“Bohemian Rhapsody” is like a condensed version of the second side of Abbey Road, with makeup and tights. Six minutes of flamboyant patchwork pop—a capella intro, sentimental verses, faux-Italian chorale, a thundering glam-metal climax—it’s a testament to Freddie Mercury’s adeptness as a songwriter and Queen’s musicianship that the disparate parts add up to such a glorious sum.
“It was really Freddie’s baby from the beginning,” said guitarist Brian May. “He came in and knew exactly what he wanted. The backing track was done with just piano, bass and drums, with a few spaces for other things to go in … Freddie sang a guide vocal at the time, but he had all his harmonies written out, and it was really just a question of doing it.”
After lengthy rehearsals, the four-month recording sessions for the song’s parent album, A Night at the Opera, moved between six studios—an excess unheard of in 1975. Three weeks of that time was spent on “Bo Rhap” (as Queen fans affectionately call it), with a whole week devoted to the operatic interlude. To achieve the grand chorale, the group layered a whopping 160 tracks of vocal overdubs (and remember, this was in the days of 24-track analog recording).
“We ran the tape through so many times it kept wearing out,” May said. “Once we held the tape up to the light and we could see straight through it, the music had practically vanished. Every time Fred decided to add a few more ‘Galileo’s we lost something, too.”
As the song was edited together from various reels, Mercury remained confident that his vision would be realized. Producer Roy Thomas Baker wasn’t as sure. “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 you just knew that you were 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.”
Queen wanted it as the first single from their new album. Both their label, EMI, and manager, John Reid, deemed it too long for radio and suggested an edit. Thomas Baker said, “We thought we’d better get some outside advice, so we took it to Kenny Everett at Capitol Radio. He said, ‘I love this song. This is so good, they’ll have to invent a new chart position. Instead of it being Number One, it’ll be Number Half.’”
An influential DJ, Everett aired the song 14 times over one October weekend, and by Monday morning, the record stores were overrun with requests for the song. EMI released it in its full-length glory. Mercury said, “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.”
An accompanying video clip was also shot for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” presaging the MTV era by five years. But the song proved to be a bit of challenge to perform live. The band would leave the stage for the chorale, letting the recorded tracks take over, before storming back on for the finale.
In November 1991, after Freddie Mercury’s untimely death, “Bohemian Rhapsody” reappeared on the charts in the U.K. and achieved the rare distinction of being a Number One twice. In the U.S., thanks to its appearance in the hit movie Wayne’s World, it also jumped back onto the charts and reignited interest in Queen.
Despite it being his grandest achievement, Mercury was candid about the song’s origin. “Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research, although it was tongue-in-cheek and it was a mock opera. Why not? I certainly wasn’t saying I was an opera fanatic and I knew everything about it.”
—By Bill DeMain