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Metamorphosing from wistful ballad to an operatic pastiche with a fiery rock climax, all within six short minutes, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was greeted like manna from heaven in the dull musical wasteland between glam-rock and punk. (Source)
So spake one of many reviews and revisitings of Queen's 1975 hit single. The tune's 30th anniversary hit in 2005, and 2011 marked 20 years since the premature death of Freddie Mercury, the song's exuberant and brilliant mastermind who died of AIDS in 1991. It also would have been his 65th birthday.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" has been popular for over 35 years, having risen up the charts on two separate occasions in both the UK and the U.S., and been recognized by the Grammy awards and the Guinness Book of World Records for its significant influence and huge popularity.
But how did Queen get away with a six-minute radio hit that starts off as a piano ballad with three-part backing harmonies, becomes a mini-rock-opera, and ends up in a wild rock and roll party?
Well, sheer confidence, for one. And, they had Freddie Mercury.
"Prat" is a bit of British slang that can loosely be translated as a stronger version of "idiot."
And "Is this man a prat?" was the question asked by NME, the UK's leading music magazine, in the headline of a biting 1977 profile of Freddie Mercury. From the early 1970s on, NME—among other critics—had beef with Queen. The band was over-the-top, absurd, and, they strangely claimed, unoriginal. Plus, a lot of people didn't care for Freddie's flamboyant stage persona, or the fact that he was rumored to be bisexual. But "prat" or not, Freddie was definitely the not-so-secret weapon behind the unprecedented success of "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Queen didn't start as an inspired plot to take over the rock world with originality. Queen started as an inspired plot to take over the rock world, period.
Guitarist Brian May met drummer Roger Taylor in 1967 through college connections and the two began to play together in a band called Smile. When they met Freddie Mercury, then Farrokh "Freddie" Bulsara, in 1969, Freddie was full of opinions about what they should become as a band. Including his suggestion that they be called "Queen." The name turned out to be a blatant double entendre: Queen is an obvious royal reference in a British context, but it's also a slangy term for a flamboyant gay man. He also thought that they should go with an over-the-top glam rock look, and play to the audience in an extreme fashion. There should be no bounds to their cocky fabulousness, said Freddie, and Freddie's wish became Queen's command.
After their second album, Queen II, was released in early 1974, Mojo quoted a Record Mirror review that tore into them:
"The band with the worst name, have capped that dubious achievement by bringing out the worst album for some time. Their material is weak and overproduced...as a whole it is dire. Brian May is technically proficient, but Freddie Mercury's voice is dressed up with multi-tracking. A lot of people are pushing Queen as the band of '74. If this is our brightest hope for the future then we are committing rock 'n' roll suicide." (Source)
Some young bands would find such a review devastating. Mercury and crew, however, took it in stride. They wanted Queen to play in-your-face, operatic rock and roll to a worldwide crowd, no matter what critics had to say about it.
Drummer Roger Taylor, so confident as to be almost smug, put it this way: "We were never critically acclaimed, which seemed to be quite important after a while because the more critically acclaimed you were, the more assured of failure you were too." (Source)
When they went into the studio to record A Night at the Opera, Queen had already breached the British albums charts with Queen II (#5) and Sheer Heart Attack (#2), but they had never had a chart-topping single. When Freddie Mercury came to producer Roy Thomas Baker with his idea for a blowout rock and roll opera ballad, Baker didn't shy away. Even though he was a little bit scared.
Here's how Baker describes his first contact with this now iconic track:
"Freddie was sitting in his apartment and he said, 'I've got this idea for a song.' So he started playing it on the piano—it had some words missing and there were some bits of melody he hadn't worked out—just the basic framework. Then he stopped and said, 'Now, dears, this is where the opera section comes in.' I went, Oh my God..."(Source)
Apparently, they went out to dinner after that. Only later did Baker realize that Freddie was dead serious. There was going to be an opera section. For real.
"It was going to be a brief interlude of a few Galileos and then we'd get back to the rock part of the song" (source), said Baker. They took the song into the studio and started a long and meticulous process of recording (see the Music technique tab for more on how the song was made).
"When we started doing the opera section properly it just got longer and longer, and we added more and more blank tape. Every day we thought, It's done now, and then Freddie would come in with another lot of lyrics and say, 'I've added a few more Galileos here, dear,' and it just got bigger and bigger." (Source)
At the end of it all, the band had spent many weeks working on "Bohemian Rhapsody," in a total of five different studios.
