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Bohemian Rhapsody

is a song written by Freddie Mercury and originally recorded by the band Queen for their 1975 album A Night at the Opera. The song is in the style of a stream-of-consciousness nightmare, and has unusual musical structure for popular music (it has no chorus, instead consisting of seemingly disjunct sections including operatic segments and an a cappella and heavy rock part). Despite this, it was released as a single and became a huge commercial success. In addition, the song is widely hailed as Queen's magnum opus, and it marked a decisive point in the band's career and set them on the way to become one of the world's most popular music groups.

The single was accompanied by a groundbreaking music video (then termed a "promotional video"), which helped establish the visual language of the modern music video.

Although critical reaction was initially mixed, especially in America, it has become one of the most revered in popular music history, winning several awards and topping many polls. The song is ranked #163 on the Rolling Stone magazine's list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time".

History and recording

Mercury wrote most of "Bohemian Rhapsody" at his home in Holland Road, Kensington, West London. According to the song's producer Roy Thomas Baker, one day Mercury played for him the opening ballad section on the piano, "then stopped and said, 'This is where the opera section comes in.' Then we went out to eat dinner." Guitarist Brian May says the band thought that Mercury's blueprint for the song was "intriguing and original, and worthy of work". Much of Queen's material was written in the studio, according, to May, but this song "was all in Freddie's mind" before they started. Music scholar Whiteley suggests that "the title draws strongly on contemporary rock ideology, the individualism of the bohemian artists' world, with rhapsody affirming the romantic ideals of art rock". Commenting upon bohemianism, Judith Peraino says that "Mercury intended... [this song] to be a 'mock opera', something outside the norm of rock songs, and it does follow a certain operatic logic: choruses of multi-tracked voices alternate with arialike solos, the emotions are excessive, the plot confusing.

The song was recorded over three weeks, beginning at Rockfield Studio 1 near Monmouth on August 24, 1975, after a 3-week rehearsal in Herefordshire. During the making of the track, an additional four studios – Roundhouse, SARM (East), Scorpion, and Wessex – were used. According to some band members, Mercury worked out the song in his head and directed the band through the song. It has been suggested that "Bohemian Rhapsody" was influenced by the 10cc song "Une Nuit A Paris", which is played on similar instruments, including a Fender Precision Electric Bass, May's Red Special electric guitar, Ludwig drums, timpani and a Paiste gong. Mercury used a Bechstein "Concert" grand piano, the one he played in the promotional video and the UK tour. It was the most expensive Single ever made and remains one of the most elaborate recordings in music history.

May, Mercury, and Taylor sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day, resulting in 180 separate overdubs. Since the studios of the time only offered 24-track analogue tape, it was necessary for May, Mercury and Taylor to overdub themselves many times, and "bounce" these down to successive submixes. In the end, eighth generation tapes were being used. The tapes had passed over the recording heads so many times the normally opaque tapes could be seen through, as the oxide layer was beginning to wear off. The various sections of tape containing the desired submixes would have to be cut with razor blades and reassembled together in the correct sequence using adhesive tape, a process known as splicing.

Personnel

  • Freddie Mercury: lead vocal, piano
  • Brian May: electric guitar, backing vocals
  • John Deacon: bass guitar.
  • Roger Taylor: drums, backing vocals

Music and lyrics

The song is of six sections: introduction, ballad, guitar solo, opera, rock and an outro. This format, with abrupt changes in style, tone, and tempo, was unusual to rock music. An embryonic version of this style was done by Queen themselves in "My Fairy King". The New York Times say that "the song's most distinct feature is the fatalistic lyrics". Mercury always refused to explain his composition other than saying it was about relationships, and the band is still protective of the song's secret. Following the single's release, Mercury said:

Brian May says that he knows what was in "Freddie's Mind", but "it was unwritten law among us in those days that the real core of a song lyric was a private matter for the composer... So I still respect that." In a BBC Three documentary about the making of "Bohemian Rhapsody", Roger Taylor says that the true meaning of the song is "fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle".

