It's real life, it's not just fantasy: on Nov. 23, 1975, Queen earned their first No. 1 single with "Bohemian Rhapsody," a song nobody expected to be a hit.
The penultimate track off the band's third album A Night at the Opera, "Bohemian Rhapsody" broke nearly every conventional rule in pop music. Its six-minute running time and multiple musical passages that span from hard-rock to opera were generally considered not conducive to hit material. But charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury, who'd been working on fragments of the song for the better part of the decade (he famously played part of it for producer Roy Thomas Baker in 1972, before explaining "This is where the opera section comes in"), pushed himself and his bandmates to the limit. Vocal recording sessions for the track could take up to 12 hours a day, with so many overdubs and mixes causing the brown oxide of the magnetic recording tape to turn clear.
"'Bohemian Rhapsody' was totally insane, but we enjoyed every minute of it," Baker later told MIX. "It was basically a joke, but a successful joke...Freddie kept coming in with more 'Galileos' and we kept on adding to the opera section, and it just got bigger and bigger."
Though manager John Reid and label EMI initially refused to consider the track as a single, the band slipped a copy of the track to Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, who was so taken by the track he reportedly played it 14 times in the span of two days. Public demand was infectious, and the song ended up spending nine weeks atop the British charts (earning the coveted Christmas number one slot) and crossed over into the Billboard Hot 100, where it reached an impressive No. 9.
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But the track's popularity didn't end there. In 1991, after Mercury lost his battle with AIDS, it was re-released alongside "These Are the Days of Our Lives," the latest single from Innuendo, the last album the band released during his lifetime. It again reached the top of the British charts for five weeks, becoming a Christmas number one yet again. The next year, the track scored an iconic moment in the hit comedy Wayne's World, and the song ended up charting even higher on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 2. (Kris Kross' "Jump" kept it from the top spot.)
To this day, the song remains not only one of Queen's most recognizable songs, but one of the biggest songs in rock and roll history. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004, a 2009 cover by The Muppets became a viral video sensation, and the song remains the oldest track and music video to be streamed more than a billion times. It was named the greatest song of all time in polls conducted by Guinness World Records and ITV, and Rolling Stone deemed it the greatest vocal performance in rock history. And, of course, it's the Queen song that gave the 2018 biopic its name, which went on to gross nearly $1 billion worldwide, and won Rami Malek a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild award and a BAFTA for Best Actor.