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Keith Richards On 'Life' With The Rolling Stones

The guitarist opens up about his music, his legendary journeys on the road with The Rolling Stones and his occasionally contentious relationship with lead singer Mick Jagger in his memoir, Life.

21:03

Other segments from the episode on December 27, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 27, 2010: Interview with Keith Richards; Interview with Brian May.

Transcript

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Keith Richards On 'Life' With The Rolling Stones

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we begin a week-long series featuring some of our most entertaining
interviews of the year. We begin with Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones'
guitarist. He published his autobiography in October. It's called "Life." And
it's filled with details about excess and drugs, but it's also filled with
stories about growing up in post-World War II England - he was born in 1943 -
discovering the blues, songwriting, forming The Rolling Stones, being targeted
by police in the U.S. and the U.K., who saw the Stones as a bad influence on
youth, becoming megastars, playing stadiums, kicking heroin, a sometimes rocky
relationship with Mick Jagger, getting older and so on.

Richards co-wrote much of the Stones' repertoire with Jagger, including
"Satisfaction," "Let's Spend the Night Together," "Get Off My Cloud," Give Me
Shelter," "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Beast of Burden." I spoke with Keith
Richards in late October.

You have a great story in your book about how you co-wrote, well, how you got
"Satisfaction" started. You co-wrote the song with Mick Jagger, but you
originated it, and you didn't know you were doing it. Can you...?

Mr. KEITH RICHARDS (Musician): I wish all the songs could come this way, you
know, where you just dream them, and then the next morning, there they are,
presented to you.

But "Satisfaction" was that sort of miracle that took place. I had a I had one
of the first little cassette players, you know, Norelco, whatever, Philips, the
same thing, really. But it was a fascinating little machine to me, a cassette
player that you could actually just lay ideas down and, you know, wherever you
were.

I set the machine up, and I put in a fresh tape. I go to bed as usual with my
guitar, and I wake up the next morning, I see that the tape is run to the very
end.

And I think: Well, I didn't do anything. You know, maybe I hit a button when I
was asleep, you know. So I put it back to the beginning and pushed play and
there, in some sort of ghostly version, is (singing) da, da, da, da, da - I
can't get no satisfaction.

And so it was a whole verse of it. I won't bore you with it all. And after
that, there's, I don't know, 40 minutes of me snoring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: But there's the song in its embryo, and I actually dreamt the
damned thing. You know, and I'm still waiting for another dream.

GROSS: Now, how did the line I can't get no satisfaction come to you at a time
when you should've been having a lot of very satisfying, gratifying moments?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: Darling, I don't know. I dreamt it.

GROSS: No, true. Okay.

Mr. RICHARDS: I mean, nobody's ever satisfied, right? And it was just a phrase
that obviously, you know, buzzing through the mind, and whether you could
express anything or enlarge on that idea of - because otherwise, I can't get
any satisfaction is kind of, you know, sort of moaning.

But if you then you can take it and expand it, which Mick did brilliantly.
There it is. I mean, these things are all made out of just little sparks of
ideas that come to you, and you're lucky to be around to grab them. And that's
kind of basically the process of how we work.

GROSS: Okay, so let's hear "Satisfaction." This is The Rolling Stones. My guest
is Keith Richards, and he's written a new autobiography called "Life."

(Soundbite of song, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction")

THE ROLLING STONES (Rock Band): I can't get no satisfaction. I can't get no
satisfaction 'cause I try and I try and I try and I try. I can't get no, I
can't get no.

When I'm drivin' in my car and a man comes on the radio and he's tellin' me
more and more about some useless information, supposed to fire my imagination,
I can't get no, oh no, no, no. Hey, hey, hey, that's what I say.

GROSS: That's The Rolling Stones, and my guest is Keith Richards, and he's
written his autobiography. It's called "Life." Now that cassette that you
mentioned, that you used to write down the idea for "Satisfaction" in the
middle of the night that so surprised you when you played it back in the
morning, that cassette or one just like it was also really helpful to you in
coming up with a kind of transformative guitar sound.

Would you describe how you would plug your acoustic guitar in motel rooms, into
the cassette machine?

Mr. RICHARDS: I'll try. Yes, it's was a good question. You know, I'll try
because there I am, I now have my hands on the best amplifiers in the world and
the best guitars. But I'm trying to translate another sound in my head that I
can't find through conventional means.

