He Wants To Break Free: Brian May at 75

Celebrating the Queen guitar legend and renowned astrophysicist by revisiting a 1992 interview

Brian May (Image: Queen Online)

Queen lives, in a manner of speaking. There are those that say it doesn’t, what with Freddie Mercury among the dearly departed.

These critics claim this Queen + Adam Lambert thing doesn’t quite cut it, just like Queen + Paul Rodgers didn’t. A case can be made either way – and, man, do fans love to squabble over this – but let’s table those thoughts for now. (My thoughts on the Queen/Lambert unit are at the end of the story.) 

For now, let me take you back 30 years when I was on the phone with guitarist Brian May, who turns 75 today, May 19th. He was pondering what may become of him and his band. Whether there should be a Queen of any sort. It was a year after Mercury’s death from an AIDS-related illness.

“I don’t know if I should say what I feel,” the soft-spoken May said, London, when I asked about the possible future of the group.

As a writer, you kind of salivate hearing a statement like that. Come on, Brian, do tell… 

“We haven’t talked about it. But I think the time has come when, strangely enough, we will start to say what we feel. We’ve been very loyal to each other as a team and all the stuff that’s come out in the past has been talked over before it came out of the mouthpiece. But I think Queen cannot exist without Freddie. I think it would be wrong for us to go on and dilute the thing. I think the dignified and correct thing to do is to say Queen winds up at a specific point.”

That point was around the corner, when Queen’s three surviving founding members — May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor – paid tribute to their late lead singer and hosted the biggest rock-related AIDS benefit in history at Wembley Stadium. It was billed as the “Tribute to Freddie Mercury Concert for AIDS Awareness.” 

“To be truthful, I don’t go along with rock stars mouthing off about this stuff very much,” said May. “We’ve never been a band that was political in any way. But I just think this is one opportunity where we have a chance to make some noise about something which may save a lot of lives.”

 

VIDEO: Queen and George Michael perform “Somebody To Love” at Freddie Mercury Concert 

May said all proceeds would benefit AIDS-related causes, though a primary aim was to raise awareness. (Later, there was much dispute as to whether this benefit made or lost millions; there were a lot of rock star travel and accommodation bills to factor in.)

Many notable rockers sang along with Queen–most notably George Michael–but Mercury’s main stand-in was Gary Cherone, a major Mercury fan who is the lead singer of Extreme, Boston’s big breakout hard rock band of 1991.

Fellow rockers on the bill include Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Elton John, David Bowie, Roger Daltrey, Def Leppard, Extreme, Ian Hunter, Annie Lennox, London Community Gospel Choir, Robert Plant, Mick Ronson, Seal, Spinal Tap, Lisa Stansfield, (U2 via satellite from Sacramento) and Paul Young.

I asked if May expected the mood to be one of joyous rock or a mourning of Mercury?

“I think there’s going to be elements of all sorts of things,” he said. “It is hard. There’s going to be moments in this concert where it’s going to be really hard to carry on with the job, you know? There’s going to be a lot of emotion kicking around, but the basic aim is to kick it up, make it a celebration.”

Although Queen was part of 1985’s Live Aid concert and a headliner at numerous outdoor arena shows worldwide, May considered this event to be “the biggest thing” the band has ever done. “The responsibility is much bigger. We were a cog in the wheel at Live Aid, but this is something we’re organizing and we feel strongly about — not only about getting it to happen musically, but in getting the message across. I guess we feel a responsibility to get it right, to do it tastefully.”

This comment brings a respectful pause, but also a laugh on my end of the phone line, being that “taste” was never something that was often attributed to Queen.

May chuckled, too, and it served to break a bit of the serious ice.

“I was thinking maybe something has gone wrong if I’m saying that,” he said. “In the taste to which we are accustomed — let me put it that way. Tasteful bad taste.”

Queen began their rise to fame in 1973 with “Keep Yourself Alive,” a song that broke first in the United States in Boston. They quickly became well-known for their eccentric, progressive-minded attitude toward rock and pop music. Originally seen as a melting pot of basic Led Zeppelin and Yes styles, they went on to create their own bizarre universe. Queen incorporated a panoply of music, from old-timey ballads to opera to calypso to funk and metal. They were impassioned, but ironic; arch, but true. All four musicians wrote.

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” their freakish six-minute-plus hit of 1975, had been given a Top 10 rebirth because of its prominent placement in the movie Wayne’s World. It served, still, as the prime example of Queen’s stylistic and emotional leap-frogging: heartfelt and campy, slowly teasing and hard rocking, optimistic and fatalistic. Despite all its exuberance and glee, it ends with Mercury’s quiet rejoinder, “Nothing really matters…to me.”

May felt a bit ill at ease about the second life of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a hit single, as well as the resurgence of Queen’s sales in the US, which, no doubt, were triggered by Mercury’s death. 

“It’s very strange,” May said, “but we were conscious of it and we thought, `Yeah, it’s gonna happen and it’s gonna happen for all the wrong reasons.’ And the irony goes deeper because that damn record is out only because of a film, because some people successfully lampooned this and made the song at hit.”

