They don’t come much more epic than Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody- a piece of grandiose pop music that is perfect and yet so familiar that it is easy to forget its flamboyant brilliance. We may have never have heard it at all if Freddie Mercury had had his way and not used his song that initially he was not sure about until his natural self confidence bubbled to the fore.
Fortunately he persevered with his masterpiece and the 7 minutes of music put Queen into the big league and has become one of the very anthems of pop culture.
It seems odd after an eternity of sitting on the punk rock side of the fence to, every few years, revisit songs like this, after all they were meant to be the nemesis of all that year zero bullshit that was thrown around by the media at the time but immersing yourself in its complex genius again is a great experience and it spins you all the way back to the early months of 1976 when it held onto the number one spot with a vice like grip.
It is also part of our cultural DNA. Like the Beatles and the Stones you don’t even need to hear the song to remember its every note. You can replay it endlessly in your head on the internal music player- it’s lodged forever into your mind like that.
It’s a powerful rebuttal of the media myth that the seventies was dead before punk came along- a pure lie that actually does punk more harm than good.
I can remember clearly its vice like grip on Top Of The Pops when music TV mattered.. It was on every week in that cold grey winter- a last gasp flash of the glam generation before the winter of pop discontent shuffled into denim before punk rescued us from boredom. IN those days being number one for nine weeks was only something that the Beatles had done but there sat the audaciously named Queen regal and strutting with a song that defied all pop logic and is a work of genius.
Queen had been on the school yard radar for a couple of years but were certainly not A list despite a brace of big hits and a successful couple of albums. They were never going to be yob terrace gods like Slade and never as secretly loved as Trex- who were perceived as a girls band that boys had to pretend to not like but loved really, they were not even as loved as dear old Mott The Hoople- whose fantastic Marionette song from their final album released the year before Bohemian Rhapsody had ben quite possibly inspired by with its many parts stitched together structure and high drama and emotional power being one of the templates that could have fed into Freddie’s imagination. Interestingly the only band Queen had ever supported on their breakthrough was Mott and the two bands got on famously and would even share road crew as well as song ideas.
Queen were in the frame but not outright kings of the scene. I remember really loving Seven Seas Of Rhye on its February 1974 release during a freezing childhood holiday as it clawed its way up the charts and Killer Queen would become a favourite as well. Already in place was the classical edge, the daring to go one step further than the simplistic thud of basic glam rock which I have always loved. Queen seemed to appear from somewhere else, sure they felt like they had something to do with glam rock to us but already they were on their own trajectory. They had the flash and the nazz, they had the pretensions and the grandeur but were sitting somewhere to the side of the cool as fuck brickies with make up seventies mainstream.
Maybe because they were not full on rock like Zep, full on glam like Trex, full on outer space like Bowie and that they seemed slightly aloof and on the side of affairs was the reasons that they didn’t instantly command the loyalty of the tribal seventies teens with their confused hair and flapping flares. Sure enough people liked their hits but as an entity it took Bohemian Rhapsody for Queen to carve themselves their own huge niche.
The seventies is a much maligned music decade, academics and music historians are always quite keen to paint it as the hangover decade after the sixties wondrous inventions but this is not true in the slightest. Many like to claim Bowie as the sole king of the decade but the picture is far more complex than that and oddly Freddie and his gang of satin white dressed slightly camp posh boys have burrowed deeper into the UK consciousness than dame David and it was Bohemian Rhapsody that saw them motor deep into the heart of UK culture.
The song had been around in bits and bobs for years. Mercury had the vision for a song that broke free from the constraints of pop music and tapped into the European opera tradition. In the late sixties he had snippets and sections of the song already implanted into other tunes and as the years rolled by he would gather up these stray sheep of ideas and compile them into the mini opera built around a song he had been working on at home on his piano. A song that surged through several climactic builds and changes and huge emotional mood swings that comprised and took full advantage of the inner strengths of the band like those insane harmonies and drummer Roger Taylor’s harmony falsetto. Add to this Brian May’s distinctive guitar playing and the band’s already cod classical touch and you had the foundations for something quite audacious if you dared to go for it.
So in many ways it had felt like Queen had been building up to this moment all along. There had been the hit singles Killer Queen and the aforementioned Seven Seas Of Rhye dripping seventies bizarro imagery that sat easily alongside the newly fashionable Tolkien draped over faux decadent London lifestyles. Queen were long haired bohemians with suspiciously clean locks and expensive wardrobes. They were no hippies but a new breed of rock star and maybe this was why they never sat well with the critics who generally ignored their perceived hot hair.
Queen were running with a very different crowd and it showed. Freddie Mercury was nothing like any pop star that had come before. He was sat between pop and rock, a well educated immigrant from Zanzibar with Iranian blood whose parents were from the Zoroastrian faith he had moved to England with his parents in the sixties and thrived in the cooler climes where his fragrant imagination would run riot in the post sixties decadence and freedom of the seventies.
His brilliant imagination and keen intelligence was perfect for a pop culture where there were now no boundaries, apart from the as ever terrified radio who tried to stop Bohemian Rhapsody for being too long and the snobbish rock press who were having non of this operatic nonsense.
Somehow thought hey hit a chord with the UK public who were oddly in the mood for a rock song that was like an opera compressed into six minutes and whose suppressed emotions flowed with the song’s powerful emotional see saw.
The band had spent the most money ever recording the damn thing in 1975 in the rural wilds of Rockfield studios, overdubbing endless vocals and taking full advantage of their great singing voices. The build up was quite brilliant- hooked around the piano as it skilfully threaded through the sections like Paul McCartney had done with the last scraps of the Beatles songs a few years before on Abbey Road. The lyrics meant everything and nothing and no matter what interpretations were placed on the song Freddie always refused them preferring the listener to get immersed in the overall musical magic.
The bit that really hooked with everyone was the explosive climax with its rocking out release of the guitar which was like the Sex Pistols arriving two years too early and is, arguably, a harbinger for the upcoming punk movement in the most unlikely of places and was certainly a massively popular section of the song for the teenage droogs seeking pure boogie noise to get lost in.
The moment that Bohemian Rhapsody was released in October 1975 the Sex Pistols were already playing their first gig and plotting their haphazard rise. As time passed it was painted as two opposite ends of the pop culture equation but as the decades roll past the two groups don’t seem so different at all. Both were formed in the centre of the London music biz, both came out of clothes shops/stalls and both even had the same producer- the Pistols were as much part of the fading grandeur of the UK mid seventies set and the decadence and flamboyance of the mid seventies pop culture. What as once so opposite is now just another section in a record shop.
When the youthful punks hid their record collections during the Spanish Inquisition of year zero fearing the dreaded accusation of ‘Guilty Pleasure’ they were being as manipulated as anyone in pop culture.
Bohemian Rhapsody remains a masterpiece- a last gasp of glam or a piece of one off genius from a long departed singer or rock at its most ridiculous and yet most genius, its importance has been airbrushed from the received history and yet it remains quite possibly the most loved song in the UK.