40 years of Queen: Brian May interview

imageAs a lavish new history of one of the world’s greatest rock bands is published, Queen’s guitarist Brian May grants a rare interview to tell Peter Stanford about his fight with depression, and the long shadow cast by Freddie Mercury’s death

‘It’s like looking through a family album,” Brian May muses softly as he turns the pages of 40 Years of Queen, the sumptuously illustrated new history of the legendary rock band. “But where’s Freddie on this one?” he puzzles, coming to double page photograph, taken from the back of the stage in a stadium in Ireland in the summer of 1986.

He reaches into the breast pocket of his black, open-neck shirt and puts on neat, frameless glasses – even rock stars get old – but still can’t locate Freddie Mercury, Queen’s lead singer. “He must be in the wings,” May concludes, and pushes the open book to one side.

We are sitting on either side of a white-clothed dining table in a private room at his favourite restaurant in London’s Notting Hill. Though May’s image as Queen’s guitarist was flamboyant, big, bouffant black (now grey) curls down to his shoulders, glittery jackets and customised guitars, in this sober setting 64 year-old May is a master of reserve. He rarely grants interviews and guards his privacy fiercely when he does. I have been warned in advance not to ask him about his second wife, the former EastEnders actress Anita Dobson, who is now appearing in the new series of Strictly Come Dancing.

The questions he really dreads, though, are those about Mercury, whose death from Aids in 1991 brought down the curtain on Queen’s career as one of the world’s most successful recording bands.

“Sometimes,” May admits, “I do feel I can’t do any more retrospectives or I will be sick. The question, ‘what was it like working with Freddie?’ starts to be the bomb that you see coming at your head.”

In life, Mercury could eclipse May and the other members of Queen (Roger Taylor on drums and John Deacon on bass). In one interview during their glory days, May voiced his frustration at press coverage of the band: “A lot of them are only dimly aware that the rest of the group exists.”

But in death, Mercury’s shadow has grown bigger still. “People who had made fun of him, derided him, suddenly began to regard him as a great seer, with godlike status after he died,” May says.

“I find it very funny. Once they were queuing up to put him down, and now he’s a great prophet. It is a curious thing when people who didn’t know him start telling you about your friend. Freddie was an exceptional human being, but he was a human being.”

Rock stars who die young are often airbrushed into plaster saints, resulting in something of a dilemma for those they leave behind. Do they play along, or do they put the record straight and risk sounding jealous?

Two decades on, May is still trying to square the circle. He is happy enough to celebrate Mercury’s genius. Earlier this month, as part of “Freddie Mercury Day”, a fund-raiser for Aids research that took place on what would have been the singer’s 65th birthday, May and Taylor hosted a party at London’s Savoy Hotel attended by a new generation of stars, plus the Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice.

But, alongside such tributes, he quite reasonably expects credit for his part in Queen’s phenomenal success. He for instance wrote many of their best-known songs, including We Will Rock You, Fat-Bottomed Girls and I Want It All. And finally, this essentially modest man is also keen to make clear that he is still a creative force at the top of his game.

Does he ever have moments when he wants to put the past completely behind him? “I’ve been through periods like that, yes, notably straight after Freddie went. There were a couple of years or more when I didn’t want to be in Queen. I wanted to be me, to reclaim myself. That is the way it felt, at least.

“I went on two tours, one with Cozy Powell, in which I would play the odd Queen song but basically it was my material. I thought Queen was in the past, and I strove to make it that way. But there came a point where I felt I was protesting too much, and it became apparent to me that what I was doing was going through a grieving process by refusing to look at the past. And… well I got over it.”

While he says that headlines about him being suicidal in the aftermath of Mercury’s death are overblown, May is candid about his struggle with depression. “It is something I’ve lived with in my life and at certain periods I got it bad. I’m not sure how many times, perhaps four, but then, about 15 years ago, I decided I had to get treatment.”

May took himself to Cottonwood Clinic in Tuscon, Arizona, “and threw away the key. All that mattered was getting better because otherwise I was no good to anyone. And so slowly I rebuilt my life and re-emerged as a different person.”

The “new” May is generally adept at combining in one seamless thread his past, present and future. “There are still moments when I want to get on with my life,” he concedes, sipping at a glass of water, “but, on the whole, I accept that Queen will always be part of me. It’s like you have built this beautiful house and one day you have to move out of it, but you don’t stop enjoying looking at it now and again. You just don’t want to live in it any more.”

If it doesn’t extend the metaphor too far, you might argue that May does still occasionally take up temporary residence there. In 2008-2009, for example, he went on tour with Taylor and the former lead singer of Free, in an act billed as Queen + Paul Rodgers. “What happened came about naturally, organically. And Paul brought his own legacy, so it was a coming together of different threads.

“There was coalescence for a while, but it was not an attempt to make Paul into Freddie. I don’t particularly enjoy having other people sing our songs. At the Savoy gig for Freddie’s 65th, we played with various singers. It was OK, but I had a strong feeling then that it is not my favourite thing to do. I want to do new things, take the creative part of Queen into new areas.”

