Last updated 18 February 2022
This is the final instalment of my deep dive into Queen’s epic 1975 LP, following on from Part 1 and Part 2. There is also a bonus post about Bohemian Rhapsody cover versions, but this post explores the rest of the main material.
The album of course finishes in style, courtesy of their biggest hit of all time, followed by a patriotic instrumental at the end. So let’s get straight on with it, as there’s plenty to discuss. I hope you enjoy!
This post covers the last 2 tracks on the album. Click their names to jump to the reviews:
You can see the videos I mention below on my Queen playlist for this album. So do feel free to check that out, along with my other Queen playlists. Cover versions for Bohemian Rhapsody are discussed in a separate post, given how many there are.
Written by Freddie Mercury
It goes without saying that this is a true masterpiece that is still hugely popular to this day. Its glorious combination of rock, opera and ballad styles, and its many musical layers that are so well woven together, including divine vocals, striking lyrics, incredible backing harmonies, fantastic guitar solos, beautiful piano playing, and great percussion and bass accompaniments, all come together so perfectly. And it still sounds fresh and original, because there’s been nothing like it before or since.
Like millions of people worldwide – even those who haven’t been born yet – I never get tired of listening to it. And it is of course mandatory to sing along and do a bit of air guitar and head-banging in the appropriate sections. It’s even one of a rare few songs I’ve done at karaoke in the past (don’t worry, no videos exist, but it was a fun group performance with some mates of mine, many years ago!).
The song is so well-known and loved, and yet it could easily have been an odd obscurity that very few people knew about. Record company executives, music critics and some other musicians were bemused by the mixture of rock and opera, the unusual lyrics, and the fact that it was twice as long as a standard 3-minute single. They told the band quite firmly that it would never be played on the radio, because it was too long and complicated.
But Queen stuck to their guns, insisting that it be released in its intended form without any editing to shorten it. And instead of going through the usual channels to get radio airplay, where rejection was more likely from stuffy station bosses, they sought the opinion of Capital Radio DJ and surreal comedian Kenny Everett. He adored it, saying that a chart position above 1 should be invented for it, like ½. And so he was given a copy on tape, on the condition that he wouldn’t play it, as the single hadn’t been released yet. He happily agreed – and then played the track in full on his radio show no less than 14 times over the weekend, generating intense demand from fans desperate to buy it.
And that was exactly what Queen wanted and expected, because everybody knew what Kenny Everett was like. In many ways he was to the comedy world what Freddie was to the music industry – a glorious one-off, the like of which we’ll never see again, keen to experiment and push the boundaries as far as possible in uniquely creative ways. So it’s no wonder Freddie and Kenny were friends, they did have a lot in common. Kenny gave the song the exposure it needed, and it grew from there.
There were of course some critics in the press who didn’t like it, with Melody Maker in particular calling it “a superficially impressive pastiche of incongruous musical styles” and likening it to “the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance.” But the vast majority of people knew better, and bought it in their droves. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Releases & Statistics
Little did Queen know just how popular the song would get, and the most famous statistic of course is that it topped the charts twice in the UK:
- In 1975 it took a month to reach Number 1 – Queen’s first single to do so – where it firmly stayed on for 9 consecutive weeks from 29 November, making it the Christmas Number 1 as well. In a weird coincidence, the lyrics contain the title of the track that eventually replaced it at Number 1 in January 1976 – Mamma Mia by ABBA, a very different song indeed!
- In 1991 it was re-released after Freddie’s death, as a double A-side with These Are The Days Of Our Lives, to raise money for the Terrence Higgins Trust. It immediately entered the chart in the top position on 21 December, where it stayed for 5 consecutive weeks.
Consequently, in the UK, Bohemian Rhapsody is:
- The top British single of all time in the Guinness Book of Records.
- The 2nd bestselling Christmas Number 1 ever, behind Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid.
- The 3rd bestselling song ever, behind Candle in the Wind by Elton John and Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid.
- The 5th longest-reigning Number 1, with 14 weeks in the chart, behind Drake’s One Dance (15 weeks), Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around (15 weeks), Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do (16 weeks) and Frankie Laine’s I Believe (18 weeks).
- Queen’s longest-reigning song in the Top 40 (30 weeks) and Top 100 (61 weeks).
- The only song to have reached Christmas Number 1 twice with the same version (i.e. not a remake or a cover).
- The only song to top the chart on its own and then again as a double A-side.
- The only song to have been Number 1 in 4 separate years – 1975, 1976, 1991 & 1992 – because it spanned Christmas and New Year with both releases.
- The bestselling song ever by a band.
- The song with more sales than any other track from the 1970s.
It was also Queen’s first UK single to feature a picture sleeve. However, the rarest and most highly desired versions are the 200 numbered copies issued on blue vinyl (which were apparently meant to be purple like the sleeve, but ended up being blue due to a communication or production error, and they decided it wasn’t worth changing). These were given to EMI bosses, captains of industry and journalists, during a special dinner at the Selfridge Hotel in London on Wednesday 26 July 1978, to mark EMI winning the “Queen’s Award To Industry For Export Achievement”. Attendees were also gifted items including an engraved wine glass, a blue silk scarf, a book of matches and a pen. But the vinyl discs are the important thing, and they’re each now worth an absolute fortune to the lucky few who possess them.
A special EP of the track was later released in 2005 to mark its 30th anniversary, containing the audio of the track, the alternate ‘Flames’ version of the video, audio of the song by the London cast of the We Will Rock You musical, and audio and video of the song performed by Queen & Paul Rodgers in Hyde Park. And in 2015 for the 40th anniversary, it was released as a limited edition 12″ vinyl, backed with I’m In Love With My Car, for Record Store Day.
