Brian May

TrackAlbum / Single
Star FleetStar Fleet Project
Last HorizonBack To The Light
Driven By YouBack To The Light
The Guv'norAnother World
All The Way From MemphisAnother World
One VoiceGolden Days
Roll With YouGolden Days
SomethingAcoustic By Candlelight
Holy ManCaribou Records 19075935927
New Horizons (Ultima Thule Mix)Duck Productions 2019

Brian May photo 1

 

 

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Brian May playlist

 

Contributor: David Lewis

So, you’re in one of the biggest bands in the world. In that band, you’ve written a couple of standards, a few classics and a lot of great songs. This band has conquered the world at the world’s biggest concert – Live Aid – and has succeeded at glam rock, heavy metal, funk, rock, folk, ballads and classical. You’re considered one of the great guitarists – in the pantheon with Clapton, Beck, Page, etc. So great, in fact, you’ve been asked to play the National Anthem on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s 60th jubilee celebrations.

On the side, you’ve completed a PhD in astrophysics. You’ve invented glasses to help with another passion of yours – stereoscopy – and have written books featuring your stereoscopic photographs, as well as historical photos of an English village. You’re also an animal rights activist.

Who are you? This litany of failure and underachievement belongs to one Brian Harold May CBE, PhD. The band was Queen, of course, and the books include “Queen In 3D”, “Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures In Hell” and “A Village Lost And Found”. I just realized I never mentioned a film considered by quite a lot of people the greatest music bio of all time: Bohemian Rhapsody.

Now, Brian plays guitar primarily. As is well known, he and his father built a guitar when he was about 16, that he has spent the next 50 years playing. And boy, can he play! I enjoy his playing so much, seeing him live with Queen in 1985 at the Sydney Entertainment Centre essentially convinced me to take up guitar and subsequently play professionally.

Some of the solo stuff he did could have been Queen songs. In fact, Headlong was originally meant as a solo. Too Much Love Will Kill You was another. Some of course could not have been Queen songs. This is for stylistic and I suppose marketing reasons, not quality. Like Freddie’s solo stuff, Brian has huge shoes to fill, but there is some excellent work here.

Brian’s first album in 1983 was a ‘mini-album’ from ‘Brian May and Friends’ consisting of Phil Chen on bass, REO Speedwagon’s Alan Gratzer on drums, Queen session pianist Fred Mandel on keyboards and Eddie Van Halen on the other guitar (I hesitate to describe one as ‘lead’ or ‘first’ and the other as ‘rhythm’ or ‘second’ guitar). Brian’s then 5-year-old son, James, was a fan of the Japanese science fiction show, Star Fleet. Brian, wishing to work with Eddie, approached him to record the theme, as a bit of fun. Eddie agreed, having been a mutual admirer of Brian’s playing, and the result was the song, Star Fleet. It is fun, and everyone seems to have a great time. Also, it might be just me, but the puppetry from the show reminds me of Captain Scarlet …

Brian’s first ‘proper’ album was called Back To The Light, released in 1992 – after the death of Freddie Mercury, the death of Brian’s father Harold, and the breakdown of his first marriage. It’s a very good album, especially considering the circumstances Brian was going through. The gorgeous Last Horizon showcases his guitar stylings. A lovely melody that you can hum, with his trademark harmony guitars. He is no stranger to long guitar solos – Brighton Rock from the Queen album Sheer Heart Attack is a master class in how to play a long solo. Last Horizon isn’t as flashy but it’s just as compelling.

From the same album, Driven By You is a stomping rocker, featuring blistering guitar, vocal harmonies, and a compulsive backing track. Cozy Powell on drums, and Brian performed it live with Steve Vai on rhythm guitar. Whereas Freddie (and John Deacon) moved away from rock towards soul and funk, Brian remained rooted in rock.

His second album, Another World, didn’t do quite as well, but it is another great album. It was marred by the death of Cozy Powell in a car accident before the album was finished. The Guv’nor features Jeff Beck – Brian steps back (a little) and if you know what to listen for, you can hear Beck’s lines complement Brian’s vocals perfectly. Brian does a little bit of lead.

The storming All The Way From Memphis, which features Ian Hunter giving a spoken monologue, is one of the best tracks Brian did as a solo. Queen supported Mott the Hoople on their first American tour and, by most accounts, blew Mott off the stage. Whether or not they did, the bands remained close – Ian Hunter performed All the Young Dudes with Mick Ronson and David Bowie at the Freddie tribute concert.

Brian has worked closely with Kerry Ellis in recent years. I’ve selected two songs from his collaboration with her. One Voice is a lovely tune which allows Brian to (again) show off the vocal harmonies, but it also brings out the folkie part of him. Kerry is a fine singer, as is Brian, and the song builds nicely. I’ve also selected Roll With You which I suspect is rather autobiographical.

The acoustic album they did together in 2013 is rather sublime, and reminds one that Brian is a fine acoustic player. I’ve picked Something, written by one George Harrison, which features a gorgeous guitar part and some lovely vocals by Kerry. This just nudged out a Freddie Mercury composition, Life Is Real, one of the standout tracks on Hot Space.

Holy Man was an unfinished track from the Dennis Wilson album, Pacific Ocean Blue. Considered by not a few fans as the best of the Beach Boys solo projects, this track may well have been a standout on that album. Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins got access to the track and offered to finish it. He enlisted his long time heroes Brian May and Roger Taylor, and finished the track. May features prominently in the harmonies and the guitar solo. Queen was always a fan of the Beach Boys. Those harmonies you hear on Father To Son are straight out of the Wilson playbook. Also, as we saw in my Freddie Toppermost, their first recording together was I Can Hear Music which was a hit for the Beach Boys.

Brian’s love of astronomy and his genuine excitement at new discoveries is well documented. In 2018, he released a song honoring the New Horizons spacecraft going further than any human-made object had gone before. As New Horizons passed Ultima Thule, Brian’s composition New Horizons (Ultima Thule Mix) played, gloriously and triumphantly. He was challenged by Alan Stern of NASA to write it. A recording of the late Stephen Hawking features at the beginning.

Brian May has a dizzying list of achievements – not content with music, he succeeded in astrophysics, even becoming Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. Not content with astrophysics, he succeeded in writing books. As well as being in one of the biggest bands in the world, he’s done successful solo work, collaborations, soundtracks (his work on the 1990 production of Macbeth is worth listening to). Entering his seventies, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down much. And, I suppose, while he is still productive, why should he?

 

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Brian May official website

Queenpedia – the Queen Encyclopedia

Brian May biography (Apple Music)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Beach Boys, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Freddie Mercury, Mott the Hoople, Queen

TopperPost #836

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Feb 6, 2020

    Thanks for this great piece on a superb musician. Some very fine music here – and it includes both a George Harrison and a Dennis Wilson song – who would have thought?

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