Given that I was such an impressionable youth, it surprises me still how unmoved I was at seeing Queen perform ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the first time on Top of the Pops in November 1975. Watching the BBC Documentary entitled ‘The Making of Bohemian Rhapsody’ last week only Sir Bob Geldof seems to have been so equally unimpressed, as contemporaries of Queen, young rock stars of today, fans, critics, even Oxford University Dons lined up to bestow platitudes on a song that, to quote a line from the lyric, this listener would need ‘a gun against his head,’ to listen to all the way through. Justin Hawkins of The Darkness (or least he was when the documentary was made), described it as ‘the Holy Grail’ – and there was me struggling to list it among the best singles of 1975 let alone of all-time.
The documentary did manage to remove some of my prejudices and has enabled me to hear ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in a more favourable way, but some of my reservations remain leaving me confused whether it is a masterpiece I have failed to grasp – or merely a farcical novelty record.
The programme was introduced and narrated by the actor Richard E Grant, who is clearly in the masterpiece camp and throughout the hour long piece critical distance is restricted to twenty seconds of Geldof stating in not so many words he failed to see what all the fuss was about. Legions upon legions of Queen fans no doubted shouted ‘what’s he ever done?’ at their television screens, but in the three or four years that followed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Geldof co-wrote some fine three minute singles for his group the Boomtown Rats that were pithy and unpretentious, words that could not be used to describe Queen’s biggest hit – or at a push Queen themselves.
Among what I feel are several misconceptions about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (and this one the documentary endorsed virtually from the start) is that it was the first ‘long’ song ever to be a major hit. Well the length of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ (6:13), ‘Hey Jude’ (7:10) and ‘Maggie May’ (5:12), did not prevent them from going to Number One. Admittedly lengthy tracks such as ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ or ‘Layla’ – two songs that inhabit a hallowed ball park ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ comes nowhere close to entering – had to be edited to make the singles chart. There is no way ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ could be edited as without any one of its distinct sections – a cappella, piano ballad, opera and hard rock – it would make even less sense and here I make my first concession to Queen in releasing it as a single in the first place. It was a brave step when the likelihood of it being a hit when timed at nearly six minutes was greatly reduced, particularly at a time when success in the singles charts was hugely dependent on radio play – and by the admission of guitarist Brian May who reflected they were in urgent need of a hit single at the time.
May and drummer Roger Taylor come out of the programme as amiable men who are justifiably proud of the song, its production and its huge success. When asked what story Queen front man Freddie Mercury was trying to tell as the composer of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Taylor said the song was: ‘fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle.’ We are all aware of the Scaramouche, Fandango, Thunderbolt and Lightning, Galileo and Bismillah passage, which has been said to reflect Mercury’s spiritual influences, although comedian Kenny Everett – a close friend of the band – might not have been joking (for once) when he described it as ‘random rhyming nonsense.’ Not that there is anything wrong in lyrics being nonsense – nobody has ever explained what ‘Tutti Frutti’ or ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ mean and to be honest does it matter? Where I thought the documentary was unintentionally funny was when Grant, dressed in dark clothes to enhance the mysticism started speaking the lines ‘Mama just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he’s dead,’ to camera. Very often rock lyrics do sound ridiculous without the music and this was a case in point, but the programme then took an even more bizarre twist when a group of Oxford University Dons were asked to interpret the words, a task which for the most part left them scratching their heads (no bad thing) although one scholar did draw comparison between the ‘I see a little silhouetto of man,’ section, to a part in ‘A Day in the Life,’ by The Beatles, which was a connection I had never made before, but one that now seems obvious.
I think it is fair to say that lyrically ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is no ‘Waterloo Sunset’ or ‘Street Fighting’ Man,’ but what it does show in the powerful climax is Queen as a one voice, three instrument aggregation could rock as hard as anyone. Emerging in the early seventies to fill a gap somewhere between David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, they play with a finesse and flair that none of the bands who broke through around the same time can match – and were also working at a far higher level of imagination as shown in the legendary video that accompanies ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and here I make another admission. For years I have discounted the notion it was the first music video, pointing to short films made by The Who and The Kinks (to name just two) but in truth these were just promotional clips – what Queen did was make the first purposely created video where the technology of the day was pushed to its limit. The innovative graphics and direction has allowed the song to retain a timeless feel – watching the video today you could be mistaken for placing it anytime between the prog-rock posturings of 1971 and heavy rock revival of ten years later, so the fact in comes somewhere in the middle (and twelve months before the Sex Pistols swore at Bill Grundy) makes it somehow more apt.
So have my perceptions of it changed on watching the documentary? To an extent yes. I still contend Queen made better records before and after, but applaud the experimentation and sense of adventure that went into ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and now fully acknowledge why it is such a cultural landmark in terms of popular music.
But perhaps the only way true way to tell will be when I next hear it on the radio.
NEIL SAMBROOK is the author of MONTY’S DOUBLE – an outstanding new thriller now available as an Amazon Kindle Book.