However, when the band released a Greatest Hits cassette in Iran, a leaflet in Persian was included with translation and explanations (refers a book published in Iran called "The March of the black Queen" By "Sarah Sefati" & "Farhad Arkani" which included the whole biography of the band & complete lyrics with Persian translation {2000}). There Queen states that "Bohemian Rhapsody" is about a young man who has accidentally killed someone and, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil. On the night before his execution he calls for God in Arabic, "Bismillah" (Basmala), and with the help of angels regains his soul from Shaitan.

Critics, both journalistic and academic, have speculated over the meaning behind the song's lyrics, however. Some believe the lyrics are about a suicidal murderer hunted by demons, or depict events just preceding an execution, pointing to Albert Camus's novel, The Stranger in which a young man confesses to an impulsive murder and has an epiphany before he is executed, as probable inspiration. Some believe the lyrics were only written to fit with the music, and have no meaning; Kenny Everett quoted Mercury as claiming the lyrics were simply "random rhyming nonsense."

Some interpreted it as Mercury's way of dealing with personal issues, such as his bisexuality, to which he never publicly admitted. "The year 1975", according to music scholar Sheila Whiteley, "was somewhat of a turning point in Freddie Mercury's personal life." He had been living with Mary Austin for seven years, but had just embarked on his first gay love affair. She suggests that the song provides an insight into Mercury's emotional state at the time, "living with Mary ("Mama") and wanting to break away "Mama Mia let me go")".

Introduction (0:00–0:48)

The song begins with a close four-part harmony a cappella introduction in B, entirely multi track recordings of Mercury even though the video has all four members lip-syncing this part. The lyrics question whether life is "real" or "just fantasy" before concluding that there can be "no escape from reality." Scholar Sheila Whitely comments:

The multi-tracked vocals... the the rhythm following the natural inflection of the words, the block chords and lack of foreground melody creating an underlying ambiguity... heightened by the harmonic change from B (6) to C7 in bars 1 and 2; the boundaries between "the real life" and "fantasy" are marked by instability and "caught in a landslide".

Highlighting the phallic nature of guns, Peraino also suggests that the song is a "melodrama of homoeroticism", although, unlike Whiteley, she does not draw upon biographical details. Peraino gives an Oedipal reading, quoting some lyrics with sexual connotations ("Too late, my time has come/Sends shivers down my spine/Body's aching all the time"). Like Whiteley, Peraino identifies the themes of both guilt and desire.

For many adolescents listening to the song, these phrases could describe the physical sensations of sexual awakening and the conflicting emotions that accompany them. If that sexual awakening is queer, then the greater the guilt and the need for confession.

After 15 seconds, the grand piano enters, and Mercury's voice alternates with the other vocal parts. The narrator introduces himself as "just a poor boy" but declares that he "need no sympathy" because nothing matters: chromatic side-slipping on "easy come, easy go" highlight the dream-like atmosphere. The end of this section is marked by the bass entrance and the familiar cross-handed piano vamp in B.

Ballad (0:48–2:36)

The grand piano continues the 2-bar vamp in B. Deacon's bass guitar enters playing the first note, and the vocals change from harmony to an impassioned solo performance by Mercury. The narrator explains to his mother that he has "just killed a man", with "a gun against his head" and with that act thrown his life away. This "confessional" section, Whiteley comments, is "affirmative of the nurturant and life-giving force of the feminine and the need for absolution."

The chromatic bass line brings about a modulation to E, underpinning the mood of desperation. Taylor's drums enter (1:19), (this features the 1-1-2 rhythm of "We Will Rock You" in ballad form) and the narrator makes the second of several invocations to his "mama" in the new key, reusing the original theme. The narrator explains his regret over "mak[ing] you cry" and urging mama to "carry on as if nothing really matters" to him. A truncated phrase connects to a repeat of the vamp in B.

As the ballad proceeds into its second verse, the narrator shows how tired and beat down he is by his actions (as May enters on guitar and mimics the upper range of the piano at 1:50). May sends "shivers down my spine" by scratching the strings on the other side of the bridge. The narrator bids the world goodbye announcing he has got to go and prepares to "face the truth" admitting "I don't want to die / I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all". Another chromatic bass descent brings a modulation to the key of A, and the "Opera" section.

