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At the time it was recorded, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the most expensive single ever made. Recorded over many weeks and in a total of five different studios, Queen and producer Roy Baker managed to spend a great deal of money while still only laying down a total of 24 tracks—24-track recorders were the technology available at the time. Moving through five studios and re-formatting the tapes several times, the members of Queen, guided by Freddie Mercury's epic vision, labored heavily to make "Bohemian Rhapsody" a reality.
Queen was considered somewhat anarchic and wild on and off stage. Some then, would be surprised to learn that their work ethic in the studio was incredibly serious and disciplined: they often spent 14-hour days in the studio with Baker, day after day, during the making of A Night at the Opera. The process was not without conflict, but their agreement was that whoever had written the song got to guide the process, carefully showing others what he wanted. The whole band realized early on that "Bohemian Rhapsody" had the potential to become a big hit, and they threw themselves into it.
The process began with the ballad section, which seems simple enough: a three-part harmony over Freddie's solo singing and some ballad-y piano stuff. To give it the richness Freddie wanted, each part in the three-part harmony was recorded three times, then played back onto a single track. Then the three separate parts were played back together onto a single track—ending up with one vocal harmony track that actually has a total of nine recordings on it. This effect, called "bouncing" a track, can be created with the click of a button in Garage Band today, although some would argue that it's quite not the same. The old-school approach produced its own effects. In an article about the making of "Bo Rhap," Baker explained the process:
"We would do this to each background vocal part across the song and ended up with fourth generation dupes on just one of the parts. By the time we mixed two of the other parts together, the first part was up to eight generations. This was before we wore out the master and began making 24-track to 24-track tape transfers. Once that had happened, the distortion factor on those vocals was very, very high." (Source)
Then came the opera section, also laden with bounced tracks and rapidly changing vocals. Plus, when they went into the studio, Freddie and the rest couldn't resist making the opera part bigger and bigger:
"It was the first time that an opera section had been incorporated into a pop record, let alone a Number One. It was obviously very unusual and we originally planned to have just a couple of 'Galileos.' But things often have a habit of evolving differently once you're inside the studio, and it did get longer and bigger. The beginning section was pretty spot on and the end section was fairly similar, although we obviously embellished it with guitars and lots of overdubs. But the opera section ended up nothing like the original concept, because we kept changing it and adding things to it." (Source)
The approach to adding on more "Galileos" was serious analog, nothing like the cut-and-paste computer technology producers use today:
"The opera bit was getting longer, and so we kept splicing huge lengths of tape on to the reel. Every time Freddie came up with another 'Galileo', I would add another piece of tape to the reel, which was beginning to look like a zebra crossing whizzing by! This went on over a three or four day period, while we decided on the length of the section. That section alone took about three weeks to record, which in 1975 was the average time spent on a whole album." (Source)
Finally, they recorded the hard-rock section followed by a soaring return to quiet ballad. The rock section was more classic Queen, and production-wise, it resembles other songs and albums of theirs in more superficial ways. But the smoothness of the transition from opera section to rock conclusion should not be underestimated. Brian May's guitar-playing deserves some credit there, as does Freddie's versatile singing. All-in-all, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a musical adventure worthy of being revisited, reviewed, and even imitated—although we doubt anyone could pull that off better than the Muppets.
"We were buggered if we were going to suffer for our art," declared drummer Roger Taylor. "We always said we wanted to be the biggest in the world. Unashamedly, that was the object of the enterprise. What else are you going to say, 'We'd like to be the fourth biggest'?" (Source)
It took four exceedingly confident personalities to sustain that aspiration, but, ultimately, Queen's dream of being the biggest pretty much came true. After slowly climbing in popularity from 1970 to 1974, they started to get more attention with Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack. The 1975 release of "Bohemian Rhapsody" was Queen's breakthrough moment.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" led to Queen's global popularity, and it also marked the moment when the ambitious band finally made some money. Their previous management had apparently made off with much of what they were owed for their first three albums, and when A Night at the Opera was released, the members of Queen were broke and bitter. As Taylor said, they did not idealize the lifestyle of broke artists. They wanted to be famous and make money, and this was their moment.
