Original cover of the UK single release
|Single by Queen|
|from the album A Night at the Opera|
|Released||31 October 1975|
Rockfield Studios, Monmouthshire
Penrhos Court, Herefordshire
Roundhouse Studio, London
SARM (East), London
Scorpio Sound, London
Wessex Studios, London
|Label||EMI EMI 2375
|Queen singles chronology|
"Bohemian Rhapsody" is a song by the British rock band Queen. It was written by Freddie Mercury for the band's 1975 studio album A Night at the Opera. It is a six-minute suite, consisting of several sections without a chorus: an intro, a ballad segment, an operatic passage, a hard rock part and a reflective coda. The song is a more accessible take on the 1970s progressive rock genre. It was the most expensive single ever made at the time of its release.
When it was released as a single, "Bohemian Rhapsody" became a commercial success, staying at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks and selling more than a million copies by the end of January 1976. It reached number one again in 1991 for another five weeks when the same version was re-released, eventually becoming the UK's third best-selling single of all time. It topped the charts in several other markets as well, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and The Netherlands, later becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time. In the United States the song originally peaked at number nine in 1976. It returned to the chart at number two in 1992 following its appearance in the film Wayne's World, which revived its American popularity.
Although critical reaction was initially mixed, "Bohemian Rhapsody" remains one of Queen's most popular songs and is frequently placed on modern lists of the greatest songs of all time. The single was accompanied by a promotional video, which many scholars consider ground-breaking. Rolling Stone magazine states: "Its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air." In 2004, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2012, the song topped the list on an ITV nationwide poll in the UK to find "The Nation's Favourite Number One" over 60 years of music.
- 1 History and recording
- 2 Composition and analysis
- 3 Context
- 4 Release
- 5 Promotional video
- 6 Critical reaction, acclaim and legacy
- 7 Parodies
- 8 Live performances
- 9 Chart performance
- 10 Queen comments on the record
- 11 Personnel
- 12 See also
- 13 Notes
- 14 References
- 15 External links
History and recording
Freddie Mercury wrote "Bohemian Rhapsody" at his home in London. The song's producer, Roy Thomas Baker, related how Mercury once played the opening ballad section 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." Guitarist Brian May says the band thought that Mercury's blueprint for the song was "intriguing and original, and worthy of work". According to May, much of Queen's material was written in the studio, but this song "was all in Freddie's mind" before they started. Music scholar Sheila Whiteley suggests that "the title draws strongly on contemporary rock ideology, the individualism of the bohemian artists' world, with rhapsody affirming the romantic ideals of art rock". Commenting on bohemianism, Judith Peraino said that "Mercury intended... [this song] to be a 'mock opera', something outside the norm of rock songs, and it does follow a certain operatic logic: choruses of multi-tracked voices alternate with aria-like solos, the emotions are excessive, the plot confusing."
According to Mercury's friend Chris Smith (a keyboard player in Smile), Mercury first started developing "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the late 1960s; Mercury used to play parts of songs he was writing at the piano, and one of his pieces, known simply as "The Cowboy Song", contained lyrics that ended up in the completed version produced years later, in 1975, specifically, "Mama... just killed a man." This echoes the opener of a 1962 b-side called Mama by Roy Orbison (also on Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits, 1962).
Recording began at Rockfield Studio 1 near Monmouth on 24 August 1975, after a three-week rehearsal at Penrhos Court, near Kington, Herefordshire. During the making of the track, an additional four studios (Roundhouse, SARM (East), Scorpion, and Wessex) were used. According to some band members, Mercury mentally prepared the song beforehand and directed the band throughout. Mercury used a Bechstein "concert grand" piano, which he played in the promotional video and the UK tour. Due to the elaborate nature of the song, it was recorded in various sections, held together by a drum click to keep all layers synchronised.
May, Mercury, and Taylor reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day. The entire piece took three weeks to record, and in some sections featured 180 separate overdubs. Since the studios of the time only offered 24-track analogue tape, it was necessary for the three to overdub themselves many times and "bounce" these down to successive sub-mixes. In the end, eighth-generation tapes were used. The various sections of tape containing the desired submixes had to be spliced (cut and assembled in the correct sequence). May recalled placing a tape in front of the light and being able to see through it, as they had been recording so intensely.