For recording artists back then, these stats were absurd. Whole albums were often recorded in a few weeks. But Freddie Mercury came into the making of "Bo Rhap" (as they call it) with a clear vision, and he and Queen would not leave the studio until that vision was fulfilled.
But what was the vision, exactly?
First, full disclosure: we here at Shmoop like a little bit of ambiguity. Some of the greatest works of art and literature are not great because they have one clear message, but because they can be interpreted in several different ways. One of the things that makes "Bohemian Rhapsody" so great is that no one is completely sure what it means. People who hear it for the first time are more likely to think "What was that about?" than to think, "That reminds me of something I've heard before," or "I don't agree with the point he's making."
The downside of the song's ambiguity might be that Freddie Mercury and crew weren't really making any big point, beyond showing the world that they were awesome and fearless. And weird.
The upside is that if you hear "Bohemian Rhapsody" and don't completely hate it, you're likely to want to listen to it over and over again, poring over the strange words and unpredictable musical riffs. It's a larger-than-life song that works as a pop song only because the production and harmonies are so polished and intentional. It made be odd, but nothing about it is accidental. And if it doesn't drive you nuts, you are probably at least a little bit in love with it.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" was released as an A-side single as a show of faith in the fact that the track was unlike anything rock had seen before, and would therefore be a hit. Perhaps surprisingly, it actually was a huge hit, remaining at #1 on the UK singles chart for nine weeks and breaking the top ten in the United States. Queen's now-legendary music video, created as a promotional video for "Bohemian Rhapsody," further elevated the song's status, as it was immediately aired on British TV's influential Top of the Pops show.
But Queen's brilliance and discipline was not without a bit of internal drama. All four of the band's members wrote songs, usually taking an exclusive credit for the song. A songwriting credit means royalties on sales of the single. Clearly, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was Freddie's single, and clearly it was going to be a huge success. But the matter of whose song would go on the other side of the record, the B-side, was a heated one. Riding the coattails of "Bo Rhap" would mean big money for the B-side songwriter.
Drummer Roger Taylor, known to be the most self-assured and cash-happy of all the Queen members, insisted that his song, "I'm In Love With My Car," become the B-side. In one heated debate over whether his or Brian May's song would be picked, he apparently locked himself in a closet and refused to come out until everyone agreed. In the end, Taylor got his way, and it was "I'm In Love With My Car" that was chosen. By January 1976, the "Bohemian Rhapsody" single had sold over a million copies. "I'm In Love With My Car" isn't the worst song ever, but it's also pretty clear that Taylor got lucky with that one.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" was Freddie' brainchild, and its success was Freddie's success. As Queen became worldwide rock stars, it seems that Freddie felt more and more free to explore something that had been plaguing his personal life: his interest in men.
Some have speculated that "Bohemian Rhapsody" is actually a prolonged metaphor for this personal breakthrough, although no one will ever know (see the Lyrics tab).
In any case, in 1975, Freddie Mercury left his girlfriend of many years for a man, an executive at an American record company. By 1978, he was involved in another affair with a man, followed by another, and another. In the meantime, Queen released such global hits as "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You," songs with a completely different feel that form a part of their unusual legacy. They became known globally for partying hard and giving amazing shows, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" remained Mercury's own well-known masterpiece.
Despite his success, Freddie's sexuality was definitely a source of tension at the time, especially in the hyper-masculine world of rock and roll. Nobody talked about it publicly, and he never "came out" to the press. In some circles, he was mocked and hated for the mere assumption that he was gay. His bandmates, who were also his friends and confidantes, stood by Mercury throughout the criticism.
They also stood by him in the late 1980s when he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. At the time, an AIDS diagnosis could easily make you a social pariah. Few celebrities had gone public about their diagnoses, and the idea that only gay men could become sick with AIDS was still widespread. (Ridic, we know.)
Even as Mercury became more and more sick and frail, he declined to speak about his diagnosis to anyone other than close confidantes. The hungry media knew Freddie was sick, but nobody broke the seal of secrecy to reveal what he was sick with. On November 23rd, 1991, Mercury issued a public statement about his status as a victim of AIDS. The next day, he died of AIDS-related complications. It shocked the world and devastated his family and friends.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" is Freddie Mercury's totally epic mark on the history of rock and roll. Every bit as strange and charismatic as its creator, it's the sort of song you love or hate, with little in between. Either way, "Bohemian Rhapsody" realized an unusual vision of rock and roll grandeur that has yet to be surpassed.