2002 – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen was voted the UK’s favourite single of all time in a poll

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2002 – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen was voted the UK’s favourite single of all time in a poll by the Guinness Hit Singles book. ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon was voted in at No.2 and ‘Hey Jude’, The Beatles No.3, ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba was fourth and Madonna ‘Like A Prayer’ was in fifth place.

Lyrics:

(Mercury)
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality
Open your eyes, Look up to the skies and see,
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go, Little high, little low,
Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me, to me
Mama I just killed a man,
Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead
Mama, life had just begun,
But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away
Mama, ooh, Didn’t mean to make you cry,
If I’m not back again this time tomorrow,
Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters
Too late, my time has come,
Sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time
Goodbye, ev’rybody, I’ve got to go,
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooh, I don’t want to die,
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango
Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very fright’ning me
(Galileo) Galileo (Galileo) Galileo, Galileo figaro
Magnifico I’m just a poor boy and nobody loves me
He’s just a poor boy from a poor family,
Spare him his life from this monstrosity
Easy come, easy go, will you let me go
Bismillah! No, we will not let you go
(Let him go!) Bismillah! We will not let you go
(Let him go!) Bismillah! We will not let you go
(Let me go) Will not let you go
(Let me go) Will not let you go (Let me go) Ah
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
(Oh mama mia, mama mia) Mama mia, let me go
Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me
So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye
So you think you can love me and leave me to die
Oh, baby, can’t do this to me, baby,
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here
Nothing really matters, Anyone can see,
Nothing really matters,
Nothing really matters to me
Any way the wind blows

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a song by the British rock band Queen. It was written by Freddie Mercury for the band’s 1975 album A Night at the Opera. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is in the style of a stream-of-consciousness nightmare that has unusual song structure, especially for popular music. The song has no chorus, instead consisting of seemingly disjointed sections including operatic segments, an a cappella passage, and a heavy rock solo.

When it was released as a single, “Bohemian Rhapsody” became an unlikely commercial success, staying at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks. It has become one of the UK’s best ever selling singles (with sales of 2,176,000), bettered only by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997”.

The single was accompanied by a promotional video; considered groundbreaking, it helped establish the visual language of the modern music video. Although critical reaction was initially mixed, especially in America, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is often considered to be Queen’s magnum opus and one of their all-time greatest songs. In 2004 Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Bohemian Rhapsody” at number 163 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

History and recording

Freddie Mercury wrote most of “Bohemian Rhapsody” at his home in Holland Road, Kensington, in West London.

The song was recorded over three weeks, beginning at Rockfield Studio 1 near Monmouth on 24 August 1975, after a 3-week rehearsal in Herefordshire.

May, Mercury, and Taylor sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day, resulting in 180 separate overdubs. The various sections of tape containing the desired submixes had to be spliced (cut with razor blades and assembled in the correct sequence using adhesive tape).

Composition

The song consists of six sections: introduction, ballad, guitar solo, opera, rock, and outro. This format, with abrupt changes in style, tone, and tempo, was unusual to rock music. An embryonic version of this style had already been utilised by the band in “My Fairy King”. The New York Times commented that “the song’s most distinct feature is the fatalistic lyrics”. Following the single’s release, Mercury said:

It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them…’Bohemian Rhapsody’ didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?

Brian May confirms suggestions that the song contained veiled references to Mercury’s personal traumas. He recalls “Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.”

However, when the band released a Greatest Hits cassette in Iran, a leaflet in Persian was included with translation and explanations (refers to a book published in Iran called “The March of the black Queen” by “Sarah Sefati” & “Farhad Arkani”, which included the whole biography of the band & complete lyrics with Persian translation

Despite this, critics, both journalistic and academic, have speculated over the meaning behind the song’s lyrics. Some believe the lyrics describe a suicidal murderer hunted by demons

Still others interpreted them as Mercury’s way of dealing with personal issues.

