Have you ever actually listened to the song? It’s SO WEIRD. And it was even weirder when it was released on Halloween of 1975. Music producer Brent Bodrug joins us to deconstruct why almost 45 years later, it’s every headbanger’s favourite song to rock out with in the car. Alan explains the theory it’s Freddie Mercury’s coming-out song. Plus: the trailer to Michael’s new documentary series about THE FUTURE.
Wayne’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” World
by Christa Sampson
The song “Bohemian Rhapsody”, recorded by British rock band Queen in 1975, has had a resurgence in popularity due to the 2018 Freddie Mercury biopic of the same title. However, early 1990s film “Wayne’s World” is responsible for the original popularity boost for the song.
1992 was a tipping point in music when everything went from heavy metal and R&B to full on grunge or “alternative” rock. Seattle was pumping out new greasy-locked, flannel clad, raging rock stars, who became the voice of an increasingly frustrated generation.
“Wayne’s World” bridged the gap between the head-banging heavy metal 80s and the messy hair/don’t care mentality of 90s grunge. If it wasn’t for Mike Myers’ insistence on including “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the Wayne’s World movie many of us wouldn’t have the urge to bang our heads when the tune is played.
The “Wayne’s World” movie was released on February 14, 1992. As the year went on many events occurred that would set the tone for the 1990s and beyond:
Two blockbuster bands touted as the leaders of the grunge genre: Nirvana and Pearl Jam released albums in late 1991, which would explode in popularity just as Wayne’s World hit theatres. Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, released in August 1991 and September 1991 respectively.
Bill Clinton became U.S. President-elect, ending years of Republican governance. The U.S. was turning over a liberal leaf; however, the country’s youth didn’t feel it was enough. The geo-political climate was changing, but so was pop culture.
All of the sitcoms we grew up watching aired their series finales: “Growing Pains”, “Who’s The Boss?”, “The Cosby Show”, “Night Court” and “Golden Girls”. While primetime TV was in need of resuscitation, late night TV was gaining ground. Saturday Night Live (SNL) was entering it’s next heyday with popular skit “Wayne’s World”, which is still the most profitable skit to movie sketch birthed by SNL.
The lyrics in “Bohemian Rhapsody” have been deciphered to mean or refer to many things over the years, but if you look at what was happening in the world, in pop culture and in music at the time of “Wayne’s World”, the lyrics definitely fit the mood: “now you’ve gone and thrown it all away”.
The following video is 20 minutes long with interviews of the cast and director of “Wayne’s World”, but around the 13 minute mark, they discuss the “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence, which Mike Myers dubbed “operation Ben Gay”. Further on in the video, Lorne Michaels explains how the movie was shot in two months during “summer vacation”.
There are some reports citing that the film’s director Penelope Spheeris wanted to use a Guns ‘n Roses tune, but Myers pushed for “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which became perhaps the most recognized scene in the film. Spheeris was both a unique and fitting choice to direct the movie. She had not previously directed a feature film, but had done some previous work with SNL Executive Producer Lorne Michaels. She was chosen to direct “Wayne’s World” for two reasons: 1) her experience working with “metal heads” and 2) her background in documentaries, which was perceived as an ability to work fast. In this article from “Vanity Fair”, Spheeris talks about her experience directing the film in a before and after sense.
It was 1992. There were a lot of things going on: politically, musically and in pop culture as a whole. Looking back, it was a time when nothing seemed to really fit, but when you put all the pieces together, it did. Kind of like “Bohemian Rhapsody” the song itself. There is no chorus, no regular repeating melody. It is all at once a masterpiece and a farce, which also describes “Wayne’s World”. Headbanging to “Bohemian Rhapsody” seems contradictory, but it was funny; it worked. It was a bohemian time when we all went to the theatre to see “Wayne’s World”, listening to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and wearing anti-perspirant of the same name in scents like “California Breeze” and “Carribbean Cool”. Obviously wearing thrifted jeans and flannel shirts too.
The World that Created Bohemian Rhapsody (1968-1975)
by Amber Healy
Bohemian Rhapsody is the most streamed song of the 20th century, one of the most downloaded classic rock songs of all time and, at more than 40 years old, still as innovative as it was when it was released on Halloween, 1975.
The history of Bohemian Rhapsody begins more than half a decade before, in 1968.
Freddie Mercury and his family had moved to the UK just a few years before from their native Zanzibar. He was 17 at the time of the move, a student at Isleworth Polytechnic in 1964.
The “Cowboy Song”
Rock was still in its teenage years in the late 1960s but the influence was massive: We’d already had the Beatles, Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground. It was the year before Jimi Hendrix set the world on fire with his version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock – it was the year before Woodstock changed what concerts and music festivals would look like.
In 1968, Mercury started working on a song he referred to as the Cowboy Song because of its first lines: “Mama, just killed a man/put my gun against his head/pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.”
In 1968, the world mourned the assassination of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy, two of the most visible and respected advocates and activists for civil rights, while the tension and violence was increasing rapidly, vividly and horribly in Vietnam.
Things were not great. It was also the year the Beatles released the White Album, so it wasn’t a total bust.
A Rhapsody in the UK
By 1975, the Americans had landed on the moon, the Cold War was in full force, the Communists had taken over Vietnam for good. Margaret Thatcher was selected by the British Conservative Party as its leader, the first time a woman was chosen for the job.
It was the year of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and Patti Smith’s “Horses” and Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti.”
It had been only eight years since the British Parliament voted to partially legalize same-sex acts between adult men.
There are some who believe the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody are Mercury coming to terms with his sexuality: as a man from a Muslim family who was in a long-term relationship with a woman he loved very much in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the guilt and self-doubt he must’ve felt would have been overwhelming.
The band has honoured Mercury’s wish for the song’s inspiration to remain largely a secret, leaving fans to interpret the meaning for themselves, one by one. Mercury himself said the lyrics were just rhyming words without any greater story, but some of the words do have roots in his own life: Bismillah is Arabic and means “in the name of God,” Galileo is a nod to Brian May’s love of astronomy, Scaramouche is a stock character in Italian theater who seems silly or slow-witted but always gets himself out of trouble.
Who was going to listen to a six-minute song?
While it would have been expected – and it was – for the band to perform on Top of the Pops to introduce the song (though no record executives thought any radio station would play a nearly six-minute-long song that was half opera), Queen had no interest in doing that. They didn’t want to look silly miming along to a massive song that couldn’t fully be reproduced effectively with just the band members “playing” live. Instead, they spent four hours and a few thousand pounds to make a promotional video. People went bonkers for it, released in early November 1975, just a few years before MTV would make regular viewings of music videos a normal practice.
Mercury wrote the whole song by himself, having heard it all in his head over the years he wrote the lyrics and having developed a very clear vision of what it was and should be. The band deferred to him, even when he wouldn’t stop adding “Galileos” to the song. Even when the eight-track tape used to record the opus went transparent from overdubbing more than 180 tracks. Even when Elton John said the song was nuts.
That Freddie Mercury… he was something of a genius, huh?