waning months of 1983
Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood
The Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, a very swank and expensive hotel, was the place where only rock's nobility were able to lay out a welcome mat. Queen
, at this time, were extraordinarily successful and Brian
, in particular, was most gracious and obliging in answering all manner of question relevant or ridiculous.
I did remind him of our almost-first encounter some years earlier. I was in England in the summer of 1972, just generally doing the gypsy thing with backpack, traveling around Europe, but also trying to make some connections with English newspapers, publicists, and the like. I hadn't really started writing yet but I knew that's what I wanted to do. I met a Mr. Tony Brainsby, a high-profile publicist who handled a number of bands at the time including Paul McCartney and Wings (that interview was part of the 1970s era RC conversations), Fleetwood Mac, and Queen. I remember going to his office and seeing a white test pressing of this album by a group called Queen. He asked me if I wanted to interview them, that they were a new group with a new album out, and they were going to be huge. I thought about it one stupid second and replied, No, I don't think so, Tony. That's a dumb name for a band and they'll never make it.'
All these years later I could shoot myself for that absurd remark. I told Brian the story and he just quietly laughed.
This interview took place about ten years after Queen first released their eponymous debut. They also issued their first single at that time, Keep Yourself Alive
, and unleashed on the world a swirling blend of symphonically orchestrated rock revolving around Freddie Mercury
's operatic-like vocals and Brian May
's lush and layered guitar harmonies. They built on this success with Queen II
and Sheer Heart Attack
and then in December 1975 they elevated their music to the next level with a series of Marx Brothers-influenced album titles including A Night At The Opera
and A Day At The Races
. This former record included the epic Bohemian Rhapsody
, a 6-minute overture that combined disparate sections with intricately-developed vocal lines and would maybe become most well known for becoming the unofficial theme song for the rock parody movie, Wayne's World
The group would go on to record a series of other albums and always seemed able to produce that one sterling single that kept them in the public's eye. Variously, they created Fat Bottomed Girls, (Jazz), Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and Another One Bites The Dust(The Game).
UG: There has always been this sort of undercurrent that Queen came in and filled the void left by Led Zeppelin. Do you agree with that at all?
I don't think we were close to Zeppelin, I think we were closer to the spirit of the Truth album. We wanted this heavy atmosphere and excitement and adrenalin and stuff but we wanted it to be very melodic. We wanted the harmonies to scream over the top of this heavy backdrop.
Had you seen Jeff Beck perform with Rod Stewart?
"We wanted this heavy atmosphere and excitement and adrenalin and stuff but we wanted it to be very melodic."
Oh, yeah, that made a lasting impression. And also Cream, I was a huge Clapton fan. I saw those early shows at Eel Pie and it was obviously an adventure for them at that point; it was really electric, they were all feeling each other and it was amazing. And very single-minded; they knew exactly what they were doing. The Cream were a standout for me. The fire and the aggression of his playing, the sheer beauty of the sound. And they were doing harmonies, too, two-part harmonies mainly; they did N.S.U. and I think Ginger was even singing.
And really Hendrix was my biggest idol; I saw him a lot in England. I loved him. I saw him in the very early days when he was supporting The Who and everyone was sort of skeptical and I didn't want to think he was that good and I was so knocked out I couldn't believe it. I never really copied him but the style and the feel influenced me a lot. I think he made the guitar something better than it was before he came along. He was using just one Marshall stack which was pretty ordinary, and a Stratocaster, and The Who at that time were using like four stacks each. And I saw him with The Move and they had four Marshall stacks each. And Hendrix came on and just blew them totally away.
So, you were influenced by the trio format because Smile was a three-piece, right?
Yes. We did a heavy version of If I Were A Carpenter' and a lot of jamming that would start with a riff. We had an elemental version of Doing All Right' which was on the first Queen album and a particular track called Earth' which was a Smile single and sold zero. We did heavied up versions of Motown songs and some Cream songs, N.S.U.' and Sweet Wine.' And all this time and even before this I had a group called 1984 and I was using my guitar.
How did Queen evolve from Smile?
Smile split up and got very disillusioned because although we put a record out, it didn't do anything and it seemed like we were going nowhere. We directed our efforts towards writing and Queen started to come together at that time. We already knew Freddie because he was a friend of Tim's [Smile's bassist] and he'd been to some of our shows and Freddie was very keen. Actually I shared a flat with Roger and Freddie would come to stay sometimes and we talked and talked and Hendrix had come along and changed all our lives.
We spent about a year rehearsing, a lot of time together, and the single thing that helped was a friend of mine knew somebody who was going to be an engineer at the new DeLane Lea studio and they said, If you want to come along and make some noise so we can our acoustic tests, we'll make some demos for you.' So, we made four demos with Louie Austin who was one of the engineers there. We had some friends who took them around to record companies and most of them weren't interested; EMI were fairly interested but wouldn't commit totally at that point. Trident were interested, who weren't actually a record company, they were a production company, and for some reason we decided that was a good idea. Make the album and then go back to the record company. Trident is a long story and it went very, very sour in the end.
