8. Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody

The first time you hear "Bohemian Rhapsody", you wonder to yourself whether Queen had gone off the deep end.  It starts off with a lush, insanely overdubbed vocal harmonization that seems so out of place in a rock song.  It's good, you concede, but it's pretty strange.  As the song moves along, it seems at times like a haunting ballad with the lyrics seeming to confirm that:

Mama just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead

Then there's a semi-conventional guitar solo by Brian May that catches your attention and brings you back to the reality that this is a pretty kick-ass rock song, but then, to quote Queen lead singer (and writer of this schizophrenic masterpiece*), Freddie Mercury, "That's where the operatic bits come in!"  And do they ever.  With a seemingly mish-mash group of lyrics, the song becomes something out of "Pippin" or "The Pirates of Penzance," before the song takes another turn into a straightforward kick-ass hard rock song.

And before you know it, there's yet another flawless transition back into the ballad that started it all.  When it's all said and done, it's been just shy of six minutes of rock and roll confusion, topped off with a bang - literally (drummer Roger Taylor hammers a huge gong, poking fun at the over-the-top opulence of a lot of late 60's-early 70's rock), but you've loved every single second.  And if you've listened to any amount of Queen songs, it's clear that this one is Freddie's baby from start to finish.  It's as if his grandiose personality leaped out of his body and decided to become a song.  Brian May summed it up in an interview in Q Magazine.  
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.
Looking back at the "Bohemian Rhapsody" and trying to figure it out, the inclination is to break the song into each of its elements or sections, which I already kind-of just did, and analyze it ad nauseum.  You notice some things about the song that are different from anything else you've ever heard before.  First, there's no actual chorus to the song.  I didn't realize that until just recently.  Bassist John Deacon plays the equivalent of three different bass lines within this one single song.  Also, in keeping with the operatic theme that the song takes, Brian May's guitar solo takes the place of the soprano's aria (solo) in the middle of your standard opera.  And just like an aria, May's solo is a complementary fully-formed song in itself, rather than just restating a previous melody.

But the Wikipedia page on "Bohemian Rhapsody" takes this dissection of the song to crazy (or as my wife, Jennifer, would say, "Crazier.  You've already done some crazy of your own.") levels.  It breaks the song down into its six sections, complete with to the second time stamps, and then begins to analyze every nuance contained within.  If you thought the song was pretentious, you should read this stuff.  Serious music critics are quoted saying things like "The confessional section is affirmative of the nurturant and life-giving force of the feminine and the need for absolution."  Um, okay.  It's not the song that's an almost Spinal-Tapian exercise in pomposity, it's the Wikipedia page about the song.  It's 100 times more pretentious.  I've looked up hundreds of songs on all sorts of sites researching my list, and this page is by far the most self-absorbed.

But we all missed the point.  Although there are some lyrics that can be interpreted as Freddie's personal struggles with his sexuality and how to deal with it, the song, in Freddie's words"
I[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... "Bohemian Rhapsody" didn't just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research - although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?

So the band was in on the joke the whole time.  That's not to say that they didn't take the song, or the recording of it, seriously, but they were poking fun at the pomposity of rock songs while keeping true to a traditional operatic story arc.  The song is awash in contradictions - at times wanting you to take it seriously, while at other times laughing along with you at its pretension.  That's what makes it amazing.  It pokes fun at  bitself while still delivering a stunning pop/rock song that can't help but be burned into your brain.

And although Queen didn't take all of the song seriously, what they did take seriously was the actual recording process.  Just the "opera" part of the song took a full three weeks to record it, and this was after a rehearsal period of another three weeks to figure out how to do the damn thing.  So for a month and a half, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was Queen's full-time job, with them recording only a single section of the song for up to 10-12 hours a day, almost all of it vocals.  Imagine singing like that for 10-12 hours a day for three straight weeks.  You'd need a vacation just from that.  And they weren't even done with the song yet.

But you can hear the fruits of all their hard labor.  The vocals are some of the most complex ever recorded (if not the most complex).  Even though in the video it shows all four band members singing the vocal introduction, in reality it's just Freddie, singing every single part and every single harmony, each performance layered on top of the other.  For the rest of the song, Brian May sang the lower harmonies, Freddie's powerful voice held up the middle, while Roger Taylor had the unenviable task of hitting all those high notes.  During the "opera" part, there are up to 180 overdubs+ layered on top of each other.  It was so complex and the master tape had been run back and forth so many times to add each layer that it was almost destroyed. 

In those operatic vocal moments, the song could've taken its jump over the shark, but Freddie realized the silliness of what they were trying to do and came up with lyrics to match:

I see a little silhouetto of a man
Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango
Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me
(Galileo) Galileo (Galileo) Galileo, Galileo Figaro

The lyrics are basically mumbo-jumbo phrases that he used just because they rhymed.  There is a feeling, though, that Freddie chose Galileo as a wink to Brian, an astronomy buff.  So in a song where there are some serious lyrical issues, Freddie knew well enough to lighten things up a bit to let us all in on the joke.

And that's what makes "Bohemian Rhapsody" so brilliant.  It's like one of those dramas that makes you laugh, like Dead Poets Society, or a comedy with a deeper message, like The Breakfast Club.  There are songs that after you're done listening to them, you barely remember them.  The songs on my Top 100 list are not those kind of songs.  They're not empty calories.  Each one gives you lots to chew on - lots to examine.  "Bohemian Rhapsody", above all others, gives you the most to delve into.  It's the six course meal that fills you up and when you're done, you can't wait to share it with others.  So that's what this list is to me - great musical meals that I can't help but share with anyone who cares to listen.

* The song, not this post.  I'm not so full of myself that I'd even remotely call anything I've written even close to the masterpiece level.

+ For those less music-geek inclined, an overdub is where they record the same thing (or different things) many different times to add complexity, depth or even disparity to any section of a song.  So the 180 overdubs in the opera section are 180 different vocal tracks layered on top of each other, over and over and over again, to make it seem like more than there are just three vocalists singing.

Fun Fact #265:  Because of the difficulties in performing it live (and because they really didn't want to be on the British music show Top of the Pops), Queen shot a music video (or pop promo, as they were known back then) for the song.  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 resulting video was so impressive, and so popular, that it inspired scores of other British bands to do the same.  So when MTV started broadcasting, the lion share of videos that were available were from the British bands that followed Queen's lead.  All because Queen didn't want to do Top of the Pops.

Okay, I didn't want to talk about this in the body of my essay, but you can't really talk about "Bohemian Rhapsody" without the awesome tribute Mike Myers paid to the song in his movie, Wayne's World.  I loved it, and I'm sure you did as well.  So here it is...

Okay, I just ran across a great rendition that Jake Shimabukuro did of "Bohemian Rhapsody" on a ukelele. Check it out, it's pretty awesome.

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