Occasionally, though, the struggle to fit all the pieces together neatly can still trip him up. Does looking at all the old pictures in the new book make him feel nostalgic, I ask.

He hesitates for a few minutes before answering. Finally he replies, gently and apparently genuinely puzzled, “Define nostalgic?”

I talk about that sense many of us have, when looking back on high days and holidays in photo albums, of wishing we had lived more in the moment, appreciated then how lucky we were. “I suppose,” he says, “I’m very used to it. Sorry, I’m not explaining myself very well today. But our past as Queen still lives with us very strongly.

“So, nostalgic? Yes and no. There is a bit of sadness looking at these. A lot of the people here have gone.”

Queen came together in the late Sixties when May was well on his way to a high-flying academic career in astrophysics. He had been brought up in the west London suburb of Feltham, where his father was a draughtsman at the Ministry of Aviation by day but a keen amateur musician in his spare time.

Science and music were competing for May Junior’s attention in 1969 when he was introduced to dental student, Roger Meddows-Taylor, and discovered they both wanted to be in a rock band. Then along came graphic design student Mercury – or Freddie Bulsara as he was at the time – and finally John Deacon, who was doing a degree in electronics.

Queen’s first album in 1973 failed to reach the charts, but two years later they spent nine weeks at number one in the UK singles chart with Bohemian Rhapsody. Their Greatest Hits remains the biggest-selling UK album ever.

May continues to work closely with Taylor overseeing the band’s legacy – “as wise uncles” is the distancing phrase he chooses. Relations with Deacon, who retired in 1997, sound cool. “We let him know what we are doing and he lets us know if he objects,” he says.

Current projects are the hit “Queen musical” We Will Rock You, now in its 10th year, a planned movie (starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and written by Peter “The Queen” Morgan) and re-releasing old recordings on a new label.

And what about May’s own recent output? There have been successful solo albums post-Queen. He produces and tours with the singer Kerry Ellis, and has just finished working with Lady Gaga and My Chemical Romance. In 2002, before a global audience of billions, he performed a memorable solo spot on the roof of Buckingham Palace playing his own arrangement of God Save the Queen as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations.

It was quite an achievement. Many in his shoes might consider that they had now proved themselves capable of being successful with and without Queen and would therefore rest on their laurels, spend time with the family – May has three grown-up children from his first marriage, to Chrissie Mullen, which ended in 1988 – and enjoy an estimated fortune of £85 million at the rock-star mansion in Surrey he shares with Dobson. But instead May keeps stressing how busy he is. Today, he admits, has been his first chance to look properly at the forthcoming Queen book.

As well as music, he has picked up his abandoned academic career. In 2007, he returned to Imperial College, London, to finish his doctoral thesis in astrophysics and get his PhD. He is now a visiting researcher there as well as Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

“But that’s different,” he adds, “it is more a PR and outreach role.” So what chance of him turning up to give lectures to undergraduates? “I’m not sure I’m good enough to do it.”

There again is that endearing humility about May. He appears anxious, at all stages, not to talk himself up or claim some innate talent. “I’ve always worked very hard at everything I’ve done,” he emphasises.

His current writing project – on astronomy – is with his great friend, 88 year-old Sir Patrick Moore. Occasionally he does guest appearances on Sir Patrick’s long-running television series The Sky at Night. Another contributor once remarked that far from looking like an archetypal rock star, May was the spitting image of Isaac Newton.

And then there is his campaigning. May has been vocal in his online “soapbox” – “I was doing it long before anyone used the word blog” – in opposing any repeal of the fox-hunting ban. “I’m not a political person,” he explains, “and my temptation is always to run away from politics, but I am appalled by the images I have seen of cruelty to animals. The current ban, however patchily it is enforced, is better than nothing. We have just got to get over this idea that humans are the only ones that matter. We are animals too.”

His gaze has returned, as he talks, to the book that lies on the table between us. He starts once again to look through it and stops at the spread on Queen’s headline-grabbing appearance at the Live Aid concert in 1985. There is a picture of him being introduced backstage to Diana, Princess of Wales. “She was a lovely human being,” he remarks.

Will the book, I wonder, only appeal to diehard fans? “Our fans have always been very important to us,” May concedes. “So for the people who have followed us, this will be like recapturing their youth. But” – and here there is a note of genuine excitement in his voice – “there’s a whole new generation of young people now fascinated by what we did.”

Queen, he seems to be saying, isn’t only about revisiting the past.

40 Years of Queen by Harry Doherty (Goodman) is published Oct 3. To order (available from today) for £26 + £1.25 p & p call Telegraph Books Direct on 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

We are offering two lucky readers the chance to win a copy of 40 Years of Queen, signed by Brian May and Roger Taylor, plus Island Records’ remastered collection of 22 Queen albums, including Deep Cuts as well as the Live from Wembley DVD. Five runners-up will win an unsigned copy of the book.

Enter online at telegraph.co.uk/promotions before noon on Friday, September 30. Entrants must be UK residents aged 18 or over. Full terms and conditions available online.

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