By Patrick Prince
The beginning of the ’90s proved to be a challenging time for guitarist Brian May, both personally and professionally. In 1991, he had lost his father and his longtime friend and bandmate, Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury. The future of the band Queen was undoubtedly in question. And to make matters worse, the repercussions from the dissolution of May’s first marriage only added to his ongoing struggle with depression.
Mercury had given his blessing for May to venture into a solo career, so the guitarist turned to songwriting to cope with the many complicated emotions inside him. It was in this time of turmoil that his creativity helped produce his debut solo album, Back to the Light.
May called on musicians such as his close friend and drummer Cozy Powell, bassist Neil Murray and Queen bassist John Deacon to join him in the studio. May took over the vocal duties. And upon release of the solo album in September 1992, the public embraced it. Back to the Light reached No. 6 on the U.K. album charts, and it produced solid-sounding singles like “Driven By You” and “Resurrection.” It was May’s only non-Queen release since 1983’s Star Fleet Project EP, which included guitarist Eddie Van Halen and drummer Alan Gratzer of REO Speedwagon.
Almost 30 years later, May has decided to reissue Back to the Light with unreleased tracks and live performances. The extras make this reissue an even better release than the original; whether it’s the sonic live rendition of Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down” (accompanied by guitar hero Slash) performed on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno or the instrumental alternates of songs, which emphasize May’s brilliant musicianship and unique guitar sound.
Recently, Brian May, the iconic guitarist (and astrophysicist), took time out of his busy day to talk to Goldmine about the reissue of Back to the Light.
GOLDMINE: The idea for reissuing your debut solo album, Back to the Light — was this something that was in the back of your mind for some time, thinking about rereleasing and remastering this particular solo album?
BRIAN MAY: Well, yeah, I guess so. Lockdown was very weird, if you want to start there. You know, suddenly, I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t even get into the studio. I couldn’t do anything proper. We obviously couldn’t go on tour. So what do I do? I’m a performer. I went on Instagram and started doing my little micro-concerts, which worked out really good for me, because people started joining in and returning duets and singing. So that was good. But then I had a lot of time to think, obviously, and there’s a thing called stories on Instagram, where you can put a little clip up and you can put any music you like on it. You go through their little library and you can pick out anything from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. And I thought I should put my own music on this. But there wasn’t anything from the Brian May solo career except one track, which happens to be on Queen’s Greatest Hits III, which is “Driven By You.” I thought this really is not good. I started to look at it and I discovered that I hadn’t really noticed but none of my material had been available for 20 years or so. None of it had ever been streamed or downloaded or whatever. I just thought, I believe in that stuff, it’s a big part of my life, why don’t I make sure that it is out there. And if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it properly. We’ll remaster it, we’ll make it all beautiful. And I also decided I was going to do it piece by piece. I wasn’t going to do a vast collection and chuck it out there. Because it was too difficult for me. But partly because I think it’s difficult to digest for the people who are buying.
There will be a package for Another World, which is the second solo album, and there’ll be a package for the Star Fleet Project, which I did, actually earlier than that. Then there will be packages for all the collaborations that I’ve done. I’ve done tributes to people and whatever. I’m going to just do it as it comes. It’s called a “Gold Series.” And it’s going to be as long as a piece of string, it will be as long as I keep finding stuff. I’m going to keep polishing them and making them as beautiful as I can and placing them before the public for their digestion.
And, spiritually, I feel like Back to the Light is a new album for me. It’s very odd and it’s not what I expected. I thought I was sort of dealing with a catalog and my past self, and I thought, “How much do I relate?” Because I’m a mature person now. I’m older and wiser, right? So how does this relate? Well, I went back in there, got immersed and … it’s me. I discovered it’s exactly me. I didn’t change inside. Those dreams, those passions, that pain, that yearning, it’s all in there. So if I was going to make an album right now, it would probably be pretty much the way this is told. But I don’t have (drummer) Cozy Powell now. Those days I had Cozy, who was the most massive inspiration.
