The Journey Back To The Light - Part1
By Patrick Lemieux
The end of 1987 was a tumultuous period for Queen’s guitarist, Brian May.
The band was on a much needed break after the release of their 1986 album A Kind Of Magic and a successful, if taxing, European tour. The four men were exploring solo efforts outside of Queen, and from the summer through to winter, Brian had been working on the debut album of actress Anita Dobson. As circumstance would have it, the relationship between the two would complicate Brian’s life and marriage to his wife, Chrissy.
It’s at this point that the seeds of a solo album were beginning to germinate.
While living in Los Angeles, Brian became friends with singer/songwriter Elizabeth Lamers and songwriter Frank Musker. Together, they wrote the song “Too Much Love Will Kill You.” As Brian would explain, he was in a dark place, mentally and emotionally: “It happened when I was in America when I was trying to get away from life, and I wrote it with a couple of friends whom I just met, who sort of helped me get it out of my system. It was like a cathartic thing.” (1992 Back To The Light EPK). He would later tell the Orange County Register in 1993 that the song “was the first song written for the album, dating back six years.”
Brian put a lot of work into “Too Much Love,” as evidenced by a set of recordings known to fans as The Bell Boy Tape. This cassette was reportedly given to a hotel bell boy by Elizabeth Lamers herself, after which it changed hands and now legitimately belongs to a collector. This story of the bell boy has entered into Queen lore, but Elizabeth Lamers herself wrote to tell me, "[it is] a rumor that appeared on the internet years ago and now has become legend. Hmm. I never gave a cassette tape of any version of that tune to anyone in any hotel. I'm sure I had copies around and it is possible that I misplaced one but there was never any handing off of unreleased material by me or Frank or Brian. Perhaps the intrigue and the bell hop make it a better story." Without knowing who started the rumour or why, it would now seem prudent to consider the bell boy story apocryphal in light of Ms. Lamers' facts. That the cassette itself exists is not in dispute and it's known to contain an instrumental backing track, a version with Brian singing solo and a duet with both he and Ms. Lamers. The tape’s owner also confirms that a pair of Brian’s demos, titled “Sleepy Blues” and “Moody Keyboards,” is also present among the recordings.
1988 would not bring much relief in May’s life, though he took refuge in recording and song-writing, saying in 1993, “If ever I had an idea that didn't fit the [Queen] format, it would always get put away someplace on a piece of paper or a piece of tape. But it wasn't until about five years ago that I decided it would be a good thing to use some of these ideas in a solo album. I really started it as a form of therapy. I was very depressed at the time; at one point, I was really very suicidal. At such moments, it's only the fact that I've got kids that stops me from driving off bridges” (Guitar World Magazine).
Around early 1988, so the story goes, Brian was asked by skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan to write him a song. Brian penned “Let Your Heart Rule Your Head,” apparently even recording a version of the song with him. Donegan’s reported album, for which the song was written, never came about, but Brian did now have another song to add to his unpublished catalogue.
In March of 1988, Brian booked time at both Sarm and Town House Studios, where he began work recording “Let Your Heart Rule Your Head” and a cover of the Small Faces’ song “Rollin’ Over,” respectively. It was around this time that May decided to assemble a home recording studio at Allerton Hill, which he explained to Gold Compact Disc magazine in 1992: "I've always resisted the idea of having a studio there because I've always felt that you should be able to get away from your work ... but it never worked out like that anyway. The reason I did my own album at home was because of the feeling of pressure that you can get working in one of the major recording studios.
“It's often a case of, ‘Well here I am, standing in this studio, just playing about, and it’s costing more than £1,000 a day’. It just seems so wasteful, so I thought, ‘Well, why not do the album at home?’ And anyway, I wanted to get back to basics.”
A song Brian also started in March of 1988 was “Back To The Light.” Talking to Rip magazine about the song, Brian said he “stood on that stage [in 1993] and could remember so clearly putting those first words of ‘Back to the Light’ down on tape in a makeshift studio. I did it because I knew I had to do something to keep myself going.” Far from being the song born out of success in overcoming personal adversity, “Back To The Light” was a cry of hope by a man who wished to someday get there. At the time, Brian had no idea whether he’d reach his goal.
Also reflecting the sombre mood of his life were the tracks “I’m Scared” and “Last Horizon,” both begun at the fledgling Allerton Hill studio that March. “Last Horizon” was experimented on by way of two different approaches, which Brian explained to fans on his website in 2004: “I tried the tune two different ways, one with a gentle syncopated beat, and one with the straight 4-4 slow rock beat.”
“I’m Scared,” Brian told Guitar World magazine in 1993, “goes back a long way. I kept doing different versions of that, as I kept finding out that I was scared of more and more things. And I figured that most of us are. We just keep it inside. I think it's good to let all that stuff out sometimes. Do a bit of screaming.”
Sadly, on June 2nd, 1988, Brian’s father, Harold May, passed away. The loss furthered Brian’s descent into depression. Hounded by the press for his involvement with Anita, Brian would write another song, “Scandal,” which he brought to the table as Queen set out to record a new album that summer. Trying to put his solo project aside to focus on his duties with Queen, Brian also penned the track “I Want It All.” His oft-told story behind the song was that it was a favourite phrase of Anita’s, “I want it all and I want it now!” He also presented the band with “Too Much Love Will Kill You,” rounding out his direct contribution to the song-writing credits for the new Queen album, which, by his own admission, seemed somewhat less than their previous releases. As he told Guitar World, “There were only a few days during that time when I managed to play guitar solos. It's really a miracle that I did anything on that album at all.”
One such solo would become the instrumental track “Chinese Torture,” which would only be included on CD editions of the album as a bonus track.
