No, don’t run. Come back! I know that title is enough to scare off any right-minded person, but bear with me. Yes, good cover versions are all fine and dandy. But there’s also pleasure to be had from a bad cover version…
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, by G4 (originally a #1 in 1975, for Queen)
If ever a song was ‘uncoverable’, then that song is probably ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Credit then to pop-opera (Popera?) group G4, for giving it a go, and for proving just how impossible a job it is. It’s not that it’s a shockingly bad record; it simply adds nothing to the original. The vocals reach nothing like the heights (quite literally) of Freddie Mercury, and the music is karaoke backing track at best. They should have gone somewhere different with it – full-on opera treatment, a capella, something… G4 were runners-up in the very first season of the X-Factor in 2004, finishing behind Steve Brookstein, who we will sadly have to deal with in our regular countdown… This was their only UK hit. I remembered it existing, but I had completely forgot that this version actually made #9 in the charts!
‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’, by Paris Hilton (originally a #1 in 1978, for Rod Stewart)
The thought of Paris Hilton covering ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ is almost too obvious to be true. No comedy writer would dare be so unimaginative. But here we are. The final track on her thus far only album ‘Paris’ sees Hilton breathing her way through this pretty faithful cover of Rod Stewart’s polarising 5th #1 single. Since this album came out in 2006, she has drip fed us a string of singles, including 2019’s brilliantly titled ‘B.F.A. (Best Friend’s Ass)’. Of course she has never topped her first single, the… *whisper it verysoftly* … actually quite brilliant, reggae-tinged, ‘Stars Are Blind’.
It’s time to sound the ‘iconic intro’ klaxon. That bass line, those two piano notes, the handclaps and the finger-clicks… They’re impossible to mistake. Unless you mistake them for, you know, the song that sampled them…
Under Pressure, by Queen (their 2nd of six #1s) & David Bowie (his 3rd of five #1s)
2 weeks, 15th – 29th November 1981
But we’re not there yet, thankfully. We’ve got the original to enjoy first. It’s one of those #1s that come along now and then, one that I could sing along to pretty much in its entirety – even Freddie Mercury’s ad-libs – and yet haven’t actually listened to in years.
One of the first things that stands out is that we have two of the most iconic singers in rock ‘n’ roll history, trying to out-frontman each other. Mercury in particular seems to be asserting himself as the alpha rock star: scatting, soaring into falsetto, taking the Why can’t we give love, give love, give love… line into the stratosphere.
For me, though, it’s Bowie who gets the best bits. From the opening Pressure!, to the driving It’s the terror of knowing… line, to the closing ‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word… I have never sang this at karaoke, but I can imagine it would be great fun. It’s a song full of little moments, and it would be nigh on impossible to camp it up more than Freddie and David do.
The ‘little moments’ idea is actually worth expanding on here. Although ‘Under Pressure’ sounds nothing like the song that marked Queen’s only previous appearance on this blog, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, it is far from being a verse-bridge-chorus kind of pop song. Like ‘Bo Rap’, it’s lots of little segments stitched together, apparently because the two singers recorded most of their parts in separate studios. According to Brian May: “you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” It could have been a hot mess, but it somehow works wonderfully.
Until today, I had never quite realised what this song was about. It’s quite clear though: it’s about pressure, pressure that puts people on streets. It’s about being a good person, about not sitting on the fence, about giving love one more chance… The video doesn’t feature either act, instead it shows crowds of people spliced with shots from old horror movies, buildings collapsing and, most tellingly, scenes from the Great Depression: ‘2 million unemployed’ one sign reads. I’ve never thought of this as a political song, but it is. The Specials have a rival…
Like ‘Ghost Town’, the message here doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the song (clearly, as I’d missed the message for the past twenty years). And in a just world this would be each act’s eighth or ninth chart-topper, given the hits that both had churned out since the early seventies. But it was just Bowie’s third, and Queen’s second. And amazingly, for a band so synonymous with this decade… ‘I Want to Break Free’, ‘Radio Gaga’, Live Aid… ‘Under Pressure’ is their only #1 of the 1980s. In fact, the bass riff from this song will be back at #1 before they are…
Only kidding. To tell the truth, I always thought that ‘We Are the Champions’ was released as a double-‘A’ with ‘We Will Rock You’. It wasn’t, at least not in the UK, where ‘We Will Rock You’ was the B-side. But if ever there was a song that didn’t need any support, that could stand alone as a statement, ’twas this one.