Producer Baker recalls that May's solo was done on only one track, rather than recording multiple tracks. May stated that he wanted to compose "a little tune that would be a counterpart to the main melody; I didn't just want to play the melody". The guitarist said that his better material stems from this way of working: in which he thought of the tune before playing it: "the fingers tend to be predictable unless being led by the brain."
Composition and analysis
The song is highly unusual for a popular single in featuring no chorus, combining disparate musical styles and containing lyrics which eschew conventional love-based narratives for allusions to murder and nihilism. It consists of sections, beginning with an introduction, then a piano ballad, before a guitar solo leads to an operatic interlude. A hard rock part follows this and it concludes with a coda. This musical format of writing a song as a suite with changes in style, tone and tempo throughout was uncommon in most mainstream pop and rock music but common in progressive rock. The genre had reached its artistic and commercial zenith between 1970 and 1975 in the music of British bands such as Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator and Curved Air. The music of progressive rock was characterised by dramatic contrasts, frequent shifts in tempo and in rhythmic character from one section of a composition to the next. Bands from the genre had blended rock with classical music, its structural features and compositional practices, as well as using classical music instrumentation. Queen had embraced progressive rock as one of their many diverse influences. "Bohemian Rhapsody" parodies many different elements of opera by using bombastic choruses, sarcastic recitative and distorted Italian operatic phraseology. An embryonic version of this style had already been utilised in Mercury's earlier compositions for the band "My Fairy King" (1973) and "The March of the Black Queen" (1974).
The song begins with a close five-part harmony a cappella introduction in B♭—entirely multi track recordings of Mercury although the video has all four members lip-syncing this part. The lyrics question whether life is "real" or "just fantasy caught in a landslide" before concluding that there can be "no escape from reality".
After 14 seconds, the grand piano enters, and Mercury's voice alternates with the other vocal parts. The narrator introduces himself as "just a poor boy" but declares that he "needs no sympathy" because he is "easy come, easy go" and then "little high, little low" (if listening in stereo, the words "little high" come from the left speaker whereas the "little low" comes from the right); chromatic side-slipping on "easy come, easy go" highlights the dream-like atmosphere. The end of this section is marked by the bass entrance and the cross-handed piano vamp in B♭.
This sample features the distinctive piano vamp in B♭ and the first line of the first verse.
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The piano begins the vamp in B♭ major along with the entrance of Deacon's bass guitar, marking the onset of this section. After it plays twice, Mercury's vocals enter. Over the course of the section, the vocals evolve from a softly sung harmony to an impassioned solo performance by Mercury. The narrator explains to his mother that he has "just killed a man," with "a gun against his head" and in doing so, has thrown his life away. This "confessional" section, Whiteley comments, is "affirmative of the nurturant and life-giving force of the feminine and the need for absolution". The bassline brings about a modulation to E♭ major, underpinning the mood of desperation. It is at this point (1:19) that Taylor's drums enter (this features the 1-1-2 rhythm of "We Will Rock You" in ballad form), 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" to him. A brief, descending variation of the piano vamp phrase connects to a two repeat of the vamp in B♭ major once again, ushering in the second verse.
This segment was very likely inspired by Turiddo’s aria "Mamma, quel vino è generoso," from Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria rusticana. Both begin with the same word, both are uttered in desperation by someone who has committed an offence and expects to die, both are attempts to exact a promise from a mother, both contain the phrase "...if I'm not back again," (...s'io non tornassi) and both are lyric ariosi for the tenor voice.
As the ballad proceeds into its second verse, the narrator shows how tired and beaten down he is by his actions (as May enters on guitar and mimics the upper range of the piano at 1:50). May imitates a bell tree during the line "sends shivers down my spine", by playing the strings of his guitar on the other side of the bridge. The narrator bids the world goodbye announcing he has got to go and prepares to "face the truth" admitting "I don't want to die / I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all." This is where the guitar solo enters.
