For a band that no longer exist, Queen have been busier that many outfits still very much together. Since tragically losing superstar vocalist Freddie Mercury to AIDS, they have been responsible for some of the more fascinating projects in the history of music.
Their album “Made In Heaven” had four hit records using scraps of Freddie’s voice from out-take reels. The singles included one of their finest ever songs, “A Winter’s Tale”.
This year they are back with Queen Rocks, and I met legendary guitarist Brian May to find out the secrets of one of the world’s greatest ever bands. I don’t know what his lover Anita Dobson is feeding him, but Brian looks well and seems more relaxed than in recent years.
This was the perfect chance for me to cover some of the early years that Queen never used to talk about.
“My father really helped me when I was a boy,” says Brian. “He made me a guitar that he carved out of a 19th-century fireplace. It had a moving pick-up arrangement that allowed for a huge variety of tones and echoes. I used to use a coin as a pick and that was the beginning of that essential Queen sound.”
This was a time before their rather well-off backgrounds were hidden. Brian was an astronomer working towards his doctorate, drummer Roger Taylor’s surname is Meddows-Taylor and bass player John Deacon was another science graduate who had become a teacher. Frederick Bulsara studied clothes-designing and ran a market stall to pay the bills. He became Freddie Mercury and the line-up was complete.
But the band were not an instant success. “After three years of going nowhere we almost split, and just then we were signed and all felt that we were on our way. We released our first single “Keep Yourself Alive” with great expectations but it failed to chart and we were all so deflated.”
He goes on: “We picked ourselves up and released “Seven Seas Of Rhye” but hardly anyone played it. Then we got our stroke of luck. Top Of The Pops had said they did not have room to use the song. But at the last moment a David Bowie video failed to arrive on time and we were in.”
Anyone who loves the band will have noticed that they put Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside at the end of that song. What was all that about? “It isn’t very rock ‘n’roll but I was raised listening to Uncle Mac’s favourites on the radio, like Tommy The Tuba and The Laughing Policeman, so I suppose it came out of that. I’ve never understood why people build walls in music, like the way rock is rarely played on radio. We kicked down as many of those walls as we could.”
Following the success of “Made In Heaven” I expected several remakes on Queen Rocks but there is only one “I Can’t Live With You”. “We’d done a few versions of this song and decided we could make it more modern-sounding. So we did, using all sorts of odd little bits and it really works.”
The only brand-new song on the album is “No-One But You (Only The Good Die Young)”, with vocals shared by Roger Taylor and Brian. “I was going to use it on my next solo project, but Roger felt it was perfect for this album as an extra for all the loyal fans. It was not just about the death of Freddie, it sort of tunes in to the mood in the country at the time. The death of Gianni Versace, the end of a century, the death of Princess Diana that hit us all so hard. It takes in all those things.”
My interview had dug up a few Queen secrets. But the strangest was the man Brian was inspired by….George Formby! “What are you laughing at?” barks Brian “He was a funny little man but he could really play ukulele. My dad got me interested in him and showed the effortless way that he played, and I always hoped I could play with the same amount of confidence.”
Back to my Freddie Mercury/Queen Page