The song was Queen’s first Top 10 hit in the US as well, another notable achievement. On its original release in 1975 it peaked at Number 9. But its appearance in the film Wayne’s World, which I’ll come back to later, introduced the song to a whole new audience in the States, and its subsequent re-release in 1992 saw it reach Number 2. It was then released yet again in 2018 to coincide with the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, making it one of the few songs to appear in the Top 100 Billboard chart in 3 different decades.
I could spend forever listing its many accolades. But all in all the song has had hundreds of millions of sales, billions of online streams, topped countless music polls of people’s favourite songs, and even their biographical movie was named after it. Its colossal success is just stunning whatever way you look at it, and very well deserved too.
We’ll never know for sure what the lyrics are about. Freddie never discussed it, and whatever the other band members know, they’re keeping it very much to themselves. Brian has stated his belief that Freddie put a lot of himself into the song, and Roger believes that it’s “self-explanatory with a bit of nonsense in the middle”, but they haven’t revealed any details beyond that. It is certainly likely that there are self-references by Freddie in there though, and there may also be a little nod to Brian and his love of astronomy with the mention of Galileo.
Freddie apparently once hinted that the song was about relationships, and there is much speculation that the song is about his sexuality. It could also relate to Freddie leaving his homeland as a child, when his family were forced to move from Zanzibar to England. And it also contains words that appear in the Quran and have meaning in the religion of Zoroastrianism that his parents followed. Bismillah means “In the name of Allah”, Beelzebub means “The Devil”, and Scaramouche means “A stock character that appears as a boastful coward” (from the 16th-century comic theatrical arts of Italian literature known as commedia dell’arte). And when Queen released a Greatest Hits tape in Iran, an enclosed leaflet in Persian stated that the song is about a young man who is about to be executed, having killed someone by accident and sold his soul to the devil, but God and the angels respond to his call for help and he regains his soul.
All that said, Kenny Everett claimed he was told by Freddie that it was just “random rhyming nonsense”, and there are others who believe the lyrics were just written by Freddie to fit the music, and aren’t intended to mean anything in particular. That explanation seems unlikely to me, but it’s not impossible either.
So there are lots of angles and theories it could be examined from. But in the end, does it really matter? The fact that the song is so open to interpretation and inspires so much debate and dissection, even still now at 45 years on, yet is also very enjoyable as a fantasy piece in its own right, is one of its many strengths, and is a testament to the song’s longevity in the public consciousness. There are plenty of other songs with unusual lyrics and musical styles out there, yet this one in particular inspires analysis more than any other.
And as well as the truth behind the lyrics, Freddie also had the entire musical structure and harmonies already formed in his head, which he scribbled on the backs of telephone books and scraps of paper. He’d even used the piano to compose the famous guitar riff that Brian plays at the end of the operatic section. The rest of the band and their producer Roy Thomas Baker weren’t entirely sure how it was going to sound in the end, but they went with it anyway. After all, Freddie had done some wonderfully elaborate fantasy songs on their previous albums, so it wasn’t a surprise that he’d gone down that road again. This just happened to be his most complex song to date.
So they built it up bit by bit, like a jigsaw puzzle with several hundred pieces, doing their best to bring Freddie’s composition to life under his direction. They spent 3 weeks alone on the vocals for the operatic section, creating a choir of 150-200 voices between Freddie, Brian and Roger. They used so many overdubs that the 16-track tapes became transparent as the oxide wore off, and they had to keep mixing down to fresh reels to avoid breakages and add even more vocals on top. And that’s in addition to the many further hours they spent working on the other parts of the track across 6 different studios.
Documentaries & Commentaries
It’s mind-boggling to think about the amount of work that went into the track, and the complexity of its construction. But there have been many ways that the band have given us a valuable insight.
- The Bo Rhap Story (8:46) – Brian and Roger give an overview of the song’s development, placing it into the context of the band’s success and ambitions at the time.
- Making The Video (6:00) – Here you see the music video with input from Roger at various points to talk about how and why it was made. He doesn’t have a huge amount to say, but what he does mention is interesting.
- Creating The Rhapsody (27:13) – By far the best feature on the disc, Brian breaks down the song in great detail at a mixing desk, playing fascinating extracts from the original multitrack recordings. It’s a shame that he talks over some of it, but what he has to say is interesting, and there are other ways to hear parts of the track in isolation that I’ll get to a bit later.
- The Greatest Song (2:31) – Here we see Brian and Roger receiving the award for the nation’s favourite Number 1, before giving a nice little interview. It was voted for in a 2002 poll of over 31,000 people by the Guinness World Records book of British Hit Singles. It’s also interesting to hear the list of other songs in the top 10, and you can see the full top 100 online as well.
- Flames Video (5:56) – This is a hidden ‘Easter Egg’. In the Rhapsody section, highlight “Back to Menu” then go up, right, right, left. Or select Title 9 on your DVD player. The video is explained a bit later in this post.
The music video on Disc 1 also has an audio commentary by Brian and Roger, where they talk about filming the video and creating the surround sound version of the track, plus extracts from an archive interview with Freddie about the song.
The DVD for The Making Of A Night At The Opera also has a couple of relevant and interesting sections:
- The main documentary closes with a 10-minute chapter about the song, with contributions from Brian, Roger, record company executives and other musicians. It also includes extracts from the music video and a live performance, a demonstration by Brian of his guitar solo, and a bit of discussion about their Hyde Park show accompanied by some visuals from the gig.
- There’s also a 13-minute bonus feature that digs a bit deeper, including an interview with Kenny Everett, the building blocks that were present in earlier albums (particularly in songs like March Of The Black Queen), how various aspects of the track were recorded, isolated playback of the guitar solo, a live play by Brian of the guitar from the hard rock section, and a bit of discussion about what the song might mean.
