Skip to main content

Queen's Brian May Rocks Out To Physics, Photography.

After writing "We Will Rock You" and touring around the world as the lead guitarist in Queen, Brian May made an unusual career choice: He got his Ph.D. in astrophysics. May explains how Queen developed its distinctive sound and explains his fascination with stereoscopic photographs taken in the 1850s.


Other segments from the episode on August 3, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 3, 2010: Interview with Brian May; Commentary on politicians' malapropisms.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Another One Bites the Dust")

QUEEN (Music Group): (Singing) Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust, and another one down...

GROSS: That's the band Queen. My guest, Brian May, is a founding member and the band's lead guitarist. In recent years, he's been concerned with a different kind of dust. Exactly three years ago today, he submitted his doctoral thesis in astrophysics on the subject "A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud." He is now Dr. May, and he's chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

But that's not the only twist in his career that would surprise Queen fans. Brian May has also co-written the new book "A Village Lost and Found" that features stereoscopic photos from the 1850s. The pictures were taken by T.R. Williams, one of the first stereo photographers, of the small English village he used to summer in. To see these very early photos in 3-D, you have to assemble and look through a viewer that Brian May designed, which comes with the book.

In May's life as a member of Queen, he's famous for his guitar solos and for writing one of the band's biggest hits, "We Will Rock You." The lead singer of the band, Freddie Mercury, died in 1991. Before we talk about Queen, we're going to hear about May's new book.

Brian May, what a pleasure to have you here. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

Dr. BRIAN MAY (Astrophysicist, Author, Musician): Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: You've been at work on this stereoscopic project on and off for about 25 years, and I'm wondering what hooked you on it. Was it the actual story of this village in the 1850s or the idea of the early stereoscopic photos?

Dr. MAY: It's the magic of stereo, I think, which became known as 3-D in the 1950s, but it goes right back to the very dawn of photography in the 1840s and in this case the 1850s, which is pretty close to the birth of photography itself.

Yeah, it's the magic of seeing two quite flat-looking pictures and then putting them in a viewer, or not as the case may be, if you're able to free-view, and the whole thing just springing into life. And suddenly, you can see a virtual window, which you can walk through.

Now, everybody knows what I'm talking about now because everybody's seen "Avatar." When we started the book, I was having to explain to people what 3-D was, and you can say, look, it's like View-Master, or it's like - you know, most people have experienced something like it in their lives.

But we're now, by good fortune, in the middle of a stereoscopic boom, a 3-D boom. So it's nice for us to be putting a balance into this and showing people that the 1850s had a lot to offer in stereoscopic photography, as well as the 2010, the 21st century.

GROSS: This project is such a quiet project. It's about vision, which isn't about sound.

Dr. MAY: That's right.

GROSS: It's about how you tracked down - you found these photos long before you knew what village they were from. You found the village. You went back to the village. So it's such a quiet counterpart to your life as a musician, and you were still in Queen when you started this, right?

Dr. MAY: Oh, yes. I mean, this goes back way beyond Queen, really. I was interested in stereo when I was about nine years old. So yes, all through my life, I seem to have had these threads, which things that I'm passionately interested in, and I've been very fortunate to be able to close many of the circles.

One of them is astronomy, as you may know. I was able to go back and finish off my astrophysics degree. My second degree, which...

GROSS: Your Ph.D., yeah. No, that's great.

Dr. MAY: My Ph.D., yeah. So I'm a doctor now.

GROSS: But here's what I'm wondering. I'm wondering if throughout your years in Queen that if you needed a kind of quiet, private side that was about a passion that was completely different from what you were doing with Queen, and that was something that you pursued on your own that was quiet, that was solitary.

Dr. MAY: Yes. It's always been a nice, refreshing change of scenery. All through those days in Queen, when we were on tour, normally I would get up in the morning and think hmm, I'm in Philadelphia for one of the few times in my life. You know, what will I do? Very often I would go up a tall building and get a lovely view of the city and go and take photographs.

But very often I would go out and try and find somebody who could sell me some stereo photographs because it was always a passion, and I found people all around the world. You'd be amazed, you know, Japan, South America, North America, all around Europe, there were people who were interested in stereo views and could trade with me and could find me some of these precious things I was looking for.

And a lot of the time, I was looking for T.R. Williams material, and T.R. Williams is the man who photographed scenes in our village and also wrote the poems that go with them, which are a very crucial part.

GROSS: So I have to tell you, in preparation for this interview, I was listening back to a lot of Queen recordings and thinking about how much fun some of them are and how dramatic some of them are and how they, like, mix, you know, like hard rock and music theater and opera.

