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Apr 08

QUEEN – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

FT + Popular145 comments • 6,725 views

#382, 29th November 1975

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.”

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Comments

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  1. 126
    Billy on 12 Jan 2011 #

    I can pinpoint the exact month I became a Queen fan, and more specifically a fan of this song. It was November 2000, I was twelve years old and just started secondary school.

    In that month, Channel 4 showed a Queen documentary, and with nothing else to do I watched it. I didn’t know much about them before – the two big discoveries were that all these songs I knew all came from the same band (having a similar discovery with ABBA the year earlier), and that they’d kept going until 1991, I’d previously thought they just quietly fizzled out in the 1980s. I was enjoying it so much that I recorded the rest of the show…and at the end, they played this.

    It was the first time I’d ever heard the song in full. I’d seen the occasional clip before (and a weird memory of it being performed by a load of puppets on Blue Peter for some reason) but that was all. The moment it finished, I rewound the tape back six minutes and watched it again. And again. And many many more times. Twenty five years after it came out I’d never known anything like it, and spent the whole of the next week telling everyone at school about this amazing old song I’d just heard.

    Six years later it was one of the first songs I downloaded from iTunes. I don’t listen to it regularly anymore, but when I do, I try to get past its now-familarity and imagine myself back in 2000, wearing out that VHS tape until I knew every single lyric, and totally in love with every second.

    The only thing that annoys me is that much later it kept off what would have been two of the most amazing consecutive #1s ever. But that’s for another time…

  2. 127
    Davyboyb on 29 Nov 2011 #

  3. 128
    lonepilgrim on 1 Apr 2012 #

    Marcello’s latest entry on the album from which this opus came deserves another link and your attention:

    http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/queen-night-at-opera.html

  4. 129
    richard thompson on 12 Mar 2013 #

    Remember seeing crackerjack around this time, Peter Glaze sang Arts for arts sake and Sky High by Jigsaw, didn’t realise until later that Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t in the lyrics, My sweet Lord was the next single to go to number one for the second time, don’t know what’s number one at the moment anymore though.

  5. 130
    hectorthebat on 15 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Blender (USA) – The Greatest Songs Ever, One Song Added Every Other Month
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Pause & Play (USA) – 10 Songs of the 70’s (2003)
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 29
    Rolling Stone (USA) – 40 Songs That Changed the World (2007)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 163
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 166
    TIME (USA) – The All-Time 100 Songs (2011)
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 27
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 8
    BBC Radio2 (UK) – Sold on Song, a Celebration of Great Songs and Songwriting
    HarperCollins GEM (UK) – Single of the Year 1949-99 (1999)
    Kerrang! (UK) – 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (2002) 22
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 40
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 47
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 32
    Q (UK) – 50 Greatest British Tracks (2005) 5
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 524
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Q (UK) – Top 20 Singles from 1970-1979 (2004) 2
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 3
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Volume (France) – 200 Records that Changed the World, 2008 (38 songs)
    Rocks Musiczine (Spain) – The 100 Best Rock Songs in History (1995) 37
    STM Entertainment (Australia) – The 50 Best Songs Ever (2007) 6
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 4
    Record Mirror (UK) – Singles of the Year 9

  6. 131
    Lazarus on 14 Nov 2014 #

    So, who watched ‘the Nation’s Favourite Queen Song’ the other night then? (I assume it hadn’t been on before). And what was number two? I intended to watch until the end but fell asleep around number 7 or so … a 4.40 alarm does that to me.

  7. 132
    Mark G on 15 Nov 2014 #

    I assume it would have been “Another one bites the dust”, which apparently has sold more than Bo.

  8. 133
    Lazarus on 15 Nov 2014 #

    Worldwide maybe (it was a US #1) but surely not in the UK, where ‘Bo’ had two runs at the top totalling something like 14 weeks. In any case I saw ‘Dust’ – it was around 11 or 12 – and I’m not sure this was based on sales either. The programme doesn’t seem to be available on Catch Up or ITV Player, which is very odd.

  9. 134
    Erithian on 15 Nov 2014 #

    Not too difficult to google:
    1. Bohemian Rhapsody
    2. We Will Rock You
    3. Don’t Stop Me Now
    4. I Want To Break Free
    5. We Are The Champions
    6. Killer Queen
    7. Under Pressure
    8. Radio Ga Ga
    9. These Are The Days Of Our Lives
    10. Somebody To Love
    11. Who Wants To Live Forever?
    12. A Kind Of Magic
    13. Crazy Little Thing Called Love
    14. Another One Bites The Dust
    15. The Show Must Go On
    16. Seven Seas Of Rhye
    17. You’re My Best Friend
    18. One Vision
    19. It’s A Hard Life
    20. I Want It All

    DSMN a bit of a surprise – only a #9 hit in ’79 but a karaoke favourite and a memorable miming video by the GB Olympic team in 2012, Jessica Ennis particularly getting into it.

