A life spent launching his soul to stardom,
laying weaknesses bare behind an oak shield made from odds and ends with his
own hands, keeping himself up in the stratosphere of perfection found together
with Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor and
John Deacon, while reflecting on what lies in the immense space between the
The lament of his amazingly peculiar guitar asks for the fragile soul of this multi-faceted man to be saved – rock star, university professor, family man, adulterer, manic depressive, animal rights activist... Maybe the last thing you expect of an astrophysicist, whose thesis is entitled "A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud" is for him to wear a braided doublet coat, drainpipe trousers and on his head a mix of curly rocker's locks styled with lady's hairspray. Brian May is a man built from the inside out, in need of his family's love as much as he is of rock-god glory and symbiosis with some soul mate.
15th December, 1993, and two thousand lunatics chant out in Madrid's old Aqualung stadium for May to start off a capella for 'Mustapha', never before done in the band's world tour. In one way or another, Freddie always needs to be mentioned, laments the shy rock star, looking away…
He returned to the limelight as Queen's ex-guitarist after two years out in black space. After having been a key figure in one of the most classic rock products of all time, everything came to a sudden end for May on a personal as well as a professional level. Just out of a divorce and with Freddie's illness, the magic had faded away. May then dedicated himself to showing off his harmonic talents on his trusty Red Special through a collection of basic rock compositions. Plugged in, this old fireplace sounds like a legion of electric bagpipes, if such an instrument exists. And that's neither a good thing nor a bad one - it's simply the artist's sound.
Suddenly, right in the middle of the ecstasy of 'Guitar Extravagance', a never-ending evolution of 'Brighton Rock Solo', the sixpenny piece slips out of May's fingers…
Son of Ruth and Harold May, an electronics engineer and casual ukulele player, May has always had around his neck a very special guitar. The Red Special is the first selfie in rock history. It was hand made from a leftover fireplace, motorcycle and washing machine parts…its tremolo system, an essential piece in the Queen sound, is a bicycle basket spring crowned with the end of a knitting needle. It was a year and a half of work between himself and his dad, spending no more than ten pounds, building a homemade but perfect instrument. And it had a sound all of its own, made even more sublime by May's predilection to use coins instead of plectrums. Nevertheless, and despite his universally recognized masterpiece, the prima donna during his musical career was actually not his old red lady, but rather another diva - with a moustache.
Anyway, "the thing worked…I don't know if my old man and I were just lucky or what, but the guitar had a spectacular sound to it, my guitar sang, and it still does…"
Brian himself tells of how when he was a boy his cat died, and that he could never get over its death, not even when he woke up on the morning of his seventh birthday to find an acoustic guitar at the foot of his bed. He tells the story with his chin tucked to his chest, his voice reedy more due to embarrassment than nature. And he explains how he would only very occasionally dare to argue with Freddie how one song or another was to be sung… And when he failed to convince him, he would play the Red Special with his sixpence coin, striking out the reproachful howls of that cat.
Brian May, who usually has 10 or 12 of those 'picks' stuck to the mic. stand with black plasticine, sees the coin fly away and makes a gesture: "keep it kid, keep it well".
"Freddie sings better than I do, of course. But hearing him sing some of my lyrics can be a bloody pain… many times the way he sings them changes the feeling that I wrote completely", lamented Brian May in an interview. This was something that occurred from the very beginning, from 'Keep yourself alive', the opening song on the band's first album. He really can't complain, however - few guitarists are as recognized by the general public as much as May is. This too is neither a good thing nor a bad one, simply that his Classical influences found their escape in the metallic howling of his guitar's strings. And in the few things he had to actually buy to finish the job off: a set of suitable tuning machines and three Burns Trisonic pickups, whose sound saturated nicely with a Vox AC30 amp, or the Deacy that Deacon later made for him. And a new sound was born. His 'brand' has proven to be big business. Guild in the USA and Burns in the UK make Red Special replicas at varying prices. There also exist three 'original' copies made by May's official luthier/renovator, an Australian called Greg Fryer. The three were named John, Paul and George – "The Beatles are the Bible" assures May. For 10 years, May has sold his own official copies, with his name on the guitars' headstock. Moreover, Burns of London have re-issued those famous pickups that were no longer in production and even Vox has created a Deacy copy in its range of small pre-amps.
The synergy of May's guitar with Mercury's throat stacked with octaves took inspiration from symphonic music fused with a heavy dimension of those that have supped from the deep well of the blues. The music was then projected with theatrical aesthetics and excess. All came together in a mosaic of harmonics and delays, stereo mixes and arpeggios multiplied over and over again, track upon track. And live, with a performance as visual as it was musical. They drank from the well until they could take no more and in the '80s Queen jumped from the 'nobody plays synthesizers' with which they used to end the credits of their first videos to rhythms to make your Walkman explode. From these years came May's woeful cry (with Freddie's voice, naturally) "Save me, I can't face this life alone" [Save me, The Game, 1980]. Once more, only the metal of his guitar could provide some protection to his fragility.
The show finishes and the stage lights come on, the youngster feels for the coin to see May's effigy… but there is nothing in his jean pockets, only empty space. The end of a concert is like the end of a booze-up, with the hangover waiting just around the corner. Bewildered, the loss of his amulet weighs a lot less heavier on his heart than something a lot more important that lifts it up – he has seen close up the guitarist of Queen.
For many of those gathered there - everyday music fans, consumers of the hit parade, Queen was their band in the '70s. Or in the '80s. Or even at the beginning of the '90s, when they majestically brought in the New Year with the grandiose and commercial 'Innuendo'. An LP that served as the band's perfect epitaph, the end to the film that they deserved, including the tragic death of the hero. In the real world, however, life goes on even if the leading man dies. May had to suffer various bouts of depression before he could accept his new role. Plagued by self-destructive impulses, he started out on a search for something that has not come to an end to this day. In truth, he has forever been the victim of such dark struggle.
The show has gone on since then. The Queen franchise has been exploited to the hilt with musicals, tours and experiments with other singers. But the empty space that Freddie left has never been filled. Empty space that May the artist could only hold back by embracing Mercury's voice with the howling of his old lady, and May the man could only pacify from his home, at night, looking for notes among the strings or through his telescope, in the space between the stars.