Formed in London in the early 70s, the group fashioned a long line of hit singles, karaoke classics, and songs that remain part of the fabric of British culture to this day. From We Will Rock You to Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Don’t Stop Me Now to Radio Ga Ga, Bicycle Race to Another One Bites The Dust, and It’s A Kind Of Magic to I Want To Break Free, there is no shortage of legendary anthems that can match any other artist (including even their predecessors of boundary-breaking British rock, The Beatles) for longevity in the public consciousness. But the single they released back in 1975, when they were relativity lesser known, is widely regarded to be their greatest song. So, in true Freddie Mercury style, grab a glass of champagne, snuggle up with your cats, and join us as we explore the story of Bohemian Rhapsody.
“How far can we take this?”
Between July 1973 and November 1974, Queen put out their first three albums, the latter two reaching Top 5 on the UK charts. Boosted by their No.2 hit single Killer Queen, life had started well for this mainly progressive-rock band but, despite these successes, they were struggling financially. Not happy with their management or recording contracts, they severed previous ties in 1975 and hired Elton John’s then manager, John Reid, who urged the band to concentrate on making good music. It was a critical point for Queen, as lead guitarist Brian May remembered: “We had to make the album which was going to save us.”
The influences on what would become their much-lauded fourth album, A Night At The Opera, and its lead single are remarkably broad and varied. Lead singer and main songwriter Freddie Mercury liked not only rock’n’roll, but many other styles of music, including cabaret and opera. Working from scraps of songs he had written while still an art student, Mercury would finish Bohemian Rhapsody in his Kensington flat in South London during these turbulent months of 1975.
That summer, the band travelled to Rockfield Studios in South Wales, spending two weeks in the old converted farm buildings. Despite Queen’s tendency to ad-lib in the studio, the song “was all in Freddie’s mind before we started” as May remembers, meaning the rest of the band had to get to grips with it as they went along. Drummer Roger Taylor recalls it being “a bit confusing at first”, but that their urge for pushing creative boundaries took over and the whole band and production team, led by Roy Thomas Baker, got stuck in with an attitude of, as Taylor says, “How far can we take this?”
A whole new aural experience
You are all probably well-acquainted with the a cappella lament of a poor boy. This was in fact recorded by Mercury multi-tracking himself, one of many nods to The Beatles, a trick that was a particular favourite of John Lennon. Mercury then adds his iconic lead vocal, which has us all howling “mama” in anguish. These are all laid upon a backing track of Mercury on piano, Taylor on drums, and John Deacon on bass.
You would have thought that using a 24-track tape machine would provide enough room to record a single song, but the studio experimentation involved in capturing Bohemian Rhapsody, seen in pop-rock music to this extent from only The Beatles, is notable to say the least. For instance, the song includes three separate bass tracks, all the same part but recorded differently (these being from the guitar, from the amp and from the studio speaker, to give varying levels of ambiance).
Next, the song segues into May’s equally iconic guitar solo, deliberately providing a countermelody to the one Mercury used in the opening ballad part of the song. But just as we’ve become acquainted with the rock element of this concoction of genres, the guitar makes way for staccato piano chords which mark the beginning of a whole new aural experience. There is a great scene in the hugely successful 2018 Mercury biopic, aptly called Bohemian Rhapsody, in which guitarist May innocently asks the song’s composer what happens after his solo, and gets the reply: “The operatic section.”
Yet more recording tracks are eaten up by a piece of music that is barely more than a minute long. Three of the band, excluding Deacon, recorded three vocal tracks together for the harmonies, then bounced them into one nine-voice choir, allowing the other tracks to be freed up for all the “Galileo”s and “Bismillah”s (yet another Beatles nod).
But then the headbanging is unleased as we reach the heaviest part of the song, before another May solo leads us into Mercury’s closing verse, reprising the lament of the poor boy to whom nothing really matters. In a tad under six minutes, the story is complete.
