As much as Mick is associated with the Stones, Freddie Mercury’s soaring vocals are synonomous with Queen. And yet, most Queen albums included at least one, sometimes more, songs sung by the other members of the band, typically guitarist Brian May and bassist Roger Taylor. Both men could certainly sing, but neither had a voice with the distinctive qualities of Mercury. Of course, few vocalists do, so that is not really a criticism.
I’ve been a fan of Queen since high school, and like many my age listened to their classic A Night at the Opera many, many times. As much as “Bohemian Rhapsody” blew my teenage mind, and the rest of the album was enjoyable (including the Taylor-sung “I’m in Love with my Car,”) something about "’39," sung by May, has stuck with me through the years.
Until I started researching this post, I was under the apparently common mistaken impression that the song was about 1939 and the start of World War II. The wistful tone of the song fit with my belief that it was about someone looking back to the simpler times before the war, which devastated England beyond what we here in the States experienced.
Turns out, the song is about space travel.
The song, which May has described as “sci-fi skiffle,” tells the story of space explorers who head off on a journey and return a year later, only to find that a hundred years have passed, and everyone they knew is dead. Thus, the wistfulness.
In addition to being one of the greatest and most distinctive guitarists in rock music, Brian May is an astrophysicist. He was studying for his Ph.D when he decided to take a break to become a rock star. But he was no slacker, and in 2007, he finally completed his degree. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, a mostly ceremonial position, allowing him to continue to tour and make guest appearances, including at the London Olympics. May has also co-written books on astrophysics and has an asteroid named after him. So, if he wants to write a song about space travel and “time dilation,” he has the musical and intellectual chops to pull it off.
Interestingly, although May sings the song on the album, in concert Mercury usually sang the lead.