GM: He was an underrated musician. He should have been recognized more for his talent. How did you meet him? You became pretty close.
BM: Yeah, I met him pretty early on … you kind of meet someone and say hi and whatever. First time I ever talked to him properly was when he came backstage. We were playing Hyde Park. I think it was the 1976 outdoor concert in Hyde Park. And he came backstage just as a visitor and as a friend. And we got talking and I was a little nervous because I think I regarded Cozy as part of a heavier kind of genre than where I came, perhaps the genre that I would like to be in, in a sense. You know, he was very much from that sort of Rainbow and Deep Purple and the heavy metal edge of things. Anyway, we had this conversation and he told me how much he admired what I did. He said, “I would love to work with you, at any time you want something done, Brian. Every time you want some drumming, call me on the phone, call me and we’ll do stuff.” The friendship kind of developed from there.
So we got together, and we got to know each other really well. Then, when I started to make the solo stuff, I called him. You know, I wasn’t in a good state. I wasn’t like, “Hey, I’m doing a solo album. This is great.” I was depressed. And there was only certain days of the week that I could get into my tiny little studio and do stuff. And I did it all myself. I started programming drums and stuff. Kind of doing it in all the wrong way, doing it in a very insular way. So one day I called Cozy and I said, “If you’re up for doing something, you want to come over and see what you think of what I’m doing.” He came over like a hurricane. “Listen to this,” obviously. “That’s amazing. That’s great. Put me down there, boy. What I’m going to do is ideal. I’ll give you everything I got. It’ll be hooligan, it’ll be amazing.” And he had this fountain of energy, which swept into what I was doing. And from that point on, I was making a solo album and I believed I could do it. I believed I could make something that was special on my own without this vast edifice of Queen, which was actually crumbling at the time.
GM: And this was when the idea for a solo album really, should I say, switched into high gear, especially with your song “Driven By You” as a song for a television car commercial. How did the commercial come to be? How did that happen?
BM: It is a funny story. I was with the woman, who I was later going to marry in Los Angeles, kind of illicitly because we were working, but we were also falling in love. And it’s one of those situations, which is wonderful and terrible, because it was a disastrous (period) for me, and that’s kind of what led me into depression.
Anyway, we’re sitting around a swimming pool and next to us is a couple. And the guy who spoke to me first was Peter Harrison, who was the head of a PR company, working for the Ford Motor Company. And we’re all drinking and he goes, “Oh, you’ve written these amazing songs. You’ve never done an ad. Would you like to do an advert?” And I went, “Well, I don’t know, really. I don’t usually make music for money. I just make it because I feel it.” And he said, “Well, what if I give you an inspiration? What if I tell you our slogan is ‘Everything we do is driven by you.’” And I could hear it in my head. As soon as I hear that, I thought, yeah, I can hear ‘everything I do ...’ With my little tape recorder, which I always had on me at the time — these days we have iPhones — I stole into the bathroom and sang most of the song, because I could hear it in my head. And from that point, I had the song. I laid it all down very quickly, sang it, did a rough mix, sent it to the PR company for Ford, and they all loved it. They put it out, it was a hit. Now, hit is a very big word. I mean, a hit is like, we have this expression that a hit is a hit is a hit. And you know, no matter where it comes from, no matter what it is, a hit is something so powerful, because you are then sewing yourself into the fabric of people’s lives. So as soon as something is a hit, people will forever be triggered by that sound. So the fact that “Driven By You” was a hit — not just in Britain either — was an amazing trigger for me. I suddenly thought, I can do this. I can actually make music on my own.
GM: Well, when the lyrics were changed (for the album), it’s a better song. Lyrics about the commitment of love make it a better song.
BM: Yeah, I wrote the two at the same time. I immediately heard it both ways as well. This is good for emotion. It’s also good for relationship stuff. And this is what I write about. So, yeah, they were both written at the same time, and it all made sense in some kind of twisted way to me.
