It’s worth considering the near-disastrous position Queen were in forty years ago, on 24th August 1975, as they checked in to a former farm called Rockfield Studios in the Wye Valley, near Monmouth to record their fourth album, the one that included the extraordinary “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Queen were broke. In fact, not just broke.
Queen were more broke, as the saying goes, than the Ten Commandments.
Queen were massively in debt. They had lost their manager, a future US tour had been cancelled and it looked like it might be the end of the road for this quirky band.
Sparks, a band Queen had shared a bill with at The Marquee a few years previously, had just scored a hit with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” and sensed there might be an opportunity to enter the transfer window. They offered Brian May a way out.
“They came round and said, “Look, it’s pretty obvious that Queen are washed up, we’d like to offer you a position in our band if you want.” said Brian May “and I said, “Well I don’t think we’re quite dead yet”.
Despite May’s optimism, it’s fair to say that Success and Queen were yet to be wearing matching jumpers and skipping along together hand in hand.
Whilst Queen’s last U.S. Tour had seen the “Sheer Heart Attack” album reach No 12 in the charts, it looked like it might be tougher for Queen to crack the States than it would be for Victoria Beckham to crack a smile. It hadn’t helped that throughout the tour lead singer Freddie Mercury had suffered throat problems.
Better was the Japanese tour, where they had become pop stars for the first time, had been wildly successful and had played the Budokan twice in front of 14,000 screaming fans.
However that success brought their situation elsewhere more starkly into focus. Mercury, May, Taylor and Deacon returned to the UK facing huge debts and, more immediately, mould, growing in their pitiful basement flats in London, which were grimmer than England’s 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign. Three albums into their career they were earning £60 a week each.
The money problems were genuine. The band owed their management company, recording studio and publisher Trident the huge sum of £200,000 and were frustrated with Trident’s ability to promote them internationally. £200k might not get you even the mouldiest basement apartment in London nowadays, but in 1975 it was a sum so vast it could buy a small island, six classic and now priceless ferraris, or even cover Black Sabbath’s cocaine bill for six months.
To move forward, Queen decided to exit the deal with Trident. EMI took over the contract, but at a cost. The band would pay royalties to Trident to repay the debt over their next six albums.
To prepare for the studio, Queen rehearsed for three weeks in a house in Hertfordshire owned by a lady who rented out the house to rock stars to pay her bills.
The lady’s daughter, a six year old little girl called Tiffany recalled Freddie playing her a piece of music on the piano.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“It’s fantastic” replied Tiffany.
“It’s a bit long…” he replied.
You can probably guess the song he was playing….
Yet, Tiffany was not the first person to hear the song. In fact, Bohemian Rhapsody pre-dates Sgt Pepper in its origins.
That’s right. Freddie Mercury had begun writing Bohemian Rhapsody before Lennon and McCartney had written their own multi-part Magnum Opus “A Day In The Life”. The Beatles get creds for finishing their one a bit quicker, mind you. Take nothing away from them, those Beatles.
In 1967, Freddie Bulsara would take his friend, Chris Smith from college to a music shop on Ealing Broadway. If Freddie had written a song, he’d grab a guitar off the wall and play it to his friend. The shop got pretty unhappy about this rather laissez faire attitude to the use of their equipment, but not before Freddie had played his friend a song called “The Cowboy Song”. It’s opening line was “Mama, just killed a man…”
When Bohemian Rhapsody was finally released Chris Smith’s first thought was
“Oh. Freddie’s finished the song”….
To put how long it took to release Bohemian Rhapsody into perspective, by the time Queen finally released it, the Beatles had split for five years. A week after it was released, the Sex Pistols played their first gig.
Baker and Mercury both laughed at the absurdity of it all, but Baker reflected “I had worked with the D’Oyly Carte Opera at Decca… so I was probably one of the few people in the pop world who knew what he was talking about.”
If there’s one story that stands out about the making of Bohemian Rhapsody and the lengths that Queen would go to in their search of perfection, it’s this.
There were parts of the song that required one hundred and eighty overdubs.
Nowadays, you could sing a line a couple of times onto a digital mixer and multi-track it to create a chorus in minutes. Probably. In 1975, the members of Queen had to sing the same line a hundred and eighty times.
This sounds an insane labour of love until you consider that Brian May built his own guitar from a mahogany fireplace with fret markers made from sanded down mother of pearl buttons, a tremolo arm made from a piece of steel used to hold up the saddle on a bike and capped by a knitting needle, and two valve springs from a 1928 Panther motorbike to balance the string tension.
You suspect May might have a pretty good attention span.
One hundred and eighty overdubs and the recording tape was becoming threadbare and transparent. “People think it’s this legendary story but you could hold the tape up to the light and see through it” said May.
“Every time Freddie came up with another Galileo I would add another piece of tape to the reel which was beginning to look like a zebra crossing whizzing by”.
Added Mercury, “between the three (Brian, Roger, Freddie) we created a 160-200 piece choir effect.”
“There was a section of “No, no, no” to do. Those were the days of 16 track studios. We did so many overdubs on the 16 tracks for that song, we just kept piling it on and on, that the tape went transparent because it just couldn’t take any more. I think it snapped in two places as well.”
Once the overdubs had been done, the mixing was still to be done.
Studio engineer Robert Lee was there for the mixing.
“So many faders had to be precisely cued, it was really tricky. They spent hours and hours trying to get it right, never quite succeeding. And then, miracle, this was the one. Everything was going perfectly…nearly at the end. Everyone was tense with adrenaline but very happy. And then, suddenly the lights went out and in walks Jill (the sister of the owner of the studio) proudly carrying a huge cake aglow with candles and she was singing “Happy Birthday dear Freddie, Happy Birthday to you!”
“And they had to start over again…”
The single was famously picked up by DJ Kenny Everett who played it multiple times on his radio show, leading to Queen’s first number one chart position. Yet at the time the single was not an obvious choice. It seems incredible now, but Bohemian Rhapsody might not have been released as a single….
Said Brian May, “There were contenders (for first single). We were thinking of The Prophet’s Song” at one point…”
That would have been the equivalent of having Lionel Messi on the subs bench in your football team’s cup final in which you’re a goal down, and then choosing to bring on Dame Maggie Smith for the last twenty minutes.
“I’d say something like Rhapsody was a big risk, and it worked.” said Freddie Mercury, looking back.
“It had a very big risk factor. The radio people didn’t like it initially because it was too long, and the record companies said they couldn’t market it that way….We had numerous rows. EMI were shocked…”a six minute single? You must be joking!” They said. But it worked….that single sold over a million and a quarter copies in Britain alone, which is just outrageous. Imagine all those grandmothers grooving to it….”
On a final note, perhaps most revealing about the internal tensions of the band at the time is the story of the b-side.
Roger Taylor had a less than mature reaction to Mercury’s composition being the first single. According to Roy Thomas Baker he locked himself in a cupboard until his own composition “I’m In Love With My Car” was allowed to be the b-side (and would therefore get the same royalties as the a-side). It took Queen a dozen years to get that out of their system. By the time of “The Miracle” album Queen decided to split all songwriting credits -and therefore royalties – equally between them.
- Leslie Ann Jones – “Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography”
- “Diamond Star Halo” by Tiffany Murray.
- The 3rd Mojo collection
- “Is This The Real Life” by Mark Blake
Categories: Rock Music