We took another eighteen months before we actually had the album finished and it was terrible, agony. We took it around to the record companies again and this time most people were interested. EMI were the keenest and we got a message from them saying, Don't sign with anyone until you talk to us.'
What were your feelings about the first album and how you came across as a guitar player? Had you already sort of developed that orchestral sense of playing?
I wanted to do that orchestrated stuff but we didn't have the time; we were stuck in there at odd hours between other sessions. So we concentrated on putting out an album that was a reflection of what we were on stage at that time.
We went on tour and we were lucky enough to get the support spot to Mott the Hoople. It was an ideal platform for us because their audience was potentially our audience. We came to America in'74 and we already had the second album out [Queen II]. The second album was much different that the first; then we had the chance to do with the studio all the things we'd wanted to do: multi-part guitar stuff. I'd actually done a multi-part guitar song on the Smile record, very early on, but I really wanted to go to town and have all this sort of orchestral guitar effect behind the main guitar.
So the first thing that you hear when the song Father To Son' gets going, although Procession' starts it, but when the song comes in and you expect the crunch of the guitar, you have the wash of harmony guitars behind. Which I've always wanted to do. And that fulfilled a dream for me; I wanted to get that on record. I was very upset because I'd heard Mike Oldfield was doing guitar orchestras like that with Tubular Bells and I wouldn't let myself listen to it. Because I was afraid that he was doing what I'd always wanted to do first. But it turned out, it was very different.
And when it came out, it really didn't connect with a lot of people; a lot of people at that time thought we'd forsaken rock music when they first heard it. And they said, Why don't you play things like Liar' and Keep Yourself Alive'? And we said, Give it another listen, the heaviness is there but it's very layered. It's a new approach.' And nowadays people say, Why don't you play like Queen II?'
I like that album a lot; it's not perfect, it's got a lot of the imperfections and excesses of youth.
How did you have the knowledge to orchestrate guitars in that fashion?
"EMI were the keenest and we got a message from them saying, Don't sign with anyone until you talk to us.'"
Musically, my background was I was taught the piano so I learned harmony structure from there. I used to listen to my father's records and figure out all the harmonies that Buddy Holly and The Crickets were doing, and The Jordanaires behind Elvis, and that was a real passion of mine. I was always interested in how those effects were built up and I used to sing along with the records and sing all the parts so I knew what everyone was doing. So I had a feel for what harmonies could do and how they could produce tension and emotion. So I applied that to what I was doing with the guitars. Technically it wasn't that hard; we had Roy [Thomas-Baker, producer] who, at that time, was a very technical person. He'd come up as an engineer, working with the producers of the day, and he was possibly the number one state-of-the-art technical producer. And we were already big-headed enough to think that we were producing it anyway. We knew what we wanted, we had the sound in our heads, and in Roy we had someone who always could come up with a way of doing it. He knew about multi-track and bounces; we worked on 8-track in the beginning and then 16-track and we quickly ran out of tracks. Some of the first album was 8-track and then taken into 16-track, but mainly 16-track on those first couple of records.
So it's basically you in the studio with an amp, playing a part and then playing the next part? How were you able to match vibrato and attack and those types of elements? There was so much delicacy and finesse in what you played.
Well, just work on it. The reason I was doing it, rather than put an organ behind there, was because the guitar is an emotional thing and you play it consciously, you consciously mark out the notes and squeeze the string, but there's a sort of unconscious thing there too. And the emotion comes from that; there are things going into there where you almost don't realize you're putting in. And I wanted the orchestra behind, every one of those parts, had to have that tension in it and that emotion in it. So I didn't want someone just going like that on a keyboard [mimics a hand hitting a chord above an imaginary keyboard], and synthesizers were already beginning to be around and I didn't want synthesizers which at that time were very cold.
And every part, I was out there putting everything into it that I could, all the emotion. And bending just where I thought it should be bent. And the thing about guitar harmonies which still a lot of people don't realize, is that they shouldn't be parallel any more than vocal harmonies should be parallel. They should do all this crossing over, and little dis-chords, they should be weaving in an out of each other. Just the same way as people build up orchestral scores, that's how you get the most out of them. So, that's what I was trying to do.
Indeed, Brian May established himself as the premier virtuoso of creating layered guitars around a rock backdrop. At the time of this interview, he had just recorded Starfleet Project, a sort of quick in/quick out affair thought found Eddie Van Halen on board. There was not much substance here and in fact, Queen would never again assume the position they did back in the 70s and early 80s.
In 1985, the band turned in a stunning performance at the much ballyhooed Live Aid show though subsequent albums like A Kind Of Magic, The Miracle and Innuendo failed to raise the bar on any music previously recorded. On November 23, 1991, just months after the release of this latter album, Freddie succumbed to AIDS. In his honor, Bohemian Rhapsody was re-released and once again winged its way to the top of the charts. The following spring at Wembley Stadium, rock's elite (Guns N' Roses, Elton John, George Michael, Def Leppard) congregated to honor it's fallen leader.
Recently, it has been announced that Paul Rodgers would assume the position of lead singer. While it's difficult to imagine the ex-Free/Bad Company frontman singing these songs, only time will tell.
Interview by Steven Rosen