October 31, 1975– Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is released.
Queen’s engrossing, enthralling, enigmatic Bohemian Rhapsody was written by Freddie Mercury for Queen’s album A Night At The Opera (1975). It is a six-minute suite consisting of five sections without a traditional chorus: an intro, a ballad segment, an operatic passage, a hard rock part and a reflective coda. It was most expensive single ever produced at the time of its release.
Bohemian Rhapsody was a big hit, staying at the top of the Billboard’s Singles Chart for nine weeks and selling more than a million copies in its first year. It topped the charts all over the globe, eventually becoming the UK’s third-bestselling single of all time. It is also the only song to be a Christmas Number One hit twice by the same artist. In the USA, it returned to the charts at Number Two in 1991 following Mercury’s death, and Number One again in 1992 when it was featured in the film Wayne’s World. I loved hearing it on the radio and would crank the volume while driving in my car around L.A., singing along, and it’s not an easy song to sing.
Music critics were mixed in their reactions, yet Bohemian Rhapsody remains one of Queen’s most popular songs and is frequently placed on many lists of the Greatest Songs Of All Time. The video version was ground-breaking. Rolling Stone Magazine wrote:
“Its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air.”
Bohemian Rhapsody was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2004. In 2012, the song topped a nationwide poll in Britain as The Nation’s Favorite Song over six decades of music beating Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, Adele’s Someone Like You, Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger and The Beatles’ Hey Jude.
It certainly is one of the most peculiar and least-understood songs in the history of Pop Music. It sounds like a serious work of art, a mournful lament, and an excuse for utter silliness all at the same time. It’s equally loved by kids and geezers. It abruptly goes from a Power Ballad to Light Operetta to Grand Opera to blazing Rock and back to Power Ballad before ending six minutes later with a decisive gong.
The title is a clever twist on Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt, a title the band used for their live album of a 1986 concert in Budapest.
Mercury pieced together different sections in the manner of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson’s equally epic Good Vibrations (1966) with its intensive overdubbing of harmonies. Bohemian Rhapsody has over 160 overdubs, with the group’s Brian May, Roger Taylor and Mercury singing around a single microphone, recorded over three weeks of intensive work, one week of which was spent on the operatic section. May, Taylor, and Mercury reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day. During the recording, the only person who knew how it would all come together was Mercury. Producer Roy Thomas Baker:
“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 I just knew that I was 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.”
Here is a glossary of the zany terms used in the song:
Despite all the jokes this summer, “Scaramouche” is not a reference to Anthony Scaramucci, who was briefly POTUS’s diminutive sidekick. He is actually a stock character from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte tradition, a fool who is good at getting himself out of trouble. The “Fandango” is a classic Spanish Dance. “Galileo” is Galileo Galilei, who was a Florentine Renaissance astronomer, a sweet nod to astronomy fan Brian May. Figaro is taken from Gioachino Rossini’s opera The Barber Of Seville. “Bismillah” means “In the name of Allah” and is the first word in The Koran, and “Mamma Mia!” is an Italian exclamation of surprise, referring to the Virgin Mary, and is also the title of a song by ABBA that knocked Bohemian Rhapsody off the top of the charts in 1975.
The meaning of the song was made cloudy on purpose. Mercury:
“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.”
It could be a veiled account of Mercury’s gayness and the affect this had on his relationship with his best friend Mary Austen. It could just be a song about a man with mother issues who killed a man and is fearing for his soul.
Queen wanted to release Bohemian Rhapsody as a single, but their label EMI thought it was too long for radio play. The single was released in an edited form, yet the international hit version remains the full-length opus. Mercury:
“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.”
In 2004, Queen’s Greatest Hits became the first Rock album allowed to be sold in Iran. Concerned about the messages hidden in the song, Iranian officials insisted that each copy of the cassette be issued with a leaflet that explained that although the singer says he had killed a man, it was by accident, and that he asks Allah for forgiveness (Bismillah!) to prevent Satan from getting his soul. Fat Bottomed Girls probably required a little more explanation.