NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t



FRESH AIR: Brian May, the lead guitarist in the British glam-rock band Queen, is a modern-day renaissance man.Eighteen of his albums with Queen have topped the charts, selling more than 300 million copies worldwide. May, who played the guitar solo in “We Are the Champions,” also sang the bass parts in Queen’s rock opera “Bohemian Rhapsody” and penned the classic anthem “We Will Rock You.” He’s on Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 100 guitarists ever.

But May’s interests aren’t limited to the rock world. Before Queen made it big, May was studying astrophysics at Imperial College in London. He gave it up to hit the road with Queen, but his background in physics helped the band in the recording studio: In “We Will Rock You,” for example, he designed the sound of the famous “stomp stomp clap” section — in order to make it sound like thousands of people were stomping and clapping — based on his knowledge of sound waves and distances. (A more detailed explanation exists in interview highlights below, but he constructed the stomps based on a series of distances based on prime numbers.)

He tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross that ironically, that famous “stomp-clap thing” in “We Will Rock You” wasn’t even included in the original song. May explains that he got the idea after a particularly animated Queen show at Bingley Hall near Birmingham, England. “The audience was responding hugely, and they were singing along with everything we did,” he says. “I remember talking to [lead singer] Freddie Mercury about it. And I said, ‘Obviously, we can no longer fight this. This has to be something which is part of our show and we have to embrace it, the fact that people want to participate — and, in fact, everything becomes a two-way process now. And we sort of looked at each other and went, ‘Hmm. How interesting.’ ”

May went home that night and says he woke up the next morning with the “stomp stomp clap” line in his head. “I was thinking, ‘What can you give an audience that they could do while they’re standing there? They can stamp and they can clap and they can sing some kind of chant,’ ” he says. “To me, it was a united thing. It was an expression of strength.”

In 2007, May earned a doctorate from Imperial after completing his dissertation on interplanetary dust. His book on the subject, Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, was released in 2006. May tells Terry Gross that, while traveling the world with Queen, he would often stop in antique stores on the road to look for stereoscopic photographs. His interest in the early 3-D photographs led to the publication of a second book, A Village Lost and Found, which depicts life in a small English village at the beginning of the 1850s.