I first heard of Freddie Mercury in 1993 and the first song I heard of Freddie was ‘Living on my own.’ To put it mildly, it didn’t impress me at all as it sounded like any other pop song/Eurotrash of the time. I didn’t even know a band called Queen existed up until that point. It was the time when Michael Jackson, Madonna, Sting and George Michael were ruling the billboards. Axl Rose and bands like R.E.M. were carving a niche for themselves in the hard rock department.
Platinum albums like Dangerous, Ten Summoner’s Tales and Erotica cast the spell on everyone with the sheer variety of songs. Even the 1987 George Michael album, Faith still had its effect on audiophiles. And those were the times singles were released instead of whole albums or LP.
Though Bohemian Rhapsody topped the charts in the UK and the US billboards in 1992 with the track being used in Wayne’s World, the Hollywood comedy starring Mike Myers, I didn’t pay particular attention to this gem. And it ain’t a gem unless you discover it sometime later and experience the thrill of just finding it and having it on loop (at that time, on cassette, of course)!
It was difficult to believe that a song released in 1975 (Album – A Night at the Opera) could still stay relevant when Michael Jackson and Madonna were the king and the queen of pop music, necessarily in that order.
So that made me wonder what Queen is all about. The band name sounded ridiculous to start with. Is it a rock group? or is it a pop group? Or are they just glam rockers? They were anything but these or all of it put together. Because they simply transcended genres and music styles. They were much more than mere rockstars. They were THE rockstars.
Rock music is usually about angst, unrequited love, love songs, dysfunctional families, tough growing up situations, teenage rebellion, social issues, government curtailing the freedom of expressions and artists, etc. I later came to know that some of the most popular styles of rock were power ballads, guitar solos, duets influenced by genres like gospel, soul, blues, etc. It was also during this discovery phase that I realized that most rock bands or pop groups would stick to a certain style of songs. To cite a modern example, every Red Hot Chili Pepper song tries hard to show that it’s a RHCP song. There are some signature elements that stand out. Or every Coldplay song has a generous dose of coldplayish piano notes and other elements.
This is exactly where Queen was different. Queen went beyond these genres; they were searching for something else altogether. There is everything from electronica, guitar riffs, funky bass rhythms, ragtime, mock opera and a touch of pantomime in the singing style and stage performances. It was nothing like anybody had seen before.
But I digress, I am supposed to talk about Bohemian Rhapsody here! This is one song that has an out-of-this-world structuring and presentation. I am not an expert who can analyse the song like an expert but hey, what’s wrong with trying! After the intro, the song goes into guitar solo/ballad mode and then a bit of opera and then effortlessly switches to high-energy guitar riffs and hard rock before the finale.
There is a lot of mystery and speculation around the meaning of the lyrics and there is no doubt that this is all angst against the establishment with questions raised regarding social norms/mores. On a superficial level, the song is about a person who killed someone with a gun by accident and is in front of the jury who’s deliberating his punishment. On a personal level, since Freddie Mercury was solely responsible for writing the lyrics and composing, it can be safely assumed that the lyrics are connected with his personal life. One strong reason being the release of Bohemian Rhapsody coincided with Freddie coming out of the closet in terms of his sexuality.
Now, I have heard many rockers express angst through hard rock and heavy metal numbers. Never have I seen angst expressed so beautifully. There is elegance, there is sophistication and there is a high level of cheekiness. The mock opera is an element that needs to be laughed at and taken seriously at the same time. And probably that’s the magic of this song.
I still remember the time I heard of Freddie Mercury’s death. At that time, it was a very taboo subject to talk about. A homosexual man dying of complications due to AIDS was not a pleasant subject. It still is not, but the ‘mores’ are a little less now. Especially in progressive European countries.
Freddie was flamboyant, cheeky, original, witty and at the same time insecure about his sexual identity and other issues in terms of society’s attitude towards homosexuality.
I still listen to Bohemian Rhapsody every once a while just to hear Freddie’s golden voice and the sheer magic you experience every time you hear the song. You are always thinking there is some hidden meaning to the song which you have never thought of or heard of before.
And Farrokh, it’s been 40 years since you gave us one of the greatest songs ever. We know that out there somewhere, you are working on your next killer album. Maybe you are listening to a lot of opera to get into the groove of things. Maybe you’re watching a lot of TV because you don’t have to look elsewhere for inspiration to write those cheeky lyrics. We know you’re out there somewhere. And we want you to work on that album until you get the lyrics and the composition just right.