Interview By Ross Bennett 2:14 PM GMT 04/10/2011
A selection of rare Queen artefacts taken from Brian May‘s personal archive were put on display last night at the launch of 40 Years Of Queen – a new illustrative history packed with unseen photos and replicas of memorabilia from throughout the group’s existence.
Among the backstage passes, handwritten lyrics, platinum discs, gig posters, Harold May’s meticulously drawn tour maps and one News Of The World robot (see below) stood Brian’s Red Special guitar, flanked tonight by his guitar tech Pete and a Groucho Club security guard. Built by Brian and his father Harold in 1963, it has remained his tool of choice – in the studio and on stage – for the entirety of his playing career.
It’s been a busy year for Queen. Remastered reissues of all their studio albums, an extensive exhibition charting their early career, a new television documentary, the 10th anniversary of the We Will Rock You musical and the announcement of a Queen biopic have all added fuel to the band’s enduring popularity. It’s all a long way from their beginnings in west London in 1971.
MOJO spoke to Brian May before last night’s event began:
MOJO: Queen’s 40th anniversary celebrations are coming to an end. How do you feel about looking back?
I think we get more peaceful and forgiving as time goes on. If this book had come out a few years ago, I would have insisted on proofing everything, but it was different this time. I had great confidence in the team and I knew they were going to do a good job. It doesn’t seem like 40 years to me and it’s strange to think that 20 years of those have been since Freddie departed. It’s amazing. Queen seems to be very much alive and well.
Were you always the archivist in the group?
I think so. We were very precocious boys and we were meticulous about everything – not just the music, but the visuals, the way we were promoted. But it was our attention to detail that made some of these things so great. Wonderful things used to happen to Queen all the time and it was such a rush. Every now and then I would grab something with the idea that, at some point, I’d be able to take time to really enjoy it. It was about holding onto things that were truly ephemeral – a ticket, a sticker that was attached to your dressing room door, a poster on the arena wall, a tour pass stuck to your jeans. I actually find some of these items truly beautiful. I wanted to hold on to things that I thought would summon up memories in the future. It’s part of my psyche. I feel a need to collect relics from all parts of my life. Maybe it goes back to childhood. It’s like Rosebud from Citizen Kane – you think maybe it’ll give you back something you lost in your youth. Assuming the meteorite doesn’t hit us, these things will always be there to look back on.
One of the first items in the book is a flyer for a [pre-Queen band] Smile gig at Imperial College. When you listen to those Smile tracks, you can hear the Queen sound forming…
Yes – it’s sort of there, isn’t it? [Queen drummer] Roger [Taylor] and I gelled very quickly because we had the same interests. We grew up listening to what our parents listened to – Frank Sinatra, Mantovani, the big bands. Then there was Little Richard, Elvis, Buddy Holly, followed by that explosion of guitar music in the late ’60s – Hendrix, Cream, The Yardbirds. We had a vision. It was like we could see into the future. The sound was big and epic, but at the same time delicate and structured. I think we were also influenced by what we were rejecting as well. I was very much influenced by traditional jazz. Most people wouldn’t think that’s in Queen music, but it is. The way we arranged the songs, the way the harmonic content changes from bar to bar. In those days, most of the heavy metal groups didn’t really show any influence from their childhood, but we really embraced it. We grew up watching Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites where you would hear [Strauss’s] “Thunder And Lightning” polka and The Laughing Policemen and bits of jazz, bits of Tchaikovsky… all of that is in Queen.
Along with grand Queen epics like Father To Son and The Prophet’s Song you also always wrote more folky songs like Some Day One Day and ’39…
Those came from my love of skiffle. I started playing the guitar when I was seven years old, but I wasn’t playing lead guitar in those days. I was strumming and singing Lonnie Donegan and Everly Brothers‘ songs. It’s still feels like a very natural thing for me to do.
We’re always reminded of what an amazing frontman Freddie was, but you also knew Freddie The Musician…
Freddie had such a magical, percussive touch on the piano and that was his instrument, although he did play guitar. He only played downstrokes and his fingers used to move incredibly fast. He had a nervous energy – you can see it in some of the interviews he gave. It was like he had too much energy for his body to contain. I still listen to some of the backing tracks that Freddie, Roger and John recorded and they are immaculate – so accurate, so full of feeling.
You’ve said that your father didn’t ‘get’ what you were doing until he saw Queen at Madison Square Garden in 1977? What was it about that moment that changed his mind?
Well, up until that point he was heartbroken really. He thought I was throwing my life away. It’s strange really because by looking at the maps he drew [see below], you can see that he was also supportive. Madison Square Garden was a distant, mythical place for an Englishman. All we knew was that heavyweight boxing championships were held there. But for him to go there and feel the energy created by that crowd…he said: “I can see you’re actually changing the world in a way, and I can see it why it’s so important to you.” That’s quite something to say to your son.
In the 40 years of the band, what for you was the biggest watershed?
1986. Because up to that point, I’d been clinging onto the notion that I was just playing music for a while and in the end I’d go and get a proper job like my Dad wanted me to. By ’86, I’d realised that being a rock star was, in fact, my job. Emotionally, I fell to pieces. But at the same time we were at the pinnacle of our technical abilities, our cohesiveness and our ability to entertain an audience. I look at those Wembley Stadium shows and think ‘Jesus Christ’, we really had created this astonishingly well-oiled machine.
40 Years of Queen, published by Goodman, is on sale now.
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