GM: Also, you said that Freddie Mercury gave his blessing for the solo track.
BM: It was very unexpected, because I was feeling a little uncomfortable and worried. Because we know that Fred is in trouble; we don’t know how long he has left. And it’s obviously threatening our future. And in every way the “Driven By You” thing didn’t come out of anything to do with that. It just came from left field. Nevertheless, I’m sitting on a record, which I’m thinking of putting out as a solo artist. And Queen is perhaps on the verge of crumbling, and Freddie’s perhaps on the verge of not being able to carry on at all. With this in mind, I played it to Freddie. I also thought, you know, maybe it’s a Queen song. That’s the way I thought, anyway. A lot of songs I wrote, which were very personal at the time, became Queen songs, like “Headlong.” A lot of songs which could easily have been my solo tracks became Queen material. So I played it to him and said, “What do you think?” He said, “I think it’s great. It’s full of energy. It is amazing.” And I said, “Do you think it should be a Queen song? Do you want to sing it?” He went, “Darling, you sing it just beautifully. You don’t need me to sing it. You should go for it.” And then he took the conversation to a different place, which I wasn’t going to do. And he said, “Look, I know you’re feeling uncomfortable. I know you’re worried about this because you know the situation I’m in. You shouldn’t. Don’t feel this at all. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know that we don’t know how long I have, or the group has. What you should be doing is thinking about a solo career. So don’t feel in any way inhibited. Put it out, enjoy it and start off your solo journey in this way. That’s what you should be doing.” So it was kind of like a blessing and as soon as I walked out the room, I thought, “Wow, that’s not what I expected.” But it was very typical of Freddie, who was very generous and very unselfconscious. I never heard that man complain about being sick and his life being taken away from him by this awful disease. So, yeah, that kind of gave me the power to get out there.
GM: The album title Back to the Light can be seen as a sort of metaphor: Coming out of a dark period in your life, a period of mourning, and then pushing forward, moving on with your life to a period of feeling better, “back to the light.”Because the album was released less than a year after Freddie’s death, and with you having other personal stuff going on in your own life, as you pointed out. A lot of the songs, like “Resurrection,” represent a troubling present and having this sense of hope for the future.
BM: It’s an old-school album. It’s the kind of album that you’re supposed to put on and listen to all the way through and feel the journey. And you feel that’s what it is. And I’m hoping that we can sort of resurrect that with the new generation, because it’s very fulfilling for me. I still do it. I still take an evening off sometimes and just put on one of my favorite albums. And do that just to go on the journey. I love that. So that’s what this album is.
GM: In a sense, it served as a sort of therapy. Is it true that the original lyrics were changed in the song “Love Token”? They were actually more cutting?
BM: Yeah, I had a couple of swear words in there. And I have that version. Everyone said, “Oh, you got to put out the explicit version.” I had it on my list. But then they said, “Oh, you got to put a sticker on it (stating explicit lyrics), and certain people are not gonna play on that.” And I thought, you know what, I’m grown up enough not to need to do that now. It was too much trouble, basically. You can find it on the internet now, I’m sure.
GM: And John Deacon also plays on the album. He played (on) a few songs?
BM: The one track, just the one. It’s “Nothin’ But Blue,” which really is about Freddie. It is the only song on the album which really is about Freddie. Yeah, I got John to come in and he did a lovely job on it, as he always does. John’s a great player.
But it was the night before Freddie went, strange enough. I must have had some kind of feeling about it. Because I was thinking how am I going to feel when this happens? What is that going to feel like? So that’s what the song is about. And it’s strange enough. It’s not entirely black because I’m feeling his spirit fight through, which actually it has, you know, pretty much so with us. His legacy is very strong. But to lose him as a person was an awful thing and obviously remains an awful thing. Yeah, he should have been here, being an old man like me and still battling on.
GM: There’s a song about skiffle on the album, too: “Let Your Heart Rule Your Head.”
