Is this the real life
Is this just fantasy?
How can we ever say enough about “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen? On the other hand, what we can possibly say about this magnum opus that has not been said before? After all, this is not a simple, weepy song with a lone acoustic guitar and wailing violin in the background. This is not an all out chest pumping, pedal to the medal rock song with two electric guitars, bass and drums. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is bombastic and audacious. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a ridiculous, funny, endlessly creative and breathless summation of over 300 years of music and performance in one pop song, not even six minutes long.
In order to examine “Bohemian Rhapsody” completely and effectively, we must first look at Queen, the band that released the song in 1975. Formed in 1970 by pianist and lead vocalist Freddie Mercury and guitarist Brian May, Queen was known for everything from progressive rock to hard rock. From heavy metal to 1950’s style rockabilly. From synth pop to soft rock. Though the style of so much of their music was different, everything they did sounded like Queen. Great vocals, amazing harmonic guitar, and the flamboyant showmanship of Mercury.
Though Queen still performs to this day with different lead singers, their output of original music ended for the most part with the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991, and so it makes perfect sense that so much of their meaningful legacy can be summed with with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song that so beautifully sums up their wide variety of music influences and inspirations.
The song begins simply and beautifully, with a five part a cappella harmony. A grand piano comes in, and we learn about the protagonist of the story.
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
Open your eyes look up to the skies and see
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Because I’m easy come, easy go
A little high, little low
Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me, to me.”
After the intro, the song becomes a traditional ballad. Freddie Mercury sings the story, with the protagonist confessing a murder to his mother. He may soon need to go away, but if he does go…he insists…”Carry on, carry on.” The song picks up in intensity.
“Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time
Goodbye everybody I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooo (anyway the wind blows)
I don’t want to die, I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.”
Ok, now things get weird. The ballad music ends. A beautiful Brian May guitar solo carries the band into a full stop. The piano starts a staccato passage, and now Mercury begins to sing opera. Opera.
“I see a little silhouetto of a man
Scaramouch, scaramouch will you do the fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me
Gallileo Figaro – magnifico!”
Is this the band just having fun, showing what they can do, or is there a point to the showmanship? The voices of three of the four members of the band are multi-tracked so they sound like a complete, 180 member symphonic, operatic company.
Reading the lyrics carefully, it seems the protagonist is experiencing a descent into hell, and the operatic voices yelling at him that they will not let him go. “Let me go!” he pleads. They reply that they “will not let you go. Will not let you go. Never, no, no, no, no, no.” The protagonist gets angry and will not accept his fate. The opera ends, and an angry rock band comes back in with Freddie Mercury leading the charge.
“So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye
So you think you can love me and leave me to die
Oh baby, can’t do this to me baby
Just gotta get out just gotta get right outta here”
The song then quiets down, and ends as simply as it began. A lone voice and a grand piano playing an lovely arpeggio.
“Nothing really matters
Anyone can see
Nothing really matters, nothing really matters to me.”
In perfect harmony, the last words breeze into our heads as if they were carried by the wind off the ocean. “Anyway the wind blows.” Perfect. We exhale as this amazing, breathtaking music journey comes to end. There is no salvation or rescue. The protagonist is guilty. Nothing really matters.
Upon its release in 1975, “Bohemian Rhapsody” spent nine weeks on the top of the charts in England, and over 24 weeks on the charts in the United States. It is number 166 on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 rock and roll songs of all time. As immortalized in the great movie Wayne’s World (still photo above), “Bohemian Rhapsody” has inspired generations of head banging, late night driving, fast food fueled pre-hangover sing alongs.
So get in the car. Pop the tape in your in-dash cassette deck. Turn the volume way up loud, and bang your head. Do the fandango. This is 1PerfectSong.
Written by Freddie Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara)
Performed by Queen
Released October, 21, 1975