Bohemian Rhapsody: The History and Mystery of One of the Best Songs Ever Made

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of Queen’s most famous songs. It’s reached fame all over the world and is considered one of the best songs ever recorded. Now, with the self-titled biopic out in theatres, more people are learning about the band and the late great Freddie Mercury.

The groundbreaking hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” is full of mystery, adding to its popularity. But we did the research. A lot of it. So if you want to know the full story of the infamous best-selling hit single, read on. Once you’re done, you can consider yourself an expert of Bohemian Rhapsody.

1. The Name of the Game

The title “Bohemian Rhapsody” is epic on its own and rather fitting for the song and the fame it received. The band members didn’t actually think Freddie Mercury was serious when he told them what the title would be. And if you’re a fan of Queen, then you probably already know that admirers like to refer to the song as “Bo Rhap.”

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Source: Getty Images

2. What’s in a Name?

So what does the name Bohemian Rhapsody even mean? Well, let’s break it down.

‘Bohemianism’ is a form of detaching from the popular culture. “Bohemian” people focus on developing their ties to nature, spirituality, and self. This kind of attitude is echoed in the song’s lyrics “easy come, easy go,” and “nothing really matters,” for example.

‘Rhapsody’ has a few meanings. It is an expression of powerful feelings and emotions. In technical music terms, it’s a free instrumental composition in one extended movement, usually, one that’s emotional or exuberant in character. The word also has a meaning in ancient Greek, which is an epic poem, or part of it, of a suitable length at one time.

Okay, now let’s move on the lyrics…

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Source: Getty Images

3. Years in the Making

Freddy Mercury wrote the song in his home in London. Which was different from the other songs that were typically written in the studio. He actually wrote the whole song on telephone books and scraps of paper, like a true creative genius.

According to Mercury’s friend Chris Smith (a keyboard player in Smile), Mercury first started developing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the late 1960s; 1968 to be exact. He used to play parts of songs he was writing at the piano. He came up with an opening line “Mama, just killed a man” but didn’t yet have a melody. He originally referred to his work in progress as “The Cowboy Song.”

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Source: Queen Zone

4. Freddie Had it All Planned Out

Producer Roy Thomas Baker spoke about how Mercury once played the opening ballad section on the piano for him, before going out to dinner. He said how “He played the beginning on the piano, then stopped and said, ‘And this is where the opera section comes in!’ Then we went out to eat dinner.”

Freddie was working on his masterpiece…

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Source: Loquesurja Records

5. His Baby From the Beginning

Apparently, Bohemian Rhapsody was all in Mercury’s mind before they even started. Brian May (the band’s guitarist) said “He knew exactly what he was doing… We just helped him bring it to life.” He also said that “It was really Freddie’s baby from the beginning. He came in and knew exactly what he wanted. The backing track was done with just piano, bass, and drums, with a few spaces for other things to go in … Freddie sang a guide vocal at the time, but he had all his harmonies written out, and it was really just a question of doing it.”

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Source: Getty Images

6. A Perfect Melody:

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is chock-full of beautiful and even haunting melodies. Roger Taylor, the band’s drummer, said he was sold right away on the song just by its melody.

Although the song was Mercury’s baby, the band still had lots of input, and not just in the actual recording. The guitar solo was by Brian May. He said he wanted it to be a counterpoint – a separate tune to the whole piece.

May tells us more little ‘secrets’…

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Source: Getty Images

7. Magnifico

Magnificooo-oooo-oo. Remember that part? Brian May said the “magnifico” part was their “favorite trick.” The “trick” was a method that in the 1930s was referred to as the “bells effect.” It’s when one person starts a harmony, and the rest follow, one after the other, with the first voice still going.

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Source: Youtube

8. A Matter of Composition

The song is very unusual for a number of reasons. For one, it has no chorus, which is rather uncommon in general, not to mention at that period. It also combines many different musical styles.

The song has five parts: Intro, Ballad, Opera, Rock, and Outro. Because of this, the song applies to many genres, including pop rock, hard rock, progressive rock, progressive pop, classic rock and even balladic.

Mercury intended for the song to be a ‘mock opera.’ He wanted it to be something outside the norm of rock songs. And that’s exactly what it ended up being.

