In terms of complexity, few (if any) pop songs can compete with Queen’s legendary Bohemian Rhapsody. It changes completely multiple times, features tortuous lyrics that are open to interpretation and incorporates dramatic operatic elements. Not your everyday chart-topper.
There are other hits that have used significant rhythm changes beyond just a shift in the bridge, and those that have used a medley format. In honor of the release of the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, here’s a look at the song, and a few others with major changes in sound and tone. Some classics and some curiosities.
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen (1975)
It was an oddity for a mainstream single, not just for its wild sound and lyrics, but also for its 6-minute length. It returned to the charts in 1992, thanks to the loving treatment in Wayne’s World.
There are multiple tunes all wrapped up into one. The acapella beginning and the haunting harmonies quickly move into the piano portion. Mercury’s lyrics about killing a man can be an initial shock. (It was for me, anyway. I recall hearing it for the first time as a child in the early ‘80s, and being so unsettled by the words that I quickly turned the radio off.) A languid guitar riff from Brian May leads the song into the opera portion at the 3:08 mark.
This is dazzling and puzzling, fascinating and baffling. The lyrics have sparked analysis and debate over the years, and many define it as a battle for the protagonist’s soul. Here’s how David Chiu described it for The New York Times in 2005: “Mr. Mercury, who died in 1991, always refused to explain his composition other than saying it was about relationships. (He never officially admitted his bisexuality.) Some interpreted it as a way of dealing with his personal issues. To this day the band is still protective of the song's secret.”
The third segment, starting at 4:12, is the one that got Wayne and Garth’s head banging. Led by May’s irresistible guitar solo and Mercury’s snarls, the rock portion feels like it could have been its own hard-charging hit. It lasts 45 seconds, and the song drifts back to Mercury and his piano for the finale.
Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin (1971)
Here’s one of those songs that has earned classic status, and yet it’s caused more than a few eyes to roll. It certainly has the feel of a Very Important Song, and the major shifts in sound and style only add to that. (It, too, makes an appearance in Wayne’s World for comic effect.)
Stairway is all over the place musically, starting with the acoustic beginning. The sounds of the recorder -- yes, the instrument that kids bring home in third grade and make their parents’ ears bleed -- puts a Tolkien spin on the song. It would surely top the charts in The Shire.
Zeppelin picks up the pace at the 2:13 mark, with Jimmy Page’s strums and Robert Plant’s “Oooh, it makes me wonder,” which is excellent foreshadowing for the millions of teenagers who would try to decipher the lyrics. The drums finally kick in at 4:17, and at 5:55 it turns into a great Zeppelin rock song for nearly two minutes, before returning to the introduction’s pace.
As for the lyrics, they are layered in a thick fog of mysticism. There are smoke rings in the trees, a piper to lead us and some sort of utopian yearning (“And a new day will dawn / For those who stand long / And the forests will echo with laughter.”) Then there’s the famous “bustle in your hedgerow” moment, which has sent many a fan to Webster's or Google for deep hedgerow analysis.
To Plant’s credit, he has questioned his own words. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, “I'd break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show. I wrote those lyrics and found that song to be of some importance and consequence in 1971, but 17 years later, I don't know. It's just not for me.”
Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys (1966)
There’s a lot going on in this Beach Boys standard, masterminded by Brian Wilson with lyrics by Mike Love. The tone shifts from the high-pitched verses, moving into Love’s “I’m picking up good vibrations” groove. That leads to classic Beach Boys harmonies in the chorus, while a theremin wails and whirs in the background.
The dreamy bridge (“I don’t know where, but she sends me there”) takes the song into a sharp turn at 2:14, the “gotta keep those loving good vibrations happening with her” portion. That lasts for 40 seconds, and then the chorus returns.
It’s a kitchen-sink kind of track, with all the intricate parts working together to make a complicated yet breezy hit. Rolling Stone has ranked it the No. 6 song of all time.
“Assembling the whole song was really something,” Wilson says in his memoir, I Am Brian Wilson. “I didn’t know what I was in for. I didn’t know until I got into it, and then I got so far into it that I got lost in it. There are more than 80 hours of tape if you add up all the parts and all the takes.”
In a 2017 interview with The Eagle, Love called Good Vibrations “probably the most avant-garde song for its time in 1966.”
“There are many wonderful songs, but that was the most amazing arrangement,” he said. “So distinctive, so unique, so different. … It's kind of like the Beach Boys' psychedelic tome for the day, for its time. It was avant-garde in 1966 and I think it still is to a certain degree."
Four from Paul and the Beatles
Here we have perhaps the kings of the complicated. Let’s take two from the Beatles, and two from Paul McCartney’s later work.
A Day in the Life (1967): Regarded by many as the Beatles’ ultimate track, this takes on a melancholy mood from the start, with the somber acoustic guitar and piano. John Lennon’s first verse, about reading a newspaper story about the death of a “lucky man who made the grade” can be a bit of a jolt. It was reportedly inspired by Guinness heir Tara Browne, a friend of the band, who died in a car accident. The other verses, about a war film and a pothole-ridden street, aren’t as intense.
