The Modern-Day Renaissance Man In Queen's Brian May After writing "We Will Rock You" and touring around the world as the lead guitarist in Queen, Brian May made an unusual career choice: He got his Ph.D. in astrophysics. May explains how Queen developed its distinctive sound and explains his fascination with stereoscopic photographs taken in the 1850s.
NPR logo

The Modern-Day Renaissance Man In Queen's Brian May

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Modern-Day Renaissance Man In Queen's Brian May

The Modern-Day Renaissance Man In Queen's Brian May

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN (Rock band): (Singing) I've gone and thrown it all away. Mama, ooh...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Another One Bites the Dust")

QUEEN: (Singing) Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. And another one gone. And another one gone.

GROSS: That's the band Queen. Brian May is a founding member and it's lead guitarist. In recent years, he's been concerned with a different kind of dust. Three years ago he submitted his doctoral thesis in astrophysics on the subject "A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud." He's now Dr. May, and he's chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

But that's not the only twist in his career that would surprise Queen fans. Brian May recently co-wrote the book "A Village Lost and Found" that features stereoscopic photos from the 1850s. In August, I spoke with May about Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991.

Brian May wrote one of the band's biggest hits, "We Will Rock You."

(Soundbite of song, "We Will Rock You")

(Soundbite of stomping and clapping)

QUEEN: (Singing) Buddy, you're a boy, make a big noise playing in the street, gonna be a big man someday. You got mud on your face, you big disgrace, kicking your can all over the place, singing we will, we will rock you. We will, we will rock you.

Buddy you're a young man, hard man, shouting in the street gonna take on the world someday. You got blood on your face, you big disgrace, waving your banner all over the place. We will, we will rock you. Sing it. We will, we will rock you.

Buddy, you're an old man, poor man...

GROSS: That's Queen's "We Will Rock You," which is written by my guest, Brian May, who was the lead guitarist for the band. So what inspired that song? I mean, it's been played at so many sports stadiums over the decades. Were you thinking of it as a sports anthem? Because it almost sounds like an old-school cheerleader cheer, you know, because...

Dr. BRIAN MAY (Astrophysicist, Author, Musician): Yeah. It's become part of the fabric of life.

GROSS: ...of that stomp-stomp-clap thing and because it's a chant.

Dr. MAY: Yeah, that's right. Well, the stomp-stomp-clap thing, yeah, people think it was always there, but actually it wasn't. And I don't know how it got into my head.

All I can tell you is we played a gig sort of the middle of our career in a place called Bingley Hall near Birmingham. Now, Birmingham is the sort of home of heavy metal, as you probably know. You know, Sabbath and Slade and people come from there.

And it was a great night. People were just, the audience were just responding hugely, and they were singing along with everything we did. Now, in the beginning, we didn't relate to that. We were the kind of band who liked to be listened to and taken seriously and all that stuff.

You know, so, people singing along wasn't part of our agenda. Having said that and then having experienced this wave of participation of the audience, and particularly in that gig in Birmingham, we almost to a man sort of reassessed our situation.

I remember talking to Freddie about it and saying, look, you know, obviously, we can no longer fight this. This has to become something which is part of our show, and we have to embrace it, and the fact that people want to participate. And really, everything becomes a two-way process now. And we sort of looked at each other and went, hmm, how interesting.

And he went away that night and to the best of my knowledge wrote "We Are the Champions" with that in mind. I went away and woke up the next morning with this...

(Soundbite of verbal stomp-stomp-clap)

Dr. MAY: my mind somehow because I was thinking to myself: What could you give an audience that they could do while they're standing there? And they're all crushed together, but they can stamp, and they can clap, and they can sing some kind of chant. So for some reason, it just came straight into my head, that "We Will Rock You."

And to me, it was a kind of uniting thing. It was an expression of strength.

GROSS: So how did you record the stomp-stomp-clap so it would sound grand and reverberating, as opposed to three people, four people stomping their feet and clapping?

Dr. MAY: Mm-hmm. Well, I'm a physicist, you see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: So I had this idea, if we did it enough times, and we didn't use any reverb or anything, that I could build a sound which would work.