So what does the song even mean? Let’s find out…

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Source: Getty Images

9. The Mystery of the Lyrics Begins

The song is undoubtedly different from the traditional songs you would have heard on the radio in the 1970s. Apart from its strange composition, the lyrics are mysterious, dark, and intriguing. They avoid the conventional love narratives and include references to murder and nihilism.

There are lyrics in the song in which the meaning can’t be disputed. The words “Bismillah,” “Scaramouch,” “Fandango,” and “Beelzebub” all have literal meanings. Let’s go over what these words mean, shall we?

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Source: Getty Images

10. Religious References

“Bismillah” means “in the name of Allah” and it’s a prayer used by Muslims at the beginning of any undertaking. Mercury’s parents were involved in the religion of Zoroastrianism. It’s an ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran that still exists there but is more predominant in India, where the descendants of Zoroastrian Iranian (Persian) immigrants are known as Parsis. Mercury was born in Zanzibar but was raised in India and England.

“Beelzebub” is one of the many names given to The Devil. It is from ancient Hebrew, literally meaning “lord of flies.”

Not just religioun but pieces of history too…

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Source: Getty Images

11. Historical References

“Scaramouch” in Italian means “A stock character from commedia dell’arte that appears as a boastful coward.” It also means “little skirmisher” or a cowardly buffoon. Dell’arte was an early form of professional theatre. You could say that Mercury was definitely a theatrical performer.

“Fandango” has two meanings. One is a lively Spanish dance for two people, typically accompanied by castanets or tambourine. The other meaning is a foolish or useless act or thing. Was Mercury referring to the dance or the foolish act? Or both?

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Source: Getty Images

12. Shout Out to Galileo

“Galileo” is a famous astronomer known for being the first to use a refracting telescope. But now is when speculation comes into play. Mercury may have written “Galileo” into the lyrics for the benefit of Brian May, who is an astronomy buff and in 2007, he earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

He completed his Ph.D. in 2007, almost 40 years after the band united. May has also collaborated with NASA and even co-founded an asteroid awareness campaign.

Everyone wanted to know what the lyrics were about. But did Mercury tell all?

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Source: Getty Images

13. From the Mouth of Freddie

As much as people debated and yearned for meaning to the epic song, Mercury never succumbed to the pressure. He stated,

“It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them… “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?

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Source: Getty Images

14. Shattering Illusions

Mercury also went on to say “I’m going to shatter some illusions, it was just one of those pieces I wrote for the album: just writing my batch of songs. In its early stages I almost rejected it, but then it grew.”

Not just Mercury, but the entire band always had a strong belief in letting their listeners interpret their songs in a personal way to them, rather than impose their own meaning on songs.

The lack of explanation creates an air of mystery and secrecy. The only bit of information that Mercury agreed to say was that the song is “about relationships.” How vague. Mercury also claimed that the lyrics were nothing more than “Random rhyming nonsense.” And drummer Roger Taylor said the song is “fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle.”

Was Mercury always this elusive and nonchalant?

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Source: Youtube

15. Typical Freddy

Apparently, Freddy would always minimize the meaning of his song lyrics. Brian May and the other band members knew, however, that he put meaning into his lyrics. The band said that if he were alive today to see the fame of the hit single, he would probably just shrug it off and say thanks.

Brian May supports the many suggestions that the song refers to Mercury’s struggles in his personal life. He said, “Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.”

May also says that the band truly believed that the meaning of a lyric was a private issue for the composer. So with all or rather nothing, to be said about the meaning of the song, the rest was up for debate.

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Source: Famous Biographies

16. In the Minds of Listeners

Other than Mercury’s and the band’s few ambiguous statements about the meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody, the meaning is left to speculation. And naturally, many people figured that Mercury’s lyrics must reflect upon his personal life.

Sheila Whiteley (a music scholar) remarked that Mercury reached a turning point in his personal life in the year he wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He had been living with a woman named Mary Austin for seven years but had just started his first love affair with a man.

Whiteley suggested that the song provides an insight into Mercury’s emotional state during that time. The lyrics ‘Mamma’ could mean Mother Mary and the lyrics “Mamma Mia let me go” could refer to his wishing to break away. Again, an assumption.

