Added on 28-Oct-2005
What was Queen's best song? Just don't say Bohemian Rhapsody, writes Waleed Aly.
IT'S the credo of the rock fan to worship obscurity. You can't claim to be a diehard Led Zeppelin fan and nominate Stairway to Heaven as your favourite song. It has to be something so obscure only a biographer would know it . . . such as The Lemon Song. Pink Floyd fans are permitted to love Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall, but if you're really hip, your favourite album will be Atom Heart Mother or Ummagumma.
o allow me to announce that I will not be marking the 30th anniversary of the release of Bohemian Rhapsody this Monday. Yes, it reached number one in 19 countries; but then so did Radio Gaga. Sure, Bo Rhap might regularly top polls of the greatest song of all time among the unwashed, but I still maintain that The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke, with its mean harpsichord licks, never got the attention it deserved.
That isn't to say I was never on the bandwagon.
I remember a primary school music class in which each student was handed apiece of paper on which to write their favourite song. Home Among the Gum Trees was a popular choice, but my choice was easy. The spelling was not. I ran to the teacher for help.
I don't think she was a Queen fan, so Bohemian Rhapsody was probably her favourite Queen song, too.
And to be honest, for the uninitiated, it is pretty hard to resist. It's not often you see operatic pastiche in the charts. It's even rarer for said opera to be followed by fist-pumping, hairy-chested, lycra-leotard-laden '70s hard rock.
But that was Queen, really. By the time Bohemian Rhapsody came around, they had done mock show tunes, vaudeville, ragtime, folk, country, and some weird thing based around the ukulele. Real fans could point you to songs such as My Fairy King and In the Lap of the Gods to argue that, for those in the know, Bohemian Rhapsody was a fairly predictable theatrical, operatic development - not a spectacular accident.
It was composed by Freddie Mercury, a man with four years' training in classical composition and an irrepressible penchant for the eccentric.
In that sense, Bohemian Rhapsody is a screaming reflection of its composer. As a piece of opera, it is technically sound. It begins with an overture then proceeds through four contrasting movements. It follows no standard compositional form, which means it is, quite literally, a rhapsody. The hero is a Bohemian. Freddie clearly knew what he was writing.
He also knew what he wasn't. "It's not authentic," he happily admitted. "It's no sort of pinch out of Magic Flute." Too true. It has a much better lead guitar part.
But there is no question it passes the Freddie Mercury eccentricity test. If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing, and that is what Queen did well. At various points in the song there are 180 voices singing simultaneously. Brian May recalled how the extensive overdubbing wore out the recording tape, making it transparent.
It got to the stage where every time they recorded something they would lose something else. They stretched the technology of the day to its limits but, as they would proudly exclaim for years to come, all without a synthesiser in sight. At production's end they knew they had a song they simply could not perform live. So they didn't try. Ah, for digital technology.
Speaking of which, there was none in evidence in the film clip. Produced to replace the impossible live performance, it was the first genuine music video. It was once considered high-tech but through today's eyes it looks stunning for all the wrong reasons; its visual effects continue to inspire the production of wedding videos all over India. Is there no limit to its legacy?
Well, yes, actually. It's called the United States. While everyone else seemed to cotton on to Queen's rhapsodic genius, it only got to number nine in the US. The Americans were obviously waiting for something a little more challenging.
Another One Bites the Dust became Queen's US breakthrough. It took 16 years, and a vehicle as delicio