Added on 27-Dec-2005
The record producer Roy Thomas Baker remembers being at the apartment of Freddie Mercury, the singer of the British rock band Queen, one day in 1975 when the flamboyant front man played him a skeletal version of a song he was working on. "He played the beginning bit on the piano," he recalled, "then stopped and said, 'This is where the opera section comes in.' Then we went out to eat dinner."The short musical fragment would become "Bohemian Rhapsody," one of rock's most unconventional pop hits, whose influence endures even now as fans observe the song's 30th anniversary. Written by Mr. Mercury, it is an epic song in three parts - a ballad, a mock opera and a heavy rock number with a choir repeatedly singing "mama mia," "galileo" and "magnifico." "Bohemian Rhapsody" epitomized Queen's theatrical and bombastic sound in the 70's.
"I thought it was going to be a hit," said Mr. Baker, who produced the song with Queen. "We didn't know it was going to be quite that big. I didn't realize it was still going to be talked about 30 years later." A special edition of "A Night at the Opera," the 1975 album featuring the song, has recently been released, and a BBC television special on the album will be rebroadcast in Britain on Jan 6.
On its reunion tour this year with its current lead singer, Paul Rodgers, Queen played "Bohemian Rhapsody" with Mercury, on video, sharing the vocals with Mr. Rodgers. "I knew we had to rise to the challenge of getting Freddie in there," the guitarist Brian May said in an e-mail interview, "in a way which gave him his rightful place, but without demeaning Paul in any way. It also kept us live and 'present,' although conscious and proud of our past, as we logically should be." American fans will relive the song's grandeur and wackiness when the band returns to the United States in the spring.
In summer 1975, Queen was preparing to work on its fourth album when Mr. Mercury first introduced his song to his band mates, from ideas written on pieces of paper. "We just thought that Freddie's blueprint for 'Rhapsody' was intriguing and original, and worthy of work," Mr. May said. "This was a well-planned project from Freddie, to which we contributed our best, but there were always changes along the way as tracks developed."
Using the 24-track technology available at the time, the "opera" section, with its endless vocal overdubs, took about three weeks to finish. "We kept wearing the tape out," Mr. Baker said, "so we had to keep doing transfers." Such overly painstaking details and eccentricities never concerned Queen. "We didn't think it was too much," Mr. May said. "Why should we? The great thing was to have no limits."
Perhaps the song's most distinct feature is the fatalistic lyrics: "Mama, just killed a man," "Nothing really matters" and "I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all." Mr. Mercury, who died in 1991, always refused to explain his composition other than saying it was about relationships. (He never officially admitted his bisexuality.) Some interpreted it as a way of dealing with his personal issues. To this day the band is still protective of the song's secret.
"I have a perfectly clear idea of what was in Freddie's mind," Mr. May said. "But it was unwritten law among us in those days that the real core of a song lyric was a private matter for the composer, whoever that might be. So I still respect that."
Mr. Baker said, with a hearty laugh, "If I tell you, I would have to kill you."
Queen's record company, EMI, was hesitant to release "Bohemian Rhapsody" as a single because of its nearly six-minute length; the band refused to edit it. When the British D.J. Kenny Everett played an advance copy of the song on his radio program 14 times in two days, audience demand intensified. Eventually the unedited single was released. (A short film for the song made video popular as a promotional tool.)
On Nov. 21, 1975, "Bohemian Rhapsody" topped the British charts and stayed there for nine weeks, cementing the band's superstar status. "It got us out of debt!" Mr. May said. It became No. 1 again in 1991, when it was reissued as a charity single shortly after Mr. Mercury's death from complications of AIDS. When it was featured in the film "Wayne's World" in 1992, "Bohemian Rhapsody" re-entered the United States charts and peaked at No. 2, beating its 1976 chart position.