There is a pub in North London called The Swimmer At The Grafton Arms. It prides itself on well-kept beer and a well-kept jukebox, the latter with an deeply tasteful selection of fine rock and soul music. I haven’t visited for a couple of years, but it used to have, on this jukebox, a Queen Greatest Hits CD. And next to Track One on this CD, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, was the handwritten instruction: “DO NOT PLAY. NOT FUNNY.”
For me, that kind of sums up “Bohemian Rhapsody”‘s very weird place in rock music. It is known by millions, loved by millions, but somehow still not quite….respectable. In everyhit.com’s aggregate of recent public polls for the greatest single of all time, “Bo Rhap” (how many other singles have a nickname!?) tops the listing. In acclaimedmusic.com’s similar exercise looking at critic’s choices, “Rhapsody” is 68th. One gets the feeling it’s barged its way in by sheer gumption, that critics don’t really know what to do with it: perhaps, like the Swimmer’s serious-minded selectors, they simply don’t trust it or the people who like it.
To be honest, I’m not sure what to do with it either. If tastemakers think it’s a vulgar record, well, that’s because it is: it’s a preposterous sandwich of styles, all of which are (for now, at least) woefully uncool- overwrought balladry leads into an axe solo leads into light opera of all things ending up at rumbustious cock-rock. But actually it seems harder than ever to find people who don’t like “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I know I used not to like it. When it was number one for the second time I was 18 and I hated it: I thought I was superior to it, though I can’t recapture why. I thought it was garish and phoney. I thought its “path-breaking” video was boring as hell. (I still think that bit.) I resented how it won all those sodding polls: I couldn’t have articulated it, but I didn’t want pop’s pinnacle to be something so… atypical!
Nowadays I like it a lot more: time to meet it head-on and ask why.
One of the reasons it’s easy to feel goodwill to “Bohemian Rhapsody” is that it’s a record that perfectly sums up the strengths of the band who made it: someone on Poptimists described it as a six-minute Queen best-of, and that’s very apt. The theatricality, the sentiment, the eye for pastiche, the blood and thunder – all here. The sometime glory of Queen is that they managed to be at once the most self-conscious and unself-conscious band ever. (It’s called “acting”. Or maybe “panto”.)
Then there’s the structure. Multi-part songs often do very well, attract perhaps more acclaim than the sections (or whole) might actually merit, just because it seems like an ambitious thing to be doing. The second side of Abbey Road, for instance, apparently becomes art not scrapbooking simply because there are no gaps between the tracks. The spatchcocked construction of “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t make much logical sense but importantly every section is excellent: nothing here feels like it’s marking time or pressed into use, its six minutes are remarkably fat-free.
You might reasonably ask what it’s all for – whether or not I believe the supposed explanations about souls and damnation and redemption, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t carry much emotional weight for me. It’s all about the rush and audacity, which is why the comic opera section, with its crazy vocal rhythms and whack-a-mole “Galileo!”s, is my favourite bit. Ultimately all I can do is invert the Swimmer’s well-meant but irritating instruction: “FUNNY. PLAY.”