So if it's okay with you, I'd like to talk a little bit about your work with Queen.

Dr. MAY: Sure.

GROSS: And I thought we'd start this part of the interview with the most famous song that you wrote, which is "We Will Rock You." So let's hear a little bit of it. Then we'll talk.

Dr. MAY: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of song, "We Will Rock You")

QUEEN: (Singing) Buddy, you're a boy, make a big noise playing in the street, gonna be a big man some day. You got mud on your face, you big disgrace, kicking your can all over the place, singing we will, we will rock you. We will, we will rock you.

Buddy you're a young man, hard man, shouting in the street gonna take on the world some day. You got blood on your face, you big disgrace, waving your banner all over the place. We will, we will rock you. Sing it. We will, we will rock you.

Buddy, you're an old man, poor man...

GROSS: That's Queen's "We Will Rock You," which was written by my guest, Brian May, who was the lead guitarist for the band. So what inspired that song? I mean, it's been played at so many sports stadiums over the decades. What were you thinking about when you wrote it? Were you thinking of it as a sports anthem?

Dr. MAY: No, not really. I was thinking of it more as a rock anthem, I suppose, and a means of uniting an audience or taking advantage, you know, enjoying the fact that an audience is united. And I didn't realize that it would transfer to sports games. This is quite an amazing thing.

It's wonderful for me to see what "We Will Rock You" has done. You know, "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions," of course, have kind of transcended the normal framework of where music is listened to and appreciated. They've become part of public life, which I feel wonderful about. It's fantastic to me if I go to a, you know, a football game or a soccer game or basketball or whatever or anyplace all around the world, and there it is.

And I think, my God. Most people don't even realize that I wrote it. Most people don't realize that it was written.

GROSS: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: It's sort of become one of those things that people think was always there. You know, it sort of goes back into pre-history. So in a way, that's the best compliment you could have for a song.

GROSS: Well, I think, you know, that's - if people don't even realize it was written, it's in part because it almost sounds like an old-school cheerleader cheer, you know, because...

Dr. MAY: Yeah. It's become part of the fabric of life.

GROSS: ...of that stomp-stomp-clap thing and because it's a chant.

Dr. MAY: Yeah, that's right. Well, the stomp-stomp-clap thing, yeah, people think it was always there, but actually it wasn't. And I don't know how it got into my head.

All I can tell you is we played a gig sort of the middle of our career in a place called Bingley Hall near Birmingham. Now, Birmingham is the sort of home of heavy metal, as you probably know. You know, Sabbath and Slade and people come from there.

And it was a great night. People were just, the audience were just responding hugely, and they were singing along with everything we did. Now, in the beginning, we didn't relate to that. We were the kind of band who liked to be listened to and taken seriously and all that stuff.

So, people singing along wasn't part of our agenda. Having said that and then having experienced this wave of participation of the audience, particularly in that gig in Birmingham, we almost to a man sort of reassessed our situation.

I remember talking to Freddie about it and saying, look, you know, obviously, we can no longer fight this. This has to become something which is part of our show, and we have to embrace it, the fact that people want to participate. And really, everything becomes a two-way process now. And we sort of looked at each other and went, hmm, how interesting.

And he went away that night and to the best of my knowledge wrote "We Are the Champions" with that in mind. I went away and woke up the next morning with this...

(Soundbite of verbal stomp-stomp-clap)

Dr. MAY: my mind somehow because I was thinking to myself: What could you give an audience that they could do while they're standing there? And they're all crushed together, but they can stamp, and they can clap, and they can sing some kind of chant. So for some reason, it just came straight into my head, that "We Will Rock You."

And to me, it was a kind of uniting thing. It was an expression of strength. And the words came out very quickly. In fact, everything came out very quickly, and I think that's a good sign when you're writing a song. It should happen quickly, very often, and that means the flow is a good one.

And the words are something completely different. If you ask me what I was thinking of in the words of the verses, it's something different. It's - although it's related.

GROSS: About the boy who's told he's no good?

Dr. MAY: Yeah, it's about the development of a boy into a man and his dreams and how he sees himself and how he views his power in the world. And it's a - it's sort of a contemplative song, really, although it's a big chant with fist in the air. It's about balancing your power with acceptance, I think.

GROSS: So how did you record the stomp-stomp-clap so it would sound grand and reverberating, as opposed to three people, four people stomping their feet and clapping?

Dr. MAY: Well, I'm a physicist, you see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: So I had this idea, if we did it enough times, and we didn't use any reverb or anything, that I could build a sound which would work.