We were very lucky. We were working in an old, disused church in North London, and it already had a nice sound, not an echoey sound but a nice, big, crisp sound to it. And there were some old boards lying around. I don't know what they were, but they just seemed ideal to stamp on. So we kind of piled them up and started stamping. And they sounded great anyway.

But being a physicist, I thought, well, supposing there were a thousand people doing this, what would be happening? And I thought, well, you would be hearing them stamping. You would also be hearing a little bit of an effect which is due to the distance that they are from you.

So I put lots of individual repeats on them, not an echo but a single repeat and at varying distances. And the distances were all prime numbers.

Now, much later on, people designed a machine to do this, and I think it was called Prime Time or something, but that's what we did. As we recorded each track, we put a delay of a certain length on it, and none of the delays were harmonically related.

So what you get is there's no echo on it whatsoever, but the claps sound as though - they're spread around the stereo, but they're also kind of spread as regards distance from you. So you just feel like you're in the middle of a large number of people stamping on boards and clapping and also singing.

GROSS: That's amazing. Now, here's another really interesting thing to me about "We Will Rock You." It's the most famous song that you've written. It's a largely a cappella song. You come in for your guitar solo at the very end. So until, like, the very, very end, like, you're not even playing on it, and it's just kind of amazing that you as the guitarist would write a song that you're barely featured on.

Dr. MAY: Well, I'm featured stamping and clapping. And I'm featured singing, so...

GROSS: Well, yes, and you're very good at that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: Thank you, yeah. Well, we're all featured, yeah. But the guitar -yeah, I didn't want it to be standard. I didn't want it to be like oh, here's a guitar solo, and then we sing another verse. I wanted it to be something stark and different. So it was very deliberate that I left the guitar solo to the end, just because that was a final statement and a different statement, taking it off in a completely different direction. It changes key into that piece, too, you know, so it's a whole different kind of shape. It was not a standard pop song.

GROSS: Okay, so let's just hear the end of "We Will Rock You," and we'll hear that guitar solo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "We Will Rock You")

QUEEN: (Singing) We will, we will rock you. Everybody, we will, we will rock you. We will, we will rock you. All right.

(Soundbite of Brian May's guitar solo)

GROSS: So that's the end of "We Will Rock You," written by my guest, guitarist and singer and songwriter Brian May, who was one of the founding members of Queen. So...

Dr. MAY: Mm-hmm. I should - can I comment on the end of that?

GROSS: Yeah, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: Interesting that you play the end of the song. You can hear the guitar waiting in the wings. That was - you can hear this little feedback note.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MAY: And so the guitar is present, although it's not taking center stage, all through the last choruses, and then finally, it bursts upon the scene.

And you notice, Freddie goes all right, which means he's kind of handing over to the guitar, and we're in a different universe once the guitar starts, and that was the intention. And it's very sort of informal.

And you may notice - there's a lot of things to notice. You may notice that the last piece, the very last little riffs, are repeated, and they're not just repeated by me playing them again. They're repeated by cutting the tape and splicing it on again and again.

So - and that's deliberate, too. It's a way of getting a sort of a thing that makes you sit up towards the end. And then it stops. There is nothing after it, which I really enjoy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: There's no big ending. It just stops and leaves you in mid-air, thinking, well, what happened there?

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a co-founder and the lead guitarist of the band Queen.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a co-founder of the band Queen, and its lead guitarist. The lead singer, Freddie Mercury, died in 1991. Mercury was very theatrical in his performances and his songwriting. One of the most theatrical and unconventional songs Mercury wrote for Queen was "Bohemian Rhapsody."

How did he demo the song for you before the band started performing it?

Mr. MAY: He sat down at the piano and de-de-de-de-de-de-de, de-de-de-de-de, and he said and here's a bit where everything stops and there's an a cappella bit and then we come back in again. He had it all mapped out and that's the way it was done. The backing track was piano, bass and drums and I was sitting in the studio and it sounded great. It sounded intriguing and crisp and lively and challenging.

And then, as the days went on and the weeks went on, we started overdubbing all the different vocal parts. And as you probably know, you know, there's many of us on there. We would do each part a number of times until it was right and then go to another part and multi-track everything.