Introduction (0:00–0:48)

The song begins with a close four-part harmony a cappella introduction in B? – entirely multi track recordings of Mercury although the video has all four members lip-syncing this part. The lyrics question whether life is “real” or “just fantasy” before concluding that there can be “no escape from reality.” Scholar Sheila Whiteley comments:

The multi-tracked vocals… the rhythm following the natural inflection of the words, the block chords and lack of foreground melody creating an underlying ambiguity… heightened by the harmonic change from B? (6) to C7 in bars 1 and 2; the boundaries between “the real life” and “fantasy” are marked by instability and “caught in a landslide”.

Highlighting the phallic nature of guns, Peraino also suggests that the song is a “melodrama of homoeroticism”, although, unlike Whiteley, she does not draw upon biographical details. Peraino gives an Oedipal reading, quoting some lyrics with sexual connotations (“Too late, my time has come/Sends shivers down my spine/Body’s aching all the time”). Like Whiteley, Peraino identifies the themes of both guilt and desire.

For many adolescents listening to the song, these phrases could describe the physical sensations of sexual awakening and the conflicting emotions that accompany them. If that sexual awakening is queer, then the greater the guilt and the need for confession.

After 15 seconds, the grand piano enters, and Mercury’s voice alternates with the other vocal parts. The narrator introduces himself as “just a poor boy” but declares that he “needs no sympathy” because he is “easy come, easy go”; chromatic side-slipping on “easy come, easy go” highlight the dream-like atmosphere. The end of this section is marked by the bass entrance and the familiar cross-handed piano vamp in B?.

Ballad (0:48–2:36)

“Mama, just killed a man”
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This sample features the distinctive 2-bar vamp in B? and the first line of the first verse.
Problems listening to this file? See media help.

The piano continues the 4-bar vamp in B?. Deacon’s bass guitar enters playing the first note, and the vocals change from harmony to an impassioned solo performance by Mercury. The narrator explains to his mother that he has “just killed a man”, with “a gun against his head” and with that act thrown his life away. This “confessional” section, Whiteley comments, is “affirmative of the nurturant and life-giving force of the feminine and the need for absolution.”

The chromatic bass line brings about a modulation to E?, underpinning the mood of desperation. you cry” and urging mama to “carry on as if nothing really matters” to him. A truncated phrase connects a two repeat of the vamp in B.?

As the ballad proceeds into its second verse, the narrator shows how tired and beat down he is by his actions (as May enters on guitar and mimics the upper range of the piano at 1:50). May sends “shivers down my spine” by scratching the strings on the other side of the bridge. The narrator bids the world goodbye announcing he has got to go and prepares to “face the truth” admitting “I don’t want to die / I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”. Another chromatic bass descent brings a modulation to the key of A, and the “Opera” section.

Guitar solo (2:36–3:03)

Guitar solo
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This sample features an extract of May’s guitar solo.
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As Mercury sings the rising line “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, the band builds in intensity, leading up to a guitar solo by May that serves as the bridge from ballad to opera. The intensity continues to build, but once the bass line completes its descent establishing the new key, the entire band cuts out abruptly at 3:03 except for quiet A major quaver chords on the piano.

Producer Baker recalls that May’s solo was done on only one track, rather than recording multiple tracks. May stated that he wanted to compose “a little tune that would be a counterpart to the main melody; I didn’t just want to play the melody”.

Judith Peraino comments that the “young hero, having confessed his (sexual) crime to his mother leaves home to “face the truth” and finds himself in a queer world of Italian opera.” His voyage is represented by a melodious guitar solo that abruptly segues to a simple piano beat.”

