Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Brian May
In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them
1You recently reissued your solo album ‘Back to the Light’. What number did it originally chart at in 1992?
“Good heavens! I don’t know numbers!”
WRONG. It reached Number Six.
“‘Back to the Light’ was written and recorded during a tough time of my life. It was a time of losing Freddie [Mercury, Queen frontman, who died in 1991] and being aware of it but in denial and disbelief, losing my dad, and my marriage breaking up. I was on the verge of falling to pieces most of the time, but the album helped me. On the rare days when I felt able to make music, I was inspired by trying to voice what was inside my head, thinking it might help people going through similar stages in life. It also helped that I had Freddie’s blessing. I was nervous, feeling like I was doing something distasteful by putting out my debut solo single when Freddie was still around. But I played it to him and asked if he wanted to sing on it. He said: ‘No, you sing it beautifully, darling! You should get out there and start working on your solo career’. That was nice to have in my heart.”
Does that sense of needing his blessing ever leave you? Whenever you do work with Queen now, do you have imaginary conversations with him in your head?
“He’s always there. He really is. But in a positive way. Generally we can hear Freddie’s voice if we’re discussing decisions and know what he was going to say. He was quite unpredictable, but we were able to predict his unpredictability! He was like a brother, and I just always see his wicked smile wondering what he was going to bring from leftfield to knock us sideways. Freddie was the most unusually alive person and exceptionally unfettered.”
2Two actors have played you on screen – one in the blockbuster 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody and the other in the video to Queen’s 1989 single ‘The Miracle’. A point for each you can name.
“Definitely Gwilym Lee who did a terrific job of me in Bohemian Rhapsody.”
CORRECT. The other was Paul Howard.
“Gwilym even fooled my kids! When I showed them a rough cut of the film, they said: ‘He’s really good, but obviously you did the voice, didn’t you dad?’” (Laughs) “I went: No, he’s that good an actor. He did me perfectly – voice-wise, body language-wide and spiritually. He became like my younger brother and we keep in touch.”
That film was a huge success. Will you do a sequel?
“We have talked about it and at the moment, we don’t see the path towards doing that and unless it jumps out and knocks us over then we won’t do it.”
3Queen released ‘Under Pressure’ with David Bowie in 1981. But which other song did he originally go into the studio to record backing vocals on?
“I think he was working on ‘Cool Cat’.”
“Freddie dragged him in one evening to work on that, but we went out for drinks and came back with an idea that was based on John [Deacon]’s bass riff. John picked up his bass and played something and David rushed over to him, put his hand on the neck of the guitar and went: ‘No, no no. That wasn’t what we did. It was like this!’.” (Laughs) “The look on John’s face was priceless! We started a few little other things with David in that period, but ‘Under Pressure’ became consuming and he kept coming in all fired up with more lyrics. My favourite memories of David is him playing make-believe games with my son, Jimmy. He had a nice childlike quality to him as well as his superpower-genius characteristic.”
4When current Queen frontman Adam Lambert appeared on Alan Carr: Chatty Man in 2015, what gift did he say he was going to give to you?
“I’m afraid this escapes me!” (Laughs)
WRONG. It was Frizz Ease.
(Laughs) “Well, for people with curly hair, rain is the enemy. Even just a little bit of rain and you’re left with this unattractive growing fuzz. I’d never heard of the product but probably should have! I call Adam The GFG – Gift From God. He ticked every box and a lot of boxes we didn’t even know existed. His voice is phenomenal and one in a billion, and Freddie would agree with me on that. He has great rapport with the audience and is very camp – which seems to be a requirement for a lead singer in our band!” (Laughs)
Would you release a new Queen album with Adam?
“We’ve talked about it a lot but it hasn’t happened yet. We went into a studio halfway through the last American tour to try things out but we didn’t feel anything was quite right. Unless it jumps out and is extraordinary, then we’re not going to do it, but it’s a possibility, definitely. If I’m honest, I have an underlying feeling that people want to hear Freddie’s voice on a record when it’s got the name Queen on it and it’s hard for them to see it any other way. Live, it’s wonderful and people feel fulfilled seeing Adam working with us Whenever we’ve included Adam’s solo songs into the Queen live set, it comes out pretty good, so maybe that’s a sign that we should be trying harder to see where recording goes.”
5Who performed ‘We Are the Champions’ at the star-studded 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert?
“It was my idea and I got a lot of stick about it from various quarters who said: ‘You can’t do that!’. My argument was Freddie loved her, he was entranced by her in Cabaret and later became her friend. When she stepped out there and her big heart opened up and the stadium went with it, I felt vindicated.”
You seem to have a love of camp. Did you embrace it from the start or did it take time, and were there any moments you found too outré?
“We were always connected to it because coming from hanging around Kensington Market pretending to be rock stars, there was this metrosexual, dandy exuberant energy. And Freddie was very flamboyant, but the funny thing was in the early days – and I shared rooms with him on tour – he wasn’t particularly gay.” (Laughs) “But when he crossed over that wall and discovered his true self and came out, the wicked smile and sense of humour was still the same. There were moments, like when Freddie came onstage without warning with us in the crimson briefs, that he went ‘Fred, really?!’, but it was great fun and no matter how outrageous he was, he could always pull it off.
“I knew from the start he was a wonderful icon, which is why I put him on the front of the first [1973 self-titled] Queen album. I cut this little picture of Freddie out by hand and pasted him in a picture of a spotlight and that says: Freddie is our frontman. He’s an icon and our connection with the audience.”
