"Bohemian Rhapsody" is a song written by Freddie Mercury, originally recorded by the band Queen for their 1975 album A Night at the Opera. The song is in the style of a rock opera, and has a very unusual musical structure for a piece of popular music. Its six different sections have no chorus but both acappella and heavy metal arrangements. Despite this, it was released as a single and became a huge commercial success, marking a decisive point in Queen's career and setting them on the way to become one of the world's most popular bands. The single was accompanied by what is generally cited as a groundbreaking "promotional video", which helped establish the visual language of the modern music video. The song was included in all of Queen's subsequent live concert performances and still enjoys great popularity all over the world.
The song was recorded over three weeks by the band and producer Roy Thomas Baker. Recording began at Rockfield Studio 1 near Monmouth on August 24, 1975, after a 3-week rehearsal period in Herefordshire. During the making of the track, a further four studios -- Roundhouse, SARM (East), Scorpion, and Wessex -- were used. According to some band members, Mercury had worked out the entire song in his head and directed the band through the song.
May, Mercury and Roger Taylor sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day, resulting in 180 separate overdubs. Since the studios of the time only offered 24-track analogue tape, it was necessary for May, Mercury and Taylor to overdub themselves many times, and "bounce" these down to successive sub mixes. In the end, eighth generation tapes were being used. The tapes had passed over the recording heads so many times the normally opaque tapes could be seen through, as the oxide layer was beginning to wear off. The various sections of tape containing the desired sub mixes would have to be cut with razor blades and reassembled together in the correct sequence using adhesive tape, a process known as splicing.
A backing track of the grand piano (Mercury), bass guitar (John Deacon) and drums (Taylor) was recorded first. The band used many instruments to produce the song, including a Fender Precision Electric Bass, May's Red Special electric guitar, Ludwig Drums, timpani and a Paiste Gong. Mercury used a Bechstein "Concert" Grand Piano, the same he'd later play in both the promotional video and the UK Tour.
When it was finished it was the most expensive single ever made and remains one of the most elaborate recordings in music history.
When Mercury wanted to release the single in 1975, it had been suggested to him that, at 5 minutes and 55 seconds, it was far too long and would thus never be a hit. But Mercury gave a copy of the single to friend and London 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. Mercury's plan worked, as Everett did just the opposite, teasing his listeners by playing bits and pieces of the song throughout his show. Ultimately, Everett would go on to play the song as many as fourteen times in a single day. From then on, every major radio station played the song in full. The track proved popular and was released with "I'm In Love With My Car" as the B-side.
From the time "Bohemian Rhapsody" was released to the public, there has been speculation regarding the meaning behind the song's lyrics. Some believe the lyrics are about a suicidal murderer hunted by demons, or depict the events just preceding an execution, pointing to Albert Camus's novel The Stranger as a probable source of inspiration. Others believe the song is about a draftee in the Vietnam War, his personal struggles and the ongoing protests at home. Some even believe the lyrics were only written to fit with the music, and have no meaning at all. As evidence, DJ Everett quoted Mercury as claiming the lyrics were simply "random rhyming nonsense."
Mercury was famously evasive when asked about the song's meaning. Unlike the other members of Queen, who often talked about the inspiration behind the songs they had written, Mercury disliked analyzing his own material, and preferred listeners to construct their own personal interpretations. What is known is that the song had an especially personal connection for Mercury, which was confirmed by the band's other members. Following the single's release, Mercury was quoted as saying, "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?"
The song is composed of six distinct sections - introduction, ballad, guitar solo, opera, rock, and an outro. This format, replete with abrupt changes in style, tone, and tempo, was unusual to rock music at the time. An embryonic version of this style was done by Queen themselves in "My Fairy King". "My Fairy King," along with "Liar" and "March of the Black Queen" were also written by Mercury and are noted for their musical similarities to "Bohemian Rhapsody."
The song begins with close four-part harmony a cappella introduction in B-flat, which is entirely multi track recordings of Mercury. The lyrics question whether life is "real" or "just fantasy" before concluding that there can be "no escape from reality." After 15 seconds, the grand piano enters, and Mercury's solo voice alternates with the chorus. The narrator introduces himself as "just a poor boy" but declares that he "needs no sympathy" because nothing matters: 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-flat.
The grand piano continues the 2-bar vamp in B-flat. 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," and with that act thrown his life away. The chromatic bass line brings about a modulation to E-flat. Here Taylor's drums enter (1:19), and the narrator makes the second of several invocations to his "mama" in the new key, reusing the original theme. The narrator explains his regret over "mak[ing] you cry" and urging mama to "carry on" as if "nothing really matters." A truncated phrase connects to a repeat of the vamp in B-flat. 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 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 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.
