VULTURE: The Best and Most Spectacular of Queen, According to Brian May

By Devon Ivie, a staff writer covering classic rock and TV



“There are a lot of facets to Queen’s music. We entered into so many areas believing we could innovate.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Roy Wells/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Few rockers possess this crazy little thing called crowd awareness quite like Queen. After the band’s founding in the early ’70s, Brian May, Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon were more than happy to oblige their subjects’ need to shout and stomp during a live performance — with May, in particular, relishing the unified grandeur of his guitar with the aura of a well-coiffed Georgian prince. “We opted for this business of having the audience as part of the show,” he recently told me. “And there was never a reason to look back.” It’s just what good monarchs do. In addition to May rereleasing his Star Fleet Sessions supergroup project on July 14, Queen will embark on an American arena tour beginning in October with Adam Lambert once again belting out the hits that were popularized by Mercury. It’s a schedule fit for a polymath like May, who, in addition to co-founding Queen, holds a PhD for his work in the realm of astrophysics. Indeed, he’s a Dr. and a Sir. “I’ve found that the best science,” he explained, “is always done with an artistic instinct.”

Song that doubles as Queen’s thesis statement

I’m sure everyone will tell me it’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it probably is. It encapsulates a lot of what we are, what we have been, and what our dream was. There are a lot of facets to Queen’s music. We entered into so many areas believing we could innovate. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has so much content. We had a vision in our heads and a collective dream in the very early days because we were in an atmosphere of change, innovation, and new freedoms. We grew up with our influences as everybody does, but we were lucky enough to grow up just as rock and roll was being born. I will eternally be grateful for that. Being able to hear Little Richard for the first time on the radio and Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley — the beginnings of the stirrings of the voice of the generation that was going to be ours.

We had a dream that we would be songwriters. We would be creators. And underneath all that would be something very imponderable, thrilling, heavy, and challenging. I suppose inspired by all the stuff that was happening as we were starting to evolve as a group, which was that heavy music was being born. It never was there before. It’s hard to imagine a world where we just didn’t have heavy music here. I mean, you wouldn’t call Buddy Holly heavy now, although at the time people thought he was very cutting edge and dangerous. In the sense, it was. You also wouldn’t think the Shadows were heavy. It’s purely instrumental music, but at the time it had a great edge to it. It felt very dangerous and very exciting. So we wanted all that. We wanted that base layer of what’s new — like the beginnings you can find on Jeff Beck’s Truth album, on Led Zeppelin’s first album, or Black Sabbath’s first album. We wanted to have that as our bedrock. But we wanted to build on it with melody and harmony and tunes, which move people, tell stories, and make people feel something that they never quite felt before. So it’s a big dream. Collectively, we started to work on achieving that dream from the first album onward.

Song that took the longest to appreciate

“Don’t Stop Me Now.” When I first heard it, I knew it had a real tune to it. But next to a lot of the other stuff we were doing, it’s quite light and fluffy. There’s also an indication of recklessness there. At the time, Freddie was zooming out into a different universe. We felt he might be in danger. So I think in the back of my mind, I had a block on this song. I didn’t really want it to be a single. I didn’t really feel that it represented what we were at the time — probably unjustly because it is indeed quite representative. It took me a long time to realize that this is a magnificent anthem in its way. It motivates people. It brings people joy, so why would I stand in the way of that? Now I accept “Don’t Stop Me Now” as one of the great Queen anthems. And it’s taken over. Over the years, it’s climbed and climbed, and it’s on a level with “Bohemian RhapsodyI told May that certain karaoke bars in New York have taken a liking to banning the song due to its length and prevalence. His response: “That’s so funny. That’s probably the greatest compliment of all, right?”” and “Another One Bites the Dust” as one of the most played Queen songs.

My mind shifted when I started to experience it at parties. You suddenly realize as soon as people hear “Don’t Stop Me Now” that they come to life. They get set alight. They start smiling. I just thought, Oh, shit. This is really a good song. Also, selfishly, there wasn’t a lot for me to do on it. That’s something you have to deal with if you’re in a band. This particular song is all about piano, drums, bass, and vocals. There’s just one little spot in the middle where the guitar takes over the vocal line. I like doing that, but I didn’t feel I was very organically anchored into the song. That’s probably another reason why I didn’t really take it that seriously in the beginning.

Song you wish wasn’t eclipsed by the hits

Of course, Queen was very much more than what you hear on the Greatest Hits album. All those billions of streamsQueen has a whopping five songs exceeding the billion-stream count on Spotify. (Try to guess which ones.) are from the Greatest Hits. That’s a separate thing. We have a whole career of creating music in the album format. There’s a lot of depth there, which you don’t generally hear unless you go into it as a devotee if you like.

