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Bohemian Rhapsody

 
 
 
 
Song: Bohemian Rhapsody

Songwriter: Freddie Mercury

Performed by: Queen

I was a kid when Bohemian Rhapsody was first released in 1975, and kept hearing snatches of it on other peoples radios. This is how, at one point, Bohemian Rhapsody was my three favourite songs. It's an understandable mistake to make, but songwriter Freddie Mercury did make some efforts to tie his lyrical piano ballad, his one minute opera and his defiant rock song together into one unforgettable magnum opus.

If we look first at the overall structure, we see that Bohemian there is a sort of arch structure, with the opening three sections being very briefly recapitulated in reverse at the end of the song, just enough to remind us of what went before:

  1. Opening “chorale”: “Is this the real life

  2. Ballad, over piano accompaniment: “Mama, just killed a man”

  3. Guitar solo

  4. Opera section

  5. Rock section

  6. Short guitar solo (effectively mirroring the previous guitar solo)

  7. Brief recapitulation of the ballad, over piano accompaniment: “Nothing really matters

  8. Very short recapitulation of choral: “Any way the wind blows

We should also notice, that, despite the radically different styles of the various sections of Bohemian Rhapsody, there isn't any abrupt tempo change between them. One could argue that the opera section is in double the time of the ballad, but there is a constant pulse running between the two, right on into the rock section. This is a key unifying factor. The start and end of the song is slower, but this is the result of tempo rubato in the chorale opening, up until the piano entry, and a decelerando towards the end of the song, rather than any abrupt tempo change.

The line “Easy come, easy go”, with its chromatic steps, appears both in opening chorale section, and in “opera” section. The lyrics “I'm just a poor boy” also appear in chorale and opera, but to different melodies. The “Mama, just killed a man” of the ballad is also echoed later in the “Mamma mia” of the opera section. This all helps to tie the disparate elements of Bohemian Rhapsody together.

Of course in the early seventies, the heyday of “progressive rock”, there was no shortage of songs with multiple sections. The combination of a slow ballad developing into heavy rock was certainly not exceptional – Lynard Skynard's “Freebird” and Led Zeppelin's “Stairway To Heaven” are two of the more famous examples. What makes Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody utterly unique is Freddie Mercury's astonishing pocket opera. It's hard to believe that, with all those “little high, little low”s, “Galileo”s, “Figaro”s, and the rest of the cast of thousands, the opera section of Bohemian Rhapsody clocks in at little over a minute.

Never in pop music was the idea of “call and response” used to such dramatic effect. Roy Thomas Baker's brilliant production enhances this by the use of extreme left-right panning. Freddie Mercury used both a huge dynamic range and a huge vocal range to really hold our attention. In the recording, this is emphasised by the drums reinforcing the fortissimo vocal lines by battering out the same rhythm (e.g. “We will not let you go”), rather than playing a conventional time-keeping drum part.

Freddie Mercury worked out the complexities of Bohemian Rhapsody on paper, which is proof that, if you're attempting vocal pyrotechnics like this, the pen is definitely mightier than the axe.

Ultimately Bohemian Rhapsody stands as testament to what can be achieved by a great talent standing by his convictions, however they may fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

 
 
 
 
 

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