Opera (3:03–4:07)

A rapid series of rhythmic and harmonic changes introduces a pseudo-operatic midsection, which contains the bulk of the elaborate vocal multi-tracking, depicting the narrator’s descent into hell. While the underlying pulse of the song is maintained, the dynamics vary greatly from bar to bar, from only Mercury’s voice accompanied by a piano, to a multi-voice choir supported by drums, bass, piano and a timpani. The choir effect was created by having May, Mercury, and Taylor sing their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day, resulting in 180 separate overdubs. These overdubs were then combined into successive submixes. According to Roger Taylor, the voices of May, Mercury and himself combined created a wide vocal range: “Brian could get down quite low, Freddie had a powerful voice through the middle, and I was good at the high stuff.” The band wanted to create “a wall of sound, that starts down and goes all the way up”. The band used the bell effect for lyrics “Magnifico” and “Let me go”. Also, on “Let me go”, Taylor singing the top section carries his note on further after the rest of the “choir” have stopped singing.

Lyrical references in this passage include Scaramouche, the fandango, Galileo Galilei, Figaro and “Bismillah,” as rival factions fight over the narrator’s soul. Peraino calls the sequence both a “comic courtroom trial and a rite of passage … one chorus prosecutes, another defends, while the hero presents himself as meek through mily.” The song’s introduction is recalled with the chromatic inflection on “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me.” The section concludes with a full choral treatment of the lyric “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me!”, on a block B? major chord. Roger Taylor tops the final chord with a falsetto B? in the fifth octave (Bb5).

Using the 24-track technology available at the time, the “opera” section took about three weeks to finish.

Relating the theme of entrapment to Mercury wanting to express his sexuality, Whiteley points out the “heavy timbres of the lower voices … traditionally connote the masculine (“We will not let you go”) while the shrill higher voices in the first inversion chords imply the feminine ‘other’ (“Let me go”). They signal entrapment and a plea for release.”

Hard rock (4:08–4:55)

The operatic section leads into an aggressive hard rock musical interlude with a guitar riff written by Mercury. At 4:15, a double-tracked Mercury sings angry lyrics addressed to an unspecified “you”, accusing him/her of betrayal and abuse and insisting “can’t do this to me, baby” – which could be interpreted as a flashback to certain events that led to the earlier ballad section (“just killed a man”). Three ascending guitar runs follow, which May described as something he had to battle with when performing the song live. Mercury then plays a similar run on the piano. It took three attempts for Mercury to hit the C5 in the “die” of “So you think you can love me and leave me to die”, further explained by the more than one vocal track for just that one word.

Peraino writes that following the courtroom trial “the hero becomes defiant

Outro (4:55–5:55)

After Mercury plays ascending octaves of notes from the B? mixolydian scale, the song then returns to the tempo and form of the introduction. A guitar accompanies the chorus “ooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah”. A double-tracked twin guitar melody is played through an amplifier designed by John Deacon, affectionately nicknamed the “Deacy Amp”. Mercury’s line “Nothing really matters…” appears again, “cradled by light piano arpeggios suggesting both resignation (minor tonalities) and a new sense of freedom in the wide vocal span.”

According to music scholar Judith Peraino, this final section adds “a level of complex resistance to the song’s already charming subversion of macho rock and roll.” This resistance is achieved through the “bohemian stance toward identity, which involves a necessarily changeable self-definition (“Any way the wind blows”).” The final line, “Any way the wind blows”, is followed by the quiet sound of a large tam-tam that finally expels the tension built up throughout the song.

Release

When Mercury wanted to release the single in 1975, various executives suggested to him that, at 5 minutes and 55 seconds, it was too long and would never be a hit. But Mercury gave a copy to friend and Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, informing him (with a wink and a nod) that it was for him personally, and that he must never play it on air. Eventually the unedited single was released, with “I’m in Love with My Car” as the B-side.

The song dominated the 1975 UK Christmas number one, holding the top position for nine weeks. and is also the only single to have been UK Christmas Number 1 twice with the same version. The second was upon its re-release (as a double A-side single with “These Are the Days of Our Lives”) in 1991 following Mercury’s death, staying at number one for five weeks.

In the United States, the single was a success (although on a smaller scale from that of the UK release). The original single, released in early 1976, reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, while a re-release in 1992 (released to tie in with the song’s appearance in the hit film Wayne’s World) hit #2. In a retrospective interview, Anthony DeCurtis from Rolling Stone magazine explains the song’s relatively poor performance in the US charts by saying that it’s “the quintessential example of the kind of thing that doesn’t exactly go over well in America.”

Promotional video

Though some artists, including Queen themselves (for example, “Killer Queen” and “Liar” already had “pop promos”, as they were known at the time), had made video clips to accompany songs, it wasn’t until after the success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that it became regular practice for record companies to produce promo videos for artists’ single releases. These could then be shown on television shows, such as the BBC’s Top of the Pops, without the need for the artist to appear in person. A promo video also allowed the artist to have their music broadcast and accompanied by their own choice of visuals, rather than dancers such as Pan’s People. According to May, the video was produced so that the band could avoid miming on Top of the Pops, since it did not fit their style.

The band was signed to a company called Trillian, who supplied sports coverage for ITV. They hired one of their trucks and got it to Elstree Studios, where the band were rehearsing for their tour. The video was directed by Bruce Gowers, who had directed a video of the band’s 1974 performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London, and was filmed by cameraman Barry Dodd and assistant director/floor manager Jim McCutcheon.
The opening section. Brian May (top), John Deacon (left) and Roger Taylor (right), with Freddie Mercury below

The video opens with a shot of the four band members in near darkness as they sing the a cappella part. The lights fade up, and the shots cross-fade into close-ups of Freddie. The composition of the shot is the same as Mick Rock’s cover photograph for their previous album Queen II. The photo, inspired by a photograph of actress Marlene Dietrich, was the band’s favourite image of themselves.

All of the special effects were achieved during the recording. The effect of the face zooming away was accomplished by pointing the camera at a monitor, giving visual feedback, a visual glare, analogous to audio feedback. The honeycomb effect was achieved by using a shaped lens.

Then it fades into them playing their instruments. In the opera section of the video, it goes back to them just standing there, then performing on the stage in the heavy metal part, and in the closing seconds of the video Roger Taylor is depicted stripped to the waist, striking the tam tam in the manner of the trademark of the Rank Organisation’s Gongman, familiar in the UK as the opening of all Rank film productions.

The video was edited within five hours because it was due to be broadcast the same week in which it was filmed. It was shipped to the BBC as soon as it was completed and aired for the first time on Top of the Pops in November 1975. After a few weeks at number 1, an alternate edit of the video was created. The most obvious difference is the flames superimposed over the introduction.

Nearly a third of respondents in a 2007 poll commissioned by the UK telephone company O2 voted this video as “the UK’s best music video of all time”.

Critical reaction and acclaim

Although the song has become one of the most revered in popular music history, some initial critical reaction was poor. Melody Maker said that Queen “contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance”.

The song has won several awards, and has been covered and parodied by many artists. In 1977, only two years after its release, the British Phonographic Industry named “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the best British single of the period 1952-77.

It also came in tenth in a BBC World Service poll to find the world’s favourite song. In the annual “Top 2000” (maintained since 1999) it had, until 2005, been #1 every year. In 2005, it went down one place to #2, only to reclaim #1 in 2006 again. In the 2007 and 2008 editions, it once again ended at the top. For popularity comparison: the 2005 edition of the top 2000 was listened to by more than 60% of the total Dutch populace.

In 2004 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. On 30 September 2007 on the Radio 1 Chart Show, for BBC Radio 1’s 40th birthday, it was revealed that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the most played song since Radio 1’s launch. In 2004, BBC Three featured the song as part of their The Story of… series of documentaries dedicated to specific songs. First broadcast in December 2004, the programme charted the history of the song, discussed its credentials, and took some members of Queen back to one of the studios in which it was recorded.

Wayne’s World

The song enjoyed renewed popularity in 1992 as part of the soundtrack to the film Wayne’s World. The film’s director, Penelope Spheeris, was hesitant to use the song, as it did not entirely fit with the lead characters, who were fans of harder rock and heavy metal. However, Mike Myers insisted that the song fit the scene.

According to music scholar Theodore Gracyk, by 1992, when the film was released, even “classic rock” stations had stopped playing the six-minute song.

In connection with this, a new video was released, intercutting excerpts from the film with footage from the original Queen video, along with some live footage of the band. The Wayne’s World video version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” won Queen its only MTV Video Music Award for “Best Video from a Film”. When surviving members Brian May and Roger Taylor took the stage to accept the award, Brian May was overcome with emotion and said that “Freddie would be tickled”.

Myers was horrified that the record company had mixed clips from Wayne’s World with Queen’s original video, fearing that this would upset the band. He said, “they’ve just whizzed on a Picasso.” He asked the record company to tell Queen that the video was not his idea, and that he apologized to them. The band, though, sent a reply simply saying, “Thank you for using our song.” This shocked Myers, who said it should be more like him telling Queen, “Thank you for even letting me touch the hem of your garments!”

The final scene of the video was notable, where a pose of the band from the video from the original “Bohemian Rhapsody” clip morphs into an identically-posed 1985 photo, first featured in the “One Vision” video. This re-release (with “The Show Must Go On” as a double-A side) hit #2 in the US in 1992, sixteen years after the original 1976 US release peaked at #9.

Live performances
From left to right: John Deacon, Roger Taylor and Brian May in concert in Hanover in 1979. Behind the drum kit is the tam-tam used at the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

The a cappella opening was too complex to perform live, so Mercury tried ways of introducing the song. When the song “Mustapha” became a live favourite, Mercury would often sub in that song’s a cappella opening, which was easier to reproduce live as it was only one voice. During the Hot Space tour, and occasionally at other times, Mercury would do a piano improvisation (generally the introduction to “Death on Two Legs”) that ended with the first notes of the song. Often, the preceding song would end, and Mercury would sit at the piano, say a quick word and start playing the ballad section.

Initially following the song’s release, the operatic, middle section proved a problem for the band. Because of extensive multi-tracking, it could not be performed on stage. The band did not have enough of a break between the “Sheer Heart Attack” and “A Night at the Opera” tours to find a way to make it work live, so they split the song into three sections that were played throughout the night. The opening and closing ballads were played as part of a medley, with “Killer Queen” and “March of the Black Queen” taking the place of the operatic and hard rock sections. Those two sections, in virtually all gigs, were played as an introductory piece leading into “Ogre Battle”.

Starting with the “A Day at the Races” tour in 1977, the band adopted their lasting way of playing the song live. The opening ballad would be played on stage, and after Brian May’s guitar solo, the lights would go down, the band would leave the stage, and the operatic section would be played from tape. A blast of pyrotechnics after Roger Taylor’s high note on the final “for me” would announce the band’s return for the hard rock section and closing ballad. Queen played the song in this form all through the Magic Tour of 1986. This style was also used for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, with Elton John singing the opening ballad and then after the taped operatic section, Axl Rose singing the hard rock section. John and Rose sang the closing ballad part together in a duet.

The Queen + Paul Rodgers tours play a video of Mercury performing vocals and piano for the first segment, while the other musicians played along, with Paul Rodgers sitting out.

Personnel

* Freddie Mercury: lead vocal, piano, backing vocals
* Brian May: lead and rhythm guitar, backing vocals
* John Deacon: bass guitar
* Roger Taylor: drums, backing vocals, timpani, gong

Chart performance
Chart 1975 or 1992     Position
UK Singles Chart     1
Irish Singles Chart     1
New Zealand Singles Chart     1
Dutch Singles Chart     1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100     2
Swiss Singles Chart     4
Norwegian Singles Chart     4
Australian ARIA Singles Chart     5
German Media Control Singles Chart     7
Austrian Singles Chart     8
French Singles Chart     15
Swedish Singles Chart     18

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