Other insights on Queen releases include:
- Days Of Our Lives documentary DVD – This includes a very brief extra feature about the song, just over a minute long, in which Brian May talks about the risks involved in releasing it. He also talks about the pleas from others to edit it down, and we get to hear a brief example of how John Deacon’s attempt to edit it sounded (by removing the operatic section entirely). Then a brief extract from an old interview with John shows him acknowledging that the edit wasn’t right, and there’s a clip of Freddie noting his insistence on releasing it uncut.
- A Night At The Opera – 30th Anniversary DVD – This has a commentary with the music video (which is the alternate ‘Flames’ version as discussed later), using extracts from archive interviews. In it Freddie reveals that he had written We Are The Champions at the time, but didn’t think it was right for the album, and ended up holding it back for a few years. The band also discuss how it was a big risk to release it as a single, how Freddie had the entire song mapped out, and the fact that recording it was very challenging yet also fun and worth the effort.
- Absolute Greatest Hits Album – This has a 2½ minute commentary for the song on the bonus “Absolute Narrative” disc. It features Brian and Roger reminiscing about the long process of recording the song, particularly the operatic section, and the challenges involved in ‘bouncing’ multi-layered tracks to fresh tapes so they could do all the overdubs.
The BBC have also produced a couple of hour-long documentaries looking at the song in depth.
- The Story Of Bohemian Rhapsody (BBC Three, December 2004) – A comprehensive and very interesting TV programme narrated by Richard E Grant and featuring a wide range of contributors, looking at the song’s creation, success and legacy. It includes Brian and Roger reminiscing and performing when they revisit Rockfield Studios, exclusive outtakes of Freddie rehearsing the piano part (it’s amusing to hear him curse when it doesn’t go right!), an exploration of the multitracks so you can hear many elements in isolation, a look at the making of the music video (with a visual demonstration using a tribute group), interviews with Freddie’s mother and sister, an analysis by experts at Oxford University of what the lyrics might mean, a clip of Queen receiving the Outstanding Contribution Award at the 1990 Brit Awards (the year before Freddie’s death, and it’s sad to see him looking so frail there), a look at the song’s inclusion in the Wayne’s World movie, and a final montage of the song mixing Queen’s original with versions by others.
- I Will Not Let You Go: The Bohemian Rhapsody Story (BBC Radio 2, November 2005) – DJ Steve Wright presented this show to mark the song’s 30th anniversary. It compiles archive interviews with Queen, people who worked with them, Freddie’s family and many more – including quite a bit of audio from the TV documentary above and other sources – along with a few new interviews with other famous names. So again it looks at Queen’s journey, the importance of the whole album, the recording of the song, the multitracks, the music video, the meaning of the lyrics, etc. But it gets more unique in the latter half when they talk about the type of person that Freddie was in general, some of the many cover versions, the song’s use in the We Will Rock You musical, and the BBC newsreaders performing it for the Children In Need telethon. So while it repeats some material from other places, it’s still pretty interesting.
A few other notable mentions of the song on TV and radio include:
- Absolute Radio (2011) – A short extract from an interview with Brian.
- The Nation’s Favourite 70s Song (ITV, February 2015) – This was yet another poll that Bohemian Rhapsody won, and this part of the programme featured Brian and Roger, producer Roy Thomas Baker and various others, talking about the song’s popularity, and giving insights into the making of the track and the music video.
- ITV News (10 November 2015) – A short interview with Brian to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the song, the day before the band received an accolade for the track from the Classic Rock Awards.
- The Chris Moyles Show (Radio X, 14 April 2020) – A fun lockdown interview with Brian to celebrate the song topping Radio X’s Best Of British Top 100 Countdown, voted for by the listeners. Brian even plays a bit of the Bohemian Rhapsody guitar solo and a snatch of his solo track Driven By You, much to everyone’s understandable delight.
The 2011 reissue of the album includes an a cappella mix of the operatic section as a bonus track, which is wonderful to hear, and allows you to focus on the huge breadth of voices they were able to create between just 3 people (Freddie, Brian & Roger). It’s incredible what they achieved in this section alone, and Roger hits some spectacular high notes!
But online it’s also possible to hear the complete a cappella mix for the entire song, which is absolutely stunning. If Freddie’s voice and the harmonic arrangements don’t send shivers down your spine, I don’t know what will!
It’s also possible to hear the full instrumental without lead or backing vocals, which enables you to more fully appreciate the intricate instrumentation and construction of the track. Even without any vocals it’s still a supreme work of art – which is true for many of their songs, but particularly so with this one. Freddie’s voice always took things to another level, but all the band members deserve equal credit for the amazing soundscapes they helped to produce. And if you want to sing along, you can do so courtsey of the Karaoke Hits video.
I’ve also got the multitracks that I downloaded from the internet some time ago, which break the song down into its component parts and are an absolute treasure trove. There are many more tracks than usual here to build up the layers – 24 in total, all in mono, although some tracks or segments were designed to be mixed down to stereo in the final mix. If you want to look at them yourself, and are wondering how I’m doing so, I use a free audio editor called Audacity, which allows me to import and explore some or all of the tracks, turn each of them on and off to change the mix, edit them if I wish, and so on.
The vocals in particular are absolutely fascinating to root through here, because it exposes all the different variations of the lines that Freddie, Brian and Roger had to sing. Even when vocal lines sound similar – and Freddie was always remarkably good at double-tracking with himself – there are still subtle little differences that make each track worth listening to independently. And when heard individually like this, there are often little gaps and breaks in the tracks that don’t appear to make sense and feel like mistakes, but it’s actually because they’re filled in using parts of other tracks. Once you merge things back together and hear it in context, it all becomes clear. Plus, of course, we already know what the end result is. But when you listen to these tracks, imagine what it must have been like for most of them recording it at the time, when they didn’t know the final outcome!
So it’s really cool to be able to dig through these tracks, they’re all very worthy of scrutiny:
- Tracks 1-2 – Backing vocals in stereo. There are some gaps in the operatic section that are filled in elsewhere. The tracks are largely identical, except during the intro the lines “little high” and “little low” are split between the left and right channels, and only Track 1 contains the last 3 repetitions of “will not let you go”.