As Mercury sings the rising line "I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all," the band builds in intensity, leading up to the song's first highlight: a guitar solo by May that serves as the bridge from ballad to opera. May's solo continues to build intensity, but, once the bass line completes its descent establishing the new key, the entire band cuts out abruptly at 3:02 except for quiet A Major quaver chords on the piano: the "opera" has begun. In live performances, the stage would go dark and all the members of the band would walk offstage and allow the entire opera section to play from the recording, as it was impossible for them to perform it live, due to the extensive overdubbing.
“Every time Freddie came up with another 'Galileo', I would add another piece of tape to the reel... That section alone took about three weeks to record, which in 1975 was the average time spent on a whole album. – Roy Thomas Baker”
A rapid series of rhythmic and harmonic changes (E-flat major to F minor to A major, among others) 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 a single Mercury voice and solo piano, to a multi-voice choir supported by Taylor's drums. 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. The band used the bell effect for lyrics "Magnifico" and "Let me go". Also, on "Let him 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, Figaro, "Bismillah," and Beelzebub, as rival factions fight over the narrator's soul. The 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!" in which Taylor famously hits a B-flat, almost 2 octaves above middle C, in falsetto.
The operatic section leads (with the voices singing "for me" on a block B-flat major chord, topped by a sustained high B-flat falsetto from Taylor) into an aggressive hard rock musical interlude with a guitar riff that was written by Mercury. During group sing alongs (including a famous scene in the film Wayne's World), it is traditional to "headbang" during this passage. At 4:14, 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." There follows three ascending guitar runs, which May described as something he had to "battle with" when performing the song live. The third guitar run is then imitated by Mercury on the piano.
After Mercury plays ascending octaves of notes from the B flat mixolydian scale, the song then returns to the tempo and form of the introduction. A guitar accompanies the chorus "ooh, oh yeah, oh yeah". On the "ooh" the combination makes it sound somewhat like trumpets. The guitar is played through an amp designed by Deacon, affectionately nicknamed the "Deacy Amp". There is a colour change as the loud riffs are replaced with a sonorous guitar melody. Mercury's line "Nothing really matters..." appears again. The final line, "Any way the wind blows," is followed by the quiet sound of a gong.
The promotional video for "Bohemian Rhapsody" is often cited as being the first music video, however, some artists, including Queen, had made video clips to accompany their songs, but it wasn't until after the success of the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video that it became regular practice for record companies to produce promo videos for their artists' single releases. These videos 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 performing a routine to the song. The video has been widely hailed as the first true pop promo, launching the MTV age.
The video for the single was directed by Bruce Gowers, using ideas from the band members. It was created to allow the band to be on tour and appear "live" on the BBC's Top of the Pops. Shot in just over four hours on the band's rehearsal stage, it cost £4500 to produce, using an outside broadcast truck owned by one of the band's managers. All the special effects were done during the recording. The effect of the face zooming away was accomplished by simply pointing the camera at a monitor, thus giving visual feedback, a visual glare, analogous to audio feedback. In the original version of the video an apparent editing glitch led to the piano part being briefly double-tracked out of sync with itself, but this was corrected in later releases.
In 1977, only two years after its release, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was named 'The Best Single Of The Last 25 Years' by BPI.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" is the only single to have been UK Christmas Number 1 twice (in a single recording), first in 1975/1976, and then in 1991/1992 (as a double-A single with "These Are The Days Of Our Lives") following the death of Mercury. The song stayed at number one on the British charts for nine weeks – the longest stay since 1957, and another five weeks during 1991-1992. It has the fourth longest total of weeks at #1 on the UK singles chart. It is also the only UK single ever to sell a million copies on two separate occasions and is placed third in the official list of the best-selling singles in the United Kingdom.
The song consistently ranks highly in media reader polls of "the best singles of all-time". In 2002, it came first in the Guinness Hit Singles poll of the greatest UK singles of all-time, as well as 10th in a BBC World Service poll to find the world's favorite song. In 2000 it came second to "Imagine" by John Lennon in a Channel 4 television poll of The 100 Best Number 1s. It has been in the top 5 of the Dutch annual "Top 100 Aller Tijden" ("All-Time Top 100 Singles") since 1977, reaching #1 eight times; in the annual "Top 2000" (maintained since 1999) it has, until 2005, been #1 every year. In 2005, it went down one place to #2, only to reclaim #1 in 2006 again. For popularity comparence: the 2005 edition of the top 2000 was listened to by more than 60% of the total Dutch populace.
The song enjoyed renewed popularity in 1992 as part of the soundtrack to the film Wayne's World. In connection with this, a new video was released, inter cutting excerpts from the film with footage from the original Queen video, along with some live footage of the band. 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 hit #2 in the US in 1992, sixteen years after the original 1976 US release peaked at #9.
