Brian's Miracle by Judith Weaver and Mark Powell (Record Collector – February 1989)Brian's Miracle
Townhouse Studios off the Goldhawk Road in London have been playing host to Queen, who are recording their new album there. The record is provisionally set for release early this year, and all eyes are obviously looking towards the latest effort from band members May, Mercury, Deacon and Taylor.
But Queen guitarist Brian May has also been busy in recent months on his own very interesting solo projects, some of which have not (for various reasons) yet seen the light of day.
In between sessions for the latest Queen offering, Brian kindly took time to speak about his work both outside and within the framework of Queen. With the sound of the other chaps rehearsing in the next studio, Brian was enthusiastic about Queen's return to recording after a long break. What had he himself been doing during this period?
"Most of the time I've been working on my own. The solo project is mainly about getting all the stuff I've had in my head onto tape, but I've found that some of the ideas I had in mind for solo work have ended up on the Queen album. I think that the best ideas should really be concentrated towards the group, because it's still the best vehicle I can find - as the group is so good!"
With members of Queen - notably Freddie Mercury - concentrating on solo projects in recent times, we wondered whether this had caused any problems for the band as a unit.
"No-, we think that groups break up if members don't get the chance to express themselves individually. We tend to allow ourselves that freedom, so that when we come together, we can inject new energy into the group, and it works very well. At the moment the timescale for each album seems to be longer that it used to be. When we take a break, it seems to be for a couple of years, but at the moment we've got more energy than we've had for years, so it's great."
Recently Brian has collaborated with Steve Hackett, the former Genesis guitarist who has gone on to make a series of creative and original albums. Contrary to public belief, there was no clash of egos between the two musicians, simply because Brian and Steve don't suffer from the arrogance that some have labelled them with.
Both are very self-critical and couldn't be more accommodating and genuine individuals. We wondered how this unexpected but welcome collaboration had come about.
"Well, Steve was a friend and he's got halfway through his album and felt that he was stuck on ideas, so he played me some of his material - which inspired me to to want to have a go at a couple of things. I took one of his tapes in particular, which is called 'Slot Machine', and I did a lot to it while he was away. He liked what I did, luckily enough, and that led to us collaborating on more tracks that aren't quite finished yet."
On "Slot Machine", Brian shared vocals with Chris Thompson, of Manfred Mann's Earth Band. May feels that Thompson is a very much under-rated vocalist and writer, with his work with the Earth Band having gone largely unrecognised by the music press. He is so impressed by Thompson's vocal prowess, in fact, that there is a good possibility that the pair might work together on May's solo album.
Before embarking on the new Queen album and his solo work, Brian May had spent the year producing two very different acts:
Bad News (the Comic Strip's spoof heavy metal band) and ex-Eastender Anita Dobson. We asked him how he had approached two such different projects.
"With Bad News, I think we made a great album, but unfortunately it's not the kind of thing that can get commercial success, as it's directed at a minority audience. But I think that it is a very astute comment on rock music and the way that it's moved over the last few years. It was recorded live, and was mainly unscripted.
"The project with Anita came out of talking to her and getting the feeling that here was someone with a different approach; and I think that we produced an album which strides across the two worlds in which we live. There's a certain amount of rock influence, and a certain amount of show influence. Again, it's not something which is instantly commercial, as you're not sure who your audience is. Most of Anita's audience may have thought that it was getting too heavy, and most of those in my world thought, 'What the hell's he doing?' with someone who's really only a show-time singer. But you can only judge things by how you see them yourself, and I stand by both projects as being very worthwhile."
At the moment, May's projects are taking a backseat while the Queen album is completed, which he is both relieved and pleased about.
"It's a real strain doing solo projects, because you are on your own. You can bring in other musicians, but it's not like being in a group situation where the responsibility is shared. At the end of the day, I'm left sitting in a studio with an engineer, saying 'Is this worth anything or not?', and it's very hard to make those judgements. Most of what I like is very spontaneous, and most of the songs I write, I like in a very rough form, so they don't sound as if they've been produced.
"So these solo tracks are difficult to take to record companies, because there is no obvious hit, and the material is not produced to sound like Queen records. Left to my own devices, I like to do things which are quite off the beaten track - then I wonder why they aren't hits! It's basically my own fault because I don't like the 'hit' format.