- Tracks 3-6 – Roger’s percussion. There’s a different mono track for each bit of the kit. It’s well worth listening to each track independently, to see how the percussion is built up, as well as merging them together for the final result. The percussion doesn’t start until around 1:30, but prior to that there are small additions too. Tracks 3 & 4 contain the vocal “No escape from reality” (using both tracks for a stereo mix), while Track 5 is where you’ll find Freddie’s 4-beat count-in at the start.
- Tracks 7-9 – John’s bass line. This was recorded on 3 different microphones to give it plenty of depth. He starts just before the 1 minute mark, leading into the first verse. It’s brilliant to hear this part in isolation, which is so different to the rest of the track, as you don’t get to focus on it much in the finished song. It’s particularly interesting from the operatic section onwards, when he gets to play some interesting little riffs, mirrors Brian’s guitar solo, and adds other nice touches that are otherwise drowned out in the final mix.
- Tracks 10-11 – Freddie’s piano in stereo. He played this on the same Trident Studios piano that Paul McCartney used on Hey Jude, and many other musicians have used it including Elton John and Carly Simon. In itself this piano part is a gorgeous composition that could be released as a track in its own right, irrespective of everything else that’s later added on top of it. You can also hear Freddie giving a count of 1 just before the “No, no, no” part of the operatic section, as a timing guide for John and Roger, which was removed in the final edit.
- Tracks 12-24 are much more untidy, each containing a mixture of vocals and instruments for different sections of the track, and all are worth going through one by one in turn. Across the tracks there are multiple takes by Freddie to build up his beautiful lead vocals and harmonies (which will sometimes sound similar to each other, but there are always subtle variations), many different elements of the impressive operatic section (further completed by the backing vocal tracks above), some additional percussion, and the different layers of Brian’s superb guitar playing, including his guitar solo. There are also a few fleeting notes of random extra guitar that had to be cut out for the final mix (in tracks 17-19 immediately after the guitar solo, and a bit towards the end of track 24).
Amusingly, you can also hear a brief exchange between Roger and Freddie in these tracks, immediately after the song has finished. The best way is to amplify the audio at the very end of tracks 15 and 16 (for Freddie and Roger respectively), and it’s also somewhat audible at the end of the piano and percussion tracks. Roger, with amusement in his voice, appears to say “Deacon crashing an amp in the last 10 minutes!”, and Freddie’s response, in typical style, is “Oh, fuck it!”.
It’s also worth noting that Brian has appeared a couple of tutorial videos demonstrating how he plays the guitar solo:
- Star Licks Master Series, which was a video from 1983 full of tutorials for many Queen songs. It was re-released 10 years later as the Brian May Master Session.
- Lockdown Micro Concerto – 21 March 2020, part of a series of Instagram Story videos he posted during the Covid pandemic. This is particularly fun, as he gives you a very close-up view of his finger work, and gives you a tour of the equipment he’s working with at home.
There are also people on Youtube who have attempted to pull the track apart and analyse its composition in depth, as can be seen in videos by David Bennett, Dom Sigalas, Insider, Learn Vocal Harmony (with more linked in the description), Marc Ajax & Richie Castellano, among others.
Original Music Video
The original video for this song is considered to be the first proper music video. Other videos had been produced for songs before that, by Queen themselves as well as other artists, but this was a marketing tool designed specifically to be shown on TV, so that the band didn’t have to appear in person. They never enjoyed miming on Top Of The Pops anyway, and it would have looked particularly strange to try and do so for this track, plus they knew they were going to be on tour anyway and wouldn’t be available. So they provided the show with this video instead, where it was broadcast for the first time in November 1975.
As a direct result, it became a regular occurrence and a key promotional strategy for record companies to make videos for singles and distribute them for broadcast worldwide. Queen are therefore credited with kickstarting the MTV age, with Rolling Stone magazine stating that “Its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air.”
The video has appeared on many Queen releases over the years, including the Greatest Flix VHS, the Greatest Video Hits 1 DVD (with an audio commentary as discussed earlier), the DVD-Audio disc for this album, and the 2011 iTunes reissue of the album. And it is of course also on Youtube, where it has well over 1 billion views – the first video from the 1970s and before the 1990s to reach that milestone, and the most viewed of all the videos uploaded in 2008.
It was filmed at Elstree Studios in London on 10 November 1975, and directed by Bruce Gowers, and took just over 3 hours to make at a cost of £4,500. So it has a relative simplicity about it, compared to many of the music videos that they and other artists produced later on, yet it still has some memorable visuals. And it is very enjoyable to watch.
The video begins with a silhouette of the band, before revealing their faces arranged in the same way as on the Queen II album cover, with Freddie at the bottom, Brian at the top, John on the left, and Roger on the right, because Queen really liked that photo by Mick Rock. Then for the ballad section we see the band performing the song, each member introduced on screen at the same time as they start in the track- so we get Freddie at the piano with Joh on bass beside him first of all, both wearing lovely outfits with a shiny white fabric, then Roger joins in on the drums, and finally Brian chimes in on guitar as he does the “shivers down my spine” effect, looking a bit like a football referee in his stripy black and white shirt. Freddie then stands up and moves away from the piano to sing the second verse.
For the operatic section they return to the Queen II visuals with the 4 heads together, interspersed with Freddie and Roger singing solo parts. And this section is where the special effects come in – all achieved in-camera while it was being recorded, rather than afterwards through editing.. For the big choral moments, their faces are multiplied in kaleidoscopic form using a multi-faceted lens held in front of the camera. And the repeating faces trailing into the distance for the “Magnifico-o-o-o” and “Let me go-o-o-o” lines were achieved simply by pointing another camera at the playback monitor to produce a video feedback effect.
