Trying to decode this beguiling hit song, which was released more than 40 years ago.
Note: This article was first published on October 30, 2015 and is being republished on April 9, 2017.
Although Bohemian Rhapsody’s creator, the late Freddie Mercury, never explained the lyrics, declaring vaguely that they were ‘just about relationships’ with ‘a bit of nonsense in the middle’, conflicting theories about the song’s true meaning are as rife today as they have ever been. While Queen’s surviving members – guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and retired bassist John Deacon – have always protected their frontman’s most closely guarded secret, intense speculation persists.
Forty years this month since Queen’s soaring, decadent, magnum opus was originally released, I can reveal the song’s true meaning. The ‘baroque’n’roll’ classic was not, contrary to popular belief, Freddie Mercury’s attempt at writing a song to upstage Led Zeppelin’s folk-rock epic ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Nor was it merely a fictitious fantasy, describing a random individual confessing a murder to his mother, pleading poverty at his trial, and resigning himself to a tragic fate – never revealing the identity of whom he had killed, nor why. It could not have been, as has been widely reported, Freddie’s lament about having become infected with the AIDS virus. He conceived the idea for the song in the late 1960s, and dabbled with it for years, only completing, recording and releasing it with the band in late 1975. He was not diagnosed as HIV positive until ten years later.
It wasn’t even a deliberate ‘showcase single’ of everything this superlative rock band was capable of, not only musically and lyrically, but also collectively and individually – as numerous music scholars around the world believe. The truth, though simply, is infinitely more personal.
A song with chart potential
The song was recorded originally for Queen’s studio LP ‘A Night at the Opera’. Realising its chart potential, the band drummed up support among radio DJs such as Kenny Everett and ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton for the unusually long (5:55 minutes) album track to be released as a single. It was, despite having broken every rule in the pop-hit-writing manual, an instant commercial success. It became the Christmas single of 1975, held its own at the top of the UK singles chart for nine weeks, and had sold more than a million copies by the end of January 1976. The single was accompanied by an avant garde promotional video directed by Bruce Gowers, which is still considered definitive and groundbreaking, and which kickstarted the MTV pop-video boom.
It reigned at number one again in 1991 for five weeks following Mercury’s death, eventually becoming the UK’s third best-selling single of all time – after Elton John’s ‘Candle In the Wind/Something About the Way You Look Tonight’ (reworked for the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997), and the 1984 Band Aid fundraiser ‘Do they Know it’s Christmas’. It was thus the first same-version song ever to reach number one twice in the UK.
It also topped the charts in various foreign territories, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and The Netherlands. In the United States, the song originally peaked at number nine in 1976. It returned at number two in 1992 after getting an airing in the smash-hit movie Wayne’s World.
In 2004, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Seven years later, BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs listeners chose it as their all-time favourite pop song. In 2012, it topped an ITV nationwide poll to find “The Nation’s Favourite Number One” over 60 years of music. It is reckoned that the song is still played somewhere in the world at least once every hour.
Despite Queen having released a total of 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles and ten number one DVDs worldwide, making them one of the planet’s best-selling rock acts, not to mention the fact that they are the only group in which every member has composed more than one chart-topping single, it remains the song that defines them, their most enduring work. Largely because of it, Queen have overtaken The Beatles to become the UK album chart leaders.
Although critical reaction was initially mixed, ‘Bo Rap’, the name by which it is known affectionately in the music business, frequently makes lists of the greatest songs of all time.
All this, without anyone, but Freddie, ever knowing what the song really means.
It was Freddie’s all the way
Lead guitarist Dr. Brian May has always acknowledged Freddie’s sole authorship of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, saying that when the singer first turned up with it, ‘he seemed to have the whole thing worked out in his head.’
It was, Brian said, “an epic undertaking”. The song comprises an acapella introduction, an instrumental sequence of piano, guitar, bass and drums, a mock–operatic interlude and a loaded monster-rock crescendo, before fading into its contemplative ‘nothing really matters’ conclusion. To the rest of the band, the piece at first seemed insurmountable.
“We were all a bit mystified as to how he was going to link all these pieces,” admitted Brian.
The song fetched to life a host of obscure classical characters: Scaramouche, a clown from the Commedia dell’arte; 16th century astronomer and father of modern science Galileo; Figaro, the principal character in Beaumarchais’ The Barber of Seville, and the Marriage of Figaro, from which operas by Paisiello, Rossini and Mozart had been composed; Beelzebub, identified in the Christian New Testament as Satan, Prince of Demons, and in Arabic as ‘Lord of the Flies’, or ‘Lord of the heavenly dwelling’. Also from Arabic, the word Bismillah is drawn: a noun from a phrase in the Qur’an meaning ‘in the name of God, most gracious, most merciful’.
