This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #10: Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.
Here we go with the first of ten great songs that all could be #1 depending on your point of view. Today, we start with one of the most original and magnificent songs of them all….”Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the lead single from the Queen album, “A Night at the Opera” that was released in 1975. The song became Queen’s first #1 hit and was their breakthrough hit in America. But, as popular as the song was when it was released and still is today, there remain many questions as to the scores of references sprinkled liberally throughout “Bohemian Rhapsody”, as well as, what the song is actually about. So, in the rest of this post, I intend to walk you through the context in which this song was written, how it was structured and stitched together, what some of the odder references mean and then, finally, give you my take on what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is all about. So, make yourselves comfortable…this is going to be quite a story because, after all, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is quite a song. Here we go!
It is important to start our journey with a reminder that Queen was a prog. rock band when they first started out. On their first two albums, they produced songs with a mythological basis to them. Prog. rock was popular at the time, with bands like early Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes and Rush all releasing many albums heavily laden with weighty songs containing weighty lyrics and lengthy solos. It wasn’t until Queen released their third album, “Sheer Heart Attack” in 1974 that they began to take a turn toward more Pop-oriented, theatrical music such as “Killer Queen” *(which you can read about here). So, when it came time for their fourth album, “A Night at the Opera”, Queen were poised to continue exploring songs with a cabaret-type feel to them. The biggest of which was a song called, “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” was billed, not as a rock opera……like “Tommy” by The Who…….but, instead, as a “mock” opera. Freddy Mercury had been dabbling with the idea of creating a Pop song using the five-part operatic story structure format, for some time prior to actually, formally writing “Bohemian Rhapsody”. In those earlier days, Mercury had scraps of song segments. as well as, an overall structure mapped out that contained “an opera part” in the middle. The very first part of the song to be written was the line, “Mama! I just killed a man. Put a gun against his head. Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” When Mercury brought the idea for “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the band and played a rough sketch of the song on piano for them, they all thought it had the potential to be a hit. Little did they know the contortions they would end up twisting themselves in when it came time to properly attempt to record all of the many voices and style changes that populate this song. In order to appreciate what the band went through and what they managed to accomplish in the end, let’s first take a look at the five parts to this song and walk through what sort of “play” we are witnessing as the song rolls along.
Five-act plays were quite common in English theatrical history. Shakespeare is the most obvious example of this structural format. So, when Freddy Mercury constructed “Bohemian Rhapsody” he simply followed in the footsteps of those who’d come before him and made a five-act song. Here are those five acts:
Act #1: The song begins with an a-capella verse that questions whether this is real life or simply fantasy.
Act #2: The song then transitions to a ballad section in which the narrator confesses his sin to his mother. That sin is that he has killed a man and that he is sorry for the sadness he is about to cause her because he knows the authorities will catch him and he will be punished, probably, by death.
Act #3: This is the operatic section of the song. In it, the narrator descends into Hell……..seriously, he does! If Beelzebub (the Devil) is mentioned here, where else would he be?! In any case, a battle for his soul ensues in which the narrator calls upon Bismillah to save his soul *(Bismillah is a term from the Qur’an and means, essentially, “in the name of Allah”).
Act #4: This is the rock section that emerges out of the Hell scene. The narrator has survived, albeit, in a changed form but has emerged stronger and more defiant for the experience in Hell.
Act #5: This is the quiet CODA section at the end where the narrator sings in a whispery voice that “nothing really matters, nothing really matters, nothing really matters to me……anyway the wind blows. This is the section that finds the narrator at peace and unafraid of who he now is and what awaits him in the future.
***As a bit of trivia for you, the references to “Galileo” that precedes the Opera section, is a tip-of-the-hat to guitarist, Brian May, who has a University degree in Astro-Physics. The reference to “Scaramouche” is a nod to a famous cowardly character in Italian dramas of the past.
When Queen came together to record the song, they did so, one Act at a time. In the case of any section that possessed harmonies and/or choir-type singing…..those segments were the hardest to record. In all cases, there were only four men singing and yet, at times, it sounds like a church choir filling every square inch of space with the sound of their voices. Because the mid-1970s were not yet a time of digital recording, all tracks were recorded on tape. In the case of the opera segment…..each band member recorded themselves multiple times…..together as a foursome, as duos, and individually and then, again, at different octave levels. The final effect was that sense that sounds are coming at the listener from all directions and at multiple octave levels, all at once. That Queen had to do this while recording on tape meant that they were constantly having to splice small tape segments together, play those to create a new, shared sound, splice that newly taped segment again and add a new layer of sound to it, play it again, record it again, add to it again and so on and so forth. In the end, there were almost 200 overdubs used just on the opera section, alone! The complexity of the recording process resulted in “Bohemian Rhapsody” being the most expensive song ever to record (at the time), as well as, being a song that was virtually impossible to reproduce live. Thus, the studio version has ended up being the deluxe version of the song while, on stage, Freddy Mercury tended to sing all of the choral parts on his own for the sake of simplicity.
