With the release of Queen’s “The Miracle” box set — an expanded, eight-disc reissue of the 1989 album — fans not only gain access to previously unreleased tracks, but get an intimate peek into the inner workings of the iconic band.
While the collector’s edition includes songs such as “Face It Alone” and “Too Much Love Will Kill You” (intended for the album, but yanked at the last minute), the box’s real bonus is the inclusion of dialogue from the band’s 1988 studio sessions. Hearing Queen laugh, tease and kvetch during the making of “The Miracle” — recorded after Mercury’s HIV diagnosis in 1987 — is a joy akin to watching Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary “Get Back” and its wealth of healthy, humorous banter.
“Listening to our dialogues on ‘The Miracle,’ it feels as if I am in the middle of our sessions – finding joy, finding frustration,” Queen guitarist Brian May tells Variety when he phones from London. “That was the intention: to invite people into our studio environment at that point in time.”
But “The Miracle” isn’t the only thing on May’s mind — below, he teases a possible 2023 Queen and Adam Lambert tour and the expanded release of his 1983 “Star Fleet Project” EP with Eddie Van Halen. May also speaks warmly of Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie and Foo Fighters’ late drummer Taylor Hawkins — whose recent memorial concerts the Queen guitarist played — as well as his continued amazement at the talents of his friend, Freddie Mercury.
Going into “The Miracle,” the four of you decided that, going forward, you would share song credits equally. That was a first. What pushed the band toward that decision?
It was an internal decision, part of our growing up process, I think. We realized, more and more, that the fact that we were competitors was good for our creativity, but often detrimental to making the right choices and getting the maximum out of each other. So, we decided to share the writing credit and it made a huge difference to us. Suddenly, it didn’t feel as if you were working on someone else’s baby. You’re working on something shared in which everybody has an interest. It gave us new energy, awakened a new spark in our creative process.
This new creative process started at the end of 1987, a year where the band began to consider where it was, mentally and physically. What were the initial discussions like? Where was your head, or Freddie’s for that matter, at that point?
It’s hard to cast my mind back entirely. I do know that we had had quite the adventure outside the band before that time. And we were all ready to pitch in, and take full advantage of the fact that we were greater together than the sum of our parts. The writing together was one thing, but we also realized just how well we had worked together. That chemistry, it was rare, precious and not something you could have put together artificially. By the grace of god, we had found ourselves with complimentary talents. So things like “Was It All Worth It” were incredibly interactive in a way which we hadn’t been for years. We just all pitched in, got fired up and had fun.
So, was the Queen of 1987-1988 just four guys jamming around the microphone?
Absolutely. Totally interactive. All in the same room at the same time. It was very exciting. There were a lot of things that made it feel as we had when we made the first album. A lot of chipping in. Things grew in the studio. The box set highlights that because you hear the creative process – we’re giving you everything – of significant outtakes, alternative lyrics, attempts at different solos and vocal takes, the amount of healthy argument. You hear its evolution. And there is one whole album of what might have been as opposed to what it became.
You included session banter and dialogue as part of “The Miracle” box, showing off Queen’s behind-the-scenes process in a fashion reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s “Get Back.” The four of you talking in such a personal way is a moving listen.
That is a good comparison. I’ve enjoyed watching “Get Back,” and hearing the Beatles’ conversations. Now, listening with headphones to our dialogues on “The Miracle,” it feels as if I am in the middle of our sessions – finding joy, finding frustration. That was the intention: to invite people into our studio environment at that point in time.
“Face It Alone” with Freddie Mercury was the first track from “The Miracle” box to drop, and it is surprising to hear how naked it was. What do you remember about making that song?
Very little. It was a fragment among so many other fragments at that time, or perhaps other songs were calling to us more loudly. I do remember the sound of the melody… it stuck in my head. It was done incredibly quickly. Freddie probably wrote its words in the morning, and was working on the song with his strange keyboard. I don’t even remember playing the guitar on it, to be honest. I was probably just playing something to get us to the next verse, something to feed off.
So, your engineering team stitched elements together so to make “Face It Alone” whole.
Yes. We resisted the temptation to go in there and do a number on it with me playing new guitar bits. We resisted, too, the temptation to turn it into the epic it could have become. It could have been developed into a major construction. But we wanted to deliver it as simply as possible. It’s very stark as you can hear, with very little on the track… as sparing as can be. There are places where the boys rescued a word or a phrase to make a reprise of the verse which makes sense – Freddie did three takes – but that’s it.
When the version we hear was finished and presented to you, what’s the first thing that ran through your mind?