Guitar solo (2:35–3:02)
As Mercury sings the rising line "I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all", the band builds in intensity, leading up to a guitar solo (in E♭ major) played and composed by May that serves as the bridge from ballad to opera. The intensity continues to build, but once the bass line completes its descent establishing modulation to the new key (A major), the entire band cuts out abruptly at 3:03 except for quiet, staccato A major quaver (eighth-note) chords on the piano, marking the start of the "Opera" section.
The operatic segment enters immediately as May's solo abruptly concludes. This vast shift in style is just one example of how the song rapidly changes throughout its running time.
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A rapid series of rhythmic and harmonic changes 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 only Mercury's voice accompanied by a piano, to a multi-voice choir supported by drums, bass, piano and timpani. 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. These overdubs were then combined into successive submixes. According to Roger Taylor, the voices of May, Mercury and himself combined created a wide vocal range: "Brian could get down quite low, Freddie had a powerful voice through the middle, and I was good at the high stuff." The band wanted to create "a wall of sound, that starts down and goes all the way up". The band used the bell effect for lyrics "Magnifico" and "Let me go". Also, on "Let me 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 Galilei, Figaro and Bismillah, as rival factions fight over the narrator's soul. Peraino calls the sequence both a "comic courtroom trial and a rite of passage ... one chorus prosecutes, another defends, while the hero presents himself as meek though wily." The song's introduction is recalled with the chromatic side-slipping 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!", on a block B♭ major chord. Roger Taylor tops the final chord with a falsetto B♭ in the fifth octave (B♭5).
Using the 24-track technology available at the time, the "opera" section took about three weeks to finish. Producer Roy Thomas Baker said "Every time Freddie came up with another 'Galileo', I would add another piece of tape to the reel." Baker recalls that they kept wearing out the tape, which meant having to do transfers.
Hard rock (4:07–4:54)
The operatic section leads into an aggressive hard rock/heavy metal musical interlude with a guitar riff written by Mercury. At 4:15, a quadruple-tracked Mercury (in stereo, the four parts are panned two on the left and two on the right) sings angry lyrics addressed to an unspecified "you", accusing them of betrayal and abuse and insisting "can't do this to me, baby" – which could be interpreted as a flashback to certain events that led to the earlier ballad section ("just killed a man"). Three ascending guitar runs follow. Mercury then plays a similar B♭ run on the piano, as the song builds up to the finale with a ritardando.
After May plays ascending octaves of notes from the B♭ mixolydian mode (composed of the notes from the E♭ scale), the song then returns to the tempo and form of the introduction, initially in E♭ Major, before quickly modulating to C minor, only to soon go through an abrupt short series of modulations, bringing it back to C minor again in time for the final "nothing really matters" section. A guitar accompanies the chorus "ooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah." A double-tracked twin guitar melody is played through an amplifier designed by John Deacon, affectionately nicknamed the "Deacy Amp". Mercury's line "Nothing really matters..." appears again, "cradled by light piano arpeggios suggesting both resignation (minor tonalities) and a new sense of freedom in the wide vocal span". After the line "nothing really matters" is repeated multiple times, the song finally concludes in the key of E♭ major, but then changes again to F major just before it ends. According to music scholar Judith Peraino, this final section adds "a level of complex resistance to the song's already charming subversion of macho rock and roll". This resistance is achieved through the "bohemian stance toward identity, which involves a necessarily changeable self-definition ('Any way the wind blows')." The final line, "Any way the wind blows", is followed by the quiet sound of a large tam-tam that finally expels the tension built up throughout the song.
The New York Times commented that "the song's most distinct feature is the fatalistic lyrics". Mercury refused to explain his composition other than saying it was about relationships; the band is still protective of the song's secret. Brian May supports suggestions that the song contained veiled references to Mercury's personal traumas. He recalls "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." May, though, says the band had agreed that the core of a lyric was a private issue for the composer. In a BBC Three documentary about the making of "Bohemian Rhapsody", Roger Taylor maintains that the true meaning of the song is "fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle".
