lot of places around the world just couldn’t handle Queen in drag. The penguin costume, that was a different kind of fantasy. But it was all fun to me.
How difficult was it to make your final recordings when Freddie’s health was deteriorating?
For all of us, the studio was always a great escape from the worries and the cares of real life. Because you go in and you’re completely immersed in the music. Freddie was always a joy in the studio. Always full of ideas. That continued right to the end. For him, it was a great lifeline. So those last recordings weren’t trying. Quite the opposite.
Through the ’90s up to the present, how difficult was it to live in the shadow of Queen?
Queen was such an amazingly charged environment. When it all stopped, that became impossible for me. Looking back, I was grieving. For Freddie, mainly. But also for the end of the band and the end of my marriage. I’d be doing my solo things, but there was no getting away from Queen. I worked very hard at running away from it. Then I realised that running was futile. Why should I have to fight the very thing I worked so hard to build up all those years? Why can’t I be proud of it? So I stopped running. Then I got to this point where I could see the sense of going out on the road with Queen again.
This forthcoming tour – will it be any good?
It won’t be the same as it used to be, that’s for sure. It has to be different, and it’s the fact of being something different that’s part of the reason for me doing it. If I thought it was going to be like a Queen tribute band, I wouldn’t be bothering. I have a good feeling in my water that this is the right time for it to happen and that it’s meant to be. Will it be any good? I think it’s going to be bloody marvellous.
Interview: Jon Wilde