A lavish production well ahead of its time, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' remains one of British rock's finest moments. Twenty years after its original release, Mark Cunningham learns how the mercurial muse was committed to tape from its producer, Roy Thomas Baker, and (then assistant) mix engineer, Gary Langan.
Few singles can boast the technical and commercial achievements of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Released on October 31, 1975, it was a production beyond comparison, residing at the top of the UK chart for nine weeks and honoured in 1977 by the BPI as 'The Best Single Of The Last 25 Years'. Later, propelled by the tragic death of its composer, Freddie Mercury, the single returned to Number One for a second time in 1991.
Metamorphosing from wistful ballad to an operatic pastiche with a fiery rock climax, all within six short minutes, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was greeted like manna from heaven in the dull musical wasteland between glam‑rock and punk. Although 'Killer Queen', a year earlier, showed the band was a cut above the rest of the rock pack in terms of inventiveness, nothing could possibly prepare the listener for 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. With one broad sweep, it sealed Queen's future in the Premier Division of rock performers and studio experimentalists.
Recording began at Rockfield Studio 1 near Monmouth on August 24, 1975, after a 3‑week rehearsal period in Herefordshire. During the making of the track, however, a further four studios — SARM (East), Scorpion, Wessex and Roundhouse — were used. At the time it was the most expensive single ever made and guitarist Brian May was to later refer to the track's parent album, A Night At The Opera, as "our Sgt Pepper".
Vital to Queen's palette of sound was producer Roy Thomas Baker who, while at Decca and Trident Studios, had gained vast experience in rock, opera, and classical music. Baker had already produced Queen's first three albums (Queen, Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack) by the time Mercury casually previewed a new song called 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Little did the producer realise that every ounce of his acquired expertise would be called upon in moulding this epic.
Baker recalls his first hearing of the song: "We were going out to dinner one night and I met Freddie at his apartment in Kensington. He sat down at his piano and said, 'I'd like to play you a song that I'm working on at the moment.' So he played the first part and said, 'This is the chord sequence', followed by the interim part, and although he didn't have all the lyrics together yet, I could tell it was going to be a ballady number. He played a bit further through the song and then stopped suddenly, saying, 'This is where the opera section comes in.' We both just burst out laughing. I had worked with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at Decca where I learned a lot about vocals and the way vocals are stressed, so I was probably one of the few people in the whole world who knew exactly what he was talking about.
"It was the first time that an opera section had been incorporated into a pop record, let alone a Number One. It was obviously very unusual and we originally planned to have just a couple of 'Galileos'. But things often have a habit of evolving differently once you're inside the studio, and it did get longer and bigger. The beginning section was pretty spot on and the end section was fairly similar, although we obviously embellished it with guitars and lots of overdubs. But the opera section ended up nothing like the original concept, because we kept changing it and adding things to it."
Baker and Queen recorded the basic backing track in three sections at Kingsley Ward's Rockfield Studios, later transferring to Scorpion Studios in North London and SARM for work on the guitar overdubs and extensive vocals. "The first half or ballad section was done with piano, drums and bass — the normal routine. We never really started the opera section at that point. We just left a 30‑second strip of tape on the reel for later use, not knowing that we would even overrun it. Then the end rock section was recorded as a separate song, in the way that we would normally record a loud rock number of that period. The thing that made it difficult was that even the end had lots of vocals on it (the 'Ooh yeah, ooh yeah' part), so we had to record the basic backing track of drums, bass, guitar and piano, then do the background vocals without having the lead vocal on first. That wasn't the regular way of doing things, because the lead vocal would normally dictate the phrasing of the background vocals. But we wouldn't have had enough tracks left for the rich backing vocals if we hadn't gone down this route.
"The opera bit was getting longer, and so we kept splicing huge lengths of tape on to the reel. 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! This went on over a three or four day period, while we decided on the length of the section. That section alone took about three weeks to record, which in 1975 was the average time spent on a whole album.
"We formed a 3‑part harmony by recording one harmony at a time and bouncing. So we did three tracks of the first part and bounced it to one track, three of the second, and three of the third. We would then double bounce to one section, so that particular phrase would have a 3‑part harmony just on one track. We would do this to each background vocal part across the song and ended up with fourth generation dupes on just one of the parts. By the time we mixed two of the other parts together, the first part was up to eight generations. This was before we wore out the master and began making 24‑track to 24‑track tape transfers. Once that had happened, the distortion factor on those vocals was very, very high."