The rest of the video then shows Queen performing on stage again, before we get a final glimpse of the Queen II image, as all the members of the band bow their heads into darkness except for Freddie, and then a topless Roger bangs a large gong at the end.
Alternate Music Videos
Given that Top Of The Pops always played the Number 1 song in full on every programme, Queen’s 9-week stint at the top spot meant audiences might get bored of seeing the same video over and over again. I know, people getting tired of Queen, and especially this song, sounds like an impossibility, but apparently it can happen!
So, to cater for that, a second edit of the video was created after a few weeks, which Top Of The Pops switched to. It’s most commonly known as the Flames Version, because of the fire effect overlaid during the intro, but there are a number of different camera angles used during the rest of the song as well.
This version is available as an Easter Egg on the Greatest Video Hits 1 DVD , by going into the Rhapsody section on Disc 2, highlighting “Back to Menu” and going up, right, right, left on your remote control. But it’s also used as the video for the song on the 30th Anniversary DVD of the album, and was included with the 30th anniversary download of the track.
In 2016 an immersive virtual reality app called The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience, developed by Enosis VR, was released for Apple and Android mobile devices. It featured a special animated video that users could explore in 360 degrees, incorporated many references to Queen’s career, plus some real footage towards the end of Freddie performing at Wembley in 1986. The app is no longer available. In the Youtube video linked here, the song starts at 1:34.
Unsurprisingly, following the huge success of the album and single, Queen performed the song at all of their concerts. It’s appeared on many of their live albums as a result, with various other performances being leaked online. Freddie would adjust the melody of his vocals slightly if he didn’t feel able to reach the higher notes, especially in the later stages of tours when he was tired or had throat nodules developing. But even on his worst days his performances were always still incredible.
To begin with, the ballad section was performed as part of a medley, segueing into Killer Queen after Brian’s solo, while other parts of the song appeared at different moments in the concert:
- Empire Theatre, Liverpool on 14 November 1975 – This is a distorted recording, with the bass very dominant in the mix. But being Queen’s first ever live performance of the track, it’s an historic piece of audio.
- Hammersmith Odeon, London on 24 December 1975 – This concert was filmed for The Old Grey Whistle Test. And it’s a lovely performance, but it’s a shortened version as part of a medley. Instead of the operatic section, they segue from the end of Brian’s guitar solo into Killer Queen and The March Of The Black Queen, before returning to Bohemian Rhapsody for the final “nothing really matters” section.
In later years the song was always played in its entirety (except for Live Aid). However. because they were unable to do the operatic section live, they would leave the stage for that part and play the audio from the original track instead. This gave them the opportunity to change into fresh clothing before returning with an explosive entrance for the hard rock section:
- Earls Court, London on 6 June 1977
- The Summit, Houston on 11 December 1977
- Festhalle, Frankfurt, Germany on 2 February 1979 – Released on Live Killers, introduced by a few lines from the Jazz album track Mustapha.
- Newcastle City Hall on 4 December 1979 – Here Freddie manages to hit the high C5 at the end of “So you can think you can love me and leave me to die”, which is a rare occurrence for a live performance, as he usually adjusts that note downwards. Another example of that is from Cologne Sporthalle on 6 May 1982, although it’s an even lower quality recording unfortunately.
- Estadio José Amalfitani, Buenos Aires, Argentina on 1 March 1981
- Estádio Cícero Pompeu de Toledo, São Paulo, Brazil on 20 March 1981
- Poliedro de Caracas, Venezuela on 27 September 1981 – A unique performance where Brian’s solo doesn’t go to plan. The rest of the band have to play an extra 4 bars as he isn’t quite ready to start it, and then he ends up deviating from the usual melody, with a bit of improvisation that still sounds quite nice.
- Montreal Forum, Canada on 24/25 November 1981 – Youtuber Chief Mouse has extracted the centre channel from the surround sound mix to create a fantastic semi a cappella version, allowing you to focus on Freddie’s wonderful voice more closely. There’s also a nice audio commentary from Brian and Roger on the DVD release, admiring the power in Freddie’s voice and piano playing, and noting the lack of camera coverage of Brian during his solo.
- Milton Keynes Bowl, England on 5 June 1982 – Freddie does a beautiful bit of improvisation on the piano here before the song starts.
- Seibu Lions Stadium, Tokorozawa, Saitama, Japan on 3 November 1982 – There’s another nice piano intro here. Freddie’s voice is very tired and cracking after a long tour, and Brian fluffs his solo a bit, but they still push through and give a decent performance regardless.
- Groenoordhallen, Leiden, Netherlands on 20 September 1984
- Barra da Tijuca, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on 12 January 1985
- Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Tokyo, Japan on 11 May 1985
- Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, London on 13 July 1985 – Queen opened their legendary 20-minute set at this concert by performing the ballad section and guitar solo from the song, with the entire crowd singing along. There’s also rehearsal footage from the week before, some of which was released on the Queen Rock Montreal double DVD set.
- Wembley Stadium, London on Friday 11 July & Saturday 12 July 1986 – Freddie jokes about the rain before the Friday performance, putting on a plastic hat and remarking “What a picnic! Is everybody nice and wet? It’s the only way to be in England.” And the crowd happily join in the singing for both shows, with Freddie giving them the opportunity to sing the final line before he does. The DVD releases in both 2003 and 2011 also include rehearsal footage from earlier that year.
- Nepstadion, Budapest, Hungary on 27 July 1986
- Knebworth Park, Stevenage on 9 August 1986 – “Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go” and other lines feel particularly poignant here, given that this was Freddie’s final concert. This performance was released on the Live Magic album, but with the operatic section edited out, which spoils it really.
- Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Wembley Stadium, London on 20 April 1992 -Elton John provides the lead vocal on the ballad section here, then everyone leaves as the operatic part plays, before Axl Rose explodes on to the stage for the hard rock section, and Elton joins him for the song’s conclusion. They’re backed by Brian May, Roger Taylor and (in his last concert appearance) John Deacon, plus the entire audience singing along. So it’s a good performance. Elton and Axl’s voices aren’t perfectly suited to the song, sure, but it works well enough for the occasion.
- Brixton Academy, London on 15 June 1993 – During his solo tour, Brian performed just the hard rock section during an extended version of Resurrection (jump to 13:25 in the linked video).
Queen + Paul Rodgers
This is the earliest song from Queen’s catalogue that Paul provided any vocals for during his tours with the band. Freddie leads the way though, as he appears on the video screen to perform the ballad section, in footage from either Wembley in 1986 (on the 2005 tour) or Montreal in 1981 (on the 2008 tour). Clips of him from over the years are then shown during the recorded operatic part. Paul then bursts on stage for the hard rock section, demonstrating that he doesn’t have the same vocal power as Freddie, but still does a reasonable job. And then he does a duet with Freddie during the final section.
Examples of these performances, a few of which are on their live releases, include:
- Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield on 9 May 2005
- Hyde Park, London on 15 July 2005 – This was included with the 30th Anniversary download of the song, in audio and video form. Visuals from the rest of the show are played on screen during the operatic section.
- Saitama Super Arena, Japan on 27 October 2005 – Paul has a bit of trouble with the high note on “leave me to die” in the rock section, but his voice is probably tired after a long tour, and otherwise he does well.
- Freedom Square, Kharkov, Ukraine on 12 September 2008
- San de Apoquindo Stadium, Santiago, Chile on 19 November 2008
Queen + Adam Lambert
In 2009, a 26-year-old guy called Adam Lambert from Hollywood made the courageous choice to sing a few lines from Bohemian Rhapsody in his first audition for Season 8 of American Idol. Having been singing since the age of 10, gaining lots of experience in musical theatre along the way, including a year and a half in the cast of Wicked, he decided to take the plunge and see if he could get on the show.
“He’s the best we’ve seen in every city” remarks one of the judges after his powerful delivery leads to quick approval from all 4 of them, despite a slight concern from Simon Cowell that he’s very theatrical.
Adam would later return as a guest judge – the first former contestant to do so – in season 14 in 2015, during which he recreated his audition for his fellow judges Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr.
Adam made it all the way through to the final of the show’s 8th season, where he was the runner-up, although winner Kris Allen praised him highly, saying he deserved to win, and that: “He was the most consistent person all year. He was seriously one of the most gifted performers that I’ve ever met.” And Simon Cowell told Adam: “Over the entire season, you’ve been one of the best, most original contestants we’ve ever had on the show. The hope and whole idea of a show like this is to find a worldwide star, and I truly believe we’ve found that in you”.
During the finale on 20 May 2009, Adam and Kris joined forces to perform We Are The Champions. They were joined by Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were taking the opportunity to see him in action first hand. And the rest is history of course, as Adam has since had huge success touring with Queen, as evidenced on their recent Live Around The World album.
While he will of course always be in Freddie’s shadow, Adam nevertheless does this song justice by singing it with power and feeling in his own style, and is able to hit the notes that really count, which is very impressive. So it’s always enjoyable to hear him perform it, and I think he’s much more suited to it than Paul Rodgers.
During their shows in 2014 & 2015, this song was performed as a duet between Adam and Freddie, the latter appearing in the video from Queen’s Montreal concert in 1981. Adam and Freddie sang the first and second verses of the ballad section respectively, and then, after the operatic section from the original music video, Adam performed the hard rock section, before duetting with Freddie for the outro. Examples include:
- Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev, Ukraine on 30 June 2012
- Olimpiyskiy, Moscow, Russia on 3 July 2012
- Summer Sonic, QVC Marine Field, Chiba, Tokyo on 17 August 2014
- Phones 4U Arena, Manchester on 21 January 2015
- Rock In Rio, Brazil on 18 September 2015 – You can hear the audience singing along particularly well here.
In later years, Adam would perform all of the song magnificently himself – apart from the operatic section of course, again represented by the original track, with expanded visuals from the music video to fill the back screen, and cool lighting effects. Examples are available from Talking Stick Arena, Phoenix on 16 July 2019 & Los Angeles Forum on 19 July 2019.
- Fire Fight Australia, Anz Stadium, Sydney on 16 February 2020 – For the first time since their original performance, Queen replicated their Live Aid set at this special fundraising concert. So this was a shortened version taking you up to Brian’s solo, before moving straight into the next song. The entire set is on their Live Around The World album.
Adam also made a couple of other guest appearances in TV talent show finals to perform this song with one of the contestants, which are mentioned in the list of cover versions in my next post.
Brian and Roger, meanwhile, had also performed on Series 6 of The X Factor on 15 November 2009, when the show had devoted a week to Queen songs. The two of them had given their best advice and guidance as guest mentors during the week, before joining in with a group performance of Bohemian Rhapsody.
The two of them are the only reason to watch it though to be honest. The song was drastically shortened in a rather awkward and unsatisfactory way and, while it’s very brave of the young contestants to take it on and they clearly enjoyed it, the harmonies had been very much simplified and there’s nothing really powerful or exciting about their performances. So it’s all pretty average at best and nobody particularly stands out to me. But Brian and Roger were great as always, and they did have a favourite contestant that they revealed at the end, having got to know them all pretty well during the week.
Queen & We Will Rock You Musical
“Do you want Bohemian Rhapsody? Oh… Alright then.”
It will come as no surprise that Bohemian Rhapsody is performed as the big encore in the Queen musical We Will Rock You, introduced by the above captions that appear, as if the question even needs asking!
The cast of the show perform the song in its entirety, with different characters leading each of the verses, and it sounds fabulous. It’s an impressive feat, particularly in the operatic section of course, where the various parts of the harmonies have to be sung in different and unusual ways. You can hear their version on the London Cast Recording, released on the musical’s soundtrack album and the 30th anniversary EP for Bohemian Rhapsody. And you can listen to a rendition by the German cast (in English).
