In 2002, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen was voted the UK’s favourite single of all time in a poll by the Guinness Hit Singles book.
On 24 August 1975, Queen started recording Bohemian Rhapsody at Rockfield studios in Monmouth, Wales, (the song was recorded over three weeks). Queen singer Freddie Mercury had mentally prepared the song beforehand and directed the band throughout the sessions. May, Mercury, and Taylor sang their vocal parts continually for 10 to 12 hours a day, resulting in 180 separate overdubs.
And what a song it turned out to be! Amazingly it almost didn’t make it as a single. Queen’s record company EMI were reluctant to release it as a single but events turned after the band slipped a copy to DJ Kenny Everett – who played it on London’s Capital Radio 14 times over the following weekend, persuading EMI, the BBC and other sceptics that the listening public could handle it.
You can see why the men in suits were against it. The song has no chorus, instead consisting of three main parts: a ballad segment, an operatic passage, and a hard rock section. And it’s five seconds shy of six minutes in length.
Bohemian Rhapsody became a commercial success, staying at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks and selling more than a million copies in a couple of months.
Producer Roy Thomas Baker related how Mercury once played the opening ballad section on the piano for him: “He played the beginning on the piano, then stopped and said, ‘And this is where the opera section comes in!’ Then we went out to eat dinner.”
Apparently Freddie had the idea for the song in the late 60s when he came up with the line “Mama, just killed a man.” Freddie used a piano as the headboard of his bed. The double-jointed Mercury would awake with inspiration, reach up and back behind his head and play what he’d heard in his dreams. This was how Bohemian Rhapsody began.
But what was going on in Freddie’s head? What is the man going on about?
One theory is that it’s to do with Mercury himself coming to terms with being gay – the resignation, the abandonment of a previous role, the allusions to persecution and secret love in Galileo, Figaro – but not everyone agrees.
The essential story is not pop’s greatest enigma: a man confesses a murder to his mother, vainly pleads poverty in a trial and ends up resigned to his fate. But questions remain: who did he kill and why?
There’s a touch of Italian culture: Scaramouche is a buffoonish stock character in commedia dell’arte; Galileo was a Florentine astronomer found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition and Figaro is the title character of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville, in which he helps true love to prevail. “Mamma mia”, of course, means “my mother” in Italian – and was the title of the chart-topper by ABBA which knocked Bohemian Rhapsody of the top slot. How weird is that? Maybe with Queen being at #1 for so long, it gave the ABBA boys enough time to write, record and release a song called Mamma Mia just for a laugh?
Some 20,000 people bought Bo Rap every day in its first three weeks, it’s been #1 twice so far and it’s played on a radio somewhere in the world about once an hour – every day.
At the time it was the most expensive single ever made and remains one of the most elaborate recordings in popular music history. Long before digital recordings it was necessary for Queen to overdub themselves many times and “bounce” these down to successive sub-mixes. In the end, eighth-generation tapes were used. The various sections of tape containing the desired submixes had to be spliced (cut with razor blades and assembled in the correct sequence using adhesive tape). I Can’t imagine anyone doing that now!
For me and you, though, Bohemian Rhapsody is ‘about’ drama, funny voices, great guitar solo, brilliant singing, groundbreaking video…
Hands up, do you do a Wayne’s World every time you hear it in the car?
I thought so.
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