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Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Queen guitarist Brian May

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's continue our series of music interviews from our archive with Brian May, a founding member of the band Queen and its lead guitarist. He also wrote one of Queen's most famous songs, which has become a stadium anthem - "We Will Rock You."

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHMIC METAL CLINKING)

GROSS: That's not the band Queen. It's the queen - Queen Elizabeth. As part of her recent Platinum Jubilee, she made a video of her tapping her spoon on a teacup to Queen's famous rhythm. Then the band Queen performed a concert outside Buckingham Palace to a huge crowd. When they played "We Will Rock You," the Royal Marine drummers kicked it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMLINE PLAYING)

GROSS: We're about to hear the story behind "We Will Rock You" from Brian May. His life has taken some surprising turns. A few years ago, he submitted his doctoral dissertation in astrophysics on the subject "A Survey Of Radial Velocities In The Zodiacal Dust Cloud." He's now Dr. May. In 2007, he was awarded an honorary fellowship at Liverpool John Moores University in England. When I spoke with May in 2010, we talked about the band, its lead singer, Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991, and the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WILL ROCK YOU")

QUEEN: (Singing) Buddy, you're a boy. Make a big noise. Playing in the street - gonna (ph) be a big man someday. You got mud on your face, you big disgrace, kicking your can all over the place, singing, we will, we will rock you. We will, we will rock you. Buddy, you're a young man, hard man, shouting in the street, gonna take on the world someday. You got blood on your face, you big disgrace, waving your banner all over the place. We will, we will rock you. Sing it out. We will, we will rock you. Buddy, you're an old man, poor man...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: That's Queen's "We Will Rock You," which is written by my guest, Brian May, who was the lead guitarist for the band. So what inspired that song? I mean, it's been played at so many sports stadiums over the decades. Were you thinking of it as a sports anthem? - because it almost sounds like an old-school cheerleader cheer, you know...

BRIAN MAY: Yeah. It's become part of the fabric of life.

GROSS: ...Because of that stomp, stomp, clap thing and because it's a chant.

MAY: Yeah, that's right. Well, the stomp stomp clap thing, yeah. People think it was always there, but actually it wasn't. And I don't know how it got into my head. All I can tell you is we played a gig sort of middle of our career in a place called Bingley Hall near Birmingham. Now, Birmingham is the sort of home of heavy metal, as you probably know. You know, Sabbath and a slate people come from there. And it was a great night. People just - the audience were just responding hugely. And they were singing along with everything we did.

Now, in the beginning, we didn't relate to that. We were the kind of band who like to be listened to and taken seriously and all that stuff, you know? So people singing along wasn't part of our agenda. Having said that and then having experienced this wave of participation of the audience in - particularly in that gig in Birmingham - we almost to a man, sort of reassessed our situation. I remember talking to Freddie about it and saying, look. You know, obviously we can no longer fight this. This has to become something which is part of our show, and we have to embrace it and the fact that people want to participate. And really everything becomes a two-way process now. And we sort of looked at each other and went, hmm, how interesting.

And he went away that night and, to the best of my knowledge, wrote "We Are The Champions" with that in mind. I went away and woke up the next morning with this [imitating percussion] in my mind somehow because I was thinking to myself, what could you give an audience that they could do while they're standing there? And they're all crushed together. But they can stamp, and they can clap, and they can sing some kind of chant. So for some reason, it just came straight into my head that "We Will Rock You." And to me, it was a kind of uniting thing. It was an expression of strength.

GROSS: So how did you record the stomp, stomp, clap so it would sound grand and reverberating as opposed to three people, four people stomping their feet and clapping?

MAY: Well, I'm a physicist, you see. So I had this idea if we did it enough times - and we didn't use any reverb or anything - that I could build a sound which would work. We were very lucky. We were working in an old disused church in North London, and it already had a nice sound - not an echoey sound, but a nice big, crisp sound to it. And there were some old boards lying around. I don't know what they were, but they just seemed ideal to stamp on. So we kind of piled them up and started stamping, and they sounded great anyway. But being a physicist, I thought, well, supposing there were a thousand people doing this, what would be happening? And I thought, well, you would be hearing them stamping. You would also be hearing a little bit of an effect which is due to the distance that they are from you. So I put lots of individual repeats on them - not an echo, but a single repeat and at varying distances. And the distances were all prime numbers. Now, much later on, people designed a machine to do this. And I think it was called Prime Time or something.