Guitar solo (2:36–3:03)

As Mercury sings the rising line "I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all," the band builds in intensity, leading up to a guitar solo by May that serves as the bridge from ballad to opera. The intensity continues to build, but once the bass line completes its descent establishing the new key, the entire band cuts out abruptly at 3:03 except for quiet A major quaver chords on the piano.

Producer Baker recalls that May's solo was done on only one track, rather than recording multiple tracks. May says that he wanted to compose "a little tune that would be a counterpart to the main melody; I didn't just want to play the melody". The guitarist says that his better material stems from this way of working: in which he thought of the tune before playing it: "the fingers tend to be predictable unless being led by the brain".

Opera (3:03–4:07)

A rapid series of rhythmic and harmonic changes introduces a pseudo-operatic midsection, which contains the bulk of the elaborate vocal multi-tracking, depicting the narrator's descent into hell. While the underlying pulse of the song is maintained, the dynamics vary greatly from bar to bar, from only Mercury's voice accompanied by a piano, to a multi-voice choir supported by drums, bass, piano and a timpani. The choir effect was created by having May, Mercury, and Taylor sing their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day, resulting in 180 separate overdubs. These overdubs were then combined into successive submixes.

According to Roger Taylor, the voices of May, Mercury and himself combined created a wide vocal range: "Brian could get down quite low, Freddie had a powerful voice through the middle, and I was good at the high stuff." The band wanted to create "a wall of sound, that starts down and goes all the way up". The band used the bell effect for lyrics "Magnifico" and "Let me go". Also, on "Let him go", Taylor singing the top section carries his note on further after the rest of the "choir" have stopped singing.

Lyrical references in this passage include Scaramouche, the fandango, Galileo Galilei, Figaro and "Bismillah," as rival factions fight over the narrator's soul. The introduction is recalled with the chromatic inflection on "I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me." The section concludes with a full choral treatment of the lyric "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me!", on a block B major chord. Roger Taylor tops the final chord with a falsetto B in the fifth octave.

Using the 24-track technology available at the time, the "opera" section took about three weeks to finish. Producer Roy Thomas Baker said "Every time Freddie came up with another 'Galileo', I would add another piece of tape to the reel. Baker recalls that they kept wearing out the tape, which meant having to do transfers.

Relating the theme of entrapment to Mercury wanting to express his sexuality, Whiteley points out the "heavy timbres of the lower voices... traditionally connote the masculine ("We will not let you go") while the shrill higher voices in the first inversion chords imply the feminine 'other' ("Let me go"). They signal entrapment and a plea for release."

Hard rock (4:07–4:55)

The operatic section leads into an aggressive hard rock musical interlude with a guitar riff that was written by Mercury. At 4:15, a double-tracked Mercury sings angry lyrics addressed to an unspecified "you", accusing him/her of betrayal and abuse and insisting "can't do this to me, baby" - which could be interpreted as a flashback to certain events that led to the earlier ballad section ("just killed a man"). Three ascending guitar runs follow, which May described as something he had to "battle with" when performing the song live. Mercury then plays a similar run on the piano. It took three tries for Freddie to hit the C5 in the "die" of "So you think you can love me and leave me to die", further explained by the more than one vocal track for just that one word.

Critic Sheila Whitely related this "heightened sense of urgency" to Mercury's "inner turmoil [of] leaving the security of Mary Austin, coming to terms with gay life, and living with a man." Although she comments that Austin was understanding and remained a close friend, "the "just gotta get out" supplies a metaphor for desperation as it moves towards the climax".

Outro (4:55–5:55)

After Mercury plays ascending octaves of notes from the B mixolydian scale, the song then returns to the tempo and form of the introduction. A guitar accompanies the chorus "ooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah". A double-tracked twin guitar melody is played through an amplifier designed by John Deacon, affectionately nicknamed the "Deacy Amp". Mercury's line "Nothing really matters..." appears again, "cradled by light piano arpeggios suggesting both resignation (minor tonalities) and a new sense of freedom in the wide vocal span."