Fame, however, was harder on the band members than they expected. Roger Taylor seems to have fared alright, but Brian May, the caretaker and worrier of the group, feels that Queen's sudden stardom ultimately isolated him and stagnated his relationships:
"Queen was a wonderful vehicle and a wonderful, magical combination. But I think it came close to destroying us all. I'm not being dramatic. [...] Queen were the biggest thing in the world for a moment in time and everything that goes with that really messes up your mind somehow." (Source)
The crew certainly partied hard and lived extravagant lives from the start, and it was Freddie Mercury who was at the center of it all. Saucy and flamboyant, Freddie gave people a show wherever he went. He was also known for his sexual exploits with both men and women, and played the role of heartbreaker more than a few times. But even showy Freddie tired of the spotlight, and after a few scathing press treatments in the late 1970s, he rarely gave personal interviews for the remainder of his career.
Freddie's privacy probably contributed to a more enigmatic public image for himself and Queen. But it's hard to say whether the mystery surrounding Freddie helped or hurt when he became sick with HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s. Mercury, who had never been entirely straightforward about his sexuality in a public forum, wanted desperately to protect his privacy and that of the people he was close to. He told the band about his illness, but insisted it remain a complete secret. It was nonetheless obvious that he was very ill, and the press haggled him and his close circle about it for years.
"As soon as we realised Freddie was ill, we clustered around him like a protective shell," May says. "We were lying to everyone, even our own families, because he didn't want the world intruding on his struggle. He used to say, 'I don't want people buying our f-----g records out of sympathy.' We all became very close. We grew up a lot." (Source)
Freddie's death in 1991 was not the end of Queen, but it was the end of an era. "Bohemian Rhapsody" would never be the same without him. Queen played tributes and AIDS benefits in the years to come, but Deacon retired from the public eye in 1997, leaving only May and Taylor, the two original members, who continued on as Queen. Still, it's obvious that Queen's true hey-day began with "Bohemian Rhapsody"—although yet to come were classic hits like "We Will Rock You," "We Are The Champions," and "Under Pressure."
It was their turning point, and from then until about 1985, they really would be the biggest in the world.
It can feel nonsensical at times, but "Bohemian Rhapsody" actually does have a narrative arc. At least, we think it does.
Here's our best attempt at a breakdown of the story the song tells. Keep in mind, this story could be a grand metaphor for something else entirely. But nobody knows what. So, we encourage you to think through the song's meaning yourself rather than take our word for it.
("Is this the real life?" to "Sometimes I wish I'd never been born at all")
In this section the narrator confesses, first to himself and then to his beloved mother, that he's killed someone. He feels regret, but it's too late. "Nothing really matters…"
("I see a little silhouetto" to "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me")
We got the trial idea from BBC news. Of course the Brits understand this opera stuff.
The "poor boy" narrator presents his case—albeit a bit weakly—in front of a chorus of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Those are the people who sing "Let him go!" The attendees at this particular trial have a strange propensity for repeating the word "Galileo!" at random times. Meanwhile, the defendant becomes increasingly vocal, begging to be set free.
("So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye" to "Just gotta get right outta here")
After being convicted and locked up, the narrator becomes angry and sings out his sufferings in a rage. He demands to be freed rather than executed.
("Nothing really matters" to "Anyway the wind blows")
The narrator has accepted his fate, probably a fate of execution. He returns to his original state of remorse and sings out his troubles quietly.
How's that for narrative arc?
Here's a quote from an English professor who was as impressed as we are by Freddie Mercury's storytelling:
"The architecture of Bohemian Rhapsody—and it is an architecture—is self-consciously, ostentatiously baroque. It is rich in ornate, curious details, occasionally Moorish in provenance. Also in soaring, sometimes dizzy-making, shifts of register and in a lachrymose emotiveness that is almost impossible to resist." (Source)
Lachrymose? That's a fancy word for "weepy," but a totally accurate one in this case.
Way to go, Queen, for making a rock song into a "baroque architecture."