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Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”

| September 5, 2012 | 25 Comments

“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

From Performing Songwriter Issue 73

Category: Behind The Song

Comments (25)

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  1. vinnie says:

    I feel this song in my own way. I think for whatever the reason Freddy wrote this song, he gave it to the world to decide for themselves. I love that about music. I use to imagine killing the person who sexually abused me and this song always comforted me in a sad way. It was all I felt. I love Queen and Freddy is by far in my humble opinion the most talented song writer/singer ever!

  2. Clementine says:

    I think ( all speculation) this song describes the range of emotions, judgment, guilt and hopeless dispare of some one with HIV on his day.

    “Pulled my triger now his dea” transmited hiv to someone
    “So you think you can love me and leave me to die” to the person that infected him.
    “Mama life has just begun and now I’ve gone and thrown it all away” coming out and being okay with who he is but now he has a sentence over his head.

    Listen to the whole song from that perspective and it will make so much sence.

    • Henning says:

      Nope; HIV was not around until 1981 , and Freddie probably got the virus some years later. So even if the lyrics may fit we can say for sure that it is not about HIV/Aids

  3. Dana Spivak says:

    Personally I have to believe that he had an amazing ear for music. The teacher in me has to analyze his entire life and his past experiences. I believe after looking at this all it is about his ‘killing’ his past self, and becoming a ‘new’ man. It is his come out song. Telling his Mamma that he is sorry for disappointing her and that if she cannot deal with it, pretend he never existed like it (he) never really mattered because if she can not accept him, nothing mattered to him. Just saying!

  4. mello says:

    I think its about mercury killing his gay lover who he thought was committed but used him

  5. Ruth says:

    I thought I saw in one documentary that the reason Queen left the stage when the “chorale” was played was due to the U.K.’s law that wouldn’t allow “miming” a song during a live performance. But I cannot find that info online. does anyone have a link to it?

  6. Devin McClusky says:

    The song to Boheim Rapsody with the lyrics mama just killed a man Freddy Mercury is telling his mother he killed a man

  7. Lai-Lai says:

    It was likely based on a local murder trial in his area at the time. We’ll never know his jury duty history.

    • Gareth Thomas says:

      Nope, Roger Taylor has pretty much pointed out its something personal of Freddies so unless you think Mr Mecury was a serial killer, this is not even close.

      Best guess is it was Freds “Coming out” song.

      • La tra says:

        Bohemian Rhapsody is analyzed to pieces by people who want to make it Freddie’s “coming out” song. I disagree completely. I wonder why I never hear of any other song by Freddie Mercury analyzed at all. I wish someone would do so to The March of the Black Queen, then let us know what secrets it holds. No one will because the lyrics don’t lend themselves open for some people to pounce on and somehow make it a gay thing.

  8. notimportant says:

    Pretty sure it’s about a gang rivalry in which he kills a member of another gang after which they come after him (And out of some miracle he shoots them all) to which he is celebrating however he realises despite him winning he will no longer be able to stay with his mother as they would target her. There is more to it this is just a summary.

  9. John says:

    I beleve the song was about the narrator (Mr. Mercury)’s mother killing a man she found in her son’s bedroom, using his gun (“…my trigger…”). Then she turns the gun on him. At that point, pretty much the whole center of the song, he’s beging his mother not to kill him, too, after she put a gin to his lover’s head and shot him. Saying at one point that he’ll dissapear, he also apologizes to her for making her cry (perhaps because she found him with a man). I believe she does shoot him, and thst’s when he starts telling everyone (the audiance, ie. us) good-bye.

    However, I believe the gunshot wound he sustaimed was not fatal, and by the up-tempo rock section, he is able to escape before she can finish the job.

    In the intro, it could be the words one would say to a lover upon waking up together after a night of passion.

  10. diego says:

    I adore this song, I think it’ just genial and I appreciated this article but I hoped to read what the lyrics talks about

  11. Thomas says:

    I always thought it was about a little boy whose mom killed someone, resulting in him running away, and becoming a servant Galileo, who worked him too hard, so he killed himself.

  12. Olivia A says:

    I think this song is about a man that’s committing suicide…When he refers to the ‘man’ he killed, he is referring to his old self that is now ‘dead’ and the ‘court scene’ is him arguing with himself and he’s begging ‘them’ to let go of him, meaning the memories and regrets of the past.

  13. Lindy says:

    Tell us more about Albert Camus and “The Stranger”. I get tired of all the hack theories about Mercury writing the song about his AIDS diagnosis… the dates don’t jive. What is “The Stranger”?

    • Katherine says:

      It is a novel based on the existential philosophy. The protagonist kills an Arab and the only reason he gives is that the light was shining in his eyes. He could have easily got off without charge given the racism at the time but he was honest and didn’t play the game, given the existentialist nature of his lense. The cure’s killing an arab is also based on this work. I personally think that bohemian rhapsody is way too deep in its reflection to be considered existentialist and therefore linked to Camus’ the stranger. Definitely agree the hiv link doesn’t stack up date wise

  14. Emily says:

    I love Queen

  15. Matt says:

    What, no reference to Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”? I mean seriously, that’s where every lyric in the song originates from.

    • Katherine says:

      Would love to understand how I studied Camus’ the stranger from the lense of the study of existentialist philosophy and I love queen. I understand nothing really matters but and obviously the part about killing a man but what about the deep reflection within the lyrics ie life has just begun and now I’ve thrown it all away etc

  16. Philip Saggers says:

    Lydia, useful, compressed research – on the money!

  17. Thank you for posting, Lydia. I miss your magazine (glad I have around several issues still). Thank you for continuing to inspire in this way.

  18. Shaun McGill says:

    Love this. Thanks for putting it up.

  19. Lydia says:

    So glad you liked it, Nancy!

  20. Nancy Kelel says:

    Wow! I dug the hell out of this. Lydia you continue to outdo yourself!

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