The final line, "Any way the wind blows", is followed by the quiet sound of a large tam-tam that finally expels the tension built up throughout the song.

Promotional video

Though some artists, including Queen themselves (for example, "Killer Queen" and "Liar" already had "pop promos", as they were known at the time), had made video clips to accompany songs, it wasn't until after the success of "Bohemian Rhapsody" that it became regular practice for record companies to produce promo videos for artists' single releases. These could then be shown on television shows, such as the BBC's Top of the Pops, without the need for the artist to appear in person. A promo video also allowed the artist to have their music broadcast and accompanied by their own choice of visuals, rather than dancers such as Pan's People. According to May, the video was produced so that the band could avoid miming on Top of the Pops, since it did not fit their style. He says "it was a reaction to having to go on the normal programmes and do the normal mime, so we sold our story" with the video. Also, the band knew that they would be touring and unable to appear on the programme anyway. The video has been hailed as launching the MTV age.

The band were signed to a company called Trillian, who supplied a lot of sports coverage for ITV. They hired one of their trucks and got it to Elstree Studios, where the band were rehearsing for their tour. The video was directed by Bruce Gowers, who had directed a video of the band's 1974 performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London, and was filmed by cameraman Barry Dodd and assistant director/floor manager Jim McCutcheon. The video (or \"pop promo\") took only four hours to film and cost between £40,000 and £45,000. The director says that the band was involved in the discussion of the video and the end result, and \"was a co-operative to that extent, but there was only one leader.\"

The video opens with a shot of the four band members in near darkness as they sing the a cappella part. The lights fade up, and the shots cross-fade into close-ups of Freddie. The composition of the shot is the same as Mick Rock's cover photograph for their previous album Queen II. The photo, inspired by a photograph of actress Marlene Dietrich, was the band's favourite image of themselves.

All of the special effects were achieved during the recording. The effect of the face zooming away was accomplished by pointing the camera at a monitor, giving visual feedback, a visual glare, analogous to audio feedback. The honeycomb effect was achieved by using a shaped lens.

Then it fades into them playing their instruments. In the opera section of the video, it goes back to them just standing there, then performing on the stage in the heavy metal part, and in the closing seconds of the video Roger Taylor is depicted stripped to the waist, striking the tam tam in the manner of the trademark of the Rank Organisation's Gongman, familiar in the UK as the opening of all Rank film productions.

The video was edited within five hours because it was due to be broadcast the same week in which it was filmed. It was shipped to the BBC as soon as it was completed and aired for the first time on Top of the Pops in November 1975.

The piano used by Freddie Mercury in the video was also used by Paul McCartney to record \"Hey Jude\". Nearly a third of respondents in a 2007 poll commissioned by the UK telephone company O2 voted this video as \"the UK's best music video of all time\".

On October 25 2007, Parlophone's official YouTube channel posted a different version of the video using never-before-seen footage At the beginning, there are flames in the foreground, and in the ballad and heavy metal sections, the camera positionings are different. At the end, when Roger Taylor bangs on the gong, it shows the opening clip from \"One Vision\" in the background.

Single release and chart performance

When Mercury wanted to release the single in 1976, it had been suggested to him that, at 5 minutes and 55 seconds, it was too long and would never be a hit. But Mercury gave a copy to friend and Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, informing him (with a wink and a nod) that it was for him personally, and that he must never play it on air. Mercury's plan (a form of reverse psychology) worked – Everett teased his listeners by playing only parts of the song. Audience demand intensified when Everett played the full song on his show 14 times in two days. Hordes of fans attempted to buy the single the following Monday, only to be told by record store that it had not yet been released. The same weekend, Paul Drew, who ran the RKO stations in the States, heard the track on Everett's show in London. Drew managed to get a copy of the tape and started to play it in the States, which forced the hand of Queen's USA label, Elektra. In an interview with Sound on Sound, producer Baker reflects that \"it was a strange situation where radio on both sides of the Atlantic was breaking a record that the record companies said would never get airplay!\" Eventually the unedited single was released, with \"I'm in Love with My Car\" as the B-side.