 

VIDEO: Wayne’s World “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene

Oops, wait a minute, I countered. Lampoon? It’s a fucking tribute, even if it is a bit of a goofy one, with Wayne and his metal pals cruising along in a car as the song plays and banging their heads in unison. 

“I haven’t seen it yet,” May admitted, “but great. And the funny thing is, that’s also us ’cause that’s the thing we used to do in the back of the buses. It’s all of us, you know. We’re all very happy. Sometimes, the right things happen for the wrong reasons. Why not? Life is not a logical thing and Freddie would see that side.”

Indeed. Queen was long noted for its extravagance, its flamboyance and its cockiness — both on and off stage. They played in the grandiose garden; they lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. They took an A-ticket rock ‘n’ roll ride.

“It was very, very good,” said May. “It wasn’t all glamour and it wasn’t all fun, but there was a lot of that in there and I think we realized a lot of our dreams. It’s boys with toys, you know? You have a dream that you can do all this stuff and it’s wonderful to find out you can. We created an environment for ourselves; it was kind of a protective bubble.”

There was the name Queen, which when I first heard it carried no particular double meaning in my world. I just thought, you know, they wanna be rock royalty.

Perhaps the young me was a little slow on the uptick. “I thought with the name Queen we would at least get heard by people, so we had a great freedom to play anything that we felt was right. We were lucky with the audience that we attracted because they never said, `Do the same thing again or we won’t buy your records.’ We do exactly what the hell we feel like and [you] give it a listen. So, we’ve been lucky in the freedom that we’ve had and the control that we’ve had and fought for in all areas throughout the last 20 years.”

Still, it had to be acknowledged, even as Queen’s popularity remained strong in most parts of the world, it took a nosedive in the States. 

“It’s something we were very much aware of,” said May. “I think looking back on it, the turning point was when we dressed up in women’s clothes for the ‘I Want to Break Free’ video. That was viewed as a valid piece of comedy in Europe, but I think in the States it was viewed as something quite shocking. The hint of it — that we were transvestites, or gay, or whatever. And there were other things. There was a whole payola thing going on at the time which our record company made a stand against and at the time they made their stand with our `Radio Ga-Ga’ which dropped from, I think, No. 20 to out of the charts. And after that, times were very hard. We never regained our contact with the North American audience and, yes, we were upset.”

 

VIDEO: Queen “I Want To Break Free”

Queen kept making and selling albums, but stopped touring in 1986, after finding out about Mercury’s illness. They told the press that they, simply, didn’t care to tour, but May said now that Mercury was dealing with the disease and “didn’t want to risk being anything less than he had been before.”

Despite rumors in rock circles and numerous tabloid reports, Mercury only acknowledged he had AIDS hours before his death.

“It was a very conscious decision that he made and if you want my opinion, I think he did the right thing,” May said. “Freddie was a unique person, a genuinely free spirit who said, `Look, I’m not going to be the person I was brought up to be. I’m going to be somebody else.’ And he became the god Mercury, or whatever. He said to us, `I’m fighting this thing, it’s my problem and I have the right to fight it privately if I want. I don’t want anything interfering with my life, my work or the band’s work. I want to make music until I die and I don’t want to be hounded and have my life made a misery by the publicity this will make. At the right time, I will make the decision [to go public] and no else will make it.’ So, it was difficult for us.

“We’re enormously proud of Freddie and the way that he lived and the way that he died,” continued May. In dying “he gave us an incredible tool to use and he knew it. We talked about it. And he knew what we hoped to achieve by it.”

What about AIDS?

“I think this is the time for all of us to stand up and say we have to knock down the barriers to fight AIDS,” he said. “I think unfortunately some people got the wrong message about AIDS early on. I don’t know quite what it’s like in the States, but in England I’m shocked and horrified to see people still saying, firstly, `It’s not our problem,’ but second, `It’s a punishment for being gay.’ I cannot believe this is being said in 1992. But, if this concert can turn that around it would be a great achievement.”

Mercury was gay; the other members of Queen were straight. May was adamant about anyone’s right to have a sexual preference. “We have to somehow get rid of this feeling that there is something wrong with some [man] if he’s in love with a man instead of a woman,” May maintained. “I can’t see any foundation for saying something is disallowed. Nobody should feel guilty about what they feel, because feelings are something we cannot do anything about. So, basically, we’re out there kind of hoisting [the banner], as the heterosexuals that we are. We feel like we’ve taken up saying a lot of the things that gay people have been saying for a long time, and I’m very happy to join in that. I feel comfortable about that.

“What I don’t feel happy with is the extreme end of the spectrum which says that people should be outed — I find that very offensive and contrary to people’s rights.”

This led me to ponder Guns N’ Roses inclusion on the bill, considering the hostile, anti-gay stance in their “One in a Million” song.

