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Apr 08

QUEEN – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

FT + Popular145 comments • 7,934 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. 91
    DJ Punctum on 18 Apr 2008 #

    ‘Tis a shame that the much-missed Mr Glaze is no longer with us to proffer his idiosyncratic renditions of the hits of the day. I suspect that he and Don “Not American Pie” Maclean would have made a much better job of “4 Minutes” than Colin and Justin have done.

  2. 92
    LondonLee on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Sorry Tom, it’s hard to stop yourself when your brain is shouting “ooh ooh I know one!” at you.

  3. 93
    mike on 18 Apr 2008 #

    There’s an interview with Don MacLean MBE in today’s edition of the paper what I writes for. He’s touring a “pre-Beatles” 50s/60s nostalgia musical called Magic Moments – matinee performances only, which tells you plenty about the demographic! – and fellow Crackerjacker Jan Hunt is also in the cast. More than 50 songs included!

  4. 94
    Erithian on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Never mind “4 Minutes”, I’d like to have heard Glaze and co take on “21 Seconds”.

  5. 95
    Billy Smart on 18 Apr 2008 #

    That’s up there with the current touring production of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’, starring Gerald Harper (“from TV’s ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ and ‘Hadleigh'”), “Top ten singing sensation” Mark Wynter, and somebody even I’ve never heard of before, “from TV’s ‘Dixon of Dock Green'”

  6. 96
    LondonLee on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Gerald Harper was a DJ on Capitol Radio for a while too was he not?

  7. 97
    Chris Brown on 18 Apr 2008 #

    I knew the other returning Number One, but I too was concerned about being smacked by a carrot.

    However, a safe answer to the reverse of the other challenge: ‘What Do You Want’ by Adam Faith was deposed by ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For’, and they even shared the top spot for a week.

    Apparently ‘Bo Rhap’ is Radio 1’s all-time most played track.

  8. 98
    DJ Punctum on 18 Apr 2008 #

    Apparently Gerald Harper did a Family Favourites-type show at Sunday lunchtimes on Capital in the seventies; he used to send out flowers and wine to a lucky listener every week.

    The mind, naturally, boggles; up in Glasgow we had to make do with Andy Cameron’s Sunday Joint.

  9. 99
    Waldo on 19 Apr 2008 #

    #89 – Peter Glaze doing “Making Plans For Nigel” must have been cosmic. You can just imagine the look on his face when the director played him the record each week. But he just got on with it. Truly a dear man.

    I can rememember a kids’ thing on ITV at this time called “Get it Together”, which was pop-based and featured Roy (Basil Brush) North and some really rough brassy-looking tart called Linda. As with Glaze, one or the other of them used to perform a current chart hit and one week Mr Roy stuck a peg over his hooter and treated us to “Ma-Na-Ma-Na” from the Muppet Show. Need I say more?

  10. 100
    rosie on 19 Apr 2008 #

    Oh come on, somebody has to make the 100th post ;)

  11. 101
    DJ Punctum on 19 Apr 2008 #

    From the late, lamentable Get It Together I most clearly recall Mr Roy’s weekly “song” spot wherein he would manfully croon things like “Purple Haze” while being pawed up by a strange leather-clad female dance troupe.

  12. 102

    […] a dedicated music freak, but others are just part of the pop consciousness well beyond music. And “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen is just such a […]

  13. 103
    crag on 20 Apr 2008 #

    I’m arriving a bit unfashionably late here but I’ve heard the theory that BR is actually a v personal song for Mercury, concerning his decision to embrace a 100% gay lifesyle and that the man he has “killed” in the song is,in fact, the non-gay Freddie who had been in a straight relationship(albeit w/ frequent one-off homosexual dalliences on the side)up to this point. In fact i’m fairly certain i’ve heard his girlfreind at the time backing the theory up.

    I liked Al Murray’s comment I read recently that Freddie’s gayness was viewed by the public in the 70’s and the 80’as a “national family secret.” It was obvious to everyone but they simply chose to ignore it. It was seen (correctly, though suprisingly) as irrelevant.

    I think of Queen as the nearest 70’s equvilant to the Beatles- no bandleader, apolitical, timeless yet utterly of their time, able to dip their toes into any contemporary genre they chose(glam, disco,metal,prog etc) yet still sounding like no-one but themselves. IMO the description fits them better than pseudo Rutles such as ELO et al..

  14. 104
    Billy Smart on 20 Apr 2008 #

    And both groups had the best resources and facilities that EMI could find offered up to them, as well. Good theory, Crag!

