Heading into the 1992 release of his debut solo album Back to the Light, Queen guitarist Brian May was reeling, attempting to process the loss of his father and singer Freddie Mercury, both of whom passed away in 1991, and the process of creating new music quickly became a therapeutic endeavor.
Following the release of the posthumous final Queen album Made in Heaven, released in November of 1995, May began work on his second solo project.
Originally intended as a covers album, the release eventually developed into a batch of original studio recordings set to pay tribute to the musicians he’d grown up on, with artists like Jeff Beck, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter and Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins all guesting on the sessions which would come to make up Another World.
Drummer Cozy Powell performed as a member of the Brian May Band and on both May solo efforts but was killed in a car accident in April of 1998, just two months before Another World’s U.K. release, May once again turning to the music during a period of personal loss.
Now available on CD, vinyl, cassette and in a special box set, as well as on streaming services like Spotify and Amazon Music, a special reissue of Another World features a new collection of 15 covers and rarities which finds May digging deep in the archives during an in-depth look back. Also available as part of the reissue is Another World: The Bri-Art Collection, capturing more than 300 pieces of unique fan created artwork, with 100% of the book’s profits benefiting May’s Save Me Trust.
Gearing up for a return to the road with Queen + Adam Lambert which kicks off on May 27, 2022 in Belfast, May has also released a two hour 2008 Queen + Paul Rodgers concert recorded live in Ukraine via YouTube, featuring a donate button which seeks to raise funds for Ukraine relief.
“I feel devastated by what’s happening to Ukraine. We played to almost the entire population of Kyiv in Freedom Square and that’s what you see in the video,” said May. “They’re wonderful people – beautiful, gentle people. And it breaks my heart to see their world destroyed. I cannot fathom it and it keeps me awake at night. It makes me feel sick. The feeling of powerlessness is terrible,” said the guitarist.
“To actually get on a stage and play in front of an audience and make a loud noise – which we do – and interact internally and with the audience is a treasure. It’s a privilege of an experience. And there is nothing in the world quite like that. So I have missed it badly,” said May of returning to the stage next month. “It’s very exciting. That is what we do – more than anything else. I suppose the lock down teaches you that.”
I spoke with Brian May about the new Another World reissue, discovering American artists in the U.K. via pirate radio, the importance of optimism in dark times, getting to know Taylor Hawkins and a 1973 tour which placed a young Queen as opening act for Mott the Hoople. A transcript of our video call, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
I was just looking at the timeline this morning of the period sort of surrounding this album. Obviously you were dealing with a lot personally leading into Back to the Light. When work on what would become Another World began, you had just finished up Made in Heaven. Where were you sort of at as you began working on Another World?
BRIAN MAY: Well, I was pretty uneven. I was anything but stable – even then. It’s already a while since we lost Freddie. And I’ve been out on tour on my own, as a singer, which was tough but had its merits. It gave me a chance to explore a different kind of work ethic – a different kind of world.
So I come back and I start this album. To start with, I had this thing about kind of paying tribute to the people I listened to when I grew up. So that’s why I went into the studio. I thought, “You know what? I’d like to do this. I’d like to sort of explore Buddy Holly. And Mott the Hoople.” In a very different way, that was an influence.
Frequently, it’s good for me to have a trigger. It’s nice to have a challenge. So some people gave me a job to write music for a TV series called Frank Stubbs Promotes. It gave me an opportunity to kind of explore the character who was the hero of this series – and explore him in relation to me. Sometimes it’s easier to put your feelings into something else. You can see your feelings more clearly, you can understand them. So that’s sort of what I did: I used it as a job but also as a kind of therapy for myself.
So I’m writing things like “Business” and this character is the kind of guy who is always being optimistic, always trying to do new stuff – better stuff – but basically always feels like he fails. And I thought, “Well, I identify with this.” People see me as this successful rock star or whatever but we all have these inner conflicts and doubts. And I have a lot of them. So I started to explore them all over again through this medium and found that I was writing and creating and enjoying it.
Because I had a difficult time. During this process, something else horrible happened: I lost [my drummer] Cozy Powell. Cozy had become my wonderful confidant and colleague. He was a person who believed in me when I sometimes didn’t and always had a great attitude – a great kind of optimism. So losing Cozy was a massive blow in the middle of this process. I then had to kind of find my way out of that as well.
So, in a sense, the second solo album is a bit like the first one: I’m battling these feelings of darkness and always looking for the beams of light. And so that’s what you hear on this album I think. I think you hear the full spectrum of optimism and pessimism from an evolving artist.
You mention trying to find those beams of light. And when I listened to “Business” this morning in particular, there is that element of optimism there. That song also encapsulates Cozy’s playing. How important is it to you to have some semblance of optimism shine through?
