Forty years after it was recorded, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody still sounds bonkers. That it continues to reign as a work of wigged-out genius rather than a dated gimmick testifies to its go-for-broke attitude – one that has resonated across generations.
Hear it now, and you’re immediately transported to Wayne and Garth’s car in Wayne’s World, head-banging and slapping the dashboard as Brian May’s power chords kick in. Or you’re bellowing “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” along with Freddie Mercury in your best opera-diva voice.
The prog-rock pocket operetta has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide. It’s one of the biggest-selling rock singles of all time. It was a top 10 hit twice, 15 years apart, even though it was – at nearly six minutes long – twice the length of the typical hit single.
In 1976, it soared to no 1 in the UK and became the band’s first top 10 US hit. It spent 17 weeks in the upper reaches of the charts. In 1992, it re-entered the US top 10 for another three months, thanks to its starring role in the Mike Myers/Dana Carvey Hollywood comedy hit, Wayne’s World. In the digital era, the song has been equally dominant, ranking among the 10 most downloaded songs in rock history.
A night at the opera
The track capped a turning point year for the British quartet. It was the follow-up to Killer Queen, the single that became the band’s first top 40 hit in America in the first half of ’75 and paved the way for a huge tour. The success of Killer Queen put a new degree of scrutiny on what would become Queen’s fourth album, A Night at the Opera. With an extravagant budget at their disposal for the first time, the band – along with producer/enabler Roy Thomas Baker – went nuts.
Restraint and subtlety were the boring hallmarks of bands who weren’t Queen
Even by the standards of Mercury and company – for whom restraint and subtlety were the boring hallmarks of bands who weren’t Queen – the attention lavished on Bohemian Rhapsody was extravagant. Recording began on 24 Aug 1975, at a studio in Wales.
But singer Freddie Mercury had been working on the song for years, originally building a tune called The Cowboy Song around the line, “Mama, just killed a man”. Baker first heard the song in Mercury’s flat and realised it was designed to outdo everything Queen had tried before. In the middle of his solo performance, the singer paused and noted, “This is where the opera section comes in.” Mercury and Baker burst into laughter, but the singer wasn’t joking.
The band typically wrote songs individually before bringing them to the studio for the others to consider, and Bohemian Rhapsody was no different. One can only imagine the reaction when Mercury outlined a six-part opus, with the singer functioning like a conductor as much as a band member. Pity the paltry 24 analogue recording tracks that had to contain this complicated beast. It all took several months and half-a-dozen studios to come together, with Mercury adding a new vocal layer seemingly every day.
The suite opened with an a cappella section, followed by a piano-driven ballad segment that suggested a eulogy ("Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go ..."), a guitar solo that led into the famed neo-operatic call-and-response vocal section, a hard-rock eruption (cue the head-banging in Wayne’s World), and then finally a contemplative outro. The opera section consumed 180 vocal tracks alone, a Mormon Tabernacle Choir-on-steroids effect that wore the analogue tape perilously thin as Mercury kept adding cries of “Galileo!”
He also invoked Italian comedy (the clownish Scaramouche), Spanish folk dance (the fandango), operas by Rossini and Mozart (Figaro) and his birthplace in Zanzibar (the Arabic word “Bismillah” – “In the name of Allah”).
‘Are you mad?’
What does it all mean? Mercury never explained to interviewers, let alone his own bandmates. He preferred to let the listeners decide for themselves what it all meant. The reaction at the band’s own record company could be summed up in three words: “Are you mad?” Executives tried to get Queen to trim the song to make it more accessible for radio, to give it a shape that was more readily understood by programmers accustomed to three-minute singles. But the band refused.
To add to the fuss, they created a video that was equally ambitious. Years before MTV made videos imperative for selling singles, Queen and director Bruce Gowers concocted a pastiche of live performance and trippy visuals that complemented the song's saturate-the-senses vibe.
It transformed Queen into stadium rock stars
The song, the video, the sheer opulence and catchiness of it all transformed Queen into stadium-rock stars. But by the time Mercury died at age 45 in 1991, the band had been receding from public view.
Then came Mike Myers. The actor later said he had to fight to include Bohemian Rhapsody in the now-famous car scene in Wayne's World; the film was wrapping up filming when Mercury died. Director Penelope Spheeris wanted to use a more contemporary song in the scene, but Meyers – like Queen back in the day – was adamant, and threatened to walk off the set if he didn't get his way. His stubbornness paid off, and Wayne’s words to his buddies in the car launched a Queen comeback: “I think we’ll go with a little Bohemian Rhapsody, gentlemen.”
Or, as Mercury was fond of saying during the original record sessions, "Time to add a few more Galileos, darlings."
Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.
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