It is always a pleasure to print an old interview with Brian May and Queen. In 1974 they released two albums, one in March and the other in November of that year. I like them both, even though they are sort of different from each other. They are both up for discussion in this interview.
Helpful Boy Scout transforms into Werewolf
Well, perhaps that`s putting it a little strongly…let`s just say he transforms into a demon who pushes old ladies under oil tankers. But WHO IS this extraordinary mutant? Brian May of Queen, that`s who – a quite pleasant person who only sprouts fangs and facial hair when talking to the likes of Tony Stewart about musical integrity.
Although on the face of it Brian May seems the most amenable person you`re likely to meet – going to excessive and well -reasoned lengths when describing the musical concepts of Queen – one suspects that underneath there lurks an arrogant man who`s prone to become indignant should one dare to disparage the band`s achievements.
This aspect of his personality is revealed quite early in our interview when we`re discussing the generally sceptical attitude most critics displayed towards Mercury and Co before the release of “Sheer Heart Attack”. For my part, I`m trying to discover whether this caused the group to strive towards an album of such artistic accomplishment it would be universally accepted. Or, if not, whether they were at all bothered by such heated animosity.
“It concerned us,” May admits, “but I don`t think it had that kind of result.
“We`re basically very big-headed people, in the sense that we`re convinced of what we`re doing. IF somebody tells us it`s rubbish, then our attitude is that the person`s misguided rather than that we are rubbish.” He laughs self-consciously… “Rightly, or wrongly.”
“In the days when everybody seemed against us we did ask ourselves, `Well, are they right? Maybe we don`t know what we`re talking about`. But…we decided we were doing something worthwhile, and from that moment we didn`t really think about it.
“There was no feeling of trying to prove anything either. We just went ahead with what we thought we ought to be doing, believing that people would catch up eventually.”
And at frequent intervals during our rap this overt confidence is expressed.
Indeed, it seems strange that May should at one moment be as pleasant as a Boy Scout helping an old lady across the road, and then suddenly transform himself into a demon (to continue the analogy) and push her under an oil tanker should she have the audacity to question how he attained his First Class badge.
One can only assume we`re on sensitive territory when examining Queen.
May is certainly aware of the various aspects of his character.
“I think I strike a lot of people as being shy and introverted,” he explains. Then adds ominously: “But a lot of people are the biggest big-heads in the world underneath that exterior.
“At some level in everybody there`s an enormous belief that they`re the Most Important People In The World. Don`t you agree? It`s there somewhere. Whether it`s at the top or at the bottom depends on their environment, their experiences and their general philosophy of life.
“I`m sure there`s a part of me that thinks that. There`s also a part of me that thinks I`m one of the most useless people in the world.
“Somebody`s asked me recently, `Do you consider yourself a good guitarist?` And that`s impossible to answer, because on one level you think that, no matter what your shortcomings, you have more to offer than anyone else. And on another level you`re looking round at everybody else and thinking, `Oh my God, I don`t stand a chance.`
“So on different levels it`s all there.
“With us in our present situation, one of the things I consider most important is to try and keep these perspectives and realise where all these feelings are – and to be able to step outside it and make some sense of it.
“I sort of give myself a good look at every now and then and wonder how I`m taking it. And I look at people`s faces to see if they`re reacting differently to me, to see if I`m changing.
“But I feel in control of myself.”
We`re in the bare, ground floor room of Queen`s publicist`s office in Victoria, London, with May sitting on one side of a large, ugly dining table and your writer on the other – and only a plant and a tape-machine betwixt the two.
The purpose of our encounter, curtailed by the arrival of another journalist who is next on this unfortunate conveyor belt interview system, is to discuss the substance which lies below the band`s previously well-reported image of peacock glamour.
As guitarist and sometimes musical lieutenant of Queen, May is the obvious choice to discuss such matters. And while doing so he speaks slowly, often cautiously, with long pauses in mid-sentence to allow himself to collate his thoughts.
It almost goes without saying that May puts the band`s achievements down to musical ability rather than their promotion, financial backing or image. He denies that Queen ever surveyed the market searching for a niche they could slide into and which would guarantee them the rock musician`s dream of fame and prominence.
