Brian May isn’t one to live in the past. But the Queen guitarist has recently been listening to an old tape he didn’t know existed. It features a recording of one of the group’s earliest gigs, in a lecture theatre at his alma mater, Imperial College London. It’s the sound of a band who are far from the finished article, he says. But it’s exciting to go back there, to hear the nascent Queen as they were at that long-gone moment in time.
“We’re debating what to do with it,” says May, hinting that it might one day get a proper release. “A few years ago we’d have felt very protective and thought: ‘Nobody should hear this, because we’re very rough.’ But now, in the position that we are in our lives, we feel forgiving. We’re not ashamed of where we were at that time. It was us against the world.”
One of the most fascinating things about the tape for May is Freddie Mercury’s performance. The singer was still a work in progress at that point, not yet the vocal powerhouse he would become.
“Freddie had all the will and charisma and passion, but he didn’t have the opportunity to harness that voice yet,” May says. “Which makes me hesitate a little bit, because I’m not sure Freddie would be that happy hearing himself at this stage.”
He pauses for a second, then reconsiders.
“But strangely, if he were alive and sitting here at this moment, he’d probably be the same as me: ‘Oh darling, we were kids.’”
Today, the four kids on that tape are down to two. Mercury died in 1991, bassist John Deacon retired from the band and public life in the late 90s. Only May and Taylor remain, the beating heart of the band’s current, Adam Lambert-fronted incarnation and custodians of Queen’s stellar legacy.
“I do take great joy in the fact that there’s an awful lot of love for us still,” says Taylor. “It constantly surprises me.”
2020 was due to be a big year for Queen. Not only did they have a series of massive arena shows across Europe lined up during the summer, it also marked the band’s 50th anniversary. Yet even before the pandemic put the brakes on the former, May and Taylor had absolutely no plans to mark the latter.
“Everybody else can celebrate it if they want,” May says amiably. “We’d rather just celebrate being here and being alive.”
Taylor puts it more bluntly: “We didn’t want to draw attention to how fucking ancient we are.”
Whether they like it or not, 50 years is a milestone. The two of them might not want to mark their Golden Jubilee, but for everyone else half a century of one of the most outrageously brilliant bands of them all is something worth celebrating.
When Roger Taylor realised that COVID-19 had scuppered his band’s plans for 2020, he did what any self-respecting A-list rock star would do: he spent a few weeks sailing around the Mediterranean on his boat.
“This shit year?” he says of the past 12 months, not inaccurately. “But we were the lucky ones. I can’t complain.”
It’s a few days before Christmas, and Taylor is at home in Surrey. Even on the other end of a Zoom call he exudes a distinct rock-star aura. He always seemed to be the member of Queen most comfortable in their own skin, and today, white-bearded and garrulous, he’s lost none of that.
“It’s been hard work, but I’ve tried to extract every ounce of fun that I could get out of any given situation,” he says of his 50-plus year journey with the band. “You’ve only got one life that we know about, so I think you should enjoy it. And I’ve enjoyed it.”
Do you ever think: “Fifty years. How the hell did that happen”?
Ridiculous, isn’t it? After we lost Freddie, Brian and I both thought: ‘Well, that’s that.’ And then events conspired to keep everything going. Every time we think the band is done, that’s that and it was wonderful, something else comes along. It’s not a conscious effort. Somebody told me the other day that the I Want To Break Free video just got it’s five-hundred-millionth view on YouTube. And that’s not even one of the biggest ones.
Does five hundred million views on YouTube give you the same thrill as getting a gold record did back in the day?
That was back in the day. It’s not the same now. I don’t even understand the charts. What’s Number One in the singles chart? Well, nobody really gives a shit, do they? The album charts still seems to be important. We recently had a Number One album [Live Around The World], which was the first time in a long time. That was a big thrill. That chuffed us.
You met Brian May in the jazz room at Imperial College in London 1968. Were you plotting world domination from the start, or was it more about having the chance to play gigs and meet girls?
Well those were good alternatives. But we really did want to be hugely successful. It was a measure of our foolish vanity in those days. But when you’re young you’d better be arrogant and have big dreams, because it’s not going to happen by accident.
There are some great photos on your Instagram of you and Freddie at the stall you both ran in Kensington Market, on New Year’s Eve 1969. Where did you first meet him?
It was at my flat in Shepherd’s Bush. He was a mate of Tim [Staffell, singer with May and Taylor’s pre-Queen band Smile] from Ealing college. He was on the periphery, just a mate, really. He had musical aspirations, but we were quite good players and we weren’t really sure if he could sing. But his drive and determination to write original stuff was great. And of course we became huge friends because we had the stall. We were living in each others’ pockets, scrubbing together to eat.
