From the excessive majesty of Queen to his solo career successes, Brian May’s irrepressible desire for pushing the boundaries of melodic rock is unrivalled. Joe Bennett gets the lowdown from one of rock guitar’s greatest innovators.
You’d think people like Brian May could take it easy, wouldn’t you? With 18 Queen albums under his belt and two of his won, he could be forgiven for sitting back and feeling at least slightly pleased with himself. Not a bit of it. The words ‘perfectionist’ and ‘workaholic’ seem scarcely inadequate for a man who has taken six years to record his latest album, and doesn’t plan to take any time off from touring for the rest of the year. And his enthusiasm for gigging is obvious:
“We’re touring Japan, by way of Russia, and that takes us up to the middle of November and then I’m not sure how long I want to be out for. The temptation , once you’ve started, is to keep going ’cause you’re all geared up, you’ve got all the right people and you’re rehearsed.”
Tragically, ‘all the right people’ lacks one individual. Drummer Cozy Powell died in a car accident earlier this year. “Cozy was such a great gut and a close friend – it’ll be really strange to look behind me on stage and not see him there. For a time we even did a few gigs without a drummer but after a lot of thought and heart-searching we all thought we should use one. We found Eric Singer; he’s blinding, but it’s tough to fill Cozy’s shoes. I’d built a lot of my style round him – he’d been a hero of mine for years. I judged my writing by how it sounded when Cozy played it. The idea is not to replace him though, just to move on. Eric comes from the right place, you know?
“Somebody once told me when we started out that a band is only as good as its drummer. I thought that was crap but over the years I’ve realised it’s true. You can get away with a crap guitarist quite easily – and a lot of people do! – but you can’t get away with sloppy drumming. It makes the whole thing sound really amateurish. The level of energy, the upper limit is set by the drummer.”
Brian crafts his set lists very carefully, and he sees the gigging experience as much more than simply copying the original recording. “You’re supposed to be finding new moments with the audience, so each gig should be unique. With the recognisable Queen stuff, I do tend to settle for something that sounds a lot like what I did in the first place – some audiences want that. You’re always treading the line between keeping yourself fresh and giving people something they want to hear.”
And Queen, of course, had an additional practical problem to deal with when playing live – how to recreate the band’s heavily-produced sounds in a guitar/bass/drums format. “We tried out a lot of songs two or three times and they just weren’t made for the stage – stuff from ‘Flash Gordon’ springs to mind. We also didn’t do stuff that Roger or I sang on the albums because we wanted to use Freddie as the frontman as much as possible. I mean, when you have the greatest frontman in the world, you don’t want to waste his time!
“Some of the rock songs stayed in the live set just ’cause they were cracking played live. Tie Your Mother Down, for example, never left the live set and it probably never will. Certain songs just have that chemistry… you want to play the ’til you die.”
But despite the sadness that Brian associates with the end of the band, the last few years have given him the freedom to explore new areas. “After the Back to the Light tour I made the decision to head towards the second album, but on the way I would try to get out into the world and interact more. From the beginning of Queen there was such momentum that I never had any time to do anything else. My energy was 95% focused on the band., Then there was all that time when we knew Freddie was on the way out, we kept our heads down again. When he’d gone, my way of dealing with it was to get busy.”
One of the projects was the posthumous work to be done on Freddie’s final recorded tracks. “We had promised Freddie – and ourselves – that we would finish the album after he’d gone. He’d wanted us to give him as many vocal lines to record as we could, but even though we’d made that commitment, actually doing it was really hard. We only had scraps, sometimes vocals without anything else, to work on. It was an enormous task and it took literally two years out of my life. You can imagine the frustration because I had ideas in my head, but this was a labour of love because it was for Freddie. It was enormously exciting but enormously sad as well. And all this time my next album was gathering dust because I was pretty much focused on the Queen album.”
The three remaining members of the band still get on well, but they haven’t collaborated with Brian on his solo work; ” consciously wanted to avoid my second album being connected with Queen – that’s why Roger and John don’t appear on it. We have out own separate paths, we always did have, and I think that was part of our strength. It was a very strong partnership but we were always having to give something up and compromise. Four songwriters in a four-piece band – what can I say?”
Roger, John and Brian did, however, record one last song as a band. “The original plan was that we’d finish the last Queen album and then I’d get back to my own work. Then the Queen Rocks compilation came up. The record company wanted to put out a compilation album and we thought it’d be a good idea to encourage people to remember the heavy stuff that Queen recorded – I’ve always had a fondness for the rockier side of things. Roger and John heard a track I’d done called No-one But You, which was originally going to be on my own album. Roger loved it and thought we should do it was Queen. I knew that the lyric was very much about Freddie, but Roger wanted to make it more general, change the tempo – so I lost a song, and Queen gained one!”
Brian and Beck
The songs which did eventually make it on to Brian’s latest solo LP, Another World, are a mixed bunch indeed. As well as covers of Brian’s own favourites – Hendrix’s One Rainy Wish and Mott The Hoople’s All the Young Dudes to name but two – he’s included material based on outside projects he’s been involved in. Cyborg was originally written as a soundtrack to a computer game and The Guv’nor was the theme to a TV series which never made it to the small screen.
