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NME Best 100_1970s (2012):
No.52 - In a career of classic rock moments, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ still stands out as Queen's campest and most outlandish. A piano chanson (complete with Brian May’s jaw dropping guitar solo) leaps gleefully into a full blown operatic parody, and the results are legendary.
If you're a fan of this song, click the LINK to see the one-man-band version on YouTube by Newton Faulkner.
Here is an excellent link from the BBC Smashed Hits: What is a Bohemian Rhapsody?, including comments such as: "The architecture of Bohemian Rhapsody - and it is an architecture - is self-consciously, ostentatiously baroque. It is rich in ornate, curious details, occasionally Moorish in provenance. Also in soaring, sometimes dizzy-making, shifts of register and in a lachrymose emotiveness that is almost impossible to resist." ... AND ... "Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates Of Penzance" ... A very good article.
The track was so grandiose, so uniquely complex for that time in history, that Rockfield was just one of four studios used. It was the most expensive single ever made and necessitated so many overdubs that the tape ran clear from over-use.
Quoted in Jeff Collins' Rock Legends At Rockfield (UWP, 2007), Queen's producer Roy Thomas Baker said: "I remember Freddie playing me Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time on his piano at his place in London. Then later at Rockfield, with the basics mapped out, he focused on pinning down what was right. He played me the beginning part and said, 'Right, now this is where the opera section comes in' and he'd leave a gap and I'd have to imagine this dramatic opera style segment.
"And it just kept changing all the time at Rockfield. It took three weeks to record on a 16-track tape machine and we used 180 overdubs, which was very, very unusual for back then." ........... link to website here
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.”
What can you possibly say about 'Bohemian Rhapsody' that hasn't been already stated hundreds of times before?
Exactly nothing. It's that good.
But before we go on, turn off now any real Queen fans because this is going to get a bit hairy.
OK, great track, really great track but who else thinks that Queen are SHITE ?
You just got lucky guys. OK, Queen have got all the right ingredients: - gay, controversial bad-dressing superstar lead singer, big haired, very talented rock guitarist, stadium sound, TUNES, HITS; I mean they're 'real' rock aren't they? Aren't they? And yet they've made fifteen zillion albums of annoying, small penis dross.
And yet, and yet, and yet we have the epic 'Bohemian Rhapsody'! It's a true classic and a terrifically diverse and entertaining song. If you don't know it, where HAVE you been, oh come on.
You see what sort of dilemma this is?
You love the song but detest the band, much in the same vein as 'True' by Spandau Ballet!
Saying that though, Queen aren't 'quite' as bad as the Spandau's; at least they did the alright 'Killer Queen', the 'Flash Gordon' kiddie film soundtrack, and the pretty decent 'We Are The Champions'. (Shit, that's a really decent song!)
Anyhow, I've successfully avoided having to talk about the song by using the space to criticise the band, but there really is nothing new to add about the excellent 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. It's grown on me with age and I go back to it from time to time and I'm sure you love it too.