Forty years ago on this day, a rock group from Britain unleashed on the world a nearly six-minute tune that its record company did not want to release as a single and whose true meaning was not known to even the band’s members.
The song? A little ditty called Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen that has sold more than 7 million copies worldwide, is one of the 10 most downloaded songs in rock history and topped the UK singles chart twice.
Queen were no strangers to musical experiments, with their early albums blending styles as diverse as music hall, jazz and heavy metal. So the band members weren’t exactly surprised when Indian frontman Freddie Mercury brought them the lyrics of what was to become Bohemian Rhapsody during the recording of Queen’s fourth album A Night At The Opera.
Listen to Bohemian Rhapsody here
Roy Thomas Baker, who produced the album, once recalled how Mercury had outlined the song to him: “He sat down at his piano and said, ‘I’d like to play you a song that I’m working on at the moment.’ So he played the first part and said, ‘This is the chord sequence’, followed by the interim part...He played a bit further through the song and then stopped suddenly, saying, ‘This is where the opera section comes in.’”
Those separate sections – ranging from the acoustic ballad-like opening to the opera bit and the heavy metal climax – required 180 overdubs while the operatic section alone took three weeks to complete.
“The opera bit was getting longer, and so we kept splicing huge lengths of tape on to the reel. Every time Freddie came up with another ‘Galileo’, I would add another piece of tape to the reel, which was beginning to look like a zebra crossing whizzing by!” Baker told Sound on Sound magazine.
The overdubs – recording more than once on the same section of tape – took such a toll that the tape kept wearing out, said guitarist Brian May. “Once we held the tape up to the light and we could see straight through it, the music had practically vanished.”
Once the band was done with the song and the album, they faced another problem – their label EMI didn’t want to release Bohemian Rhapsody as the first single, primarily because executives thought it wouldn’t get on to radio with its length of five minutes and 55 seconds.
So Queen and Baker leaked a copy of the song to Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, who played bits of it on the radio over the next weekend, prompting fans to head to stores to buy the new Queen single. This forced the record label’s hand, forcing it to release it as a single.
BoRap, as the song has come to be known, also started the trend of music videos after Queen spent £4,000 to make a video to promote the song a whole six years before the launch of MTV.
Ironically, the song gained a new lease on life in 1991 just as Mercury was dying of AIDS when comedian Mike Myers used it in the hit movie Wayne’s World.
Mercury, in his usual flippant style, dismissed Bohemian Rhapsody as “just random, rhyming nonsense” though other Queen members have surmised in recent years that it was about his struggle with personal issues such as his homosexuality.
“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,” said Brian May.
Watch a documentary on the recording of Bohemian Rhapsody here