I always play a lot of acoustic guitar, and the cassette machine, in those
days, before they had things on them called governors, which mean that you
could not overload the machinery, I would just shove the acoustic guitar and
use basically, I would use the cassette player as an amplifier, basically, and
overload the acoustic guitar so it becomes an electric guitar.

But at the same time, you see, you still have that feel of an acoustic, which
is totally different to an electric. So and I'm still looking for the perfect
example of this, but I'm going to keep going, you know.

GROSS: So what you would get is like an electrified acoustic guitar that was
also distorted.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, exactly. You've got it, Terry. You've got it. That's it. I
was trying to get the quality and the touch that you can get from an acoustic
guitar and then overload it and make it sound like an electric guitar.

But at the same time, you have that original acoustic touch because, you know,
this gets complicated, because guitars are strange animals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: But there's a touch that you can get off an acoustic guitar that
you'll never get off an electric.

And so I was trying to figure how to electrify the acoustic feel and still
translate it, and so that was the name of the game. That was it.

GROSS: Now, it was surprising enough to me to read how you did this in your
motel room, but then reading how you did it also in the recording studio was
fascinating, that you wanted that sound so much that you brought in the
cassette machine and plugged your acoustic guitar into it.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yes, I mean, I took these ideas, and the Stones were in the
studio, and we were all looking at it and then: It doesn't have what you had on
the, you know, on the original idea.

And so finally, after many attempts to try and reproduce this sort of idea, you
know, with amplifiers and, you know, conventionally, I think it was Charlie
Watts, maybe. Let's go back, you know, to how you did it in the first place and
work it from there, you know, which is why you've got "Street Fighting Man" and
"Jumpin' Jack Flash." There were no electric guitars at all. It's just
overloaded acoustics.

I don't know. I like that denseness of color, of feel that you can get out of
that. And it's an experiment I might take up again once they start making
cassette machines again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you think "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is a good illustration of what you
were doing?

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, yeah, and "Street Fighting Man" is probably another great
example of it.

GROSS: Which one would you rather hear?

Mr. RICHARDS: I love them both, honey. Don't ask me to cut the babies in half.

GROSS: All right. So we'll go "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, go there. All right, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So here's the Rolling Stones, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and my guest, Keith
Richards, playing the kind of plugged-into-the-cassette-machine guitar that he
was just describing. And he has an autobiography called "Life."

(Soundbite of song, "Jumpin' Jack Flash")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) One-two. I was born in a cross-fire hurricane,
and I howled at my ma in the driving rain. But it's all right now. In fact it's
a gas. But it's all right. I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas.

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag...

GROSS: That's The Rolling Stones, "Jumpin' Jack Flash." My guest is Keith
Richards, and he has a new autobiography, which is called "Life."

Then there are the songs that you describe as anti-girl songs that the Stones
did like "Stupid Girl," "Under My Thumb," "Out of Time," "Yesterday's Papers."
And this is where I've been so ambivalent about some of the songs, Stones'
songs like "Under My Thumb." "Under My Thumb" is so catchy. I mean, I think
it's just, like, irresistibly, irresistible, what's going on like melodically
and rhythmically in there. And then, you know, I catch myself singing along,
and what am I singing? You know, like, about this girl who's, like, under his
thumb.

Mr. RICHARDS: You know, it's got - it's...

GROSS: And so, anyways, were you ever ambivalent about that?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, let me try and break in here, Terry.

GROSS: Go ahead. Thank you.

Mr. RICHARDS: Let me break in here and say you can take it as, you know, male-
female, like, or it's just people. I mean, it could be about a guy. It could've
been - you know, this is just a guy singing, you know, that probably you're
actually under her thumb and you're just trying to fight back.

You know, and these are all sort of relationships and stuff. And then I
wouldn't take it as any sexist - I can't even go there, you know, because I
don't think about it. I just think we know what some people are like, and then
those things happen. And anyway, I didn't write the lyrics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Cut to the chase.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Off the hook. All right.

We're listening back to the interview I recorded with Keith Richards. His
autobiography is called "Life." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Keith Richards. He has a new
memoir called "Life." It's about his life and the life with The Rolling Stones.

Let's talk just a little bit about Altamont, which was the music festival in
which - at the Altamont Raceway in California...

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...which one man was stabbed to death and three others died
accidentally. This was a free concert, and you describe how you'd asked the
Grateful Dead - by you, I mean The Rolling Stones - had asked the Grateful Dead
to help organize it because they had a lot of experience with free concerts
and...

Mr. RICHARDS: Exactly.