Brian and sometimes Roger have teamed up with the cast to perform the song on many special occasions, including:
- Party At The Palace, Buckingham Palace, London on 3 June 2002 (Brian & Roger) – This was at a special concert for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, just a few weeks after the musical had made its debut in the West End on 14 May. Tony Vincent, Hannah Jane Fox and Sharon D. Clarke led the vocals, and apart from Brian and Roger there was additional percussion by Phil Collins as well. The performance was included on the concert DVD (but not the CD), and on the 10th anniversary reissue of the musical soundtrack.
- Olivier Awards, Royal Opera House, London on 15 April 2012 (Brian) – The echo in the auditorium from the drums gives the false impression that the percussion’s slightly out of time, which is a little distracting. But otherwise it’s a good performance.
They’ve also made a lot of guest appearances in the musical itself, for anniversaries, cast changes and even just for fun. Brian would rise from a trap door in the stage, emerging from a cloud of smoke to begin his guitar solo, while Roger would usually be revealed at the start of the hard rock section if he was also involved. Often they would just be there for Bohemian Rhapsody, but occasionally they would play one or two other songs as well.
Videos that have been posted of their appearances are as follows. With a couple of exceptions, most have been filmed by audience members on their phones, so the audio and visual quality is far from perfect, but they’re still enjoyable and iconic moments to watch.
- Dominion Theatre, London on 12 November 2002 (Brian’s first appearance) – He and lead singer Tony Vincent draw out the end of the song for a bit longer than usual here, just for the fun of it. That performance was shot professionally with multiple cameras it seems, which makes you wonder if a full recording of the entire show exists. It’s very possible, as a lot of theatres keep archive recordings of their productions – not in suitable quality for commercial release necessarily, but for reference and historical interest.
- 7th anniversary, Dominion Theatre, London on 18 May 2009 (Brian) – Ben Elton, who wrote the story for the show, emerges from the smoke with Brian here. He appeared in a few shows over the years to give a thank you speech, and on the 5th anniversary had given a commemorative plaque to the cast, Brian and Roger.
- 8th anniversary, Dominion Theatre, London on 10 May 2010 (Brian & Roger)
- Beatrix Theatre, Utrecht, Netherlands on 3 September 2010 (Brian) – There are some fantastic close-up views of Brian from the front row here, especially at the very end.
- World AIDS Day Gala Performance, Edinburgh Playhouse on 1 December 2011 (Brian) – An incomplete extract from the hard rock section to the end, but still worth a look.
- 10th Anniversary, Dominion Theatre, London on 14 May 2012 (Brian) – Roger was apparently meant to appear as well, but a technical fault meant he couldn’t be on stage until the final minute of the other song they performed, The Show Must Go On.
- Final Performance, Dominion Theatre, London on 31 May 2014 (Brian & Roger) – See another angle here.
- Online Lockdown Version on 4 May 2020 (Brian) – Featuring Kerry Ellis, Hannah Jane Fox, Tony Vincent and other cast members past & present, plus Brian May & the musical’s writer Ben Elton, in support of the charity Acting For Others.
- Kings Theatre, Portsmouth on 8th February 2022 (Brian) – A surprise appearance at the end of the second show of the latest touring production. You can see another video on Twitter and the Planet Rock article about how it unfolded.
Other Queen Appearances
- 46664 Concert, Green Point Stadium, Cape Town, South Africa on 29 November 2003 – Queen performed a set during this first event in a series of AIDS awareness charity concerts in Nelson Mandela‘s honour. Only the operatic and hard rock sections were performed for this song, but were very nicely done by the Soweto Gospel Choir, with backing from Brian and Roger. Rehearsal footage is also available as an extra on the DVD of the concert.
- Olympics Closing Ceremony, Olympic Stadium, Olympic Park, Stratford, London on 12 August 2012 – The opening lines from the studio version were played into the stadium, with added echoes and slightly longer gaps between them, before a rendition of Imagine by John Lennon & The Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir.
- Arena di Verona, Italy on 1 June 2015 – This performance features Vittorio Grigolo and Kerry Ellis on vocals, accompanied by Brian May, an orchestra and a gospel choir. Vittorio’s style perhaps isn’t best suited to it, and he makes a mistake that spoils the flow near the end. But on the whole it’s good, and Brian looks very cool in his gold jacket. It’s one of 5 performances featuring Brian and Kerry at this concert (joined by Vittorio on 2 of them). Kerry also performed the song with Mazz Murray, Ricardo Alfonso, MiG Ayesa and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Queen Spectacular Concert, Bournemouth International Centre on 16 May 2009.
- Online Jam, 2020 – Rock legends Steve Vai, Nuno Bettencourt, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen & Tosin Abasi played a great instrumental version of the song from their homes during the Covid pandemic, with a guest appearance from Brian May to perform his iconic solo. The 5 guys have previously performed the song without Brian live in concert, as part of Generation Axe – A Night of Guitars, as can be seen from Sands Casino Event Center, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on 27 November 2018 & Hard Rock Casino Sound Waves Theatre on 30 November 2018.
Wayne’s World & Queen Biopic
The song famously appeared in the driving scene in Wayne’s World, where the friends are singing and head-banging along to it. The film studio had originally wanted to use a Guns N’ Roses song, but lead actor Mike Myers insisted on Queen, threatening to quit otherwise. In an interview with Guitar World, Brian May explained that he had shown the scene to Freddie before he died, and he loved it.
That classic moment in the film gave the song a new lease of life in the American charts, where it reached number 2 (beaten by Kriss Kross’s Jump), and it helped the movie soundtrack to reach number 1. Brian May has also credited the film with helping Queen to relaunch their career in the USA.
