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Brian May on music being a ‘great healer’ and why he’s still writing songs during coronavirus – just like Freddie would

Josh Milton April 17, 2020
Brian May of British rock band Queen. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Brian May of British rock band Queen. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Nobody noticed Brian May as he mimed strumming his guitar while wearing a dressing gown on the rooftop of his house.

Against the backdrop of a blisteringly blue sky, the Queen guitarist and animal rights campaigner pretended to play the chords to the song he produced and featured in, “Get Up”.

Yet, with a spreadsheet of apartment windows facing him in his home in Kensington, London, nobody seemed to even spot him.

May, 72, had gone from complimenting Freddie Mercury’s soaring voice with titanic guitar buildups to shimmying to the beat of birds and ambulance sirens nearby.

But when getting involved with Kings Daughters, he didn’t quite picture this.

When friend and former X Factor contestant Talia Dean approached May to get involved with her band, featuring guitarist Isabel Lysell and drummer Vicky O’Neon, a typical road ahead was paved.

Phones dinged and buzzed as venues for the launch party and gigs were booked. Then came the coronavirus, which ground it all to a halt last month.

It demanded millions of people submit to severe restrictions on their personal movement. May and Dean included.

But what Brian May and the Kings Daughters trio show is the resilience and ingenuity held by artists in a moment of crisis.

“Get Up” is the first music video in history produced under lockdown.

Across 44 countries, countless cooped-up folks featured in the "Get Up" music video, a song beaming with motivation and survival. (From the "Get Up" music video)
Across 44 countries, countless cooped-up folks featured in the “Get Up” music video, a song beaming with allusions to “I Want To Break Free”. (From the “Get Up” music video)

Repurposing a song born from lead singer Dean’s depression into an anthem that rallies house-bound people to, indeed, “get up” and dance.

Released Wednesday, the tinny music video features the band carry out a typical day under lockdown, sipping on tea and carrying out chores, as well as countless people, such as comedian Matt Lucas, dancing away.

And, of course, May blasting his mimed chords from the rooftop.

The single has catapulted to number 13 in the charts, with 10 per cent of the profits going to mental health charity Mind.

But for May, he told PinkNews, he only did what Freddie Mercury would have and did do; drive to make music no matter what.

PinkNews: Tell us the story behind your upcoming song Kings Daughters, “Get Up”. What motivated you to get involved in what is the first single from a lockdown? Which, to be honest, is a very strange sentence to say. 

Brian May: [Laughs] This is a record which can actually give a lot to people in terms of lifting their spirits in this very difficult time.

And we’re in partnership with Mind, the mental health charity [that] very much approve, and they’ll make some money off it, and also [add] some visibility to mental health.

We have to be talking a lot [more] about mental health now. Because it’s not just the physical tragedy, it’s a mental tragedy as well. I think the whole world is going to be traumatised.

So music is a great healer.

This is the kind of music we need. In my opinion, it’s new and it’s very shiny and it speaks of cultivating an attitude of gratitude, which is still good medicine.

This is the way we have to be now. We’re all suffering and we’re losing relations. There’s a real tragedy here.

But there’s also an opportunity to look at the world in a new way. So this is kind of what this record is about.

In what way are you seeing the world differently?

It’s long been my belief that the human race has got it wrong and just does not treat the rest of the species on this planet in the way that we should.

We cover the world in concrete because this is what the human race ‘needs’. We ‘need’ to be charging around in cars and trains and planes every day, burning up fossil fuels, we ‘need’ to do this for our economy.

Brian May, Queen founder of Save Me, speaks with protestors as he joins a rally against the proposed badger cull. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Brian May, Queen founder of Save Me, speaks with protestors as he joins a rally against the proposed badger cull. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Well, soon as we get hit by a virus, strangely enough, we don’t ‘need’ it. We can function and the roads are empty.

We’re not getting animals killed on the roads anymore, the air is clean.

That’s gonna save lives because there’s been such terrible pollution in the cities until recently. We’re getting peace and quiet, you can hear the birds sing.

It’s like a whole quality of life that we lost has got revealed to us we’re getting a glimpse of what the world could be like if we cared enough to make it that way.

