As a talent, as a creative, as a personality, or as an icon, they really don’t make them quite like Freddie Mercury anymore. Which is not to say, of course, that we don’t have great singers or clever songwriters anymore, but when it comes to comparisons I think most of us would be hard pressed to find many apt candidates for Freddie. He was so decidedly different and unapologetically himself and, thanks to his confidence, style, and legendary voice, when most listen to a song that Freddie had a hand in his contributions are unmistakable. Thankfully, with the assistance of Brian May on guitar, Roger Taylor on drums, and John Deacon on bass, the immense ego and ability of Mercury had a formidable group of musicians, both as writers and performers, to help him realize his vision. What was his vision, you ask? Well, ever the eccentric, Freddie wanted to do something different, awesome, interesting, and his vehicle for such a project came in the form of what some might call operatic rock. Technically, it would be considered a work of progressive rock thanks to its heavy influence from 18th-19th century operas, but its roots don’t stop there. Queen, the name Mercury’s band had taken, had started to embrace more pop-oriented styles in order to craft radio friendly songs and also dabbled in their fair share of heavy metal and hard rock styles for their 1975 album. That album, today’s entry into the Musical Training Plan, is often considered their best and is the focus of a large chunk of the 2018 film about the band, Bohemian Rhapsody. Taking the name from a Marx Brothers’ film, the band named their opus A Night at the Opera.
An eclectic collection of songs that play together shockingly well, A Night at the Opera was a truly collaborative effort on the part of the band. Every member wrote at least one of the 12 songs on the album with Mercury authoring 5 and May authoring 4. The stark difference in ideas and sounds present between songs like “I’m in Love with my Car” and “The Prophet’s Song” or “Seaside Rendezvous” and “Death on Two Legs” make for a listening experience that never even comes close to growing stale. Each song is delightfully different and all are given a level of care that makes each feel worthwhile. There are, of course, highlights, but we can get to that later.
All but 3 songs on A Night at the Opera are sung by Freddie, even most of the ones that were not written by him. Roger Taylor lends his vocal talents to his song “I’m in Love with my Car” (a hilarious and fun rock cut) and Brian May gets his time in “39” and “Good Company”, a pair of songs that are always a blast thanks to their skiffle influences and Dixieland style jazz band, respectively. On A Night at the Opera, Brian May leaves the listener impressed not with his songwriting or singing ability so much as his proficiency on the guitar. His technical ability which shows itself in the solo on “Prophet’s Song” and the unusual 3/4 time fast rocking “Sweet Lady” comes close to competing with Mercury’s vocals, which is a feat in itself. What might impress me more, though, is May’s feel, that is, his ability to sit in any song and tweak his own style to better fit the track. Whether it’s using a different instrument like banjo or harp or trying to make the guitar part on “I’m in Love with my Car” fit before pivoting into “You’re my Best Friend”, May displays creativity and flexibility that few artists could dream of achieving. Maybe that’s what made him such a perfect artistic companion to Mercury, and maybe that’s why May’s greatest work comes in the form of a solo on Mercury’s magnum opus: “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a song that deserves a blog all its own. For a while I would have told you that this was my favorite song, and still when the occasional conversation about the greatest songs of popular music comes up, it’s only a matter of time before I mention “Bohemian Rhapsody”, assuming I don’t lead with it. Lyrically it is as poetic and expressive as it is enigmatic and labyrinthine. Mercury never quite gives us the in, always keeping the song out of our reach, but always allowing it to make us feel. Nobody knows what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about, and nobody ever will, but that only adds to the mythology surrounding this jewel on the crown of rock legends. Sonically it takes turns between being sparse and dense. At times open and barebones, it is all the more shocking when layers of vocals, electric instruments, and thunderous drums kick in. Instrumentally the arrangement is fantastic thanks to the collaboration between Mercury and May, both at the peak of their powers. The drums are crisp and powerful, the bass is unassuming but lays a foundation for the complex harmonies that will take place, the guitar is as powerful as it is beautiful, and, of course, Freddie Mercury puts on one of the singular vocal tour de forces in all of rock and roll, if not popular music at large. Opening with no less than 4 separate vocal parts layered over one another, Mercury conjures emotional beats one after another giving us regret and sadness before shifting into fear and discomfort and finally triumphant pride and anger. The song is told in 3-4 parts, depending on how you look at it, and all the way through Freddie stuns with a wide range of styles, tones, and pitches as he voices every character in his little opera, at times back and forth in rapid succession. Throughout he makes explicit reference to characters from the operas that inspired him, most notably the villainous fool Scaramouche and the titular hero of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. He also laces in reference to historical and religious figures such as Galileo Galilei, Beelzebub (another name for a devil), and Bismillah (the first word in the Quran, meaning “in the name of God”). All of these details have given way to a number of theories about the song’s true meaning, but ultimately it is up to the listener to pull from it what they will. Personally, I subscribe to the theory that the song represents Mercury’s struggle with his own sexuality and the battles he had to fight both externally and internally to be himself and be happy. But, again, there is no set meaning and, as with any great art, the beauty and interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.
Much like the subjects of our first 2 blogs this week, Mercury was taken from this world sooner than most would’ve liked. Before he went, though, he made his mark by being himself and creating incredible art for us with his one of a kind voice and endless creativity. This album, and more specifically “Bohemian Rhapsody” will undoubtedly live on, continuing to be discovered and beloved by generation after generation. I know that I’ll do my part and share the song with whatever kids my brothers and I have. For now, though, let’s just appreciate the gifts that the wonderful artists of our world have given us. Rest in Peace to the great Freddie Mercury, and thank you for reading.