“A rock’n’roll record, with the scale of opera”
While the legend of Rockfield looms large, Queen actually recorded A Night At The Opera in various, mainly London, studios. Many claim that they went to Trident in Soho, where Mercury supposedly played the C Bechstein grand piano on Bohemian Rhapsody that was used by Paul McCartney on The Beatles’ classic Hey Jude, though this is perhaps just a myth.
The completed album, set to be released on 21 November 1975, is a fine listen which pays tribute to The Beatles’ legendary 1967 (semi-)concept piece, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Without Sgt Pepper, there would be no wonderful evening spent at the opera; an ebbing, flowing, enthralling album, packed with almost as many influences as The Beatles could have managed themselves. The gritty, heavy opener, Death On Two Legs, suddenly gives way to a single minute ditty that’s oh-so-McCartney. This in turn segues into Taylor’s delightfully daft but suitably rocking song about being in love… with his car. Next, we have bassist Deacon’s only writing credit on the album, one of Queen’s most catchy songs, the soft-rock pop ballad You’re My Best Friend. (There’s a reason it was lobbied to be the album’s lead single ahead of Bohemian Rhapsody, and it did eventually get the nod in June 1976, reaching No.7 on the UK charts.)
The only problem with Freddie Mercury is that he has, through no fault of his own, cast a mighty large shadow over other singers, not just in the history of rock music, but in his very own band. Lead guitarist May provides not only excellent songwriting skills, here in the form of the delightful prog-rock, folk-rock song simply called 39, but also wonderfully tender vocals. Being one of the few songs he took the lead vocal on, 39 adds special value to A Night At The Opera, almost like a rare collector’s item. May then steps up the rock’n’roll with the heavy power-ballad Sweet Lady. The first side of this remarkable album ends with another Mercury music-hall ditty, Seaside Rendezvous.
After all the drinks and chatter of the interval, side two of the album opens with May’s remarkable eight-minute prog-rock epic The Prophet’s Song, which could so easily have been mistaken for a Led Zeppelin track. As Rami Malek’s portrayal of Mercury so rightly puts it in the 2018 film, this album certainly is “a rock’n’roll record, with the scale of opera”. A seamless transition finds us in the depths of one of Mercury’s finest ballads, one which played such a major role in the biopic, Love Of My Life. Fair enough, it is hard for any singer to compete with a vocal that has so much range, variety, control, tenderness and power, but May sneaks another one in for himself, with the delightful ditty Good Company.
The penultimate song of A Night At The Opera is a microcosm of the album itself in the same way A Day In The Life is for Sgt Pepper, combining almost every genre imaginable. As May correctly states, A Night At The Opera is meant to be listened to as a whole album, a sensory overload of suitably royal proportions, with Bohemian Rhapsody as “the jewel in that crown”. Following that, the guitarist’s instrumental arrangement of God Save The Queen is a perfect end to a perfect record.
“The biggest single of the century”
Bohemian Rhapsody was nearly not the album’s lead single. Being six minutes long and containing a potentially uncommercial operatic section, it was a gamble and feared unlikely to be played on radio. At many suggestions, the song was cut down, but its composer led the band’s staunch position of all or nothing. No one doubted it was extraordinary; apparently their manager played the tape to his other super-talented, super-extravagant client Elton John, whose response was, “Are you fucking mad?”
After Mercury slipped a copy to Kenny Everett, the oddball DJ played it 14 times over one weekend on his Capital Radio show and the decision was set. Released on the last day of October, Bohemian Rhapsody became Queen’s first UK No.1 single, spending nine weeks at the summit before being displaced by ABBA’s Mamma Mia. Despite being a member of perhaps the only group to provide more karaoke classics than Queen, Björn Ulvaeus hailed the Queen effort as “the biggest single of the century”.