The song dominated the 1975 UK Christmas number one, and held the top position for nine weeks. \"Bohemian Rhapsody\" was the first song ever to get to number one twice with the same version, and is also the only single to have been UK Christmas Number 1 twice with the same version. The second was upon its re-release (as a double A-side single with \"These Are the Days of Our Lives\") in 1991 following Mercury's death, staying at number one for five weeks. Its total of 14 weeks at the UK #1 spot make it the fourth-longest-serving #1 on the UK singles chart. It is also the only UK single ever to sell a million copies on two separate occasions and is placed third in the official list of the best-selling singles in the United Kingdom.

In a retrospective interview, Anthony DeCurtis from Rolling Stone magazine explains the song's relatively poor performance in the US charts by saying that it's \"the quintessential example of the kind of thing that doesn't exactly go over well in America.\" Queen's popularity in America was also harmed when they appeared in drag for their \"I Want to Break Free\" video. However, according to Anthony DeCurtis, its use in the 1992 film Wayne's World \"masculinised the song and made it OK for people.\"

Chart 1975 or 1992 Position
UK Singles Chart 1
Irish Singles Chart 1
New Zealand Singles Chart 1
Dutch Singles Chart 1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 2
Swiss Singles Chart 4
Norwegian Singles Chart 4
Australian ARIA Singles Chart 5
Austrian Singles Chart 8
French Singles Chart 15
Swedish Singles Chart 18

Two other groups have entered the UK singles charts top 40 with their versions of the song. In 1996, Braids reached number 21 in the UK singles chart with their version of the song, and, in 2005, G4 reached number 9.

Critical reaction and acclaim

Although the song has become one of the most revered in popular music history, some initial critical reaction was poor. Melody Maker said that Queen \"contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance.

The song has won several awards, and has been covered and parodied by many artists. In 1977, only two years after its release, the British Phonographic Industry named \"Bohemian Rhapsody\" as the best British single of the period 1952-77. It is a regular entry in greatest-songs polls, and it was named by the Guinness Book of Records in 2002 as the top British single of all time.

It also came tenth in a BBC World Service poll to find the world's favourite song. In 2000 it came second to \\"Imagine\\" by John Lennon in a Channel 4 television poll of The 100 Best Number 1s. It has been in the top 5 of the Dutch annual \\"Top 100 Aller Tijden\\" (\\"All-Time Top 100 Singles\\") since 1977, reaching #1 eight times.; in the annual \\"Top 2000\\" (maintained since 1999) it has, until 2005, been #1 every year. In 2005, it went down one place to #2, only to reclaim #1 in 2006 again. In the 2007 edition, it once again ended at the top. For popularity comparison: the 2005 edition of the top 2000 was listened to by more than 60% of the total Dutch populace.

In 2004 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

As of 2004, \\"Bohemian Rhapsody\\" is the second most played song on British radio, in clubs and on jukeboxes collectively, after Procol Harum's \\"A Whiter Shade of Pale\\". On September 30 2007 on the Radio 1 Chart Show, for BBC Radio 1's 40th birthday, it was revealed that \\"Bohemian Rhapsody\\" was the most played song since Radio 1's launch.

In 2004, BBC Three featured the song as part of their The Story of... series of documentaries dedicated to specific songs. First broadcast in December 2004, the programme charted the history of the song, discussed its credentials, and took some members of Queen back to one of the studios in which it was recorded.

Wayne's World

The song enjoyed renewed popularity in 1992 as part of the soundtrack to the film Wayne's World. The film's director, Penelope Spheeris, had objected to using the song, as at the time Queen were understood as a \\"pop band\\" and as such did not fit with the lead characters, who were fans of hard rock and heavy metal. However, Mike Myers insisted that the song fit the scene.

