'Bohemian Rhapsody,' We Will Not Let You Go

Originally published on June 18, 2011 10:01 am
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SCOTT SIMON, host:

You probably know the song, an instant hit on its release in 1975, reborn when Freddie Mercury died, revived by a carload of head-banging slackers in "Wayne's World." It's Queen's opera-inspired "Bohemian Rhapsody," back in the spotlight again. It's been named the U.K.'s favorite pop song ever by listeners of the BBC.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) I'm just a poor boy, poor boy. I need no sympathy, because Im...

SIMON: The meaning and inspiration behind "Bohemian Rhapsody" has been debated for decades.

Music writer Alan Connor, who's also a freelancer for the BBC, joins us now from London with his own interpretation.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ALAN CONNOR (Music Writer): What a pleasure to be with you to talk about this song.

SIMON: Let's listen to that verse where people can begin to get just a little -begin to scratch our heads.

Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) I see a little silhouetto of a man. Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me. Galileo, Galileo, Galileo...

SIMON: Okay, Scaramouch, fandango...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...Galileo.

Mr. CONNOR: Magnifico.

SIMON: Why - is it just like a nice nonsense words, as it would be in a children's story - Dr. Seuss or something?

Mr. CONNOR: I don't think so. I think you can kind of look at each other the odd words and I don't think they make sense in context. Scaramouch is a stock character from 16th-century Italian art form commedia dell'arte, which is boastful character who's ultimately put down and humiliated by the other characters.

So if you listen to that little section as a trial, the essential character who's killed a person is being yelled at and humiliated by the strange singing judges.

SIMON: While we're speaking of Freddie Mercury, I guess I didn't know until just a few minutes ago, that he was Parsi born in Zanzibar.

Mr. CONNOR: Yeah.

SIMON: Which could explain another lyric, right?

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) Bismillah. No, we will not let you go. Let him go...

Mr. CONNOR: He was of Parsi heritage. And one of the other nice sounding words in there is Bismillah, which is an Arabic way of invoking God's name and asking him to intervene. So it's a word that Freddie would have been familiar with from his upbringing. And I would say it fits again in the song. He's saying, Oh my God, help me.

SIMON: Why do you think the song endures after all these years?

Mr. CONNOR: The thing about it is its sheer sonic bombast. There are so many parts to it that you're bound to have a favorite bit; whether it's the kind of head-banging bit, or the opera, or the quiet bits at the start and the end.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) Nothing really matters. Anyone can see, nothing...

SIMON: Alan Connor, music writer speaking with us from London, thanks so much.

Mr. CONNOR: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) Nothing really matters to me.

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.