6Who covered Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ for Sport Relief 2006? Clue: you performed it with them at one of their London gigs.
“Agggghhhh! It’s those young boys who are called… oh, for God’s sake – tell me!” (Laughs)
WRONG. It’s McFly.
“I knew that! Very good boys they are, too. When we were going round the world getting hits, we’d think: ‘Everybody covers Beatles and [Led] Zeppelin, why don’t they cover Queen songs?’, and then there was a trickle that suddenly became an avalanche and suddenly we became part of the language that people wanted to speak in music. Hearing people playing our songs is the greatest compliment.”
Queen have tweeted about their love for boyband BTS. Would you like to work with them?
“Well that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” (Laughs) “That would be very interesting! I’m up for anything. When people ask me who I’d like to work with, Paul McCartney is at the top of my list because the Beatles are still ‘The Bible’ to us. As struggling musicians, we had a joke whenever the phone went, somebody would say: ‘Oh, it’s Paul McCartney for you’ and we’d say, ‘Tell him to fuck off!’. Not any disrespect to Paul – just a bravado thing because he’s like the Pope.” (Laughs) “When we were rehearsing for the  Freddie Mercury Tribute [Concert in London], the phone went and the message came back: ‘It’s Paul McCartney for you….’” (Laughs)
Did you finally tell him to fuck off?!
“No, but it felt surreal. He was phoning to wish us luck and say he was sad he couldn’t appear with us at that show, as I’m sat on a chair looking at Robert Plant, Tony Iommi, Roger Daltrey, and Seal.”
7In 2011, you were nominated for a NME Award for Best Live Moment when you covered ‘We Will Rock You’ and another song live at Reading festival with which emo band?
“Oh, ‘The Black Parade’ boys! See, my brain’s gone these days! I know them so well and I absolutely related so closely to them, and… for God’s sake, who were they called?!”
WRONG. But so close – it’s My Chemical Romance, whom you also performed ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ with
“Of course! I knew that!” (Laughs) “Senility is setting in and I can’t remember my own bloomin’ mother’s name! MCR were great and I had a fantastic time playing with them. I was an honoury emo that night. Their records had a lot of humour and invention and I’m glad they’re back together. I hope I bump into them again.”
Talking of NME Awards, the press haven’t always treated Queen kindly over the years…
“We were capable of tearing each other apart much worse than any journalist was able to so we had that resilience. I’m serious – we would reinforce each other if we felt that was the right thing to do but if we didn’t agree, we’d be very open and destructive to each other. One of us left the group every time we made an album. It wasn’t always me!” (Laughs)
Even Elton John admits in his autobiography he dismissed the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as “absolutely ridiculous” when he heard the test pressing in 1975…
“A few people would have agreed with him! He supported us in 1997 when we performed at Maurice Béjart’s ballet company in Paris, at the last gig we ever did with John, where he sang ‘The Show Must Go On’ with us, and told us we were like a racing car that needed a great driver. He was of the opinion he should be the driver!” (Laughs)
8Who supported you on your 1998 tour?
“Was it Nuts?”
WRONG. It was T E Conway – aka your alter ego.
(Laughs) “Oh yeah! It’s my distant cousin from the Deep South of America. He came over and guested and I had a lot of fun with that, I once played the Queen Fan Club – well ‘he’ did – and very few people cottoned on to the fact we might be more closely related than we let on. It’s wonderful having an alter ego. There’s an actor in me waiting to get out. I’ve just done an acting role which I can’t tell you about, but my wife [actor Anita Dobson] encouraged me to do it and I had a blast.”
9In 2004, you featured in a ‘We Will Rock You’-themed Pepsi commercial. Name the four big pop stars in it.
“Britney, Beyoncé and Pink. I got to produce all three of them singing ‘We Will Rock You’, which was a dream come true. I wish we could have put it out as a single but some kind of politics stopped us. I did a remix of the whole song – Pepsi only used a snippet of it – and I still play it often at home. Maybe one day I’ll be allowed to put it out! And Enrique Iglesias appears in the commercial playing the Emperor.”
“I found Britney very endearing. Obviously a very complex personality but she had a kind of innocence and a singing style I loved and she held her end up really well. All three of them did – it was amazing. All three of them also came to see my musical We Will Rock You in the early days in London.”
Any plans for another musical?
“We’re speaking about doing another Queen musical at the moment, which I’ll be able to tell everyone about soon.”
10In 2011, which mega-selling rock band danced naked in the shower to the 1982 Queen song ‘Body Language’ in a porn spoof called ‘Hot Buns’?
(Laughs) “I haven’t a clue!”
WRONG. It’s Foo Fighters.
“I didn’t know the Foos did that! They’re dear friends and have done so much for our image. We’ll always be grateful to them because they made us cool in way we never were before they started singing our praises.”
Bonus question! For a bonus half-point: This year, you released a fragrance called ‘Save Me’. What did it reportedly smell of?
(Laughs) “Well, it didn’t smell of what the papers said it did – which is badgers. Badgers actually smell quite nice. But the perfume doesn’t smell of badgers – it’s a cocktail of English countryside plants and flowers.”
CORRECT. If you say so! (Though Eau de Badger has a better ring to it).
“It’s about saving wildlife, and as people know, I’m very involved in lobbying the Government about protecting wildlife. It’s doing very well and I’d never worn perfume in my life but I’ve been enjoying it too. I think I underestimated how important aromas are to the way we feel.”
The verdict: 5.5/10
“That score’s pathetic!” (Laughs)
– The re-mastered reissue of ‘Back to the Light’ is out now