17
Apr 08

QUEEN – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

FT + Popular148 comments • 8,543 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. 31
    rosie on 17 Apr 2008 #

    But the digressions are the best thing about it…

  2. 32
    Erithian on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Yes, Mike (#25), I was gong to mention “Music” if you didn’t. Another epic, though I think it came out at about the same time, was “Black or White” by Cockney Rebel (or whichever version of the name Harley was using by then). Bo Rhap is something like 5:48 btw, Rosie.

    I wonder how many others have specific Bo Rhap-related Xmas 1975 memories? I too had the Best! Present! Ever! in the form of a new hi-fi, or rather (since we were with the aforementioned Yorkshire rellies) a pair of headphones with a note reading “these are for your new stereo which is waiting for you at home”. Wow!

    Camp: I don’t think it was because we were too young for such thoughts, but the issue of Queen’s campness wasn’t a hot topic at school. But I agree that some of their fans took things too seriously – Record Mirror had a cover in ’76 that was a cartoon of Freddie as a gorilla-like creature in his leotard, and many readers wrote in to protest. Freddie’s own reaction was to ask for the framed original.

    Rosie (#24) – first time I saw them was at Bingley Hall, Stafford in 1977. I remember that instead of calling for an encore, the audience started to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – and the band cited that moment as an influence in the writing of “We Will Rock You”. Funny, I never got a co-writing credit.

  3. 33
    Tom on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Yes, they’re terrific! But I also realised I was on course to finish the project in 2018 (!!!) at the rate I was going – which is mental. I’m currently working on the basis of trying to get 4 reviews up a week (which would cut the finish line back to about 2012) – there will be times when I get more than this done, and times when I get less. That still allows some pretty long comment threads (and of course there’s no reason for one thread to stop when a new entry gets posted!)

  4. 34
    Simon Miller on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Freddie Mercury … was gay??

  5. 35
    Matthew H on 17 Apr 2008 #

    I’m not sure that I have 1975 memories of this, being a whippersnapper of 3-and-a-half at the time, but it was always around the house. My parents had it on a compilation tape they’d made for an RAF mess party and my mum always loved the Brian May rockout after the quasi-operatics – as did/do I. I still think it’s a great record, and I don’t think I tire of it.

    ‘BoRhap’ is, of course, a profound influence on Flowered Up’s ‘Weekender’.

  6. 36
    Jonathan Bogart on 17 Apr 2008 #

    In the summer of 2000, a busfull of American teenagers driving from Munich to Florence spontaneously sang the entire song from memory far too many times, among whom I may or may not have taken a leading role. Somehow I can’t think that’s an unusual occurrence in the life of the song, though times and places may change.

    Anyway, that memory is far better than anything the actual track itself conjures up — and come to think of it I don’t think I’ve heard the song in going on five or six years. Certainly not on purpose (my favorite Queen tune would be “Killer Queen,” for no particular reason), and it seems less culturally ubiquitous on this side of the pond than it used to be; or maybe I’m just not listening in the right places anymore.

  7. 37
    Billy Smart on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Number 2 watch: 3 weeks of Hot Chocolate’s ‘You Sexy Thing’, 2 weeks of Laurel & Hardy’s ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’, 2 weeks of Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ and 2 weeks of ‘Glass of Champagne’ by Sailor.

    4 songs which I far prefer to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’!

  8. 38
    mike on 17 Apr 2008 #

    As far as I was concerned, Queen had one more album of interest left in them (A Day At The Races), before what I considered to be the shark-jump of News Of The World (whose sleeve alone signalled that the game was over). With the fastidious, fantastical prog-pomp side extinguished in favour of shameless playing to the gallery (or rather the stadium), I loathed the likes of “We Are The Champions”, “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “Bicycle Race” etc etc, and only grudgingly welcomed them back into my affections with “A Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites The Dust”.

    Favourite BoRhap moments:

    1. The sequence of ascending guitar overdubs that lead you out of the “spit in my eye” section and into the slowing piano which starts the final “nothing really matters” section.

    2. The sighing, twanging, almost Hawaiian guitar figure near the very end.

    3. The way that the central guitar solo breaks down into the simple chords that start the operatic section.

    4. The chaotic choral interplay that climaxes the “Bismillah” section: all those let-me-gos, never-never-no-no-nos.

    5. The riff that kickstarts the “spit in my eye” section.

    6. The tinkling noises that accompany “shivers down my spine”.

    7. The subtle shift of mood and the harmonising of “Open your eyes, look up to the skies…”

    8. The “Waa Waa” that underlines “I’m just a poor boy”.

    9. The slight shudder of pompous Victorian disapproval in the pronounciation of “monstrosity”.

    10. The final gong.

  9. 39
    Alan on 17 Apr 2008 #

    i always cringe at 6 :-D

  10. 40
    CarsmileSteve on 17 Apr 2008 #

    i remember having conversations in 88/89 about the gayness or otherwise of Freddie. SRSLY, a subsection of those northern rock dudes just didn’t get it…

  11. 41
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Apr 2008 #

    It’s worth pointing out that “Bo Rhap”‘s initial nine-week stint at the top was the longest run achieved by any number one since Paul Anka’s “Diana” back in 1957.

