Full Brian Interview : Queen PRS Heritage Award
Brian May has loomed large over British music since he co-founded the mega-band Queen four decades ago. The world renowned guitarist, songwriter, producer and performer is also a Doctor of Astrophysics, a 3D stereoscopic photographic authority and a passionate campaigner for animal rights.
As one of the world’s most prolific groups, Queen produced 16 number one albums, 18 number one singles and sold 300 million records worldwide. Brian wrote 22 of their Top 20 hits, including We Will Rock You, and has played more than 700 concerts with the band. As an accomplished solo artist, Brian has also won two Ivor Novello Awards in his own right.
He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005 for ‘services to the music industry and for his charity work’ and is patron to a number of charities including the Mercury Phoenix Trust, which was set up in memory of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. The charity has channelled more than $15m to support global AIDS projects over the past 20 years.
Next week Brian, along with Queen drummer Roger Taylor, will receive a PRS for Music Heritage Award at the site they played their first London show in July 1970. We caught up with him before hand to find out about his songwriting, the golden age of guitar music and his most enduring memories of Freddie. Read part one of our interview below. Part two will follow next week.
Why do you think Queen has been such an enduring force in British music?
It’s hard to answer from the inside… But there was a strong engine in Queen, from the writing point of view particularly. It wasn’t just one person writing and the rest of us interpreting. We were all writing and I think it was Ben Elton who pointed out that we were the only band where all the members had penned a number one hit. So we were always fighting each other to be heard. We were like four baby birds in a nest all screaming loudly! From that strongly competitive place comes a strength. Everything we put out was critically torn to bits before it ever saw the light of day. So if people criticised us in the paper it never really bothered us that much because we’d already heard a lot worse from our fellow group members!
I suppose for some reason we seemed to be speaking about real things for real people. We weren’t speaking about the lives of rock stars; we were talking about the hopes and dreams of everybody. We did unconsciously become a people’s band and all the sentiments in the songs are things that everyone feels – ‘I want to break free’, ‘I want it all’ – we spoke about the inner emotions of people. And luckily for us, the music seems to overcome the generation gaps. The emotions that we sang about are common to everybody whether they are nine or 95.
I’ve heard you cite The Beatles’ White Album or Led Zeppelin as big influences. I wonder if you think the golden age of guitar music has now passed. Or do you think it’s still fresh today?
I think it’s pretty healthy still. The music industry is in a particularly difficult place because everybody wants their music for free and it’s very hard to be a new act because how are you going to make any money? But I think the forces are still strong and fresh and you still get great groups around these days. The guitar is still very much a part of it. The guitar seems to have this ability to express people’s emotions whether they like it or not!
Yep, guitar music can be quite in your face!
Yes! It’s very elementary. They call it an axe and it is a bit like having an axe in your hand – you can carve things out, you have a lot of power in your hands.
What’s your favourite Queen song?
I don’t know, it’s so hard to say!
OK, what’s your favourite song to play live?
The ones I always come back to are We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You, because no matter what the situation is, where you are, who you’re with, what the quality of the sound system is like, those two always connect. They always feel like you’ve fulfilled people’s expectations when you play those songs so I suppose they would be my favourites. They’ve both been very different based on whatever situation we’ve been in.
How did you go about writing We Will Rock You?
There was a certain point when we were doing a UK tour and we played a place called Bingley Hall in the Midlands. Things had been gradually evolving in terms of how our audiences behaved, but on this particular night the audience drowned us out by singing every line of every song! It was exhilarating but it took an effort of will to give into it because we’d come from a place where we’d play and people would listen. We came off-stage and they were still singing. It was You’ll Never Walk Alone, which was wonderful and an amazing sound. After that we sat around talking and decided we either resist this evolution that’s taking place or we embrace and encourage it. That night I wrote We Will Rock You and Freddie wrote We Are the Champions, with the idea that we were actively encouraging people to be part of the show, to be interactive with us. When we came to do the next tour, these songs were in the act and it all clicked into place. We did actually embrace this business of the audience being as much part of the show as the band. It’s funny because it’s become quite commonplace but in those days it wasn’t. We come from an era where people sat on the floor in concerts and didn’t move. They listened and they shook their heads a bit but there wasn’t any interaction as such. The interaction had gone to a colossally different place. Now it happens a lot. You see any group in a stadium situation and it will happen but then it was new, no one had ever done that before.
It’s still quite unique to go home and craft something so specifically for that live audience participation function though…
It was very instinctive. I woke up with the song in my head. I remember going to sleep thinking, ‘What can people do when they’re standing crammed together in an auditorium?’ They can stamp, they can raise their hands, clap and they can chant. By the time I woke up my brain had put this thing together and I could hear it in my head – it seemed like the simplest thing I could ask them to do that they would feel good about! And then the song became about the hopes and dreams of people as they go through their lives.