May: It’s essential. Because people say, “Oh, pain is good for creation.” But if you’re in real pain, if you’re really depressed, you can’t create. You’re not functional. So you have to find these optimistic triggers in order to be functional and in order to create. I guess that’s the lot of an artist: you have to see the light in the shade the whole time. And, in a sense, you have no choice – because it’s there anyway. But acknowledging that, and trying to make sense of that, is where the creative process comes in I suppose.
It was interesting for me re-exploring that this time. Because my life is always in turmoil. I’m that kind of person really – I’m a depressive. I’ve learned to accept that. So re-exploring this album for me was like going back into all of that and reevaluating. It feels very fresh to me. It feels like I’m still in this album in a sense. So, for me, it makes sense to be putting it out now.
Especially in this time of strife in the world. I feel like the world is falling to pieces – not just my world but the world. So it’s made a lot of sense to me to go back into this album and put it out there again and communicate it to a new audience.
You mentioned the idea of wanting to pay tribute to some of the artists that you grew up listening to. When I spoke to Ringo Starr and Tom Jones they both mentioned the impact of pirate radio in terms of discovering new American artists. And I found that fascinating. Growing up in England, did pirate radio expose you to some of the artists you went on to pay tribute to on the Another World album?
May: Yeah. It was a massive thing with us. It’s a very strange thing. I guess it’s part of the rebellion thing of rock and roll or whatever. But the BBC, bless them, have always been a very straight organization. And they didn’t take to the new music and they didn’t promulgate it. So, in order to hear stuff that was going on, you had to listen to other radio channels. Number one was Radio Luxembourg. Because they transmitted outside the U.K., they could do what they wanted. Then came all of these other radio stations who just parked on boats outside the jurisdiction of the U.K. and started transmitting. So you had Radio London and Radio Caroline and all of these things.
So, yeah. Me, and every other kid, started listening to all of this stuff. Because that was our channel of hearing what was going on. This was where I heard Little Richard. This was where I heard Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, Rick Nelson, Gary U.S. Bonds.
I remember seeing Gary U.S. Bonds at #1 and thinking, “What the hell is that?” And a couple of weeks later, it would be on these pirate radio stations and we’d get to hear it. The track was “Quarter to Three.” Which was revolutionary in that time! And Little Richard! Hearing Little Richard? The BBC would never play that in those days. Somebody screaming their head off?
It was just so revolutionary and it touched a chord in us. Because that was the stuff that was waiting to get out from us as kids rebelling against the very kind of staid society that we grew up in.
Something that’s defined you musically is kind of that idea of pushing forward – particularly in your solo work. But these reissues require looking back in some depth – especially in putting together the rarities set and stuff that you have. What did you learn during that process?
May: The outtakes tell more than the record to me I suppose. Especially because I can hear myself talking at the time [in the studio] and all that sort of stuff. I didn’t put that on the CD.
Some of it wasn’t finished. So I finished it. There’s actually a few new bits of vocal. Not many – you’ll probably spot where they are. And there’s a few new bits of guitar. Because there were sort of unfinished fragments. And I wanted people to hear it in a form that made sense.
But it’s taught me that I shouldn’t have stopped making solo albums. I kind of diverted and didn’t do that after a while. And I think that it’s taught me that I should get back to doing that. Because it’s such a direct means of expression.
It’s taught me that I never grow up. And there’s no danger of me ever growing up. Because the same stuff that I was facing in those days, I’m facing today. All of that stuff, which is the pain of life or whatever, is still there. And, as you get older, there’s different stuff getting added in – like losing friends. You get to the age of nearly 75 like I am and you’ve lost a lot of dear friends and you’ve had to go through that process many times.
The most recent one is Taylor Hawkins – which I cannot get into my head. I cannot speak of this boy in the past tense. It’s driving me nuts. I feel so sad and so kind of angry about it, you know? He shouldn’t have gone. That’s all wrong. He should be still here – with his lovely, positive, sunshine kind of presence. It’s so sad. I feel for his family – and the band too having been through that.
But life is full of that stuff. I think a good part of what music is about is us dealing with the sh-t in our lives isn’t it? It’s a way of processing and it’s a way of not feeling alone. It’s a way of getting your feelings out there and not feeling guilty about the feelings that you have.
I think music is a lot like that. And you look back to the birth of rock music… rock music is better at that stuff than any other musical form I believe. I love all kinds of music. But rock has the ability to dig right into your soul and put it out there and communicate it with the people around you. And I think that’s a precious thing.
That was another fascinating timeline to look at. Taylor joined Foo Fighters officially in March of 1997 after leaving Alanis Morissette’s band and he’s on your album in June of ‘98. I’m guessing that had to be one of his first sessions like that outside Alanis or Foo Fighters?
May: Yeah. That’s right. We met him when he was playing with Alanis in London and became friends. Then we realized what incredibly massive fans they were. He and Pat Smear really were the two sort of super fans – and they knew more about us than we knew about us. And there’s been this kind of bond ever since.
