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Brian May (1934–1997)

by James Koehne

This article was published online in 2022

Brian May, by John Ellis, 1981

Brian May, by John Ellis, 1981

University of Melbourne Archives, 11343/76355

Brian May (1934–1997), composer and band leader, was born on 28 July 1934 in Adelaide, youngest of three sons of Alfred May, driver, and his wife Elsie May, née Walters, both South Australian born. After attending Adelaide Boys’ High School, Brian studied piano, violin, and orchestration at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide, with the ambition of becoming a concert pianist. In January 1954 he was called up for national service with the army. There enthusiasm for the possibilities of writing music emerged through tasks in arranging, initially for the ‘little brass band’ of his unit.

On 29 September 1956 May married Beryl Mavis Todd in Adelaide. In 1957 he joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) as a music arranger and studio pianist. Fulfilling assignments for the varied musical needs of the ABC’s South Australian branch provided him with his ‘grounding in orchestral writing’ (Flanagan 1983). He became indispensable as arranger and conductor of the popular music programs emanating from the Adelaide light entertainment department. May and his supervisor, Cliff Johns, drove an active production schedule in which varied instrumental, vocal, and choral groupings supplied programs earning the department a reputation for ‘light music excellence’ (Buzacott 2007, 356). The department’s output may be heard on ABC ‘house discs’ such as Let’s Go Walkabout (c. 1961) and Australian Holiday (1962), the latter included arrangements and a short original piece by May.

In 1969 the ABC reconfigured its long-serving but ageing dance bands, with May relocating to Victoria to take charge of the Melbourne (later Australian) Show Band. He successfully adapted the ABC’s flagship light orchestra to the sounds of the 1970s, establishing new audiences on radio, television, and records. Changing popular tastes, however, continued to challenge the relevance of the show band. In 1974 the ABC launched its new concept in music television, Countdown, with a theme tune provided by May and his band. By the end of the decade, the styles promoted on the program would overtake the light entertainment culture of the show band. Although he argued forcefully against budget cuts, he was unable to prevent the band being axed in 1982.

The ABC provided a variety of opportunities for a musician of such diverse talents as May, who composed incidental music for television productions beginning with episodes of Bellbird (1967–77) and Frank and Francesca (1973). But it was his light music expertise which provided his entrée to movies. The director Richard Franklin, impressed by his ‘big fantasy arrangement’ (Flanagan 1983) of Hair for the Melbourne Show Band, opened doors for May into a career as a film composer. The duo’s professional association ranged from the sex comedy The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975) to the thrillers Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981), and Cloak and Dagger (1984). Having heard May’s work on Patrick, the director George Miller and the producer Byron Kennedy engaged him to write the music for Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), bringing him to international and popular renown. His ‘strident, metallic score’ for Mad Max enhanced the film’s ‘barbarous, high-velocity car culture’ (MacLean 1997), and earned him an Australian Film Institute award (1979) and an Australasian Performing Right Association gold award (1984).

From the mid-1980s May sought to capitalise on his success by spending part of each year in Los Angeles, United States of America, pursuing the challenging career path of a Hollywood composer. By then a divorcee, he married the mezzo soprano Ruth Eleanor Gurner in Melbourne; they too would divorce. His later movie ventures included Missing in Action 2 (1985), Steel Dawn (1987), and Nightmare on Elm Street 6 (1991). He continued working on various projects for Australian television, such as the miniseries Return to Eden (1983) and Darlings of the Gods (1989), as well as movies such as Kitty and the Bagman (1983). In 1988 he returned to his light music role as conductor and arranger for the New South Wales Royal Bicentennial Concert.

By then May had relocated to Queensland’s Gold Coast. His attention increasingly turned towards developing and teaching a new generation of Australian film composers, with the Queensland University of Technology as his base. On 25 April 1997 he suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting friends at St Kilda in Melbourne. He was survived by the son and three daughters from his first marriage and was buried in Allambe Garden of Memories cemetery, Nerang, Queensland. His will bequeathed his collection of score manuscripts to QUT, and established a scholarship to assist young Australian composers to study film composition in the United States.

While May formed his career on the fringes of the classical music world in which he had been trained, he also brought to his work an appreciation of the traditions of classical Hollywood. Most of his film scores will be recognised as having been written for B-grade movies, but this does not diminish his achievement. He was a genuine pioneer in the fitful emergence of Australian film music. Since a national film music industry was virtually non-existent in the 1960s, May’s claim that ‘in a sense few of us are really making our own history’ (Flanagan 1983), was thoroughly justified.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Buzacott, Martin. The Rite of Spring: 75 Years of ABC Music-making. Sydney: ABC Books, 2007
  • Coyle, Rebecca, and Michael Hannan. ‘Musical Modernism in Brian May’s Australian Film Scores.’ Screening the Past, no. 32 (December 2011). Accessed 23 November 2020. Copy held on ADB file
  • Flanagan, Graeme. ‘A Conversation with Brian May.’ The Soundtrack Archives. Originally published in CinemaScore, no. 11/12 (Fall/Winter 1983). Accessed 23 November 2020. Copy held on ADB file
  • Hannan, Michael. ‘The Brian May Collection: Two Decades of Screen Composition.’ Screen Sound, no. 1 (2010): 59–66. Accessed 23 November 2020. Copy held on ADB file
  • Koehne, James. ‘Pragmatism and In-betweenery: Light Music in the Practice of Australian Composers in the Postwar Period, c. 1945–1980.’ PhD thesis, Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide, 2015
  • MacLean, Paul Andrew. ‘Brian May (1934–1997).’ Film Score Monthly, 6 May 1997. Accessed 23 November 2020. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

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Citation details

James Koehne, 'May, Brian (1934–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 23 July 2024.

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