But many people had one particular guess as to the meaning of the song…

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Source: Getty Images

17. Coming out

Some suggest that the song referenced Mercury’s ‘coming out.’ Considering Mercury’s death to the disease AIDS, rumors began about his homosexuality. People assumed the song was his way of confessing that he was gay.

After Mercury’s death, on November 24, 1991, Lesley-Ann Jones (the author of the biography Mercury) spoke with Jim Hutton (Mercury’s then lover), who told her that the song indeed was Mercury’s confession that he was gay.

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Source: Getty Images

18. A Friend’s Interpretation

Apparently, Mercury’s good friend Tim Rice agreed and gave his own personal analysis. As he put it, “Mama, I just killed a man” is about how he killed the old Freddie he was trying to be. “Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead” refers to the death of the straight person he was originally. He destroyed the man he was trying to be, and now he was trying to live with the new Freddie. “I see a little silhouetto of a man” is a shadow of himself, still being haunted by what he’s done and what he is.

Let’s move on the making the magic…

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Source: Getty Images

19. Recording Begins

Recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody” officially began on August 24, 1975, at Rockfield Studio 1 in South Wales.

Mercury used a C. Bechstein concert grand piano, which he played in the promotional video and the UK tour. It was also the same piano that Paul McCartney used for ‘Hey Jude.’

The opera section was sung by Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, and Brian May. They sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day.

Taylor had the highest voice, and his voice carried on the longest. Mercury’s voice was mid-range, and May’s was the lowest.

But what about John Deacon, the bass guitarist?

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Source: Queen Vinyls

20. The Fourth and Silent Member

John Deacon opted out of the singing part. He actually never sang in any of Queen’s songs.

John’s opting out could be seen as foreshadowing for what was to come. He apparently suffered from depression, especially after Mercury’s death. Since then, he only performed three times. The first was at the 1992 tribute concert for Mercury. A year later, he and Taylor played to help raise funds for King Edward VII Hospital. In 1997, the three surviving members of Queen partnered with Elton John to perform “The Show Must Go On” at the opening of the Bejart Ballet in Paris. That same year, Deacon recorded “No-One but You (Only the Good Die Young),” which was a new track for the Queen Rocks compilation, and then he officially retired. He wasn’t present when the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

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Source: Getty Images

21. Long and Expensive

There were 180 separate overdubs during the recording of the song. The tape had been used so many times that it became almost clear. It took three weeks in five different studios to finish recording the track. Apparently, Mercury was always adding another ‘Galileo.’

The track is considered one of the most expensive tracks made at that time.

Expensive and exhausting to make, but now the real trouble begins…

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Source: Getty Images

22. Troubles Releasing the Song

After the song was completed and ready to show its face to the world, there was immediate scrutiny. The single was considered too long, and it posed a problem.

EMI Records company executives said since the song is 5:55 long, that it would never be a hit and no radio stations would play it. The band was urged to shorten the track in order to appear on the radio. But the band stuck to their guns and didn’t agree to cut the song. They had an all or nothing approach. It was either going to fly or fall.

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Source: Getty Images

23. Thanks to a Special DJ

The song making it to the radio was largely thanks to British DJ Kenny Everett, who had a popular morning radio show on Capital Radio. Against instructions not to play the song, he did anyway. He played the full song on his show 14 times in two days. And on the following Monday, tons of fans wanted to buy the single, but they couldn’t because the single hadn’t been released yet in record stores.

Everett went on to say “Forget my words, this song could last for half an hour – and still would have been wonderful. It should be a masterpiece for the ages!”

So the cat’s out of the bag. Here’s how people reacted…

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Source: Getty Images

24. Critical Acclaim and First Impressions

The hit single’s initial reaction was mixed. The UK music papers reacted with confusion. On the one hand, they recognized that the song was original and technically accomplished, but critics remained indifferent. Some said the band sounded extremely self-important and superficially impressive. But others said the song is horrifically fascinating and devilishly clever. There was a consensus that it wouldn’t be a hit at all. Even Elton John, who was a good friend of Freddie Mercury, at first said that it was too long and too “weird” for radio.