But that's what we did. As we recorded each track, we put a delay of a certain length on it. And none of the delays were sort of harmonically related. So what you get is there's no echo on it whatsoever, but the claps sound as though they spread around the stereo, but they're also kind of spread as regards distance from you. So you just feel like you're in the middle of a large number of people stamping on boards and clapping...

GROSS: That's amazing.

MAY: ...And also singing.

GROSS: Now, here's another really interesting thing to me about "We Will Rock You." It's the most famous song that you've written. It's a largely a cappella song. You come in for your guitar solo at the very end. So until, like, the very, very end, like, you're not even playing on it. And it's just kind of amazing that you, as the guitarist, would write a song that you're barely featured on.

MAY: Well, I'm featured stamping and clapping, you see.

GROSS: Well, yes.

MAY: And I'm featured singing, so...

GROSS: And you're very good at that.

(LAUGHTER)

MAY: Thank you. Well, we're all (inaudible). The guitars - yeah, I didn't want us to be standard. I didn't want it to be like, oh, here's a guitar solo, and then we sing another verse. I wanted it to be something stark and different. So it was very deliberate that I left the guitar solo to the end just because that was a final statement and a different statement - taking it off in a completely different direction. It changes key into that piece too, you know. So it's a whole different kind of trip. It was not a standard pop song.

GROSS: OK. So let's just hear the end of "We Will Rock You." And we'll hear that guitar solo at the end.

MAY: (Laughter) OK.

GROSS: Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WILL ROCK YOU")

QUEEN: (Singing) We will, we will rock you. Everybody, we will, we will rock you. We will, we will rock you. All right.

GROSS: So that's the end of "We Will Rock You," written by my guest, guitarist and singer and songwriter Brian May, who was one of the founding members of Queen. So...

MAY: I should - can I comment on the end of that?

GROSS: Yeah, please.

MAY: (Laughter) Interesting that you play the end of the song. You can hear the guitar waiting in the wings. That was - you can hear this little feedback note. And so the guitar is present although it's not taking center stage all through the last choruses. And then, finally, it bursts upon the scene. And you notice Freddie goes, all right, which means he's kind of handing over to the guitar, and we're in a different universe once the guitar starts. And that was the intention. And it's very sort of informal. And you may notice - there's a lot of things to notice. You might notice that the last piece, the very last little riffs, are repeated. And they're not just repeated by me playing them again. They're repeated by cutting the tape and splicing it on again and again. So - and that's deliberate, too. It's a way of getting a sort of a thing that makes you sit up towards the end. And then, it stops. There's nothing after it, which I really enjoy. There's no big ending. It just stops and leaves you in midair thinking, well, what happened there?

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a co-founder and the lead guitarist of the band Queen - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN SONG, "KILLER QUEEN")

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a co-founder of the band Queen and its lead guitarist. The lead singer, Freddie Mercury, died in 1991. Mercury was very theatrical in his performances and songwriting. One of the most theatrical and unconventional songs Mercury wrote for Queen was "Bohemian Rhapsody."

How did he demo the song for you before the band started performing it?

MAY: He sat down at the piano and (vocalizing). And he said, and here's a bit where everything stops, and there's an acapella bit, and then, we come back in again. He had it all mapped out, and that's the way it was done. The backing track was piano, bass and drums. And I was sitting in the studio. And it sounded great and intriguing and crisp and lively and challenging. And then, as the days went on and the weeks went on, we started overdubbing all the different vocal parts. And as you probably know, you know, there's many of us on there. We would do each part a number of times until it was right and then go to another part and multitrack everything.