Although a project of this magnitude would understandably cause anxiety among many in Baker's position, the technical restraints of the era did not alarm him. "If something had to be longer, we would just add extra tape. If we needed more tracks, we would track bounce to free some more room on the tape. The making of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was basically one continuous track bounce!"
Due to the complex nature of the recording, it is not surprising that the occasional vocal faux‑pas was noted by Baker's keen ears. He was not militaristic, however. "There were a few harmonies that were a little dissident, such as two notes next to each other which weren't quite spot on in passing phrases. We left those there, because they weren't classed as mistakes. In classical music they are allowable, whereas in rock music they normally are not. But in passing phrases it seems to work OK. If there was anything we heard at the time which we thought we wouldn't get away with, we would just wipe it and re‑record it. So everything you hear was planned, albeit disjointedly planned, the way it should be."
How were the Queen band members positioned in relation to each other for the backing track?
"Roger Taylor sat behind his drum kit at the live end of the studio and John Deacon was against the wall, with his Marshall bass stack on the right‑hand side as you looked out of the control room window. Brian was in a portable isolation booth and Freddie was at the piano, close to the window.
"We weren't into multiple snare miking back then, so there was just a single mic on the snare. We tended to use mostly condenser mics at that time and generally Neumann U67s or U87s on the toms and overhead. The transformation between U67s or U87s was going on at that point and studios usually had one or the other. An AKG D12 was used on the bass drum. They were the days before the D112, which seems to be the standard now. John's bass was DI'd. Studios tended to make up their own DI boxes then, because no manufacturers appeared to be making them. They weren't active DI boxes either; people would make them with a transformer sticking out of the end with wires going all over the place. There was always a slight sound loss when you plugged them into the amp, so we had to compensate for that. We also used an Electro‑Voice 666 and sometimes a Neumann U67 condenser on John's cabinet to pick up a bit of air.
I was standing at the back of the control room and you just knew that you were listening for the first time to a big page in history. Something inside me told me that this was a red letter day, and it really was.
"Freddie's piano was miked with two Neumann U67s and we also set up a Shure mic for his guide vocal. He didn't sing all the way through the backing track takes, just the first couple of words of each line as a reference for the band."
But, as ever, much experimentation was undertaken before Brian May's guitar sound was perfected. "We used to have a few different types of mics set up, from which we would choose or blend signals for any one given sound, and it's a technique that I still use today. Brian's Vox AC30 amps were backless, so we also set up some mics behind them and near the wall, to capture some ambience and the full spectrum of the guitar sound. There was always a lot of experimentation going on during our sessions. Brian generally used AC30s but John Deacon had also thrown together something like a Tandy Radio Shack speaker with a 3 Watt amplifier, and we tried that with a treble booster. We tried putting microphones down metal and concrete tubes to get more of a honky sound, and it all seemed to work. It certainly all stands up today when I hear it all again."
While the first three Queen albums had been recorded on 16‑track equipment, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' benefitted from 24‑track technology, although not without a few problems.
"We found that the different 24‑track machines we used had different formats, but we managed to compensate for that. We just used the one machine, because there was no syncing available to us. We started off at Rockfield on the Studer 24‑track, which looked like a huge fish fryer. Then we did the vocal overdubs at Scorpion Studios, where they had a Telefunken machine. Telefunken had this great idea to make their edge tracks (1 and 24) wider than the inside tracks, because they claimed there would be a higher risk of dropouts on the edges, but this made their machine totally incompatible with others. Unfortunately, Telefunken's attitude was: 'We invented the tape machine, we can do what we want!' So we threw that machine out and used a variety of machines from there onwards, including an Ampex which sounded phenomenally good but had transport tension problems; a track would play at a different speed by the end of the reel. The only contemporary machine we never tried was a Stephens."
Along with engineers Mike Stone, Gary Lyons and Geoff Workman, Baker took the helm on a variety of consoles at the sessions, including a custom‑built desk at Rockfield, a Cadac at the Roundhouse, and "an old, blue Neve with big knobs on it" at Wessex. When Baker and Queen retreated to SARM (East) Studios for the mixing sessions, they were treated to a Trident B console.
