Prior to the release of his album Back to the Light in 1992, Queen guitarist Brian May felt like he had the world on his shoulders given the events in his personal life at the time. His relationship with actress Anita Dobson, following a separation from his first wife, became fodder in the British tabloids. The musician also experienced the deaths of two people close to him: his father Harold, who built the signature Red Special guitar with May when he was a teen; and of course Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in 1991. In some way, Back to the Light provided a catharsis from that period of personal upheaval. “Thus you won’t find much in here about how fab it is to be a rock star in Queen,” May wrote in the album’s original liner notes, “but you may find, in contrast, glimpses of someone quite small and insecure. I know him well.”
First released in September 1992 in the U.K., Back to the Light was May’s first proper full-length solo record—not counting 1983’s Star Fleet Project EP, which was credited to Brian May + Friends (featuring Eddie Van Halen, Alan Gratzer, Phil Chen and Fred Mandel); it was a success on the British album chart when it reached number six. Having been long out of print, it is now finally being reissued this Friday on various formats containing the original tracklist as well as bonus live and studio tracks recorded from the period.
Back to the Light had all the sonic hallmarks immediately recognizable to Queen fans: May’s trademark guitar playing; rip-roaring rockers and power ballads; everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production; and, for the first time in a long while, lead vocals by the guitarist. On the record, May, who played guitar and keyboards, was accompanied by musicians such as drummers Cozy Powell and Geoff Dugmore; bassists Neil Murray, Gary Tibbs and John Deacon (May’s Queen bandmate); and keyboardist Don Airey. Beyond the familiar Queen-like hard rock (the chaotic and turbulent “I’m Scared”), there were a few tracks that found May branching out stylistically, such as the bluesy rocker “Love Token” and country-sounding number “Let Your Heart Rule Your Head.” Another track from the record, an instrumental titled “Last Horizon,” would later end up as a solo guitar showcase for May on the Queen tours with Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert.
But outside of May’s guitar playing and the music, the most compelling aspect about Back to the Light was the confessional and personal nature of the lyrics. From the brief lullaby like-intro “The Dark” to an uplifting rendition of the Small Faces’ “Rollin’ Over”), May’s solo debut was almost like a concept record, taking the listener of journey of ever-shifting emotions: vulnerability, fear, anger, sadness, pain, perseverance, and most importantly optimism (“Though the road seems neverending/Hold on to the hope I’m sending through,” he sings on the soulful title track).
This new reissue is an opportunity for the uninitiated to discover a number of some key songs that had success on the British singles chart, the biggest being “Driven by You,” which was recently re-released. Originally written for a Ford car commercial in mind, the anthemic rocker had the support of Mercury who-prior to his death on November 24, 1991 from AIDS-related causes-loved the song and encouraged May to release it as a solo track.
“And he said something very profound at the time,” May recalled in a recent press statement. “He said, ‘You know we’re all thinking and wondering what’s going to happen to me, and you don’t have to feel embarrassed about it. You know you should be thinking about your solo career at this time and if this is the beginning of your solo career then it’s a very worthy beginning. This is probably the beginning of your finding your wings as you need to do.’ So Freddie was very far-sighted and very generous as always and sort of gave me permission to do this as a solo track, which I did.”
Another rocker from Back to the Light that was recently re-released is the explosive “Resurrection” (featuring one of the most dazzling guitar performances of May’s career), whose message was of breaking free from the figurative chains. Almost 30 years later, May said the track was born out of a collaboration between himself and the late Powell, an integral part of Back to the Light. “That’s the one I want played at my funeral, probably,” May also said in a press statement, “because it’s irresistibly, forcefully full of belief. It’s the kind of belief that you need to overcome the massive obstacles that get put in our way during our lives. I feel very proud of it.”
Of the ballads on the album (including the sublime “Nothin’ But Blue” and the elegiac “Just One Life”), “Too Much Love Will Kill You” is most recognizable to Queen fans. Prior to its official studio release on his album, May unveiled the song in April 1992 at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium (Another version of “Too Much Love,” with Mercury on lead vocals, appeared on Queen’s 1995 album Made in Heaven). With the death of Mercury still emotionally raw at the time of the concert, the song particularly resonated even though it wasn’t about the Queen singer; its origins go further back to 1986-1987.
“The things that I struggle with are still there,” May recently said of the song. ““Too Much Love Will Kill You” is a chronicle of what’s actually buried deepest inside me. Every word on it, as I listen to it now, every word counts for me. Every word I would still stand by. It’s exactly how I am inside. I say ‘am’ in the present tense because I’ve come to the realization that I haven’t changed that much. It’s the one opportunity I had in my life to tell it as I saw it. In a way, it’s the most important song I ever wrote because it does sum up life’s journey for me.”
Accompanying the new reissue is a second disc, titled Out of the Light, containing bonus tracks such as guitar instrumental versions of “Nothin’ But Blue,” “Too Much Love Will Kill You,” and “Just One Life”; the Ford television ad version of “Driven by You”; a live performance of Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down,” featuring a guest appearance by Slash, from The Tonight Show”; and tracks from Live at the Brixton Academy, including performances of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “’39.”
The reissue of Back to the Light is the first installment of the Brian May Gold series, which will hopefully mean that his other solo works like the aforementioned Star Fleet Project and 1998’s Another World might also see a re-release. A tour de force then and now, Back to the Light established May as an artist in his own right as a singer, songwriter and producer outside of Queen. “In my mind, this album was always called Back to the Light,” May wrote in the original album notes. “At its beginning I felt no real hope of finding the light; now it glimmers dimly, encouragingly but always intermittently in the hall of mirrors around me.” After nearly 30 years, this underrated album, whosel themes feel more relevant now than ever, is ripe for rediscovery for both old and new fans.