GROSS: ...the permits that you'd expected to get for Golden Gate Park and
another place or two fell through, and by that time Altamont was the only place
available.

Mr. RICHARDS: It was, yeah.

GROSS: So when you are on stage there, at what point did you know things were
really taking a bad turn and that this wasn't like a Woodstock concert, this
was - there were some really nasty things happening in the audience?

Mr. RICHARDS: There was the potential for nasty things, and nasty things did
happen. From my point of view, I was amazed that that was all that happened.
Meredith, who went down in the scene...

GROSS: The man who was killed - stabbed to death.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, the man who got - he was asking for trouble. And you have
the Hells Angels there. Basically, from my point of view, I'd say I realized
this thing was getting dodgy just by looking at the Angels.

GROSS: Who were hired to do the security. I think I might have neglected to
mention that.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, like, you know, yeah, the Grateful Dead's guys and they
said, oh no problem, you know, these guys, we work with them and blah, blah.
And it's like, okay, we just want to know how to do it, we just want to throw a
free one, you know.

Also, a unique time for America, 1969, there were no cops around. There were -
it was just, just go off and do what you want to do, you know. There was no, in
other words, control. And it was a very, very weird feeling in the middle of
nowhere. You know, Altamont is basically, you know, Mars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: And there's nobody else to turn to accept who, the Hell's Angels.
I'm not going to turn to them; they're all on acid and Thunderbird wine. And we
did, I think we did, actually, an incredible job, if you look at the whole
video of it, the footage of it, that it didn't get out of hand because there
was that point where it could've really got out of hand.

And I think by just saying, stop it, we ain't going to play or da, da, da,
somehow there was a check, and we managed to prevent a much larger disaster.
And, but you've got to wing these things. You don't know what's going to
happen, you know.

GROSS: Did you decide at that point what would be the best song to play to
quiet things down as opposed to amp things up?

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, I don't know about whether it was the right song to play,
but I think we went into "Sympathy For the Devil."

GROSS: That's what I thought. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: But, yeah. But I think we just wanted something with a rhythm,
just yeah, it didn't really - by then nobody could hear what anybody was
singing or saying or anything. It was just like...

(Soundbite of clap)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...hey, you know when there's a fight in a barroom and the band
stops and then, you know, some stuff goes down and they're like...

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...play some music, whatever it is, we don't give a damn, just
play, you know, just divert attention and try to get people into a pulse. You
know, I mean, so whatever it was we chose to sing about.

GROSS: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Mr. RICHARDS: That's a good call. And it's very hard to pick out. No, no,
there's nothing I would have done differently. I would've had to, you know, how
do you deal with things that are just...

(Soundbite of snap)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...snapping at you straight at the face, and you're on the line?
I can't think of anything where I said, oh, I wish I'd done that, or I should
have done that.

GROSS: In describing your approach to songwriting, you talk about vowel
movements - that's vowel with a V, as in A-E-I-O-U.

Mr. RICHARDS: That was with Warren Zevon. That's was, yes, my conversation with
Warren.

GROSS: And explain what a vowel movement is.

Mr. RICHARDS: Well, a vowel - you know what vowels are, right?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. RICHARDS: I mean, there's the ooh's and the ee's and the ahs and the ah,
you know, without the consonants. And it's where they come sometimes in a
record that will either make or break a record. It was about choosing the right
sound at the right time to put the right ooh or ah and whether a word should
contain that vowel or not.

Warren Zevon said to me, said, damn it, he says, my problem is consonants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: You know what I mean? This is a songwriting thing, you know?

GROSS: But you actually use like oohs and ahs in some of the writing.

Mr. RICHARDS: Yeah, I think about them...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RICHARDS: ...and whether they're in the right place. Yeah. I mean, if
you're a songwriter you got to think about things like that. I mean, the wrong-
sounding vowel in the wrong place can ruin a good record, you know?

GROSS: Now is "Beast of Burden" a good example of that, like in the bridge, in
the am I rough enough, ooh, you know, the oohs there in that bridge?

Mr. RICHARDS: Yes, exactly. I mean there's, you know, we worked an awful lot on
where to put the oohs and the ahs and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...you got to laugh about this because when you're tearing to
bits, like, what it is you actually do, it's kind of weird, right? It's very
important whether you go e, ooh, ah, ooh, uh, et cetera, when you're making a
record because the wrong vowels in the wrong places might trip everything up.

