In the early weeks of 1975, Queen faced a serious problem. Their 1974 single Killer Queen vaulted to number 2 on the British charts and made the U.S. Top 20. Great things were expected of the follow-up, Now Im Here, but it sank without trace in America, and the band was in desperate need of a hit.
Musicians dont customarily achieve massive chart success with six-minute mock operas about suicidal murderers who are tormented by demons. Having written just such a song, Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury found himself in a quandary. Queens bass player, manager and record company all warned that releasing the song as a single would be a disaster. Mercury, though, was certain he had composed a hit.
He first played a rudimentary version to the band in the spring of 1975. Freddie sat there, recalls guitarist Brian May, banging away on the piano and doing little bits that had big gaps in them. We asked, Why are all these gaps in there? And he said, Thats where the operatic bits are going to go. We raised our eyebrows and thought, Hmm . . . OK.
In the summer, during sessions
for the album A Night at the Opera, Queen painstakingly pieced together Bohemian Rhapsody in studios in London and Wales. Once the piano, bass and drum tracks were completed, Mercury added a guide vocal. He would go, Bum bum bum bumm . . . thats what happens here, May says. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was Freddies baby. We just helped him bring it to life.
The song sessions lasted nearly three weeks. Mercury told producer Roy Thomas Baker that the opera section would last only 30 seconds, yet it required seven days of work. It got longer and longer, and we kept adding blank tape, Baker says. Every day wed think we were done, and Freddie would come in and say, Ive added a few more Galileos, dear.
Queen harmonized those Galileos and Figaros for up to
12 hours a day. We called ourselves the sausage machine, May laughs, because we got very good at doing harmonies quickly and accurately. We would multi-track each line in unison three times, then move on to building up huge blocks of choral harmonies.
May points out that the multi-tracking a staggering 180 vocal overdubs alone stretched mid-70s studio technology to the breaking point. We held the tape up to the light one day wed been wondering where all the top end was going and discovered a virtually transparent piece of tape. All the oxide had been rubbed off. It was time to hurriedly make a copy and get on with it.
When the six-minute track was finally completed, Mercury hit his first stumbling block after playing it for Queens manager, Pete Brown. I tried to make Freddie see that they were quite mad to propose Bohemian Rhapsody as their next single, Brown says. I thought it spelled the kiss
of death, and [bassist] John Deacon privately agreed with me.
EMI Records agreed, insisting that the track undergo substantial edits before release. But as studio tape operator Gary Langhan remembers, Mercury, May and Taylor were firm: They dug in their heels. There was a touch of arrogance, I suppose, but it was more like sheer belief in the song.
When the still unfinished track was played for Queen-friendly London radio DJ Kenny Everett, he loved it but felt it could never be a single. Despite which, May notes, he walked out of the studio with the tape without anyone realizing. The next morning, Im woken up by the sound of Bohemian Rhapsody blaring through the ceiling from my upstairs neighbors apartment. I thought I was going mad. It was like the song was following me, because, as far as I knew, no one except us had the tapes. But Kenny played it three times that day, and the next day, and he got a brilliant reaction from his listeners.
Armed with clear evidence of radios willingness to play the song, and an audience demanding to hear it, Queen now had the leverage to force EMI to release the single in its full baroque splendor.
Released on October 31, 1975, Bohemian Rhapsody entered the U.K. chart the following week at number 47, but it was far from universally acclaimed. Melody Maker critic Allan Jones heard only a superficially impressive pastiche of operatic styles.
Three weeks later, however, the song hit number 1, where it took
up residence for an incredible nine weeks, assisted by a groundbreaking TV promo clip often credited with ushering in the video age. It was done on a shoestring budget, May says. We realized wed look odd trying to mime such a hugely complex thing on TV. It had to be presented in some other way.
Despite the songs success in Britain, Queen found themselves jumping through the same hoops again to secure a U.S. release, finally convincing Elektra to abandon the rule book when Rhapsody started selling well as an import. In July 1976, it peaked at number 9, giving Queen their first Top 10 hit.
On October 18, 1977, the British Phonographic Industry gave it the Britannia Award as the best British pop single of the previous 25 years.
Bohemian Rhapsody eventually reached number 2 in the United States three months after Mercurys November 1991 death, supported
by a keynote headbanging scene in the movie Waynes World.
One question remains what was the song about? Only Kenny Everett ever claimed to have heard an explanation directly: Freddie told me Bohemian Rhapsody was just random, rhyming nonsense, he says.
May, however, confirms suggestions that the song contained veiled references to Mercurys personal traumas. 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.