What was a night out with Roger Taylor and Freddie Mercury like in the early days? Were you hanging out at the trendy clubs?
Oh no, we couldn’t afford stuff like that. We’d be in a pub, and then we’d probably meet some girls and try to get some drinks off them.
Queen’s first gig was on June 27 1970, in your home town of Truro. What do you remember about it?
My mother put on the gig. It was for the Red Cross. People did not know what to make of the not-quite-fully-formed Freddie, who was fairly outrageous.
Is it true that Genesis tried to poach you from Queen early on?
Well, they invited me to the studio to listen to them, then we went to the pub. They didn’t say: “Do you want to join the group?” But I get the impression that’s what they wanted, because their drummer had left. They’re all lovely people, but I didn’t really get the music, to be honest. It was a bit too prog for me. I had a wonderful offer from Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter, actually. It was going to be called Hunter Ronson Taylor. I think that would have been good.
When you listen to the first two or three Queen albums, what do you hear?
We were in development for a long time. The first album was a combination of a lot of ideas we had, but it never sounded like we want it to sound. We had much more freedom on the second album, and we started to stretch out and experiment. By the time we did the third [Sheer Heart Attack, 1974] it had kind of got there.
A lot of people hold up A Night At The Opera as Queen’s best album. Would you agree?
Not really. I think it’s our most eclectic. I do think it’s a great album, but I prefer several of the others.
You were fortunate to have four great songwriters in Queen. Were you jealous when one of the others had a hit?
Absolutely not. I remember Freddie writing We Are The Champions. I said: “That chorus is killer.” I was very proud if someone came up with a great song. A Number-One single belonged to all of us.
Your song Sheer Heart Attack, on 1978’s News Of The World album, was famously viewed as a response to punk. But you started writing it in 1974.
It was nearly finished but I never quite got it together for the Sheer Heart Attack album. It was always intended to be aggressively punky, even though we never saw it coming
Speaking of punk, the story of Freddie Mercury meeting Sid Vicious while you were both in Wessex Studios at the same time has been told a million times.
[Laughs] And I’ve heard it a million times, each time slightly different.
What were the Pistols really like?
We got on with them really well. Apart from Sid. He was a thicko. John [Lydon] was very sharp. He was quite visually aggressive, but we got on rather well. I remember socialising with him in New York later.
Were you at the 100 Club watching bands like The Damned and The Clash?
I did go to some punk shows. I saw The Damned at the Royal College Of Art, and they were pretty cool. I thought Captain Sensible was great – this big, tall guy dressed in a pink tutu. But I couldn’t stand the gobbing. That was pathetic.
You seemed to really enjoy being a rock star. Of the four of you, you were the one most likely to be papped coming out of some swanky club like Annabelle’s.
[Laughs] I never liked Annabelle’s. It was full of old politicians groping young girls. I never saw anything to be ashamed of [in being a rock star]; “This is who we are, this is who I am."
You were the first member of Queen to release a solo album. If that had done well would you have gone: “Right, lads, I’m off”?
No, no, no. Never. We used to call the band The Mothership. Whatever we did, we always used to come back to it. It was our gang. I never wanted to be a solo artist. I only wanted to be in a band.
The first half of the eighties was a rollercoaster time for Queen. The Game and Greatest Hits were huge hits, but then you released Hot Space and America basically turned its back on you, then Live Aid eventually put you back on top.
It was a weird time. Hot Space isn’t really my favourite album. We had drum machines and this stupid sampler – which was the world’s most expensive coffee table. I can understand the people who liked our stuff before not particularly liking that album. It’s got some good stuff on it. I fail to remember what.
Put Out The Fire is on it.
That one’s nice.
And Under Pressure.
We rarely sat down and wrote songs together as a band, but Under Pressure is one of the few exceptions. We were doing Cream covers for fun, and David [Bowie] sat at the piano and started gong ‘plink plink plink’. So we went: “Let’s do our own song.” The bulk of it was done in one hectic night in Montreux. But really, David and I finished off most of the rest in New York in The Power Station. Fred arrived very late. Brian never turned up. Neither did John.
Did you get on with Bowie, or were you just guys who happened to do the same job?
We hit it off immediately. He was the most fascinating man. Hilariously funny, dangerously witty and great company.
Who were you closest to in Queen?
It was probably Freddie. But we were all fairly close. You had to be.
You had the best seat in the house for every Queen gig. What was it like up there when the band were in full flight?
It was fantastic. When we were on we were a real machine. And when Freddie was on form it was magnificent. But I have to say that Brian and I still play as well as we ever did technically. Maybe without the fire and ferocity, but we still make a very big noise.