Yes, we were unprepared. There’s been a terrible loss of life, some of it unnecessary because we should have reacted quicker without a doubt, but it’s an opportunity.

I see the world taking notice and I sincerely hope we don’t go back to the world as it was.

What would you say is your biggest fear during the coronavirus pandemic?

I’ve seen so many examples where tragedies have happened in the world and humans didn’t take heed of the warning that was being given.

I think 9-11 was one of them. I may be speaking out of turn, because I’m not an American, but I think the Western world didn’t take the lesson of 9-11 – the lesson was that a lot of people hate us for very good reasons.

Rather than go out and retaliate, it should have been, ‘Let’s look at ourselves,’ and I think that was a missed opportunity.

I think this may easily be a missed opportunity if we don’t wake up. We need to look at the way we’re destroying the world’s habitat and making it a poisonous place for all creatures including us – we have to reprioritise, in my opinion.

Many celebrities have used music as a way to bring people together in this time of crisis. Whether it be a singalong on Zoom or playing at a virtual concert. What is it about music that brings people together?

It’s very elemental.

Look at human beings without technology, without concrete and before the days of so-called civilisation, what did humans have in abundance?

Together, they had the physical thing. They had music and bass.

It goes right back to to the very elemental times. And I think that’s still true. I think we’re missing that. That’s why people cling to music at times like this, and so they should.

(From L-R) Brian May, Talia Dean, Isabel Lysell, session bassist Rosetta Carr and Vicky O'Neon. (Desmond Murray)
(From L-R) Brian May, Talia Dean, Isabel Lysell, session bassist Rosetta Carr and Vicky O’Neon. (Desmond Murray)

Music is a great healer, a great leveller and a great catalyst to get people to come together in a positive way.

I think that’s, that’s always been something that’s been in our minds is Queen, we’re very interactive – we’ve always encouraged our audiences to join in.

From the days when “We Will Rock You” was first born as a song and as an event, if you like, and we’ve travelled to almost every country on the planet and found that no matter what the differences are, we still share the joy and taking part in music.

We know Freddie Mercury had a real drive to keep making music during a time of crisis. 

Absolutely.

During his own crisis, he managed to put us in a kind of fence around himself and he made his music. He loved his music.

And together we had some of the most productive times of our lives in those years, which were painful for Freddie.

Freddie Mercury and Brian May of the band Queen at Live Aid on July 13, 1985. (FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images)
Freddie Mercury and Brian May of the band Queen at Live Aid on July 13, 1985. (FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images)

PinkNews: In December 2019 – which seems like decades ago – you spoke candidly about your experience with depression. What was the transition to self-isolation for you like? How have you handled it?

Brian May: Well, strangely enough, I started off badly.

I came off an enormous tour – it was a wonderful, you felt free as a bird going around Australia and the Far East and New Zealand.

We didn’t realise it at the time but we were just skirting around before the wave broke in all those countries. I guess in disbelief that the virus could actually immobilise the whole world.

We came back here [London, England] and I immediately went into a kind of isolation because I get depressed after touring – the comedown is so enormous as suddenly, it feels like your world suddenly shrink to the dot.

I immediately looked at what the situation was in Britain and thought the only thing to do is self-isolate. This is long before the government decided to make it a recommendation.

Brian May formed Queen with drummer Roger Taylor, then called Smile in the 1960s. (Michael Putland/Getty Images)
Brian May formed Queen with drummer Roger Taylor, then called Smile in the 1960s. (Michael Putland/Getty Images)

So I didn’t see my kids. I didn’t see my grandchildren. I went straight into minimising my social contact.

I started off feeling yet quite upset and quite depressed and quite black. But very quickly, I started making music and doing these micro-concerts. We started doing it just for fun, but also because I thought it would engage people and distract people.

I’ve been so busy ever since with people asking me to do stuff and people interacting in various ways, I haven’t had time to be depressed!

I have my issues and you know, if I sat on the table in one of these clinics, you know, it would be: ‘Hello, I’m Brian May, I’m a depressive.’

It still would be that because that’s the way that’s my chemistry. That’s the way I made.

But in this time, I’m finding a lot to do and I’m finding I want to help people, I want to look for the good things that are coming out of this and be part of the process where we, we heal ourselves and we heal the world, which I think is very important.

You played “Get Up” from the rooftop of your house for the video, how did it compare to playing from the roof of Buckingham Palace?

[Laughs] It’s not strictly comparable!

Buckingham Palace was to a billion people and is the most terrifying thing I ever did in my life.

This was a lot of fun because I obviously had to set up the camera myself, I don’t have a cameraman. I’m truly isolated apart from being apart from my wife [Anita Dobson].

So, it’s a bit of fun and actually wasn’t my idea. It was Talia’s idea.

Brian May performing on the roof of Buckingham Palace in 2012. (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
Brian May performing on the roof of Buckingham Palace in 2012. (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

We’re all in our living rooms and waving out of our windows and balconies. You can be on your roof and waving to people from there. And it was about this business of being in contact with people, although you can’t physically touch them.

When I looked at the pictures I took, I thought: “Yes, it’s very reminiscent of Buckingham Palace.”

There I had a special costume made for standing on top of the roof of Buckingham Palace, which embodies the names of significant souls over the last 50 years.

On this occasion, I took my dressing gown up there because the girls are all in their pyjamas, because the song is about getting up from your torpor, asleep and getting up and being jolly.

A number of people have compared the coronavirus pandemic to the AIDS crisis. I know you not only lived through this time, but it impacted you directly. Do you see any parallels between then to today’s crisis?

Oh, absolutely. Yes.

These crises come and change our behaviours. And that applies to both and they also require us to adjust emotionally. They require us to look at our mortality.

They require us to adopt different behaviour patterns physically.

I guess we were all lucky when we were young. You know, we grew up in a very innocent time. We didn’t have to think too much.

But these days, well, I think the world will never go back to being exactly the way it was before this, I think we’ll always be more careful and more aware of diseases which can be transmitted from human to human.

I see frustration for a long time. I’ve thought that even a virus such as the common cold virus hasn’t really been addressed by humanity.

What lessons can we learn from the AIDS crisis and apply to the coronavirus pandemic?

Well, it’s a bit late now!

Overall, the biggest lesson is that kindness and compassion are crucial to everything and I’m happy to see that it has brought out a wave of kindness in people.

People are looking after all folks who can’t count themselves, and I think that was also true of the AIDS crisis. It drew people together and compassion and love actually won in the end.

We have the Mercury Phoenix Trust, which has so far donated around £4 million to AIDS charities worldwide.

There’s a terrible misconception out there that AIDS is finished and you don’t need to worry about it. No, but of course it’s finished… if you’re rich.

If you’re in a poor country, people are still talking about whole generations have been lost to AIDS and it still walks the streets.

So we’re very much involved in campaigning for safer sex, education and also for helping the orphans of AIDS victims.

Singer Freddie Mercury and guitarist Brian May of British rock band Queen. (Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
Singer Freddie Mercury and guitarist Brian May of British rock band Queen. (Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

PinkNews: I guess, what seems to be the thematic link between everything are very, very sluggish responses from your authorities and the apparent mystery of it all, whipping up paranoia. 

Brian May: Yes!

And there are other patterns, of course. You know, that is easy to sort of start blaming people and use it as a way of being kind of discriminatory.

When I hear people kind of vilifying Chinese people in the streets, it makes me very sad.

Brian May. (Cole Bennetts/Getty Images)

You know, if you need to do that, I think that there’s something wrong. It says more about you than anything.

But I think, by and large, I feel quite proud of the way that people have responded to this. I think they’ve been sensible and, and responsible, mainly. And I wish we’d responded quicker.

I wish the leadership could apply the controls earlier and it would have saved thousands of lives, I’m sure.

What do you picture the world being like after the coronavirus pandemic is finally over?

I think it’s gonna be a while before It’s finally over. I think we will see repercussions for a long time.

My dream is that it will be different we will prioritise different issues we will prioritise the health and well being of all creatures.

We will not prioritise the generation of wealth.

I dream that we will have a leadership after this we score transform the face worldwide of the way things are run.

 

More: Brian May, Coronavirus, Freddie Mercury, Kings Daughters, queen, UK

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