"That console was the second B‑series model that Trident delivered from Malcolm Toft. It was a great board with such a unique sound, although I couldn't say why. I noticed that when it was resold, it was described as the board used to mix 'Bohemian Rhapsody', and I think they got more money than they originally paid for it. We used an MCI machine at SARM which we called 'Munchy, Crunchy and Intermittent', because it was always falling apart!"
Now famous for his work with The Art Of Noise and Trevor Horn, and productions for Spandau Ballet and Mick Jagger, Gary Langan was a fresh‑faced, 18‑year‑old assistant engineer at SARM when he came to work alongside Baker, Stone and Lyons on the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' mix. Langan's first task at the sessions was to put together a composite multitrack master from the three distinct sections of the song. He says: "Nobody really knew how it was going to sound as a whole 6‑minute song until it was spliced together. I was standing at the back of the control room and you just knew that you were listening for the first time to a big page in history. Something inside me told me that this was a red letter day, and it really was."
One new item of equipment which was installed at SARM only days before the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' mix was the Alison computerised mixing system. Langan laughs: "It was the first automated system in the world, but it was ridiculous because it never worked properly! You had to store data on two tracks, so you'd end up with no more than 22 tracks of music on your tape, to provide room for the data."
Every time Freddie came up with another 'Galileo', I would add another piece of tape to the reel... That section alone took about three weeks to record, which in 1975 was the average time spent on a whole album.
Baker adds: "It was an old VCA system, which was responsible for the distortion at the end of the opera section. If you listen to the record closely you'll notice it. But there wasn't a single thing we could do about it. It was a combination of the extra track‑bouncing and the use of the old VCA technology that was employed for the computerisation. When it got to that stage, the meters were so pinned that the VCAs in the board would not take any more volume. So we had to turn the computer off and the end rock section of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was actually mixed by hand in the traditional way, where we each had control over a fader or group of faders."
It was planned that the highly pronounced snare beat at the beginning of the heavy rock section would be a distinct edit point, its crashing velocity a by‑product of the manual mixing. "That was the point at which the VCAs were turned off," Baker explains, "but I did also push it there. You hear a marked difference on the end section, where it totally cleans up; it's crystal clean and loud. It wasn't planned that way; it was purely an error because we couldn't get rid of that distortion. It didn't worry me too much though, because one of the trademarks of Queen was the heavily saturated sound.
"On Queen II and some of the big Queen themes, especially 'Bohemian Rhapsody', the generation copies caused so much distortion on Roger's drum tracks that it became a trademark sound in itself — which people have since tried to copy with outboard equipment. Even today, people are still trying to recreate that in‑your‑face distortion with machinery! So by accident we started a trend without even knowing it, in the same way that with an electric guitar, if you turn it up to 10, you'll hear distortion. But that became the band's sound."
With a band whose four individuals were no shrinking violets when it came to writing songs and taking the creative lead, one of Roy Thomas Baker's major tasks was to singularly encourage the band to work as a concise unit while keeping the distinctive Queen sound. "It was a more difficult situation than working with a band with only one songwriter, because they were all so good. But it didn't matter who had written the song; it still had to sound like a Queen record.
"They were great to work with, although like most bands there was an element of internal bickering. I always told them that it was too embarrassing for them to have an argument in front of everyone in the studio. So I would always make a room available for them to go to and argue in private. I think most of their arguments were about who had the B‑side — that royalty thing. I remember Roger moping about because he really wanted his song, 'I'm In Love With My Car', on the B‑side of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. He locked himself in the tape closet at SARM and said he wouldn't come out until they agreed to put it on!" [Eventually, they did.]
The trend‑setting video, made to promote the single, was directed by Bruce Gowers and cost just £4000, but information regarding the total cost of the audio recording seems to have disappeared. "It must have been very expensive," Baker comments, "but it wasn't something that worried me, because it didn't seem to be my department. As always, I was out to make the best record possible. I was just given a start date and a deadline for the whole album. We were still mixing one of the songs for the album during the press playback at the Roundhouse, so the press heard one track as a rough mix. We never worried about budgets at that time, but it was cheaper to record then."