BM: I wrote this song. Inspired by working with Lonnie Donegan. Lonnie was a hero of mine and of all kids of my age, because skiffle was a big, big deal when we were growing up. Suddenly, any kid could pick up a guitar and a washboard and get together and play this kind of very elemental music. Skiffle’s kind of based on the blues, kind of based on the beginnings of rock and roll, I suppose, but it was a genre all of its own, and a lot of humor in it. And Lonnie Donegan was its greatest exponent, without a doubt. His biggest influence was Lead Belly. Just a pretty serious influence. I would say he’s the first person to bring blues to England, in his own way. He’s better known in the States for “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Over Night?)” That was his only hit in the States, which is a real shame, because that’s a kind of novelty. It’s fun, whereas a lot of his skiffle was pretty hardcore in its way. He did “Rock Island Line,” which was actually the first record in my collection ever. My dad brought it home for me. I suppose there’s a serious bit of music, but just acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, elementary drum kit or a washboard and that’s it. So “Let Your Heart Rule Your Head” I wrote, actually, with Lonnie in mind, and I have some tapes of him singing it somewhere. But it was written kind of almost as a tribute to him, but in his style. And the funny thing is, we remained friends, but we never really got the recording stuff together. We just didn’t. Our ways of behaving in the studio were so different. It just didn’t quite work. So we never finished the track. And I just thought, well, I’m happy to just do it. And it remains a kind of tribute to Lonnie, but it’s all missing on that version.
GM: And there is also a song that is a tribute to the actor Philip Sayer: “Just One Life.” You claim you had never met him, but you were inspired by his talent.
BM: Yeah, this was an extraordinary moment for me. He was a friend of my wife, or the lady I was about to marry. And we went together to this tribute to him a few months after he died. And it was a tribute all done in readings, little pieces of drama, lots of music. And through it, they painted a picture of this guy who obviously was a wonderful actor and a wonderful human being. And I hadn’t met him. But I had this incredible picture of him painted in front of my eyes of what he must have been like. And I felt very inspired by it, I guess, partly because I’m thinking of this man’s life and how it influenced all his friends. Also, in a broader sense, I’m thinking about how we influence the people around us and what we leave behind. We’re so immersed in our lives and trying to sort out the problems, we need to step back and think what affect will our life have as a whole over our surroundings? So it was very inspiring. And again, I wrote it very quickly, because I could just hear it in my head. And I sent it to his mum, who was very moved and very happy that I done that. And thank you. Yeah, it’s an important part for me, because it’s a part of my journey as well as his now, even though I never met him.
GM: And another song ... I don’t know if it’s so much an influence, but Small Faces’ “Rollin’ Over.” Why that specific song? As an American, I’ve always loved Small Faces’ music, but I struggled at times with the British references. For instance, it wasn’t until years later that I even knew what the album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (1968) meant.
BM: It’s a very English thing. (Small Faces) were very kind of earthy, London boys. It’s nice because it was very homegrown and, obviously, (Steve) Marriott had an extraordinary, wonderful voice. He was influenced by the blues, but nevertheless, he sang in a London cockney accent, which most of the pop stars of the day didn’t; they were kind of trying to be Americans. So I loved the way he conducted himself, Steve Marriott. And I saw them very early on in their career, they were probably about 20 or 21 — still boys — but I was 20-21 and still at college during my doctorate and I saw them out in front of the (Royal) Albert Hall, on the steps of the Albert Hall, performing with very little gear, but it was great. And I thought, why am I still stuck in academia; this isn’t where I want to be. Why am I still doing this and they’re doing that? And this particular song I just love, really. I love that whole album (Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake). It is weird and wacky and very British, but also full of life and energy and humor. “Rollin’ Over” also has that kind of archetype (sound), which is kind of one of the pillars of rock, isn’t it? I just wanted to do it; it suits my guitar playing. I could put lots of guitar harmonies on it, and I could be completely irreverent because it’s not my song. Everything else on the album I wrote and had to be a bit careful with it. I don’t want to chuck it in the bin. But this one I could be just completely excessive on and I couldn’t go wrong. I could just be me. Very uninhibited. It was a tonic for me to play that song.