“To us,” said May, “it’s vital that Guns N’ Roses is there, simply because they {represent} the kind of heavy, very noticeably masculine side of the spectrum. The fact is: They’re in there with us, doing this thing. Hopefully, we feel that everybody is represented — all colors and persuasions. I never had a moment’s doubt that they should be in there. Having spoken to Axl, I think he was very much behind Freddie and that says a lot. And the fact that they want to be in there says a lot. The fact that Guns N’ Roses is in there is really one of the most important things to be said.”

In the 30 years since that interview, we all know the post-Freddie Queen has taken various twists and turns. Bassist-keyboardist John Deacon dropped out of the mix in 1997. Rodgers sang with them for five years and Lambert’s held the spotlight since 2011. But 1995’s Made in Heaven was the last studio album. Queen + Adam Lambert released Live in Japan in 2016 and another live package (CD/DVD/Blue-Ray) in 2020, Live Around the World. 

Me, I saw the big show in 2014 at TD Garden in Boston: Here’s some thoughts from that …

Adam Lambert, of course, is the dashing young fella who sang Queen songs as a kid and now gets to do so on stage in hockey arenas in front of thousands. He was clearly in awe of Queen’s music and band members, noting how it all seemed “surreal.” Though his patter sometimes went overboard on the giddy, he was mostly up to the task, as both singer and in-house cheerleader for the band he fronts. Lambert hit the highs and he hit the lows. He was as happy in tight black leather (the start) as he was wearing a crown and leopard print suit at the end. Flamboyance comes as naturally to him as it did Mercury, one difference being that Lambert is gay and out and Mercury remained in the closet, almost up until the bitter end. It wasn’t the best-kept secret in the rock world, but it was Mercury’s choice. And those were different times.

The concert reminded me once again of what Queen did so well, dating back to their debut LP in 1973. They were a band with four songwriters and three strong singers which could be downright Beatle-esque in their scope. That is, they’d come off as a glam/rock hard rock band one minute (“Stone Cold Crazy,” “Tie Your Mother Down”) and as nostalgia-tripping, British-music hall loving romantics the next (“Love of My Life,” “’39,” “Somebody to Love”).  All of these sparkled Tuesday. From the latter years came funky Queen with “Another One Bites the Dust” and the finger-snapping “Under Pressure.”

 

VIDEO: Queen “I Want It All”

They were boastful and defiant in “I Want It All” – as coyly self-aggrandizing as anything by Iggy Pop – and “We Will Rock You.”  It must also be said Queen proved themselves ahead of the curve, that is today’s big butt craze in pop music, with “Fat Bottomed Girls.” (It was a shame they didn’t screen their “shocking” dozens-of-nude-bicycle-riding-women video from 1978 up on the huge circular screen behind the Taylors.) They displayed their expansive prog-rock chops during “In the Lap of the Gods” and Seven Seas of Rhye” and during May’s Robert Fripp-meets-Jerry Garcia-meets-David Gilmour-meets-Pete Townshend ten minute-plus guitar solo. 

Witty references? There’s that, too, like quoting Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” at the close of “Now I’m Here” – “Go, go, go, little queenie!” sang Lambert. Sometimes Queen’s lyrical cleverness is overlooked amidst the big roar, but just latch on to any snippet from the campy “Killer Queen,” about the femme fatale they describe as “gunpowder gelatin, dynamite with a laser beam.” It’s three minutes-plus of simultaneous put-down and salute. Lambert sang that one coyly while stretched out on a couch that had popped up on the circular stage at the end of the catwalk. He also pretended to guzzle champagne and then spewed a long spray into the crowd, cooing, “Did I get you wet? You liked it didn’t you?”

There was, naturally, many lasers, chemical smoke and big-bam arena-rock effects, including a flying saucer type lighting rig that descended over May and shot out all kinds of confetti-shaped laser lights during his guitar solo.   Prior to that, Taylors old and young had a most enjoyable father-son drum battle.

Where was Mercury during the concert? Hovering. When May came out to the circular stage with an acoustic guitar to begin “Love of My Life,” he talked about how he “and a young boy named Freddie Mercury” sang this together, just themselves. He teased that “some magic might happen,” and, sure enough, midway through, Mercury made his first appearance on the big screen and did the duet with May as Lambert stayed somewhere in the shadows. 

During the now-weepy “Those Are the Days of Our Lives” Mercury was also in the video, as was Deacon and the others. Images of yesterday’s youth and triumph, gold records and off-stage hijinks. The finale of the regular set was, no surprise, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the multi-part song which knocked us out in 1975 and for which the meaning remains ever cryptic. It’s a song of split personality, of anger and resentment, acceptance and finality. Which end is up? All, maybe. Mercury – captured on video, in performance at Wembley Stadium in the ‘80s – joined Lambert for the mad dash through the emotional peaks and musical twists.  “I don’t want to die, sometimes I wish I’d never been born at all,” sang Mercury, sadly. “So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?” roared Lambert.

Dizzyingly, they swapped lines at the end, winding down with “Nothing really matters to me” and Mercury getting the last thought: “Any way the wind blows … “

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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