Songsplaining: What is Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody Really All About?

The 1975 hit Bohemian Rhapsody reached fame around the world and is considered to be, hands down, one of the best songs ever recorded. After the biopic (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018) came out in theaters, more and more people (including those who didn’t necessarily grow up with the song) are learning about the band, the song, and the late, great Freddie Mercury.

Queen dressed up in costumes for their video for the song It’s A Hard Life / Queen posing together in New York 1982
Photo by Mark Mawson, Shutterstock / Walter McBride, Shutterstock

The groundbreaking hit is full of mystery, which only adds to its popularity. You must know at least a few anecdotes or tidbits of information about Bohemian Rhapsody, but this isn’t like a Twitter feed that gives you a nice little dose of 280 characters. This is a deep dive – a songsplanation, if you will. So if you want to know the full story of the infamous, best-selling hit single, go ahead and read on. Once you’re done, you can consider yourself an expert on Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

What’s in a Name?

The title Bohemian Rhapsody is epic on its own and rather fitting for the song and the fame it received. The band members didn’t actually think Freddie Mercury was serious when he told them what the title of the song he was working on would be. So what does the name Bohemian Rhapsody even mean? Well, let’s break it down.

John Deacon, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and Roger Taylor of Queen leaning against a red phone booth
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“Bohemianism” is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, usually in the company of like-minded people and with few permanent ties. Those who consider themselves “bohemian” are individuals who tend to focus on developing their ties to nature, spirituality, and self. This kind of attitude is echoed in the song’s lyrics “easy come, easy go,” and “nothing really matters.”

The word “rhapsody” has a few meanings. It is an expression of powerful feelings and emotions. In technical musical terms, it’s a free instrumental composition in one extended movement, usually, one that’s emotional or exuberant in character. In ancient Greek, it was an epic poem that’s suitable for reciting.

Years in the Making

Freddie Mercury wrote the song in his home in London. It used a different method from the other songs he typically wrote in the studio. In fact, Mercury wrote the entire song on telephone books and scraps of paper (as only true creative geniuses do). According to Mercury’s friend Chris Smith (a keyboard player in the band Smile), Mercury first started developing Bohemian Rhapsody in the late 1960s, 1968, to be exact.

Freddie Mercury sitting on an outdoor couch at his home holding a crystal glass
Photo by Ian Dickson / Shutterstock

He used to play parts of the songs he was writing at his piano. He came up with the opening line “Mama, just killed a man” but didn’t yet have a melody. He originally referred to this work in progress as The Cowboy Song… of all things.

Bringing It to Life

Producer Roy Thomas Baker remembered that Mercury once played the opening ballad section on the piano for him before the two were about to head out to dinner. He said Mercury “played the beginning on the piano, then stopped and said, ‘And this is where the opera section comes in!’ Then we went out to eat dinner.”

Freddie Mercury and Brian May performing circa 1974
Photo by Ian Dickson / Shutterstock

Baker didn’t realize at the time that his friend was in the middle of something so special. Bo Rhap was in Mercury’s mind for a long time. Queen’s guitarist Brian May said, “He knew exactly what he was doing… We just helped him bring it to life.” He also said that the song was “really Freddie’s baby from the beginning. He came in and knew exactly what he wanted.”

A Perfect Melody

“The backing track was done with just piano, bass, and drums, with a few spaces for other things to go in,” May continued. He explained how Mercury “sang a guide vocal at the time, but he had all his harmonies written out, and it was really just a question of doing it.”

John Deacon, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and Roger Taylor standing outside of Ridge Farm recording studio in August 1975
Queen at Ridge Farm recording studio August 1975. Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

Bo Rhap is chock-full of beautiful, haunting melodies. Roger Taylor, the band’s drummer, said he was sold right away on the song, just by hearing its melody. Although the song was Mercury’s baby, the band still had lots of input and not just in the actual recording. The infamous guitar solo? That was all by Brian May. He said he wanted it to be a counterpoint to the whole feel of the song – a separate tune to the piece.

Magnifico – Their Favorite Trick

Magnificooo-oooo-oo. (Go ahead, sing it). May said the “magnifico” part was their “favorite trick.” The trick was actually a method that used to be referred to as the “bells effect” in the 1930s. It’s when one person starts a harmony, and the rest follow, one after the other, with the first voice still going.