There’s a million things I wish, in a sense, had gotten a lot of attention. I suppose “The Prophet’s Song” prevails the most. It was the antithesis of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and on the same album. We always thought they were both major works, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” got picked up by radio, and it became the flagship song. Only a few people who are very into the depths of Queen through the years are really aware of what “The Prophet’s Song” means. I’m not going to say I’m unhappy because it’s okay. It really is. The people who are into that stuff are very into it. They understand it, and they get it. They would regard “The Prophet’s Song” as much of an encyclopedia of Queen as “Bohemian Rhapsody” was on the other side. That isn’t anywhere near a billion streams. It just sits on an album there, and people who really want to get into Queen are aware of what that was and what it is.

Among the hits, I’m happy for them all. I’m getting all esoteric about the deep tracks of Queen, but you can’t knock having a hit. There’s an old saying from Tin Pan Alley, which goes, “A hit is a hit is a hit.” You can’t argue with the fact that a hit gets to people, and it becomes embedded in their lives forever. Whenever they hear the strains of that song, a whole flood of emotions will come back into their body. That’s a precious thing. We’re so privileged to have so many hits, which are bound up with peoples’ lives and always will be. We can play a concert and play the first couple of notes of any song and feel that emotional response right away. It’s amazing. What a wonderful thing to have in your quiver of arrows.

How participatory songs shaped Queen’s future

It wasn’t common to have a participatory concert experience with the audience when we started it off. You didn’t go to a Led Zeppelin concert and sing along. It wasn’t cool. Black Sabbath, you didn’t do that. So when people started doing it for our songs, our first reaction was, “Why don’t they just listen? What’s going wrong here?” And then it became enormous. There’s one particular instance that happened in Bingley Hall in Staffordshire. It’s in the middle of England — the Midlands. The crowd wouldn’t stop singing. They sang every note of every song, every word. When we went offstage, they kept on singing. We just looked at each other and thought, “This is new. This is a phenomenon. It seems we shouldn’t be fighting this. We should be embracing it.”

I went away and wrote “We Will Rock You,” trying to imagine what an audience could do if they’re all crammed in and can hardly move. What can they do? They can stomp their feet, clap their hands, and chant. And Freddie went off and wrote “We Are the Champions.” Both of those songs were very deliberately angled at allowing the audience to be part of the show. In fact, inviting them to be part of the show. From then on, we became a band that was absolutely dedicated to making our shows an interactive experience. It’s gone on. The funny thing is that it’s become common now in all kinds of music. So it’s something I feel proud of. It’s something which we pioneered at some pain. There are things to consider when it comes to these matters. You always gain something, and you lose something.

Mercury and May, in the ’70s and ’80s, respectively. From left: Photo: Nigel Wright/Mirrorpix/Getty ImagesPhoto: PA Images via Getty Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Song diptych that works as well as ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are the Champions’

I don’t think there’s another set of songs that fit the bill. “Bicycle Race” and “Fat Bottomed Girls” were conceived in a related kind of way. Sometimes we link them in concert because there’s a connection. They were both written around the time when we were recording in the south of France. The Tour de France was coming through, so there’s that whole jumbled set of concepts there. But with “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” it’s something that just works. It was almost designed that way. I had it happening in my mind long before it happened in the real world.

The funny thing is we had a lot of disputes about it within the band. It wasn’t really agreed that “We Will Rock You” should start News of the World. There was an opinion in the band that nobody was going to play it, and it wasn’t a good opening track. But I pushed. For once, I won the argument, and the next track was “We Are the Champions.” It was a wonderful combination. “We Will Rock You” is so jagged, open, and asking questions. And then “We Are the Champions” is a perfect fulfillment of what the other song was trying to get to. The first time I put them together, I thought it was a match made in heaven. But when it came to doing singles, I lost that argument. The democratic conclusion of the band was that “We Are the Champions” should be the single and “We Will Rock You” should go on the B-side, even though I thought it should be the opposite. What happened was once the Americans got hold of it, they made their own pressings, and it became the other way by popular vote. I was happy about that because I always loved the sound of that combination on my radio. It never gets old to me. It always sounds fresh and fulfills its promise.

Most spectacular guitar moment

The first time I felt there was a shining moment on something was a song I didn’t organically fit into that well in the beginning. That would be “Killer Queen.” I was ill in the hospital when the band started laying it down. They had already recorded some harmonies for it and some chorus vocals. I felt they were very harsh, and it didn’t quite fit the song. So Freddie said, “That’s okay, darling. We’ll do it again when you come out. We’ll scrub it all, and we’ll start again,” which they did. We started singing the harmonies — and again, realized this was a monumental song.

