Freddie Mercury wrote the lyrics, and there has been a lot of speculation as to their meaning. Many of the words appear in the Qu'ran. "Bismillah" is one of these and it literally means "In the name of Allah." The word "Scaramouch" means "A stock character that appears as a boastful coward." "Beelzebub" is one of the many names given to The Devil.
Mercury's parents were deeply involved in Zoroastrianism, and these Arabic words do have a meaning in that religion. His family grew up in Zanzibar, but was forced out by government upheaval in 1964 and they moved to England. Some of the lyrics could be about leaving his homeland behind. Guitarist Brian May seemed to suggest this when he said in an interview about the song: "Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song."
Another explanation is not to do with Mercury's childhood, but his sexuality - it was around this time that he was starting to come to terms with his bisexuality, and his relationship with Mary Austin was falling apart.
Whatever the meaning is, we may never know - Mercury himself remained tight-lipped, and the band agreed not to reveal anything about the meaning. Mercury himself stated, "It's one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them." He also claimed that the lyrics were nothing more than "Random rhyming nonsense" when asked about it by his friend Kenny Everett, who was a London DJ.
The band were always keen to let listeners interpret their music in a personal way to them, rather than impose their own meaning on songs, and May stated that the band agreed to keep the personal meaning behind the song private out of respect for Mercury.
Mercury may have written "Galileo" into the lyrics for the benefit of Brian May, who is an astronomy buff. Galileo is a famous astronomer known for being the first to use a refracting telescope.
The backing track came together quickly, but Queen spent days overdubbing the vocals in the studio using a 24-track tape machine. The analog recording technology was taxed by the song's multitracked scaramouches and fandangos: by the time they were done, about 180 tracks were layered together and "bounced" down into sub-mixes. Brian May recalled in various interviews being able to see through the tape as it was worn so thin with overdubs. Producer Roy Thomas Baker also recalls Mercury coming into the studio proclaiming, "oh, I've got a few more 'Galileos' dear!" as overdub after overdub piled up.
Was Freddie Mercury coming out as gay in this song? Lesley-Ann Jones, author of the biography Mercury, thinks so.
Jones says that when she posed the question to Mercury in 1986, the singer didn't give a straight answer, and that he was always very vague about the song's meaning, admitting only that it was "about relationships." (Mercury's family religion, Zoroastrianism, doesn't accept homosexuality, and he made efforts to conceal his sexual orientation, possibly so as not to offend his family.)
After Mercury's death, Jones says she spent time with his lover, Jim Hutton, who told her that the song was, in fact, Mercury's confession that he was gay. Mercury's good friend Tim Rice agreed, and offered some lyrical analysis to support the theory:
"Mama, I just killed a man" - He's killed the old Freddie he was trying to be. The former image.
"Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he's dead" - He's dead, the straight person he was originally. He's destroyed the man he was trying to be, and now this is him, trying to live with the new Freddie.
"I see a little silhouetto of a man" - That's him, still being haunted by what he's done and what he is.
Queen made a video for the song to air on Top Of The Pops, a popular British music show, because the song was too complex to perform live - or more accurately, be mimed live on TOTP. Also, the band would be busy on tour during the single's release and thus unable to appear.
The video turned out to be a masterstroke, providing far more promotional punch than a one-off live appearance. Top Of The Pops ran it for months, helping keep the song atop the charts. This started a trend in the UK of making videos for songs to air in place of live performances.
When the American network MTV launched in 1981, most of their videos came from British artists for this reason. In the December 12, 2004 issue of the Observer newspaper, Roger Taylor explained: "We did everything we possibly could to avoid appearing in Top Of The Pops. It was one, the most boring day known to man, and two, it's all about not actually playing - pretending to sing, pretending to play. We came up with the video concept to avoid playing on Top Of The Pops."
The group had previously appeared on the show twice, to promote the "Seven Seas of Rhye" and "Killer Queen" singles.
The video was very innovative. It was the first where the visual images took precedence over the song. It was based on their Queen II
album cover, with the four band members looking up into the shadows. Directed by Bruce Gowers, it was shot in 3 hours for £3,500 at the band's rehearsal space.
Gowers got the gig because he was one of the few people who had experience working on music videos - he ran a camera on a few Beatles promotional clips, including the one for "Paperback Writer
." The two big effects used in the video were the multiple images that appear in the "thunderbolts and lightning section," which were created by putting a prism in front of the camera lens, and the feedback effect where the image of the singer travels to infinity, which was done by pointing a camera at a monitor (like audio feedback, this is something you usually tried to avoid, but when harnessed for artistic purposes, was innovative). At the time, the video looked high-tech and futuristic. It was also the first music "video" in the sense that it was shot on video instead of film.
This was Queen's first Top 10 hit in the US. In the UK, where Queen was already established, it was #1 for 9 weeks, a record at the time.
