It's not very often you recognise a guitar player by the sound. By the song, yes, but by the sound? Well, considerably fewer than whom you would recognise from their silhouette. But Brian May ticks both boxes.
The fact that so many people ask him to play on their records, present awards, appear on stage, do charity gigs and stand on top of Buckingham Palace playing the national anthem must surely place him at the zenith of British Guitar Heroes.
On top of that, he made his own guitar, with his dad, out of a fireplace, motorbike springs and a knitting needle. Yes, that guitar, that was the sound that really got me intrigued. Watching Queen performing "Seven Seas of Rhye" on Top of the Pops and scratching my (considerably younger and inexperienced) head and thinking "Hold on, I've got an electric guitar and it sounds nothing like that, and that guy with the hair and the Zandra Rhodes outfits and that guitar. What is that?"
I daren't ask most of the nerdy questions I would love to ask Brian May. I sort of don't really want to know how he made the sounds he made and how he ended up wiping tapes clear with the amount of overdubs recorded on a single song. Or why he makes the decisions to do the things he does, like dressing up as a penguin for the booklet of the first Queen album, or writing film scores, for instance.
If I type "Flash" into my Twitter feed, I will guarantee you that within a minute, I will have at least 20 responses, all going "Aa-aaaaaah". That was Brian's idea.
"We were engaged to do the job by Mike Hodges who was the director of Flash [Gordon] and Dino De Laurentiis, who was that famous Italian film producer who always thought big and some people would have said didn't have any subtlety. But, in fact, he had a sense of something unusual. He made that huge remake of King Kong – billions of dollars – but the combination of him and Mike Hodges was very odd because for Dino it was a very serious film engaging the top-level talent in Italy and to Mike it was a spoof.
"So there was this clash, and I'm pretty sure it was Mike's idea to engage us for the job and what happened was we went in and saw some of the rushes of the film and loved it, and we all went away and made some demos separately, Roger, John, Freddie and me, and there came a day when we all got in the studio and played them back to Mike and to Dino and asked: 'This is what we've come up with. What do you think?' There was a horrible moment when Mike jumped up and down saying, 'it's brilliant, it's brilliant', and Dino sat there with a face ashen and white as a sheet and obviously didn't enjoy it, and when it came to the theme I had written – you know, 'Flash' – well, Dino said: 'It's very good but it is not for my movie.'
"So we all got a bit glum and went away. But what I think happened was Mike went to Dino and said: 'You got to have faith here. This is something that is going to work and Brian has actually captured the essence of the movie in this piece of music.' But it was a big adventure in those days. I don't think there had ever been a feature film with background music done by a rock band before – it was a real dangerous departure. You had to have your base of strings to create emotion. It had never been done. And to his credit, Dino did come around and was very supportive"
Brian and Queen went on to score Highlander. Both movies generated huge hit singles ("Flash", "A Kind of Magic" and "Who Wants to Live Forever") and married Brian's guitar sounds to the film where normally you would have orchestra.
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It sounded like an orchestra a lot of the time. Going back to the Queen records, there were so many sounds and tones, where did all that come from?
"There are all sorts of weird things, because when I grew up, we had things like Uncle Mac's Children's Favourites on the radio. And there would be all kinds of stuff on there from "Thunder and Lightning Polka" to "The Laughing Policeman" to the pop of the day, with a lot of light orchestral stuff including Mantovani, and later on it had that singing strings thing.
"You get a string line, then another string over the top of it that starts after it and then another one so it's a kind of a bell effect where the harmonies grow rather than all coming at once, and the other people that used that really brilliantly were The Temperance Seven. I was an absolute addict of The Temperance Seven in the Sixties. They were actually produced by George Martin, strangely enough, who was about to meet The Beatles.
"I don't know who did the arrangements but they're absolutely gloriously beautiful, based on the style of the Twenties and they did this bell effect. If you listen to "You're Driving Me Crazy" – bom bom bom bom – it's bells. It's the same kind of thing. So I was hugely influenced by that sort of stuff – and that's what you're kind of hearing."
I listen to Queen albums and just love the way the guitars extend the song, add to it, and come from it at the same time. It's not just someone wailing over a track (which is the main reason I can't stand guitar solos – present company excluded of course). Layer upon layer of guitars. At what point do you think, "that line is a good one, but it would be better with another 70 guitars on it!"?
"I never really get to that point – like we were talking about arrangements – I can hear it in my head before I start and I know where I'm going and if I can't hear it in my head I can't do it. I can't really do it by just following my nose – I need to hear it, have the overall picture in my head before I pick up the guitar, so I generally just know when it's done. It's as easy as that.
"Our first album was made in insane circumstances – we just went in there for odd hours during the night, we had so little time, so all those dreams that I had couldn't really come to fruition, but there are little hints. 'My Fairy King' had harmonised guitar on it, but when we came to Queen II, we were actually in a proper studio with time that was booked like a real, proper band and I was determined that we would do all that and we had adventurous ideas on guitar harmonies but also vocal harmonies – just painting a huge picture, which was in our heads. Queen II is a lot of stuff , there's all sorts of guitar parts fighting each other."
Brian's worked with some obvious (Eddie Van Halen) and less obvious (the boy band 5ive) artists in his time. He still does and has been asked to join bands in the past (Sparks tried to recruit him, saying Queen were going nowhere and they were going to conquer the world).
I wonder if Queen hadn't existed who he would like to have been guitarist with. "I'd have probably liked to be in AC/DC. But I'm the wrong sort of size and shape unfortunately. Because it's different from Queen. Queen were very eclectic – that's the word isn't it? – and we just trampled over every boundary that there was but AC/DC are in a sense the opposite – they know their style and it's incredibly pure and I have a great respect for that. And every single note they play is AC/DC completely. Maybe that would be it.
"If I feel excited by it I don't really care what anybody else thinks. And in fact I kind of enjoy that feeling of discomfort. I recently played on a Dappy record and I told a few people and they go, 'What the hell are you doing that for!? That's not music! How could you possibly consider it?' And again, I said, 'No, listen again, you'll find the guy's actually a great lyrical power and he's a great singer and the record is brilliantly produced, so what exactly is your problem?' And everybody came back when they heard it and said, 'Bloody hell, that is great and it's a great combination.' And it's a daring idea for both of us and I love it – I love breaking the boundaries."
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