Did you have any inkling that the Knebworth show in 1986 would be the last Queen gig?
That tour was a real triumph. Sold-out stadiums, two Wembleys, then Knebworth, which was a massive crowd. But we kind of knew that Freddie was not going in the right direction, physically.
After Freddie told you of his diagnosis, how did you process it?
With difficulty. We knew he’d been ill for a while. He was in bad shape.
But it seems like there were moments of real joy in those last few years you had with him?
During The Miracle and Innuendo, Fred was not what he had been. He just wanted to keep working. Which really brought us together. We gathered up around him and sort of protected him. His death didn’t really sink in at first. Brian and I took five years to get over it. We were lost. The nineties, for me, was almost a lost decade.
There was a huge outpouring of love around the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium.
I do remember reading some very average reviews from The Sun or some spunky rag like that. I don’t know, I was in this whirlwind of activity – it felt like I was in some sort of dream. I do remember being determined that we’d get Elton singing with Axl, which was great, because Axl never turned up for rehearsal. David turned up, Robert Plant was lovely. George Michael was magnificent.
There were rumours that George Michael was going to replace Freddie as Queen’s new singer. Any truth in it?
No, not really. I remember hearing the rumours. But it wouldn’t have suited us. George wasn’t really used to working with a live band. When he heard the power he had behind him in rehearsal he couldn’t believe it. He thought he was on Concorde or something.
Do you still talk to Freddie at times?
I don’t think of him being here in my studio now. But when Brian and I are both in the room we think we know what Fred would have said if he’d been in the corner.
Would Queen still exist if Freddie was alive?
I can’t give you a definitive answer, obviously, but I’d guess it would still be together in some form. I don’t think Freddie would have wanted to do it in the same way. I don’t think we would be performing live. I think we probably would still have been making music, because that’s what we did. And Freddie was obsessed with music.
Is it true that you appropriated the statue of Freddie that stood outside the Dominion Theatre in London after We Will Rock You finally ended its run there?
Yes, absolutely. You can see it from here. It was in a warehouse, costing money, so I said why don’t they just put it on a lorry and bring it here, and we’ll put it in the garden.
And is it true that Brian wasn’t happy that you’d done it?
[Laughing] I think he was pissed off that he hadn’t thought of it.
Is it fair to say that you and Brian were the source of a lot of the bickering in Queen?
That’s absolutely true.
What sparked you both off?
Key changes, arrangements, “Why are you doing that? I can’t hear the vocals”. Freddie was the great peacemaker.
But here we are, more than fifty years later. The two of you are Queen, and you seem closer than ever.
We’ve had a long, up-and-down relationship. But we’re brothers from another mother.
You must have been worried for him this year, with all his health problems?
Yes. He had a terrible time, one thing after another. But I think he’s really on the mend now. He’s dedicating his whole life – well, apart from saving the ant or whatever he’s doing this week – to being fit and well. And I hope he’s successful.
The tours you’ve done with Adam Lambert have been massively successful. But there are a lot of people who would love to hear new material from the band.
We did record a song, which we haven’t actually finished. It’s very good… I can’t remember what it’s called. I think we were still discussing what we should call it.
Do you want to record a brand new Queen album?
It would be nice to do some stuff. I wouldn’t rule it out. Adam has said: “Any time you want me to sing on something…” If the other two decide “Let’s do something”, I’d be there.
Even without the pandemic, Brian May had a rough 2020. In early May he was left in agony after tearing a muscle in his buttocks during “a moment of overenthusiastic gardening”, something he says sounds a lot funnier than it actually was. A few days later he suffered a “small” heart attack and a subsequent stomach haemorrhage that left him close to death.
“Never a dull moment,” he says wryly. Thankfully he’s on his way back to full strength. “It’s been a long climb. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m pretty good.”
May has always seemed like a point of calmness and rationality amid the maelstrom that is Queen, although he can be protective to the point of spikiness in defending his band from their detractors.
Today, speaking via Zoom from a sunlit room in his studio, the man who Roger Taylor describes as “an inherently decent person” is warm and engaging, even if he shares his bandmate’s obstinate aversion to hanging out the bunting to mark Queen’s half-century.
Even before the pandemic and your own health issues, you and Roger avoided any conspicuous celebration of Queen’s fiftieth anniversary. Why is that?
We went through all these ideas with our team – let’s celebrate being fifty years old. Then we thought that we’d rather just celebrate being here, being alive and being able to play. Roger and I are first-class curmudgeons now. If something comes up, we go: “Do we really want to spend our time doing that? How much time do we have left, and what do we really want to be doing for this part of our lives that is worthwhile?” And the answer that always comes back is playing music.
