Brian May is not your typical rock star. That much is obvious when the Queen guitarist greets Weekend dressed as a frock-coated Victorian gentleman at the launch of his latest venture – a lavish book bringing together the twin 19th century sensations of crinoline and stereoscopic photography.
May’s lifelong passion for the Victorian equivalent of virtual reality was ignited when, as a child, he discovered a pair of 3D stereo viewing cards in a packet of Weetabix. More than 50 years on, he is the proud owner of The London Stereoscopic Company (estab. 1854) and its literary imprint, whose latest publication, Crinoline: Fashion’s Most Magnificent Disaster, collects together hundreds of contemporary stereo photographs issued to showcase – and, more often than not, mock – the Victorian craze for absurdly voluminous petticoats.
The book – which features contributions from latter-day crinoline evangelists Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes – even comes with its own patented stereo viewer, the Owl, which May has designed himself. It’s something he has form in, having built the guitar he plays on most Queen records at the age of 16, using wood from an 18th century fireplace. Told you he wasn’t your typical rock star.
‘The Owl allows us to communicate the thrill of what the Victorians experienced,’ he enthuses. ‘We forget how stupendous this was for them. They’d never seen a photograph until about 1850 – then suddenly they’re seeing the whole world in 3D! I love the magic that’s inside there.’
The crinoline angle was suggested by May’s co-author, photo historian Denis Pellerin. ‘I didn’t quite get it in the beginning,’ he admits. ‘But the more I realised how intimately linked the stereoscope and crinoline were, the more I realised there was a story that should be told.’
With his famously unruly curls now a shock of white, like an electrified cloud, May is the first to concede he’s not much of a fashion expert. ‘I’m one of the world’s most unfashionable people, probably,’ he laughs. ‘Fashion always signified conformity to me, and I don’t like conformity. So I’ve tended to resist fashion all my life.’
Born in London in 1947, May formed his first rock band at the local grammar school, before going on to study mathematics and physics at Imperial College London. He was midway through his PhD on the velocity of interplanetary dust when he got distracted by his latest band, Queen, becoming one of the biggest pop groups on the planet.
Fronted by the hypnotically flamboyant Freddie Mercury, Queen went on to sell somewhere in the region of 200 million records, and gift the world such immortal anthems as Bohemian Rhapsody, We Are the Champions, Don’t Stop Me Now and We Will Rock You. May was devastated by Mercury’s death, aged just 45, in 1991. Having also just lost his father, he checked himself into an Arizona clinic, later telling friends he was ‘wounded and very much in pieces’.
He got better, had some solo success, married his long-term partner Anita Dobson and, in 2004, reunited with drummer Roger Taylor to revive Queen, with Paul Rodgers and later Adam Lambert on vocals. He also re-registered for his PhD and, in 2007, finally submitted his thesis – A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud – a mere 37 years after starting it.
Does he think he’d have been happy as a physicist, if rock and roll hadn’t intervened?
‘No,’ he says. ‘I don’t think I had a vision to be a good enough physicist at the time. I wasn’t ready to finish that PhD until 30 years later, when I had some power and creativity of my own. I don’t think I had much confidence as a boy. I didn’t believe in myself, or that I had anything to offer. Music gave me that confidence.’
It also gave him a voice. ‘I do sit occasionally and try to make sense of it all,’ he says. ‘How I managed to find myself in this position, and what I should be doing with the power that’s been given to me. I think the answer is to use whatever I have to try to change the world for the better. Because it needs it – I feel strongly that the world, Britain and America especially, have veered so far off the path of decency. We need a radical shake-up.’
In 2015, May, who has three children by his first wife Chrissie Mullen, launched Common Decency, a protest movement dedicated to ‘freeing Britain from corruption and inequality’. He is also on the frontline of campaigns against fox hunting and badger culling, and once said he would rather be remembered for his animal rights activism than his music – quite an ambition for a man recently voted the second best guitarist of all time (after Eddie Van Halen).
So great is May’s reputation, lest we forget, that in 2002 he was chosen to kickstart the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations by playing a guitar solo of God Save the Queen on the roof of Buckingham Palace.
‘It was very, very frightening,’ he recalls. ‘Not because I might fall off, but because a person might want to throw themselves off if they messed it up. I remember driving around Buckingham Palace in the weeks leading up to it, thinking, Jesus, I actually have to do this now. I’ve committed. I’m going to be up there with no safety net. If I mess up God Save the Queen in front of a billion people, that will be what I am for the rest of my life – the guy who messed up.’
He didn’t mess up, obviously, and a few weeks later was presented to Her Majesty along with fellow guitar legends Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. ‘It seemed – I don’t know if this is true – as if she hadn’t been briefed,’ he reveals. ‘So there was a silence. And of course protocol says you’re not allowed to open a conversation with the monarch, but I thought, somebody has to say something. So I said, “Very happy to meet you, Ma’am – I’m the guy who was standing on your roof”. And she said, “Oh, that was you was it?”’
As a member of the world’s other most famous Queen (and a CBE, to boot), it must have been quite a novelty for him not to be recognised by someone. Now 68, would Dr May – stargazer, badger saver, social warrior, stereophotographer and fashion historian – agree that he’s a somewhat unusual rocker?
‘I suppose so,’ he nods. ‘I’m certainly not the only one. But I guess I’m someone who likes to pursue everything to the Nth degree. I can’t leave things alone – I love to get to the bottom of things. It’s just the way I am.’
Crinoline: Fashion’s Most Magnificent Disaster by Brian May and Denis Pellerin is out now, priced £50 – see londonstereo.com
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 9, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend