For most, it’s the quintessential Queen song. If you ask someone to sing some Queen, they’ll probably start with the word ‘Mamma’.
Probably the most satisfying song to sing drunkenly with friends, and probably the most complicated song that a given group of people will actually know all the words to.
It is, frankly, a legend of a song. One of the biggest selling singles ever, routinely voted to the top of mindless ‘best rock’ or ‘best number one’ or ‘best best thing’. I seem to remember it was officially the ‘Music of the Millennium’ ultimate track. Though it’s worth noting that I got quite grumpy about the fact that it appeared to define an incredibly short millennium, not actually including any tracks recorded before 1960.
You know it already. You didn’t need to click that link. You had it in your head from the instant I said the title.
Despite the title not even appearing in it.
The song is a suite of different structures, an a capella intro, piano ballad, operetta, hard rock, then the coda, just to help you unwind. It’s a beast of a thing. Nearly six minutes long, with next to no repetition (hence the rhapsody). There is nothing even resembling a chorus. There is no single moment that defines its hook.
I lied earlier, when I said you’d all start with ‘Mamma’, because there’s a hundred routes into this song, from the opening words, to the desperate laments, to the guitar solo, to the duelling questions of the opera, to just going straight into the head-banging.
Each of these moments is as irresistibly catchy as each other.
And while everyone can sing along, I have routinely seen people get caught in a chain of Mamma’s forgetting just how long the ballad is, and either leaping ahead early (this is only really fixed by having someone hum the guitar solo to transition to the opera, but only me and my brother ever seem willing to commit that far).
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see
It’s this immense thing, so bloated and strange that the band had to battle to get it released, actually smuggling a copy to Kenny Everett to get it radio play. Kenny was explicitly and directly told not to play it. Kenny winked back, and proceeded to ‘accidentally’ play snippets for a couple of weeks. People started begging him to play more, and he eventually relented and played the whole thing.
14 times in two days, he played it in full.
A Kenny inspired similar treatment on American radio apparently coincided, and once people started begging record stores for copies, EMI relented, and allowed its release.
Of course, it then sold a fortune.
It’s elaborate enough to have also been the most expensive single ever produced at the time. 180 overdubs went into the opera section (bearing in mind this is using 24 tracks, so that’s a lot of bouncing down). Reports of tape worn thin, and having to cut sections together for ‘just one more Galileo’ abound.
Three weeks of recording, for just under six minutes of music.
And it eventually becomes this legendary beast, knocking on your door, begging you to sing along.
And you do.
And you do.
It’s a distraught, anguished song, though. Loneliness, unreality, regret, nihilism, rage and oppression. A central violence, a deep regret, and something approaching a descent into hell, or religious trial.
The narrative is there, a Faustian pact, regret, punishment and execution or suicide. It’s all mythical enough to be about anyone’s struggle, but no matter how you paint it, it’s an odd call for a pop hit.
Reading people’s theories, I’m drawn to the people who see it as about coming out, and identity. When you kill the image you’ve presented to the world, and face the fear and judgement that brings. Which makes the final wind blow more reassuring. Unless the final tam tam is a death knell.
Pop music, whoop whoop!
I find I don’t really need to know the intention, I’m just entranced by the words, the motion, the breadth.
Because it is immense. A truly beastly journey across music and voice.
It’s also pure Freddie. Composing the whole and arranging all the parts and instructing May in exactly how to do it. Apparently most Queen tracks came together in the studio, and while the official writer had the final say, there was collaboration throughout, but here, this was Freddie’s baby, a grand vision.
When he first played it to the bands producer, he simply played from his piano, and ended suddenly, with ‘and then we have the operatic section.’ They went for lunch instead of trying to demo it.
It’s not, actually, my favourite. Quite far from it. It is a wonderful piece of drama, and I can rarely resist it, but something always makes me pull away.
I think I just don’t want to share. For all that I’m trying to enthusiastically drag people into Queen, I enjoy the dark weird secrets of the band. The strange out of the way stops, the weird forays into stranger lands. And while this is, technically, very much one of those, it’s also…well…it’s everybody’s.
Which is, of course, the secret of why it’s so special.
This is a song that unites people. That can be the defining moment of a feature film as easily as it can be the defining moment of a wedding or a road trip.
I remember awkwardly, me as part of a gang of youths, sitting on floor of a packed commuter train, having gone to an in-store gig in London. We hammered through this at the top of our voices. Probably infused with illicit whisky bottles smuggled from parent’s drink cabinets. We got told off by a grumpy commuter (probably fairly), and as we watched him sit back down, I saw my Dad, lean out from his seat on the train, and give me a little wave. He was on his way back from work. I think a little bit of me died inside. (Though secretly, I think Dad approved.)
But frankly, I blame commuter life for stopping those people from singing along. Anything bleak enough to prevent that is, frankly, heartbreaking and inhumane. (But also, I suspect the cringe I feel when remembering that moment is why I find it hard to fully commit to it now).
The thing is, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t need a piece written about it. It stands as a monument that is all its own. For Rolling Stone, it’s either the most overproduced novelty song ever made, or just the pinnacle of 70s rock. It’s hard to tell which, but it doesn’t matter.
Nothing really matters
Bohemian Rhapsody is the weirdest and most successful singles of all time. That it is both simultaneously, is a great testament to the band, and to Freddie.
Without this song, Queen would never been the monoliths that they are. In both senses, it marked them out as completely unique, able to take a prog suite to the top of the charts and make it stick, and a huge towering pillar of rock.
Because it is.
Anyway the wind blows…
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.
Illustration by Emma.