These days, a song of that magnitude requires an equally sizeable music video. But in 1975, such a thing didn’t really exist. Only movie-star crossovers could provide any form of video accompaniment to their music if they featured it in a motion picture (see Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles). For standard artists, the only real exposure other than touring was to go on Top Of The Pops, where you would comically mime to your own music as if it were live, with the result usually called a “pop promo”. But to avoid the hassle of actually appearing on Top Of The Pops, a Bohemian Rhapsody video was made to be used instead, freeing Queen to go on tour. The equally sensational and iconic clip was essentially made up as they went along. It also brought the cover of the band’s second album, Queen II, to life, with silhouette figures giving the perfect tone to accompany such a melancholy lyric.
“It’s very self-explanatory”
It’s a lyric which tells a remarkable story, but what about? Well, on the surface, the lament of a poor boy who throws it all away by shooting a man. A potential spanner in the works is the operatic section: will you do the fandango? Um, not sure, really. Bohemian Rhapsody is best summed up by drummer Taylor, who believes “It’s very self-explanatory, there’s just a bit of nonsense in the middle.”
The song’s deeper meaning, however, is a lot more difficult to make out. Common thought is that Mercury wrestled with his demons and put his thoughts into an abstract story. We all know his troubled relationship with his sexuality, and the back and forth cries in the song suggest we are looking at the intense throes of one – or possibly multiple – relationships. What was the exact meaning? “I don’t think we will ever know,” says guitarist May. Poetry does not need a discernible source to be validated, and as Rami Malek, as Freddie Mercury, so eloquently puts it in Bohemian Rhapsody, it is simply “an epic poem”.
A lasting legacy
So why else are the song and album so critically well-revered? Essentially, because Queen were pushing boundaries in the studio. As Roy Thomas Baker said, creating such a spectacular album in the mid-70s “wasn’t easy… then eventually technology caught up with us”. The motivation for this is obvious, according to May, nothing, “The Beatles were our Bible.”
It’s appropriate then that the legacy of Bohemian Rhapsody matches that of any Fab Four hit. Queen’s first UK No.1 hit helped catapult them to national stardom and set in motion the outstanding catalogue of work to follow. The song was released again following Mercury’s death, in 1991, 16 years after its initial outing, and once more topped the UK charts.
The list of accolades garnered by Bohemian Rhapsody is endless. In 2002, it was named by The Guinness Book Of Records as the top British single of all time; two years later it was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. The song regularly comes near – and often tops – relevant newspaper, magazine and television polls, and, in 2012, readers of Rolling Stone magazine voted Mercury’s vocal performance on the song as the greatest in rock history.
According to the Official UK Charts, as of June 2018, Bohemian Rhapsody is the UK’s third biggest-selling single of all time, with over 2.5 million sales. Globally, it has sold over six million. In December of that year, shortly after the Mercury biopic was release, it was officially named the world’s most-streamed song from the 20th century, surpassing 1.6 billion streams globally across all major streaming services.
To help get a full sense of the standing of Freddie Mercury and his creation in not just rock-music history but in the very fabric of British culture, look no further than The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert For AIDS Awareness that took place at Wembley Stadium on Easter Monday, 20 April 1992. For an audience of 72,000, titans including Metallica, Def Leppard, U2, Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, David Bowie and George Michael covered Queen hit after Queen hit.
For the greatest Queen song of all, the band’s three surviving members were joined at the piano by Elton John, who led the Wembley crowd in yet another note-perfect rendition of the opening lament. The lights go down and that iconic “pop promo” projects a huge ghost-like Mercury for the operatic section – impressive and melancholy in equal measures.
The audience then goes ballistic as sparks fly and out bounds Axl Rose to take on that heavy section, a task that would make even the greatest performers cower; to replicate not only Mercury’s piercing, growling vocal but also his regal showmanship and ability to control a the crowd like none other. The Guns N’ Roses frontman is perhaps the only person to come close.
As the performance slowly moves towards its end, John and Rose come together to duet the closing lines. Thousands of adoring fans, faithfully as ever, croon the end of the remarkable lyric. There is a very palpable sense of love for a remarkable song and a remarkable man – a mercurial genius, taken too soon. He was 45 years old when he died, and it has been 45 years since the release of his finest moment. Through it, fittingly, he lives on brighter than ever.