“It was either going to be massive or it was going to be nothing”
– Roger Taylor, Queen
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, one of the most celebrated songs in the history of music, is utterly unique. With the recent biopic bagging 4 awards at the Oscars, Queen’s music has been on repeat all over the world. Against a backdrop of Galileos and Fandangos, the movie has brought considerable attention to Freddie’s life and the meaning behind his music. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has always been a huge matter of interest, enduring as a great rock n’ roll mystery. Released in 1975 on the record, A Night at the Opera, the song has lived in hearts and minds for the past 44 years.
Although Queen put this timeless masterpiece together as a group, the other members claim that Freddie Mercury had written it in his head way before he was part of the band. He had all the elements “literally lined up like soldiers in his head”, according to drummer Roger Taylor. Initially, music experts discouraged the concept. Many criticised Queen’s approach to music as ludicrous. However, Freddie’s concept fascinated the band and they immediately bought into the melody. They also wanted to see how far they could go with the song until it began to sound like utter rubbish. In doing so, Queen exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Freddie wrote most of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – including the hair-rising introductory melody – in his bedroom, on an operatic piano attached to the bed’s headboard. He awoke with a brainwave in the middle of the night and translated his dreams into piano melodies. Supposedly, many of his songs were written in this upside down fashion. Freddie was double-jointed and could bend his hands backwards to play this way.
The song contains elements of pop, opera, and rock music, and few others have come close to replicating this unique blend. While Freddie wrote the piano melody alone, they all chipped in for the operatic vocals. Lead guitarist Brian May handled the low parts, drummer Roger Taylor sang all the high bits, and Freddie Mercury did the rest of the vocals. Their vocal ranges married perfectly, and together they created the illusion of an entire choir performing.
Apparently Brian May’s guitar riff, immediately following the operatic section, was Freddie’s as well. The complexity of the song made recording extremely challenging. The band had to be inventive to get the sound they wanted, as they didn’t have the equipment or software at the time. In the case of Queen, technology had to catch up with them rather than the other way around.
The group also drew influence from The Beatles, especially Freddie’s vocal double-tracking in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Love of My Life’. Brian May fondly recollects that the Beatles “did so many things right”. Eventually, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ replicated the chart success of its influential predecessors.
Prior to release, record labels were sceptical of a song that wasn’t a pop number, clocking in at a lengthy 6 minutes. The label asked Queen to cut the song down to the intro, the verse and the end. This would exclude the now iconic operatic section. Upon his first listen, Elton John gasped, “Are you fucking mad?”. However, Capital Radio had already played the entire song 14 times, so there was no turning back.
So what do the lyrics mean? Surely it’s about more than a man’s death. Freddie never revealed the context of his writing, and Queen have respected his wishes in doing so. However, it has been suggested that Freddie was battling with personal issues at that point, and used the song as an outlet. He was on a path to self-discovery, and though he was scared, he was quite adept at shrouding his emotions. Although he pretended that his lyrics did not mean anything beyond the surface reading, the band knew otherwise. He poured his heart and soul into the lyrics, spending a considerable amount of time perfecting them.
Over the years, critics have tried to interpret ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, commonly suggesting that the song was about Freddie’s sexuality and his roots. A team of literary experts from Oxford University have referred to the song as a “grab bag of cultural allusions.”
Drummer Roger Taylor seems to have the best insight, given his close friendship with Freddie. They were Freddie’s words, and only he had the right to tell the rest of the world what they meant. However, while talking about the track, Taylor admiringly muses, “there’s a bit of nonsense in that song.”
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what a song means, as long as it hits close to your heart. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is the work of a true artist. A song that takes the listener on a journey of emotional release. As an homage to Freddie Mercury, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ will live on for decades to come.