In those days you were working on 24-track tape, so you'd run out of tracks quite quickly. So when you've put down, say half a dozen tracks, you have to bounce them. You have to combine them into one track and then move on, which is a dicey process because you're losing information at that point. You're also losing generations and we did it so often on "Bohemian Rhapsody" that the legend says, and it's true...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: ...that the tape wore out. We suddenly realized we were losing top on the vocals. They were getting a bit dull. And we held the tape up to the light and you could see through it, so there was hardly any oxide left on it. So at that point, we swiftly had to make a copy and carry on. So it was a very different way of recording to the way you would do it now because there was no going back.

GROSS: Now you mentioned that this started as, you know, piano and then piano, bass and drums. But you do have a guitar solo, a very well-known one.

Mr. MAY: Oh yeah. Well, that's added after. Yeah, of course. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And it kind of bridges two sections of the song. So here's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with my guest Brian May on guitar and also doing some of the voices.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) Mama, ooh. Any way the wind blows. I don't want to die. I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

(Singing) I see a little silhouetto of a man. Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango? Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening me. Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo Figaro. Magnifico. I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me. He's just a poor boy from a poor family. Spare him his life from this monstrosity.

Easy come, easy go, will you let me go? Bismillah. No, we will not let you go. Let him go. Bismillah. We will not let you go. Let him go. Bismillah. We will not let you go. Let me go. Will not let you go.

GROSS: That's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with - featuring my guest Brian May on guitar.

Could you explain to me what the Mama Mia, Galileo, Scaramouche part is about?

Mr. MAY: No. Of course not.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Could Freddie Mercury have explained it to you?

Mr. MAY: Because I didn't write it. You should've asked Freddie. Ah, well, you dont have to ask him. Yeah...

GROSS: Did you...

Mr. MAY: No, I would never ask him.

GROSS: Why wouldn't you have asked him, what am I singing about? Why am I singing this?

Mr. MAY: Well, you know, it's a funny thing. I think about it quite a lot. We never discussed what our songs meant. It was a sort of unwritten law that there were something in the songs which was very personal and if somebody brought it in, you wouldn't get into it. You would just assume that they knew what they were doing. And it's odd isn't it?

I mean, later on it changed. I remember starting to write "The Show Must Go On" and Freddie came and sat down beside me. And I said, I want you to participate. I want us to do this together and we absolutely discussed every single word and what it meant and what we were trying to do. But in the early days it never, ever happened. We just assumed that the writer of the song knew what he was doing.

GROSS: So, let me just play you one thing that I'm sure you're familiar with. Here it comes.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wayne's World")

Mr. MIKE MYERS (Actor, comedian): (as Wayne) I think we'll go with a little "Bohemian Rhapsody," gentlemen.

Mr. DANA CARVEY (Actor, comedian): (as Garth) Good call.

(Soundbite of tape being put in a cassette)

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

Mr. MAY: The delightful "Wayne's World." Yes.

GROSS: Yes, Mike Myers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...from the movie "Wayne's World."

Mr. MAY: I have to thank Mike Myers for introducing us to a whole new generation at that time. It was amazing what it did, you know...

GROSS: What did it do for Queen?

Mr. MAY: Oh, it completely translated us to the new generation. And Freddie was already not well by that time, but I took it around to him. Mike Myers phoned me up and sent me the copy and said, you know, you make sure Freddie hears it, you know, could you? And I said yes. So I took it around to him and Freddie loved it. He laughed and thought it was great and he went - actually, what he said was slightly unprintable, but you can bleep it if you'd like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: He said, you know, we had a strange thing about America because America is where we grew up, you know, and it really made us as a group - all that touring. We used to tour every year about nine months and most of it was in the States in those early days. So it really formed us as a band and we absolutely had a love affair with America.

There came a point when it all kind of went wrong in America and we were, like, the biggest group in the world every place except the States. And I don't need to go into, you know, the reason or whatever. It doesn't really matter. But it was very difficult for us to sort of get back and there's a whole kind of gap in Queen history, if you view it from America, and Freddie was very aware of that. And we never really came back and toured the way we should've done. You know, every place else in the world we played football stadiums, but it never happened in the States.

