ULTIMATE CLASSIC ROCK
24 October 2013 by Annie Zaleski
Many artists claim to possess multiple talents, but it’s not a stretch to say that Queen guitarist Brian May comes closest to actually being a Renaissance Man. Besides being an influential musician, Dr. May — he’s an astrophysicist who finished his Ph.D. in 2007 — is also an expert in stereo photography, as evidenced by a new book he’s co-authored, ‘Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures In Hell.’The gorgeous, meticulously researched book examines the societal, political and cultural origins of stereo cards (the “Diableries” of the title), the era of French history in which they were created and the artists behind these often macabre works of art. May even designed a stereoscope that’s packaged with the book, so readers can see the photos and their devilish scenes in 3D.
In addition to this work, May came to the U.S. for the North American kickoff of the Queen musical ‘We Will Rock You.’ After a decade-plus run in London, the show — which features 24 of Queen’s biggest hits — opened in Baltimore last week and is currently touring the U.S. In addition to that, May and musical-theater star Kerry Ellis recently released a tune called ‘Nothing Really Has Changed’ (a cover of a song by animal-rights champion Virginia McKenna) in support of a U.K. campaign to have badgers vaccinated instead of being killed.
Last week, May chatted with Ultimate Classic Rock about the ‘Diableries’ book, ‘We Will Rock You’ coming to North America and working with Adam Lambert in Queen.
So, I listened to your recent NPR interview and I believe it said that the book was 25 years in the making. Is that correct?
Well, it’s hard to figure. It actually goes like about 40 years with me. There’s things in there which I’ve been wanting to write and communicate for about 40 years, which is a long time really. But we as a team, the three of us, spent six years actually making the book.
What made it so time-intensive to put together?
Well, part of it’s the research, because it’s a very obscure place to find. It shouldn’t be, because it’s the 1860s in France, which is not that long ago. But it’s a period which is never taught in history books, a period of Napoleon III. So even if you’re a Frenchman, you’re liable not to know much about that period. There’s another couple of things — No. 2, you’ve got to find the whole series of Diableries, and that’s pretty difficult. That’s probably what took me the 40 years. We’re still missing two out of about 180, which we know the titles of, but we’ve never actually seen.
Then the other thing is restoring the things — you find them if you’re lucky, but usually they’re in quite bad condition. By their very nature, they’ve been scratched and torn and faded and people have spilled their food on them, you know? Plus, the process even in the original case wasn’t very perfect — you’re talking about quite early photography here. So I generally spent … well, I could spend anything up to a month restoring just one of those images in Photoshop, so it’s a virtual restoration. So you can imagine [that] there’s 180 of them, so it’s quite a big task.
Plus, we were trying to illustrate them the way they look when they’re lit from the front and also when they’re lit from the back. They’re very cleverly designed so that when they’re lit from the back, all of the colors come out and their eyes glow in an eerie red glow. So we’re trying to capture all that and put it in the book and [also] research them. I guess the great thing is to actually see them. We wanted people to experience them just the way that their audience would have done in the 1860s.
Forty years ago, what drew you originally to this field and these photos? What was really the appeal to you?
Well, first of all it’s stereoscopic, and even as a kid, I was just entranced by the magic that happens when you put two flat images together in some way and instead of looking at an image, you feel like you’re looking through a window — you could walk through it and touch people and talk to people and that just completely seemed like magic to me. So from that point on, I could never understand why the whole world wasn’t just doing 3D photography the whole time instead of doing flat photography. Now as you know recently from ‘Avatar’ onwards, we all know what really good 3D is like, as we’ve seen it in the cinema.
But the Victorian version is actually a more perfect way of seeing 3D, and that’s what I’m channeling in the book. I had to design my own viewer to go with it, so when you buy this book, you get the viewer, it’s called an OWL, and it’s my own design based on a Victorian [Brewster] 3D viewer. Reading the book is one thing and seeing the pictures is great, but once you start viewing them with the OWL stereoscopic viewer, you really are walking into this little world of devils, skeletons and strangeness in hell as it was seen in the 1860s.
