Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango? Galileo, Figaro – magnifico? Queen’s ’Bohemian Rhapsody’ may be an all-time classic, but it sure has some odd lyrics. In this blog post, Classic Metal Hawk tells the story of how this song came into being, and for good measure has a go at interpreting the lyrics – what does ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ actually mean? Read on and do the Fandango with The Hawk if you want to know the truth.
The First Rock in Rio Headliners
The Hawk can’t help but notice that in quite a few posts on this blog, he’s feeling the need to justify the inclusion of a certain band or song in the Classic Heavy Metal canon.
And now here we are with a blog about Queen. Classic Heavy Metal? Look let’s cut to the chase on this occasion. Rock in Rio. 1985. Opening night. Queen top the bill, coming on after none other that Iron Maiden. That’s good enough for The Hawk, who has already made it clear on numerous occasions that, unlike certain heavy metal genres, Classic Heavy Metal is nothing if not flexible.
Bohemian Rhapsody Accolades
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a song for a blog to really get its teeth into. I mean sure, we can cover the basic facts, as the Hawk does on nearly all of these song blogs. We can remind ourselves that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘BoRhap’ to save typing energy) was part of Queen’s fourth studio album, ‘A Night at the Opera.’ That it was a smash hit single in the UK on first release, spending 9 weeks at number #1 (or 14 weeks if you count the additional 5 after Freddie Mercury’s untimely death in 1992.) That it’s one of those rare songs that transcends genres and fan groups (after facilitating the famous headbanging scene in the 1992 comedy movie ‘Wayne’s World’, ‘BoRhap’ bounced back into the US charts, peaking at #2.) That it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004.
All nice accolades sure, but they still hardly seem to scratch the surface. Many others have tried to analyse the song, and Classic Metal Hawk is just the latest in a long line of fans to try and do it justice in a mere blog post, but here we go.
3 Songs in 1
So why is ‘BoRhap’ so special? Well for a start, it isn’t really one song, but three. There’s the ballad at the beginning. Then the operatic section in the middle. Then the hard rock part towards the end. In a parallel universe, you could imagine Queen having just developed each of those into 3 different songs that would all stand up very well to scrutiny.
So it’s the good fortune of Classic Heavy Metal fans in this universe that we live in the one where Freddie Mercury decided to splice them all together, aiming for an insanely ambitious effort that would define the band forever.
(At this point we must add a disclaimer – this is Freddie’s song, and he took many of its secrets to the grave with him. The best we can do now is to piece the together the clues that he left behind.)
Like any masterpiece, this one took its own sweet time to finish. The consensus among art scholars is that it took Leonardo Da Vinci about 4 years to paint the Mona Lisa (though some say longer). And ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ came about on a similar time scale. Some of the individual components were being carried around in Freddie Mercury’s head from the late 60s, giving a total gestation period of anything from 5 to 10 years before the finished song came into being. In that 60’s period, we know that the fragments already held in the Mercury grey matter were the basis for that opening ballad section which he’d given the working title of ‘The Cowboy Song’. Freddie would do most of his composing sitting at a piano at home, where he came up with that melody line, and a few lyrics.
But after that, there’s very little on the historical record, up until the time where the band got together at Ridge Farm Studio in Surrey, UK in 1975 to start rehearsing the material for the album. (Ridge Farm Studios is itself something of a Classic Heavy Metal hidden gem of a location, having witnessed recordings by Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake, Michael Schenker, Pearl Jam and Rush over the years. That’s another story.)
Freddie shared his vision of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and a few concrete ideas he’d already had with the rest of the band, whose interest was sufficiently piqued that they agreed to run with it. More ideas started to flow, with Freddie acting as the conductor, making sure that everything coalesced around his original mental picture. Queen sound like they had an absolute blast from start to finish. Astonishingly, considering its complexity, the whole process was fairly off-the-cuff throughout.
A Technical Triumph
Indeed, Freddie Mercury’s musical ambition was almost too much for the available recording technology at the time to cope with. Most studios in the mid-1970’s offered 24-track analogue tape – woefully inadequate when some sections of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ contain as many as 180 overdubs. The band had to create successive sub-mixes and combine these into the finished song – so as well as the writing and performing plaudits, we must also pay tribute to the craftsmanship of the production team, led by Roy Baker.
Those Lyrics – The Ballad
Let’s get into the meat of this particular sandwich though. What most people want to know about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is, ‘What does it mean’? So let’s take a stab at that.
The opening ballad section in 3 verses, is almost written as a cry for help, a confessional. It sounds like some kid being swept along uncontrollably on the tide of life, wanting to escape from that reality but unable to do so. Then, in an act of desperation, he lashes out, doing something, anything to take back control of the narrative. In this case through going as far as killing a man. (‘Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, Now he’s dead‘)
Classic Metal Hawk has often wondered if this was semi-autobiographical piece from Freddie. Over the years, Freddie Mercury (along with the rest of the band) had been swept along on a tide of stardom, unable to escape. And for Freddie himself, there was the undercurrent of his (at this point undeclared) homosexuality. Was he putting the gun to the head of that side of his being, lest it come out? Or was it the reverse, where Freddie wants to blow away the lies and deceit, and start to live as his own man in his own skin?
Or is it none of the above, and these interpretations are in Classic Metal Hawk’s imagination? That could be true as well, and of course we’ll never know for sure, but based on the emotional energy Freddie puts into those opening verses, the Hawk isn’t prepared to write off the theory.
After the ballad we have Brian May’s guitar solo – which sounds surprisingly raw and underproduced compared to the rest. And that’s because it is. May used only a single track for his solo, no overdubs or harmonies, and just wanted to set down a counterpoint to the vocal melody. Freddie made him do endless takes of the solo to get it perfect, it’s true, but once they had it down, they left it alone.
