Saturday, January 7, 2017

Scaramouching its way to the top: Bohemian Rhapsody

Part one of my look at the music charts of 1976, the year in which I was born.
When the clocks struck midnight on New Year's Eve 1975, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody was just over halfway through its nine (nine, people, nine!) weeks at Number One. I doubt I'm spoilering anyone for the rest of my look at the music of 1976 if I say that no other chart-topper that year was as formally ambitious, as preposterous, as emotionally rich or as just plain odd as this one.

Watch the legendary video for Bohemian Rhapsody here.

On the face of it - it shouldn't work. If you describe Bo Rap without playing the actual song -  maybe six song fragments, depending on how you count them, drawing on hard rock, torch balladry, doo wop and light operatic silliness, it sounds like a hot mess of studio cookery.

And yet it works, this pocket symphony. Beautifully assembled by the band and producer Roy Baker, it still sounds great, but what really makes it work is Freddie Mercury's central performance. Freddie is Queen's not so secret weapon - a singer who isn't just outrageously technically gifted, but inhabits the song and grounds it emotionally. Without him, Bohemian Rhapsody would risk being too clever-clever, all surface-no-feeling or just plain comic pastiche.

Another One Bites The Dust aside, all my favourite Queen songs (I Want To Break Free, Somebody To Love, I'm Going Slightly Mad) are the ones where Freddie hits the sweet spot between performance and vulnerability. Even at their most bombastic (We Will Rock You) he locates the human in the mass moment.

Given that he also conceived and wrote Bohemian Rhapsody as a song-suite, then his achievement is clear. He turned a potentially disjoined assemblage into an impressionistic and curiously moving portrait of a man driven to do terrible things, who may repent of his crime but sees no future for himself in this world.

And rather than it remaining a cult curiosity, the British public send this jolt of nihilism to number one for nine weeks! And again for another five weeks in 1991! It's the third best-selling UK single of all time!

Bohemian Rhapsody isn't quite as timeless, as sui generis as it seems from the other side of the millenium, mind you. Queen weren't the only band using improvements in 70's studio technology to try and out-Brian Brian Wilson (hey there 10CC, for example, who were also in this week's top twenty with Art For Art's Sake). And in a sense, 'all' it does is squeeze the classical and theatrical pretensions of their prog rock and glam contemporaries down into a 6-minute single. 

'All' [snort]

What it was in 1976 however, as we'll shortly discover, was something of an anomaly in the singles chart. With most 'serious' rock acts concentrating on albums and single-oriented glam rock on the wane, the field was left clear for soul, pure pop, reggae, disco, even country to shine. Alongside (ahem) our enduring fondness as a nation for nostalgia and novelty records.  

And while there is something of the novelty record about Bohemian Rhapsody, scaramouching it's way to the top as it did, it has a pastiched plastique heart ten times bigger than most contemporary 'authentic' rock. And that's something to celebrate as we head onwards into January.

No comments:

Post a Comment