In 2004 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The a capella introduction was too complex to perform on stage, and though some claim that the band did attempt it at least a few times early on, no live recordings of the introduction are known. In lieu of the a capella segment, Freddie Mercury would try various ways of introducing the song. When the song "Mustapha" became a live favorite, Mercury would often sub in that song's a capella opening, which was much 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 would end with the first notes of the song. More often than not, though, the preceding song would end, and Mercury would simply sit down at the piano, maybe say a quick word to the audience, and start pounding out the opening notes of the ballad.
The operatic, middle section of the song proved to be a problem for the band initially. Because of the extensive multi-tracking, there was no way they could sing it 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 simply split the song up 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, respectively. Those two sections, in virtually all of the gigs, were played as an introductory piece leading into "Ogre Battle". This approach worked well for the band, as it allowed them to play the entire operatic section from tape (though Mercury often sang the first line) before taking the stage.
Starting with the "A Day at the Races" tour in 1976, the band adopted what would become 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 for a quick costume change, and the operatic section would be played from tape. A blast of pyrotechnics after Roger Taylor's final "for me" would announce the band's return to the stage for the hard rock section and closing ballad. Queen would continue to play the song in this form all the way through the Magic Tour of 1986.
On April 20, 1992, Elton John and Axl Rose performed the song with the surviving members of Queen for The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.
On the 2005/2006 Queen + Paul Rodgers tours, a live performance recording of Mercury (from the famous Wembley show of 1986) would play on video screens doing the vocals and piano for the first segment, while the other musicians played along and Paul Rodgers sat out. The middle operatic section was left to the studio tape, with a video tribute to Freddie Mercury being played on a screen behind the stage. The band went backstage, and the arena would be completely dark. When the hard rock section kicked in, the lights came back up to the full band on stage, including Rodgers, who took over lead vocals. The taped Mercury and Rodgers made the closing into a duet, with Rodgers allowing the audience to sing the final "Nothing really matters to me" while the taped Mercury took a bow for the crowd. Rodgers would then repeat the line, and the final line was delivered with one last shot of Freddie Mercury smiling at the audience before the arena went black.
* Fuzzbox - 12" singles What's The Point (1987) and Self! (1989). This a cappella version was one of the first covers of "Bohemian Rhapsody".
* Bad News - album Bad News (1987). This spoof rock band (created for the UK Channel 4 TV series The Comic Strip Presents...) also released Bohemian Rhapsody as a single. It reached number 44 in the UK Singles Chart. The cover version was produced by Brian May.
* "Weird Al" Yankovic - album Alapalooza (1993). A high-speed polka version of the song, renamed "Bohemian Polka".
* Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - album Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Play Queen (1995).
* The Braids - High School High soundtrack album (1996). The bay area duo recorded an R&B version of this song for the soundtrack to the Jon Lovitz movie High School High. It was produced by Third Eye Blind's lead singer Stephan Jenkins and was also released as a single.
* Montserrat Caballé - album Friends for Life (1997). Duet with Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson.
* Faye Wong - concert album HK Scenic Tour 1998/1999. With the help of several backup vocalists, the song was covered live; it stayed faithful to Queen's original studio version with no cuts.
* The California Guitar Trio does an instrumental version on the album Rocks the West (2000).
* The Flaming Lips - album Killer Queen (2005). The cover was also performed live.
* G4 - album G4 (2005). The band, The X Factor runners-up in the UK, released a version of the song as their debut single, reaching #9 in the UK Singles Chart.
* Mnozil Brass - DVD Seven (2005), features the Austrian brass ensemble, singing and playing in their own comedic style.
* Australian gypsy-fusion band Monsieur Camembert have performed the song live, and a recording of it appears on their self-titled double album.
* Pop-Classical vocalist Russell Watson covers "Bohemian Rhapsody" on his third album Reprise (2003)
* Rolf Harris did a version in the style of Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport complete with wobble board.
* The Australian indie rock band The Ultimetes! released a new version of the song on their successful 2006 debut album, Fkn Random, named "Sahara Rhapsody".
* The Mexican Band Molotov did a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody called, "Rap Soda y Bohemia."
* Garage thrash metal band Gore Abortion did a metal version of the song on their album Shadow of the Damned.
* Dream Theater has covered the hard rock section in a medley.
* A selection of BBC News presenters performed the song for Children In Need (2005)
* "Bohemian Rhapsody" also appeared in the performance of the play "The Loneliest Wolf", in which the lead character Wolfie performs the song from the second verse of the ballad section up to the end of the opera section (in which two spirits appear who seem to be fighting over his soul). It quickly switches to the outro, during which the spirits leave the stage and Wolfie kneels down, giving the impression the play is over. At this point, the hard rock section comes in, which Wolfie sings accompanied by the two spirits playing guitar and drums. The play ends afterwards.