Unfortunately, there are no rough mixes around to audibly demonstrate how 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was created in stages. This can be attributed to Queen's paranoia of having unfinished recordings lying around the studio. Baker explains the rationale behind it: "We never did a rough mix because we all had Philips dictaphones that we'd stick near the studio monitors and record a mix for private listening. We'd attempt some rough mixes ourselves for other songs, just to see if edits would work, but rough mixes had a habit of getting into the record company's hands prematurely. So if we ever did any, we would hide them or disguise them. Once, at Trident Studios, Billy Cobham was working next door and we hid our tapes in that control room, labelling them 'Cilly Bobham'. If it had been labelled 'Queen', we knew that EMI would have a copy the next day."
20 years on from the original release of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', Baker rightly believes that the song still deserves attention as a creative monument. "I listen to it now and it's a great piece of art, although I didn't realise at the time we had made a classic. It was the first combination of opera and rock, and the summit of everything we were doing before recording and mixing became automated. If we hadn't produced certain effects by hand, nobody would have bothered to invent the box that did it automatically, and I'd like to think that a lot of the stuff we were doing in the '70s started trends and got copied later by machines."
After working on the album A Night At The Opera, Baker took a break from the Queen camp and concentrated his activities on American bands, only to be coaxed back by Roger Taylor for one more Queen album (Jazz) in 1978. Does 'Bohemian Rhapsody' represent the pinnacle of Baker's achievements?
"It's definitely one of several, but I saw a backlash against over‑production so I changed. One of the ways was to get involved with The Cars, because I could use all my production techniques as a way of under‑producing. The punk thing was bubbling under and bands were trying to get through with a more raw, understated sound, and I really enjoyed making sparse records with The Cars and Alice Cooper. I could see the backlash coming, though, just as I could see it happening in the 1980s and out of that came Pearl Jam and Nirvana. There are times I can clearly recall where I have made a conscious move to change my direction, and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was the pinnacle of my over‑indulgence as a producer."
Roy Thomas Baker served his 'audio apprenticeship' at Decca Records in the heady mid‑1960s, starting as a tea boy‑cum‑second engineer and quickly progressing to an engineer's role. Then, in early 1969, Baker joined the newly‑opened Trident Studios as a staff engineer — a move which was to help make his name. "It was a great period for me, because it gave me the chance to work with international artists," says Baker. "One day I'd be working with Zappa, the next Santana, and I'd be going from American music, which I love, to American‑orientated English music like T‑Rex and Free. It was a great stepping stone."
Trident was one of the first UK studios to have 8‑track facilities, a sufficient reason for The Beatles to temporarily leave their Abbey Road 'home' for the recording of 'Hey Jude'. In friendly competition with George Martin's AIR production company, Trident started its own independent initiative, Trident Audio Productions, after luring some of the country's best engineering talent, including EMI's Ken Scott and Robin Cable from Saga.
"Ken was working with Bowie and Robin was engineering for Elton John and other more mainstream acts with Gus Dudgeon. The people at Trident weren't too happy about starting a production company, as they felt they would be competing against their clients for studio time, but they realised there was a lot of talent out there which needed an outlet. It was around then that I first met Queen."
Although Queen and Baker were united in the belief that 'Bohemian Rhapsody' should be a single, the song's 6‑minute length gave EMI's decision‑makers cause for concern. "It was, after all, breaking all the rules," says Baker. "So we rang EMI and told them we had a single, inviting them down to have a listen. We told them how long the track was and before they had even heard it, the comment was, 'Oh, I don't know. I don't think we'll be able to get any radio play with a song that long.' We said, 'But you haven't heard it yet.' They said, 'Well, just going by what the current formula is, if it's longer than three and a half minutes, they won't play it.'
"The way I rationalised it was that there had previously been Richard Harris' 'MacArthur Park' and Barry Ryan's 'Eloise' (1968) which were very long, and that justified to me that it was probably the right time to release a long song and get away with it. We thought we'd better get some outside advice and around the corner to Scorpion Studios was Capital Radio, where Kenny Everett worked. We invited him over, for his professional opinion, and his response was very animated. He said, 'I love this song. It's so good, they'll have to invent a new chart position. Instead of it being Number One, it'll be Number Half!' It was the oddest thing I'd ever heard! So we all went out for an Indian and Ev asked for a copy. We had a reel‑to‑reel copy but we told him he could only have it if he promised not to play it. 'I won't play it,' he said, winking...