The Economist described the song as “one of the most innovative pieces of the progressive rock era. Though Led Zeppelin‘s John Paul Jones and The BeatlesPaul McCartney had experimented with symphonic elements and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Pete Townshend of The Who had created narrative albums with distinct ‘movements,’ none had had the audacity to import a miniature opera into rock music.”

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Source: Getty Images

25. Forget What They Said

Although the critical response was initially diverse, “Bohemian Rhapsody” remains one of Queen’s most popular songs and is frequently considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

In 2012, the song topped the list on an ITV nationwide poll in the UK which found the song to be “The Nation’s Favorite Number One” over 60 years of music. And Mercury’s vocal performance was chosen as the greatest in rock history by readers of Rolling Stone.

The amount of fame it received is extraordinary…

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Source: Getty Images

26. Fame and Glory

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was released on October 31, 1975, and was a commercial success. It remained at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks and selling more than a million copies by the end of January 1976.

Amazingly, “Bohemian Rhapsody” had reached the Top 40 in three different decades (the ’70s, ’90s, and ’10s). First, in 1975 after its original release. Second, in 1992 after being featured the classic scene in the comedy film Wayne’s World(which we’ll get to soon). And third, in November 2018 when it showed up at #33 after the release of the new Bohemian Rhapsody movie soundtrack.

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Source: Getty Images

27. Worldwide Fame

The song topped the charts around the world, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and The Netherlands. In the United States, the song initially peaked at number nine in 1976.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was the first song ever to get to number one in the UK twice with the same version. The second time was on its re-release (as a double A-side single with “These Are the Days of Our Lives“) in 1991 following Mercury’s death, staying at number one for five weeks.

In 2007, Radio 1 confessed this was their most-played song since the station was launched. In 2004, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Want to know what took “Bohemian Rhapsody” off the charts? You’ll never guess.

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Source: Getty Images

28. Oh Mama

Ironically, the song that knocked this off the #1 chart position in the UK was “Mama Mia” by Abba. If you remember, the words “Mama mia” are repeated in the line “Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go.” Funny, huh?

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Source: Getty Images

29. Americans weren’t the biggest fans

In the United States, the single was also a success, but not as much as it was in the UK. The song reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America with one million copies sold.

Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone explained why the song performed less strongly in the US charts. He said it’s “the quintessential example of the kind of thing that doesn’t exactly go over well in America.”

But it’s not complete without a video…

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Source: Getty Images

30. The Music Clip: A First of its Kind

The single was accompanied by a promotional video, which ended up becoming a famous music video. And many scholars consider the video ground-breaking. The clip was made for the purpose of marketing – a promotional tool. It was one of the first promotional videos ever recorded.

Why a video clip? Well, they had to promote it. After “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released as a single, the band was faced with a bit of a dilemma. In England, it was traditional at that time for bands to appear on shows like Top of the Pops to promote their latest hits. But Queen was scheduled to begin a tour soon. They also admitted that they would feel self-conscious lip-syncing to the operatic section.

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Source: Mental Floss

31. A Promo Video Turned Music Clip

So what did they do? They decided to shoot a promotional video, or “pop promo” which was the industry term. It could be shown not only on UK music shows but also around the world in other markets, such as American Bandstand.

Though some artists had made video clips to accompany songs, it was only after the success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that it became regular practice for record companies to produce promotional videos for artists’ single releases.

The video was voted the fourth greatest music video of all time by the British public for The 100 Greatest Pop Videos in 2005.

So how was this amazing video made?

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Source: Queen Photos

32. Behind the Scenes

The video was recorded in only four hours on November 10, 1975, at the cost of £4,500. It was directed by Bruce Gowers, who had directed a video of the band’s 1974 performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London, and was recorded by cameraman Barry Dodd and assistant director/floor manager Jim McCutcheon.

All of the special effects were achieved during the recording, rather than editing. The video was edited within five hours because it was due to be broadcast the same week in which it was taped.

The video was sent to the BBC as soon as it was completed and aired for the first time on Top of the Pops in November 1975. After a few weeks at number one, an edit of the video was created. The most obvious difference is the flames superimposed over the introduction as well as several alternate camera angles.

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Source: Coub

33. A Clip to Remember

The video has been hailed as launching the MTV age. Rolling Stone stated that its influence “could not be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on air.”