Roger says you wanted to be a big band right from the point you met. Is that what you remember too?
Yeah. We had big, big dreams. We wanted it all, and we felt we had what it takes. It’s funny, because if had been just me and Roger we would never have stuck together. Even though we’re so well aligned in some respects, we’re diametrically opposite in everything else. There’s not a single subject we don’t have opposite opinions about.
We needed someone who would be the diplomat. And, strangely enough, Freddie was that guy. Everybody thinks that Freddie was that flyaway guy, but he was very pragmatic. If he saw a situation that was arising between me and Roger, he would manage to find a way through, a compromise. One of Freddie’s great catchphrases was: ‘We don’t compromise.” But within the band we did. And that’s why we survived.
What would have started the two of you bickering?
Oh, anything and nothing, A note, a tempo, a cup of coffee, a window…
But the two of you seem very fond of each other today. What changed?
It’s very much like being brothers. There was always a fondness there, but there was a lot of competitive feelings. These days we realise the good stuff, because we’ve seen it all now and we value each other. We know that we’re more powerful together than apart. If we truly get our energies aligned, magic happens.
What were the early days in Queen like? Was it fun, or hard work?
It was definitely fun. We would be carrying our own stuff into the gigs, setting it up with our roadie, dear old John Harris. We made our own popcorn to serve just before the gigs. It was all part of the preparation for the gig. And we’d invite managers and record label executives to the gigs. Of course they’d never turn up.
Did you ever play to an audience that really didn’t get what you were doing?
Frequently. There’s a famous story: we played this place called Ball’s Park College, and we get booked to play their ball. It’s a tiny thing, a couple of hundred kids there. We play the first set, and they’re looking at us thinking why don’t they play Stairway To Heaven or Paranoid. In the interval, the secretary of the entertainment committee comes in and talks to us.
She says: “Thanks, guys. Really, really good. I’ve had a request, though.” And we went: “Oh yeah, what’s the request?” “For the second half, can they have the disco instead of you guys?” And we went: “Give us the money… goodbye.”
Early on, Genesis were sniffing around Roger to be their drummer. Did anyone try to tap you up?
Yes, Sparks approached me. It was after they had their major hit, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, and we’d just had Killer Queen out. The two brothers [Ron and Russell Mael] came round my flat. They said: “Look, Brian, Queen isn’t going anywhere, you’re not going to have any more hits, but we’re going to conquer the world.” And I went: “Thanks but no thanks. I think I’m fine.”
Is it fair to say there was never a shortage of confidence in Queen?
I don’t suppose there was. There was an insane confidence and a precocious belief in our own unique talents.
If you listen to March Of The Black Queen, from Queen II, you can hear the seeds of Bohemian Rhapsody. Is it fair to say that?
Totally. There’s a whole line of stuff, going back to My Fairy King [from Queen’s self-titled debut album]. Freddie had all these little mini-operas in his head from the start, which he’d write down on his dad’s work notepaper. People say: “Were you shocked when people came in with the stuff for Bohemian Rhapsody?” No, because he was already doing that from the beginning. Bohemian Rhapsody is rightly hailed as a classic.
But it has overshadowed your own operatic epic, The Prophet’s Song, which was also on A Night At The Opera…
Well you’re hitting a nerve there. I would have loved The Prophet’s Song to have had a public life like Bohemian Rhapsody, but it never did. Mine was a distinct reaction to a dream I had, a very concrete dream, where I could see this strange prophet person and hear the riffs in my head. It was a struggle for me.
I remember being in Rockfield [studios] and listening to all the stuff Freddie was pounding out very confidently, and I wasn’t feeling very confident. I was struggling to get these riffs in my head into shape, and I was tearing my hair out because the song was just out of my reach. But I had a strong feeling it was something I needed to do to move on. I think I was always a tortured soul, wasn’t I?
Being in Queen seemed to be a heavy burden for you at certain points. Did you actually enjoy it?
It’s tough, because you’re always struggling to make your own identity work within the identity of the group. If you’re in a situation and you feel like your voice isn’t being heard, it’s very negative – it motivates you to be mean and dogmatic and uncompromising and resentful. We all felt like that at various times. I know Roger felt it, John did as well. Freddie… I don’t know. Freddie was always a cup-half-full person. A cup-completely-full person, really.
But we all left the band at various points in various album sessions. I remember being in Munich, when we were doing The Game, I think, walking around the English Garden, thinking: “This is over. I’m never going to do this again.” And then you get back in there and you put your gloves back on.