When the band released a Greatest Hits cassette in Iran, a leaflet in Persian was included with translation and explanations (refers to a book published in Iran called "The March of the Black Queen" by Sarah Sefati and Farhad Arkani, which included the whole biography of the band and complete lyrics with Persian translation (2000)). In the explanation, Queen states that "Bohemian Rhapsody" is about a young man who has accidentally killed someone and, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil. On the night before his execution, he calls for God saying, "Bismillah" (In the name of God in Arabic), and with the help of angels, regains his soul from Shaitan (The devil in Arabic).
Despite this, critics, both journalistic and academic, have speculated over the meaning behind the song's lyrics. Some believe the lyrics describe a suicidal murderer haunted by demons or depict events just preceding an execution. The latter explanation points to Albert Camus's novel The Stranger, in which a young man confesses to an impulsive murder and has an epiphany before he is executed, as probable inspiration. Others believe the lyrics were only written to fit with the music, and have no meaning; Kenny Everett quoted Mercury as claiming the lyrics were simply "random rhyming nonsense".
Still others interpreted them as Mercury's way of dealing with personal issues. Music scholar Sheila Whiteley observes that Mercury reached a turning point in his personal life in the year he wrote "Bohemian Rhapsody". He had been living with Mary Austin for seven years but had just embarked on his first love affair with a man. She suggests that the song provides an insight into Mercury's emotional state at the time, "living with Mary ('Mamma', as in Mother Mary) and wanting to break away ('Mamma Mia let me go')".
When the band wanted to release the single in 1975, various executives suggested to them that, at 5 minutes and 55 seconds, it was too long and would never be a hit. The song was played to other musicians who commented the band had no hope of it ever being played on radio. According to producer Roy Thomas Baker, he and the band bypassed this corporate decision by playing the song for Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett: "we had a reel-to-reel copy but we told him he could only have it if he promised not to play it. 'I won't play it,' he said, winking..." Their plan worked – Everett teased his listeners by playing only parts of the song. Audience demand intensified when Everett played the full song on his show 14 times in two days. Hordes of fans attempted to buy the single the following Monday, only to be told by record stores that it had not yet been released. The same weekend, Paul Drew, who ran the RKO stations in the States, heard the track on Everett's show in London. Drew managed to get a copy of the tape and started to play it in the States, which forced the hand of Queen's US label, Elektra. In an interview with Sound on Sound, Baker reflects that "it was a strange situation where radio on both sides of the Atlantic was breaking a record that the record companies said would never get airplay!" Eventually the unedited single was released, with "I'm in Love with My Car" as the B-side. Following Everett's escapade in October 1975, Eric Hall, a well known record plugger, gave a copy to David "Diddy" Hamilton to play on his weekday Radio One show. Eric stated "Monster, Monster! This could be a hit!"
The song became the 1975 UK Christmas number one, holding the top position for nine weeks. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the first song ever to get to number one in the UK twice with the same version, and is also the only single to have been Christmas number one twice with the same version. The second was upon its re-release (as a double A-side single with "These Are the Days of Our Lives") in 1991 following Mercury's death, staying at number one for five weeks.
In the United States, the single was also a success, although to a lesser extent than in the UK. The original single, released in early 1976, reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100, while a re-release in 1992 (timed to tie in with the song's appearance in the hit film Wayne's World) reached number two. In a retrospective interview, Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone explains the song's relatively poor performance in the US charts by saying that it's "the quintessential example of the kind of thing that doesn't exactly go over well in America". Its chart run of 24 weeks, however, placed it at number 18 on Billboard's year-end chart, higher than some number ones of the year. The single was also certified gold for sales of over one million copies in the US. In its 1992 chart resurgence, it lasted 17 weeks on the chart and peaked at number two, with a year-end chart position of 39. It was certified gold by the RIAA a second time on 8 August 2005 for digital download sales over 500,000, and quadruple platinum on 23 April 2014 for combined digital sales and streams. It has sold 3.8 million digital copies in the US as of February 2015. With the Canadian record-buying public, the single fared better, reaching number one in the RPM national singles chart for the week ending 1 May 1976.
