I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this entry. I mean, A) How do you say anything about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that hasn’t been said before? And B) When are you ever in the mood to sit and listen to it on repeat? (Though actually, I could probably play this one from beginning to end, in my head, from memory…)
Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen (their 1st of six #1s)
9 weeks, from 23rd November 1975 – 25th January 1976
I can remember hearing this record for the first time. That must mean something, right? That must be proof of this song’s place in our lives? I was at the kitchen table, aged seven or so, playing with some Lego, and my dad was playing this, loud. And singing. My dad does not normally play music loud, or sing. So seven-year-old me sat up and took notice. What was this record that had turned my father into a headbanger?
Is this the real life, Is this just fantasy…? If I had to rate the three parts (or is it four?) of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the first would be my favourite. Freddie’s voice… Mama, Just killed a man… and his luxuriant piano. The singer is haunted by his past, his crimes, and is setting out alone. Mama, Ooh-ooooh-ooh… If that was it, if this were a three-minute ballad, it’d still be great. But, of course, that is not it. ‘Tis but the amuse-bouche.
In comes Brian May, with the most outrageous piece of guitaristry in a #1 single since ‘Voodoo Chile’, and then… You know what comes next. This is the bit I remember hearing as a kid. You do have to step back and applaud the fact that the band managed to sandwich this bit into a pop single. In terms of the story, it represents, I think, the singer’s inner torment at what he’s done. Beelzebub, Has a devil put aside, For ME!
Then comes the head-banging section, the Wayne’s World bit, my second favourite part. It’s proper hard rock, almost heavy metal – a sound that we have very rarely heard in any of the previous 381 chart-toppers. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ really is a deeply strange strong, and a bizarre #1. But it is also so much a part of the furniture that people no longer stop to wonder what the hell it’s about. Is it a tale of a Faustian pact? Is it Mercury coming to terms with his sexuality? Or is it, as the band maintain, all nonsense?
And, for then the coda, it’s back to Freddie and his piano. The clincher. Any way the wind blows… Done, and exhale. The stories around the song’s recording and release are well-known: the record execs’ reluctance, Kenny Everett playing it on repeat… I enjoyed the scene in the recent movie – a movie that wasn’t as bad as everyone made out – where the band wonder if Freddie’s lost his mind while recording the Galileo! Galileo! part.
People always name ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as one of the longest songs ever, and certainly one of the longest #1s. But it’s barely six minutes long, and feels even shorter, ranking it pretty far down the ‘long number ones’ list. Even ‘I’m Not In Love’, from earlier in 1975, went on for ten seconds more. What was long was its stay at the top of the charts. No record has spent nine weeks at #1 since ‘Rose Marie’ managed eleven, twenty years back. Add to that the fact that it will be back on top shortly after Freddie Mercury’s death, and we’re looking at one of the longest-running #1s, ever.
In my post on ‘Space Oddity’ – isn’t it amazing to think that these two classic records so nearly met one another atop the charts! – I named David Bowie as an artist woefully represented by his chart-toppers. Well, to that short list add Queen, who will only have two more before they lose their frontman, and then descend into some highly questionable duets by the turn of the century. All that to come…
Anyway, after I wrap this up I will go back to never choosing to listening to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, just hearing it by osmosis (and when forced to join in with it at karaoke nights…) I don’t hate it – it is an amazing piece of music – and yet I think it works best as a memory, of me aged seven, staring open-mouthed at my dad moshing around the living-room.