Even the man who produced the song once called it "basically a joke. We never stopped laughing."
But because millions of fans still listen to and love the super-rococo rock hit "Bohemian Rhapsody," it's hard not to take it all deadly serious.
It's now 30 years since the release of Queen's crazy wedding cake of a song, an event commemorated with a special edition reissue of the album that contained it, "A Night at the Opera."
The song's potency has barely diminished over the years. In 2002, the Guinness Book of World Records labeled it the Top British Single of All Time.
The florid ditty - adorned with those shriekingly incoherent, multitracked outbursts of "Mama mia!" and "Magnifico!" and "Galileo!" - has lately been getting a strange tribute in concert as well.
A reconvened version of Queen, featuring two of its main surviving members - Brian May and Roger Taylor - along with ex-Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, has been touring the world, selling out everywhere it goes. In every song, save one, Rodgers' voice substitutes for the band's late front man, Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS in 1991. But during "Rhapsody," Mercury's image fills the video screens as his original vocals flood the hall.
The song stops the show.
Thirty years ago, it saved the band. The British group had put out three high-budget albums in the early `70s and was deeply in debt. To correct this, the band entered the studio in late 1974 with ace producer Roy Thomas Baker and set about making what guitarist Brian May had commented could "be our `Sgt. Pepper.'"
Although the album featured no shortage of flouncy excesses, none was so flagrant, or bold, as "Bohemian Rhapsody." Amid its head-banging, hard-rock riffs, the song contained a 120-voice chorale of overdubbed singing bits from Mercury, May and drummer Taylor. The vocals alone took seven 12-hour days to cut.
The labor paid off. "Rhapsody" shot to No. 1 in England, where it stayed for nine weeks in late 1975. It got back to the top chart spot again 16 years later, when it was rereleased as a charity single in the wake of Mercury's death. Then it was featured in the goofy movie "Wayne's World" in `92 and got to No. 2 in the U.S., besting its top stateside position from 1976.
"The song is a lot of things," explains Village Voice Music Editor Chuck Eddy. "It's a murder ballad and a suicide song. It's also the most blatant operetta in rock. And musically, it figured out a way to throw everything into the pot."
Not bad for a joke.