Youtube, Rick Beato
In one of the most comprehensive and fascinating dissections of a song ever, Rick Beato masterfully splices his interview with legendary Brian May with breakaways of him examining music and recording theory for one of the most iconic songs ever – Bohemian Rhapsody.
The breakdown starts with May talking about the musical genius of each of the members of Queen. According to him, Freddie, John, and Roger would pick things up so quickly they essentially did not rehearse the song at all.
“I don’t think we rehearsed it at all,” May laughed. “Freddie himself was like a metronome, but a metronome with a lot of balls…Roger would instantly lock in and Deacy had an amazing knack for finding the right pocket and finding the right place to be.”
May said the whole affair was just about jamming and playing around until they found the right sound, the right take.
“Whoever was manning the tape machine would be running the whole time just in case something good happened,” May continued.
Keep in mind that at the time of recording, the summer of 1975, that recordings were limited to 24 tracks so the group had to get creative in their mix, especially with a song as multilayered as Bohemian Rhapsody.
The vocal tracks would be recorded three at a time, then the harmonies, and then a higher harmony. All these got mixed down, or bounced, into a stereo track to save room. The catch was these changes were permanent and could not be adjusted later so the musicianship of the group really shown through in the complex process.
“Generally speaking we’d have it all mapped out. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie’s coming with his piece of paper with his little notes all over it. It was his dad’s company notepaper and he’s written A, B, C, C sharp, F, whatever, for every line because he’s worked it out on the piano, which is something we often did,” May recalls.
The recording process was meticulous, especially for the vocal harmonies because if they were too identical they would sound like two or three people sining. May says the imperfections and light mistiming of all the layers made the massive operatic sound of the song.
However, the best laid plans tend not to go to plan. May recalled that their tape machine was broken and slowly was eating away at their recordings.
“The machine was faulty…it was going over the playback head and a little bit of the oxide is scraping off each time and you can see a pile of sawdust underneath the head…which is a piece of music that you’ve just lost,” May recounted. “We quickly copied the tape across and started again, started with a fresh piece of tape because if we had gone on any longer we would have lost everything.”
May was not only tapped for vocal contributions in the infamous song, but also revealed that his iconic solo came from a vocal mindset and not a rock one. After listening to take after take from Freddie, May insisted that his solo act as a verse of the song, working melodically with Mercury instead of using the opportunity to breakaway.
“My melodies are not really rock melodies as such,” May said. “I can just hear something sweet and melodic, which seemed to be a continuation of what Freddie was doing, telling his story in the vocal. It might sound pretentious or just plain stupid, but I always hear the solo piece as part of the vocal.”
Beato’s interview with May revealed some new perspectives and yield some unexpected stories, but he also broke down the song in all its parts in a comprehensive, though at times very technical way. For music nerds or just fans of the song, the extended piece is well worth the watch.