It’s one of rock’s best-known and strangest songs: a six-minute radio hit that starts out as a piano ballad, becomes a high-pitched opera, then tumbles into a headbanger’s anthem. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” released in 1975, sold millions of copies, topped charts and helped redefine what pop music could be.
But the track’s history could have been very different — in one aspect, at least.
An early draft of the song by Freddie Mercury, Queen’s frontman, suggests that he once considered giving the anthem a different title: “Mongolian Rhapsody.”
The draft is among around thousands of Mercury’s belongings that are being auctioned in September by Sotheby’s on behalf of his friend and heir Mary Austin, who told the BBC that she had decided to sell the collection because she needed to put her “affairs in order.” The collection, which had been kept in Mercury’s London home since his death in 1991 of bronchopneumonia resulting from AIDS, includes stage costumes and furniture as well as the 15 pages of early drafts for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” On one page, Mercury wrote the words “Mongolian Rhapsody” near the top. He then crossed out that first word and added “Bohemian” above it.
The page will go on public view in an exhibition at Sotheby’s New York on Thursday through June 8.
Gabriel Heaton, a books and manuscripts specialist at Sotheby’s, said in a recent interview at the auction house’s London storage facility that the drafts made it clear that Mercury played around with lyrics when writing songs, swapping in and out words with similar sounds. “Of course, ‘Bohemian,’ ‘Mongolian,’ it’s the same rhythm,” he said of the song in question.
Almost all of the lyrics are written on stationery from a defunct British airline, British Midland, and some of the pages are festooned with Mercury’s abstract doodles. The word “Mongolian” appears nowhere else among the drafts, which are estimated to be worth up to £1.2 million, or about $1.5 million.
Rock history is filled with songs that could have been. When the Beatles wrote “Yesterday,” they famously gave it the working title “Scrambled Eggs.” But the potential alternative title for “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been unknown since the song premiered almost 50 years ago, and has gone unmentioned in prominent Queen biographies.
Mark Blake, the author of several books on Queen, said in a telephone interview that the alternative title was a “fun little fact” but didn’t surprise him. Queen, like most bands, often “had joke titles for things” that were later changed, he said. The group’s “Under Pressure” with David Bowie was originally titled “People on Streets,” he said.
Jim Jenkins, one of Queen’s official biographers, said he’d never heard of the “Mongolian Rhapsody” idea either, despite knowing Mercury for years. The singer “never liked to explain” his lyrics or titles, Jenkins added. “He left it to our interpretation.”
The Sotheby’s sale includes some of Mercury’s drafts for other Queen hits including “Somebody to Love,” “We Are the Champions” and “Killer Queen.” All show Mercury searching for words to make his lyrics sing, sometimes trying out multiple lines.
His changes to “Bohemian Rhapsody” are among the most striking. In the final version of the song, a verse begins with the lines:
Just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.
But in an earlier draft, Mercury writes:
There’s a war began
I’ve got to leave tonight
I’ve got to stand and fight.
Another page looks like a word cloud, with Mercury scrawling dozens of words and phrases including “fandango,” “thunderbolts and lighting” and “belladonna.” Heaton said the page appeared to be Mercury trying out options for the operatic section of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Mercury made it clear in interviews that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was tough to write. “It didn’t just come out of thin air,” Mercury once said according to “Freddie Mercury: A Life, in His Own Words,” a collection of interview excerpts. “Certain songs require that sort of pompous flair. I had to work like crazy.”
The band’s guitarist, Brian May, and drummer, Roger Taylor, declined to comment on the “Mongolian Rhapsody” draft. In a 2002 documentary, May recalled the moment Mercury suggested the title “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “You never knew quite whether Freddie was joking or what,” May said. “Some of his ideas turned out to be not serious, but that one stuck.”
Heaton said the final title carried a certain air of mystery to it, but it was hard to say how important it had been to the song’s success and enduring appeal.
There’s plenty of evidence of both in the forthcoming sale. The other items Sotheby’s is auctioning in September include a gold disc for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a plaque marking the band’s Grammy nominations for the song and an MTV award presented posthumously to Mercury after the track was featured in the movie “Wayne’s World.”
Jenkins, the Queen biographer, said he was sure “Bohemian Rhapsody” would have been a hit regardless of its title, but Mercury’s final choice was better.
“I remember when it came out, wondering what a bohemian was, and looking it up,” he said.