The Rock Opera
Now we’re into the operatic part, though, which is where everyone seriously earned their money. It’s the part where Queen blew conventional ideas of what a rock song should sound like out of the window. There were other bands at the time who would play around with these ideas – radical changes of style, tone and tempo within the same song, including rock opera stylings. But these tended to be niche progressive rock acts, bands like Yes and Jethro Tull. Queen embraced these influences and set them down firmly in the mainstream.
The band were fortunate to have a complementary set of vocalists who, between them, could take a decent stab at Freddie’s operatic vision. Freddie Mercury himself occupied the mid-range, Brian May could do a decent low-end baritone, and Roger Taylor could get up to the higher register. Put all those together, and you had a powerful range. But even with those raw ingredients, the 3 of them would work for up to 12 hours every day to lay down the vocals. Freddie thought it both musically valid, and laugh-out-loud humorous to keep adding an additional ‘Galileo’, and each time he did, a new piece of tape had to be added to the reel.
But what do some of those weird lyrical references actually mean? Let’s take them in turn:
- Scaramouche is a clown character from 16th century comedy theatre, usually appearing as a villain who gets his comeuppance. (He is also thought to be the original villain in the Punch and Judy puppet shows who get’s his head knocked off with a baton by Mr. Punch.
- The Fandango is a lively Spanish dance.
- Galileo Galilei was an Italian astronomer and physicistborn in the 16th century who advocated the theory of heliocentrism – the idea that the earth revolves around the sun. This alienated the Catholic church, who wouldn’t let go of the ‘Earth at the centre of the universe’ theory that was conventional wisdom at the time. They accused Galileo of heresy and placed him under house arrest, lest his wicked (but true) theories should gain traction.
- Figaro is the Barber of Seville, the eponymous character in the play of the same name by the French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, who helps ensure a happy courtship outcome between his old master and a girl named Rosine.
- Beelzebub is the devil – c’mon Classic Heavy Metal fans, you already knew that one, right?
- ‘Bismillah‘ is an Arabic term deriving from the Islamic holy book, the Koran, and means ‘In the name of God.’
So, now you know all that, do the operatic verses make sense? It still takes a bit of breaking down. The whole thing seems to conjure a vision, or dream / nightmare sequence. Freddie Mercury has visions of a dancing clown. He is buffeted by storms. Supernatural forces battle for his soul while he pleads for mercy. If you think about it, that’s quite a logical follow on from the ballad section, with its cry-for-help confessional. Someone or Something has been murdered, and so follows a nightmare vision of possible retribution.
Then we’re into the final section, the hard rocking part. Brian May kicks in with that classic distorted riff, and when the vocals kick in again, we now have an in-your-face Freddie Mercury, determined to take back control – ‘Just gotta get right out of here‘. That’s followed by the slower outro, which brings back a more fatalistic tone ‘Any way the wind blows…‘ Having been buffeted by disturbing visions, Freddie resolves to stand up for himself, whilst at the same time accepting the random fates that accompany us all.
As said, Freddie never let slip any deeper lyrical meanings before his death. Plenty of people, not just Classic Metal Hawk, think they cover his own personal traumas (and arguably this is given more weight by the fact that, at the time of writing, he had just started his first affair with another man after several years of living a fake heterosexual life with Mary Austin.
Some critics have pointed to deeper cultural references, and suggested that Freddie was inspired by classic novels such as ‘The Stranger’ by Alfred Camus, in which a youth confesses to an impulsive murder.
Others say the lyrics are mostly gibberish, put together primarily to fit the music. For example, the radio DJ Kenny Everett quoted Mercury as claiming it was nothing other than ‘random rhyming nonsense.’ Though or course, that could just have been Freddie throwing us off the scent.
To Market, To Market
Fortunately, Everitt had a rather more important role than interpreting the lyrics for fans. Queen were sure that they had a winner with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and wanted it to be the lead single from their new album. But the record company suits were unconvinced, and threw out multiple objections. It was too long – almost 6 minutes. Fans would be confused by the fusion of styles. Radio DJs wouldn’t touch it.
The band dug their heels in and went over the heads of the execs – they leaked a copy of the song to Everitt, who was a DJ on London’s Capital Radio station at the time. Everitt built tension by playing short teasers from the song of his show, until demand to hear the whole thing built to a fever pitch. Then he smashed the dam walls, playing it in full 14 times in 2 days. At about the same time, a radio station in the US also stumbled (God knows how) upon another pre-released copy, and ran a similar campaign on that side of the pond.
In a historic irony, Queen’s record company, having objected to releasing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the grounds that radio wouldn’t play it, ended up having their hands forced by a radio campaign. The single was duly released, and the rest is history.
Of course, the song was accompanied by that famous video with all the band members standing in diamond formation with only their faces visible in the near darkness. At the time, it was fairly unusual for promo videos like this to accompany a single – Queen had established yet another industry first, adding to their legacy in the process.
That’s the story of Queen’s era defining (and era defying) ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It’s been getting airplay in one form or other for almost 50 years now. Classic Metal Hawk isn’t sure if he’ll still be around in another 50, but for those that are, I’ll wager it will be as revered even then. Not sure? Let’s revisit the music, words and images in all their glory.
So, y’all will feel much more knowledgeable next time you’re humming along to Bohemian Rhapsody, right? You’re welcome. MInd you, having written the piece, The Hawk can’t help wondering if it’s anyway just a song you shouldn’t think about too deeply. Maybe the dudes in Wayne’s World had it right to just enjoy it for what it is. What do you think?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.