We were very lucky. We were working in an old, disused church in North London, and it already had a nice sound, not an echoey sound but a nice, big, crisp sound to it. And there were some old boards lying around. I don't know what they were, but they just seemed ideal to stamp on. So we kind of piled them up and started stamping. And they sounded great anyway.

But being a physicist, I thought, well, supposing there were a thousand 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, not an echo but a single repeat and at varying distances. And the distances were all prime numbers.

Now, much later on, people designed a machine to do this, and I think it was called Prime Time or something, but that's what we did. As we recorded each track, we put a delay of a certain length on it, and none of the delays were sort of harmonically related.

So what you get is there's no echo on it whatsoever, but the claps sound as though - they're spread around the stereo, but they're also kind of spread as regards distance from you. So you just feel like you're in the middle of a large number of people stamping on boards and clapping and also singing.

GROSS: That's amazing. Now, here's another really interesting thing to me about "We Will Rock You." It's the most famous song that you've written. It's a largely a cappella song. You come in for your guitar solo at the very end. So until, like, the very, very end, like, you're not even playing on it, and it's just kind of amazing that you as the guitarist would write a song that you're barely featured on.

Dr. MAY: Well, I'm featured stamping and clapping. And I'm featured singing, so...

GROSS: Well, yes, and you're very good at that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: Thank you, yeah. Well, we're all featured, yeah. Yeah, well, you see, songs aren't about guitars to me. Songs are about, truthfully, a song is about a singer in my opinion, and if the singer gets the idea across, then you're almost home and dry.

You know, you can make the most beautiful piece of production, and I love production. You know, production is a big part of my life. But I'm always aware that if you don't have the right singer, and he doesn't have the right feeling, that you're wasting your time.

So a song is a song to me, and it doesn't matter what song. It could be a piano accordion on it. You know, if it's the right song and the right singer, and you feel passion, that's what it's about.

The guitar - yeah, I didn't want us to be standard. I didn't want it to be like oh, here's a guitar solo, and then we sing another verse. I wanted it to be something stark and different. So it was very deliberate that I left the guitar solo to the end because that was a final statement and a different statement, taking it off in a completely different direction. It changes key into that piece, too, you know, so it's a whole different kind of shape. It was not a standard pop song.

GROSS: Okay, so let's just hear the end of "We Will Rock You," and we'll hear that guitar solo. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "We Will Rock You")

QUEEN: (Singing) We will, we will rock you. Everybody, we will, we will rock you. We will, we will rock you. All right.

GROSS: So that's the end of "We Will Rock You," written by my guest, guitarist and singer and songwriter Brian May, who was one of the founding members of Queen. So...

Dr. MAY: I should - can I comment on the end of that?

GROSS: Yeah, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: Interesting that you play the end of the song. You can hear the guitar waiting in the wings. You can hear this little feedback note. And so the guitar is present, although it's not taking center stage, all through the last choruses, and then finally, it bursts upon the scene.

And you notice, Freddie goes all right, which means he's kind of handing over to the guitar, and we're in a different universe once the guitar starts, and that was the intention. And it's very sort of informal.

And you may notice - there's a lot of things to notice. You may notice that the last piece, the very last little riffs, are repeated, and they're not just repeated by me playing them again. They're repeated by cutting the tape and splicing it on again and again.

So - and that's deliberate, too. It's a way of getting a sort of a thing that makes you sit up towards the end. And then it stops. There is nothing after it, which I really enjoy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: There's no big ending. It just stops and leaves you in mid-air, thinking, well, what happened there?

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a co-founder and the lead guitarist of the band Queen. He's co-authored a new book featuring stereoscopic, 3-D photos from the 1850s. It's called "A Village Lost and Found." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Somebody to Love")

QUEEN: (Singing) Can anybody find me somebody to love?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Brian May, founding member, lead guitarist of Queen, and he's since gone on to get his Ph.D. in astrophysics, and now he has a new book that features 1850s stereoscopic photographs of a small town in England. And it comes with a stereoscopic viewer...

Dr. MAY: It does indeed, which I designed.

GROSS: That you have to put together yourself, which he designed. It's kind of amazing.

Dr. MAY: Yes, we have an owl.

GROSS: So, you know, Queen is such an unusual mix of hard rock, music theater, and I'll throw in opera into that. And when you consider your average hard rock fan of the '70s and '80s, I would say most of them would be totally not caring about music theater or opera.

And it's amazing - it's surprising that you were all able to mix that together in a way that really just went over so big with hard rock fans. I mean, do you agree that that's an unusual mix?