I got into this business of using the guitar as an orchestral instrument. It was always part of my dream. But it happened more and more as time went on. The solo for “Killer Queen” is a three-part thing. I don’t think anyone else had ever attempted something like that. There’s three parts not just paralleling each other in harmony, but, as a counterpoint, working off each other. There’s this little bell effect, which I stole from a traditional jazz group called the Temperance Seven. That’s something in my DNA. I love the business of adding instruments in and building up harmonies. So it came out of my head, and I was able to translate it into the guitar very quickly in the studio, even though it’s fairly complex. For the first time, I had a real exposition of the way I wanted guitars to work. I could take things to the next level of the guitar — not just being something you could play or put a harmony line on. It could be a place where you’re treating the guitar like Glenn Miller would treat his brass, by giving each a voice and a chance to express itself.

Each of those parts is played with my kind of passion, and it all fits together. I love that track. I think it’s a perfect example of my guitar playing. It’s not wildly exciting and heavy and explosive, but it fits the song really nicely. I love that song as a work of art. I think it’s one of Freddie’s masterpieces. It’s a triumph of having lots of stuff in it but having lots of space, which is hard to do. It’s like a painting. Imagine a Baroque painting. Everything has its space and can be enjoyed in an uncluttered kind of way.

My favorite live moment would be standing on the roof of Buckingham Palace and playing my own arrangement of the national anthem. It opened the Queen’s Golden JubileeHeld in 2002, it celebrated 50 years of Queen Elizabeth ascending the throne. and was met with big fanfare. I’m up there alone on the top of Buckingham Palace with a billion people wired in from all around the world. It was completely live and without any kind of safety net. I was terrified. I mean, the amount of fear to face in that situation was colossal. I’ve never quite experienced that again in my life, and I’m sure I never will. I felt like I was called upon to represent rock music of the last 50 years. I was humbled by it but at the same time incredibly adrenalized. I had a distressed jacket made, which had a faded Union Jack on the inside with the names of a lot of songs that powered rock and roll through that period of time. The greatest thing is I didn’t fuck it up. It would’ve been so easy to be the guy forever who screwed up on top of Buckingham Palace live in front of a billion people. I didn’t, so thank you, God. That was a moment of religion for me.

Song that always reminds you of Freddie

“The Miracle.” I love that track because it’s so delicate and full of hope and light. Freddie wrote it at a time when he must have already known that the futureMercury died in November 1991. The cause was bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. was not going to be that great for him. I think he had some inkling of what the future might hold. It’s just beautiful and so innocent. It talks about modern innovations in the world in a very appreciative way. It neatly sidesteps all the evil in the world and all the terrible things that were happening to him and his friends. I just love it. It’s probably the lightest track we ever did, but to me, it has a great weight because there’s so much spiritual content. I like what I did on it with the guitar as well — but my stuff is icing on the cake. It’s Freddie, that little keyboard, and his voice. The lyrics are just sensational. It still evokes tears in me.

Song most influenced by physics

The one that springs to mind is “’39.” It was designed to sound like a folk song that would be sung in the future. It’s a story about some people who go out to try and find new worlds for humanity to exist. They go about close to the speed of light. Because of the Einsteinian time-dilation effect, they don’t age at the same rate as people back on Earth age. I designed it so that by the time they got back, they would’ve aged just one year but everyone on earth would’ve aged 100 years. So the astronaut comes back and looks for his wife and his family. They’re gone, and he sees his descendants instead. That’s the theme of the song — it’s scientifically inspired. But what really got me was the emotional content and the human content, because I thought this could really happen. It’s not really science fiction. It could be science fact. This could happen in the future. How would that feel if all your loved ones were gone and you’re looking at your grandchildren or your great-grandchildren? What an extraordinary thing that would be. So I guess it’s technically a science-fiction story, but something not beyond the realms of possibility.

I don’t know anyone who wrote time-dilation lyrics apart from me. I love this business of me being able to sit on the cusp between art and science. It’s what I always wanted in my life because I was told as a kid that I couldn’t do that. People said, “You have to choose between being an artist and being a scientist.” And I went, “I don’t want to choose. I want my life to be full of everything.” Why would I be cutting myself off from music if I decide to be an astronomer? Of course, it’s nonsense. I don’t know why people were telling us that. Most of the great astronomers from Isaac Newton downward were musicians, too. A lot of musicians that you would call to mind have a fascination with astronomy like I do. So I went full pelt on bothMay was awarded a PhD by Imperial College London in 2007 for “a survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud.” You can read it here!.

