How Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Ushered in the Video Age
They unwittingly helped usher in the video era along the way.
It's all part of the song's exceedingly unlikely path to success, which only started after the band won a war with label executives who feared "Bohemian Rhapsody" was too long and too strange to find a foothold at pop radio. Once it started its rapid ascent to the top of the charts in the fall of 1975, Queen knew they'd be expected to perform the incredibly complex song on the long-running program Top of the Pops — and if they couldn't, they'd have to suffer the indignity of seeing it played over a routine by the dance troupe Pan's People.
Faced with a difficult situation, the group improvised, setting aside a budget of £3,500 and hiring director Bruce Gowers for a four-hour shoot that took place without storyboarding or much of any rehearsal — and found Gowers rolling tape while the band members kept one eye on the clock, intent on getting out of the shoot in time to make it to the pub before last call.
"It was filmed with the express purpose of giving it to Top of the Pops. For those of us who remember it, it wasn't a classy program. Top of the Pops didn't have a good reputation among musicians. Nobody liked it, really," guitarist Brian May told the BBC. "It always seemed like a bit of a travesty. If your music had any meaning, it seemed to trickle away when you were standing on a box in a studio with lots of kids around. But you could hardly knock it because it was the way that records were sold."
Music videos were nothing new in 1975, but at the time, they were still essentially a novelty, and were rarely afforded the type of wide platform provided by a program like Top of the Pops. "I didn’t get commission and was just a hired freelancer," Gowers later recalled. "We didn’t really know what things cost in those days as we weren’t used to doing videos. We had no idea if £3,500 was cheap or not." To make up for the lack of prep time, he and the group simply made the best of what was around: "Everything was set up for their tour so they performed as they would in front of an audience – and it looked like they were."
Watch Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Video
Even though the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video came together in a slapdash manner, not to mention the time and financial constraints they faced, Gowers said the creative environment within the band — led by singer Freddie Mercury, who wrote the song — was "very focused." "There were no big egos, everyone was really easygoing," Gowers insisted. "Freddie was very professional and knew exactly what he wanted."
After the shoot — which did, in fact, end early enough for the band members to get a beer — Gowers did what he could with the scant amount of post-production time he had, working from input from Queen to stitch together a clip that, while visibly low-budget, boasted an impressive level of visual style. Incredibly, no one involved even knew whether the video was going to air until it actually did.
"We all sat around a TV at the editing facility with our fingers crossed, wondering whether it was going to be on – and then, wham! There it was," Gowers said. "The crazy thing is, when it aired the fans weren’t the only ones seeing it for the first time — the band were too."
The "Bohemian Rhapsody" video went on to become something of a viewing sensation, remaining in rotation throughout the single's incredible million-selling run, which included nine weeks at the top of the U.K. pop charts. Gowers later expressed a modicum of regret over the end product: "If we’d had more money and more time we would have made something that was a lot better than what it was." Still, he's among the many who've since credited its success with helping pave the way for the MTV era. "I always say it was six minutes that changed my whole life," he added. "It was also the greatest risk of Queen’s career."
Filming the video may have been a risk, but it was only one among several the band made at that point — and given that they were in the middle of scoring an enormous hit with what was then the most expensive single in rock history, they were growing accustomed to those risks paying off. Looking back on the shoot during his chat with the BBC, May was reluctant to assign too much importance to the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video, though he was willing to admit that Queen went a step further than many contemporaries.
"I know it's been called the first ever music video, but it's hard to actually define these things," May said with a shrug. "I know for a fact the Beatles made 35mm films of tracks — but ours was more like a mini-movie."
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