Is this the real life? 40 years of Bohemian Rhapsody

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a  huge bombastic sprawling, six-minute rock opera  took three weeks to make starting on 24 August 1975. It was painstakingly pieced together in six studios, pushing 1970s recording technology to its limits. The song’s multi-tracked vocals were overdubbed so often that the tapes became virtually transparent and have to be baked today before they can be used.

It wasn’t a conventional song. First of all there’s no chorus; secondly it’s three different bits stitched together – intro, a ballad segment, an operatic passage, a hard rock part bookended by a rather reflective intro and outro. It was reportedly the most expensive single ever made at the time of its release

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It was released on 31 October 1975, stayed at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks and had sold more than a million copies in the UK by the end of January 1976.  It’s been Christmas number one twice, reaching number one a second time in 1991 for another five weeks when the same version was re-released after the death of its composer and singer Freddie Mercury. Not bad for a song the record company said would never be played on the radio.

It was written at Freddie’s flat at 100 Holland Road Kensington W14, in Spring 1975 on an upright piano in his bedroom which was also the headboard of the bed, so if he thought of something in the night he could lean over backwards and play. He was double jointed apparently.

He had had bits of it since the late 1960s, certainly the piano riff and the ‘Mama’ bit, which he pinched from a Roy Orbison song called Mama. But he was sick of  always being compared to other bands, especially Led Zeppelin so he wanted to do something just ridiculously and outrageously different.

There was no demo.  It was all in Freddie’s head and was originally known as Fred’s Thing, all in Freddie’s mind. The rest of the band thought he was joking when he played the opening ballad section on the piano for them and stopped and said, ‘Right, this is where the opera section comes in.

They recorded it at Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, in a converted stable in rural Wales. It started with Freddie, drummer Roger Taylor and bass player John Deacon recording the backing track live, before they got to the vocals. Deacon is no singer apparently so Mercury, Taylor and guitarist Brian May reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day for days on end. The entire arrangement was written out on the back of fag packets, telephone directories and bits of papers. When they’d done one part, they moved onto next part of the harmony.

The entire piece took three weeks to record, and some sections featured 180 separate vocal overdubs. They thought they were finished then Freddie would come up with another ‘Galileo’, so they would have to splice in another piece of tape to the reel. They nicked a few things from band leader Mantovani: the Magnificos and Let Me Goes are Bells’ Chords, a technique where single notes of a chord are sung in sequence and sustained by separate voices to allow the chord to be heard. Brian May had heard it on his parents’ radiogram in the 1950s.

 

Freddie Mercury decided it was going to be the first single, although everyone at the record company EMI thought it would be a flop. EMI wanted to edit it down to 3 minutes as it was 5′ 55″ long, too long for radio and TV, not to mention it was a bizarre mix of opera, ballad, classical and heavy rock. Who was going to play it? UK radio in 1975 was limited to BBC Radio One or  Capital Radio, neither of whom playlisted it. And the press didn’t really like it either. The Melody Maker said that ‘Queen contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance’.

The band bypassed EMI’s decision by playing the song for friendly Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, to whom they gave a reel-to-reel copy and told him with a wink he could only have it if he promised not to play it. To which he agreed with a wink. Everett teased his listeners by playing only parts of the song so that audience demand intensified to the point that he played the full song on his show 14 times in two days in October 1975. Fans tried to buy the single the following Monday, only to be told by record stores that it had not yet been released. EMI then gave in to the pressure and it came out on 31 October 1975.

The next problem was how would you play it on BBC TV’s weekly pop show Top of the Pops? They’d look rather silly just the four of them miming to the 180 piece operatic choir on TV. So they made a video, the one that has been called the first ever music video, which is not really true (the Beatles made films of the latest single at the height of their extraordinary success in the 1960s) but they did invent the pop video as the promotional tool which everyone felt they had to make when they had new song out.

It was filmed in four hours at a cost of £4,500  on 10 November 1975 at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, just North of London, where Queen were in dress rehearsals with all their stage lights and staging. That means the live bits are not filmed on stage somewhere, they are filmed in dress rehearsals for the tour that was to begin. The head and shoulders were done at the side of the same soundstage. There are some fairly primitive special effects which were done live like visual feedback where the camera turns to monitor, or a prism lens. It was all done in 4 hours, no post-production.

 

Playing the song live obviously created a problem with the operatic section. Initially they played it in 2 sections, opening the act with the first bit then playing h 4 or 5 songs in the middle as a kind of medley before ending it with the rocking ‘So you think you can love me and spit in my eye section’. Later they just played a tape of the whole operatic section accompanied by a light show so they could go off stage, get … ‘refreshed’, change their frocks, and come back and crash into the heavy section. Which is also what happened when Elton John – in a truly dreadful toupe – and Axl Rose played it together at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley on Easter Monday, 20 April 1992. Alas, Freddie had died aged only 45 six months earlier. He would have been 70 year sold this week.

 

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