In those days, you're working on 24-track tapes, so you run out of tracks quite quickly. So when you've put down, say, half a dozen tracks, you have to bounce them. You have to combine them into one track and then move on, which is a dicey process 'cause you're losing information at that point. You're also losing generations. And we did it so often on "Bohemian Rhapsody" that the legend says - and it's true - that the tape wore out. We suddenly realized we were losing top on the vocals; they were getting a bit dull. And we held the tape up to the light, and you could see through it. So we'd - there was hardly any oxide left on it. So at that point, we swiftly had to make a copy and carry on. So it was a very different way of recording to the way you would do it now 'cause there was no going back.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that this started as, you know, piano and then piano, bass and drums. But you do have a guitar solo, a very well-known one.

MAY: Oh, yeah. Well, that's added after. Yes. Yes, of course.

GROSS: Yeah, and it kind of bridges two sections of the song. So here's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with my guest, Brian May, on guitar and also doing some of the voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

QUEEN: (Singing) Mama, ooh - any way the wind blows. I don't want to die. I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all. I see a little silhouetto (ph) of a man. Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me. Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro - magnifico. I'm just a poor boy. Nobody loves me. He's just a poor boy from a poor family. Spare him his life from this monstrosity. Easy come, easy go, will you let me go? Bismillah. No, we will not let you go. Let him go. Bismillah. We will not let you go. Let him go. Bismillah. We will not let you go. Let me go. Will not let you go.

GROSS: So that's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with - featuring my guest, Brian May, on guitar. So let me just play you one thing that I'm sure you're familiar with. Here it comes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAYNE'S WORLD")

MIKE MEYERS: (As Wayne Campbell) I think we'll go with a little "Bohemian Rhapsody," gentlemen.

DANA CARVEY: (As Garth Algar) Good call.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

MAY: The delightful "Wayne's World."

GROSS: Yes. Mike Myers...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...From the movie "Wayne's World."

MAY: Yeah, well, I have to thank Mike Myers for introducing us to a whole new generation at that time. It was amazing what it did, and...

GROSS: What did it do for Queen?

MAY: Oh, it completely translated us to the new generation. And Freddie was already not well by that time, but I took it round to him. Mike Myers phoned me up and sent me the copy and said, you know, will you make sure Freddie hears it? You know, could you? And I said yes. So I took it round to him, and Freddie loved it. He laughed and thought it was great. And he went - actually, what he said was slightly unprintable, but you can bleep it if you like (laughter). He said - you know, we had a strange thing about America because America is where we grew up, you know? And it really made us as a group, all that touring. We used to tour every year about nine months, and most of it was in the States in those early days. So it really formed us as a band, and we absolutely had a love affair with America. There came a point when it all kind of went wrong in America, and we were like the biggest group in the world every place except the States. And I don't need to go into it, you know, the reason or whatever. It doesn't really matter.

But it was very difficult for us to sort of get back. And there's a whole kind of gap in Queen history if you view it from America. And Freddie was very aware of that. And we never really came back and toured the way we should have done. You know, every place else in the world, we played football stadiums, but it never happened in the States. And Freddie, when I played him this thing, said - (laughter) he said, you know, it might do for us what nothing else would do. And he was dead right. You know, it's amazing that even the fact that Freddie died didn't make that much of a difference, but the fact that "Wayne's World" put it in their film did make a difference. And I suppose the quote that I'm steering clear of is that Freddie at one point said to me, you know, I suppose I'll have to [expletive] die before we ever get big in America again.

GROSS: Oh.

MAY: And that's a strange quote. But it sort of came true in a very strange way. But "Wayne's World" was the vehicle through which young people discovered Queen, you know, a whole new set of young people. And it was great for us, you know, and I guess still is.

GROSS: Have you have you heard The Muppets' version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" (laughter)?

MAY: Yes, of course. Of course. Yeah. Well, they...

GROSS: It's really fun. Can I play that for our listeners?

MAY: Yeah, you can. Well, we had to have heard it 'cause it's us on the record. You know, they asked us if they could do it, and they said, look - we can sing this, and we can perform it, but we can't really play it. So can we use your actual track? So...

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

MAY: Generally, we say - generally, we don't let anybody do that. But in this case, 'cause it's the venerable Muppets, we said, yes, we'll do that with you. So, yes, we produced it with them.