It really struck me how modern the themes are. You would never guess that they’d be 150 years old. It was very timeless.
That’s right. Yeah, they wrestled with the same things as we do. They’re very similar to us, the people who do this. They were actually worried about hell. The church was hitting them very hard and telling them if they weren’t good boys and girls, this is what would happen to them. They’d go to hell and they’d be boiled in pots. So that’s where the thing starts, it’s like portraying what the church would have been telling people anyway, but then they seem to have had a kind of glint in their eye, these sculptors and photographers, and what they made was a world which is populated by skeletons, which represent our living souls.
But actually, they’re having some fun — they’re doing lots of strange anarchic things to each other and to all of the people that they can drag into hell. So it becomes funny and it also has a very strong undertone of satire, because they started portraying Napoleon III basically as the devil. So in a very subtle way, they were attacking the regime, which was very illegal at the time, you could certainly get put in prison for that — and some of them did spend some time in prison.
The idea of this parallel universe, these multi-layer universes, was kind of a common theme of the musical as well. I thought that was very interesting. Was that a conscious thing?
Well, that came up because of [author] Ben [Elton], really. It’s Ben’s brainwaves that puts us in the future with ‘We Will Rock You’ and yes, something like a parallel universe, but it becomes more and more like the real world every day, it seems to me, in a strange way. Because we become more and more saturated with marketing and spin and Internet, and it becomes actually harder and hard to be an individual and not get sucked into the sort of social media. So it’s very up-to-date, the theme of ‘We Will Rock You.’
What is the most gratifying thing for you, seeing how Queen’s songs have kind of evolved and changed and fit into the context of the play and musical?
Well, it’s our baby, so we not only created it, but we also constantly shepherd it. Ben’s been here for a month working on the all-American version of ‘We Will Rock You.’ Roger [Taylor] and I came in just a couple of days before the opening. But basically, we talked the whole time and the musical is very much not something set in stone. It’s not a rubber-stamp thing. It’s something which evolves in time and it also changes according to where it is in the world. So in the States, it has a slightly different slant — it’s about the history of rock ‘n’ roll and the future of rock ‘n’ roll in the hands of the kids, but from a slightly different viewpoint. I think Ben’s done a very good job of transforming it.
What is the different viewpoint then? What are the major differences that you could pinpoint?
Well, this is a pretty big rewrite, actually, and Ben’s changed some of the storylines. He’s also coalesced two characters into one, which really helps the story along actually. But also the characters — all of the characters are based on historical characters of one kind or another, and these kids in the future don’t quite understand what they’re talking about. That’s the whole deal, you know, they’re looking for rock ‘n’ roll and they have their heroes. Like they’ve heard the name Elvis [Presley], but they have no idea who the guy is or what the music was. So they’re looking for something like a needle in a haystack, but they don’t know what they’re looking for. So all of the characters in England, they’re based on historical British characters mainly.
But over here, they’re based on historical American characters on the whole. Of course, rock music does and always has transcended the barriers of geography. So we have a lot of our history in common—we have Elvis, we had the Beatles [and] hopefully we have Queen, you know? It’s all woven rather neatly into a story which leads into the future. These kids are thinking, “What was that? How can we find it? How can we find ourselves? How can we find our individuality?” Rock ‘n’ roll was supposedly all about individuality — how do we find that? It’s a fascinating journey that they go on.
Having seen some British theater over there, and [then when compared to] American theater, the mindset can be very different, the humor can be very different and the approach can be very different. I could totally see how [‘We Will Rock You’] might evolve.
It’s strange, because obviously the show’s been running for 11 years in the Dominion [Theatre] in London, and the reason it keeps going is because people keep coming back and a lot of them are Americans. So you know, I think we’re not saying that Americans don’t get it in the English form, it’s just that we feel that we want to present the all-American version, because it will resonate. It’s been a dream of all of us for quite a while now — well, since we started. You know, “Wouldn’t it be nice to take this back to what’s basically the home of rock ‘n’ roll?” And it’s the place where Queen grew up as well.
