Monday, December 17, 2018

Is 'Bohemian Rhapsody' the greatest rock song?

While the film about the life of Freddie Mercury and Queen's rise to fame continues to break box office records, the title song, considered by critics and fans alike, had become the most played and streamed song in the 20th century. This is all pretty amazing to me, considering that forty years ago I was plunking away trying to learn to play it, and that decades later it would inspire an entire novel.

First, the film. Bohemian Rhapsody, which is, according to the highest-grossing music biopic of all time, domestically, internationally and worldwide, earning a total of $635 million at the box office, according to Gay Times

The film has received nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Rami Malek also received nominations for the Golden Globe Award, the Critics’ Choice Award and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor.

That Gay Times article mentions the censorship the film suffered in Malaysia. It's hard to imagine how much more deletions were made to accommodate that homophobic country. I've already written about the numerous critiques for its limited depiction of Mercury's life. The film's Wikipedia entry notes the film's many inaccuracies.
Freddie Mercury in the studio

But the fans who ignore or forgive such omissions are what's making this such a huge film. Many shared comments on fan groups online write about repeated viewings.

But what about the song itself? Certainly considered Queen's biggest hit, it's been re-released several times. Doubtless the film's soundtrack will sell millions more.

Universal Music Group (UMG) announced that "Bohemian Rhapsody" has become the most streamed song from the 20th century, racking up a total of 1.6 billion streams. Making the announcement, Sir Lucian Grange, UMG’s chairman and CEO, said: “Bohemian Rhapsody is one the greatest songs by one of the greatest bands in history. My congratulations to Queen and Jim Beach on an incredible achievement that is a testament to the enduring brilliance of Queen.”

The Wikipedia entry about the song's fascinating back story covers its structure and unique history. The single was accompanied by a promotional video, which many scholars consider ground-breaking. Rolling Stone stated that its influence "cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air."



Recording 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in the film
The entry dissects the song's many parts, in both composition and analysis that still, decades later, beguile many listeners as well as musicians. The multi-tracking, overdubs and operatic section have proven to be a work of genius on Mercury's part, considering the limited technology available in the country farm recording studio where it was recorded.

But what is it about? People continue to ask the surviving members, and their answers remain vague. From Wikipedia:

Brian May supports suggestions that the song contained veiled references to Mercury's personal traumas. He recalls, "Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song."

Mercury was quoted as saying, "It's one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them... 'Bohemian Rhapsody' didn't just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?"

DJ Kenny Everett
Why not indeed. At the time, art rock or progressive rock songs were becoming popular, from Jethro Tull to Genesis and Pink Floyd. But few of them were aired on pop radio stations. The notorious battle with executives over the song's six-minute length is given a comic scene in the film, but gay radio DJ Kenny Everett was its champion, playing the song multiple times the week before its release. More about the song in this fascinating history on IFoundIt.com:
"Everett began playing clips of the song on his morning show on Capital FM, a popular London based radio station. Each time Everett aired a clip from the song, he’d play it off as an accident, telling listeners that “his finger must’ve slipped” and that they weren’t supposed to have heard anything. Steadily, interest in the song grew.
"Callers began flooding the station with requests, begging Everett to play the whole song, which he’d by this point built up to a ridiculous degree, telling his now captive audience that he couldn’t play the entire song because he’d been made to promise that he wouldn’t. Eventually, Everett relented and played the entire song 14 times over the course of two days."
"Bohemian Rhapsody" music video
So many stories surround the song and the band. But I chose, as a 16-year-old teenager, to self-arrange a piano solo version and play it for my senior recital in 1979.

No tape recording of that performance, or even me rehearsing it, exist. I curse my shyness for not proving my then-adeptness , or mediocrity, in playing 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'

But perhaps that absence led to my inspiration for writing my sixth novel, 'Now I'm Here,' about a shy piano playing teen whose love affair with a farm boy made for a decades-long struggle to complete. 

Like Mercury, whose fictional and real-life version dabbled with the song for years (since 1968, according to this article), I too dabbled with 'Now I'm Here,' letting three other novels be completed and published before I fully returned to it.

And while it by no means is making any best-seller lists, it did make a Best of 2018 at Out in Print. Now I'm Here also won Best LGBTQ fiction in the American BookFest competition.

In the novel, main character Joshua plays "Bohemian Rhapsody" several times (spoiler alert); at his piano recital, then impulsively at shopping mall's music store, which leads to an opportunity in Hollywood, where he makes the sacrifice the band almost but did not do; cutting the song down by several minutes. It represents his 'selling out' and regretting it. He also plays it at a few parties and at a later family gathering. These are all fictionalized, of course, beyond my won experience, where, by college, my piano-playing skills became almost dormant.

But the music remains a great part of the novel, and my life. I hope, as a Queen fan, or a new or longtime fan of my fiction, you'll read this book, which took decades to complete.  I also hope you'll enjoy the music of Queen, including my playlist of songs that match each of the novel's chapter titles.

In the decades since the song's release, and re-release (thank you, Wayne's World) hundreds of covers of the song have been shared on YouTube. You can also enjoy my other novel-related playlists as well. And don't forget to listen to my podcast "Unleash the Queen" with Matt Baume!

from the Now We're Here concert photo: Gooch
As the fall season wrapped up, to celebrate Queen, my novel, and my birthday, I hosted and produced a concert of Queen music performed by eight of my favorite talented musician friends; some old and some new.

I hope to edit and upload some songs from the concert soon. In the meantime, enjoy more photos from the concert, held at the Alamo Square restored Victorian The F'Inn, a few weeks ago, on my Facebook Author page.

And buy and review my books. Being an independent artist working with a small press doesn't get one the advantages of a big press and big media. It's up to you, one person at a time, to share these stories. Be my champion, my Kenny Everett.


I'll leave you with this lovely, simple performance of the song played by young pianist Alex Berardo.  Enjoy.

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