Though some artists had made video clips to accompany songs (including Queen themselves; for example, "Keep Yourself Alive", "Seven Seas of Rhye", "Killer Queen" and "Liar" already had "pop promos", as they were known at the time), it was only after the success of "Bohemian Rhapsody" that it became regular practice for record companies to produce promotional videos for 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. According to May, the video was produced so that the band could avoid miming on Top of the Pops, since they would have looked off miming to such a complex song. He also said that the band knew they would be set to appear at Dundee's Caird Hall on tour and unable to appear on the programme anyway. The video has been hailed as launching the MTV age.
The band used Trilion, a subsidiary of Trident Studios, their former management Company and recording studio. They hired one of their trucks and got it to Elstree Studios, where the band were rehearsing for their tour. The video was directed by Bruce Gowers, who had directed a video of the band's 1974 performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London, and was recorded by cameraman Barry Dodd and assistant director/floor manager Jim McCutcheon. The video was recorded in just four hours on 10 November 1975, at a cost of £4,500. The director said that the band was involved in the discussion of the video and the end result, and "was a co-operative to that extent, but there was only one leader."
The video opens with a shot of the four band members in near darkness as they sing the a cappella part. The lights fade up, and the shots cross-fade into close-ups of Freddie. The composition of the shot is the same as Mick Rock's cover photograph for their second album Queen II. The photo, inspired by a photograph of actress Marlene Dietrich, was the band's favourite image of themselves. The video then fades into them playing their instruments. In the opera section of the video, the scene reverts to the Queen II standing positions, after which they perform once again on stage during the hard rock segment. In the closing seconds of the video Roger Taylor is depicted stripped to the waist, striking the tam tam in the manner of the trademark of the Rank Organisation's Gongman, familiar in the UK as the opening of all Rank film productions.
All of the special effects were achieved during the recording, rather than editing. The visual effect of Mercury's face cascading away (during the echoed line "go") was accomplished by pointing the camera at a monitor, giving visual feedback, a glare analogous to audio feedback. The honeycomb illusion was created using a shaped lens. The video was edited within five hours because it was due to be broadcast the same week in which it was taped. The video was sent to the BBC as soon as it was completed and aired for the first time on Top of the Pops in November 1975. After a few weeks at number one, an edit of the video was created. The most obvious difference is the flames superimposed over the introduction as well as several alternate camera angles.
Critical reaction, acclaim and legacy
Although the song has become one of the most revered in popular music history, some initial critical reaction was poor. Melody Maker said that Queen "contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance". The newspaper's critic Allan Jones heard only a "superficially impressive pastiche" of operatic styles. However, there has been a positive reception from other musicians, including from Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who called it in 1976 "the most competitive thing that's come along in ages" and "a fulfillment and an answer to a teenage prayer—of artistic music". Greg Lake, whose song "I Believe in Father Christmas" was kept from number one in the UK by "Bohemian Rhapsody" when it was released in 1975, has acknowledged that he was "beaten by one of the greatest records ever made", describing it as "a once-in-a-lifetime recording".
Addressing the song's enduring popularity, author and music lecturer Dr. Jochen Eisentraut wrote in 2012: "A year before punk made it unfashionable, progressive rock had an astounding success with the theoretically over-length (nearly 6-minute) single 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which bore many of the hallmarks of the 'prog' genre". He said it was "unique at this point to hear a hit single in this style", it was "more accessible than other music of the genre" and was "able to communicate beyond the usual confines of the style". Author and progressive rock historian Stephen Lambe has called it a "remarkable" single and said it "provides a neat but coincidental bridge between prog in its prime and the move to more aggressive songwriting", suggesting the song "feels like a grotesque (although probably unintentional) parody of progressive rock". The New Rolling Stone Album Guide describes it as "either a prog-rock benchmark or the most convoluted novelty song ever recorded". Writing for the BBC, the Chicago Tribune's music critic Greg Kot has called it a "prog-rock pocket operetta" and said its "reign as a work of wigged-out genius rather than a dated gimmick testifies to its go-for-broke attitude – one that has resonated across generations".