A special music video was created as well, mixing clips from the movie with footage of Queen in their original music video and in concert. It finishes with the faces of the 4 members of Queen morphing into the same pose from their One Vision video, before Wayne and Garth from the film proclaim that they’re not worthy. Having not been involved in this new edit, Mike Myers was deeply unhappy, saying “They’ve just whizzed on a Picasso!”, and he sent the band an apology. However, Queen responded with a letter of reassurance, thanking him for using the song, to which he replied “Thank you for even letting me touch the hem of your garments!”
The video led to Queen receiving their only MTV Video Music Award for Best Video From A Film. With all of this happening less than a year after Freddie’s death, it was still a very difficult time for Brian and Roger. But they accepted the award gratefully, saying how Freddie would be “tickled” by it, as well as presenting another award to Guns N’ Roses.
The scene has been referenced in other ways since then too. There are lots of Sing Along videos on Queen’s Youtube channel, where fans were able to sit in a car and mimic the moment for Children In Need. And the Rhapsody car in video game Grand Theft Auto V is named in reference to the song, and includes a photo of Wayne and Garth with their catchphrase “Schwing” inside the vehicle, plus it can be customised to look like the car from the movie.
But most significantly, Mike Myers appears in Queen’s biographical Bohemian Rhapsody film from 2018, where he plays Ray Foster, an EMI executive who pours scorn on the song and the band’s insistence on releasing it as a single. And during the scene there’s a lovely callback to Mike’s moment in Wayne’s World:
“What about I’m In Love With My Car? I love that.” he suggests. “Well, that’s the kind of song teenagers can crank up the volume in their car and bang their heads to. Bohemian Rhapsody will never be that song.”
There’s an enjoyable interview with Mike on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where he discusses how everything came full circle this way. You can also see him talking to Fox 5 DC at the movie premiere, while in awards season he introduced the film at the Oscars (with Wayne’s World co-star Dana Carvey) and spoke about the film backstage at the Golden Globes.
The Bohemian Rhapsody film also contained other references to the song of course, including the scenes about recording the operatic section, their meeting with Kenny Everett and performing the song at Live Aid. And naturally the song plays a prominent role in the film’s trailer, where it’s mixed with the beat from We Will Rock You.
Given the song’s popularity, it is somewhat of an understatement to say that there are a lot of cover versions for this track. As such, given their number and the song’s significance, I’ve dedicated a separate post to them, so be sure to check that out too.
Traditional – Arrangement by Brian May
In stark contrast to the previous track, and indeed all the other songs on the album, there’s very little to be said about this instrumental version of the national anthem. But it’s beautiful and majestic, and feels totally appropriate as the closing track.
It had been recorded on 27 October the previous year (1974) while the band were still at Trident Studios, with Brian using overdubbed guitars to construct the melody. The Making Of A Night At The Opera documentary contains a chapter about the track, in which we get to hear the simple piano guide that Brian recorded to help him get the melody and timing right on the guitar later on. He also has a listen to the final track at the mixing desk, and gives a few other nice little insights into its production.
The recording was made before they embarked on their Sheer Heart Attack tour, and was played at the end of nearly every concert thereafter, as they took their bows and thanked the audience. That was always the original intention, it just happened to fit nicely at the end of A Night At The Opera as well.
The most notable example in a concert film is from Wembley 1986, where Freddie returns to the stage wearing a gold crown and a long robe, looking every bit the king of Queen, quite rightly.
Many years later, on 3 June 2002, Brian May created history and one of the most iconic TV moments of all time, when he played the anthem live on the roof of Buckingham Palace, launching the Party At The Palace concert marking the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Roger Taylor was also present, but remained on stage, to help keep his percussion in time with the orchestra. With Brian so far away from the rest of the musicians, getting the timing right was probably difficult enough. And it didn’t help that there was a technical fault just half an hour before going live, which added the nerves he already had. But fortunately it worked really well, and was arguably the best moment of the entire concert. It’s included on the DVD of the show.
The video on the 30th Anniversary DVD of A Night At The Opera includes visuals of the Buckingham Palace performance, accompanied by the original album track. It also includes some footage of Queen ending their concerts, such as Freddie in his crown and robe or balancing on the shoulders of Superman. The accompanying audio commentary features an extract from an interview with Freddie, where he summarises why it was important for Queen to be as outrageous, original and creative as they desired, rather than trying to fit in with other people’s expectations and demands.
Since then, it’s continued to be used at the end of Queen’s concerts with Adam Lambert, during which crowns are also worn, so it’s nice that the tradition has continued.
There’s little of any significance to mention in terms of cover versions – after all, this is a rare example of Queen themselves doing a cover, which they didn’t otherwise do on their studio albums. The only covers that merit a brief mention are:
- A live performance by tribute band Queen Extravaganza.
- A multitracked Red Special guitar cover by Ryan Robinson.
- A guitar version by Dino Bochicchio from the Horse Feathers & Animal Crackers tribute compilation.
- An acoustic guitar cover by the Queen Cover Project.
- A piano version by Lucie Halamíková, who has covered lots of Queen tracks.
- A Gregorian chant version by The Chant Masters from their Queen tribute album.
- An 8-bit remix by 7 Seas Of Q.
We finally made it to the end of Queen’s most iconic album, and arguably their best in many people’s eyes (including my own). I am by no means an expert, just a keen fan, so it’s been fascinating for me to look into it and see what I can discover.
You can check out my Queen playlist for this album to explore the videos I’ve mentioned in this post. I’ll update it, along with this post, in the future if I become aware of new videos. If there are other videos I should check out and consider adding to that list (or any of my Queen playlists), do let me know. Don’t forget to check out my post about the cover versions of Bohemian Rhapsody as well.
So I hope you enjoyed this lengthy post and found out some interesting things along the way. Congratulations for making it this far and thanks for reading!