Dr. MAY: It is an unusual mix. Again, it wasn't really deliberate. It wasn't planned. We were just sort of letting out all the stuff that's inside us. I think as kids, we were exposed to all kinds of stuff. You know, my parents were into classical music, and I heard a lot of that around me as I was growing up.

And radio, when we were kids, was incredibly different from what it was - from what it is today. I think our favorite program was "Uncle Mac's Children's Favourites." Now, a lot of English people will tell you about this.

Kids would write in and request their music, but it wasn't rock music. It wasn't pop music because it sort of didn't exist in those days. So people would write in and ask for something like "The Thunder and Lightning Polka."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: Or "The Laughing Policeman," you know, or some kind of New Orleans jazz thing. All sorts of stuff was mixed in when we were kids, and we just lapped it all up. Mantovani - now, you probably don't know who Mantovani is.

GROSS: Oh yes, I do.

Dr. MAY: Oh, you do? Okay. He had the singing strings, you know, and it would be a vast sort of panoply of violins and cellos and violas, et cetera. And that was all influential on us. I know for a fact this all comes out in our music.

So on the one hand, we're influenced - we're spurred on by hearing the beginnings of rock music, Buddy Holly, bless his heart. You know, thank God for Buddy Holly. The Crickets. That's what just moved my body into wanting to do this.

But on the other hand, there's all this stuff which we'd been absorbing as kids, and it all sort of creeps back into our music.

GROSS: Now, when you teamed up with Freddie Mercury, who was of course the lead singer, the late lead singer of Queen, did he nevertheless push you in directions or, you know, nudge you in directions that you didn't expect to head in musically, theatrically, costumes?

Dr. MAY: Well, definitely costumes, yeah, I think. Yeah, Freddie was - I remember when Freddie first saw us play, before he was in our band, as it were. We were called Smile, and he came along, and he said it's great, it's wonderful, it's incredible. Your music's great. But you're not dressed right, you know, and you don't have enough lights, and you're not dramatic. You should be doing a show.

You know, so Freddie was very influential in moving us across into being something much more theatrical, much more designed to connect with an audience. And it was a great thing. Yeah, Freddie brought a lot of things to us, which I'm sure otherwise we never would have considered.

GROSS: My guest Brian May will talk more about Queen in the second half of the show. He's co-authored a new book featuring 3-D photos from the 1850s called "A Village Lost and Found." Here's one of his famous guitar solos, from the song "Killer Queen." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Killer Queen")

QUEEN: (Singing) Drop of the hat, she's as willing as, playful as a pussycat. Momentarily out of action, temporarily out of gas, she'll absolutely drive you wild. Wild. She's out to get you. She's a killer queen. Gunpowder, gelatine. Dynamite with a laser beam. Guaranteed to blow your mind. Anytime.

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Brian May, a founding member and the lead guitarist of the band Queen. The lead singer, Freddie Mercury, died in 1991. Mercury was very theatrical in his performances and his songwriting. One of the most theatrical and unconventional songs Mercury wrote for Queen was "Bohemian Rhapsody."

How did he demo the song for you before the band started performing it?

Mr. MAY: He sat down at the piano and de-de-de-de-de-de-de, de-de-de-de-de, and he said and here's a bit where everything stops and there's an a cappella bit and then we come back in again. He had it all mapped out and that's the way it was done. The backing track was piano, bass and drums and I was sitting in the studio and it sounded great. It sounded intriguing and crisp and lively and challenging. And then, as the days went on and the weeks went on, we started overdubbing all the different vocal parts. And as you probably know, you know, there's many of us on there. We would do each part a number of times until it was right and then go to another part and multi-track everything.

In those days you were working on 24-track tape, so you'd run out of tracks quite quickly. So when you've put down, say half a dozen tracks, you have to bounce them. You have to combine them into one track and then move on, which is a dicey process because you're losing information at that point. You're also losing generations and we did it so often on "Bohemian Rhapsody" that the legend says, and it's true...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: ...that the tape wore out. We suddenly realized we were losing top on the vocals. They were getting a bit dull. And we held the tape up to the light and you could see through it, so there was hardly any oxide left on it. So at that point, we swiftly had to make a copy and carry on. So it was a very different way of recording to the way you would do it now because there was no going back.

GROSS: Now you mentioned that this started as, you know, piano and then piano, bass and drums. But you do have a guitar solo, a very well-known one.

Mr. MAY: Oh yeah. Well, that's added after. Yeah, of course.

GROSS: Yeah. And it kind of bridges two sections of the song.