Roger Taylor, Brian May, and John Deacon singing at a video shoot
Photo by Martyn Goddard / Shutterstock

The song is very unusual for a number of reasons. For one, it has no chorus, which is rather uncommon for any song in general, not to mention in that period. It also combines many different musical styles. The song has five parts: Intro, Ballad, Opera, Rock, and Outro. Because of this, the song includes many genres, including pop rock, hard rock, progressive rock, progressive pop, classic rock, and even balladic.

A Mock Opera

Mercury intended for the song to be a “mock opera.” He wanted it to be something out of the norm. And that’s exactly what it ended up being. While he knew exactly what he wanted, the finished product – as perfect as it was – became a sort of mystery that many fans have never fully wrapped their heads around.

Freddie Mercury performing with his fist in the air
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

So what does the song even mean? The song is undoubtedly different from the traditional songs you would have heard on the radio back in the 1970s. Apart from its strange composition, the lyrics are mysterious, dark, and intriguing. They avoid conventional romantic narratives and include references to murder and nihilism (not the most commercially-friendly topics).

Taking from Religion

The song’s lyrics can’t be disputed. For instance, the words “Bismillah,” “Scaramouch,” “Fandango,” and “Beelzebub” all have literal meanings. What are those meanings? Let’s go over them, shall we? Starting with “Bismillah,” the word means “in the name of Allah,” and it’s a prayer used by Muslims at the beginning of any undertaking.

Freddie Mercury standing in a white outfit with wing sleeves and winged eyeliner
Photo by South Coast Press / Shutterstock

Mercury’s parents were practitioners of Zoroastrianism, an ancient, pre-Islamic religion from Iran, which still exists there, but is more predominant in India, where the descendants of Zoroastrian Iranian (Persian) immigrants (known as Parsis) live. For those who don’t know, Mercury was born in Zanzibar, yet raised in India and England.

And History…

As for “Beelzebub,” it’s one of the many names given to the devil. It’s taken from ancient Hebrew, literally meaning “lord of flies.” Aside from the religious references, Mercury references history as well. “Scaramouch” in Italian means “A stock character from commedia dell’arte theater that appears as a boastful coward.” The word also means “little skirmisher,” or, in other words, a cowardly buffoon.

Freddie Mercury performing in 1975
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

The commedia dell’arte was an early form of professional theater. You could say that Mercury was inspired by theater and was most definitely a theatrical performer himself. As for “Fandango,” it has two meanings. One is a lively Spanish dance for two people, typically accompanied by castanets or tambourines. The other meaning is a foolish or useless act or thing.

Shout Out to Galileo

“Galileo” is a reference, of course, to the famous astronomer, who was the first person to use a refracting telescope. But this point in the song is when speculation comes into play. Mercury may have written Galileo into his lyrics for the benefit of his bandmate Brian May, who was an astronomy buff.

Brian May posing in a graduation gown with Anita Dobson
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After all, he did earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics in 2007. The rock star completed his Ph.D. almost 40 years after the band united. Believe it or not, May has collaborated with NASA and even co-founded an asteroid awareness campaign.

So, did Mercury add the astronomer’s name as a secret shout-out in honor of his dear friend? Well, Mercury wasn’t one to kiss and tell…

From Freddie’s Mouth

As much as people debated the meaning behind the epic song, Mercury never succumbed to the pressure. He 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…”

Freddie Mercury sitting surrounded by people holding up tape recorders
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

He said the song “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?” He also said that he was going to “shatter some illusions,” by saying that the song was “just one of those pieces I wrote for the album: just writing my batch of songs.” Apparently, in its early stages, he almost tossed it, “but then it grew.”

What Does It Mean to You?

It wasn’t just Mercury; the entire band had a strong belief in letting their listeners interpret their songs in their own way, rather than imposing their own meanings onto the songs. But the truth is, the band’s lack of explanation was frustrating for the masses of fans who just wanted a bit of meaning.

Roger Taylor, Brian May, John Deacon, and Freddie Mercury posing together on a fancy staircase
Photo by Keith Waldegrave / Mail On Sunday / Shutterstock

Let’s face it, the more we understand a song, the more we can relate to it and thus find meaning in it. But Bo Rhap’s ambiguity created an air of mystery and secrecy. The only little bit of information that Mercury agreed to divulge was that the song is “about relationships.” Thanks, Freddie, that wasn’t vague at all.

Nonchalant Much?

Mercury claimed that the lyrics were nothing more than “Random rhyming nonsense.” But something tells me he was being a little nonchalant about that. Drummer Roger Taylor said the song is “fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle.” Yet another understatement. Were Mercury and the band always this elusive?

