This Day in Music, November 23: Bohemian Rhapsody

By , Contributor

On this day in 1975, Queen started a nine-week run at No.1 on the UK singles chart with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The promotional video that accompanied the song is generally acknowledged as the first pop video and only cost £5,000 to produce. When the band wanted to release the single, various record executives suggested to them that, at five minutes and 55 seconds, it was too long and would never be a hit.

Queen singer Freddie Mercury had mentally prepared the song beforehand and directed the band throughout the sessions. Mercury, Brian May, and Roger Taylor sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day, resulting in 180 separate overdubs.

Amazingly it almost didn’t make it as a single. Queen’s record company EMI were reluctant to release it as a single but events turned after the band slipped a copy to DJ Kenny Everett, who played it on London’s Capital Radio 14 times over the following weekend, persuading EMI, the BBC and other sceptics that the listening public could handle it.

You can see why the men in suits were against it. The song has no chorus, instead consisting of three main parts: a ballad segment, an operatic passage, and a hard rock section. And it’s five seconds shy of six minutes in length.

"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 in a couple of months.

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."

Apparently Freddie had the idea for the song in the late '60s when he came up with the line "Mama, just killed a man." Freddie used a piano as the headboard of his bed. The double-jointed Mercury would awake with inspiration, reach up and back behind his head and play what he'd heard in his dreams. This was how “Bohemian Rhapsody” began.

But what was going on in Freddie’s head? What is the man going on about?

One theory is that it's to do with Mercury himself coming to terms with being gay — the resignation, the abandonment of a previous role, the allusions to persecution and secret love in Galileo, Figaro — but not everyone agrees.

The essential story is not pop's greatest enigma: a man confesses a murder to his mother, vainly pleads poverty in a trial and ends up resigned to his fate. But questions remain: who did he kill and why?

There's a touch of Italian culture: Scaramouche is a buffoonish stock character in commedia dell'arte; Galileo was a Florentine astronomer found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition, and Figaro is the title character of Rossini's opera The Barber of Seville, in which he helps true love to prevail.

"Mamma mia," of course, means "my mother" in Italian — and was the title of the chart-topper by ABBA which knocked “Bohemian Rhapsody” of the top slot. How weird is that? Maybe with Queen being at #1 for so long, it gave the ABBA boys enough time to write, record, and release a song called "Mamma Mia" just for a laugh

Some 20,000 people bought "Bo Rap" every day in its first three weeks. It's been #1 twice so far and it's played on a radio somewhere in the world about once an hour, every day.

At the time it was the most expensive single ever made and remains one of the most elaborate recordings in popular music history. Long before digital recordings it was necessary for Queen 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 sub-mixes had to be spliced (cut with razor blades and assembled in the correct sequence using adhesive tape). I can’t imagine anyone doing that now!

For me and you, though, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is ‘about’ drama, funny voices, great guitar solo, brilliant singing, groundbreaking video…

Hands up, do you do a Wayne's World every time you hear it in the car?

I thought so.

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A former musician, Neil was in the 80's group The Cheaters who were once signed to EMI's Parlophone label, and released three albums. He was also a radio presenter and is still a regular music pundit on various BBC stations. Neil is the founder of the award winning web site This Day in Music which is…

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