Mr. MAY: Yes.

GROSS: And so, I thought we'd hear an excerpt of the song and hear your guitar solo bridging those two sections. So here's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with my guest Brian May on guitar and also doing some of the voices.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) Mama, oooooooh. Any way the wind blows. I don't want to die. I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

(Singing) I see a little silhouetto of a man. Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango? Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening me. Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo Figaro. Magnifico-o-o-o-o. I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me. He's just a poor boy from a poor family. Spare him his life from this monstrosity.

Easy come, easy go, will you let me go? Bismillah. No, we will not let you go. Let him go. Bismillah. We will not let you go. Let him go. Bismillah. We will not let you go. Let me go. Will not let you go. Let me go. Will not let you go. Never. Never, let me go. O, o, o, o. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Oh mama mia, mama mia. Mama mia, let me go. Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me.

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

GROSS: That's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with - featuring my guest Brian May on guitar. And how many voices did you do on that?

Mr. MAY: I'd have to go back and check, but a lot, I suppose.

GROSS: A lot. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Mr. MAY: A few dozen. Yeah, a lot of voices on there. Because we're singing, normally there's three of us and me and Freddie and Roger would sing. John wouldn't. And we would sing one line until we felt it was right, it had the right spontaneity, had the right passion and it was in tune and it was in time. And then we'd move on and double track it and double track it again. So you've got three times three voices at that point for one part. So you got nine voices for each part. And then in some cases, there were I suppose between six and nine parts on the record, so you multiply that together and you get a, you know, well, you know, about 80 tracks, something like that, I suppose. But there, by the time you've got 80 tracks, they've all been bounced down and the information is contained on much fewer tracks.

GROSS: Could you explain to me what the Mama Mia, Galileo, Scaramouche part is about?

Mr. MAY: No. Of course not.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Could Freddie Mercury have explained it to you?

Mr. MAY: Because I didn't write it. You should've asked Freddie. Ah, well, you would have had to ask him. Yeah...

GROSS: Did you...

Mr. MAY: No, I would never ask him.

GROSS: Why wouldn't you have asked him, what am I singing about? Why am I singing this?

Mr. MAY: Well, you know, it's a funny thing. I think about it quite a lot. We never discussed what our songs meant. It was a sort of unwritten law that there were something in the songs which was very personal and if somebody brought it in, you wouldn't get into it. You would just assume that they knew what they were doing. And it's odd isn't it?

I mean, later on it changed. I remember starting to write "The Show Must Go On" and Freddie came and sat down beside me. And I said, I want you to participate. I want us to do this together and we absolutely discussed every single word and what it meant and what we were trying to do. But in the early days it never ever happened. We just assumed that the writer of the song knew what he was doing.

GROSS: So, let me just play you one thing that I'm sure you're familiar with. Here it comes.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wayne's World")

Mr. MIKE MYERS (Actor, comedian): (as Wayne) I think we'll go with a little "Bohemian Rhapsody," gentlemen.

Mr. DANA CARVEY (Actor, comedian): (as Garth) Good call.

(Soundbite of tape being put in a cassette)

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

Mr. MAY: The delightful "Wayne's World." Yes.

GROSS: Yes, Mike Myers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...from the movie "Wayne's World."

Mr. MAY: I have to thank Mike Myers for introducing us to a whole new generation at that time. It was amazing what it did, you know...

GROSS: What did it do for Queen?

Mr. MAY: Oh, it completely translated us to the new generation. And Freddie was already not well by that time but I took it around to him. Mike Myers phoned me up and sent me the copy and said, you know, you make sure Freddie hears it, you know, could you? And I said yes. So I took it around to him and Freddie loved it. He laughed and thought it was great and he went - actually, what he said was slightly unprintable, but you can bleep it if you'd like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: He said, you know, we had a strange thing about America because America is where were grew up, you know, and it really made us as a group - all that touring. We used to tour every year about nine months and most of it was in the States in those early days. So it really formed us as a band and we absolutely had a love affair with America.

There came a point when it all kind of went wrong in America and we were like the biggest group in the world every place except the States. And I don't need to go into, you know, the reason or whatever. It doesn't really matter. But it was very difficult for us to sort of get back and there's a whole kind of gap in Queen history, if you view it from America, and Freddie was very aware of that. And we never really came back and toured the way we should've done. You know, every place else in the world we played football stadiums but it never happened in the States.