The chaps did spring it on me, so I did get pretty emotional. All I could hear was Freddie’s incredible vocal cords, working so splendidly and passionately…. Yeah, I was pretty emotion-ed up. It was, as if, he was there, and you realize, again, what an incredible talent that was. Such an amazing human being with an extraordinary instrument.
The box now includes “Too Much Love Will Kill You,” which was originally part of the running order of “The Miracle,” until the last minute. What happened?
It was part of the running order until we got into a big dispute about publishing. See, I had originally written it with other people away from the band. You can write a book about it, as I wrote it for a solo album, Freddie loved it. And when I brought it to the band, they all loved it too. But, suddenly, particularly Freddie, he didn’t want to receive one-sixteenth of the publishing. Which I can understand, so we reached a stalemate and shelved the song. In the box, we have restored its vinyl to the way it would have been. It is, however, only now where I realize what might have been going on inside his head. At that point in time, we didn’t know that he was being threatened. Probably, he did. It could be associated with Freddie talking about too much love killing him. Songs assume different meanings to different people at different times.
Considering that there are other Queen albums that have not been given the box set rarities treatment yet, is it fair to say that there are other gems left to unearth and release?
It’s possible. We don’t really know until we go back in there. I wouldn’t have predicted that we would have had as much unreleased material around “The Miracle,” as it turned out. I’m guessing we’ll find many more hidden treasures, yeah.
Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco has famously performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a live setting. They reached out to you, via email, about how close their new songs “Star Spangled Banger” and “God Killed Rock and Roll” were to Queen, and how deep your influence was to their band. Can you tell us about that correspondence?
I can only tell you I admire those guys. They have great talent, and it is a fantastic compliment to us that they should include us as an influence and absorb us into their own oeuvre. It makes me very happy. There’s a similar feeling with the Foo Fighters. That is the ultimate compliment that a band should want to play our material, absorb it and make something new out of it.
I was prepared to avoid discussing the Foos and Taylor Hawkins in fear it might bring you down — but your participation in those tributes was a way to shout out to Hawkins and the Foo Fighters.
Definitely, yes. They feel like family to Roger and I, and Taylor Hawkins was the link – the boy who would always ring me up at 3 a.m. in the morning. I miss that call. Always full of enthusiasm. “Hey Brian, you should come over and jam.” Of all people to be taken too young, he is the most sadly missed.
Next year marks 12 years since Adam Lambert became a part of Queen. You recorded “Lucy” on his 2015 album, “The Original High.” After all this time, is there any chance of you, Roger and Adam recording new music together, and will the three of you tour in 2023?
There’s a strong possibility that we’ll be going out together again. We’re talking about that as you and I speak, making those decisions. Now, it does get to be more of a decision as you get older. I’m not 35 anymore, and leaving home for two months is not easy. But we feel as like if we’re all fit and well, that we’d like to go out there one more time. It would probably be in the United States in 2023 at some point. I’m hoping that happens, but it’s a strong possibility. The new music thing? I’ve got to tell you it hasn’t happened yet, but we do bring the subject up. Generally, when we are together, the live show is all-consuming. There isn’t really time to discuss any studio action. We feel as if the live stuff is what the public wants. And when we’re not on tour, Adam has his own career — he just gave me some stuff that he’s working on for his next album, and it’s remarkable. So, I suppose that the opportunity to make an album together doesn’t come up, but I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen.
OK, so the three of you are not making a Queen album. Is there another Brian May solo album on the horizon?
I’m working on the “Star Fleet” box set, which is No. 3 in the Brian May Gold Series [the first two being “Back to the Light” and the “Another World’ box sets], and probably to be released halfway into next year.
Do you mean the tracks from 1983 that you did for the science fiction puppet series “Star Fleet?”
Yes. And I’m very excited about it as I’ve opened up these tapes where I’m jamming with Eddie Van Halen and Phil Chen. It is highly emotional, again, as Ed’s not around. Neither is Phil. And I’ve been talking to Alex (Van Halen) and started thinking about how I wish I had stayed closer to Ed. I have a huge regret about that. He was a wonderful soul – a Peter Pan who never grew up, never wanted to grow up and never should have grown up. He should still be with us. Listening to him and me, I felt completely outclassed by him in the studio. But in a very pleasant way – what joy for me to be around a guy who could do all that. Such a privilege. So, you’ll hear us in the studio, trading licks. I was never fond of the original mix of “Star Fleet,” the single, so we cleaned that up. Now, EVH’s sound is larger than life. You’ll hear the development of Eddie’s solo, which I always thought was one of the greatest things he did… a real immortal classic of Ed Van Halen pieces. And, even more than “The Miracle,” we are going to give you everything. Every take of every song. The things gone wrong, the laughing, the finding new things to do.