And Freddie, when I played him this thing, said...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: He said, you know, it might do for us what nothing else would do. And he was dead right. You know, it's amazing that even the fact that Freddie died didn't make that much of a difference. But the fact that "Wayne's World" put it in their film did make a difference. And I suppose the quote that I'm steering clear of is that Freddie at one point said to me, you know, I suppose I have to (bleep) die before we ever get big in America again.


Mr. MAY: And it's a strange quote, but it sort of came true in a very strange way. But "Wayne's World" was the vehicle through which young people discovered Queen. You know, a whole new set of young people, and it was great for us, you know, and I guess still is.

GROSS: Have you heard "The Muppets" version of "Bohemian Rhapsody"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: Yes, of course. Of course, yeah. Well, they can...

GROSS: It's really fun. Can I play that for our listeners?

Mr. MAY: Yeah, you can. Well, we had to have heard it, because it's us on the record. You know, they asked us if they could do it and they said look, we can sing this and we can perform it but we can't really play it so can we use your actual tracks? So...

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

Mr. MAY: ...generally, we say - generally we don't let anybody do that. But in this case, because it's the venerable Muppets, we said yes. We'll do that with you. So yes, we produced it with them.

GROSS: It's so much fun. So here's part of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

THE MUPPETS: (Singing) I see a little silhouetto of a clam, Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Galileo. Me. Me. Me. Me. Galileo. Me. Me. Me. Me. Galileo, Galileo Figaro. A ra, ra, ra.

I'm just a poor boy. Nobody loves me. He's just a poor boy from a poor family. Spare him his life from this monstrosity. Nom. Nom. Nom. Easy come, easy go, will you let me go? Ma na, ma na. Be, be, be, be, be, be. Let me throw. Ma na. I will not let you throw. Let me blow. Ma na, ma na. I will not let you blow. Let me joke. Do not like your jokes. Let me joke. Do not like your jokes. Let me joke. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Verndigiddy, verndigiddy. Mama mia, let me go. Does anyone know if there is a part for me? For me, for me, for me?

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

GROSS: That's the Muppets version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

We'll talk more with Queen's lead guitarist Brian May after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a co-founder and the lead guitarist of the band Queen.

So let me ask you about the name of the band Queen. How did you feel about giving it that name? Freddie Mercury was either gay or bisexual. I'm not sure how he would've described himself, but he didn't really talk about that, to my knowledge.

Mr. MAY: He would've said I'm gay as a daffodil, darling.

GROSS: Would he have said that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: He did say that.

GROSS: Would he have said that in public?

Mr. MAY: He did say that in public. Freddie was not one to mince his words.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, but the name of the band, were...

Mr. MAY: How I feel about - well, Terry, this goes back such a long way and I...

GROSS: Also, no - and I guess this is, but this is also the real - like they're so many homophobic hard rock fans - there were in the '70s and '80s.

Mr. MAY: How did they feel about Freddie? Well, you know, it's strange. I think it was a sort of an un-discussed thing for such a long time. You know, and really, you know, the truth of the matter is nobody should care. Why should anybody care what sort of sexual persuasion people have? You know, he never hid the fact that he was turned on by men instead of by women. But strange enough, I don't think it was always the case because I used to, you know, in the early days, we used to share a room so I know who Freddie slept with in the early days and they weren't men.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: So, but I think it sort of gradually changed, and I have no idea how these things work. But it wasn't really anybody's business but his.

But I remember doing a promo tour for this song that we did, which was called "I Want to Break Free." Now we made a video for that, which was a pastiche of an English soap called "Coronation Street," and we dressed up as the characters in that soap, and they were female characters. So we're dressing up as girls -as women and we had a fantastic laugh doing it. It was hilarious to do it. And all around the world people laughed and they got the joke and they sort of understood it.

I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people's faces turning ashen and they would say, no, we can't play this. We can't possibly play this. You know, it looks homosexual. And I went, so?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: But it was a huge deal. And I know that it really damaged our sort of whole relationship with certainly radio in this country and probably the public as well.

GROSS: Oh really?

Mr. MAY: And that's probably one of the reasons why this sort of hole developed between us and the States, which was really a tragedy because so many of our hits would've fitted very well into the life of the States but we didn't really get back in there until "The Show Must Go On" and "These Are The Days of Our Lives." And even those weren't the hits that they were around the rest of the world. These were number one records around every civilized country.

