Saturday, July 28, 2012

So you think you can cover me and spit in my eye?

It’s funny how people leave the big ones alone. There is a song that constantly tops various “all time” charts. It covers a number of different musical styles, and is widely regarded as an important piece of rock music history. [citation needed]
Even its film clip was iconic.
Supposedly the “first” film clip made.
But there has never been what I would call a serious cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, at least not one released as a single, and I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly the status of the song as an icon would discourage any covers. It’s a big ask to take a legendary song and produce a cover of it. This is also the reason we haven’t seen serious covers of Stairway to Heaven, Hey Jude or Satisfaction.
Another obvious reason, more specific to this song, is that it is technically challenging. It showcases the whole range of Queen’s abilities: choral, ballad, hard rock and everything in between. To do a cover of this song would take some effort. Even Queen, when performing live, would not attempt the whole song. To do even a half decent version of it, especially live, you would need a whole cast of backup singers, musicians and stage technicians to pull it off. Not to mention a skin coloured body suit to make it look like your boob was showing.
I actually don’t mind this version by Pink, although I can see why it wasn’t released as a single. It’s a little too faithful, wandering into the “pointless cover” territory. However as a live track it’s great. I love the Freddie tribute that went into her costume.
So that leaves us with the other kind of cover: the novelty cover. Now the same reasons that make “serious” people leave this alone become the reasons that “less serious” people are attracted to it. There have been a number of novelty covers of this song, all of which have their own merits.
On every one of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s albums, along with his parody hits and his original songs, he sings a medley of songs performed as a polka. But on Alapolooza there was an extra surprise:
Any way the wind, any way the wind, any way the wind blows–HEY!
I personally think this shows off Yankovic’s talents as an accordion player as well as an arranger. It’s really quite incredible.
But he certainly wasn’t the first. In 1983, a year before Spinal Tap, the guys from the Young Ones created a band, Bad News, which was a parody of English Heavy Metal. A few years later they released an album, with this as it’s primary single:
Blow Queen off the stage
What I love about this is that the album that this came from was produced by Queen guitarist Brian May, and I have always suspected that it’s him playing that perfectly wrong solo.
A couple of years ago Jake Shimabukuro performed this at a TED Talk:
You can tell he’s a knob because of the way he pronounced ukulele
I’m putting this in the novelty category because, despite the protestations of its proponents, the ukulele is a novelty instrument. Again this is technically incredible. But it’s still a song performed on a ukulele.
And, finally, there is this:
I see a little silhouetto of a clam
I found out about this amazing track from Queen’s official mailing list, and I think it is the original musical track from the master tapes used as a backing.
I have loved the Muppets for longer than I have loved Queen, and now that I am a grown-up I still love them, and they touch that bit in me that makes me all misty eyed. I can’t explain it but every time I listen to this version of this great song, I get a little something in my eye.  There is something about the way they all look at the camera and sing “any way the wind blows” at the end that just gets me.
But none of these, serious or silly, faithful or interpretive, are as great as the original (although the Muppet one comes close). Each of the covers would be meaningless without the original as the context. None of them would stand up as a track in their own right.
But each is paying tribute to an act you can tell that they love.


  1. Two things I didn't know existed before I wrote this post are this list and, more importantly, this cover.

  2. Covering Bohemian Rhapsody would be very intimidating both vocally and instrumentally. Not many have a voice like Freddy Mercury or the guts to attempt his range.

    One fair effort is Annie Lennox singing Mercury's part in Under Pressure. This was at a live Freddy Mercury tribute concert and she teams up with David Bowie (singing his original part). Its a pretty impressive rendition of a classic song.

  3. I could do a cover of Freddie Mercury's moustache but sadly it doesn't feature in the clip.

  4. A couple of our lecturers did a cover last year