In 2009, The Guardian's music critic, Tom Service, examined the song's relationship with the traditions of classical music, describing its popularity as "one of the strangest musical phenomena out there":
The precedents of Bohemian Rhapsody are as much in the 19th-century classical traditions of rhapsodic, quasi-improvisational reveries – like, say, the piano works of Schumann or Chopin or the tone-poems of Strauss or Liszt – as they are in prog-rock or the contemporary pop of 1975. That's because the song manages a sleight of musical hand that only a handful of real master-musicians have managed: the illusion that its huge variety of styles – from intro, to ballad, to operatic excess, to hard-rock, to reflective coda - are unified into a single statement, a drama that somehow makes sense. It's a classic example of the unity in diversity that high-minded musical commentators have heard in the symphonies of Beethoven or the operas of Mozart. And that's exactly what the piece is: a miniature operatic-rhapsodic-symphonic-tone-poem.
Comparison has also been made between the song and Led Zeppelin's 1971 epic "Stairway to Heaven" by music writers Pete Prown and Harvey P. Newquist. They observed both songs were "a slow, introspective beginning and gradual climb to a raging metal jam and back again", with the notable distinction being "while Zeppelin meshed folk influences with heavy metal, Queen opted for the light grandeur of the operetta as part of its hard rock". They said "for sheer cleverness alone, not to mention May's riveting electric work, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' rightfully became one of the top singles of 1975 and established Queen in the elite of seventies rock bands".
The song has won numerous awards, and has been covered and parodied by many artists. In 1977 "Bohemian Rhapsody" received two Grammy Award nominations for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus and Best Arrangement for Voices. In 1977, only two years after its release, the British Phonographic Industry named "Bohemian Rhapsody" as the best British single of the period 1952–77. It is a regular entry in greatest-songs polls, and it was named by the Guinness Book of Records in 2002 as the top British single of all time. The song is also listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
The song also came in tenth in a BBC World Service poll to find the world's favourite 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 number one on eight occasions, more than any other artist. In 1999, the annual "Top 2000" poll commenced to find the best songs ever made, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" has been ranked number one in all but three years (2005, 2010 and 2014 when it was number two).
In 2004 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. As of 2004, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is the second most played song on British radio, in clubs and on jukeboxes collectively, after Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale". On 30 September 2007 on the Radio 1 Chart Show, for BBC Radio 1's 40th birthday, it was revealed that "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the most played song since Radio 1's launch. In 2004, BBC Three featured the song as part of their The Story of... series of documentaries dedicated to specific songs. First broadcast in December 2004, the programme charted the history of the song, discussed its credentials, and took Roger Taylor and Brian May of Queen back to one of the studios in which it was recorded. In 2012, the song topped an ITV poll in the UK to find 'The Nation's Favourite Number One' over 60 years of music, ahead of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" (No.2), Adele's "Someone like You" (No.3), Oasis' "Don't Look Back in Anger" (No.4) and The Beatles' "Hey Jude" (No.5). The song was also ranked #5 in RadioMafia's list of "Top 500 Songs". The song was also included in the music video games Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3. The song was featured in the second trailer for the 2016 film, Suicide Squad.
The song enjoyed renewed popularity in 1992 as part of the soundtrack to the film Wayne's World. The film's director, Penelope Spheeris, was hesitant to use the song, as it did not entirely fit with the lead characters, who were fans of less flamboyant hard rock and heavy metal. Mike Myers insisted that the song fitted the scene.
According to music scholar Theodore Gracyk, by 1992, when the film was released, even "classic rock" stations had stopped playing the almost-six-minute song. Gracyk suggests that beginning the tape in the middle of the song after "the lyrics which provide the song's narrative ... forces the film's audience to respond to its presence in the scene without the 'commentary' of the lyrics". Helped by the song, the soundtrack album of the film was a major hit.
In connection with this, a new video was released, intercutting excerpts from the film with footage from the original Queen video, along with some live footage of the band. Myers was horrified that the record company had mixed clips from Wayne's World with Queen's original video, fearing that this would upset the band. He said, "they've just whizzed on a Picasso." He asked the record company to tell Queen that the video was not his idea, and that he apologised to them. The band, though, sent a reply simply saying, "Thank you for using our song." This shocked Myers, who said it should be more like him telling Queen, "Thank you for even letting me touch the hem of your garments!"
