“Anybody fancy a season of BM re-releases with lots of juicy extras?” asked Brian May through his Instagram feed in 2020. “We’re working on a plan!!!” The first stage of that plan comes to fruition now, with the long-awaited reissue of the legendary Queen guitarist’s superlative debut solo album. Almost thirty years on from its initial release, Back To the Light stands as an intimate and expansive testament to the talent and tenacity of one of the foremost guitarists and songwriters of his generation.
On its release in September 1992, Back to the Light was an unqualified hit. Hitting number six in the UK album charts, it produced a brace of indelible singles; Introduced to Queen fans during an emotive performance at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Wembley Stadium, in April 1992, Too Much Love Will Kill You reached number five in the UK. Driven by You had already peaked at number six. The anthemic Back to the Light and rollicking Resurrection also charted, while the instrumental Last Horizon would become a staple of both The Brian May Band’s solo concerts and May’s later live return to Queen.
Sometimes rocking, sometimes reflective, the singles give a sense of the album’s depth and reach. The Dark reconfigures Queen’s We Will Rock You to introspective ends and builds to a symphonic crescendo, before the full-blooded title-track sets out May’s stall between its multi-tracked voices, euphoric chorus and crunchy guitars. Love Token is one of May’s ‘momma and poppa’ songs, a tale of a break-up plotted over blues-rock backing. Co-credited to drummer Cozy Powell and featuring revered rock musician Don Airey on keyboards, Resurrection is a glittering high energy rocker, with probably as many operatic overdubs as Bohemian Rhapsody. Featuring a tour de force from May on guitar and cataclysmic drum pyrotechnics from Powell, for many this is the outstanding track of the album. Lyrically, it is mounted on personal foundations, troubled at the heart but determined to find hope in “the promise of the future”.
Too Much Love Will Kill You is a scorching confessional, which May cites as possibly the most important recording of his life. It earned a coveted Ivor Novello Award (Best Song Musically and Lyrically) and reappeared later in a different incarnation as a Queen track. Driven by You is a harmonious HIT rocker with a rousing chorus, the result of Brian accepting a challenge to create a track for a Ford Motor Car TV ad. Band-mate Freddie complimented him on this vocal delivery! The heart-breaking Nothin’ but Blue is co-credited to Cozy Powell and is the sister track to Somewhere In Time from his The Drums Are Back album. The song was written by Brian May the night before Freddie Mercury passed away. Queen’s John Deacon makes a rare guest appearance on bass.
The roistering I’m Scared wears Brian’s fears on its sleeve, while Last Horizon reaches for a sense of serenity in its expressive guitar work. Written for skiffle star Lonnie Donegan, Let Your Heart Rule Your Head proves May’s easy way with buoyant melody. Just One Life is a poignant elegy to a lost loved one, but very unusual in that Brian wrote the song about someone he never met – only came to know at a celebration of his life.
Finally, a joyful cover – the only one on the album – of the Small Faces’ Rollin’ Over realigns Brian May with some of his early rock roots.
Written during a period of immense personal upheaval between 1988 and 1992, Back to the Light finds Brian May assuming the spotlight with cathartic honesty and artistry. It followed the losses of his father and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, and the temporary cessation of the band’s activities. It also followed May’s separation from his first wife in 1988 and relationship with Anita Dobson, which made him the unwilling recipient of tabloid attention. In interviews, he talked about the struggles he experienced as a result of these life changes, describing the album as a kind of therapy.
In its making, he drew support from friends and storied collaborators. Alongside Deacon, Powell and Airey, guests included Neil Murray (Whitesnake, Black Sabbath) and Gary Tibbs (Adam & The Ants, Roxy Music) on bass, Geoff Dugmore on drums (Let Your Heart Rule Your Head, Rollin’ Over), and Mike Moran on piano/keyboards across three tracks. Vocal assistance came from famed British singer Chris Thompson, with backing vocals at various junctures from Miriam Stockley, Maggie Ryder, Suzie O’List and Gill O’Donovan.
Long unavailable on CD, vinyl, digital download and streaming services, the reissue arrives with audio supervision from Justin Shirley-Smith and Kris Fredriksson. On the original release’s liner notes, Shirley-Smith received an affectionate namecheck for, writes Brian, “dealing with my erratic recording habits” in his role as co-producer and engineer. “Brian is a perfectionist and he won’t leave something until he’s happy,” says Shirley-Smith, whose work for Queen stretches back to 1984.
Sound engineer Fredriksson wanted to see that perfectionism reflected in the reissue. “If it hasn’t been available and we’re going to reissue it,” he notes, “we thought why not get it remastered by the best mastering engineer in the world?”. Enter Grammy-winner Bob Ludwig, who worked from the original restored flat mixes to ensure this new edition of Back To The Light sounds better than ever.
Meanwhile, Fredriksson cast the net wide to source bonus tracks for a second disc, Out of the Light. Brian’s Red Special speaks on haunting instrumental versions of Nothin’ but Blue, Too Much Love Will Kill You and Just One Life. Driven by You Two, the Ford advert version of Driven by You and Driven by You (Cozy and Neil Version ’93) also feature alongside some live cuts. ’39/Let Your Heart Rule Your Head, Last Horizon and We Will Rock You were recorded at a triumphant Brixton Academy show on 15 June 1993, documented on the Live at the Brixton Academy album and film, where The Brian May Band featured Powell (drums), Spike Edney (keyboards), Jamie Moses (guitar), Neil Murray (bass) and, on backing vocals, Catherine Porter and Shelley Preston.
The live version of Too Much Love Will Kill You was recorded at the Palace Theater, Los Angeles, on 6 April 1993; the night before, Brian and a special guest tore through Queen concert favourite Tie Your Mother Down on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “Welcome, Mr Slash,” says Brian, as the Guns N’ Roses guitarist serves notice of May’s multi-generational influence.
To mark the occasion of the reissue, Back to the Light will be available in a Collector’s Edition box set featuring an exclusive white-vinyl LP, two CDs, a thirty two-page book, a 12” art print, a download card and an enamel badge all presented in a lift-lid box. A limited-edition (one thousand) of the same box-set is available exclusively on Queen Online Store with a signed 12” art print.
Disc 1: Back To The Light:
Back To The Light
Too Much Love Will Kill You
Driven By You
Nothin’ But Blue
Let Your Heart Rule Your Head
Just One Life
Disc 2: Out Of The Light:
Nothin’ But Blue – Guitar Version
Too Much Love Will Kill You – Guitar Version
Just One Life – Guitar Version
Driven By You Two
Driven By You – Ford Ad Version
Tie Your Mother Down (Featuring Slash) – Live on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, 5th April 1993
Too Much Love Will Kill You – Live at the Palace Theatre, Los Angeles, 6th April 1993
’39 / Let Your Heart Rule Your Head – Live at the Brixton Academy, 15th June 1993
Last Horizon – Live at the Brixton Academy, 15th June 1993
We Will Rock You – Live at the Brixton Academy 15 June 1993
Driven By You – Cozy and Neil Version ’93
Almost three decades on, Brian’s new sleeve notes include a tribute to the late, great Cozy Powell, along with a reflection on the search the album documents. “In 2021, proudly and fondly presenting this work to a new audience,” writes May, “and noting carefully my original liner notes, I can report that I am still on the quest of finding answers to most of the questions posed in this suite of songs, and to this day, the Light still glimmers darkly, tantalizingly, always a little out of reach. Music gets us through.” Lit up with emotional honesty, big tunes, rock’n’roll vim and world-class guitar work, Back to the Light shines on.
Back to the Light releases on August 6th.