Malta will host one of the most anticipated musical events on Saturday. Queen’s legendary guitarist Brian May and singing sensation Kerry Ellis speak to Herman Grech about spreading their wings beyond Queen.
Brian May and Kerry Ellis saunter on to the Riga Arena stage as though they are about to deliver a lecture.
With candles lighting up the stage, it is a huge departure from the ostentatious approach of Queen’s last official tour in 1986 when Freddie Mercury pirouetted on stage and May’s guitar tore into One Vision, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
Instead, award-winning Ellis sits on a stool and mesmerises with a stunning rendition of I Who Have Nothing, made famous by Shirley Bassey. This is as intimate as it gets.
Twenty-eight years since Mercury’s last strut on stage, and 23 years since his death, his colleague May can still thrill with his unmistakable sound... even if he is strumming an acoustic guitar.
“I feel I have a better vision, more than ever, working with Kerry,” May tells The Sunday Times of Malta.
The Candlelight Concerts have featured May and Ellis performing stripped down versions of Queen classics alongside a number of their personal favourite songs.
It is certainly not a Queen concert, and the two make an unlikely pairing, but it is rather a match made in heaven.
With Queen we always fought and we probably would still have been fighting. It’s part of the creative process. But we’d still be around
Sitting in their hotel room in the Latvian capital just hours before the gig, May and Ellis are curious to learn more about Valletta’s St George’s Square, which will host Saturday’s concert. Neither have ever been to Malta though May’s father once worked on the island.
It will be the 66-year-old guitarist’s last date with the talented British singer for the time being before sealing a successful acoustic tour. But the indefatigable May has no intention of hanging up his guitar.
He will be joining Queen drummer Roger Taylor and American singer Adam Lambert for a tour of Queen songs in the US this summer.
Meanwhile, May is busy working on a compilation album featuring two to three previously unheard Queen recordings with Michael Jackson. And that’s not to mention the fact he is a producer, an active animal rights campaigner, an astrophysicist, PhD, CBE and author…
So which hat does he prefer wearing?
“I actually like doing this. Music is my first love. There’s so much freedom with this set-up and we’re very honest in this informal show. I love Queen. I’m proud of what we did. But Queen comes with a big, heavy hat. The pressure is very challenging.”
May shows no signs of slowing down despite going through a cancer health scare last Christmas.
“I’ve had a succession of problems. Your body changes, like a car... and when you can’t fix it any more you die,” he laughs.
His black humour is punctuated by the fact he lost some of his friends and closest collaborators at early age – Mercury, aged 45; drummer Cozy Powell, aged 50; and recently Queen producer David Richards, aged 57.
May goes to great pains to explain how happy he is collaborating with the girl he first spotted performing during My Fair Lady. Soon she landed the part of Meat in the musical We Will Rock You before the Queen guitarist asked her to collaborate with him.
“She’s a perfect singer with a voice in a million. It was great to find the right material to make use of her potential. I was excited. I don’t have Freddie any more. I’ve been on the road, I like to sing but I’m not the greatest singer.
“We do anything that excites us. I’m clear about the way I want her voice to come through. Freddie would always come back with something better. And Kerry comes back with something better than I could imagine.”
In a humble tone, May dismisses suggestions that the crowds simply show up to see him perform. Ellis has a big following, especially in Britain.
There is clearly no leader in this collaboration as they giggle like excited schoolchildren about the success of the previous night’s debut of Queen’s Is This The World We Created? in Moscow.
“Did you hear it on YouTube? It’s lovely,” May asks Ellis, his tone akin to somebody still starting off in the industry.
The set is a blend of covers, including The Beatles’ Something and Kansas’s Dust in the Wind, merged with a couple of original songs, and interspersed with Queen classics.
Audiences do not show up demanding just Queen songs, he stresses.
“People are very educated these days especially because there is an online community. In the past it was compartmentalised but the social media really changed that.”
