Later this year, a deluxe edition, eight disc box set of Queen's 1989 album The Miracle will arrive, featuring six unreleased songs alongside a host of original takes, demos and early versions.
The Miracle was yet another huge success for the band, hitting Number 1 in the UK and across Europe, and yielding five singles including I Want It All, Breakthru and The Invisible Man.
This interview with Sounds – which took place after singer Freddie Mercury had been diagnosed with AIDS, although the news remained a closely guarded secret within Queen’s inner circle – was first published in the week of the album’s release. In it, guitarist Brian May discussed the making of The Miracle, the highs and lows of the band’s career, and the price of fame.
It is now four years since Live Aid, when Queen stole the show.
I think Live Aid proved that we didn’t need backdrops or cover of darkness. Bob Geldof called Live Aid a jukebox, so it seemed obvious to us to simply play the hits and get off.
You did exactly that, and it reinvigorated your career.
Well, we’ve always had our quiet periods and comebacks (laughs).
Have there been times when the band has lost its way?
Oh yeah. I think Hot Space (Queen’s much maligned disco and funk influenced 1982 album) was a mistake, if only timing wise. We got heavily into funk and it was quite similar to what Michael Jackson did on Thriller. But the timing was wrong. Disco was a dirty word.
Is Hot Space your worst album?
I don’t know. There were things on other albums that didn’t fit. But I think that those experiments were necessary to the overall growth of the band.
Was there a set plan when you made The Miracle?
When we came to make this album, we made a decision that we should have made fifteen years ago. We decided that we’d write as Queen, that we would credit everything to the four of us, so that nobody would leave a song alone. It also helps when we choose singles, because it’s difficult to be dispassionate about a song that’s purely of your own making.
Is there a downside to writing collective? There are tracks on the album – notably Was It All Worth It and Hang On In There – that are quite schizoid.
Yeah, they are schizoid. In that sense, it’s much more like the old days. On the first few albums the songs would grow into strange shapes. I don’t think any of the new songs escaped ‘the treatment’. We thought Hang On In There had gotten a bit too obscure. Devotees of the band would get off on it, but it’s not regular album material.
Was It All Worth It – with its orchestral flourishes – is rather kitsch.
It is, really, and we were conscious of that – which is why there is a little hooter in there, because we thought, my God, we’re really getting too overblown here! And there’s an element of humour in there, in the lyrics, which is nice. It’s a kind of conscious comment on some of the stuff we’ve done, it’s sort of retrospective, and we did laugh at ourselves, which I think is good. We enjoy it, we like painting those pictures. It’s fun, and it’s something peculiar to Queen.
In the past, has that idiosyncratic sense of humour in Queen been a turnoff for American audiences?
Yes, I think our whole image became too diffused for America. They hated what they felt were gay overtones in I Want To Break Free – the drag stuff in the video. Americans found that very distasteful, whereas everyone else around the world thought it was a laugh.
The first single from The Miracle is a big rock anthem: I Want It All. Was that a conscious move – to come back with a bang?
Yes, I suppose so. It re-establishes our old image in a way. It’s nice to come back with something strong, something that reminds people we're a live group.
I Want It All is essentially a heavy metal song – like Tie Your Mother Down or We Will Rick You or Tear it Up. Are you the metal fan in Queen?
I love heavy metal and I don’t look down on it at all. But we’re not a heavy metal group. I think you have to love something to play it. When I produced Bad News (the spoof metal band created by The Young Ones stars Ade Edmondson, Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer), I found that Ade Edmondson lives and breathes heavy rock music. And I love people that are so immersed in it that it’s serious. I love AC/DC – what they do, it’s very pure. But we’re not that way, so we can’t pretend we are. It’s good to be able to step back and see the funny side of it, because it kicks out some of the shit.
I Want It All has a 70s feel. It sounds at odds with what’s in the charts in 1989.
Just before we put the single out I started listening to what’s on the radio, and the kind of stuff that becomes a hit these days bears no resemblance to what we do. But there are a few people out there who sit up when we do our stuff. I think the demographics are different for us. I don’t think there are many thirteen year olds out there buying our records, and that age group is a large percentage of the record-buying public.
But Queen have always been a brilliant singles band – your Greatest Hits album proved that.
I don’t think we’re a singles band really. People only remember the hits. It’s been pretty up and down with singles. But I suppose we have done OK.
There’s one track on the new album, Scandal, which addresses the intrusive nature of the British press. It’s something you’ve experienced recently since your marriage ended and your relationship with actress Anita Dobson was made public.
We’ve all been hauled through the tabloids now. It’s very strange that we’ve been moderately famous for some time, but not tabloid fodder until the last three years. It’s not been pleasant. Some papers want a certain kind of news, and it can wreck people’s lives. I don’t those papers have any sense of responsibility about it.
Were you shocked when you saw details of your private life being revealed in the press?
I thought it would never happen to me. I thought I was a very stable person and not open to anything like that. But life changes, you know? I kicked and screamed against it, but in the end you do change. You grow, the people you’re with grow, and sometimes you don’t grow together.
How has all of this affected you?
It actually screwed me up completely. For nearly a year I was incapable, so depressed. It wasn’t all because of the papers, but they don’t help. Most of it they made up anyway, but there’s no point denying it because you just make it worse.
Elton John hit back when he successfully sued The Sun.
Yeah, he was lucky because they put some ‘concrete facts’ in there which were wrong. But usually they’re not that stupid. That kind of thing will make the papers a little more careful, but it won’t change their fundamental attitude, because they can afford to pay out. I’m really glad that Elton did that, though.
In the title track from The Miracle, the words have a kind of hippie idealism. Do you expect to be lambasted by critics for that?
I expect them to say we’re an arrogant bunch of bastards like they usually do. The Miracle isn’t supposed to be us, it’s supposed to be something that we’re looking for – peace on Earth – and that will be lambasted as crass idealism. But there you go.
There is also some typically dry wit in Was It All Worth It, in the line: “Yes, we were brill.”
That’s true. But we’re pretty proud of what we’ve done, as a whole. We took chances. Some of the things we did set the world alight and some didn’t. But at least we made our own mistakes. We did what we wanted to do. Music by democracy just can’t be.
But you said that the whole of this new album is music by democracy.
That’s a small democracy. Music by Gallup poll is what I mean. You can’t go around and ask everyone if what you’re doing is OK.
Was It All Worth It also has the line: “Living, breathing rock’n’roll, this Godforsaken life”. Really?
That’s Freddie. But that’s very tongue-in-cheek, because he loves the life he has.
There’s another line in that song about seeing “God and Dali”. Is that self-referential too?
Yes. You know, we got fairly surrealistic at some points!
And you’ve also written a song – Khashoggi’s Ship – inspired by the famous stories about Saudi Arabian businessman and hard-partying playboy Adnan Khashoggi. Do you see in him a kindred spirit?
Oh yeah. I regard Khashoggi’s Ship and Was It All Worth It as the two ends of the album, and both are comments on ourselves. We read about that kind of society life – the parties on the ship, the excess. We feel that we’ve touched on those areas at some time. We’ve been through it.
And despite it all, you’re still going…
Yes. And without wishing to pun, it is a miracle that we’re still together. We’ve been through such change. Sometimes you think you’re in Hell and sometimes you think you’ve seen God. But if you live life to the full, it is that extreme.