The Guardian ranked the music video number 31 on their list of the 50 key events in rock music history. They said it meant that “videos would henceforth be a mandatory tool in the marketing of music.” Talk about groundbreaking.

And who knew the legacy they would leave behind…

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Source: Coub

34. A Legacy

“Bohemian Rhapsody” rightfully became one of the top singles of 1975 and it established Queen as one of the elites of seventies rock bands”. It went on to sell 6.5 million copies worldwide. The song received an award for #1 British Hit Singles, in which they beat a number of Beatles songs.

In 1976, The Beach Boys‘ leader Brian Wilson praised the song as “the most competitive thing that’s come along in ages.”

Greg Lake, whose song “I Believe in Father Christmas” was kept from number one in the UK by “Bohemian Rhapsody” when it was released, acknowledged that he was “beaten by one of the greatest records ever made,” describing it as “a once-in-a-lifetime recording.”

In 1978, EMI records released a special edition blue vinyl pressing of the song to mark the band winning the Queen’s Award to Industry for Export Achievement (that’s Queen Elizabeth II, not the band). Only 200 were created, and they can fetch upwards of $6,500 when sold.

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Source: Coub

35. Wayne’s World Brings the Song Back to Life

In 1992, the song attained renewed popularity after being featured in a scene in the film Wayne’s World. The film’s director, Penelope Spheeris, was initially hesitant to use the song, as it didn’t really fit with the lead characters. But Mike Myers insisted that the song fit the scene. He had personal reasons.

Mike Meyers actually grew up listening to Queen, and he would sing with his brother in their car, headbanging to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The producers wanted to use a Guns n’ Roses song, but Meyers said it’s not what he grew up on. And wanted it to be original and authentic. He ended up winning the battle, and they used the song in the infamous car scene.

The saga continues on, as he has a role in the new Hollywood movie as an EMI executive. He has a line where he says the song would never be a one that people will love and bang their heads to in a car. A Very clever choice of casting and writing for those who are fans of Wayne’s World. Check out the famous scene here.

Want to know some fun facts about the car scene?

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Source: Geek Tyrant

36. Some Fun Facts about the Video

It took 10 hours to film the scene. Dana Carvey (who played Garth) didn’t learn the lyrics ahead of time, and if you watch closely, you can see that he’s often just randomly moving his mouth while singing along. In addition, all the actors complained of neck pain after headbanging through so many takes.

The Wayne’s World video version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” won Queen its only MTV Video Music Award for “Best Video from a Film.” When remaining members Brian May and Roger Taylor took the stage to accept the award, May got emotional and said that “Freddie would be tickled.”

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Source: Coub

37. Covers, So Many Covers

There are 62 cover versions of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Bands such as Panic! at the Disco, The Braids, Glee, Weird Al, Kanye West, Elton John, Pink, The Flaming Lips, and Axl Rose are just some of the many that did their own renditions of the classic.

The Muppets covered the song, and their video has over 69 million views. But instead of singing “Mama, just killed a man” they replaced it with Animal screaming “Mama!”

Panic! at the Disco did an epic cover of the song, with the single being featured in the Blockbuster movie Suicide Squad. It also peaked at #64 on the Hot 100. It was the fourth version to reach the chart following Queen’s original. The Braids also reached the charts with their cover from the High School High movie soundtrack. As well as the cast of Glee.

But who did it best? Brian May said the only one who came close to achieving Mercury’s vocals in his hard solo was Axl Rose.

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Source: Getty Images

38. First Time Reactions

You may be familiar with the Youtube phenomenon of video reactions. People record their reactions to a variety of different videos. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” managed to make its way into the party as well. If you search “Bohemian Rhapsody video reactions,” you’ll find a whole list of people that chose to record their first impressions to watching the video clip for the first time. It’s nothing short of entertaining. And some are simply remarkable.

One particular viewer’s reaction was heartfelt. He mentioned how he understands what Freddie Mercury meant when he doesn’t want to die but wishes he had never been born at all, having grown up in his neighborhood. There are other fun and more amusing reactions to such an innovative and special song. Clearly, the song has reached many people on a personal level. If you’re in the mood to be amused, check out this guy’s reaction. You can’t fake this kind of stuff.

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Source: Youtube