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Apr 08

QUEEN – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

FT + Popular145 comments • 7,935 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. 61
    Erithian on 18 Apr 2008 #

    intothefire – yes, his gayness possibly (it sailed over my head anyway and I don’t think it would have mattered) but his origins, no – there were plenty of references to Zanzibar and his childhood in interviews at the time, and his real name Bulsara was no secret.

    What a top three we had that Christmas – this, for me the greztest single of all time; Greg Lake, one of the great Christmas singles, and the novelty hit to top them all from Stan and Ollie. A letter in RM at the time: “Why haven’t you done an interview with Laurel and Hardy yet? They may not be mainstream, but…” I’m not 100% sure it was tongue in cheek.

  2. 62
    rosie on 18 Apr 2008 #

    And during Bo Rhap’s tenancy at number one, the Television Unit of the Liverpool University School of Education sprang into action. It was the practice for the group doing the Friday afternoon television production option to devise, produce and make their own half-hour programme at this time of year. This particular cohort descended on the Everyman Theatre. The Everyman was a ramshackle old thing in those says, an icon of the broader Liverpool arts scene of the 60s, a pointed radical alternative to the more mainstream Playhouse (although having a regular mainstream rep might seem pretty radical today.) It was home to political theatre of a generally left-of-the visible-spectrum tendency, subversions of the canon (my favourites were a production of Dracula, played absolutely deadpan and therefore hilarious, and a bizarre Taming of the Shrew featuring Jonathan Pryce in a white wedding dress), and a vegetarian cafe which was ok if you didn’t think too hard about what the kitchen might be like. The Everyman would be closing for extensive renovations after the current Christmas pantomime, to be reopened a couple of years later, clean and polished with a vegetarian restaurant that made respectable listings: a home fit for Blood Brothers

    An era was coming to a close, and what better subject for us to tackle than to go behind the scenes of Androcles and the Lion and record the feelings of the people behind the scenes. Me, I was driving a camera dolly, an doing a couple of interviews in between. Great fun. I wonder if the recording still exists?

    It seems to have been a Christmas for seismic cultural changes.

  3. 63
    vinylscot on 18 Apr 2008 #

    59 Waldo

    The first line of “Starry Eyed” by Michael Holliday is “Why am I so starry eyed” and the following number one was “Why” by Anthony Newley!

    Also, and a bit of a cheat, Tommy Steele’s “Singing the Blues” followed Guy Mitchell’s version of the same song, which obviously mentioned the title several times.

    There may be others, but these are just two which came about when a pub quiz asked the question quite recetly n Glasgow’s south side!

  4. 64
    Waldo on 18 Apr 2008 #

    vinylscot – Excellent stuff. “Singing the Blues” is not a cheat at all. Well played.

  5. 65
    Erithian on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Various odd cover versions of this exist, perhaps none odder than the one performed in the traditional section at the end of Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!) where they did a sketch interspersed with current hit songs. Peter Glaze added at the end: “Oh, that’ll never be a hit, it won’t even make the top twenty!”

  6. 66
    CarsmileSteve on 18 Apr 2008 #

    waldo @ 59: i’m *SURE* there’s another one (maybe two) as i’m sure i’ve seen the question in a pub quiz before…

  7. 67
    Marcello Carlin on 18 Apr 2008 #

    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.

    All superb singles (though with ELO I was more of a “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” person) and many thanks for not mentioning “Renta Santa” by Chris Hill or indeed DLT’s favourite “It’s Gonna Be A Cold, Cold Christmas” by Dana.

    Re. “Golden Years” – ah, who (of the forty-plus Brit Popular Comments contingent) could forget Peter Glaze’s heartrending rendition of this incipient Thin White Duke classic on Crackerjack?

  8. 68
    vinylscot on 18 Apr 2008 #

    66 Carsmile Steve

    I know of at least another one, but didn’t mention it as it is “in the future” in relation to 1975.

    The trick is to look for short titles containing only common words!

  9. 69
    mike on 18 Apr 2008 #

    “Yesterday I saw your mum and dad / we bought our cards together…”
    Ah, who could forget Dana Provincial?

  10. 70
    DJ Punctum on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Re. my comments #22 and #42: duplication due to spam filter problems yesterday so I am now registered thus but it’s still me honest guv.

  11. 71
    Tom on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Yes the spam filter’s at it again I think – registering will help though.

  12. 72
    DJ Punctum on 18 Apr 2008 #

    sorry, I meant #22 and #41.