In 1986, I found myself in a Budapest hotel suite with Freddie Mercury, during Queen’s ‘A Kind of Magic’ world tour. Having his undivided attention for a few moments, I put to him, not for the first time, my theory about these characters. Scaramouche, I ventured, had to be Freddie himself, with a penchant for the ‘tears of a clown’ motif. Galileo was obviously astronomer, astrophysicist and mathematician Brian May. Beelzebub must be Roger Taylor, the band’s wildest party animal, while Figaro was perhaps not the operatic character at all, but the tuxedo kitten in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic Pinocchio – a dead ringer for ‘pussy cat’ John Deacon. Well, Freddie did adore his feline friends.
Freddie’s face was a picture. He didn’t say a word. He looked even more perplexed when I asked him about the song’s inspiration. I suggested in so many words that it was, in fact, a thickly disguised confession about his sexual orientation. Having been raised in a close, intensely religious Parsee community, adherents of the monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism dating back to 6th Century BC Persia (modern-day Iran), Freddie had never been at liberty to live a publicly flamboyant lifestyle. Not only would this have offended his parents, but their religion does not recognise homosexuality. He was never able to live openly as a gay man. He shared his life for seven years with devoted girlfriend Mary Austin, before admitting to her that he thought he might be bisexual.
“No, Freddie,” responded Mary, “I think you’re gay.” From then on, apart from a brief, intense affair with the late German actress Barbara Valentin in Munich in 1984, conducted at the same time as liaisons with two male partners, he had sexual relationships only with men. He did not refuse to discuss all this with me. What he said about these questions was ‘bad timing!’
Only after Freddie’s death from AIDS-related illness in November 1991, when I went to spend a week with his long-term live-in lover Jim Hutton at Jim’s bungalow in County Carlow, southeast Ireland, did the truth about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ emerge.
One evening after supper, we took a stroll in Jim’s garden, where he proudly showed me his lilac ‘Blue Moon’ roses, which Freddie had adored. The conversation turned to his former partner’s most famous creation.
You were right about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’,” said Jim.
“Freddie was never going to admit it publicly, of course, because he always had to carry on the charade about being straight, for his family. But we did discuss it on numerous occasions. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ WAS Freddie’s confessional. It was about how different his life could have been, and how much happier he might have been, had he just been able to be himself, the whole of his life. The world heard this song as a masterpiece of imagination, a great command of musical styles. It was this remarkable tapestry. It was so intricate and had so many layers, but the message, if hidden, was simple. Just as the management, the band, all of us in his life, never admitted that Freddie was even ill, not until the day before he died – because it was his business – he felt the same about this song.”
Couldn’t be bothered
“Not only that, but you’d have to say that he was a bit bored by the relentless interest in it. He didn’t ‘reveal’ what it was all about because he couldn’t be bothered. He had said all that he was ever going to say about it – which wasn’t very much. Others have stated over the years that it was better for the song’s true meaning never to be made public, because it would last much longer if its aura of mystique were maintained. I disagree. I don’t think that matters. The song has proved itself over and over. It has stood the test of time. It isn’t going anywhere. Freddie will be known throughout the world forever because of it.”
However convoluted and obscure, said Jim, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was “Freddie as he truly was”.
Jim died of cancer in 2010.
During the course of my research for my biography of Freddie Mercury, I discussed the song at length with arguably the UK’s greatest living lyricist, Sir Tim Rice. Having collaborated with Freddie on songs for the ‘Barcelona’ album with Montserrat Caballé, the co-creator of The Lion King and Evita knew Freddie better than most.
“It’s fairly obvious to me that this was Freddie’s coming out song,” Tim told me. “I’ve even spoken to Roger Taylor about it. There is a very clear message contained in it. This is Freddie admitting that he is gay.”
”Mama, I just killed a man’: he’s killed the old Freddie he was trying to be – the former image.
”Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead’: he’s dead, the straight person he was originally. He’s destroyed the man he was trying to be, and now this is him, trying to live with the new Freddie.
”I see a little silhouetto of a man’; that’s him, still being haunted by what he’s done and what he is.
“Every time I hear the record on the radio, I think of him trying to shake off one Freddie and embracing another – even all these years after his death. Do I think he managed it? I think he was in the process of managing it, rather well. Freddie was an exceptional lyricist, and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is beyond any doubt one of the great pieces of music of the twentieth century.’
There are further clues in a track from Queen’s fifteenth and final studio album, ‘Made In Heaven’, which was released in 1995, four years after Freddie’s death.
‘A Winter’s Tale’ was Freddie’s swansong. He wrote and composed the song in his Montreux apartment overlooking Lake Geneva, which he loved. The lyrics, describing all that he could see from his window, celebrate the peace and contentment he found there towards the end. The song’s title is an homage to William Shakespeare’s romantic play, and alludes to Freddie’s early songwriting inspiration. One protagonist of the Shakespeare play is Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, which is an ancient kingdom, which corresponds roughly to the modern=day Czech Republic. As such, it may have germinated ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. If, as presumed by many Bard scholars, this play was an allegory on the demise of Anne Boleyn, its character Perdita was based on the daughter of Anne and King Henry VIII, who would become Elizabeth 1st, England’s Queen …
The band’s original greatest hit laced through Freddie’s final offering? It’s not impossible.
Lesley Ann-Jones is the author of Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography published by Hodder & Stoughton