The Wayne's World video version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" won Queen its only MTV Video Music Award for "Best Video from a Film". When remaining members Brian May and Roger Taylor took the stage to accept the award, Brian May was overcome with emotion and said that "Freddie would be tickled." In the final scene of said video, 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 (with "The Show Must Go On" as a double-A side) hit number two in the US in 1992, 16 years after the original 1976 US release peaked at number nine. The song was also featured in the movie Loaded Weapon 1 in a scene parodying Wayne's World.
To mark the 40th anniversary of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', the song was released on a limited edition 12" vinyl with the original B-side ‘I’m In Love With My Car’ on 27th November 2015 for Record Store Day 2015. Queen also released 'A Night At The Odeon, Live At Hammersmith 75', on CD, DVD & Blu-ray. This includes the first ever live recorded performance of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
- "Weird Al" Yankovic recorded a version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" titled "Bohemian Polka" on his album Alapalooza. It uses the same lyrics and basic structure, with a polka arrangement.
- In 2013, Physics student Timothy Blais of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, wrote a parody titled "Bohemian Gravity", using it to explain String Theory, published on YouTube.
In live performances, the operatic segment would be played from tape as it was too complicated for the band to perform live. As the heavy rock segment followed, the band would return to the stage.
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The a cappella opening was too complex to perform live, so Mercury tried various ways of introducing the song. When the song "Mustapha" became a live favourite, Mercury would often sub in that song's a cappella opening, which was 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 ended with the first notes of the song. Often, the preceding song would end, and Mercury would sit at the piano, say a quick word and start playing the ballad section.
Initially following the song's release, the operatic middle section proved a problem for the band. Because of extensive multi-tracking, it could not be performed 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 split the song 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. In 1976 concerts where the same medley was played, the operatic section from the album would be played from tape as the introduction to the setlist. During this playback, Mercury would appear briefly to sing live for the line, I see a little sillhouetto of a man. As the song segued into the hard rock section, the band would emerge on the smoke filled stage – the playback would end at this point, and the hard rock section would be performed live (without the final ballad section, which appeared later in the set).
Starting with the A Day at the Races Tour in 1977, the band adopted 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 the stage, and the operatic section would be played from tape, while coloured stage lights provided a light show based around the voices of the opera section. A blast of pyrotechnics after Roger Taylor's high note on the final "for me" would announce the band's return for the hard rock section and closing ballad. Queen played the song in this form all through the Magic Tour of 1986. This style was also used for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, with Elton John singing the opening ballad and then after the taped operatic section, Axl Rose singing the hard rock section. John and Rose sang the closing ballad part together in a duet.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" was performed by Queen + Paul Rodgers throughout their tours, accompanied by a video of Mercury. Footage from the Live at Wembley '86 was used for the 2005/6 tour, and the 1981 Montreal performance used for the Rock the Cosmos Tour. As with the Queen tours, the band went backstage for the operatic section, which was accompanied by a video tribute to Freddie Mercury. When the hard rock section began, the lights came back up to the full band on stage, including Rodgers, who took over lead vocals. Rodgers duetted with the recording of Mercury for the "outro" section, 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 ("Any way the wind blows") was delivered with one last shot of Mercury smiling at the audience. Commenting upon this staging, Brian May says that they "had to rise to the challenge of getting Freddie in there in a way which gave him his rightful place, but without demeaning Paul in any way. It also kept us live and 'present', although conscious and proud of our past, as we logically should be."
"Bohemian Rhapsody" was performed by Queen + Adam Lambert on Queen & Adam Lambert Rock Big Ben Live, with a different live version which has never been done before - the opening ballad was shared between Lambert & Mercury, then after May's guitar solo, instead of the normal light show while the opera section was played from a tape, the band stayed on and performed "Killer Queen" instead. At the end of "Killer Queen", the band performed the rock and outro sections of Bohemian Rhapsody.
Sales and certifications
|United Kingdom (BPI)||4× Platinum||2,440,000|
|United States (RIAA) (physical)||Gold||1,000,000^|
|United States (RIAA) (digital)||4× Platinum||3,800,000|
*sales figures based on certification alone
Since May 2013 RIAA certifications for digital singles include on-demand audio and/or video song streams in addition to downloads.