So, where does such an original song idea come from and, the bigger question that springs from this is, what is “Bohemian Rhapsody” really about? Well, Freddy Mercury took that secret to his grave. All that he would ever say about what the song meant was that it was about relationships and silly rhyming lines for fun. The remaining members of Queen….Roger Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon…..have all said that the band had a rule that stated it was up to the writer of the song to discuss its’ meaning and since Freddy Mercury wanted the meaning to remain unsaid, they were going to honour his wishes. So, they have shed no light on the mystery, either. However, one clue was revealed by the man who became Freddy Mercury’s partner during the last decade of his life. That man was named Jim Hutton. In an interview, Hutton stated that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was Freddy Mercury’s way of coming out and announcing that he was Gay.
I don’t know if that is true but, if you re-examine the song lyrics with “coming out” in mind, the song reads differently and certain aspects of it seem to actually make more sense. For the sake of some context, let’s remember a couple of things about Freddy Mercury’s life prior to 1975, when “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released. First of all, it is not always easy being Gay today, let alone back in the 1970s…..pre-AIDS, pre-Stonewall Riots, pre-Pride flags and parades, pre-straight/Gay Alliance spaces in schools, pre-same sex marriages…..in fact, homosexuality was still against the law in many areas of the world in 1975. So, even though Freddy Mercury always knew he was Gay, he did what many Gay men did at the time, he hid it by dating a woman named Mary Austin. Add to this by remembering the fact that Freddy Mercury was not actually British. He was born in Africa…..Zanzibar, to be specific. While in Africa, he was raised in a religion called Zoroastrianism, which is an ancient Persian-influenced religion. Without going into a big essay on the history of Zoroastrianism, suffice it to say, homosexuality was not condoned.
So, in 1975, publicly announcing that he was Gay was a move that was fraught with life-changing implications for Freddy Mercury. In doing so, he was turning his back on his heritage, he was “shaming” his parents and family and he was striding into a world where being Gay was a dangerous thing to be and for which there were few public role models to emulate. So, let’s examine the song…..Act by Act…..with the underlying concept of this song being Freddy Mercury’s coming out announcement.
Act #1: the a-capella questioning of whether this is the real life or is this just fantasy, takes on a whole new meaning here, if you believe Freddy Mercury is announcing that his public persona was just a fake up until this moment and that now, he was about to make his real debut.
Act #2: the confessional “I just killed a man” section takes on new meaning if the man being killed is the old Freddy. That he confesses to his mom indicates how important her absolution was in real life when he came out as being Gay. Having a supportive home environment is so critically important for any young person who comes out so, it is not surprising that this scene is filled with angst and sadness and sorrow and fear of shame.
Act #3: the descent into Hell……having announced that he is Gay to his family in Act #2….Freddy Mercury now has to enter the court of public opinion. He knows that his news will be received with charity by some segment of the population and will be met with ridicule, threats and scorn by others. This casting of ethical judgement plays out in the back-and-forth battle for the narrator’s soul.
Act #4: The defiant rock n’ roll segment is a statement that Freddy is making that he will stand by his decision to go public and will be fitter, stronger and happier as a result of becoming the person he was always meant to be.
Act #5: the quite CODA of whispery singing about “nothing really matters….” is the breath he takes after all is said and done. The hoopla over his announcement is over. The blowback from those opposed, has been absorbed. Now, he is surrounded by his true friends who value him for who he really is. With that comes peace.
Again, let me be clear that the afore-mentioned part of this post is purely speculation on my part, based mostly on Freddy’s statement that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about relationships and what Jim Hutton said after Freddy Mercury’s death, that the song was about him coming out as being Gay. Whatever the case, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is, in my mind, a musical masterpiece! I place such a tremendous value on creativity and originality and this song has both in copious amounts. Even though this is, potentially, a very serious song, I think the Joy that emanates from it for so many people symbolizes the Joy and Peace that people feel when they are allowed the freedom to be who they truly are. If “Bohemian Rhapsody” is truly Freddy Mercury’s coming out party then, it pleases me all the more. I have always believed that Love is Love and that all should be free to love and be loved in return in ways that make them feel most comfortable. I am happy that Freddy Mercury found Love and Peace in his lifetime and that he died as someone who was comfortable in his own skin. You can’t ask for much more from life than that. Rest in Peace, Freddy.
So now, let’s get to the videos. I will play two for you. The first will be the classic, “official” video which features the four band members in shadowy light, diamond-posed. This video is very special because it was one of the very first “music videos” ever made. Up until that time, music videos, as promotional/marketing tools were very rare. The video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” changed that, not just for Queen but, for artists everywhere. The second video will be a live performance. In this performance, you will see how the band had to re-structure the song to simplify it enough so that they could actually play it live. Freddy Mercury turns most of the choral singing into solo singing as performed by himself.
So, without further delay, here is “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, can be found here.
The link to the video of the live performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Queen, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting artists and bands who dare to be original. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.