  12. 42
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Apr 2008 #

    re. #25: Proper Gay Mike indeed! It didn’t take me too long to realise that I only fancied guys who looked like girls.

    (whereas virtually EVERYONE in my year at school had the distinctly unsexy football-style cut, not quite mullet, not quite Rod, not quite pudding bowl but definitely Hamilton Accies reserve striker level)

  13. 43
    LondonLee on 17 Apr 2008 #

    ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ was the first album I ever bought myself so I was a fan but I really don’t know what I think of this song anymore, it’s like the Mona Lisa and I’d rather look at lesser-known Leonardo paintings and listen to other, simpler Queen tracks like ‘Now I’m Here’ or ‘The Seven Seas of Rhye’. It starts off lovely and the rockin’ end brings out the latent head-banger in me but the middle now seems like too much silly icing. If there was an ‘unplugged’ version you’d hear what a lovely melody it had but all the opera stuff now seems like them crossing the line from enjoyable Pomp to Cecil B. DeMille ridiculousness.

    It does have a great misheard lyric though:

    “Spare him his life from these pork sausages!”

  14. 44
    Alan on 17 Apr 2008 #

    misheard by scottish sock puppets? “spit in my pie”

  15. 45
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Forty-plus posts in and no mention yet of “Bismillah!”?

  16. 46
    mike on 17 Apr 2008 #

    I mentioned it once. But I think I got away with it.

  17. 47
    Lena on 17 Apr 2008 #

    When did I first hear the song? – it was probably when the promotional video was shown on tv, late in ’75. Did I see it on a friend’s parents’ color tv? Most likely yes. Did I understand anything about the song at all? No! I was too young (still eight) to understand why it had so many parts (exhausting to listen to, since as soon as I got used to one thing they would change it and I’d have to get used to the new section). I had no knowledge of opera, heavy or light, and the video was impressive but I was under the impression it was almost a one-off, not anything likely to occur again, done almost to show off whatever lense was on the camera. How wrong I was, but I was only eight…

    …but those just older than me – my friend John’s older brother for instance – most certainly did get it. It was a hit in the US as well, though not a #1 – it was kept off by one of these songs (not sure) – “Fly Robin Fly” by Silver Convention, “That’s The Way (I Like It)” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Let’s Do It Again” by The Staples Singers or, and this would be ironic…”Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers. At the time I most certainly understood these songs as songs much better than Queen, as they were groovy and danceable and in one case virtually demanded an ecstatic response. Queen were more grown-up and for more grown-up people…

  18. 48
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Ah yes, Mike, so you did (xpost).

  19. 49
    LondonLee on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Thinking back I’m pretty sure I preferred the b-side “I’m In Love With My Car”

    Was “You’re My Best Friend” the the follow-up single? Talk about chalk and cheese.

    John Deacon used to come in the Putney WH Smith I worked at quite a bit, always looked so normal. I think Freddie M. lived in Putney too (had a big house up my mates street if I recall) but he was more likely to be seen at Biba than WH Smith.

  20. 50
    Mark M on 17 Apr 2008 #

    I guess in theory Tom that entries might come faster once we reach the period of your actual memories – most of the number ones of the 80s and beyond must lurk in your head, whereas I’m presuming you had to acquaint yourself with the likes of Whispering Grass. Of course you have to revisit them to see what you now think, but that’s a different process.

    I’ve had nil time for Queen (barring one song that can’t be mentioned) since I went off them aged 10 or so, but I am fascinated by the question of what people understood Freddie to be. To me, the gay thing (how much more so could he have been?) is almost secondary to the fact that he was an African-born Asian at the time of the Ugandan Indian arrivals and when weird old Enoch stalked the land, and nobody seemed to clock it all …

  21. 51
    Tom on 17 Apr 2008 #

    (I wonder if actual memories might slow them up Mark! I’m not really sure what approach I’m going to take – my autobiography is a fairly undramatic one – I think what I’ll do is critique the song in the post and add inconsequential contextual detail in the comments: where personal context is key to my judgement of a song it’ll be mentioned in the write-up itself.)

  22. 52
    mike on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Yes, the Deacon-penned “You’re My Best Friend” was indeed the follow-up. It was also his first recorded composition for the band.

    I’m tempted to contradict Lena by saying that maybe the true music for (relatively) “grown-up” people was KC & the Sunshine Band / Silver Convention / Staples Singers: music for real-life dancing/courting/sex-making in real-life situations, as opposed to sexless proggy fantasticalism for the perennially pubescent….!

