Brian May Part 2

We spoke to Brian before the Heritage Award ceremony to hear about his life in Queen & his enduring memories of Freddie.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 5 Mar 2013
  • min read
Today Brian May and Roger Taylor will receive a PRS for Music Heritage Award at Imperial College London to mark the site of their first ever London gig as Queen in 1970.

Together with Freddie Mercury and John Deacon, the band grew into a world-dominating force, packing stadiums across the globe and selling more than 300 million records. Their cannon of hits has transcended the era they were written and tracks such as We Will Rock You and Bohemian Rhapsody still reverberate in popular culture to this day.

We caught up with Brian before the Heritage Award ceremony to find out about his life with Queen, his songwriting and his enduring memories of Freddie. You can read part one here.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Probably one of the first ideas I had was a song called The Real Life. It was about someone sitting all alone and sad, and someone else turning up, telling them they weren’t living a real life, ‘Come with me, I’ll show you a real life’. It never saw the life of day, but I think I have it on a demo somewhere. Very soon after that I wrote a couple more songs. One called Polar Bear, which the hardcore Queen fans will know because we recorded it! It was a metaphorical tale, if you like! About someone seeing a polar bear in a shop window but it wasn’t for sale! And I wrote Step On Me, which we did record, maybe with my first group 1984. The first song that you will probably know is Keep Yourself Alive, which found its way onto our first album and was our first single.

How do you go about your songwriting?
The funny thing is I don’t really regard myself as a songwriter. I’m not someone who sits down most days and writes a song. It either happens or it doesn’t. Something will get me all passionate or something will happen. Or else I’ll hear a tune in my head or some lyrics. It happens organically. I’m not really able to make it happen at will. You feed off an idea, and sometimes you’re not even sure where that came from.

What is the key ingredient of a really great song? Is it lyric, a melody or something else?
Well, I’ll quote you what Don Black said to me once. Someone had asked him about the intricacies of songwriting and he replied, ‘All that matters is, “How does it go?”’’ There’s a lot of truth in that! It’s all about having a great tune, and good words are a part of that. If you’ve got those, no amount of arrangement or production can take the place of it. God knows where they come from! Good tunes come from heaven I suppose. But certainly, people are able to produce good tunes out of the ether. For example, no matter what you think of ABBA, you cannot deny those melodies are immortal –they do something to you. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about, ‘How does it go?’

Do you think great songwriting can be learnt or do you think it’s innate?
I think like any creative skill you can encourage yourself to be open and take advantage of whatever inspiration you have. It’s like being an athlete – you have a certain amount of natural ability but you work on it and you exercise it. You try to catch it unawares.

Do you remember what you spent your first PRS for Music royalty cheque on?
In those days the royalty cheques were very small and we were so much in debt that we didn’t just go out and spend it. We just hoped that somewhere along the line our debts were being paid off! It was only when we got to the third album Sheer Heart Attack that we realised we’d sold a lot of copies but we hadn’t seen anything! We were not only destitute we were hugely in debt, so a lot of people who were supplying the things we needed, such as equipment, were not going to supply us anymore because we couldn’t pay them. That was a real crisis for us and that’s what led us to find a way out of our management situation, which was crippling at the time. We signed up with John Reid, who was Elton John’s manager at the time. Luckily for us, the fourth album A Night of the Opera did really well and we were able to pay off our debts.

What are your ties to Imperial College London?
I was a student there. I did three years of an undergraduate physics degree then went back for four years to do a PhD in Astronomy. But I only had a grant for three years so in the fourth year I taught at a comprehensive school in Brixton to pay my food bills. At the same time we were already rehearsing with Queen so I was starting to get drawn away.

Why does the site have such significance for Queen?
The first proper gig we did was at Imperial College in the Union Hall. I remember it very distinctly because I’d seen allsorts of people playing in that hall. I’d been part of the entertainments committee and we booked a group every Saturday night in those days. People like Spooky Tooth and Steamhammer. We booked Jimi Hendrix too. So for us it was a dream come true to actually play on that stage. It used to get packed in there so it was a major stepping stone for us. We got our first review from our gig – in a magazine called Disc. It was a big big deal! Just to see people out there who knew some of the material because they’d heard the album was a major deal for us.

Were you nervous going on stage?
Yes! I think you’re always nervous though, that never changes. Funny thing is that, in a sense, it gets more intense as you go on. Maybe because there is more expectation and you’ve got more to lose out there. You tend to be more conscious of your nerves as you get older. As a kid you just go out there and make a noise! I think nerves are part of what drives us and are what makes us do something special on the stage. Audiences feed off that.

What’s your most enduring memory of Freddie?
His wicked smile. His conspiratorial wink when he knew he’d said something argumentative and naughty and risky, he’d give you that little glint in his eye. For a moment you probably thought he was serious, which in sense he was, because he did take a lot of risks. But he just had this funny way of licking his lips and putting on that big smile followed by a nervous laugh, and he’d be telling you something completely outrageous so you didn’t know whether to believe him or not! He had a very wicked sense of humour and a great enjoyment for life. He didn’t stand for any nonsense; he didn’t want to be stuck in any bogs. He didn’t let anything clutter his life. It’s a great example that I wish I could follow better than I do.