Freddie Mercury sitting at Mr. Bad Guy press conference
Photo by Gill Allen / Shutterstock

Apparently, Mercury would always minimize the meaning of his song lyrics. May and the other band members knew, however, that he put real meaning into his lyrics. The band said, though, that if he were alive today to see the fame of the hit single, he would probably just shrug it off and say thanks.

A Complex Person

May supports the popular belief that the song refers to Mercury’s struggles in his personal life at the time. “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.”

Freddie Mercury in his red bodysuit costume for the video It’s a Hard Life
Photo by Mark Mawson / Shutterstock

According to May and the band members, the meaning behind a song’s lyrics is personal. So with all, there was to be said about the meaning of the song (or lack thereof), the rest was up for debate. Other than their ambiguous statements about the meaning of Bo Rhap, the meaning is left to speculation.

A Popular Theory

Most fans and critics figured that Mercury’s lyrics must reflect upon his personal life. Sheila Whiteley, a music scholar, remarked that Mercury reached a turning point in his personal life in the year he wrote Bohemian Rhapsody. He had been living with a woman named Mary Austin for seven years but had just started his first love affair with a man.

Mary Austin and Freddie Mercury posing together at his 38th birthday party
Photo by Alan Davidson / Shutterstock

Whiteley suggested that the song provides an insight into Mercury’s emotional state during that time. In this sense, the lyric “Mamma” could mean Mother Mary, and the lyrics “Mamma Mia let me go” could refer to his wishing to break away. Again, it’s just a theory… or an educated guess that has been suggested by scholars like Whiteley. There’s another theory about what Mercury was alluding to…

Out with the Old, In with the New

Some suggest that the song referenced Mercury’s “coming out of the closet.” Considering the fact that he passed away from AIDS (the cited cause of death was bronchial pneumonia resulting from the disease), rumors began swirling about his homosexuality. People assumed the song was his way of confessing that he was gay. After his death on November 24, 1991, Lesley-Ann Jones, the author of the biography Mercury, spoke with Jim Hutton, Mercury’s then-lover, who told her that the song indeed was Mercury’s confession that he was gay.

Freddie Mercury and Jim Hutton posing together
Source: Reddit

As it turns out, Mercury’s good friend, Tim Rice, agreed with Hutton and gave his own personal analysis. As he explained it, the line “Mama, I just killed a man” is about how he killed the old Freddie he was. According to Rice, “Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead,” refers to the death of the straight person he was before. He basically destroyed the man he was trying to be, and now he was trying to live with the new Freddie. “I see a little silhouetto of a man” is a shadow of himself, still being haunted by what he’s done and who he is.

Magic in the Making

The recording of the song officially began on August 24, 1975, at Rockfield Studio One in South Wales. Mercury used a C. Bechstein concert grand piano, which he also played in the promotional video and the UK tour. And here’s a fun fact: it was the same piano that Paul McCartney used for Hey Jude.

John Deacon, Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, and Brian May sitting in a garden
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

The opera section was sung by Mercury, Taylor, and May. And it wasn’t an easy part to cover. They sang those vocals continuously for ten to twelve hours a day. Taylor had the highest voice, and it carried on the longest. Mercury’s voice was mid-range, and May’s was the lowest. But what about John Deacon, the bass guitarist? Why didn’t he sing along?

The Fourth and Silent Member

Deacon opted out of the singing part. The truth is he never sang in any of Queen’s songs. His choice to opt-out of the singing could be seen as foreshadowing what was to come. He suffered from depression, especially after Mercury’s death. After that, he only performed three more times. The first was at the 1992 tribute concert for Mercury.

John Deacon performing in an all-white outfit
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A year later, he and Taylor played to help raise funds for King Edward VII Hospital. In 1997, the three surviving members of Queen partnered with Elton John to perform The Show Must Go On at the opening of the Bejart Ballet in Paris. That same year, Deacon recorded the song No-One but You (Only the Good Die Young), which was a new track for the Queen Rocks compilation. After that, he officially retired. Oh, and he wasn’t there when Queen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

A Long and Expensive Recording

There were 180 separate overdubs during the recording of the song. The tape had been used so many times that it nearly turned clear. It took three weeks in five different studios to finish recording the track. Apparently, Mercury just kept adding another “Galileo.” The track is considered one of the most expensive of that time.

Freddie Mercury sitting with a cup of tea in an outdoor lounge chair
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

It was expensive and exhausting to produce, but then the real trouble began. After the song was completed and ready to be released, there was immediate scrutiny. The single was considered too long right off the bat, and it posed a problem. EMI Records executives said that since the song is 5:55 in duration, it would never be a hit, and no radio stations would play it.