The middle portion is the curveball, as McCartney takes over at 2:16 with a mundane list of activities (“Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head”). It was reportedly just a song fragment that he had written, but the contrast works. It brightens the song considerably with its bouncy sound, even if it’s just about a morning routine. The song closes with an orchestral swell and that epic piano crash.
Happiness Is a Warm Gun (1968): This has three parts to it. The eerie opening segment was dubbed by Lennon as “Dirty Old Man,” Rolling Stone reported. The fuzzy middle portion at the 45-second mark was called “The Junkie.” It ends with Lennon’s wild vocals and doo-wop backing in “The Gunman (Satire of '50s R&R).”
Lennon told the magazine in 1970, “Oh, I love it. I think it's a beautiful song. I like all the different things that are happening in it. ... It seemed to run through all the different kinds of rock music."
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (1971): The quirky hit by Paul and Linda McCartney starts out simply enough, a bit mellow and dreary as he laments and apologizes to the first character in the title. He then puts on a superior accent at the 1:29 mark for what sounds like a phone call from a Monty Python member. At 2:19, it becomes something completely different. Admiral Halsey is a jaunty new world starting with the strained vocals of “Hands across the water, heads across the sky.” The lyrics are curious, and the effect is humorous: “I had another look and I had a cup of tea and a butter pie,” which is followed by this exchange:
“The butter wouldn’t melt so I put it in the pie.”
The nuttiness doesn't end there, as the songs shifts again at 3:30 into a childlike chant, “Live a little, be a gypsy, get around.” A return to “hands across the water” closes out the track.
Definitely a weird little tune, and not everyone got it. Jon Landau’s review in Rolling Stone called it “a piece with so many changes it never seems to come down anywhere, and in the places that it does, sounds like the worst piece of light music Paul has ever done.”
Band on the Run (1974): McCartney’s hit with Wings is three songs in one, and it evolves from sadness to frustration to joy. It starts out drowsy and lonely, with that shrill synth piercing the sound. He paints a glum scene of solitude (“Stuck inside these four walls / Sent inside forever / Never seeing no one / Nice again like you”) until the 1:19 mark. That’s when it gets darker and more interesting with the guitar-driven “If I ever get out of here” portion. (I’ve often wondered what the segment could have been if it had room to become its own track.) The dominant portion is the third segment, starting at 2:06, and the upbeat adventure is punctuated by chipper country guitar flourishes.
Batdance by Prince (1989)
Easily the strangest No. 1 song in Prince’s career, Batdance was perfect for the moment. The buildup in the summer of 1989 for Tim Burton’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger, was intense. Comic book heroes hadn’t taken permanent hold of the box office back then.
Enlisting Prince to produce the soundtrack was a smart move, and the first single, Batdance, was straight-up bonkers. It’s not a cohesive song, but a series of rhythm changes that inspired a thousand cheerleader dance routines later that fall. It teased or sampled other songs Prince wrote for the movie, like some sort of index for the soundtrack. And it incorporated dialogue from the film, which is peculiar yet wonderfully catchy.
Batdance starts out with a guitar riff and a Jack Nicholson/Joker quote, then morphs into a dance cut that brings back the original Batman theme song (it was one of the first songs he learned to play on piano). At 1:53, Prince teases the first line of The Future, the first song on the soundtrack. At 4:34, he throws in the chorus from Electric Chair, the second song on the soundtrack.
At 3:11, a Joker quote is used as a great transition: “Stop the press … who is that?” This sends the song into a funk jam, with more quotes from Keaton/Batman and Basinger/Vicki Vale. Another Joker crack (“This town needs an enema!”) kicks off the frenzied part of the track, which takes it to the end.
The song samples Prince’s 200 Balloons throughout (the “do it” at 1:27, for example, and the “Who’s gonna stop 200 balloons? Nobody.” at 6:34). It was likely targeted for the scene in which the Joker poisons Gotham City residents by spraying chemicals from parade balloons. But the song missed the cut, and Trust was used in the film instead. 200 Balloons wouldn’t even end up on the soundtrack. It was the B-side to Batdance.
The Batdance video was just as bananas as the song, with Prince dressed as half-Batman, half-Joker. It’s goofy now, but it sure was entertaining in '89.
Interestingly, another song Prince wrote for the film included dialogue from the movie. Dance with the Devil (a key phrase used by the Joker) is a gloomy track that was never released. Like so many of Prince’s works, it was circulated as a bootleg, then emerged on YouTube after Prince’s death in 2016. Devil uses quotes from Commissioner Gordon (played by Pat Hingle) and the Joker. It’s a stark contrast to Batdance, but its darkness would’ve been a nice fit for the brooding Caped Crusader.