POP MUSIC : 10 QUESTIONS : Brian May of Queen
W hen Queen’s album “The Miracle” flopped in 1989, many thought that might have been the English rock quartet’s last gasp.
But no need to check the rock ‘n’ roll graveyard for Queen just yet. As the most prominent act on Disney’s new label, Hollywood Records, Queen is trying to revive its once fabulously successful career with a new album, “Innuendo"--and with the rocking “Headlong” as the first single. The record company celebrated the new association with a lavish party--rumored to have a price tag in the $200,000 range--on the Queen Mary.
Remarkably, Queen’s lineup is unchanged after two decades. Lead singer Freddie Mercury, the flashy, magnetic performer, has worked with guitar hero Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor since they formed the band in their student days in England in 1971.
From the mid'70s though the early ‘80s, Queen was one of the biggest rock bands in the business, turning in such hit albums as “A Night at the Opera,” “A Day at the Races,” “News of the World” and “The Game.” Often outrageous and musically daring, the band combined the fury of Zeppelinesque hard rock, lovely harmonies and the melodious textures of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. But then they faded.
In the past six months there’s been a surge of industry chatter about Queen. Vanilla Ice’s success has raised Queen’s profile--many teen-agers heard about Queen for the first time because Ice’s hit single “Ice Ice Baby” uses parts of “Under Pressure,” Queen’s 1981 collaboration with David Bowie.
There have also been rumors about Mercury’s being ill with AIDS. Supposedly that’s why the band--known for its exceptional live shows--hasn’t toured since 1986, and in America since 1982. Since Mercury doesn’t do interviews and he wasn’t at the Queen Mary party, May supplies the answers to the questions surrounding the veteran band’s reemergence.
Question: Do you think Queen can really regain its old superstardom?
Answer: Honestly? Yes and no. I think the album is good enough to satisfy rock fans. But I don’t honestly know if we fit into what’s happening musically now. We need to be accepted at radio. ‘Headlong’ seems to be accepted, but I don’t know how far it will go. I think this is a quality album--but look at how many quality albums go down the drain.
Q: What happened in the ‘80s that caused the band to lose favor?
A: There were many reasons. New wave came in the early ‘80s and that whole movement was against big, fairly traditional rock bands like ours. We also got away from touring in this country, which didn’t help. In the States you have to be visible to stay popular. We did some unusual videos that didn’t help--such as “I Wanna Break Free,” which we did in drag. That was funny in England and Europe, but people in this country didn’t see it as a very good joke. They thought it was in bad taste and it hurt our image. Also the album “Hot Space” (1982) wasn’t well-received in this country and it contributed to our general decline here.
Things weren’t going that well at Elektra Records (their label since 1973), so we paid a lot of money to terminate our contract and move over to Capitol (in 1983), but that didn’t help sales either. We also had problems getting radio airplay. Our albums weren’t bad. It was just the wrong climate for our kind of music. The audience just slipped away and once you lose the audience it’s not that easy to get them back.
Q: Did you do anything different on this album to try to make it fit more easily in the current musical scene?
A: Not really. We’re not going to do something outrageous like trying to rap or go into dance music, which I really don’t care for. We’re an old-fashioned band that believes that songs are the most important thing. Good songs never go out of style. All we did on this album was what we’ve done on every album--try to make the best songs possible. We didn’t change our style or modify what we do. People will have to take Queen as we are--on our terms or not at all. We’re not willing to compromise.
Q: You are all in your 40s now. Do you think age poses any handicap for you now?
A: Are we too grown up for kids? To be honest, for some of them, our approach may be too adult. We’d like to get the young people, but who knows how many would be interested in us? Fortunately, there’s a solid audience for grown-up rock ‘n’ roll. We’re not dealing in teen-age problems, not boy-meets-girl and everyone lives happily ever after. Our songs are concerned with real life--but they’re about how weird and complicated things can get between people.
Q: What about those rumors about Freddie not being healthy--specifically, that he has AIDS?
A: Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard those rumors and innuendoes. I know where they came from. They were started by the English press. Those tabloids are vicious. Some of the people who write for them are a low form of life. They make up things all the time and needlessly cause all Hsorts of problems in the lives of celebrities--just to sell a few papers. Also, we’ve all been through periods when we’ve abused ourselves unmercifully in the outrageous ways that rock ‘n’ rollers have always done it.
Maybe the consequences of that lifestyle--what it does to you--can help start rumors. All I will say is that Freddie is healthy and fit. Listen to his singing on the album. Does it sound like someone who’s sick or dying?
Q: There was always talk in the industry that you four didn’t get along. Is that true?
A: We’ve never hated each other, but there have been times when it wasn’t easy to get along and a lot of people obviously picked up on that. We couldn’t hide it. I wouldn’t say it’s been all that easy for us to get along over the years. It was always hardest for us to get along in the studio. It would get very intense.
We used to work long hours and we’d almost kill ourselves. One problem was that everyone had to have a voice. There has always so much competition between us. Sometimes it has been destructive. We couldn’t always agree on a musical direction. The musical differences were always the most difficult to resolve.
It’s hard to say what some of the differences were--meaning who didn’t like what. Some of them probably seem silly long after the fact. We really think alike musically but each of us would go off on tangents sometimes and get very stubborn about our views. We would get very intense and wind up fighting. At those times, if we had been more level-headed, maybe the differences wouldn’t have amounted to much.
Q: How close did the band ever get to calling it quits?
A: A few times we all wanted to get out of the band. A few times I walked out and didn’t want to come back, but I always came back. When we stopped being angry and egotistical and thought about it, we’d see Queen is a good thing--the best musical vehicle for all of us. So we’d grit our teeth and work things out.
Q: Some people think “Under Pressure” is one of your best songs. What do you think about Vanilla Ice and how he incorporated key musical elements--particularly that prominent bass line--from “Under Pressure” into his “Ice Ice Baby” single?
A: At first I looked at it as a big joke. Someone played Ice’s single for me and I said I didn’t think it was that good, but I don’t think anyone is going to listen to it, so why worry about it? But then I was told it was about to be No. 1 in the United States and I thought, “My God. Is this what music has come to?” He was a naughty boy for not asking us first whether he could use the song. We weren’t going to get any money from it, but Hollywood Records, which had just bought our catalogue, got upset and sued his record company and a settlement is in the works. So he’s out there earning money for us now.
I’m not the best judge of a song like Vanilla Ice’s because rap doesn’t really appeal to me. When it comes to music, I’m really narrow-minded and bigoted. I like real songs, with singing and music and loud guitars, not what rap has to offer.
Q: Queen hasn’t toured since 1986. Will you ever tour again?
A: I certainly hope so but I can’t honestly say for sure. At the moment Freddie doesn’t want to. But if this album does very well, he might change his mind. That might inspire him. If it was up to me, I’d be out their playing live tomorrow. I miss touring and I think it would help this album a lot if we did tour.
Q: The slick, choreographed, Broadway-style shows of artists like Vanilla Ice, Madonna and Janet Jackson are indicative of the shows that are popular in the current musical climate. If you do tour, do you plan to incorporate any of these elements in your show?
A: No way! Those shows now are so rehearsed that all the spontaneity has been rehearsed out of them. They’re cardboard shows. Look at the Madonna show. Every move is worked out. It’s like a robot show. The trend in these live shows now, using tapes instead of real music, is disturbing. I’d rather hear a wrong note here and there instead of this incredibly rehearsed show that’s missing some human elements. Queen would never do a show like that.