Queen comments on the record
|“||I'm going to shatter some illusions, it was just one of those pieces I wrote for the album: just writing my batch of songs. In its early stages I almost rejected it, but then it grew. We started deciding on a single about halfway through. There were a few contenders - we were thinking of "The Prophet's Song" at one point - but then "Bohemian Rhapsody" seemed the one. There was a time when the others wanted to chop it around a bit, but I refused. If it was going to be released, it would be in its entirety. We knew it was very risky, but we had so much confidence in that song - I did anyway. I felt, underneath it all, that if it was successful it would earn a lot of respect. People were all going, You're joking, they'll never play it, you'll only hear the first few bars and then they'll fade it out. We had numerous rows. EMI were shocked - a six-minute single? You must be joking! The same in America - oh, you just got away with it in Britain.||”|
— Freddie Mercury, 1976
|“||When we finished the album, the Night at the Opera album, that was the track on it that we thought we were gonna release as a single in England first. And when we released it in England we didn't necessarily think it'd be released in America, cause we know even over here, you know, the AM tastes are even more (hesitates) stricter. Anyway we did have thoughts about even in England, perhaps editing it down at all, but we listened to it over and over again and there was no way we could edit it. We tried a few ideas, but if you edited it, you always lost some part of the song, so we had to leave it all in. And luckily it took off anyway.||”|
— John Deacon, 1977
|“||The vocal harmonies was something we wanted to do from the beginning, as we are always keen to do that kind of thing. We always were keen on that kind of thing. That was something which we wanted to do from the beginning. We wanted to be a group that could do the heaviness of hard rock, but also have harmonies swooping around all over the place. We thought there was some real power and emotion in that combination. The guitar solo was pretty much off the cuff, except I think I had plenty of time to think about that one. I remember playing along with it in the studio for a while when other things were being done. I knew what kind of melody I wanted to play.||”|
— Brian May, 1982
- Freddie Mercury - lead and backing vocals, piano, operatic vocals (middle register)
- Brian May - electric guitar, operatic vocals (low register)
- Roger Taylor - drums, timpani, gong, operatic vocals (high register)
- John Deacon - bass guitar
- List of Bohemian Rhapsody cover versions
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progressive rock had an astounding success with the theoretically over-length (nearly 6 minute) single 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which bore many of the hallmarks of the 'prog' genre
- Kot, Greg (24 August 2015). "The strangest rock classic ever?". BBC. Retrieved 25 August 2015.
The prog-rock pocket operetta has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide
- Fowles, Paul (2009). A Concise History of Rock Music. Mel Bay Publications, Inc. p. 243. ISBN 978-0786666430.
Bohemian Rhapsody could easily have been dismissed as a fitting farewell to the dying genre of symphonic rock, had it not been for the fact that it was this record alone that elevated a previously middle-ranking commercial rock band to superstar status
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If you have to explain the concept of symphonic rock to anyone completely unfamiliar with Genesis, Pink Floyd or Marillion (yes, these people exist), you have to mention just one song: Bohemian Rhapsody
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...then a heavy metal instrumental passage...
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'Bohemian Rhapsody' was akin to Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven.' But while Zeppelin meshed folk influences with heavy metal, Queen opted for the light grandeur of the operetta as part of its hard rock
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"D.I.V.O.R.C.E." by Billy Connolly
|UK Singles Chart number-one single
29 November 1975 – 30 January 1976
"Mamma Mia" by ABBA
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" by George Michael and Elton John
|UK Singles Chart number-one single
15 December 1991 – 18 January 1992
"Goodnight Girl" by Wet Wet Wet
"Imagine" by John Lennon
|Irish Singles Chart number-one single
18 December 1975 – 30 January 1976
"Mamma Mia" by ABBA
"Convoy" by CW McCall
|Australian Kent Music Report number-one single
22 March – 4 April 1976
"Fernando" by ABBA
"Lonely Night (Angel Face)" by Captain & Tennille
|Canadian RPM number-one single
1–8 May 1976
"Boogie Fever" by The Sylvers