Queen’s epic rock hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ began life sometime in the late 60s, when Freddie Mercury was a student at Ealing Art College, starting out as a few ideas for a song scribbled on scraps of paper.
Queen guitarist Brian May remembers the brilliant singer and songwriter giving them the first glimpse in the early 70s of the masterpiece he had at one time called ‘The Cowboy Song’, perhaps because of the line “Mama… just killed a man.”
“He’d worked out the harmonies in his head”
“I remember Freddie coming in with loads of bits of paper from his dad’s work, like Post-it notes, and pounding on the piano,” May said in 2008. “He played the piano like most people play the drums. And this song he had was full of gaps where he explained that something operatic would happen here and so on. He’d worked out the harmonies in his head.”
Mercury told bandmates that he believed he had enough material for about three songs but was thinking about blending all the lyrics into one long extravaganza. The final six-minute iconic mini rock opera became the band’s defining song, and eventually provided the title of the hit 2019 biopic starring Rami Malek as Mercury.
“Just the biggest thrill”
Queen first properly rehearsed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at Ridge Farm Studio, in Surrey, in mid-1975, and then spent three weeks honing the song at Penrhos Court in Herefordshire. By the summer they were ready to record it; taping began on 24 August 1975 at the famous Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, Wales. It was a moment that May described as “just the biggest thrill”.
The innovative song began with the famous a cappella intro (“Is this the real life?/Is this just fantasy?”) before embracing everything from glam-metal rock to opera. A week was devoted to the operatic interlude, for which Mercury had methodically written out all the harmony parts. For the grand chorale, the group layered 160 tracks of vocal overdubs (using 24-track analogue recording), with Mercury singing the middle register, May the low register and drummer Roger Taylor the high register (John Deacon was on bass guitar but did not sing). Mercury performed with real verve, overdubbing his voice until it sounded like a choir, with the words “mamma mia”, “Galileo” and “Figaro” bouncing up and down the octaves.
“He put a lot of himself into that song”
“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.” Mercury had supposedly written “Galileo” into the lyrics in honour of May, who had a passionate interest in astronomy and would later go on to earn a PhD in astrophysics.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ brims with imaginative language and is a testament to Mercury’s talents as a songwriter. Scaramouche was a buffoonish character in 16th-century comedy commedia dell’arte shows; “Bismillah”, which is taken from the Quran, means “in the name of Allah”; Beelzebub is an archaic name for Satan.
“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,” said May. “He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.”
“You knew that you were listening to history”
After the final version was completed – following some refinements at Roundhouse, Sarm East Studios, Scorpio Sound and Wessex Sound Studios – there was a feeling that Queen had created something special. “Nobody really knew how it was going to sound as a whole six-minute song until it was put together,” producer Roy Thomas Baker told Performing Songwriter magazine. “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.”
The song, which appears on the album A Night At The Opera, was finally released on 31 October 1975, and the impact was instantaneous. “I was green with envy when I heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It was a piece of sheer originality that took rock and pop away from the normal path,” said Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA.
Though the group’s record company were initially reluctant to issue ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as a single, Queen were united in insisting that it was the right choice, despite exceeding the three-minute running time expected of most single releases. The band were told the song had no hope of getting airplay, but they were helped by Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, a friend of Mercury’s, who played it 14 times in one weekend and started the buzz that eventually ended with the single going to No.1.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’’s groundbreaking video
Queen also hired director Bruce Gowers to shoot a groundbreaking video, which features the band recreating their iconic pose from the cover of their Queen II album. The promo, which cost £3,500 to make in just three hours at Elstree Studios, was a superb piece of rock marketing, celebrated for its eye-catching multi-angle shots capturing Mercury in his favourite Marlene Dietrich pose. The band had fun making the video, and Gowers recalled: “We started at seven-thirty, finished at ten-thirty and were in the pub 15 minutes later.”
On 20 November 1975, the new video was premiered on Top Of The Pops to huge media and public interest. Queen watched the programme in their Taunton hotel room. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ became the band’s first US Top 10 hit. In the UK, it went to No.1 for nine consecutive weeks, a record at the time, even holding off the surprise Laurel And Hardy novelty hit ‘The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine’, which had to settle for the No.2 spot. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is still the only song to have topped the UK charts twice at Christmas. It was also the first Queen single to be released with a picture sleeve in the UK. The B-side, incidentally, was Taylor’s ‘I’m In Love With My Car’.
“People should make up their own minds as to what it says”
Mercury’s ambitious song, which earned him an Ivor Novello Award for songwriting, quickly became a highlight of Queen’s live show after being unveiled on the A Night At The Opera Tour of 1975 (the closing night of which is captured on their A Night At The Odeon DVD, the deluxe box set of which features the band’s very first live performance of the song, recorded during the soundcheck).
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ opened their celebrated Live Aid set in July 1985 and it has remained remarkably popular. In 2004, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame, and Mercury’s vocal performance was named by the readers of Rolling Stone magazine as the best in rock history. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is the third best-selling single of all-time in the UK and, in December 2018, ‘Bo Rhap’ – as it is affectionately known among Queen fans – was officially proclaimed the world’s most-streamed song from the 20th Century, passing 1.6 billion listens globally across all major streaming services. A mere seven months later, on 21 July 2019, the video surpassed one billion streams on YouTube.
“It is one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it,” Mercury said. “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.”