  10. 135
    Lazarus on 15 Nov 2014 #

    Yes it’s a song which a lot of people are well disposed to – and as we’ve mentioned before made a return to the charts a few years back. Even Heart play it from time to time, and generally they only go with Queen from ‘Radio Ga Ga’ onwards.

    I suspect that if the list had been based on Queen Fan Club votes ‘Love of my Life’ would have featured in the top 10.

  11. 136
    Cumbrian on 15 Nov 2014 #

    Re: DSMN – by the time I got to university, Don’t Stop Me Now was a staple of the student night DJs line up. Not suggesting that karaoke doesn’t have something to do with it but there’s probably something in that too. Indeed, thinking back, it got played at a number of weddings I have subsequently been to – bride, groom and most of the guests would have been similar age to me, so I suspect that it’s graduated to some sort of standard for the time being. I wonder whether students have moved on since then…

  12. 137
    flahr on 15 Nov 2014 #

    I remember Don’t Stop Me Now being quite common at my late 90s primary school discos, mainly because I remember attempting to show off that I knew all the words.

  13. 138
    Patrick Mexico on 11 Dec 2014 #

    Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand was spot on when he described DSMN as something like “the ultimate feelgood song”, “the ultimate showman”, “no inhibitions whatsoever.” Unfortunately, being inappropriately shoehorned into cheap and cheerful “cheese night” playlists has ruined its legacy. Especially if it follows a primary school song – i.e. “I am the UKIP man, I come from down Herne Bay.” It feels a bit wrong, in the sense of Marty *bunny* ;) pulling his own mum in 1955, or like a 29-year-old adult going to sing-a-long-a-Frozen in Ilkley – on his own (this person exists, and he still remains a friend, just.)

  14. 139
    Kinitawowi on 11 Dec 2014 #

    DSMN also Top Gear’s Ultimate Driving Song, of course (in the typo’d guise of “Don’t Stop Me No”). Couldn’t agree with that conclusion to be honest; my main association with it at the time was telly adverts for Manchester’s Trafford Centre, so it’s fine if you’re driving round the M60 to Next to buy a pair of trousers but otherwise nah.

    (I voted for Meat Loaf. I REGRET NOTHING.)

  15. 141
    Cumbrian on 24 Jun 2015 #

    Massive missed opportunity to call this Brewhemian Rhapsody. Someone from CAMRA needs to be helping them out marketing wise.

  16. 142
    Mark G on 25 May 2016 #

    You know when you get to see a band before they get famous, I mean well before?

    Picture the scene, Butlins Skegness, 1977. Plenty of entertainment of a night, various options: Theatre (plays), Grand theatre (Variety – as per London Palladium sort of thing), and the bar/ballroom with the live band. The resident outfit get to run a little earner, which is ‘sales of the single’ – they make an ep of cover versions rendered in their own style/limitation and sell them, fully signed, after the performance (or sometimes during the interval – it’s worth it to them).

    So, this particular band have an eye to do something ambitious and attempt to do Bohemian Rhapsody. Despite Queen never having done it live themselves (at least with Freddie), they have already spent time rehearsing and getting it performable. This gets pressed and paid for upfront by Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies, and ‘issued’ (i.e. kept in a store cupboard and individual boxes brought out as needed) on his label “Gay Time” (really..). B-side has their version of “Romeo” by Mr Big (you know, “Step back inside me Romeo she said”, that one), and a novelty number called “Peanuts”. As I say, we did see the band at the time, but I don’t recall them doing BR but I sort of admired their ambition but couldn’t imagine it being any good, so I didn’t get one.

    Oh yeah, and who were those masked men? Black Lace. The very same.

  17. 143
    Andrew Farrell on 4 Jun 2016 #

    #59 – the version I’ve heard is the lyrics of which UK number one include its successor’s title but don’t include its own.

  18. 144
    Lazarus on 8 Dec 2016 #

    2016 keeps doing its thing – as he was one of the four acts kept off number one during Bohemian Rhapsody’s initial nine-week run, I guess this is the place to say vale Greg Lake, four months after bandmate Keith Emerson. A few years ago I’d have thought that a high chart placing for ‘I Believed …’ in Christmas week would have been a formality – I’m not so sure now.

  19. 145
    AMZ1981 on 8 Dec 2016 #

    Greg Lake had another near miss just eighteen months or so after when Hot Chocolate blocked ELP from the summit.

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