Queen's landmark single Bohemian Rhapsody turns 40 this week
As Queen's landmark single Bohemian Rhapsody turns 40 this week, Andy Welch catches up with Roger Taylor and Brian May to find out how they recorded it... and why it saved the group from splitting up.
It's difficult to imagine Queen, one of the biggest-selling, most widely known bands ever, struggling with their career. But, as drummer Roger Taylor recalls, in 1974, three albums in to their career, the band were broke and having problems with their manager, who wasn't passing on any of the cash they were making.
"We felt like this was make or break, really," he says, referring to fourth album A Night At The Opera. "This was a last big shot at it."
Cue John Reid stepping in. He was Elton John's manager at the time, and freed them of previous commitments to management and record labels, reassuring them they could do whatever they wanted.
"He said, 'Go away and make the best record you've ever made and I will sort out the money side'," says guitarist Brian May.
"I seem to recall he put us on 30 quid a week instead of 20 - and we were made."
Of course, there's a little bit more to it than that. The album they went on to make, named after the Marx Brothers film, was indeed the best album of their career, while one of its songs, Bohemian Rhapsody, changed their lives, and popular music forever.
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The song is 40 years old this week, although frontman Freddie Mercury had been working on it for much longer.
"We'd had a lot of success with the third album, Sheer Heart Attack, and the singles from it, Killer Queen and Now I'm Here, were hits."
"If we hadn't made Bohemian Rhapsody, and it hadn't been the hit it was, it's doubtful whether we would've carried on," continues May.
"It took us on to another level, and we saw the power of the video as well."
Indeed, while bands had made promo films prior to Queen's outlandish video, they are widely recognised as popularising the medium, complete with big budget and special effects. They also made other bands realise they could still appear on Top Of The Pops in some shape or form, even if they weren't there in person.
When it came to performing the song live, operatic as it is, written in several movements with complex parts and multi-layered vocals, it pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved on a live stage, especially considering they were just a four-piece.
"Freddie was a great player," says May. "A wonderful player, sometimes underestimated, even by himself I have to say.
"Later on, he no longer wanted to play piano, he wanted other people to play it instead. But Freddie had this wonderful percussive, rhythmic touch, unequalled actually. And he could just drive the band effortlessly."
"There was a lot of that going on," continues Taylor, who says Mercury's hands were crossing over on the piano, something not generally advised by teachers, but the only way the flamboyant frontman could recreate the elaborate part he'd created.
"His hands were crossing over so much, he rubbed half his nail varnish off. What a poser."
From album fodder to worldwide hit
- The song is just under six minutes long, leading Queen's label EMI to demand an edit. The band, on advice from DJ Kenny Everett, said no. Everett aired the song on his radio show 14 times over one weekend, and shops were inundated with requests on the Monday.
- The song was banned from being played at a graduation in Wasilla, Alaska because of Mercury's sexuality.
- Bohemian Rhapsody is the most popular Muppets cover, with more than 48 million views on YouTube so far.
- In November 1991 the song became No 1 for a second time, 16 years after its release, as a response to Mercury's death.
- "Fandango" is a Spanish dance for two people that involves a tambourine or castanets.
- "Bismillah" is the first word of the Koran, and means, "in the name of Allah".
- "Beelzebub" is another name used for Satan or the Devil.
- The video is generally recognised as the first promotional music video, and it was based on the band's Queen II album cover. Directed by Bruce Gowers, it was shot in three hours for £3,500.
- This was Queen's first Top 10 hit in the US. In the UK, where Queen were already established, it was No 1 for nine consecutive weeks, a record.
- A Night At The Opera, the Queen album featuring the song, was the most expensive album ever made at the time. The band used six different studios to record it.
- Ironically, the song that knocked Bohemian Rhapsody off the top spot in the UK was Mamma Mia by Abba. The words "Mamma mia" are repeated three times in the lyrics of the Queen classic.
- Mercury may have written "Galileo" (the Italian astronomer is most famous for being the first to use a refracting telescope) into the lyrics for the benefit of Brian May. The guitarist is an astronomy buff, and is now doctor of the subject.
- Scaramouche is a stock character from the 16th century Italian improvised drama known as commedia dell'arte. He's a buffoon who always manages to wriggle out of the sticky situations.
- Mercury played the same piano for Bohemian Rhapsody that Paul McCartney used to record The Beatles' Hey Jude. It was Trident Studio's stock piano, also used by Elton John, David Bowie and Carly Simon, among many others.