There’s a hint of irony in the song which is always hard to pull off. We Will Rock You seems quite optimistic on the face of it. But if you listen to the words there’s a questioning element as to what we can actually achieve in our lives and what we’re here for.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Probably one of the first ideas I had was a song called The Real Life. It was about someone sitting all alone and sad, and someone else turning up, telling them they weren’t living a real life, ‘Come with me, I’ll show you a real life’. It never saw the life of day, but I think I have it on a demo somewhere. Very soon after that I wrote a couple more songs. One called Polar Bear, which the hardcore Queen fans will know because we recorded it! It was a metaphorical tale, if you like! About someone seeing a polar bear in a shop window but it wasn’t for sale! And I wrote Step On Me, which we did record, maybe with my first group 1984. The first song that you will probably know is Keep Yourself Alive, which found its way onto our first album and was our first single.
How do you go about your songwriting?
The funny thing is I don’t really regard myself as a songwriter. I’m not someone who sits down most days and writes a song. It either happens or it doesn’t. Something will get me all passionate or something will happen. Or else I’ll hear a tune in my head or some lyrics. It happens organically. I’m not really able to make it happen at will. You feed off an idea, and sometimes you’re not even sure where that came from.
What is the key ingredient of a really great song? Is it lyric, a melody or something else?
Well, I’ll quote you what Don Black said to me once. Someone had asked him about the intricacies of songwriting and he replied, ‘All that matters is, “How does it go?”’’ There’s a lot of truth in that! It’s all about having a great tune, and good words are a part of that. If you’ve got those, no amount of arrangement or production can take the place of it. God knows where they come from! Good tunes come from heaven I suppose. But certainly, people are able to produce good tunes out of the ether. For example, no matter what you think of ABBA, you cannot deny those melodies are immortal –they do something to you. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about, ‘How does it go?’
Do you think great songwriting can be learnt or do you think it’s innate?
I think like any creative skill you can encourage yourself to be open and take advantage of whatever inspiration you have. It’s like being an athlete – you have a certain amount of natural ability but you work on it and you exercise it. You try to catch it unawares.
Do you remember what you spent your first PRS for Music royalty cheque on?
In those days the royalty cheques were very small and we were so much in debt that we didn’t just go out and spend it. We just hoped that somewhere along the line our debts were being paid off! It was only when we got to the third album Sheer Heart Attack that we realised we’d sold a lot of copies but we hadn’t seen anything! We were not only destitute we were hugely in debt, so a lot of people who were supplying the things we needed, such as equipment, were not going to supply us anymore because we couldn’t pay them. That was a real crisis for us and that’s what led us to find a way out of our management situation, which was crippling at the time. We signed up with John Reid, who was Elton John’s manager at the time. Luckily for us, the fourth album A Night of the Opera did really well and we were able to pay off our debts.
What are your ties to Imperial College London?
I was a student there. I did three years of an undergraduate physics degree then went back for four years to do a PhD in Astronomy. But I only had a grant for three years so in the fourth year I taught at a comprehensive school in Brixton to pay my food bills. At the same time we were already rehearsing with Queen so I was starting to get drawn away.
Why does the site have such significance for Queen?
The first proper gig we did was at Imperial College in the Union Hall. I remember it very distinctly because I’d seen allsorts of people playing in that hall. I’d been part of the entertainments committee and we booked a group every Saturday night in those days. People like Spooky Tooth and Steamhammer. We booked Jimi Hendrix too. So for us it was a dream come true to actually play on that stage. It used to get packed in there so it was a major stepping stone for us. We got our first review from our gig – in a magazine called Disc. It was a big big deal! Just to see people out there who knew some of the material because they’d heard the album was a major deal for us.
Were you nervous going on stage?
Yes! I think you’re always nervous though, that never changes. Funny thing is that, in a sense, it gets more intense as you go on. Maybe because there is more expectation and you’ve got more to lose out there. You tend to be more conscious of your nerves as you get older. As a kid you just go out there and make a noise! I think nerves are part of what drives us and are what makes us do something special on the stage. Audiences feed off that.
What’s your most enduring memory of Freddie?
His wicked smile. His conspiratorial wink when he knew he’d said something argumentative and naughty and risky, he’d give you that little glint in his eye. For a moment you probably thought he was serious, which in sense he was, because he did take a lot of risks. But he just had this funny way of licking his lips and putting on that big smile followed by a nervous laugh, and he’d be telling you something completely outrageous so you didn’t know whether to believe him or not! He had a very wicked sense of humour and a great enjoyment for life. He didn’t stand for any nonsense; he didn’t want to be stuck in any bogs. He didn’t let anything clutter his life. It’s a great example that I wish I could follow better than I do.
Click here for more details of Queen's PRS Heritage Award.