Thirty-seven years ago today, Queen released ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a masterful – if ludicrous – six-minute suite of operatic cock-rock about a lad who’s killed someone, sold his soul to Beelzebub and wants to know if Scaramouche can do the Fandango. Is it a rejigged myth? A metaphor for a failed Mercury relationship? Well, your guess is good as ours. It was a mammoth undertaking for a band about to become one of the biggest in the world – and these are the facts. How many did you know?
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’’s nine consecutive weeks at No.1 at the end of 1975 was the joint third UK total at the time, trailing David Whitfield’s ‘Cara Mia’ (10 weeks, 1954) and yodeling country star Slim Whitman’s ‘Rose Marie’ (11 weeks, 1955). It was eventually supplanted by ABBA’s ‘Mamma Mia’, a title curiously contained in ‘Bo Rhap’’s lyrics. Some Hallowe’en spookiness for you there.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ producer Roy Thomas Baker was one of the ill-fated pilots of Guns N’ Roses’ forever delayed ‘Chinese Democracy’, parachuting in in 2000 to drive everyone mad getting the guitar sound just right. Obviously he failed. At least in the exacting eyes of Axl Rose.
Scaramouche is a stock character from commedia dell’arte, a buffoon who always manages to wriggle out of the sticky situations he invariably finds himself in, usually at the expense of someone else. Original name ‘Scaramuccia’ means ‘skirmish’.
It was introduced to radio by comedian Kenny Everett, then a Capital DJ. At first he thought it was crazily long, but had a change of heart.
Forget it, it could be half an hour long, it’s going to be number one for centuries!
Freddie Mercury plays the same piano that Paul McCartney used for ‘Hey Jude’. You can tell, can’t you?
EMI in the UK and Elektra in the UK both tried to cut chunks off the epic. As Roger Taylor says:
They said it was too long and wouldn’t work. We thought, ‘Well we could cut it, but it wouldn’t make any sense’, it doesn’t make much sense now and it would make even less sense then; you would miss all the different moods of the song. So we said no. It’ll either fly or it won’t.
The song was Freddie’s baby. Here’s Brian May in 2002:
He knew exactly what he was doing… We just helped him bring it to life.
The opera parts took more than 70 hours to complete.
Freddie wrote the whole song – including the composite harmonies – on telephone books and scraps of paper, making it a little tricky for everyone else to get a handle on the thing.
Sign up for the newsletter
After the crucial first radio play the Capital switchboard went nuts and EMI realised they had a hit – however unusual – on their hands. That was the moment they agreed to release the full-length single.
180 overdubs were needed to get the track into epic condition. 180! Treble top.
It only made No.9 in the States on its initial release but hi-jinks in the Wayne’s World car saw it storm all the way to No.2 in 1992. It was held off top spot by Kriss Kross’s classic ‘Jump’.
In 2007, Radio 1 confessed this was their most-played song since the station was launched. It’s probably ‘Chasing Cars’ now or something.
At live shows, Queen preferred to use tapes for the fiddly bits of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
That epoch-starting video cost around £4,500 to make and centred around a formation of the band familiar from the cover of ‘Queen II’, released 18 months earlier. Apparently, they liked themselves that way.
There was a lot of chat that Queen recorded their seminal ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ promo because they were out of the country and couldn’t do Top Of The Pops, but the plain fact was they couldn’t be arsed. Taylor told the Observer in 2004:
We did everything we possibly could to avoid appearing on Top Of The Pops. It was… the most boring day known to man.
At 5 minutes 55 seconds, it was a riskily long song to fire at the top of the charts, but ‘Hey Jude’ (there it is again) was a minute-and-a-half longer. Oasis have since busted all records with the nine-and-a-half-minute ‘All Around The World’. Makes ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ seem like a Napalm Death track.
Its re-release as a double A-side to ‘These Are The Days Of Our Lives’ after Mercury’s death in 1991 means it’s the only song to be Christmas No.1 twice with exactly the same recording. Band Aid blew its own chances by getting all those Stock Aitken Waterman artists second time around. And then the Bedingfields and Justin Hawkins the third time around.
It’s been covered by a host of distinguished artists, including ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, G4, Elaine Paige, The Massed Bands of the RAF and Rolf Harris, with a wobble-boarding country take.
But, in the end, what does it all mean? Over to a weary Freddie:
It means whatever you want it to mean.