” The Guv’nor was a television programme about a bare-knuckle boxer in the original script, but it worked as a metaphor, and I started thinking – in our world, the world of guitar players, we have people like that, who we think of as our Guv’nor. Jeff Beck is like that, he’s great buy he’s really unpredictable, spiky and frighteningly original. You feel small next to him, kind of wary. So I began to think the song was about him and I rang him up – which took a moment of courage from me! I asked him to play on it, and he turned up, and did a recording session here at the house. Being the caring, professional player that he is, he wasn’t satisfied with his own guitar parts – although I loved them – so he took it away to work on it. I didn’t get it back until a year later!”
But apart from this one guest slot, all the other guitar parts on the album are Brian’s own, including the ubiquitous layered harmony parts that are his trademark. “I grew up with an obsession about harmony. Every record I heard I would wonder why certain harmonies and chords had certain effects on me. So it’s a habit I had of letting something wash over me, and then figuring out afterwards why it had moved me. I learned that the lines and the crossing points are the key points, really. I never studied harmony formally – it was mainly done by listening. I picked up a book on harmony once, but it just gave me the names for things, which I wasn’t really interested in. I believe in intuition more than anything. I mean I know something about the techniques of inversions and everything, but mainly it’s like, ‘What happens when I do this?’ ”
Suitably enough, this brings the conversation round to the inevitable subject of guitars and amplifiers. The question ‘Are you still using AC30s?’ is rendered pointless as we turn a corner and walk into a room literally filled with Vox combos. And Brian’s Red Special, affectionately known as the ‘Old Lady’ is still going strong, thanks to some fairly major repair work by guitar surgeon Greg Fryer. “The guitar was getting dangerously worn from 30 years of gigs, but I could never retire it. It’s a link with my dad, we made it together in the late ’60s, and I don’t play anything else – apart from the excellent copies that Greg’s made for me, of course.”
Brian’s passion for his instrument was never faltered, and he’s happy to find that many TG readers still look to classic rock material for their inspiration; “I’ve always lived in that guitar world. I have noticed kids that I come across being more into the real essence of guitar music now. I walked into my friend’s son’s bedroom a couple of years ago and there were posters for Led Zeppelin and Hendrix all over the walls – I was expecting hip hop, rap and all that.
“With all of that early rock stuff – and I suppose I can include Queen – there’s a certain directness and passion about it. It has that emotional intensity and unfettered quality. You’re always trying to capture those moments, and not always successfully… there are times when I’ve been feeling something and played a solo that I’ve never been able to repeat.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Brian is unaware of the massive amount of Queen guitar tablature available, and he is far from up-to-date on recent developments in transcription quality. “I never took sheet music seriously. I remember getting some for The Shadows’ stuff, then realising it was nothing like the record and that I could do better myself just by listening to other people and using my own intuition.
“For example, I remember the first time I tried tapping. I actually got the idea from someone else in the early ’70s. We were on tour in Texas, and a few beverages had been consumed while we were watching a bar band. The guitarist kept adding this high note as a single tap to his blues licks , and it sounded like a flute or clarinet or something. I told him I was going to nick it and he said, ‘fine!’ He’d nicked it off someone else anyway. He said he’d heard Billy Gibbons do it on a ZZ Top album, but I’ve listened to all their stuff since and I still don’t know which track he means.
“So that’s how it happens – but it doesn’t always have to be a guitar that you get new ideas from. As a kid I listened to an arranged trad jazz band called the Temperance Seven, and they used a technique that they called ‘bells’, where every note is played on a different instrument and it’s all sustained , cascading with harmonic effects. Mantovani did it too – he was a great influence on me – and I did it on my first album. That’s the inspiration for the second half of the Killer Queen solo…”
So how does he feel about players learning his own solos from transcriptions? “I think that’s really good. It’s great if players learn their craft by listening to how other people do it. Pick up everything that’s out there – there’s no shame in that at all. Individual style will emerge anyway, like Chinese whispers. George Harrison once tried to play Apache by the Shadows and he couldn’t remember it, so it came out as something completely different – and that’s fair enough. I go to see Joe Satriani or Steve Vai – those guys are way ahead of me and I pick up something new every time. I’m lucky in that I can talk to them because I’m in a privileged position. They say they listen to my stuff too, which is great but I’m under no illusions!”
“Ultimately, I think if I’ve got anything to say as a guitar player it’s because I’m open and I listen, and I find my own way – but in the full knowledge of what other people are doing. How can you learn a language if you don’t listen to people speak? This magazine of yours would have helped me if it had been around when I was starting out, I can tell you!” Ah, thanks Brian…
Astronomy and the some
And so the time comes when we have to leave Brian to his schedule. This afternoon he’s got a telephone interview with the local radio station. Then he’s got a meeting with his publicity person about cover artwork.
This coming weekend he’ll be on BBC Radio 4. Of course, Greg will be at the house tomorrow to continue working with Brian on the live rig. And there’s the radio mix of the new single to mix. Oh, and still he’s working on his book about 19th century stereo photography. Plus he’s got his PhD to finish too. Makes you wonder how he finds the time to pick up his guitar…