The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody

Saturday, December 4, 2004 by

When I was 11 I thought Queen were the business. I also rated US comic books, and I don’t think the two were unrelated. With their fist-punching anthems simplistically laying out tales of victory against the odds, the oeuvre of Freddie and company was all about wish fulfillment, and splashed about in bright colours to boot (mainly thanks to their lycra-clad leader). Even the band themselves had the air of a super-powered quartet, who, through their gigs, would each be allowed a moment to step forward and display their own particular special skill (here comes “axe master” Brian May and his six-minute solo spot), before combining their powers once more to create that Justice League of Rock and Roll.

Although the years may have been kind to the group – now acknowledged as one of the most successful acts ever, with much of their work finding its way back into the mainstream (two cover versions and counting already featured on The X Factor) – for me personally, it’s been a bit more difficult.

I started listening to Queen because, well, my oldest brother was nuts about them, and that was reason enough. Quickly, and thanks to his advocacy, they became my family’s “favourite” group to be slung into the tape deck on every car journey, and while I would whirl away the hours sketching elaborate pen-and-ink illustrations of despotic characters bringing all kinds of villainy to the world, in the corner of my bedroom Fred would be stoking my imagination, crooning about a land where horses were born with eagle’s wings, or Flash saving the universe.

Great moments, truly. But none more so than when my dad hired a mini-bus and took us all on a day trip to see the band play Wembley in 1986. We arrived just as INXS left the stage, but got to see The Alarm stretch out 68 Guns to a good 12 minutes and Status Quo come back on for an unprovoked encore (thereby prompting much of the audience to sit down in protest). When the main act stepped out, the crowd swelled forward, but somehow my lot managed to avoid getting split up, meaning I could spend the next 90 minutes or so slyly checking out how well my siblings knew the lyrics to some of the more obscure entrants from the Queen catalogue (In the Lap of the Gods … Revisited, for example).

However, as I grew up and my interests diversified from imaginary heroics, I listened to the band less and less. I never officially stopped liking them – nothing that drastic – but outside my teens the sentiment contained in so much of their work started to sound trite. Those songs that had previously moved me were still great foot stompers, but wafer-thin intellectually. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to rock music, but it was slightly unsettling to discover that much of my so-called creativity back then was informed by concepts no deeper than Fat Bottomed Girls or some fella called Sammy daydreaming about leaving his dead-end job “sweeping up the Emerald Bar”.

Thus, BBC3′s dissection of the band’s most famous composition had bitter-sweet overtones for me. Suitably hosted by Richard E Grant who – let’s face it, is no stranger to a poor man’s interpretation of what passes for baroque these days, either – the programme was an artful and enjoyable tribute to a record which, after all these years, felt like it had gone beyond the point of discussion. The programme approached Bohemian Rhapsody from all sides, meaning that whilst some attempts to shake meaning from the song didn’t really go anywhere (Oxford academics admitting defeat by concluding that “Galileo” was only name checked in the piece because his name rhymes with “Figaro” – kind of), others were wonderfully revealing (original producer Roy Thomas Baker pulling the soundscape of his creation apart).

The highlight of the entire effort, however, had to be the patchwork sequence near the end of the hour, piecing together various interpretations of the song (I could have done with hearing more of that brass and piano effort), itself representing dozens of interesting takes on, and perceptions of, the work. By comparison Brian May’s remembrances of recording the piece were characteristically unenlightening (never is he so unpersuasive as when talking about his own work), save for the moment he recalled coming up with his counterpoint guitar solo, revealing he created the whole tune in his head first rather than improvising in the studio as leaving it to the “hands” normally made for predictable results.

As for efforts to try and put the song into some kind of context, these were not wholly convincing, but that’s probably because Bohemian Rhapsody has long since become a curio. An artefact which has no real bearing on anything, other than its own mythology, it’s not as though it changed the course of popular music in any real way (well, bar that business about the pop video, maybe), and it’s not as if other acts in the the mid-1970s suddenly tried pastiching high art on the strength of the record’s success. While the composition made people sit up and take notice, puzzling that it actually existed at all, it also exuded an air of being absolutely untouchable. No one, other than Freddie Mercury and has heroic rockers, could have got away with this, and thus no one else tried.

Of course, Mercury himself was entirely dismissive about his masterpiece in later life, as revealed by a sound clip of the front man at the documentary’s close. Declaring his music to be wholly discardable he quite rightly asserted that it was all to be listened to once, before asking, “what’s next”? The programme’s claims of the man’s short distance from genius therefore made me a little uncomfortable. It’s just rock music with no pretensions of changing anything – that’s all.

I can reconcile myself to my Queen past now, and even love them today as I do the antics of Spider-Man or the insanely detailed, cross-hatched-to-the-nth-degree artwork of my teens. It’s all to do with growing up and making a noise, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Somebody to Love is still a great song (even if it did originally share vinyl with an oh-so-worthy tract about white colonialism in the Old West), and so are Queen, providing you’re laid back enough to embrace those vests, that moustache and all the other rock super heroics alongside the soaring tunes and splendid pomp. And so, while enjoying The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody immensely, I couldn’t help but feel the programme was slightly over-egging a pudding that was already bursting with flavour. Nevertheless, it remained a fine salute to a record which wholly deserves its legendary status, by dint of sheer silliness alone.

Queen were a silly group, but great at what they did. And most importantly of all (as far as I’m concerned, anyway), my oldest brother is still nuts about them.


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