This got a whole new audience when it was used in the 1992 movie Wayne's World
, starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. In the film, Wayne and his friends lip-synch to it in his car (the Mirth Mobile), spasmodically head-bobbing at the guitar solo. As a result of the movie, it was re-released as a single in the US and charted at #2 ("Jump
" by Kris Kross kept it out of #1).
In America, this marked a turning point in Queen's legacy. The band's 1982 album Hot Space
contained a side of disco-tinged tracks at a time when disco was anathema to rock fans. The album had disappointing sales in the US, and also cost Queen in credibility. Their tour to support the album would be Freddie Mercury's last with Queen in America, and the band was largely forgotten there for the rest of the decade. When Wayne's World
revived "Bohemian Rhapsody," American listeners remembered how cool Queen really was, and they the ringing endorsement from Wayne and Garth to back them up.
At 5:55, this was a very long song for radio consumption. Queen's manager at the time, John Reid, played it to another artist he managed, Elton John, who promptly declared: "are you mad? You'll never get that on the radio!"
According to Brian May, record company management kept pleading with the group to cut the single down, but Freddie Mercury refused. It got a big bump when Mercury's friend Kenny Everett played it on his Capital Radio broadcast before the song was released (courtesy of a copy Mercury gave him). This helped the single jump to #1 in the UK shortly after it was released.
There was a single version released only in France on a 7", cut down to 3:18, edited by John Deacon, but beyond the initial pressing of this French single, the only version recognized is the album version, at 5:55. This little-heard French single started right at the piano intro, and edited out the operetta part. Brian May admitted that there may have been additional parts for the song on Freddie's notes, but they were apparently never recorded.
Brian May recalled recording "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Q Magazine March 2008: "That was a great moment, but the biggest thrill for us was actually creating the music in the first place. I remember Freddie coming in with loads of bits of paper from his dad's work, like Post-it notes, and pounding on the piano. He played the piano like most people play the drums. And this song he had was full of gaps where he explained that something operatic would happen here and so on. He'd worked out the harmonies in his head."
In 1991, this was re-released in the UK shortly after Freddie Mercury's death. It again went to #1, with proceeds going to the Terrence Higgins Trust, which Mercury supported.
Elton John performed this with Axl Rose at the 1992 "Concert For Life," held in London at Wembley Stadium. It was a tribute to Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS the year before. In 2001, Elton John got together with Eminem, who like Axl Rose, was often accused of being intolerant and homophobic. They performed Eminem's "Stan
" at the Grammys.
When this was re-released in the US, proceeds from the single went to the Magic Johnson AIDS Foundation. Johnson and Freddie Mercury were two of the first celebrities to get AIDS. Rock Hudson, who succumbed to the disease on October 2, 1985, was another.
Thanks to this track, A Night At The Opera was the most expensive album ever made at the time. They used 6 different studios to record it. Queen did not use any synthesizers on the album, which is something they were very proud of.
In an interview with Brian May and Roger Taylor on the Queen Videos Greatest Hits
DVD, Brian said: "What is Bohemian Rhapsody about, well I don't think we'll ever know and if I knew I probably wouldn't want to tell you anyway, because I certainly don't tell people what my songs are about. I find that it destroys them in a way because the great thing about about a great song is that you relate it to your own personal experiences in your own life. I think that Freddie was certainly battling with problems in his personal life, which he might have decided to put into the song himself. He was certainly looking at re-creating himself. But I don't think at that point in time it was the best thing to do so he actually decided to do it later. I think it's best to leave it with a question mark in the air."
A Night At The Opera
was re-released as an audio DVD in 2002 with the original video included on the disc. Commentary from the DVD reveals that this song had started taking shape in the song "My Fairy King" on Queen's debut album.
In 2002, this came in #1 in a poll by Guinness World Records as Britain's favorite single of all time. John Lennon's "Imagine" was #2, followed by The Beatles' "Hey Jude."
The name "Bohemian" in the song title seems to refer not to the region in the Czech republic, but to a group of artists and musicians living roughly 100 years ago, known for defying convention and living with disregard for standards. A "Rhapsody" is a piece of Classical music with distinct sections that is played as one movement. Rhapsodies often have themes.
Roger Taylor (from 1000 UK #1 Hits
by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh): "Record companies both sides of the Atlantic tried to cut the song, they said it was too long and wouldn't work. We thought, 'Well we could cut it, but it wouldn't make any sense,' it doesn't make much sense now and it would make even less sense then: you would miss all the different moods of the song. So we said no. It'll either fly or it won't. Freddie had the bare bones of the song, even the composite harmonies, written on telephone books and bits of paper, so it was quite hard to keep track of what was going on." Kutner and Leigh's book also states that, the recording included 180 overdubs, the operatic parts took over 70 hours to complete and the piano Freddie played was the same one used by Paul McCartney on "Hey Jude."
