QUEEN’S landmark single turned 40 this week. Andy Welch catches up with Roger Taylor and Brian May to find out how they recorded it, and why people still love the song so much
It’s difficult to imagine Queen, one of the biggest-selling, most widely known bands ever, struggling with their career.
But, as drummer Roger Taylor recalls, in 1974, three albums in to their career, the band were broke and having problems with their manager, who wasn’t passing on any of the cash they were making.
“We felt like this was make or break, really,” he says, referring to fourth album A Night At The Opera. “This was a last big shot at it.”
Cue John Reid stepping in. He was Elton John’s manager at the time, and freed them of previous commitments to management and record labels, reassuring them they could do whatever they wanted.
“He said, ‘Go away and make the best record you’ve ever made and I will sort out the money side’,” says guitarist Brian May. “I seem to recall he put us on 30 quid a week instead of 20 - and we were made.”
Of course, there’s a little bit more to it than that. The album they went on to make, named after the Marx Brothers film, was indeed the best album of their career, while one of its songs, Bohemian Rhapsody, changed their lives, and popular music forever.
The song is 40 years old this week, although frontman Freddie Mercury had been working on it for much longer.
“We’d had a lot of success with the third album, Sheer Heart Attack, and the singles from it, Killer Queen and Now I’m Here, were hits.”
“If we hadn’t made Bohemian Rhapsody, and it hadn’t been the hit it was, it’s doubtful whether we would’ve carried on,” continues May. “It took us onto another level, and we saw the power of the video as well.”
Indeed, while bands had made promo films prior to Queen’s outlandish video, they are widely recognised as popularising the medium, complete with big budget and special effects. They also made other bands realise they could still appear on Top Of The Pops in some shape or form, even if they weren’t there in person.
When it came to performing the song live, operatic as it is, written in several movements with complex parts and multi-layered vocals, pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved on a live stage, especially considering they were just a four-piece.
“Freddie was a great player,” says May. “A wonderful player, sometimes underestimated, even by himself I have to say. Later on, he no longer wanted to play piano, he wanted other people to play it instead. But Freddie had this wonderful percussive, rhythmic touch, unequalled actually. And he could just drive the band effortlessly.”
“There was a lot of that going on,” continues Taylor, who says Mercury’s hands were crossing over on the piano, something not generally advised by teachers, but the only way the flamboyant frontman could recreate the elaborate part he’d created. “His hands were crossing over so much, he rubbed half of his nail varnish off! What a poser.”
SOME BOHEMIAN FACTS
• The song is a shade under six minutes long, leading Queen’s label EMI and manager John Reid to demand an edit. The band, taking advice from DJ Kenny Everett, said no. Everett aired the song on his Capital Radio show in its entirety 14 times over one October weekend, and record shops were inundated with requests on the Monday morning.
• The song was banned from being played or sung at a student graduation in Wasilla, Alaska. Not because of its lyrics about killing, but because of Mercury’s sexuality.
• Bohemian Rhapsody is the most popular Muppets cover, with more than 48 million views on YouTube and counting.
• In November 1991, Bohemian Rhapsody became No 1 for a second time, 16 years after its original release. This was the result of Mercury’s death.
• “Fandango” could be one of three things - a Spanish dance for two people that involves a tambourine or castanets, foolish nonsense, or a purely ornamental thing. In this song, it is more likely to be the first definition.
• “Bismillah” is the first word of the Koran, and means, “in the name of Allah”.
• “Beelzebub” is another name for Satan.
• The video is generally recognised as the first promotional music video, and it was based on the band’s Queen II album cover. Directed by Bruce Gowers, it was shot in three hours for £3,500 at the band’s rehearsal space.
• This was Queen’s first Top 10 hit in the US. In the UK, where Queen were already established, it was No 1 for nine consecutive weeks, a record at the time.
• A Night At The Opera, the Queen album featuring the song, was the most expensive album ever made at the time. The band used six different studios to record it.
• Ironically, the song that knocked Bohemian Rhapsody off the top spot in the UK was Mamma Mia by Abba. The words “Mamma mia” are repeated three times in the Queen classic.
• Mercury may have written “Galileo” (the Italian astronomer is most famous for being the first to use a refracting telescope) into the lyrics for the benefit of Brian May, who is an astronomy buff, and now doctor of the subject.
• Scaramouche is a stock character from the 16th century Italian improvised drama known as commedia dell’arte. He’s a buffoon who always manages to wriggle out of the sticky situations he invariably finds himself in, usually at the expense of someone else. His original name ‘Scaramuccia’ means ‘skirmish’.
• Mercury played the same piano for Bohemian Rhapsody that Paul McCartney used to record The Beatles’ Hey Jude. It was Trident Studio’s stock piano, also used by Elton John, David Bowie and Carly Simon, among many others.
• Bohemian Rhapsody was one of five songs Mercury wrote for A Night At The Opera.
• Bohemian Rhapsody has been covered by many artists over the years, including some rather unlikely ones, such as Pink, Kanye West, Robbie Williams, Elaine Paige, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Montserrat Caballe, The Muppets, and, at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in April 1992, Elton John and Axl Rose.
• Bohemian Rhapsody was voted The Song Of The Millennium in 2000, and the Guinness Book of Records’ No 1 song of all time.
• Bohemian Rhapsody was pressed on blue vinyl in 1978. Only 200 were pressed, making it one of the most collectable records of all time.
• Bohemian Rhapsody first featured in Queen’s live show during the 1975 UK tour, which began in Liverpool on November 14. It would feature in every concert thereafter, including Live Aid in 1985 and Queen’s final show with Mercury, on August 9, 1986.
• Bohemian Rhapsody was Queen’s first UK single to feature a picture sleeve.
• Like all tracks from A Night At The Opera, Bohemian Rhapsody was produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Queen, with Mike Stone engineering.