Ellis describes her collaboration with May as liberating, away from the boundaries imposed by musical theatre.
“It’s a joy to work, he makes you feel really comfortable, and the audience loves him. I learnt so much from Brian. It’s been a privilege,” she says.
So, 23 years since Mercury’s death, why do Queen remain one of the most enduring and influential bands of all time?
May says it was merely the quality of songs. The fact the four band members were songwriters resulted in fierce competition which helped to hone their skills.
“We were so lucky that organically we found each other with one of the greatest singers ever. Roger, although we fight like cats and dogs, and he’s a pain in the neck, is one of the world’s greatest drummers and fiercely creative. John Deacon was the perfect bass player.”
Several critics have spared no punches in accusing May and Taylor of stretching out the Queen legacy way past its sell-by date.
“Our crits are welcome to say we’re doing it past our date,” the guitarist says diplomatically.
But safe in the knowledge that Queen albums continue selling (the band’s first Greatest Hits compilation recently became the best-selling UK album of all time), May is determined to continue strumming his guitar for as long as he can.
“In my mind, of course it isn’t Queen without Freddie or John (Deacon). It’s just Roger and me; we’re doing what we do best. We play together very well. We’re not stuck in the old days because we are able to reinterpret with Adam Lambert, who is a great singer. “We don’t perform together all the time as you know. Just now and again it’s nice to dive back in and give a certain number of people exactly what they want.”
And people of all generations still want more of Queen. Their concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden sold out instantly.
If Mercury was still around, would Queen still be around or would the legendary internal bickering have become unhealthy?
“We always fought and we probably would still have been fighting. It’s part of the creative process. But we’d still be around,” May smiles.
I think real men don’t hunt
The British band which rocked and partied through the 1970s slowed down by the late 1980s when it became known that Mercury was suffering from an AIDS-related illness.
Queen’s last two albums are lauded for providing an introspective look at a band on borrowed time.
May looks into thin air when asked to explain the story behind Mother Love, the last song Mercury sang just days before he died and completed post-mortem.
“It was a strange situation. Freddie was really quite ill but there were moments when he was just OK and could prop himself up and sing. But he was eager to help and that’s what made him smile. Freddie loved Chris Isaac’s Wicked Game and said he wanted a song like it.
“I had something in my head and put it down. It was right on the spur of the moment. I wrote the lyrics on the back of a scrap of paper and I would sing it for him. I would demo it and for each line we would do four takes.
“He’d sip vodka and ask for more lyrics and say ‘you can finish it off when I’m gone’. He was completely focused. He knew he wouldn’t be there for so long. So we got all the way to the middle eight, and he said we need to go higher, higher. It’s amazing.”
“Mother Love was a concept we understood. While everyone’s looking for love, perhaps what they’re really looking for is the love they got from their mother because that’s something you can never rediscover. But of course underneath we were thinking, where is Freddie going and where are we all going eventually?”
May also wrote the classic The Show Must Go On, a song filled with innuendos, which many also interpret as Mercury’s swan song.
All four members of Queen guarded their work, and in so doing, often shielded the message behind the song.
“You have your own story in your mind and you don’t necessarily share it with the people you’re working with. Generally, there are a number of layers. But as things went on with Freddie, we started talking a bit more about what we wanted the music to say.
“Freddie was aware his time was running out. And there was still a layer which we didn’t penetrate. But we didn’t sit down and say we’re going to write a song about dying. I had this idea about a sad clown but who always had a smile on. And Freddie liked it. The Show Must Go On is a long story. I could hear this cyclic thing.”
Years after Mercury’s death, the Queen legacy was further curated in a big way by the musical We Will Rock You, which introduced the band to a new generation.
Despite being savagely panned by the critics, the musical will only be shutting down its London run in May, after a successful 12-year run.
May admits he is sad to see the final curtain.