GROSS: Let me get to some more recent developments in your life. Just a few years ago, you got your Ph.D. in a subject that you had been pursing before Queen, and that's astrophysics.

Mr. MAY: That's right.

GROSS: You have an astrophysics book that you co-wrote recently.

Mr. MAY: Yeah.

GROSS: And...

Mr. MAY: It's called "Bang: The Complete History of the Universe."

GROSS: Yeah. So, it's interesting for me to think about you going back to the university after you'd become such a star. Of course, when you're getting your Ph.D., it's not like you're sitting in a large lecture class with people, but...

Mr. MAY: Oh, well, basically it is. You know, yeah, I didn't do that many lectures. But basically, you're abandoning your status outside and you're going back and you're being a student. It was tough, you're having to be very much subservient to the system again, you know. And you forget how hard that is after you've left school and university, you know, to go back into that system where you're constantly judged and you're assessed as you go along. And you do a piece of work which you're proud of and then somebody goes, well, yeah, but can you go back and do it again and do this and this and this? It was tough, I'd say. But I didn't want to be treated any different from any other student. I wanted this Ph.D. to be real. And it was. You know, they didn't make it easy on me. And I never wanted that. But it was worth it. I'm happy that I got the Ph.D.

GROSS: You wrote your thesis on a survey of radical velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud.

Mr. MAY: Yeah. Radial...

GROSS: I don't really know what any of that means.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: It's a survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust particles.

GROSS: Oh, radial - I wrote it as radical velocities. I still don't know what it means.

Mr. MAY: It could be radical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Could you give a very layperson's description of what you were studying in that - of what you were...

Mr. MAY: Yes, I can.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MAY: It's a study of dust. As simple as that. Dust, in this case, in the solar system. So, we're actually surrounded by it. The Earth moves through a cloud of dust constantly and a lot of it comes down to Earth. And my experiment was to try and find out the motions of that dust and trying to figure out where it's going, what it's doing, where it came from and what it means in terms of the creation of the solar system. Now to be honest, it was quite a - it became something which people moved on from. It became a bit of a backwater in the 30 years in which I was absent from the subject, because people were into, really, cosmology. You know, the larger scale study of the universe and our little local solar system was not so interesting for many people.

But luckily for me, about the time that I returned to it, we were discovering exoplanets. That's planets in other solar systems, in orbit around other suns. So it was discovered at that time that they too had dust clouds. So if we're going to study dust, why don't we study the dust on our own doorstep, in our own solar system? So my subject became quite trendy again, quite important for people.

The way I studied them was through Doppler shifts. And a Doppler shift is a shift of frequency that you experience due to motion. The best analogy you can give is a police siren. If you're listening to a police car coming towards you, it goes de, de, de, de, de, de. But as it goes past you, it goes de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de. It goes down and that's the Doppler shift.

GROSS: Yeah, that's true, isn't it?

Mr. MAY: Yeah. That's because the waves are stretching out as this police car passes you and it changes from coming towards you to going away from you. Now the same kind of thing happens with light. So I was looking at Doppler shifts in light due to the motions of the dust. And from that you can infer how they're moving.

GROSS: So, yeah, so what were the larger implications of what you were looking at?

Mr. MAY: Ah-ha-ha. That's a good question. The larger implications are where did it come from and was it part of the creation of the universe? Or is it being created now?

GROSS: The dust?

Mr. MAY: The dust.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAY: Yeah. And, in fact, all of the above is true. You know, a certain amount of dust is created in every event in the universe and particularly in supernovae - a lot of dust is put out. And we, human beings and all animals and all plants and everything on the Earth are made of the dust that has come out of supernovae. Now that's not something that I discovered but that's a fact. So when Joni Mitchell said we are stardust, we are golden, she was right. We are stardust. And I find that quite an amazing thing to think about. The material of our body did come from the insides of stars. It was made in the insides of stars.

GROSS: Well, Brian May, it's been such a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

Mr. MAY: Thank you. It's a pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Brian May, astrophysicist and lead guitarist of the band Queen recorded last August.

Our week-long retrospective of some of our most entertaining interviews of the year continues tomorrow.

I'm Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.