“I`m not a person,” he says, “who`s very much aware of what`s going on, I admit. I don`t sit down and go through the papers and look at the charts and see what`s going up and what`s going down. What gets to me filters through by the normal channels – if I just happen to hear the radio or meet somebody.
“Roger (Taylor) is pretty much in touch with what goes on. He`s aware of trends and things like that. But there was no question of us looking for a hole and trying to fill it in the early days. Absolutely not.
“If I could play you tapes of us playing long before Queen was even formed, you`d see that most of the germs of what we do now were in existence then. Even going back a long way – to Smile, the group Roger and I were in – a lot of the stuff was there.
“It was hard rock, but there were lots of harmonies and attempts at production in the songs.”
Even so, the group has been accused of being one of the last to ride in on the glam-rock bandwagon, as though it was a preconceived idea.
“Yes, we were,” he agrees, “but it`s not true.
“It`s very unfortunate really, because – and I don`t know whether you believe me or not – the name and the musical concept was there for a long time before it got to the public, which was because of a series of accidents really.”
These accidents involved the band taking their time making their debut album because of previous unsavoury dealings with the Music Biz, and a delay in release due to contractual difficulties, causing two years to pass between their initial conception and their eventual airing.
“In that time,” he adds, “Bowie and Roxy Music had come to prominence and so had a few other people who`re associated with glitter as such. And because of our name people thought we were the tail end of that. Which is a bit sad really.
“But we thought,” he continues, allowing his arrogance to slowly creep to the surface, “people would listen to the music and perhaps realise the obvious comment that we were the end of the glam-rock thing wasn`t true.
“We feel we over-estimated people`s intelligence in a way…” Again he laughs self-consciously,”…without meaning to be nasty about it. We just feel if people had really listened and looked they wouldn`t have got that impression.”
Really now? Well, I looked and listened and honestly believed that with their aura and the spectacularly colourful stage show, they were deliberately attempting to be as glamorously splendid as a Zsa Zsa Gabor gown.
Even very recently Freddie Mercury has been revealing his androgynous traits when interviewed, which seems to be the obvious choice of subject much favoured by the glam-rock extroverts.
These observations, however, only prompt a flat denial and put May on the defensive.
“Maybe you don`t agree,” he begins suspiciously, “but we feel that everything in the show, the lights, the costumes, any of our movements etc., are a reinforcement to the music.
“It`s dramatic music we play, so we feel that everything we can use to give it that much more effect and get the meaning across to the audience is justified.”
Whether calculated or not (and I still believe “Queen II” is over-loaded, pretentious and a calculated stab at that market, even though May counter-argues fairly convincingly later on) Queen`s roots, as aired on their debut album, were rather more mundane.
The track “Son And Daughter”, for example, seems to me to be totally derivative of Heavy Metal, with a vocal harmony effect similar to one often used by Uriah Heep exercised in the introduction, and a structure which, to put it mildly, owes more than a little to the music of Led Zeppelin.
“It does belong to the Zeppelin-Purple era,” May admits, “Because that`s where it came from. We were doing it at the time when Zeppelin were a new force.
“It comes from the time when we were frustrated because we were doing all sorts of things which we thought people ought to hear, but we had no means of getting people to hear them. So by the time that came out it was something like four years old and everybody thought, `Ah! They`re jumping on Zeppelin`s bandwagon`. Which was unfortunate.
“We could have chucked it out to avoid that criticism, but I still think we did better to put it in. Although it has got the flavour of that time it`s still got the beginnings of our trademark.
“You`ll notice there`s a multi-tracked guitar thing at the end…well, that`s one of the things we were experimenting with at that time. And it grew on the second album, where there`s a lot of that kind of thing.
But was Queen a completely new musical concept, or did they, at that stage, owe a lot to Smile`s music?
“Yeah, I suppose we did,” he replies hesitantly.
“We were still quite near what Smile was doing but it was a lot more disciplined, `cause Smile was very, errr, free-form.
“This is Freddie`s influence. He likes it to be disciplined, with a lot of things going on…to affect the audience. I think he was the one who was first aware of playing to an audience rather than playing to yourself. Smile was, as was the fashion in those days, fairly self-indulgent.
“We`d go on stage and we would play to the audience, but primarily we were feeling out what we could do, and if we felt like jamming for half an hour we`d do it.”