The band worked on the album from the summer into the winter, recording at Olympic and The Town House Studios in London, and their own Mountain Studios in Montreux. Still, however, the draw of his potential solo album and the personal pressures drew Brian to continue working on it in conjunction with, if not in favour of, recording Queen’s thirteenth studio album, The Miracle. February of 1989 found Brian discussing this with Record Collector magazine: “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!
“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 direction to the album yet, and I think that's one problem that I have to sort out.” It’s possible that at this stage “Too Much Love Will Kill You,” completed by the band for The Miracle album, was still a contender for inclusion.
Mastering for The Miracle tracks, and “I Want It All” in particular, would continue through March of 1989. Once completed, the band decided the track order and “Too Much Love Will Kill You” was left off the album entirely.
Freddie’s declining health due to AIDS precluded the band touring, an escape Brian would have welcomed, but shooting the videos for The Miracle’s singles did offer a few days relief. On the DVD commentary for the “Breakthru” video, Brian speaks of being able to get away from the turmoil of his personal life while taping it in the country in the spring of 1989. According to Brian, his marriage to Chrissy was over by this point, which only added more weight to the already crushing drepression he was going through. The two would ultimately divorce that year. Speaking to Guitar World magazine, he says, “I was going through a time when I realized I couldn't live with my wife, which meant that I couldn't be with my kids. And also - this may sound trivial in comparison - the group had decided not to tour at that point. So suddenly here was a great hole in my professional life, too. I couldn't have any outlet on stage. And I think the balance of my life just got completely destroyed. I didn't know who I was anymore.”
The Miracle was released in the UK on May 22nd, 1989, and with the lack of a tour to support it, Brian was faced with a life that was falling apart around him. The death of his father, the end of his marriage, and Freddie’s illness were all contributing to a downward spiral. Yet, there was the idea of a solo album. There were tracks already put down, in various states of completion, and Brian felt it could be a form of therapy to keep labouring on it.
On September 19th, 1989, Philip Sayer, actor and friend of Anita Dobson, died of cancer at the age of 42. In the magazine Guitar For The Practicing Muscian (1993), Brian explains this event as the inspiration for the song he wrote then, called “Just One Life,” “what crystallized that song for me was going to a memorial concert given for a friend of [Anita]. This was a guy I’d never met. At the end of what they did, they recited and they sang songs and told stories. At the end of it I felt I knew this guy through the influence he’d had on his friends. I began to think "This is what a person is." A person is the effect that he leaves on the people around him or at least that’s part of it. I was trying to find out what is a life. I was looking at his life, at Freddie’s life, at my father’s life. I just lost my father. I was trying to tie all the threads together to try and get closer to what it was all about.”
The Swansea Grand Theatre itself, of which Sayer was a member, has this to say about the event: “There was a memorial tribute at The Aldwych Theatre just after he died, it was a very moving experience hosted by Sir Ian McKellan, with contributions from the Sion Probert, Denis Lawson and Maureen Lipman. Among the audience that night was Queen’s Brian May, who was with his partner, Anita Dobson. Anita was a great friend to Philip. Brian May was so moved by the evening that, even though he had not even met Philip Sayer, he wrote a song dedicated to him.”
As fall turned to winter in 1989, Queen turned their attention back to studio work to record another new album. By now, with Freddie Mercury’s health noticeably diminishing, the rest of the band knew he was ill, but did not know the details. The push to keep working brought the band back into Mountain Studios in Montreux in November of 1989. Roger Taylor and Brian May both described the approach used, that the band would work for three weeks, then take two weeks off, then return for three weeks and repeat the process.
It was at Mountain Studios that Brian recorded early material for “Just One Life,” as well two new songs he considered for his solo album. As he explained in 1991: “I was in the studio for a couple of days to get some things out of my system. I thought that maybe I'd be left with a solo album, maybe with a Queen album, I just didn't know and I came up with ‘Headlong’ and ‘I Can't Live With You’ - the guys liked them.
“‘Headlong’ came from me, at our studio in Montreux, a home recording studio for us that's very state-of-the-art, lovely for creating. The ideas came in a couple of days. At first I thought about it as a song for my solo album, but, as always, the band is the best vehicle. As soon as I heard Freddie sing it, I said, 'That's it!' Sometimes it's painful to give the baby away, but what you gain is much more. It became a Queen song.”
Brian would also contribute three more songs to the album that eventually became known as Innuendo: “The Hitman,” “The Show Must Go On” and “Lost Opportunity.” The last track would be relegated to the B-side of the “I’m Going Slightly Mad” single, but Brian’s input on the album, compared to The Miracle, was a return to form. In fact, 1990 would see Brian throw himself into guest appearances on other artists’ releases as much as he was working with Queen. He recorded guitar work for both charity singles by Rock Against Repatriation and Rock Aid Armenia, and did music for a stage production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which opened in November.
On February 18th, 1990 Brian spoke on behalf of the band at The British Phonographic Institute ceremony, where Queen received the award for Outstanding Contribution to Music.
Brian’s speech went as follows: “On behalf of the group, I’d like to say thank you very much to everyone in the industry and, perhaps more importantly, outside the industry who stuck behind us all these years. Because in doing so, you gave us a lot of freedom to pursue what we loosely call our art to any extent we felt like at the time. And to go out on a lot of strange limbs which seemed very precarious at the time, but we didn’t quite fall off. And finally, to get to the point where this happens to us, which is great. And I’d like to say a special thank you to the British petroleum industry for giving us this magnificent award in recognition of all the amounts of vinyl which we’ve recycled over the years. Thank you.”
As they left the stage, Roger added, “Thank you very much.”
And Freddie gave a gentle wave, “Thank you. Goodnight.”
Part II looks at Brian’s continued efforts complete his album as he faces one of the most difficult years of his journey.