Ironically, the song that knocked this off the #1 chart position in the UK was "Mama Mia" by Abba. The words "Mama mia" are repeated in this in the line "Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go."
The story told in this song is remarkably similar to that in Albert Camus' book The Stranger
. Both tell of a young man who kills, and not only can he not explain why he did it, he can't even articulate any feelings about it.
You can make the case that the song title is actually a parody, and a clever one at that. There is a rhapsody by the composer Franz Liszt called "Hungarian Rhapsody," and "Bohemia" is a kingdom that is near Hungary and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Furthermore, "Bohemian" is an adjective for something unusual or against convention, and the song is just that.
So, "Bohemian Rhapsody" could be a clever title that not only parodies a famous work but also describes the song. In a nod to the Liszt composition, Queen would go on to release a live DVD/CD package in 2012 titled "Hungarian Rhapsody," featuring their famous shows behind the Iron Curtain in Budapest on the Magic tour in 1986.
This song was covered by Constantine M. (featuring the cast of We Will Rock You) and also by The Flaming Lips for the 2005 Queen Tribute album Killer Queen. Another popular cover is by Grey DeLisle, who did it as an acoustic ballad for her album Iron Flowers.
Queen fans, and also Brian May, often colloquially refer to the song as "Bo Rhap" (or "Bo Rap").
The name "Bohemian Rhapsody" makes many appearances in popular culture:
Session 14 of the popular anime series Cowboy Bebop
is named "Bohemian Rhapsody."
The Jones Soda Company has a drink named "Bohemian Raspberry" in honor of this song.
In one of the episodes of the TV miniseries Dinotopia
, a character cheats on a poem project by using the first part of the song as his entire project. The inhabitants, having never heard the song before, are amazed at the sound of it.
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett used some of the lyrics in their book Good Omens
. The main character (Crowley) plays it in his car all the time. They also refer to other Queen songs, but mostly "Bohemian Rhapsody."
The Spanish group Molotov sampled the chorus for their Spanish-language rap version of this song called "Rap, Soda and Bohemias." It appears on their 1998 album Molomix
In 2009, The Muppets Studio released a video featuring the Muppets performing this song. It was first web video for The Muppets, and it was extremely popular: the video was viewed over 7 million times the first week it was up. The furry ones changed the song a bit, omitting the lyrics that begin, "Mama, just killed a man" with Animal screaming "Mama!"
In an interview with Q magazine March 2011, Roger Taylor was asked if this seemed like a peculiar song when Mercury first suggested it? He replied: "No, I loved it. The first bit that he played to me was the verse. 'Mama, just killed a man, dah-dah-la-dah-daah, gun against his…' All that. I thought, 'That's great, that's a hit.' It was, in my head, a simpler entity then; I didn't know it was going to have a wall of mock Gilbert and Sullivan stuff, you know, some of which was written on the fly. Freddie would write these huge blocks of mass harmonies in the backs of phone books."
The song is one of Freddie Mercury's great mysteries - according to everyone in the band, only he knew truly how it would come together, and according to some sources, its genesis could have come many years earlier. Chris Smith, the keyboard player in Mercury's first band Smile, claimed that Freddie would play several piano compositions at rehearsals, including one called "The Cowboy Song," which started with the line, "mama, just killed a man."
In sharp contrast to the rest of the song's recording and composition, Brian May's signature solo before the opera section was recorded on only one track, with no overdubbing. He stated that he wanted to play "a little tune that would be a counterpart to the main melody; I didn't just want to play the melody."
It is one of his finest examples of creating a solo in his mind before playing it on guitar; something he did many times throughout Queen's career. His reasoning was always that "the fingers tend to be predictable unless being led by the brain."
Weird Al Yankovic took the entire song and sung it to a polka tune, called simply "Bohemian Polka," which is on his 1993 album Alapalooza
Panic! At The Disco covered the song in 2016 for the Suicide Squad soundtrack, having previously played Queen's epic tune during their live shows. Frontman Brendon Urie told Beats 1's Zane Lowe:
"I know right that's a monster to tackle but it was so much fun. I love that song so much. We've been playing it live for a few years and it just made so much sense to try it.
It really just gave me a bigger respect for how that song was written. I mean the song was there, all the pieces were there. It was just figuring out each harmony piece by piece. But man, what a monster of a vocal song. It's so crazy there's just like thirty-four vocals stacked on top of each other. It's incredible. I know right that's a monster to tackle but it was so much fun. I love that song so much. We've been playing it live for a few years and it just made so much sense to try it."
Panic! at the Disco's cover peaked at #64 on the Hot 100. It was the fourth version to reach the chart following Queen's original, The Braids from the High School High movie soundtrack (#42, 1996), and the Cast of Glee (#84, 2010).