  13. 73
    H. on 18 Apr 2008 #

    I guess this is the prog rock no. 1, albeit comedy prog. Were there any other songs with overtly prog tendencies that made no. 1? Which leads me to wonder about what genres never make it to no. 1, and how a history of no. ones really looks quite different to the ‘official’ history of popular music. Even the genres that are represented, nay, over-represented, like Glam, are only represented in a certain way. Think Glam these days and you’re probably thinking Bowie & Roxy, who don’t figure in the alternative No. 1 history of glam.

    Also, is BH the only song to be no. 1 on original release and then no. 1 again on re-release?

  14. 74
    Alan on 18 Apr 2008 #

    On the ‘which decade is best for pop’ thing that bbc four did a few months back, someone described Queen as the popular/acceptable/putting-out-singles version of Led Zep. i paraphrase.

    “Also, is BH the only song to be no. 1 on original release and then no. 1 again on re-release”

    recent elvis re-issues?

  15. 75
    Waldo on 18 Apr 2008 #

    I loved those ludicrous “Crackerjack” pop epilogues with dear old Peter “D’oh!” Glaze. I’ll be pressed to remember any in particular, to be honest but I do recall that there were no holds barred. Peter used to get shat on, first by Lesley Crowther and subsequently Don Maclean, who now has a party line to God, it seems. The children used to cheer to the rafters as the poor fucker continually got turned over and had Crowther or Maclean suggested that the little bastards rushed the stage and beat Glaze to death with cricket bats, they would have done.

  16. 76
    rosie on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Does the trick happen in reverse? The first word of Bye Bye Baby is the title of the previous number one.

    As for the best decade for pop: surely this would be the one in which one spent one’s formative years?

    H: “Prog” Rock number ones surely include Voodoo Chile? I think there may be a problem of terminology. Round about 1969-70, “progressive rock” tended to mean “anything that wasn’t chart material and got played by John Peel”, so that more-or-less precluded chart success. But that would mean that In The Summertime fell into that category since John Peel promoted it on his sunday afternoon show.

  17. 77
    DJ Punctum on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Elvis reissues aside, there’s at least one other single which has been number one twice in the same recording.

  18. 78
    H. on 18 Apr 2008 #

    I guess I’m thinking of prog rock as Genesis, Yes, Tull and the like – v. popular at the time but precious few if any no. ones.

    Hmmm, I’m wondering what the ‘one other single which has been number one twice in the same recording’ is now… Frankie’s ‘Relax’, perchance?

  19. 79
    DJ Punctum on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Nope.

    (and by “number one twice” I mean number one on two entirely separate occasions, i.e. excluding “I Believe,” “Singing The Blues,” “She Loves You” etc.)

  20. 80
    Pete on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Band Aid

  21. 81
    LondonLee on 18 Apr 2008 #

    I know I’m in danger of of being thumped by the Spoiler Bunny but P*nk Fl*yd had a number one.

  22. 82
    DJ Punctum on 18 Apr 2008 #

    #80: nope – the original recording, as opposed to re-recordings by different casts.

  23. 83
    vinylscot on 18 Apr 2008 #

    DJ Punctum,

    Would that be the solo single by a member of a popular beat group, which returned to No1 after his death?

    Is this spoiler bunny material?

  24. 84
    DJ Punctum on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Yes on both counts!

  25. 85
    vinylscot on 18 Apr 2008 #

    DJ Punctum,

    Sorry if I overstepped the mark. It can be confusing sometimes, especially when you are reasting to a challenge!

    I’ll try to be more circumspect in future!

  26. 86
    Waldo on 18 Apr 2008 #

    I wouldn’t worry about Bunny, vinylscot. He’ll be drawing his pension by the time you guys get there.

  27. 87
    Tom on 18 Apr 2008 #

    It’s marginal I think! The spoiler rule is largely meant to protect against critical discussion of future #1s (though saying “Oh it’ll be [x] next” is poor form too) – the fact that things returned to #1 can be hard not to mention but if it’s the same recording then Spoila B’s ears would only really prick up if we got onto discussing the context of the re-release.

  28. 88
    Waldo on 18 Apr 2008 #

    That’s perfectly clear, Tom. Bunny back in his hutch…for the time being!

  29. 89
    Billy Smart on 18 Apr 2008 #

    I can remember being really pleased that Peter Glaze was singing ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ on Crackerjack when I was six years old, because it was a song that had made a big impression on me on the two occasions that I’d seen it on Top Of The Pops! I was still too young to get the concept of parody though.

  30. 90
    H. on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Hmmm. So death is always required before a number one can return to the number one spot? Sobering news!

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