How Shaun of the Dead’s use of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ revitalized the song for you

It’s a delightful scene, isn’t it? I’m being honest here; this type of stuff happens at a distance. Mainly when somebody wants to put our music in the film, I think, Oh, great. If you really hate the concept of the film, you can say no. Which we sometimes do if it’s abusive. Some of the things we get asked to put Queen music on we really don’t like and reject it. We have the ability to say no. Shaun of the Dead obviously passed the selection process. At that time, there were quite a few filmsCompared to contemporaries such as, say, the notoriously selective Led Zeppelin, Queen is known for their generosity with music rights. Per IMDb, they have made 511 soundtrack appearances. using our music, which was great. It’s not something I take for granted. But it didn’t change my life because the songs are out there, I suppose. When it gets to that point, it’s like you’ve said goodbye to your child. This child is out there standing on his own two legs. I don’t feel particularly paternal about “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

There are some songs that I do feel a bit more attached to. I always take a great interest in the way “We Will Rock You” is used because I don’t want it to be trivialized or devalued. It doesn’t mean I don’t like comedy. I love comedy. That’s okay for me. But if it becomes commonplace, I think that would be upsetting for me. I would like “We Will Rock You” to always be some kind of a call that hits you viscerally. From time to time I’ve said, “No, I don’t want this to happen.” If somebody puts new words in, “We will something you,” it becomes, ugh. That’s a no every time. It’s something that I suppose everybody wrestles with. We’re lucky to be able to wrestle with it. What a nice problem to have.

For instance, my song “Flash” is very cartoonlike. I wrote it for the Flash Gordon movie. A few years ago these people came to us and said, “Can we use ‘Flash’ for a floor cleaner?” There’s a floor cleaner actually called Flash. I don’t know if you have it in the States, but across the pond, it’s quite a big product. At first I thought, I don’t want this. This is just going to trivialize it. It’s making a mockery of my song. And then I thought, Hang on, Brian. You’re being too self-conscious about this. The song has a sense of humor to it. It’s deliberately cartoonish. I saw the script and I thought, This is actual humor. It makes people laugh, so why not? And they’re going to give us money for doing it. I like money. I do good things with money. So I said yes. Some people went, “How could you have done that?” And I go, You know what? Calm down. It’s a bit of fun, and it’s doing some good out there.

But there’s a fine line. We’ve had some stuff sent to us where it’s tough, particularly in the rap domain. I love good rap. I love Eminem. But some of the stuff that sampled and incorporated our music has made my skin crawl. I felt it was so abusive. This isn’t just me — the whole group feels the same. We talk about this. We don’t want Queen music associated with that kind of a mentality. Maybe they think it’s funny. Maybe they think it’s a feeling of power. I don’t know. But it seems abusive to us, so we say no to that stuff.

This is my long way around saying, yeah, I thought Shaun of the Dead was funny. I’m a bit on the cusp, though. There’s a lot of space these days glorifying violence. I’m a little bit equivocal about it. There’s a time when it makes me feel uncomfortable, though I don’t think Shaun of the Dead made me feel uncomfortable. But it’s on the edge.

Album that gave you the most confidence

Probably Sheer Heart Attack, because we are wrestling with what we were and where we were going. We made our first album in a difficult situation. Very little time and money was spent on it. It’s very rough and ready, but it sounds like a rock album. We had some proper studio time to make the second album, and we got quite involved. There’s a lot of arrangement on that album. I’ll never forget the couple of reviews that said, “‘This isn’t rock anymore. Queen has decided to desert rock.” That was upsetting. We thought, well, maybe we have to be a bit direct with people. Instead of giving them lots of complexity, which we love and we’ve been dying to put out there, maybe we shouldn’t make something where everything is crystal clear and you can get it without needing to be intellectual about it. So Sheer Heart Attack was very bright and glistening. Everything was obvious.

That doesn’t mean it was crass. It means it was calculated. It was arranged to have an impact at every point in different ways. Maybe I’m not expressing this very well. But I suppose it was consciously something that you could put on and drop the needle in any place — it was a needle in those days — and get a kick. Once we put Sheer Heart Attack out, it was very well received, especially by the Queen clientele. It did well commercially. It reinforced our feeling that we were getting somewhere, and we were establishing ourselves as a rock band. And of course, “Killer Queen” gave us our first proper hit single. “Now I’m Here” managed to break through as a hit as well, which was unusual. It was more oriented toward pop music. That made me feel like we had a good trajectory, and we knew where we were going.