GROSS: It's so much fun. So here's part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

BILL BARRETTA: (As Pepe, singing) I see a little silhouette of a clam. Scaramouch, scaramouch, will you do the fandango?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening.

STEVE WHITMIRE: (As Beaker, singing) Mimimimi (ph).

BARRETTA: (As Bobo, singing) Galileo.

WHITMIRE: (As Beaker, singing) Mimimimi.

BARRETTA: (As Bobo, singing) Galileo. Galileo. Figaro.

DAVE GOELZ: (As Dr. Honeydew, singing) I'm just a poor boy. Nobody loves me.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) He's just a poor boy from a poor family. Spare him his life from this...

BARRETTA: (As Big Mean Carl, singing) Monstrosity.

GOELZ: (Dr. Honeydew, singing) Easy come, easy go. Will you let me go?

BARRETTA: (As Mahna Mahna, singing) No, no, no.

MATT VOGEL: (As Lew Zealand, singing) Let me throw.

GOELZ: (As Beauregard) They will not let you throw.

VOGEL: (As Crazy Harry, singing) Let me blow.

GOELZ: (As Beauregard, singing) They will not let you blow.

ERIC JACOBSON: (As Fozzie, singing) Let me joke.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As Statler and Waldorf, singing) Do not like your jokes.

JACOBSON: (As Fozzie, singing) Let me joke.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As Statler and Waldorf, singing) Do not like your jokes.

JACOBSON: (As Sam, singing) No, no, no, no, no, no.

BARRETTA: (As Swedish Chef, singing) Furnigidi, Furnigidi (ph).

WHITMIRE: (As Turkey, singing) Mama mia, let me go.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Does anyone know if there is a part for me, for me, for me?

GROSS: That's The Muppets' version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." We'll talk more with Queen's lead guitarist Brian May after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES' "NOW I'VE GOT A WITNESS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brian May, a founding member and the lead guitarist of Queen. We spoke in 2010.

So let me ask you about the name of the band, Queen. How did you feel about giving it that name? Freddie Mercury was either gay or bisexual. I'm not sure how he would have described himself. But he didn't really talk about that, to my knowledge.

MAY: He would have said, I'm gay as a daffodil, darling.

GROSS: Would he have said that?

MAY: (Laughter) He did say that.

GROSS: Would he have said that in public?

MAY: He did say that in public. Freddie was not one to mince his words.

GROSS: (Laughter) So - but the name of the band - were...

MAY: How do I feel about it? Well, Terry, this is...

GROSS: Also knowing - and I guess...

MAY: ...You know, going back such a long way...

GROSS: But this is also the - like, there's so many homophobic hard rock fans - there were in the '70s and '80s.

MAY: How did they feel about Freddie? Well, you know, it's strange. I think it was sort of an undiscussed thing for such a long time, you know? And really, you know, the truth of the matter is nobody should care. Why should anybody care what sort of sexual persuasion people have? You know, he never hid the fact that he turned on by men instead of by women. But strangely enough, I don't think it was always the case 'cause I used to - you know, in the early days we used to share rooms. So I know who Freddie slept with in the early days, and they weren't men (laughter). So - but I think it sort of gradually changed. And I have no idea how these things work. But it wasn't really anybody's business but his.

But I remember doing a promo tour for this song that we did which was called "I Want To Break Free." Now, we made a video for that which was a pastiche of an English soap called "Coronation Street." And we dressed up as the characters in that soap. And they were female characters, so we're dressing up as girls, as women. And we had a fantastic laugh doing it. It was hilarious to do it. And all around the world, people laughed, and they got the joke, and they sort of understood it. I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people's faces turning ashen. And they would say, no, we can't play this. We can't possibly play this, you know? It looks homosexual. And I went, so?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAY: But it was a huge deal. And I know that it really damaged our sort of whole relationship with certainly radio in this country and probably the public as well.

GROSS: Oh, really?