The song did not have the same status in the United States as it had enjoyed in Britain. According to music scholar Theodore Gracyk, by 1992, when the film was released, even \\"classic rock\\" stations had stopped playing the six-minute song. Gracyk suggests that beginning the tape in the middle of the song after "the lyrics which provide the song's narrative... forces the film's audience to respond to its presence in the scene without the 'commentary' of the lyrics." Helped by the song, the soundtrack album of the film was a major hit.

In connection with this, a new video was released, intercutting excerpts from the film with footage from the original Queen video, along with some live footage of the band. The Wayne's World video version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" won Queen its only MTV Video Music Award for "Best Video from a Film". When surviving members Brian May and Roger Taylor took the stage to accept the award, Brian May was overcome with emotion and said that "Freddie would be tickled".

Myers was horrified that the record company had mixed clips from Wayne's World with Queen's original video, fearing that this would upset the band. He said, "they've just whiz on a Picasso." He asked the record company to tell Queen that the video was not his idea, and that he apologized to them. The band, though, sent a reply simply saying, "Thank you for using our song." This shocked Myers, who said it should be more like him telling Queen, "Thank you for even letting me touch the hem of your garments!

The final scene of the video was notable, where a pose of the band from the video from the original "Bohemian Rhapsody" clip "morphs" into an identically-posed 1985 photo, first featured in the "One Vision" video. This re-release (with "The Show Must Go On" as a double-A side) hit #2 in the US in 1992, sixteen years after the original 1976 US release peaked at #9.

Live performances

The a cappella opening was too complex to perform live so Mercury tried ways of introducing the song. When the song "Mustapha" became a live favorite, Mercury would often sub in that song's a cappella opening, which was easier to reproduce live as it was only one voice. During the Hot Space tour, and occasionally at other times, Mercury would do a piano improvisation (generally the introduction to "Death on Two Legs") that ended with the first notes of the song. Often, the preceding song would end, and Mercury would sit at the piano, say a quick word and start playing the ballad section.

Initially following the song's release, the operatic, middle section proved a problem for the band. Because of extensive multi-tracking, it could not be performed on stage. The band did not have enough of a break between the "Sheer Heart Attack" and "A Night at the Opera" tours to find a way to make it work live, so they split the song into three sections that were played throughout the night. The opening and closing ballads were played as part of a medley, with "Killer Queen" and "March of the Black Queen" taking the place of the operatic and hard rock sections. Those two sections, in virtually all gigs, were played as an introductory piece leading into "Ogre Battle".

Starting with the "A Day at the Races" tour in 1976, the band adopted their lasting way of playing the song live. The opening ballad would be played on stage, and after Brian May's guitar solo, the lights would go down, the band would leave the stage, and the operatic section would be played from tape. A blast of pyrotechnics after Roger Taylor's high note on the final "for me" would announce the band's return for the hard rock section and closing ballad. Queen played the song in this form all through the Magic Tour of 1986. This style was also used for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, with Elton John singing the opening ballad and then after the taped operatic section, Axl Rose singing the hard rock section. John and Rose sang the closing ballad part together in a duet.

On the 2005/06 Queen + Paul Rodgers tours, a live performance recording of Mercury (from the Wembley show of 1986) played on video screens doing the vocals and piano for the first segment, while the other musicians played along and Paul Rodgers sat out. For the current tour, the ballad section from the 1981 Montreal performance has been used. The middle operatic section was left to the studio tape, with a video tribute to Freddie Mercury and John Deacon played on a screen behind the stage. The band went backstage, and the arena would be completely dark. When the hard rock section kicked in, the lights came back up to the full band on stage, including Rodgers, who took over lead vocals. The taped Mercury and Rodgers made the closing into a duet, with Rodgers allowing the audience to sing the final "Nothing really matters to me" while the taped Mercury took a bow for the crowd. Rodgers would then repeat the line, and the final line was delivered with one last shot of Freddie Mercury smiling at the audience before the arena went black. Brian May says that they "had to rise to the challenge of getting Freddie in there in a way which gave him his rightful place, but without demeaning Paul in any way. It also kept us live and 'present,' although conscious and proud of our past, as we logically should be."

References

General

Specific

External links

  • Queenpedia - detailed worldwide release information

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