We all have listened to their tunes, Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the champions and We will rock you (to mention only the most famous titles). But what do you really know about the persons behind the group Queen? I’ll admit it, I didn’t know anything.
Of course playing in one of the most famous Rock groups in the world is time consuming : composing, recording, performing at concerts… this would be enough for most.
But did you know that Brian May, the lead guitarist, also is an astrophysicist? For his last birthday, I offered my partner tickets for the Queen + Adam Lambert concert. We happily went and enjoyed the show. While waiting to enter the concert hall, my partner mentioned this info about Brian May. It obviously intrigued me and I dug a little deeper.
Two passions, one life
Let’s start at the beginning. Born in 1947 in England, Brian May always was fascinated by two subjects : music and astronomy. As he confided during an interview to the Los Angeles Times, “The two worked concurrently from the beginning, from the first time I saw Sir Patrick Moore [who has for 50 years hosted “The Sky at Night,” one of the longest-running television shows in history]. I used to plead with my parents to be allowed to stay up and see it. […] This wonderful music would come on, and you’d have these glimpses of the cosmos. I was completely enthralled by the whole thing. I wanted to be a musician and astronomer at the same time.”
May started playing music at the age of 7. He first learned ukulélé then guitar and classical piano. His passion for music led him to start several bands, the last one having the success we know. But as a typical Renaissance man, he did not only play music. During his teenage years, largely because he could not afford to buy a high quality electric guitar, and partly because he enjoyed a challenge, he decided to build his own with the help of his father. He designed an instrument from scratch, with the intention that it would have a capability beyond anything that was out there. The result, after two years of spare-time work, is now known as the “Red Special” and plays a great part in the specific sound and musical identity of Queen’s music.
Brian went to London’s Imperial College to study Physics in 1968. At the same time he formed the band ‘Smile’ that soon became Queen. Considering the success of the group he put his academic studies on hold in 1974 and over the following four decades most of his time was obviously dedicated to music.
Apart from playing the guitar, he occasionally played the piano, did the back vocals and wrote and composed many of the hit singles. This includes “We Will Rock You” in which he has used his science knowledge to figure out the ‘Stomp-Stomp-Clap’ Section. As he confided to NPR, “being a physicist, I said, ‘Suppose there were 1,000 people doing this; what would be happening?’ And I thought, ‘Well, you would be hearing them stamping. You would also be hearing a little bit of an effect, which is due to the distance that they are from you.’ So I put lots of individual repeats on them. […] So there’s no echo on it whatsoever, but the clapped sound — they spread around the stereo, but they also kind of spread from a distance from you — so you just feel like you’re in the middle of a large number of people stamping and clapping.”
With the drummer Roger Taylor, Brian May is the last original member of the group. From 1983, he started working on side musical projects, and has released 2 solo albums. He also wrote and produced music for theater and movies. Really busy little Brian.
All the while, Brian retained his love of astronomy, and appeared regularly on Patrick Moore’s TV programme ‘Sky at Night’. Following published interviews in which he talked about wanting to complete his PhD, he was contacted by the Head of Astrophysics at Imperial and re-registered for his PhD. And a little more than a year later he submitted it. You can now call him Dr Brian May.
His thesis is available as a book A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, if you’re interested. And as he told the LA Times getting his degree “could have been an end, but it’s been a beginning, because I’m now in touch with every astronomer who’s into research on interplanetary dust.”
To give you an idea of how implicated he is in the area, here are a few of his accomplishments. In 2006, he published an illustrated astrophysics book with Dr Chris Lintott, Bang!: The Complete History of the Universe. And another book The Cosmic Tourist: The 100 Most Awe-inspiring Destinations in the Universe was published in 2012. He was appointed a Visiting Researcher at Imperial College, London in 2007 and from 2007 till 2013, May was also appointed Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.
Asked about travelling between these two different communities, the rock world and the scientific establishment, he said “It’s fascinating for me to be able to walk into two rooms the same day, one filled with astronomers and one filled with musicians. I try and bring a little bit of each to the other, which can be good and can be dangerous.”
And several other pursuits
Although Brian May is interesting because he is navigating between music and astrophysics, he also has had many other pursuits throughout the years.
As many stars he is involved in charities. He supports many causes and has started his own. When in 1991, Freddie Mercury died, May and the other members of Queen set up a charity to support AIDS relief, the Mercury Phoenix Trust (to date, it has channelled over 15 million$ to projects all over the world). Also in 2010, May set up the charity ‘Save-Me‘, which is dedicated to stopping cruelty against animals including fox hunting and abuse of badgers.
But beyond that, May has had a lifelong passion for stereoscopic, or 3D photographs. He told NPR that while traveling the world with Queen, he would often stop in antique stores on the road to look for stereoscopic photographs. This interest led to the publication of several books. More information on this and all matters stereoscopic are available at Brian’s dedicated website www.londonstereo.com.