MAY: And that's probably one of the reasons why this sort of hole developed between us and the States, which was really a tragedy because so many of our hits would have been - would have fitted very well into the life of the States. But we didn't really get back in there until "The Show Must Go On" and "These Are The Days Of Our Lives." And even those weren't the hits that they were around the rest of the world. These were No. 1 records around every civilized country.

GROSS: Let me get to some more recent developments in your life. Just a few years ago, you got your Ph.D. in a subject that you had been pursuing before Queen, and that's astrophysics. You have an astrophysics...

MAY: That's right.

GROSS: ...Book that you co-wrote...

MAY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Recently. And...

MAY: It's called "Bang!"

GROSS: Yeah.

MAY: "A Complete History Of The Universe."

GROSS: So it's interesting for me to think about you going back to the university after you'd become such a star. Of course, when you're getting your Ph.D., it's not like you're sitting in a large lecture class with people. But...

MAY: Well, basically, it is, you know? Yeah, I didn't do that many lectures. But basically, you're abandoning your status outside. And you're going back, and you're being a student. It was tough. You're having to be very much subservient to the system again, you know? And you forget how hard that is after you've left school and university, you know, to go back into that system where you're constantly judged. And you're assessed as you go along. And you do a piece of work which you're proud of. And then somebody goes, well, yeah, but can you go back and do it again, and do this and this and this? It was tough, I'd say. But I didn't want to be treated any different from any other student. I wanted this Ph.D. to be real, and it was. You know, they didn't make it easy on me, and I never wanted that. But it was worth it. I'm happy that I got the Ph.D.

GROSS: You wrote your thesis on a survey of radical velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud. I don't really know what any of that means.

MAY: Yeah, radial...

(LAUGHTER)

MAY: It's a survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, radial. I wrote it as radical velocities. I still don't know what it means.

MAY: It could be radical (laughter).

GROSS: Can you give a very layperson's description of what you were studying in that, of what you were...

MAY: Yes, I can.

GROSS: Yeah.

MAY: Just - it's a study of dust, as simple as that. It's dust, in this case, in the solar system. So we're actually surrounded by it. The Earth moves through a cloud of dust constantly. And a lot of it comes down to Earth. And my experiment was to try and find out the motions of that dust, trying to figure out where it's going, what it's doing, where it came from and what it means in terms of the creation of the solar system. The way I studied them was through Doppler shifts. And a Doppler shift is a shift of frequency that you experience due to motion. The best way - the best analogy you can give is a police siren. If you're listening to a police car coming towards you, it goes (imitating siren). But as it goes past you, it goes (imitating siren). It goes down.

GROSS: Yeah, that's true, isn't it?

MAY: And that's a Doppler shift. Yeah, that's because the waves are stretching out as this police car passes you, and it changes from coming towards you to going away from you. Now, the same kind of thing happens with light. So I was looking at Doppler shifts in light due to the motions of the dust.

GROSS: So...

MAY: And from that, you can infer how they're moving.

GROSS: So - yeah, so what were the larger implications of what you were looking at?

MAY: Aha, that's a good question. The larger implications are, where did it come from? And was it part of the creation of the universe? Or is it being created now?

GROSS: The dust?

MAY: The dust, yeah. And in fact, all of the above is true, you know? A certain amount of dust is created in every event in the universe and particularly in supernovae. A lot of dust is put out. And we human beings and all animals and all plants and everything on the Earth are made of the dust that has come out of supernovae. Now, that's not something that I discovered, but that's a fact. So when Joni Mitchell said, we are stardust; we are golden, she was right. We are stardust. And I find that quite an amazing thing to think about. The material of our body did come from the insides of stars. It was made in the insides of stars.

GROSS: Well, Brian May, it's been such a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

MAY: Thank you. It was a pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Brian May is a founding member of the band Queen and its lead guitarist. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as we continue our week-long series featuring some of our favorite music interviews from the archive, we'll hear several interviews I recorded over the years with the late Charlie Haden. He's one of the most important bass players in jazz history. He got his start when he was a little child singing on his family's country music radio show. He became famous as a member of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, which led a musical revolution in the late '50s and early '60s. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAR DE LUNE ORCHESTRA'S "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAR DE LUNE ORCHESTRA'S "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.