Thanks, Kenny

The band was, thus, urged to shorten the track in order to increase its chances of being played on the radio. But the band stuck to their guns and didn’t cut the song. Their approach was all or nothing – it was either going to fly or flop. Lucky for them, a certain DJ helped them make it fly. The song, even making it to the radio, was largely due to British DJ Kenny Everett.

Kenny Everett sitting at the radio station with headphones on
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Everett had a popular morning radio show on Capital Radio. Against his given instructions not to play the song, he did it anyway. He played Bo Rhap in full on his show for a total of 14 times in two days. By the following Monday, tons of fans already wanted to buy the single.

A Masterpiece for the Ages

The thing is, they couldn’t because the single hadn’t even been released yet in record stores. Everett went on to say, “Forget my words, this song could last for half an hour – and still would have been wonderful. It should be a masterpiece for the ages!” Once the song was out, it was too late. And the reactions were mixed…

John Deacon, Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, and Brian May posing together at an outdoor table
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The UK music papers reacted with confusion. Some critics recognized that the song was original and technically accomplished. Others said the band sounded extremely self-important and superficially impressive. And then others said the song is horrifically fascinating and devilishly clever. There seemed to be a consensus that it wouldn’t be a hit at all. Even Elton John, a good friend of Mercury’s, initially said that it was too long and too “weird” for radio.

The Audacity…

The Economist described it as “one of the most innovative pieces of the progressive rock era. Though Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and The Beatles’ Paul McCartney had experimented with symphonic elements and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Pete Townshend of The Who had created narrative albums with distinct ‘movements,’ none had dared to import a miniature opera into rock music.”

Brian May, Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, and John Deacon posing against a white wall
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

Although the critical response was initially diverse, Bohemian Rhapsody remains one of Queen’s most popular songs and is frequently considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time. In 2012, it topped the list on an ITV nationwide poll in the UK, which found the song to be “The Nation’s Favorite Number One” over 60 years of music. Mercury’s vocal performance was chosen as the greatest in rock history by readers of Rolling Stone.

Top 40 in Three Decades

Bo Rhap was released on October 31, 1975, and was a commercial success. It remained at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks, selling more than a million copies by the end of January 1976. Remarkably, it reached the Top 40 in three different decades: the ‘70s, ‘90s, and ‘10s. The first time was in 1975, after its original release.

Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and John Deacon holding their Brit Awards for the song Bohemian Rhapsody
Queen holding their Brit Awards receiving for Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

The second was in 1992 after being featured in the classic head-banging scene in the comedy Wayne’s World. And the third time was in November 2018, when it showed up at #33 after the release of the new Bohemian Rhapsody movie soundtrack. The song topped the charts around the world, but in the US, the song initially peaked at number nine in 1976.

Oh, Mama

It was the first song in the UK to get to number one twice with the same version. The second time was on its re-release (as a double A-side single with These Are the Days of Our Lives) in 1991, following Mercury’s death, when it stayed at number one for five weeks. Then, in 2007, Radio One confessed this was their most-played song since the station was launched.

Freddie Mercury standing in front of a flag on a balcony in Switzerland 1986
Photo by Alan Davidson / Shutterstock

In 2004, Bohemian Rhapsody was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. But do you know what took Bo Rhap off the charts? Ironically, the song that knocked it off the #1 chart position in the UK was Abba’s, Mama Mia. Ironically, it beat a song that had the lyrics “Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go.”

Americans Weren’t the Biggest Fans

In the United States, the single was also a success, but not nearly as much as it was in the UK. The song reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America with one million copies sold. Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone said it’s “the quintessential example of the kind of thing that doesn’t exactly go over well in America.”

Freddie Mercury in a black and white diamond one-piece outfit performing
Photo by Ian Dickson / Shutterstock

A song isn’t complete without its accompanying music video. The music video was actually the first of its kind. The song was accompanied by a promotional video that ended up becoming particularly famous. Many scholars consider the video groundbreaking. For starters, it was made for the purpose of marketing. In fact, it was one of the first promotional videos ever recorded.

A Memorable Pop Promo

Queen needed to promote Bohemian Rhapsody because after it was released as a single, the band was faced with a bit of a dilemma. In England at that time, bands appeared on shows like Top of the Pops to promote their latest hits. But by the time the song was released, Queen was scheduled to begin a tour.