So you concentrate on everything when you're writing a song or making a record.
You know, it's sometimes probably you concentrate too much. But, at the same
time, yeah, you know, I concentrate on vowel movement.

GROSS: So I'm going to play "Beast of Burden." Do you want to say anything
about writing it or what you're playing on it?

Mr. RICHARDS: No. I loved it. It's another one that came very natural, sitting
around with Mick and...

(Soundbite of snap)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...here's one. And Mick - see I write songs for Mick to sing, you
know, that's what I do. I mean, you don't get "Midnight Ramblers" out of
nowhere. You don't get "Gimme Shelter" out of nowhere. I'm writing for this, I
say man, I know this guy can handle this, and nobody will ever be able to
handle it any other way. What I do is write songs for Mick to sing, and if he
picks up on it...

(Soundbite of snap)

Mr. RICHARDS: ...baby we got, you know. If he doesn't, I just let it sit on the
shelf.

GROSS: What are the qualities in his voice and in his personality that you feel
you're writing for?

Mr. RICHARDS: He's an outstanding performer. Hey, you're talking about a
mixture of James Brown and Maria Callas here, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHARDS: I got you.

GROSS: That's good.

Mr. RICHARDS: Oh, yeah. And to have to work with such an outsized personality,
ego and say, hey, whatever it takes, it's there, and you got to, you know, and
you've got a go for it, and sometimes it doesn't work, and a lot of times it
does. And so you just keep on pushing, you know.

GROSS: My interview with Keith Richards was recorded last October, after the
publication of his autobiography "Life." Our series featuring some of the most
entertaining interviews of the year continues in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's "Beast of Burden."

Mr. MICK JAGGER: (Singing) I'll never be your beast of burden. My back is broad
but it's a hurting. All I want is for you to make love to me. I'll never be
your beast of burden. I've walked for miles my feet are hurting. All I want is
for you to make love to me.
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The Modern-Day Renaissance Man In Queen's Brian May

TERRY GROSS, host:

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN (Rock band): (Singing) ...now I've gone and thrown it all away. Mama,
ooh...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

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

QUEEN: (Singing) Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. And
another one gone. And another one gone.

GROSS: That's the band Queen. Brian May is a founding member and it's lead
guitarist. In recent years, he's been concerned with a different kind of dust.
Three years ago he submitted his doctoral thesis in astrophysics on the subject
"A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud." He's 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 recently co-wrote the book "A Village Lost and Found" that features
stereoscopic photos from the 1850s. In August, I spoke with May about Queen and
its lead singer Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991.

Brian May wrote one of the band's biggest hits, "We Will Rock You."

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

(Soundbite of stomping and clapping)

QUEEN: (Singing) Buddy, you're a boy, make a big noise playing in the street,
gonna be a big man someday. 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 someday. 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 is 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. Were you
thinking of it as a sports anthem? Because it almost sounds like an old-school
cheerleader cheer, you know, because...

Dr. BRIAN MAY (Astrophysicist, Author, Musician): 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.

You know, so, people singing along wasn't part of our agenda. Having said that
and then having experienced this wave of participation of the audience, and
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, and 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: ...in 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.

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: Mm-hmm. 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
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. But the guitar -
yeah, I didn't want it 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, just 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: 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.

(Soundbite of Brian May's guitar solo)

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: Mm-hmm. 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. That was - you can hear this little feedback note.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MAY: 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.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a co-founder of the band Queen, and its lead
guitarist. 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. Yes.

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

GROSS: That's Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with - featuring my guest Brian May
on guitar.

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
don’t have 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 we 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.

GROSS: Oh.

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 young 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 song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

THE MUPPETS: (Singing) I see a little silhouetto of a clam, Scaramouch,
Scaramouch, 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. 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 anyone 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.

This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Brian May, a co-founder 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 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, no - and 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 feel about Freddie? Well, you know, it's strange. I think
it was a sort of an un-discussed 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.

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 Ph.D. 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, 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
Ph.D., it's not like you're sitting in a large lecture class with people,
but...

Mr. MAY: Oh, 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, 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 was tough,
I'd say. But I didn't want to be treated any different from any other student.
I wanted this Ph.D. to be real. And it was. You know, they didn't make it easy
on me. And I never wanted that. But it was worth it. I'm happy that I got the
Ph.D.

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 particles.

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. 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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAY: 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, astrophysicist and lead guitarist of the band Queen recorded
last August.

Our week-long retrospective of some of our most entertaining interviews of the
year continues tomorrow.

I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
$00.00
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