He pauses, his attention attracted by photographer Joe Stevens who has just arrived and is about to shoot some photographs.
“Errr, are you going to take pictures or something?” he asks. Receiving an affirmative answer, he shifts uneasily in his chair.
“Yes…all right…” he says nervously. “I just wasn`t prepared for it, that`s all.” But with a short laugh he`s back into the interview.
“So it was a development of Smile`s music, but becoming different. `Liar` was one of the numbers we sat down and worked on – which we`d never done with Smile. We just didn`t have the self-discipline to do it.
“Mmmmmm. I`ve lost the thread now I`m afraid,” he adds, obviously put off his stride. “I`ve forgotten what the question was.”
Well, the thread of the questioning was intended to lead up to the point that Smile bombed commercially – and because May admits there`s a conceptual link between that group and Queen, why should Queen`s future have been anymore auspicious?
It`s a quite important point, this, considering that each member of the group had studied quite extensively and then chosen to become a musician rather than follow an academic career. Superficially this would seem to indicate they all had enormous faith in their music.
May, however, reveals he was hesitant to forsake astronomy before he was certain of the outcome of Queen.
Apparently, though, this was not because of lack of confidence in what they were doing, but because of how it was received.
“Having believed in Smile`s music,” he explains, “and seen it get nowhere for various reasons, I was quite at home with the idea Queen could be the best group in the world and still never get anywhere.
“There are a lot of groups who were very good and had every possibility of becoming one of the world`s best bands, but who somehow got lost on the way because of bad publicity or bad management or any number of things. I think there`s a lot of luck in it.
“We`ve worked very hard at it and we`ve approached it very intelligently, I think, but there`s still a certain amount of luck. If certain things hadn`t happened at a certain time we would have made it.
“It`s a question of having confidence in the music, but not having confidence in the ways of the world, if you like.”
Without confidence in the ways of the world, and with a reticence to give up astronomy, how did he react when “Queen II” was released and received a critical hammering? After all, as Mercury has remarked, 75 per cent of the reviews were downers.
“I was very surprised, I really was,” he answers quickly.
“We`d spent a long time in the studios and for the first time we felt most of the things we wanted to go on it actually went on – because we had the budget, due to having good people behind us.
“And we had more experience; we had the experience of a tour. We were better players. We felt the songs were better. We felt the album as a whole made sense.
“We felt it was a significant achievement for us to make an album which, rather than just being a representative thing like the first one, was An Album and A Good Album. We were all very pleased with it, and thought nobody could ignore it, even if they ignored the first one.
“And as it happened,” he sighs sadly. “They didn`t ignore it. They all slated it.” He laughs.
“We expected every one to turn round and say, `Oh well, sorry, we were wrong about the first album. Maybe we should have paid some attention to it, because this is something worthwhile`.
“But in fact, human nature being what it is, it`s very difficult for anyone to do that. People would much rather say, `We ignored the first one and here`s the second one and we must say we were damn right to ignore the first one, because this one`s terrible`.
“Journalists are human, and I think there was that element. They didn`t like to admit they were wrong. And in order to sustain what they`d said before they had to go a bit further with the second one.
“We also think that the image had a lot to do with it. There was a lot of cynicism over people thinking we were fitting into the old glam-rock mould, which had already been played out. And because we had pretty faces and we dressed in nice clothes it was fashionable to think that if it looked good it couldn`t be good.
“I think it`s just an unfortunate set of accidents.
“I know you don`t like the album very much and you`ve explained to me your reasons. That`s fair enough. But to us it was totally misunderstood. I think it went completely over most people`s heads. If that sounds big-headed it`s because we think it`s a good album.”
May continues to justify the lavish use of multi-guitar tracks and harmonies, and successfully explains the progression between it and the first, which saw, he says, their ideas in an embryonic state. And he eventually concludes his analysis of the set on a pertinent point.
“Some people have accused us of trying to pretend the second album was more than it was by packaging or something. Somebody suggested that was part of the reason why it didn`t go down well.
“Maybe,” he adds, his eyes narrowing accusingly, “it was you.”
Well no, not exactly. The point I made was similar, but involved the music. I`d arrived at the conclusion that the band tried to disguise the hard-rock feel, a la Who, and make the set self-laudatory and pretentious.