“It’s a shame but you have to move on, though I’m sure it will come back at some point. The truth is you get constrained. It’s expensive to run with the set-up and running costs. Most musicals break even. We made a huge amount of money. But if the audiences dip a little, you are running down the line.”
While the musical also helped morph Ellis into a star, May admits there might be another project in the pipeline with co-author Ben Elton.
The latest tour is clearly a low-key event, a stark difference to the guitarist who had more than a point to prove at Live Aid in 1985, who performed during the Queen’s jubilee celebrations in 2002, before closing off the London Olympics in 2012.
Asked to name the most daunting moment of his career, without hesitation, May says it was performing God Save the Queen on the roof of Buckingham Palace.
“I was utterly alone with no safety net in front of a billion people. I was scared of looking like a big idiot.”
Despite being hailed as one of the world’s finest guitarists and songwriters, May is anything but smug. But being active for decades, and with one of the most recognisable hairstyles in the business, May is constantly harassed by fans.
Recently, he appeared to have temporarily ditched his Mr Nice Guy tag when he inadvertently snubbed a long-time fan and then wrote on his blog about the baggage of being a rock star. “There comes a point when you have to set a boundary or else you lose yourself. You get to a situation around concerts where a lot of people want to talk to you and you want to talk to them, but you get swamped by people depositing stuff in front of you to sign.
“You can’t have a conversation, look people in the eye and talk the way we are talking right now. When you end up just signing stuff it’s a very unsatisfactory experience, especially when you know a lot of it is ending up being auctioned on eBay. I don’t want to be rude to anyone, because you end up feeling sorry because they are genuine fans.”
As a young man, May attended London’s illustrious Imperial College until he abandoned his studies and a promising future in astrophysics to fully dedicate himself to Queen. Completing his PhD in 2007, May says his love for astronomy has affected him philosophically. From studying the universe he soon came right back down to earth, to actively campaign for animal rights, especially the badger.
Has he succeeded in making a change?
“A lot of people are telling me it’s made a big difference but it’s hard to gauge. I think what’s happened is a network of people has started being vocal about animals. We put a brake on the people who would be heading us right towards the dark ages because they think animals are worthless.
“We have a government made up of fox hunters and that regards wildlife as having no value. We haven’t managed to stop them in their fiendish plans… yet! There’s a rising tide of people who argue that animals have feelings like we do and have as much right to walk the planet as we do.”
Pointing out that he was aware of the “problem” of bird hunting in Malta, May is asked whether hunting in any form is ever justified: “I think real men don’t hunt. It’s an outdated concept. The idea that you get pleasure from killing animals is repulsive. It’s a human quality we could do without.”
Are politicians reluctant to tackle hunting for populist reasons?
“Oh no, it’s for money reasons. I don’t know much about Malta but I know in the UK there are people who own thousands of acres and make millions of pounds per minute from letting people hunt on their land. There are millions of snares in Britain and it’s so cruel for all animals, including cats and dogs that get caught up in them and die a painful death.”
Animal rights are very much at the centre of the current tour. Photos and film of badgers and lions are projected on to a screen behind the pair throughout a set in Riga that lasts two hours.
Ellis stuns with a voice that never falters, rising to a crescendo with Born Free, in aid of a foundation working to save Africa’s lion.
Midway through the gig, May ups the tempo with an eight-minute guitar solo. It is one of the highlights of the show. The simple sight of May’s Red Special guitar elicits applause.
An utterly unthinkable country version of Queen songs Tie Your Mother Down and then Crazy Little Thing Called Love gets the crowd on its feet.
A man in his late 60s in the second row plays air guitar. Next to him a boy in his teens mouths all the lyrics to the anthem We Will Rock You. Two decades after officially disbanding, with a little help from friends like Ellis, it is clear Queen has no sell-by date.
Brian May’s finest tunes
We Will Rock You
The Show Must Go On
Tie Your Mother Down
Who Wants to Live Forever?
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