"On his radio show the following morning he played the beginning of it, saying, 'Oh, I can't play anymore, 'cause I promised.' Then he played a bit more later. Eventually, he played the track 14 times over the course of the weekend. By Monday, there were hordes of fans going to the record stores to buy 'Bohemian Rhapsody', only to be told it wasn't out yet. There was a huge backlash at our end from EMI's promotion department, who told us we were undermining them by giving Capital Radio a copy. But they said that we had no option, because they told us that nobody would want to play it. In the meantime, John Reid [Queen's then new manager] had got together with the MD at EMI Records and they just went ahead and started to press the single. During the same weekend that Ev was playing the song, there was a guy called Paul Drew, who ran the RKO stations in the States. He happened to be in London and heard it on the radio. He managed to get a copy of the tape and started to play it in the States, which forced the hand of Queen's USA label, Elektra. It was a strange situation where radio on both sides of the Atlantic was breaking a record that the record companies said would never get airplay!"
Queen's early albums were all notable for the inclusion of the phrase 'Nobody played synthesizer' in the sleeve notes. Many people assumed it to be a reaction against the growing use of synthesizers in rock and pop music, although producer Roy Thomas Baker insists that this was no moral protest.
"There was no stipulation that we wouldn't have any synths, but the statement 'No synths' was printed on the album sleeves because of peoples' lack of intellect in the ears department. Many people couldn't hear the difference between a multitracked guitar and a synthesizer. We would spend four days multi‑layering a guitar solo and then some imbecile from the record company would come in and say, 'I like that synth!'"
SARM started life at the beginning of the 1970s as a tape copying facility with two Revox machines, trading in Osborn Street, Whitechapel, as 'Sound And Recording Mobiles'. Encouraged by his session musician father, Gary Langan joined SARM straight from school. He recalls: "Gary Lyons and Mike Stone taught me everything I knew about engineering. There isn't anybody these days like those two guys. Compared with many of today's engineers, they had a different, better level of technical skill."
Langan first became involved with Queen when Roy Thomas Baker brought two songs from the Sheer Heart Attack album to SARM for remixing. "After working at SARM on a few projects, it seemed that Queen didn't want to mix anywhere else for some time. So I ended up working on all of their 'Marx Brothers' albums — A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races, and News Of The World.
"The only band with whom I'd worked was Queen; I didn't know about how other bands recorded. So spending weeks doing guitar solos with Brian and even more weeks doing vocals seemed like the norm to me. My job was really to learn and look after the band. To be 'seen but not heard' was the task in those days, but I became really good friends with all of them."
It was in 1972, while on an inspection tour of the De Lane Lea studio complex in Wembley, North London, that Roy Thomas Baker first met Queen, who were then still using the band name Smile. He recalls: "Queen were recording free of charge while the engineers tested. I didn't know of the band then and I was more concerned with going over to see what this big, new studio was like. That's when I ran into the guys and heard their demos. They were doing a song called 'Keep Yourself Alive', which immediately sounded like a hit to me. I just thought that here was a band doing something new and fresh. You could tell Queen were so good just by listening to the musical content at that stage, and sitting down and chatting to Freddie Mercury."
After signing to Trident Audio Productions, Queen began work on their debut album [Queen] with Baker and engineer John Anthony during 'downtime' at Trident, often working from 2am through to the following lunchtime. Brian May's idea for lush, multi‑layered guitar parts was already in place by the time of Baker's arrival. "Brian was already on to something different, in terms of trying to orchestrate his guitars in a different way to how most people would approach it. I had quite a bit of an orchestral background through working on classical music at Decca, and that helped with structuring the phrasing of the guitar parts. We never thought of Brian's guitar as a raunchy instrument, like most guitarists do; it was an orchestral instrument. Brian's great strength was in phrasing a part then double‑tracking or harmonising very accurately and quickly."
The gong which graces the dying moments of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' made its debut on the experimental 1974 Queen II album. "It became a trademark which started with us pissing around during the second album. We were experimenting with ideas, both musically for themselves and technically for me. Freddie said to me, 'If there are any ideas that you've had that you can't use with boring, human type bands, we'll try them out on this.' A lot of it was backward cymbals, backward gongs, and backward tom fills. Anything that Queen ever did was encompassed in that second album. Queen II was like the 'kitchen sink' of every known Queen effect. Musically, there were the ballads, the heavy bits, and complex arrangements — it all stemmed from there. Phasing too, and everything had to be done by hand, because there were no effects boxes that could do it automatically. We had to get tapes and run them around the room by hand, just to get phasing."