Well, that’s what I was going to say — it’s probably very poignant to come to America where you guys were so popular and having this musical of these beloved songs. That’s very cool.
It’s great. I was very emotional, actually, in Baltimore the night before last, because it did come home and every single laugh was there. You know, it’s a very funny piece — Ben does a great job with the humor and the audience were willing to laugh. Sometimes you see an audience that they sit there and they’re thinking, “Well go on, make us laugh,” you know, but the audience were in it from the start and there were lots of waves of laughter going around the theater. And then once the music started to kick in, they were into it as well, and they were very vocal. This is a show that encourages people to shed their inhibitions and join in. So by the end it was totally rockin’ and nobody was sitting in their seats.
Is it different for you playing the songs in that context, [as opposed to playing them in a] band context?
Well, it’s something we got used to. You know, we had a long learning curve to transform rock into a new medium. When we started 11 years ago, it was really quite a new thing. Nobody had really done it successfully. I guess we asked a lot of our performers, but [also] because of that, the script has to hold up and the arrangements have to hold up. But the people we take on are great actors and great singers and some of them have to dance too, so you’re already asking a lot. But what we ask of them is that they become real rock stars — not a pretend rock star. You know, they’re not acting up there — they’re actually doing it by then. So that’s a big ask and it needs a lot of input from us, which hopefully they get.
I love your work with Adam Lambert. I’m a big fan of his, and I’m so impressed by his vocal abilities and talent — he’s such a charismatic singer. Can we expect any more touring next year with him?
I would love it to happen. Since we did the iHeartRadio Festival, there’s been a lot of talk and yes, we’re looking at it to see what we could do. I don’t think we want to press the button to do nine months on the road like we used to do, because we did that for so many years, but I think a few choice dates could be great. We’re looking at it, and I certainly hope that we’d be able to come up with a scheme that works. Yeah, we love Adam, we really do. Like you say, he’s the whole deal — he’s an extraordinary singer with an extraordinary instrument. He’s an entertainer, he’s original and he’s a nice guy. That’s very important these days. If you’re going to work with someone, you’ve got to enjoy them as a person and we certainly do.
So what else are you working on, either musically or scientifically at the moment?
Well, I kind of never really sleep, really. I’m working on a number of things and it’s even doing my head in, I have to say. I have a lot of passions — one of them is stereoscopy, which we’ve talked about. I am an astronomer as you probably know — I’m a Doctor of Astrophysics now, so I’m doing a little bit of research in the background with Imperial College. But that doesn’t take up a lot of my time. What really takes up my time is being an animal advocate, which I’ve now taken on and basically we are trying to stop the government from taking us back into the Middle Ages in Britain.
You know, we have a government which is largely made up of fox hunters — people who want to bring back all of those blood sports. And at the moment, they’re killing thousands of badgers in a vain attempt to cure Bovine TB, which really they’ve been warned by every scientist in the field, will not work. So it’s brutal times, in my opinion, and we’ve been fighting, me and a few other people, we’re kind of David against a Goliath. But we maintain that wild animals have a value as every animal on the planet does, and they’re not just to be wiped out because we can’t solve a farming problem.
To wrap up: In the NPR interview, you talked about how the scientific background informed some of the recording you guys did. How else has your background informed your musicianship and the way you approach making music?
That’s a big question! I guess I have so many dimensions in my head that I have no choice but to try and make sense of it all and try and bring it all together in my head. I don’t find any conflict between being an artist and a scientist. I guess I have a Victorian brain in that sense. I’m a Renaissance person, because I think … being aware of science is a help in being an artist, just in the way that you think. It’s sometimes not very obvious, but synthesis and analysis apply to both, but in different ways.
So they both involve being very aware of the world and having a mission. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but in my strange fevered brain, it makes some kind of sense. To me all of it is less important than being a human being and being a decent human being and trying to make the best of this planet as we find it.