Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of Queen's monumental prog-opera-pop-metal hit "Bohemian Rhapsody," a tune that topped the charts in the U.K. in 1975 and then nearly repeated the feat in America in 1992 thanks to an especially iconic lip-sync in Wayne's World. Its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air. But to this day nothing sounds quite like it. The band is releasing their much-bootlegged 1975 London Hammersmith BBC broadcast as Queen – A Night at the Odeon – Hammersmith this holiday season and Rolling Stone caught up with Brian May to reminisce over the iconic, generation-crossing hit.
When you were recording "Bohemian Rhapsody," did you have any idea what a big deal it was going to be?
I don't think anybody thought that. We were just thinking, "This is fun, this is interesting, this'll be something that people enjoy." Freddie [Mercury] wrote it. Of course we all interacted, we all contributed bits and pieces and argued as we always did, but it was Freddie's baby and everyone respected that in the end.
We had an unwritten law that whoever brought the song in would have the final say in how it turned out. But we weren't that shocked, because we were used to that way of working and we'd done things like "My Fairy King" on the first album, and lots of complexity on Queen II, so it wasn't unusual for Freddie to come in and have this rather baroque-sounding backing track and wondering what was going to go on top. Probably the most unusual thing was, John [Deacon] said to him, "What are you going to call it then, is it called 'Mama?'" And Freddie went, "No, I think we'll call it 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'" And there was a little silence, everybody thought, "Okaaay…" I don't think anybody said, "Why?" but there it was. How strange to call a song "Bohemian Rhapsody," but it just suits it down to the ground and it became a milestone. But nobody knew.
How did you feel about the Wayne's World scene when you heard about it?
Mike Myers phoned me up and said, "We've got this thing which we think is great, do you want to hear it?" And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Do you think Freddie would want to hear it?" Now Freddie was really sick by that time but I said, "Yeah, I'm sure he will." Mike gave me a tape which I took 'round to Freddie and played to him and Freddie loved it, he just laughed and thought it was great, this little video.
It's odd because that was a huge thing in the States. You've got two events there – you've got Wayne's World and Freddie dying which, looking back on it, is the oddest thing and it did become a sort of rebirth for us in the States. We have a strange history with the States. We worked there more than anywhere in the world in the early days, we'd generally tour there for months and then do a couple of months in other places, and then go back in the studio again. So life was more or less all about touring the States and recording.
And then there came a period where we really lost our contact with the States because of a number of things. There was a big backlash to our video for "I Want to Break Free," where we all dress up as women. Everyone thought it was really funny around here and Europe but in the States a lot of people did not find it funny. I remember going out with that on a little promo tour and people's faces would go ashen when they saw that we were dressed as women, because it was just unheard of. These days, you get the Foo Fighters doing something similar on "Learn to Fly" and everybody is rollicking with laughter, but in those days there was a real feeling of shock and horror in some of those media people and it absolutely damaged the record. In Europe it was huge, same in Australia. But in the States, no.
Then our [U.S.] record company at the time [Capitol] got investigated for payola. They suddenly dropped all their independent promotion people and got a massive backlash from the system and that made "Radio Gaga" drop like a stone.
And the other thing was Paul Prenter, who became Freddie's personal [manager]. We had a great relationship with radio in America; we'd get off the plane and go and do two or three or four radio stations. But this guy, whenever anyone rang up for Freddie, he'd say, "No, Freddie's not interested, he doesn't need to talk to you" — and that, in a very short time, spoiled our relationship with radio. So we lost touch with the States until the Mike Myers time.
Did you know that the movie people actually wanted Guns N' Roses in that scene, rather than Queen?
No, I did not know that. Is that right? How funny. It's a great scene. The funny thing was, we always regarded ["Bohemian Rhapsody"] tongue in cheek ourselves. If it would come on the radio, we would all be headbanging when it came to the heavy bit as well, us as a group. It was very close to our sense of humor. Mike's an Anglophile so he has a real feel for what people find funny in this country.
Was it strange to be catapulted back into the MTV generation when you won the Video Music Award?
Well, people tell us we invented it, that we're to blame because "Bohemian Rhapsody" was effectively the first [music video]. We found ourselves unwittingly at the center of that and then it zoomed off at a tangent and became something that was harder for us to relate to. We never had the idea that a song would only be represented by a video, it was just one way of promoting it. And suddenly you couldn't possibly put out a record without having a video and the video locked in people's minds in terms of how they visualized the song. Very often music is about people spinning their own images in their head and [videos] took away that ability and meant that the song was forever welded to this creation and you couldn't get away from it.
Is it a bit like that now for "Bohemian Rhapsody?" Is it always linked in people's minds to Wayne's World?
Yeah, but "Bohemian Rhapsody" does cross a lot of boundaries. It's been done so many different ways now by different people. I think Freddie did good — and we did good, I guess!