It’s not that ‘We Are the Champions’ invented the rock opera. But before this, rock operas were spread out over entire albums. Queen managed to get the form down to three perfect minutes. The choruses: rock, soaring rock. The verses: pure Freddie Mercury theatre. The way he toys with the line You brought me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it…! is sublime. It doesn’t come close to scanning with the song’s rhythm, but he makes it work.
This record has been slightly lost to sports events now, blasted out after every cup final and league title because, well, no time for losers. But in its original form it feels like more of a positivity anthem. We are the champions, all of us, and we’ve all had to struggle to get there. Mercury himself, of course, was no stranger to not having things easy, growing up non-white and non-heterosexual in a time not much inclined to accept either of those things. And yet he took the sand kicked in his face and came through…
It’s easy to be cynical, and I can be cynical about most things in life… But I refuse to be cynical about this song. It’s irrepressible. It’s been confirmed, in a 2011 study by actual scientists, to be the catchiest song ever written. And in the recent ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ biopic, Queen’s performance of this song at Live Aid drew the film to a close and sent me out the cinema thinking, briefly, that I had just seen the best movie ever (I hadn’t, but there are few films that wouldn’t be improved by having a performance of ‘We Are the Champions’ tacked on the end…)
I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this entry. I mean, A) How do you say anything about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that hasn’t been said before? And B) When are you ever in the mood to sit and listen to it on repeat? (Though actually, I could probably play this one from beginning to end, in my head, from memory…)
Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen (their 1st of six #1s)
9 weeks, from 23rd November 1975 – 25th January 1976
I can remember hearing this record for the first time. That must mean something, right? That must be proof of this song’s place in our lives? I was at the kitchen table, aged seven or so, playing with some Lego, and my dad was playing this, loud. And singing. My dad does not normally play music loud, or sing. So seven-year-old me sat up and took notice. What was this record that had turned my father into a headbanger?
Is this the real life, Is this just fantasy…? If I had to rate the three parts (or is it four?) of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the first would be my favourite. Freddie’s voice… Mama, Just killed a man… and his luxuriant piano. The singer is haunted by his past, his crimes, and is setting out alone. Mama, Ooh-ooooh-ooh… If that was it, if this were a three-minute ballad, it’d still be great. But, of course, that is not it. ‘Tis but the amuse-bouche.
In comes Brian May, with the most outrageous piece of guitaristry in a #1 single since ‘Voodoo Chile’, and then… You know what comes next. This is the bit I remember hearing as a kid. You do have to step back and applaud the fact that the band managed to sandwich this bit into a pop single. In terms of the story, it represents, I think, the singer’s inner torment at what he’s done. Beelzebub, Has a devil put aside, For ME!
Then comes the head-banging section, the Wayne’s World bit, my second favourite part. It’s proper hard rock, almost heavy metal – a sound that we have very rarely heard in any of the previous 381 chart-toppers. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ really is a deeply strange strong, and a bizarre #1. But it is also so much a part of the furniture that people no longer stop to wonder what the hell it’s about. Is it a tale of a Faustian pact? Is it Mercury coming to terms with his sexuality? Or is it, as the band maintain, all nonsense?
And, for then the coda, it’s back to Freddie and his piano. The clincher. Any way the wind blows… Done, and exhale. The stories around the song’s recording and release are well-known: the record execs’ reluctance, Kenny Everett playing it on repeat… I enjoyed the scene in the recent movie – a movie that wasn’t as bad as everyone made out – where the band wonder if Freddie’s lost his mind while recording the Galileo! Galileo! part.
People always name ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as one of the longest songs ever, and certainly one of the longest #1s. But it’s barely six minutes long, and feels even shorter, ranking it pretty far down the ‘long number ones’ list. Even ‘I’m Not In Love’, from earlier in 1975, went on for ten seconds more. What was long was its stay at the top of the charts. No record has spent nine weeks at #1 since ‘Rose Marie’ managed eleven, twenty years back. Add to that the fact that it will be back on top shortly after Freddie Mercury’s death, and we’re looking at one of the longest-running #1s, ever.
In my post on ‘Space Oddity’ – isn’t it amazing to think that these two classic records so nearly met one another atop the charts! – I named David Bowie as an artist woefully represented by his chart-toppers. Well, to that short list add Queen, who will only have two more before they lose their frontman, and then descend into some highly questionable duets by the turn of the century. All that to come…
Anyway, after I wrap this up I will go back to never choosing to listening to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, just hearing it by osmosis (and when forced to join in with it at karaoke nights…) I don’t hate it – it is an amazing piece of music – and yet I think it works best as a memory, of me aged seven, staring open-mouthed at my dad moshing around the living-room.