"It's always interested me how members of a group interact. In different bands you see the same kind of balances and interactions. I thought it would be interesting to explore that, and actually did so with the 'Bad News' record. While they were in the studio, they really lived the part. They weren't pretending they were rock stars, they WERE rock stars. They didn't use their real names, and we addressed each other in character, which was very bizarre! Towards the end, they were actually playing too well to be funny, but luckily we had kept the earlier recordings."
May's sense of humour contributed more to that project than many realised. It was at his insistence that Bad News recorded their send-up cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody", which was issued as a single. Unfortunately, the album failed to sell, after protests in some quarters about the 'bad' language. Brian has nothing but admiration for the Comic Strip team, calling them truly original artists of the highest calibre, and he remembers the experience of working with them affectionately.
In musical terms, Brian May feels that Queen themselves are healthier than they have been for the last four years, as he told us.
"We still seem to be breaking new ground, and taking chances in the studio, which I like. The process of evaluation of each other, by each other, is a big spur in the creative process. I think the group format, when it's working well, is unbeatable."
When it comes to choosing between recording and playing live, May undoubtedly prefers to be onstage. "We don't do enough shows these days", he comments, "and I'd like to do more."
Live Aid remains one of the high spots of the band's career, and May recalls that there was a great sense of unity and purpose in the air that day, saying "I'll remember it till the day I die."
He says he has only just come to terms with the fact that he'll always be a musician:
"I have a degree in physics, and in the way in which I was brought up, music was never regarded as a 'proper' job. For the first few years, even when Queen were touring America, I was thinking that it was great for a while, but that then I'd go back to a 'proper' job. I think this helped me to keep things in perspective. Doing something that I love and making my bread and butter by it means that I'm a very lucky person. Having that attitude keeps all the bullshit away if you don't take yourself too seriously.
"Half the people think you're gods, and the other half think you're rubbish - there are all these different reactions to you, which if you took seriously you'd go crazy! I think the fact that I distanced myself in those years from everything that was happening was a real help. Perhaps I was too insular, waiting for that plateau that never came. Everything changes, and I still don't find changes easy to cope with, even after all these years."
In those heady days of 1975 and "Bohemian Rhapsody", everything was changing for Queen. That single set a record for weeks at the top of the U.K. chart, and the lengthy studio time (and money) it took to produce the track enabled the band to pioneer techniques like multiple vocal overdubbing, ambient sound layering and unique effects -with the famous chime bells on the line "sends shivers down my spine" as an example. Queen fans took delight in those subtle tricks with sound, which still stand up today on CD, some fourteen years after they were recorded.
Queen are still criticised for the amount of time that they spend in the studio, but as Brian himself points out, the band pursue excellence to the point of perfection. If it's worth making an album at all, it's worth doing it properly, even if others think the band are nit-picking.
Dumbfounding the critics, Queen have managed the near impossible, by continuing to increase their global popularity. They were one of the first western rock bands to discover South America, both as a source of popularity and of vast record sales. South American Queen items are highly collectable, as are those released in the Eastern Block countries, where Queen toured extensively and with great success in the mid-Eighties.
Does the success of Brian May surprise Brian May? "On different levels, yes and no. On one hand we always had a great belief in ourselves, that we were as good as anybody else, and that's what carried us through, because no-one believes in you except you. On another level, I was surprised. You look at yourself and you don't feel any different than when you were a student, and you think how amazing it is that all this has happened to you."
And the style of his next album? "To describe the material is quite difficult. I put the songs on one tape in a very rough form and thought, 'Where am I?', because they are so varied, more so even than Queen material. I've got ballads which are very soft and personal, and I've got stuff which is very hard, pure heavy metal. There are weird acoustic songs, and God knows what else! There isn't a direct-ion to the album yet, and I think that's one problem that I have to sort out."
Brian May admits to being a perfectionist, and says he always doubts the quality of his work: "You always think it could have been done better." But with the new Queen album, a Steve Hackett album out this year featuring Brian, and May's own solo album on the cards, the future should see Brian May/Queen collectors kept very happy.