And Freddie, when I played him this thing, said...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: He said, you know, it might do for us what nothing else would do. And he was dead right. You know, it's amazing that even the fact that Freddie died didn't make that much of a difference. But the fact that "Wayne's World" put it in their film did make a difference. And I suppose the quote that I'm steering clear of is that Freddie at one point said to me, you know, I suppose I have to (bleep) die before we ever get big in America again.


Mr. MAY: And it's a strange quote, but it sort of came true in a very strange way. But "Wayne's World" was the vehicle through which young people discovered Queen. You know, a whole new set of people, and it was great for us, you know, and I guess still is.

GROSS: Have you heard "The Muppets" version of "Bohemian Rhapsody"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: Yes, of course. Of course, yeah. Well, they can...

GROSS: It's really fun. Can I play that for our listeners?

Mr. MAY: Yeah, you can. Well, we had to have heard it because it's us on the record. You know, they asked us if they could do it and they said look, we can sing this and we can perform it but we can't really play it so can we use your actual tracks? So...

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

Mr. MAY: ...generally, we say - generally we don't let anybody do that. But in this case, because it's the venerable Muppets, we said yes. We'll do that with you. So yes, we produced it with them.

GROSS: It's so much fun. So here's part of it.

(Soundbite of the Muppets, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

THE MUPPETS: (Singing) I see a little silhouetto of a clam, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Galileo. Me. Me. Me. Me. Galileo. Me. Me. Me. Me. Galileo, Galileo Figaro. A ra, ra, ra.

I'm just a poor boy and nobody loves me. He's just a poor boy from a poor family. Spare him his life from this monstrosity. Nom. Nom. Nom. Easy come, easy go, will you let me go? Ma na, ma na. Be, be, be, be, be, be. Let me throw. Ma na. I will not let you throw. Let me blow. Ma na, ma na. I will not let you blow. Let me joke. Do not like your jokes. Let me joke. Do not like your jokes. Let me joke. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Verndigiddy verndigiddy. Mama mia, let me go. Does any one know if there is a part for me? For me, for me, for me?

(Soundbite of guitar solo)

GROSS: That's the Muppets version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

We'll talk more with Queen's lead guitarist Brian May after a break. May has co-written a new book collecting stereographic photos from the 1850s called "A Village Lost And Found." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love")

QUEEN: (Singing) This thing called love, I just can't handle it. This thing called love I must get round to it. I ain't ready. Crazy little thing called love. This called love...

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a founding member and the lead guitarist of the band Queen.

So let me ask you about the name of the band Queen. How did you feel about giving it that name? Freddie Mercury...

Mr. MAY: Oh my god. You go back a long way now, Terry. You...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, let me just ask you the question. Freddie Mercury was either gay or bisexual. I'm not sure how he would've described himself, but he didn't really talk about that, to my knowledge.

Mr. MAY: He would've said I'm gay as a daffodil, darling.

GROSS: Would he have said that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: He did say that.

GROSS: Would he have said that in public?

Mr. MAY: He did say that in public. Freddie was not one to mince his words.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, but the name of the band, were...

Mr. MAY: How I feel about - well, Terry, this goes back such a long way and I...

GROSS: Also, knowing - I guess this is, but this is also the real - like they're so many homophobic hard rock fans - there were in the 70s and 80s.

Mr. MAY: How did they about Freddie? Well, you know, it's strange. I think it was a sort of an undiscussed thing for such a long time. You know, and really, you know, the truth of the matter is nobody should care. Why should anybody care what sort of sexual persuasion people have? You know, he never hid the fact that he was turned on by men instead of by women. But strange enough, I don't think it was always the case because I used to, you know, in the early days, we used to share a room so I know who Freddie slept with in the early days and they weren't men.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: So, but I think it sort of gradually changed, and I have no idea how these things work. But it wasn't really anybody's business but his. You know, and we never talked about it as if it were anything important. Why should it be important? We just made music together.

As for the fans, I don't know. You know, it was never really discussed. But I remember doing a promo tour for this song that we did, which was called "I Want to Break Free." Now we made a video for that, which was a pastiche of an English soap called "Coronation Street," and we dressed up as the characters in that soap, and they were female characters. So we're dressing up as girls - as women and we had a fantastic laugh doing it. It was hilarious to do it. And all around the world people laughed and they got the joke and they sort of understood it.

I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people's faces turning ashen and they would say, no, we can't play this. We can't possibly play this. You know, it looks homosexual. And I went, so?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: But it was a huge deal. And I know that it really damaged our sort of whole relationship with certainly radio in this country and probably the public as well.

GROSS: Oh really?