  15. 105
    crag on 20 Apr 2008 #

    Thanks, Billy! Not forgetting both bands clear sense of humour and proclivity for “comedy” songs-Mean Mister Mustard, Rocky Raccoon, Honey Pie etc=I’m in Love With My Car, Bring Back that Leroy Brown,Seaside Rendevouz etc(come to think of it theres also their mutual love of a 20’s pastiche to consider, too…)

  16. 106
    LondonLee on 20 Apr 2008 #

    All of the above could apply to the Barron Knights too.

  17. 107
    crag on 20 Apr 2008 #

    Except for the “timeless” bit..besides the Knights formed in 1960-surely their genius transends mere decades?

  18. 108
    Erithian on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Crag – I’m surprised I haven’t heard that interpretation of BR before, but what an intriguing one.

    Anyone remember the reviews of BR when it came out? Quite a morsel for reviewers to get their heads around on first hearing. Record Mirror said “It’s inconceivable that it won’t be a hit, but it’s the most unlikely serious chart contender ever… snatches sounding like Sparks and David Cassidy…”

    Or this reaction the following year: “Yeah I listen to what’s out today… like for instance there’s a band called Queen. They made a record called “Bohemian Rhapsody” which for me was the answer to a teenage prayer. They got tired of what was going on and got into a studio and just stomped!” – Brian Wilson, 1976.

  19. 109
    Erithian on 21 Apr 2008 #

    DJ Punctum (#101) – there was another edition of Get It Together in which Mr Roy sang a reggae-lite version of “Gin Gan Goolie”. I was thinking something like “must we fling this filth at our pop kids?”…

  20. 110
    DJ Punctum on 21 Apr 2008 #

    “They got tired of what was going on and got into a studio and just stomped!” – greatest sentence in entire history of music criticism ever!

  21. 111
    Mark G on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Reggae version of “GinGan”?

    Two of the rutles. Pretty damn sure of that.

    Anyroad: Bohem R was number one for ages, one reason being stocks kept running out and it kept having to be repressed. Now, of course, d/l’s mean everyone who wants it NOW can get it NOW.

  22. 112
    DJ Punctum on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Hang on though; if stocks kept running out, wouldn’t it have dropped out of the chart?

    But I can buy the idea of Bo Rhap being about repression!

    Also it was initially played, some weeks prior to its release, on Capital Radio (over and over) by Freddie’s next door neighbour Kenny Everett.

  23. 113
    Mark G on 21 Apr 2008 #

    It sold enough to keep it at number one each week before running out.

    The following week, it did the same.

    As opposed to selling 2 million in one week, which would cause any company cash flow problems to manufacture.

  24. 114
    DJ Punctum on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Just under a decade to go until the first number one which sold 2 million in one week!

  25. 115
    Billy Smart on 21 Apr 2008 #

    My only experience of The Barron Knights, apart from cobwebbed 1970s light entertainment memories, comes from the great Dale playing them through gritted teeth of a Sunday.

    As social history, with their conservative attitudes about strikers, scroungers and national service, plus the interesting caricature effect of hearing great records being travestied, I do find them rather compelling, if not remotely good.

  26. 116
    DJ Punctum on 21 Apr 2008 #

    Dale had the opportunity to play “Pop Go The Workers” yesterday but passed over it. Instead he decided to slag off SL2 in favour of such giants of 1992 music as Mr Big and Curtis Stigers.

  27. 117
    Drucius on 23 Apr 2008 #

    I got this for my birthday, November ’75 along with Steeleye Span’s “All Around My Hat”. Next year would be very different, however.

  28. 118
    DJ Punctum on 23 Apr 2008 #

    It’s remarkable how Steeleye Span managed to get top Tory election theme tune composer Mike Batt to produce their recording of what is essentially an IRA anthem!

  29. 119
    rosie on 23 Apr 2008 #

    Opportunism, Marcello. That’s what Tories are good at. About all they’re good at.

  30. 120
    Waldo on 30 Apr 2008 #

    But the Lib Dems are a great deal worse. In the North of England and other places, they pitch their tent as the left of centre party in order to grub around for Labour seats. Meanwhile, in the South and South West, they emerge as a fluffy centre ground outfit for whom “Middle England” can safely vote. I recently had a discussion with a Lib Dem activist in Eastbourne, who tried to convince me that the only way to get rid of the unelected Brown Government (his words) was to vote out the sitting Conservative MP and replace him with their guy. Now, if that’s not opportunism, I’m a Dutchman.

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