Bohemian Rhapsody: the true story of Queens’s biggest bet

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Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?

This is six minutes of pure epic-ness, where Queen poured all their geniality and ambition into one song, conquering charts around the world, and writing their name into rock history books: Bohemian Rhapsody is a gem that, so many years after its publication, still leaves the listener dazzled by its lustre.

Bohemian Rhapsody is consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful, inspired, strange and innovative rock songs: its switch from ballad to opera, then hard rock, up to the final gong, all that made this song alluring and unforgettable like few others had been before it – or since. Also, the innovative video (one of the earliest and most famous in history) helped to raise awareness of Bohemian Rhapsody, which was written by Freddie Mercury and recorded during six weeks of intense studio work, with over 180 recorded tracks and a very demanding speech section (which needed seventy hours of work on its own).

The Queen frontman wanted to try out a different structure for the band’s songs, and received the approval of Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, who declared themselves enthusiastic about the idea (even though they weren’t really sure about how it would end up). Roy Thomas Baker, their producer, was not so easily seduced by Freddie Mercury’s idea: “And here is where we put the opera section” seemed a little too vague to be able to get a clear idea of what the singer wanted to accomplish, but eventually the determination of the frontman convinced him.

It seems that Mercury had started thinking about Bohemian Rhapsody much earlier, back in 1968, when he was a schoolboy and Queen were very much yet to come into existence. The story told by the lyrics can be interpreted in a number of ways (the other band members have always referred to it as hermetic and mysterious). Many have wanted to interpret the words of the singer as a confession about his homosexuality; others as a metaphorical interpretation of a relationship that ended badly.

Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body’s aching all the time
Goodbye everybody
I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth

Mama (anyway the wind blows)
I don’t want to die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all

The successful layering of genres and melodies convinced Queen to make Bohemian Rhapsody the leading single of A Night At The Opera, an album that contained other legendary songs such as You’re My Best Friend and Love Of My Life and that, because of the time-consuming work on Bohemian Rhapsody, became the most expensive in history.

anight_at_the_opera
A Night At The Opera, the cover of the album

For EMI, however, the excessive length of the song was a constraint on its publication as a single. The music industry argued that it wouldn’t work on the radio and were at least for a shortened version to be made, which certainly (according to them) would find more fortune and more favourable distribution. Even Elton John, approached by the manager of Queen, said to Freddie Mercury that it was too long and strange to go on the radio. In fact, for almost everybody else, it appeared to be a suicidal commercial strategy.

Valuable assistance came from British DJ Kenny Everett, a friend of the group, who received Bohemian Rhapsody “under the table”, in order to put it on to the airtime schedule. The success of the song convinced EMI to follow the wave and publish it as a single.

The next problem was promotion: Top Of The Pops, the traditional place where artists presented their hits, was waiting for them with open arms, but the difficulty of replicating Bohemian Rhapsody live wasn’t to be underestimated. For this reason, the Queen made a promotional video of the song, whose success revealed the potential of music videos, which over the next decade would explode on MTV.

Bohemian Rhapsody has been the only song so far to become number one in the UK charts on two separate occasions: the first time in the 70s and (almost twenty years) later in 1992, a few months after Mercury’s death. The single that was eventually able to knock Bohemian Rhapsody off the top spot in 1975 was ABBA’s Mamma Mia (ironically, Queen’s song has in the lyrics “Oh Mama mia, Mama mia, Mama mia let me go.”)

And the last thing to say about one of rock’s great masterpieces? At least once in your life, you should sing it in your car, like Wayne, Garth and their friends.

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