There’s always been some mystery associated with Queen‘s Bohemian Rhapsody, the video for which was shot today in 1975. The tune sounds like a serious work of art, a lament and a silly romp, all at the same time — making it equally palatable to kids and adults. It also jumps all over the place, from power ballad to opera to rawk ‘n rowl and back again before it reaches the big gong wrapup at around the six minute mark.
Bohemian Rhapsody was accompanied by one of the promotional videos which helped video kill the radio star (snicker) in the 80s — a video designed to help the band dodge an appearance on a television show which they felt was, to put it politely, pants — more on that later.
A few infoids:
The title of the tune is almost guaranteed to be a play on Franz Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody, which is a name the band resurrected four years ago for their live DVD/CD release containing 1986 Budapest concert footage.
The song was written solely by Freddie Mercury, and was pieced together using out-of-order sections and a lot of harmony overdubbing (around 160 overdubs in total, often with Freddie, Brian May and Roger Taylor singing around a single microphone) which took about three weeks — one week of which was spent on the operatic section alone. Thus, during most of the recording work, the only one who had a clear idea of how it would all end up was Freddie. Even producer Roy Thomas Baker wasn’t sure what the result would be until it was all done: “Nobody really knew how it was going to sound as a whole six-minute song until it was put together. I was standing at the back of the control room, and you just knew that you were listening for the first time to a big page in history. Something inside me told me that this was a red-letter day, and it really was.”
The smokin’ guitar riff which led to the out of control Wayne’s World headbanging was originally born on the piano, as Brian May told the Beeb. “The heavy bit was a great opportunity for us to be at full pelt as a rock band. But that big, heavy riff came from Freddie, not me. That was something he played with his left hand in octaves on the piano. So I had that as a guide—and that’s very hard to do, because Freddie’s piano playing was exceptional, although he didn’t think so. In fact, he thought he was a bit of a mediocre piano player and stopped doing it later on in our career.”
Oh, and in case you’ve heard the rumor that the piano was a used rig previously played by another fairly famous bloke, that’s right: It was the same one Paul McCartney played on The Beatles‘ Hey Jude.
The Players: Scaramouche is a character from the Italian clown tradition commedia dell’arte — a fool, yes, but pretty good at getting himself out of sticky situations. Figaro is the cat with whom we’re all familiar in Rossini‘s The Barber Of Seville. Bismillah is translated as “in the name of Allah” and is the very first word we read in The Qu’ran. Mamma Mia is something you’d hear your Italian mom say when she was reaching the end of her rope — it refers to the Virgin Mary (and is the title of the ABBA song which ascended to number one on the British charts in 1975 … immediately after Bohemian Rhapsody vacated that spot).
The meaning of the song remains ambiguous. Freddie claimed to have done a lot of research on it: “‘Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research, although it was tongue-in-cheek and it was a mock opera. Why not? I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them.”
Of course there all kinds of theories: a smirking veiled reference to his sexuality and the effect it had on his friendship with Mary Austen. A recounting of the trauma of being ejected from his native Zanzibar when he was 18. Possibly a tale about a man who killed a man and then was kept awake with guilty dreams and feared for his eternal soul. Or something.
Queen were ready to release the song as a single, but the record label guys at EMI (who smoked big cigars and drove Cadillac cars) tried to shut that down, saying that it was too long for radio airplay. Yes, that’s right: More of a good thing used to be shunned in radio. Go figure. Taking matters into his own well-manicured hands, Freddie took the record to his airstaffer friend Kenny Everett for a second opinion. Everett rocked the west coast, or whatever coast he was on — or maybe not even a coast — fourteen times during a weekend and not only got huge reaction from listeners, but also spurred a flurry of preorders at record shops. As a result, although the single was released in edited (read: butchered) form in some countries including France, the international hit version remains unscathed. Said Freddie, “We were adamant that it could be a hit in its entirety. We have been forced to make compromises, but cutting up a song will never be one of them.”
Bohemian Rhapsody has generated a lot of puns, memes and other amusing things over the years. Jones Soda Company makes a concoction called Bohemian Raspberry. Mexican group Molotov has a tune called Rap, Soda and Bohemias. In the book Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the Crowley character plays it in his car all the time, quoting the lyrics when he’s in trouble: “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me”. And then there’s this brilliant play on the lyrics:
In 2004, Queen’s Greatest Hits became the very first album to be legally available in Iran. Authorities there had their Stanfields in a knot about hidden messages in Bohemian Rhapsody, and insisted that every copy of the cassette be accompanied by a leaflet which explained that while the singer had in fact “killed a man”, it was an accident, for which he asks God for forgiveness (the Bismillah reference) so that Beelzebub will not be able to get his talons on his soul. The end. There’s no word on what they had to say about Fat Bottomed Girls. Also, just wait until they hear some of this rap stuff.
And back to that video: It seems like something ostensibly designed to keep all the theories about the song circulating, but what it actually was was a dodge, to keep the group from having to appear on the British music show Top Of The Pops — roughly the Blighty equivalent of Dick Clark‘s American Bandstand. As Brian explains, “It was filmed with the express purpose of giving it to Top of the Pops. For those of us who remember it, it wasn’t a classy program. Top of the Pops didn’t have a good reputation amongst musicians. Nobody liked it, really. It always seemed like a bit of a travesty. If your music had any meaning, it seemed to trickle away when you were standing on a box in a studio with lots of kids around. But you could hardly knock it because it was the way that records were sold.”