I think my main concerns when I was 16 were the same as they are now. I was very passionate about making music. I was entranced by the universe and wanted to explore it. And I had a strong feeling about animals. A feeling that things weren’t right in terms of the way we treat the other creatures on this planet. And that was a very strong feeling I had from an early age. Which grew, and eventually, much later in my life, I found a way to do something about it. But it took me a very long time.
I would tell my 16-year-old self to be brave. Believe in yourself even when everyone’s telling you that you aren’t capable. A lot of people dent you when you’re growing up and that can take a long time to get over. I was very shy, completely lacking in confidence. I didn’t have a good feeling about the way I looked, very tall and thin and gangly. I felt I stood out so I walked with a stoop.
I went to an all-boys’ school, which I think is a terrible idea. To separate boys from girls at that time in their lives – it scars them forever, and leaves them lacking in the skills they need to make contact with the opposite sex. I think one of the reasons I became a rock musician was because of that. I remember going to a dance and a local rock band were playing. Some boys were asking girls to dance but I didn’t know where to start and I was far too shy to consider it. I thought to myself, if I was on stage I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this. I would just be away up there, being fabulous, and maybe girls would come to me.
It would be very romantic to say the moment I met Freddie I felt my future begin to map out in front of me, but I think that path was welded into me long before that. It began when I first heard that clang of Buddy Holly’s guitar listening to Radio Luxembourg, when I heard Little Richard screaming. Something happened inside me and I thought, this expresses what’s inside me, who I need to be. Then I met Roger [Taylor] and he was the first person I’d encountered who had the same feelings. Then of course there was Freddie. He was so convinced that he would be successful, he never doubted it. We were all precocious boys but he was another level. But we all shared this passion. And the energy grew and coalesced into something very powerful.
The first time I felt we were really on our way was when we played The Rainbow, the old Finsbury Park Astoria [in North London]. It had a legendary status and for us it felt like a real pinnacle and one we might not be able to climb. I remember our promoter telling us, you can do this. It was our first UK tour, and he said, you can cap it all at the end by headlining The Rainbow. And we looked at him with doubt. But we sold it out and it was a triumph. That was a very strong moment in starting to believe that we could really make it.
If I wanted to really impress the 16-year-old Brian I’d show him a film of me playing guitar on the top of Buckingham Palace [May performed a guitar solo of God Save the Queen on the roof of the palace as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002]. Alone and terrified but facing the fear and pulling it off. That was probably the most challenging moment of my musical life. And it was
also life-changing. I’d prepared everything I could but a million things could have gone wrong and I’d have looked a fool, standing away up there, getting it wrong.