Mr. MAY: And that's probably one of the reasons why this sort of hole developed between us and the States, which was really a tragedy because so many of our hits would've fitted very well into the life of the States but we didn't really get back in there until "The Show Must Go On" and "These Are The Days of Our Lives." And even those weren't the hits that they were around the rest of the world. These were number one records around every civilized country.

GROSS: Let me get to some more recent developments in your life. Just a few years ago, you got your PhD in a subject that you had been pursing before Queen, and that's astrophysics.

Mr. MAY: That's right.

GROSS: You have an astrophysics book that you co-wrote recently.

Mr. MAY: Yeah.

GROSS: And...

Mr. MAY: It's called "Bang: The Complete History of the Universe."

GROSS: Yeah. So...

Mr. MAY: An unassuming little title, I feel.

GROSS: It's interesting for me to think about you going back to the university after you'd become such a star. Of course, when you're getting your PhD, it's not like you're sitting in a large lecture class with people, but...

Mr. MAY: Oh yes. Well, basically it is. You know, yeah, I didn't do that many lectures. But basically, you're abandoning your status outside and you're going back and you're being a student. It was tough.

GROSS: Yeah. What was hard about that?

Mr. MAY: Well, it's tough because you're having to be very much subservient to the system again, you know. And you forget how hard that is after you've left school and university, you know, to go back into that system where you're constantly judged and you're assessed as you go along. And you do a piece of work which you're proud of and then somebody goes, well, yeah but can you go back and do it again and do this and this and this? It's frustrating and difficult and it was tough, I'd say. But I didn't want to be treated any different from any other student. I wanted this PhD to be real. And it was. You know, they didn't make it easy on me. And I never wanted that. So it was tough and I did it for a year and I really had to ditch the rest of my life to do it, but it was worth it. I'm happy that I got the PhD.

GROSS: You wrote your thesis on a survey of radical velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud.

Mr. MAY: Yeah. Radial...

GROSS: I don't really know what any of that means.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: It's a survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud. Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, radial - I wrote it as radical velocities. I still don't know what it means.

Mr. MAY: It could be radical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Could you give a very layperson's description of what you were studying in that - of what you were...

Mr. MAY: Yes, I can.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MAY: It's a study of dust. As simple as that. Dust, in this case, in the solar system. So, we're actually surrounded by it. The Earth moves through a cloud of dust constantly and a lot of it comes down to Earth. And my experiment was to try and find out the motions of that dust and trying to figure out where it's going, what it's doing, where it came from and what it means in terms of the creation of the solar system. Now to be honest, it was quite a - it became something which people moved on from. It became a bit of a backwater in the 30 years in which I was absent from the subject, because people were into, really, cosmology. You know, the larger scale study of the universe and our little local solar system was not so interesting for many people.

But luckily for me, about the time that I returned to it, we were discovering exoplanets. That's planets in other solar systems, in orbit around other suns. So it was discovered at that time that they too had dust clouds. So if we're going to study dust, why don't we study the dust on our own doorstep, in our own solar system? So my subject became quite trendy again, quite important for people.

The way I studied them was through Doppler shifts. And a Doppler shift is a shift of frequency that you experience due to motion. The best analogy you can give is a police siren. If you're listening to a police car coming towards you, it goes de, de, de, de, de, de. But as it goes past you, it goes de, de, de, de, de, de, de, de. It goes down and that's the Doppler shift.

GROSS: Yeah, that's true, isn't it?

Mr. MAY: Yeah. That's because the waves are stretching out as this police car passes you and it changes from coming towards you to going away from you. Now the same kind of thing happens with light. So I was looking at Doppler shifts in light due to the motions of the dust.

GROSS: So...

Mr. MAY: And from that you can infer how they're moving.

GROSS: So, yeah, so what were the larger implications of what you were looking at?

Mr. MAY: Ah-ha-ha. That's a good question. The larger implications are where did it come from and was it part of the creation of the universe? Or is it being created now?

GROSS: The dust?

Mr. MAY: The dust, yeah. And, in fact, all of the above is true. You know, a certain amount of dust is created in every event in the universe and particularly in supernovae - a lot of dust is put out. And we, human beings and all animals and all plants and everything on the Earth are made of the dust that has come out of supernovae. Now that's not something that I discovered but that's a fact. So when Joni Mitchell said we are stardust, we are golden, she was right. We are stardust. And I find that quite an amazing thing to think about. The material of our body did come from the insides of stars. It was made in the insides of stars.

GROSS: Well, Brian May, it's been such a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

Mr. MAY: Thank you. It's a pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Brian May has co-written a new book collecting stereographic photos from the 1850s called "A Village Lost and Found."

You can find a video of the Muppets performing "Bohemian Rhapsody" on You can also see a collection of May's stereographic photos on NPR's photo blog the Picture Show. That's at

This is FRESH AIR.


Since she first appeared on the national scene, Sarah Palin has taken a lot of flack for her language, most recently for using "refudiate" several times, then saying she coined the word deliberately and comparing herself to Shakespeare.

But to our linguist Geoff Nunberg, these political slips and errors aren't half as interesting as the way people react to them.

GEOFF NUNBERG: The most revealing thing about politicians' linguistic gaffes and malaprops is the weird reactions they evoke.

Take Sarah Palin's refudiate. She first used the word in a TV interview, calling on Barack and Michelle Obama to refudiate the NAACP's charge about racist elements in the Tea Party movement.

Then, lest anyone think it was a slip, she posted on Twitter asking peaceful Muslims to refudiate the Ground Zero mosque. That tweet was deleted almost immediately and replaced by one that used reject. But Palin wasn't about to give ground.

In another tweet, she suggested that she deliberately coined the word. She went on, English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words, too. Got to celebrate it.

Like any successful politician, Palin is adept at making lemons into lemonade. But it was left to her champion William Kristol to whip the item into a lemon chiffon cake. In the Weekly Standard, he applauded Palin for enriching the English language with a blend that perfectly captures the agenda of contemporary conservatism: to refute liberal arguments and see liberal politicians repudiated at the polls. Say it loud and say it proud. Refudiate liberalism now.

And in any event, it was clear in the context that Palin didn't coin refudiate in a flash of mavericky creativity - that was just her version of repudiate. And plenty of other people have gotten those same wires crossed before. The New York Times language columnist Ben Zimmer found examples of refudiate going back as far back as 1925.

In fact, the age of Google has showed us just how hard it is to commit a truly novel error or coin a truly novel word. Somebody else almost always got there first. That's one thing at least that Palin and Shakespeare have in common - both of them have had their linguistic originality exaggerated. If we could Google up Elizabethan English as thoroughly as we can the modern language, we'd probably discover that Shakespeare didn't invent 90 percent of the words that make their first recorded appearance in his plays.

Leapfrog? It would no doubt turn out that every Stratford schoolboy knew that word years before Shakespeare used it in "Henry V." All's well that ends well? He probably lifted that from Christopher Marlowe's blog.

Palin could have picked up refudiate from someone else or come up with it on her own. The question is why she didn't correct it along the way, before she got called on it and felt the need to defend it. After all, the course of our lives is strewn with abandoned misconceptions about words. I'm always struck by how tenacious these are. A word will go right past me five or 10 times before I suddenly have this duh moment. As in, duh,it has a 'c' in it. Or duh, compendious doesn't mean comprehensive at all.

But Palin apparently never had a duh moment with repudiate, probably because she hasn't encountered it often enough. People don't use it a lot in ordinary conversation - as in, I used to think Peter Frampton was cool, but I totally repudiate that now. You have to frequent the places the word hangs out in, the kinds of books and periodicals that have semicolons in them.

But not even Palin's most ardent supporters would claim that she's been a great reader. They prize her for her attitude and authenticity, not her erudition.

Of course, there are other people who blanch at the thought of a head of state whose speech flows so far from the stream of literate English prose. Fair enough. But inarticulateness doesn't preclude political competence - think of Dwight Eisenhower. As the linguist Mark Liberman put it in the LanguageLog blog, politics is not a vocabulary contest. And it's a mistake to read too much significance into these slips and solecisms.

Take the way the logotariat reacted to Palin's use of verbage in place of verbiage during the 2008 campaign. It's a very common error, and in its way a logical one. The i in verbiage doesn't make a lot of sense if you think, as most people do, that the word is related to verb and verbal. It actually comes from the same root as warble. But in The New Yorker, James Wood took verbage as Palin's own invention and called it a perfect example of the Republicans' disdain for words. Verbage - so close to garbage, so far from language.

Where do you begin with that? With the remarkable condescension of garbage - so close to trash? Or with the insolence of imagining that faulty usage betrays stupidity and turpitude? One way or the other, it's a form of smugness that transcends partisan lines. People on the right are just as quick to ridicule Obama and Biden for their mistakes.

Yet the well-spoken aren't necessarily wiser or better than the rest of us. Most of the horrors that the human race has had to endure in modern times were inflicted at the bidding of men who spoke in shapely grammatical sentences. Unfortunately, eloquence doesn't come next to godliness. A devotion to language will have to be its own reward. Could we just celebrate that?

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website,

I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue