Some say Freddie Mercury wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody” in his London home, while according to Brian May, much of Queen’s material was created in the studio. However, he said this song, perhaps the greatest song Queen ever wrote, “was all in Freddie’s mind” before recording even started.
The song’s producer, Roy Thomas Baker, said that Mercury shared the opening ballad part on the piano for him: “He played the beginning on the piano, then stopped and said, ‘And this is where the opera section comes in!’ Then we went out to eat dinner.”
According to Mercury’s friend Chris Smith, the iconic singer and songwriter had first started developing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the late 1960s. Reportedly, he also used to play parts of it on the piano, and one of these pieces, known as “The Cowboy Song,” contained lyrics that were incorporated into the recorded version that was produced in 1975. That piece definitely contained the part “Mama… just killed a man,” being an echo of the opening line of Roy Orbison’s 1962 b-side single “Mama.”
It would take three weeks for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” released in 1975, to be recorded in the studio, and when it was finished, it involved 180 vocal overdubs, combined with various instruments: acoustic piano, electric bass, electric guitars, drums. On top of that came the lead vocal, and not to forget the Chinese gong. Queen’s “Rhapsody” became the first rock song to actually use opera.
As you may well know, the masterpiece consists of four parts: the ballad at the start, the opera part in the middle, followed by the hard rock section, and finishing up with a somewhat soft conclusion.
In one of the most remarkable parts, the song has three of the four band members’ vocals overlaid, a part that had taken 12 hours to record. The three singers splendidly complement one another’s distinct vocal abilities in this piece, before the guitar gradually builds into a solo.
Music scholar Sheila Whiteley has said that the title expressed well the contemporary rock ideology, shedding a light perhaps on the individuals who thrive in the bohemian world of artists, while the presence of “Rhapsody” affirms “the romantic ideals of art rock.”
Another music scholar, Judith Peraino, believed that Mercury had intended to do a sort of “mock opera” with the song. While the work does indeed sound rather unconventional when compared with other rock classics, the piece retains an operatic logic as it integrates the fantastic multi-tracked voices that juxtapose the aria-like solos. In addition, the emotions expressed in the song are dramatic and excessive, with a storyline for a plot that might sound rather confusing.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” has undoubtedly become one of the most famous songs ever produced. What might come as a surprise is that before it was released, the band members were told by numerous figures in the music industry that the song was just too long to be a hit.
The New York Times‘ critics initially praised the song for its lyrics and considered them its most distinct feature. Mercury himself refused to provide an exhaustive explanation of the composition. At one point he mentioned it was about relationships, but in other instance, remarked the lyrics were simply some “random rhyming nonsense.”
Other band members have remained fairly protective about the meaning of the song, though Brian May has subtly supported suggestions that the song contained hidden references to Mercury’s personal traumas.
The absence of solid interpretation of the song’s meaning has generated all sorts of speculations. For instance, one theory suggests the piece is about a young man who killed another person by accident and the song integrates the famous Faust motif, in which the killer sells his soul to the devil.
Music scholars have provided some more down-to-earth interpretations, such as Sheila Whiteley’s observation that Mercury was at a turning point in his personal life the year he created “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Namely, he had stopped living with Mary Austin, his partner for the previous seven years and to whom he later dedicated the song “Love of My Life,” and he had just started his first romantic relationship with a man.
Dubbed as a “once-in-a-lifetime” recording by music critics, upon its release “Bohemian Rhapsody” stormed to the No. 1 position on charts worldwide, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
Original, genuine, and definitely sounding different than any other rock song ever heard, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is still a favorite across the generations. One can be sure a song has reached iconic status when 65,000 fans join voices and sing it from beginning to end at an entirely different band’s concert, which is what happened recently at Green Day’s concert at Hyde Park in London.
Being filmed from behind the drums of the band, the fantastic moment was captured, showing the stage empty, but beyond, the entire crowd at Hyde Park can be seen singing the song, and of course, the video has gone viral.
You might ask whether this video happened in real life, or is it just a fantasy…? Well, it happened and it’s a true measure of the musical legacy Freddy Mercury and Queen have left for the world.