“Why should we disguise it?” May asked incredulously. “It`s one of the best features of the group…that it has some power and guts. There`s no reason why we should want to disguise it. It`s just a more subtle approach.
“Some of our fans came up at the time and said, `Haven`t you lost some of the heaviness?` But as time went on the same people came back and said, `Look, I`ve been listening to it and I can see what it`s all about now. I can really see it`s a progression and it`s still got the power there`.
“And `Queen II` is the most consistent-selling album we`ve made – so far. We can`t say that about `Sheer Heart Attack`. But `Queen II` keeps coming back and back. Every time we do a tour anywhere, of any country, `Queen II` starts to sell again, because people realise what it`s about.
“I think the mistake we made – if we did make a mistake – was, again, to overestimate people`s powers of deduction about the album. This is not being rude at all, and I`ll give you an example why…”
The example concerns May himself hearing, while on holiday recently, a double album by a group called Los Canarios which was as ambitious and as lavish as “Queen II” – and which he reacted to in a similar way as I did to Queen`s set. It wasn`t until he read the booklet that accompanied the Canarios work that he fully appreciated it.
“I thought, `What would have happened if I`d bought Queen II?”, he continues, “I`d have heard all this stuff and had very much the same reaction, and then I`d have seen the cover – which has nothing on it to indicate anything special has been done.
“If we`d put a booklet in with it I think people would have realised what it was all about.”
Surely an album should stand on its own merit, rather than need an explanatory booklet?
“It does, eventually,” he responds, “but it just takes so long. The average person listens to it in the record shop, or hears a couple of tracks on the radio and never gets the chance to get into it.
“They might think, as I did with this album by Los Canarios, that it`s got something, but it can`t be anything because they haven`t heard about it. If there`s not a big fuss made about something you tend to think it can`t be worth anything. It takes a big effort of mind to get solidly behind something on your own.”
But the result of that argument, if it were true, would be that I, for example, would have been totally against “Sheer Heart Attack” when I reviewed it, purely because of what I thought about its predecessor, and secondly because there was no fuss being made at the time. But I wasn`t.
“It`s not a contradiction, because after `Queen II` we were much more aware of how people received things. So in `Sheer Heart Attack` we were aware of trying to be a little more accessible. We wanted more people to get into what we were doing.
“On `SHA` there`s all the stuff that was on `Queen II`, but instead of it being vertically layered it`s spread out horizontally. Very many of the musical ideas, or the musical treatments if you like, are the same on the two albums.
But on `SHA` they come at you one at a time, and it`s an easy album to assimilate. You can listen to it and you can get a lot out of it the first time, simply because there`s one thing at a time happening. If you go back to `II` in the course of one number you can hear it all going on at once – in some cases.
“A lot of people have interpreted `II` better for having heard `SHA`. It`s all very accessible, and that was partly a conscious thing when we were doing the album, and partly unconscious.”
Ah! If it was done partly consciously isn`t that another way of admitting “Queen II” was over ambitious?
“No,” argues May, “because the two albums are completely different.
“`SHA` is an immediate album, but `Queen II` is an album you`ll listen to for years and years and years.
“We have enormous faith in `Queen II`. Maybe more than for `SHA`, I don`t know. I see them as different, but both are interesting. I think though there`s more on `II`.”
If you`ll excuse the cliche, was “Queen II” before it`s time?
“I think it was in a way,” he answers. “But I don`t regret putting it out at that time. Maybe we`d have sold more copies if we`d released `SHA` first, but that`s not really a criterion to judge your music on.”
Finally, what about Queen`s future?
Well, May believes, “It`s hard to see further than the end of your nose.” But – and please pardon the unkindness – Brian has rather a long nose, so he`s able to forsee an American tour lasting just over two months, visits to Japan and Australia and then a return to England when they might record a fourth album. It hasn`t been decided yet.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper and you are free to use it as you like. If you use it on your own webpages – please credit me or put up a link to my blog.
This number of New Musical Express also contains articles/interviews with these people: Average White Band, Stuart Henry, Kiki Dee, Dr. Feelgood, Kokomo, Chilli Willi, Doobie Brothers, King Crimson, Dave Cartwright, The Platters.
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