Freddie Mercury performing with John Deacon and Brian May in the background
Photo by Andre Csillag / Shutterstock

They admitted to something else, too: that they would feel self-conscious lip-syncing to the operatic section. So what did they do? They shot a promotional video, or “pop promo,” which was the industry term. This way, the video could be seen not only on UK music shows but also around the world, like on American Bandstand.

Setting a Precedent

Though some artists were making videos to accompany their songs, it was only after the success of Bohemian Rhapsody that it became a regular practice for record companies to produce promotional videos for single releases. Queen’s pop promo was voted the fourth greatest music video of all time by the British public for The 100 Greatest Pop Videos in 2005.

Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon posing against a wall of photographs of themselves
Photo by Gill Allen / Shutterstock

So how was it made? Amazingly, the video was recorded in only four hours on November 10, 1975, at the cost of £4,500. It was directed by Bruce Gowers, who had already directed a video of Queen’s 1974 performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London. Barry Dodd was the cinematographer, and the assistant director/floor manager was a man named Jim McCutcheon.

Five Hours Later…

All of the special effects were achieved during the recording, rather than during editing (which is more commonplace). The video was edited within five hours. Why all the rush? Well, it was because the video was due to be broadcast the same week in which it was taped. Basically, they didn’t have time.

Roger Taylor and Freddie Mercury performing at a video shoot with special effects making everything sparkle
Photo by Martyn Goddard / Shutterstock

The video was rushed to the BBC as soon as it was completed, and it aired for the first time on Top of the Pops in November 1975. After a few weeks at number one, the video was edited. The most obvious difference between the original and the edited version is the flames that were superimposed over the introduction. There were also several alternate camera angles.

Launching the MTV Age

The video has been hailed as having launched a new MTV age. Rolling Stone stated that its influence “could not be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on air.” The Guardian ranked the music video number 31 on their list of the 50 key events in rock music history.

A music video still from Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever 1986
Photo by Alan Davidson / Shutterstock

According to the Guardian, “videos would henceforth be a mandatory tool in the marketing of music.” Talk about groundbreaking. And if we want to talk about legacy, Bo Rhap became one of the top singles of 1975 and established Queen as one of the elites of ‘70s rock bands. It went on to sell 6.5 million copies worldwide. The song received an award for #1 on the list of British Hit Singles, beating a number of the Beatles’ songs.

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Recording

In 1976, The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson praised the song as “the most competitive thing that’s come along in ages.” Greg Lake, whose song I Believe in Father Christmas was pushed out of the number one spot by Bohemian Rhapsody when it was released in the UK, acknowledged that he was “beaten by one of the greatest records ever made.” He described it as “a once-in-a-lifetime recording.”

Brian May, Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon sitting behind a table at a press conference
Photo by Rob Walls / Shutterstock

In 1978, EMI records released a special edition, a blue vinyl pressing of the song to mark the band winning the Queen’s Award to Industry for Export Achievement (that’s Queen Elizabeth II, not the band). Only 200 were created, and they can fetch upwards of $6,500 on the market.

Wayne’s World Brings the Song Back to Life

In 1992, the song gained renewed popularity after being featured in a scene from the film Wayne’s World. The director, Penelope Spheeris, was initially hesitant to use the song as it didn’t really fit with the lead characters. But Mike Myers (Wayne) insisted that the song fit the scene. He had personal reasons.

Mike Myers and Dana Carvey sitting in their basement in Wayne’s World
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Myers actually grew up listening to Queen, and he would sing that very song with his brother in their car, head-banging to it. The producers wanted to use a Guns n’ Roses song instead, but Meyers said it’s not what he grew up on – it wouldn’t be authentic. He ended up winning the battle, and they used the song in the infamous car scene.

Covers, So Many Covers

There are 62 cover versions of Bohemian Rhapsody. Bands such as Panic! At the Disco, The Braids, Glee, Weird Al, Kanye West, Elton John, Pink, The Flaming Lips, and Axl Rose are just some of the many who did their own renditions of the classic. Even the Muppets covered the song, and their video has over 69 million views.

Brendon Urie, Ryan Ross, Spencer Smith, and Jon Walker posing on the red carpet holding an MTV video music award in 2006
Photo by Eric Pendzich / Shutterstock

But instead of singing “Mama, just killed a man,” they replaced it with Animal screaming, “Mama!” Panic! At the Disco did an epic cover, with the single being featured in the Blockbuster movie Suicide Squad. It also peaked at #64 on the Hot 100. It was the fourth version to reach the chart following Queen’s original.

But who did it best? Just ask Brian May, who said the only one who came close to achieving Mercury’s vocals in his hard solo was Axl Rose.