  23. 53
    rosie on 17 Apr 2008 #

    I get married in eleven number ones time, and I have to say that almost all of my real-life courting and sex-making up till then took place to a background of ‘proggy rock’ that would make the average punk rocker run gibbering from the room!

  24. 54
    LondonLee on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Sure about that Mike? There’s a Deacon song on ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ – the lovely ‘Misfire’

  25. 55
    mike on 17 Apr 2008 #

    The point is duly and deferentially conceded, Rosie!

    Now then…

    We’d been here before with “The March Of The Black Queen”, but this felt like an upgrade.

    I’d forgotten that when it came to the endings of each track, this was almost literally true, as BoRhap’s “sighing, twanging, almost Hawaiian guitar figure” also features at 5:40 in “TMOTBQ”.

    (This link back to Queen II is also underlined by the re-creation of the album’s cover art at the beginning of the video, of course…)

    There’s an extremely detailed and fascinating examination of this song on Wikipedia, by the way.

  26. 56
    mike on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Oh crikey, “Misfire”, you’re quite right. I shall shut up now!

  27. 57
    Brian on 17 Apr 2008 #

    MC’s comment on a live gig – ” they trooped off stage and just had the section played on tape to the accompaniment of some disappointed groans.”

    And that was the beginning of the end for me. After I saw them live and they pulled this stunt ( I can’t honestly think what else I could have expected ), I have never liked them for not finding away to re-produce this , somehow, live.

  28. 58
    intothefireuk on 17 Apr 2008 #

    Right (cracks knuckles); Having spent the last couple of years immersing myself in Bowie (ooh er missus) I had only thus far glimpsed Queen from afar. I liked Seven Seas, thought Killer Queen ok but, at this stage, preferred Now I’m Here. Then came this. The first time I heard it (prob. Noels Radio 1 morning slot) I was instantly transfixed. It was an outrageous concoction and as has previously been mentioned gave you both Killer Queen & Now I’m Here in one shot (with added operatic silliness). I figured that my school friends would be equally amazed. We had all been raised on pop but some (prob via older siblings) were beginning to venture into the darker waters of rock & prog which would surely open them up to this. So when I enquired what they thought I was somewhat taken aback to find they all (to a man) hated it. Secretly I quite liked this as I could champion it and take all the glory when it hit number one. However it was a hesitant hit at first, gradually climbing the charts. For the first few weeks of it’s release I was looking in trouble, my credibility was on the line. Then it happened and for a week or so I rode the crest of a wave and took the deserved plaudits. Gradually though, it began to infiltrate every radio show and became almost unavoidable. My friends were now all onboard and the thrill suddenly had gone. I began to despise it. After hearing Greg Lake’s epic Xmas masterpiece I jumped ship and foolishly began championing that. By the end of BR’s amazingly long run at the top I was thoroughly sick of it…….and sick of it I stayed pretty much for over a decade – until that Live Aid performance when it finally dawned on me how great Queen were, inspiring me to re-visit some of their stuff. Queen though, like many artists, who were successful in the 70’s were terrible in the 80’s (but conversly made their fortunes).

    It is absolutely true that Freddie’s gayness & mixed race were well hidden during their early successes. It wasn’t even a talking point (at least for kids of my age) at the time. I suspect Freddie didn’t mind that too much.

    Bo Rap (I hate that), would eventually welcome me back into it’s generous (ch)arms but for me at least it remains an enigma. I don’t love it or hate it now – it just exists.

    For me 1975 had been a fairly bland year for pop with no great fashions, styles or movements happening and glam receeding from the limelight. This led to a pretty uneven and sometimes bland chart so the timing of it’s release may have helped BR’s (certainly initial at least) success. May I also give honourable mentions for these chart singles whilst it was there, pitched at the top :-

    Sky High – Jigsaw, Golden Years – Bowie, Both Ends Burning – Roxy, Why Did You Do It – Stretch, No Regrets – Walker Bros, Low Rider – War, Sunshine Day – Osibisa, Evil Woman -ELO & Love Machine – Miracles.

  29. 59
    Waldo on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Just as I suspected and feared, the “number two watchers” amongst our little group will definitely have to get it sewn back on having contemplated this one…

    Bit of triv for you, kids. “Bo Rap” must surely be the only example of a UK number one which during its lyric sings the title of the record which would replace it. That’s probably a “Section Waldo” factoid, I know, and Bunny’s whiskers are a-twitchin’, but what you gonna do?

  30. 60
    Waldo on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Interesting reflections from Marcello at #7. He appears to be a real life Hamilton Academical, so he does. We didn’t have any child prodigies at Stockwell Manor. Just a prodigious number of child maniacs. Comprehensive School untermensch. We bloody well knew our place!

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