GM: While there are a lot of great extras on this reissue, the instrumentals give a nice alternate listening. Did you consider doing an instrumental album? A lot of guitarists do (instrumental albums), like (Joe) Satriani.
BM: I’ve always been obsessed with songs, and songs to me are about singers. And about the vocals. So, no, I didn’t want to make an instrumental album. It wasn’t what I wanted. And all I had was me. I didn’t have Freddie anymore. I didn’t have anybody else there. So I just pushed myself as hard as I could push myself when I would go in (the studio) day after day; try and exercise the voice like a muscle and sing harder and higher and with more depth and more passion. Just see what I could get out of my body. So. yeah, that was the fundamental thing. I did the instrumentals in five minutes later on.
GM: You have an unmistakable guitar sound. You could do an instrumental album like Satriani does.
BM: Maybe I should do. I don’t have the dazzling technical expertise of a Satriani or a Steve Vai or Al Di Meola or Eddie Van Halen. (But) I just might. My guitar is very much my voice. I can’t play faster than I can think.
GM: Another nice addition is the live version of “Tie Your Mother Down” from Jay Leno’s show. The track with Slash. Good choice for an extra.
BM: It was a great moment in time. It was only recorded on a stereo. I wasn’t able to remix it or anything. But in a way that’s nice. It’s exactly as it went out on the TV that night; very dangerous and without a net. Yeah, definitely without a safety net.
GM: Is this the first time Back to the Light is released on vinyl?
BM: No. It was originally on vinyl (released on Parlophone in the U.K.), but it hasn’t been available for probably 25 years, I think.
I’ve always been into vinyl, and every Queen album has been on vinyl — very often at my insistence — because I think vinyl is still magic. This comes out on vinyl and CD and cassette, which makes me very happy for people who still got cassette players. There’s a resurgence in cassettes.
GM: Limited-edition sets are big with fans, because, like vinyl, it’s the experience. It’s not like what happens with MP3s, where it’s very throwaway. With vinyl, you have it in your hands. It’s tangible. You have to interact with the turntable, put it on, sit down, listen. And the same goes for limited-edition sets that include all these extras, beyond the original pressing. So it’s something that the record companies have done right.
BM: Yeah, I love it. I love to hold it in my hands —the record — the feel of it, the smell of it. And the set, yeah. And it’s, you know, you have stuff you can read. It’s a good size to really have nice big pictures. And I was very conscious of that, making this reissue, it’s going to be something that you really can enjoy physically. But the sound — we went to a great amount of effort to make the sound on the highest quality vinyl. And there is something about listening to stuff on vinyl. You don’t get fatigued, you don’t get kind of to the point where you get jangled by it, it always kind of slipped into your body and in a harmonious way. I don’t know why that is. I can listen to vinyl all night. And it’s good for my soul. If I listened to the same stuff on CD, it doesn’t have the same effect.
GM: Now, do you ever think about recording another studio album?
BM: Yeah, I do think about it. And strangely enough, I think it probably would be instrumental this time. Because I have enough ideas. And I have lots of unfinished business. So, yeah, I do think about it. And maybe the opportunity is coming up. We have a big world of touring to do. And we’ve been postponing and postponing the Queen tour, which we started just before COVID happened. Next May we will be doing a bunch of touring. Once that’s done, I think I will have the opportunity to sit down, and if I’m spared, as my mum used to say, and I’m still functional, I think I might make that album. Probably not before. I don’t think I can do it right now. I’m too involved in the reissues. Actually, I’m loving this. I’m really enjoying going through and polishing. I have Another World to do next. I’m going to do Star Fleet, which is the one with Eddie Van Halen, after that. There’s a mountain of stuff that I want to polish up and put out there, so it’s there. It’s a good, good feeling to have it out there.
Order the vinyl edition of Back to the Light in the Goldmine Store.