'Bohemian Rhapsody': The 6-minute rock single that changed the face of music

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  • "Bohemian Rhapsody," the legendary six-minute single by Queen, is what many call the greatest song ever written.
  • It's still one of the best-selling rock singles of all time, voted The Song of the Millennium in 2000, and recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the No. 1 song of all time.
  • The song and the band inspired the box-office hit biopic starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.
  • Watch the video above to learn how this song that no one thought would be successful became the best rock song ever recorded.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: It's a song you've all heard at least once. And it was probably not like anything you've heard before. I'm of course talking about Queen's legendary single "Bohemian Rhapsody," a song that, even 40 years later, is one of the most influential and memorable songs of our generation. But have you ever wondered why this six-minute single that no one ever thought would be a hit became one of the most famous songs ever written?

"Bohemian Rhapsody" was a song long in the making, but it officially kicked into gear in the summer of 1975, when Freddie Mercury began writing it as an operatic piece titled, "Real Life." After the success of their last album "Sheer Heart Attack," Queen was given complete creative freedom and control over their next piece. And it's obvious that they took that creative freedom and ran with it.

Irwin Fisch: "Bohemian Rhapsody" had a very rare effect on people, which is that it was one of those songs where the first time you heard it, you hadn't heard anything like it. In my image is that it's the kind of song that makes you pull over to the side of the road, because you go, "What the devil is this?" Very few songs have done that, and that did.

Narrator: And he's right. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was different for its time and still is today. Unlike most pop hits that lasted around three minutes, it was a six-minute pop single that has an opera, an opera, right in the middle of the song.

Fisch: It actually in some ways hasn't been influential, because it was so fully realized that it was a little bit of, "Where do we go from here?" It managed to become a ubiquitous part of the culture and something that never gets off the radio and never stops in the karaoke bars and is used in movies, and it's all over the place because nobody has still done anything that sounds like that.

Narrator: One of the reasons why "Bohemian Rhapsody" sounds so different is in its structure. The song is neither an a cappella, a ballad, an opera or rock. It's actually all of them in one song. Fisch: It advanced a tradition of suites in pop music, meaning not a continuous song, not a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge structure, which was the norm. A put together group of different songs, in essence. So if people refer to "Bohemian Rhapsody" as a song, that's a bit of a misnomer. It's actually three or four songs.

Narrator: "Bohemian Rhapsody" can actually be divided into five different sections: an a cappella introduction. Ballad. Opera. Hard rock. And finally a reflective coda. It was also highly unusual for a popular single to not include a chorus, while combining different musical styles and lyrics. It is by definition a mind-blowing genre bender.

Fisch: This innovation started around the mid-'60s. It started basically with the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Beach Boys with "Good Vibrations." The Beatles with "A Day in the Life." Epic songs that pieced together different ideas into a cohesive whole. Queen, in "Bohemian Rhapsody," took that idea and pushed it way over the top.

Narrator: And to see just how over the top they went, you need to look no farther than this operatic section of the song. The lyrics name characters from classical Italian theaters, quotes from the Quran, and the demon Beelzebub. And this section that sounds like it's been sung by a roomful of choir was actually just three people: Freddie Mercury, drummer Roger Taylor, and guitarist Brian May. It's not just the vocals; there's harmony everywhere, even in the instruments that almost sound like echoes. This technique was heavily inspired by a production method called the "Wall of Sound," developed in 1960 by producer Phil Spector. He put masses of musicians in one room, three keyboard players playing the same part but in various similar instruments, like the harpsichord or an electric piano, and recording them together to create a sound the likes of which had never been heard before. That was exactly what Queen wanted to accomplish.

Fisch: When people talk about what a great song "Bohemian Rhapsody" is, they're talking equally, or even more, about the production.

Narrator: To achieve the sound that they wanted, Queen used a technique known as reduction mixing, also called ping pong recording. Most of the pop songs you listen to today use a lot of audio tracks, each track reserved for different instruments and vocals, combining to make one song. But back then, technology limited the amount of audio tracks that could be used. For example, Beatles' legendary "Sgt. Pepper's" was recorded on an analog four-track record. And to fit more than four tracks in a four-track record, they would record all four tracks, then bounce all their tracks into one, record, bounce again, and repeat. The bounce tracks would combine all of the tracks into one, meaning if you raise the sound of that particular track, it would raise the volume of all the individual tracks within.

Fisch: Part of the great challenge of that process was that you had to make commitments to your mix, to the blending of everything as you went along, so you needed to have a lot of foresight and a great image of where you were going. By the time Queen made "Bohemian Rhapsody," we were up to 24-track tape. By today's standards, that's still not many tracks. They had so many vocals and they had so many layers of guitars. I've heard that they had about 180 individual tracks that got put onto a 24-track, two-inch tape.

Narrator: But of course this method of bouncing tracks came with its own challenges. Once it's done, you can't go back to just fix it, like we can do now.

Fisch: Two-inch, 24-track tape that they were working on, it was a physical process. It was a razor blade. It was an edit block where the tape would sit there. You would slice through the two-inch tape. You would cut out what you wanted to cut out. And you would splice it together with a little piece of white tape. Now it's very easy digitally. You chop it on the screen. If you made a mistake, you can fix it. Everything now is non-destructive. Everything they did then was destructive, so it took a lot of commitment and a lot of knowledge and a very, very intense, deep skillset to be able to piece that stuff together and have it sound smooth.

Narrator: Just how much tracking went into the song becomes more evident when you remove the instruments to just listen to the vocals.

Fisch: And before the Beatles and before the Beach Boys, a song was a song. It needed to be presentable on the piano. If you sat down and played "Bohemian Rhapsody" from start to finish on the piano, you probably would say, "Wow, that's really wild and interesting." But you probably wouldn't say that's going to be a hit that's gonna endure for 40 years. What made it that had a lot to do with the sound they created.

Narrator: And of course, it's hard to talk about "Bohemian Rhapsody" without talking about the man behind the song, Freddie Mercury, because this song was his baby, his brainchild. Unlike most of Queen's songs that were written collaboratively in the studio, this was a song that, according to the guitarist Brian May, was "all in Freddie's head" before it even began recording.

Fisch: Freddie Mercury talked about the song in an interview as "experimentation in sound." I think that could be taken to mean that the experiment was to see if he could get what was in his head, his sonic preconceptions, out there. I don't think it was the kind of experimentation where they went into the studio to just see what would happen, because he was famously buttoned-up and had the production and the notes and the arrangements and sound of the thing in his head. I think the experiment was really about seeing if something unique could be realized in the studio. An important reason that "Bohemian Rhapsody" resonates and has resonated for over 40 years is that it embodied something very intense, which is Freddie Mercury's personality and life. That record is an oral extension of Freddie Mercury's self-consciousness without shame. It's music in some ways the sensibilities are out of the closet. As a performer, there hadn't been a Freddie Mercury before Freddie Mercury.

Narrator: And perhaps beyond all the notes, lyrics and performances, what truly makes "Bohemian Rhapsody" great is that it embodies what every musical piece should be: the talent and the drive to push boundaries and create something that brings us together, even 40 years later. In a time where pop songs just all generally sound the same, maybe that's why we still can't stop listening to "Bohemian Rhapsody." With just this one song, Freddie Mercury and Queen became something that very few artists managed to achieve: a legend.

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