Taylor ended up here – right here where I’m speaking to you is my little studio in the country – and Taylor came down here and thrashed in imitable fashion the track that I was working on, “Cyborg.” It was amazing. In fact, he and Dave [Grohl] came back a little later on and we did that Pink Floyd track “Have a Cigar.”
So Taylor has been around here a fair bit. He will be sadly missed.
“All the Way From Memphis” features Ian Hunter. And I know an early experience for Queen was opening for Mott the Hoople [in 1973]. What do you remember about those shows and, especially that early on, as you guys were still forging your own identity, what was it like watching Mott the Hoople on a nightly basis?
May: It was like a tutorial, really, in how to be rock stars.
We really were just kids. And we were very tied to home. We had done some recording, which was great. And we had played some local shows. But we had not been a touring band. And it was a rapid learning experience. We had a lot to offer I think. But to actually be a rock band is something that you can’t explain.
I remember, we would go on and open up for them every night – and we did well. People liked it. But Mott the Hoople would hit the stage and the whole place was like a volcano – it would just erupt. They just had their fingers on all of the touch points of the audience. And it was a wonderful thing to experience, to watch them. They were one of the great rock acts of the time. Ian Hunter was a great frontman.
It’s hard to kind of pin down what Ian is. He’s one of those grand old men of rock. He has touches of… I see John Lennon in him. And I see Noddy Holder in him. But Ian Hunter is a one off – as a writer and a performer. And he was the icon for that band – even though they were a kind of democratic unit. I was very conscious in those days that Freddie was going to be our icon and we should treat him as such. I always tell people this: it was my idea, and I actually did it, to put him on the front of the first Queen album with a spotlight – because he was going to be the figurehead, the prow of our ship. And I cut that out and stuck it on bits of cardboard to make that album cover.
But to see so many things. They knew how to work. They knew how to play. And they knew how to separate the two things – they worked hard and they played hard. And it was nuts. I mean, it really was. It was a wonderful experience. Rock and roll was a bit more free than it’s able to be in these days.
It was different. In so many ways. When you were out on tour, you were in a separate world. It was a different world altogether. We couldn’t phone home. We couldn’t afford to phone home! And there was no mobile phones. So you lived your life in that kind of bubble on the road – and it really was a bubble. And it was exciting. And terrifying. And endlessly surprising – in every way you can imagine.
So we grew up on the road with Mott the Hoople and learned how to be what we were going to be as time took hold of us.
When I listened to the Another World reissue today, something that really struck me was you growing as a singer. You got to see Ian Hunter every night on that tour. You worked with Freddie for so long. What did you learn about that process of taking over the lead vocal? Not even so much on stage but on record, where it’s putting you under a microscope in a way you hadn’t been previously?
May: Yeah, it was a big deal for me. And I was conscious that I had to get something out of myself that hadn’t been gotten out before. Making records is all about vocals for me. It’s always been that way. I’m a guitar player and a producer and a writer – but the song is about the singer before anything else. And I’ve always loved working with singers. And now I was working with myself – trying to get the same stuff out of myself. And it was difficult. So I treated it like a fitness program I suppose. I would come in and make sure I sang something every day. And I would push myself in terms of range and power and see what expression I could get. I would listen to it and compare and see if I was improving or going the wrong way.
On tour it was much harder. I don’t think I would want to push myself out on tour as a singer again. Because I enjoy myself much too much as a guitar player. As soon as I was back in a situation where I was playing with a singer, I just felt relaxed again. And felt that I could give the best that I could. I can sing a bit… But I am a guitar player. And the guitar is my voice. So it makes sense.
And, really, that’s why I stopped making solo albums. Because I came to this conclusion that I ought to be a guitarist – a writer, a producer and a guitar player. And what I liked was working with singers.
I went out and I did a lot of stuff with Kerry Ellis, my lady singer here. And that was great for me. Then of course, Paul Rodgers comes along later. Which was a joy. Because Paul Rodgers is a big hero of ours. So there I am playing [Free’s] “All Right Now” with Paul Rodgers! What more could a boy ask for? It’s great. It gives you such freedom. And such a feeling of power. I had a great time with Paul.
And now we have Adam. And, again, you give Adam the job and there’s nothing that guy can’t do. He can handle all the old Queen catalog. And not imitating Freddie – doing his own thing. So I can be a guitar player again. I like it!
Your band has the rare luxury now of appealing to three different generations of fans. In the 90s a new generation was exposed to Queen via the Wayne’s World movie. And it happened again recently thanks to the Bohemian Rhapsody film. What’s it like seeing that play out in front of you from the stage each night?
May: It’s incredible. It keeps us alive. It keeps us young. Because our audience is all ages, yeah. All kinds. All colors, all sizes, all shapes. And it’s wonderful to know that we can connect the generations and every race on earth. Which is amazing for us. It’s a dream come true.
That’s what you dream when you start off as a musician and as a rock band. You just want to be able to get to the whole world and connect with the whole world. And I believe we have.
So waking up every morning to that is something which counteracts any kind of negativity which I have in me.