The sniffier critics gave every hard rock band a tough time back then. But Queen seemed to take it more personally than other bands. Why was that?
There were quite a lot of those guys in the music press saying we were rubbish. So yes, it did hurt. What got us through was each other. We had the ability to be more vindictive and cruel to each other than the press ever had the ability to do. So we got through by supporting each other, becoming a very strong family group.
A lot of the criticism was directed at Freddie personally. People wrote stuff they wouldn’t get away writing these days. Was there an element of homophobia?
That’s an interesting thought. I confess I’ve never thought about it. People didn’t know Freddie was gay. We didn’t know. And in the beginning I don’t think Freddie knew. But he was, on the face of it, a very flippant, flamboyant, dancing-through-life person. And of course, that wasn’t the whole person, it was a cloak he put on. But I think people did resent it. They thought it was arrogance.
Who were you closest to in the band?
Freddie, I think. The image of Freddie Mercury was that he was unapproachable. His image was of being unapproachable, but he was a very caring person, actually. He would give the impression that he was very flippant about everything, but he would always surprise you. If you had an argument, he’d come back a few days later and say: “I’ve been thinking…”, and he’d have some further development and consequence of what we were talking about. He would be the diplomat.
You once said that being in Queen “fucked you up”. What did you mean?
It’s not an easy life. This is going to sound like a spoiled pop star, but it has its own stresses. You’re exposing yourself to the public, you’re putting yourself at risk of looking stupid the whole time, you’re fighting various battles with the rest of the band or the organisation around you, and there’s really no time to rest.
You’re swept away, you’re nowhere near your school friends, your family, you’re in some hotel room on the other side of the world. You live in this strange bubble. And it’s not easy to adjust. Once you adjust to it, you can’t un-adjust. It does screw you up. The flipside of all that must be the time you spent playing.
What did it feel like being on stage when Queen were in full flight?
It’s pretty much the best feeling on earth. As a musician you dream of such things. But the reality is a thousand times better than the dream. That feeling of being able to make some kind of sound or gesture that connects in that way is incredible.
Queen always seemed too graceful to have their Spinal Tap moments. Did any of that stuff happen to you?
Oh yes. One of the great ones was in Holland. We had this wonderful rig that looked like a crown and would rise from the stage like a space ship. We’re doing We Will Rock You, Freddie’s one side, I’m on the other. That particular night the hoists had been wired up wrong, so instead of going up, it leaned over to one side. The whole thing goes up, big drama, then it went completely wrong. You’ve just got to laugh.
What’s your favourite memory of Freddie during his last few years?
We had a wonderful time in Montreux, because we were away from prying eyes. We were a real family at that point. We didn’t let anybody in. We didn’t want anybody to molest Freddie in what were to be his last moments, though we weren’t sure if they were his last moments at that point, because you have this kind of disbelief. Even though the evidence is in front of your eyes, you don’t believe he’s going to go. But it was a wonderful time. We were more supportive of each other in those last few years than ever before.
Do you still talk to him?
He’s very much present. There are times when somebody asks you a question, and you don’t really know what the answer is, and you think: “What would Fred say?” And you actually know what he would say. Even though he was fairly unpredictable, you knew how his brain worked.
If he was still here, do you think Queen would still exist?
Oh, without a doubt. Even in the glory days we’d wander off to the four corners of the earth, but we always came back to The Mothership. The Mothership would be alive and well, and we would all be coming back together to play, I’m sure of it. And Freddie is still part of the show today.
You had Queen with Paul Rodgers, but it didn’t work out the way people thought it would. Were you worried that it would be the same with Adam Lambert?
People tell me all the time that after Queen we should have stopped and gone away and done something else. I think: “No, I don’t think so. I was a part of building that, so I have a right to keep on.” Should we play? Of course we should. It’s in our blood. You get the question: “How can you have the audacity to give some of Freddie’s lines to Adam Lambert to interpret?” Well we can because we do, and we do because we can. And Adam interprets these songs, he doesn’t imitate Freddie. It keeps the songs alive.
Roger said you tried to record a new song with Adam a couple of years ago.
It was a song that we’d tried to adapt that had come from a friend. It had the makings of being a great song, but we couldn’t crack it.
Hand on heart, do you ever envisage there being a brand-new Queen and Adam Lambert studio album?
I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. I really, really don’t know. I can’t see any objection to it, but it just hasn’t happened so far.
When you look back on the last fifty-odd years and the life you’ve had, does it sometimes take you by surprise?
Constantly. I still tend to walk into a room and assume that nobody knows who I am, and feel that I need to prove myself. Those things don’t go away. I wake up and I go: “My god, did that stuff really all happen?”