What makes a song great? Is it the lyrics? The beat? The bass line? The melody? The vocals? Or is it all the above, working together in literal harmony?
For the past month or so, I’ve been living the life of a wannabe music critic. It all began after I watched the film Bohemian Rhapsody, which was incredible, and saw on screen how songs came to be, how albums were put together, and the effort that was needed to do all this back in the 70s. I started getting attracted to the more technical aspects of music; how the layering of harmonies fit together seamlessly, how smoothly the transition from one section of a song to another flows, how tracks can swing from one ear to the other, and how background melodies you wouldn’t usually pay attention to are whole songs in themselves. And no artist or band fed this new obsession of mine better than Queen.
Freddie Mercury on piano. Brian May on electric guitar. Roger Taylor on drums. John Deacon on bass. All vocalists, songwriters, incredible musicians, and masters in using the tech they had at the time. Bohemian Rhapsody, the song, is an obvious testament to that fact, with the multiple sections and ethereal harmonies. But during my “Queen music only” period, I stumbled upon a hidden gem in one of their most underrated albums, A Day at The Races, entitled The Millionaire Waltz.
After giving this song multiple listens, I had an epiphany: The Millionaire Waltz actually seemed to be a better song than Bohemian Rhapsody! (Gasp!) A song practically unheard of better than a universally loved masterpiece? So with earbuds on and Spotify pulled out, I was determined to test my theory.
The Millionaire Waltz’s piano and bass duet opening is amazing, and something you don’t really hear in mainstream music. Mercury and Deacon really have great musical chemistry. When we got some of May’s guitar in there, it was like adding in something you didn’t know was missing. Then there’s the soft guitar and piano slowly getting louder, the boys harmonies appearing and leading into the rock and roll portion with May and Taylor’s electric guitar and energetic drums really stealing the show. Then there’s the actual waltz with May and Mercury, which is like traveling between two eras, the Victorian era and the rock and roll era, which somehow fit together really well. When Deacon jumps in to add extra swing and Taylor with his cymbals to add more grandeur, the effect is mesmerizing. Again, it’s like listening to two eras at once. Then it slows down and leads up to my favorite part: the harmonies. This part is amazing. The number of layers of vocals they put in this section is dumbfounding. Every voice and tone is in perfect harmony with each other and the effect is magical. Then it reaches its majestic ending with a resounding bass and cymbal combo. Perfect. A true work of art.
I decided to give Bohemian Rhapsody a fighting chance, so I listened to it immediately after Millionaire Waltz with an open mind (as if I haven’t heard it a million times before, but I’m not complaining).
As soon as the acapella part begins, it’s obvious that the band grew incredibly in The Millionaire Waltz in terms of making their harmonies much cleaner. But there’s something more mysterious and edgy in the acapella section of BohRap. Plus with the sudden entrance of the piano, it truly feels like the beginning of, well, a rhapsody. An epic poem. You’re totally taken in by the mesmerizing vocals and, more importantly, the lyrics. Lyrics that we still don’t know the true meaning of 40 years later. “Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters.” When the drums come in, I literally get shivers down my spine. Every time. The electric guitar, and the haunting “any way the wind blows” in the background give me goosebumps. Mercury’s voice is so raw and vulnerable as he sings “I sometimes wish I’ve never been born at all!” No matter how many times I’ve heard that line, it never gets old. Here come the Gallileos. Then the Magnificos. The Bismillahs. The Mamma Mias. No song today has ever gotten close to the majesty of this sequence. Then the build up to one of the most iconic guitar and drum numbers of all time. Head banging is a must. Then from the chaos, it slows down, focusing again on Freddie’s vocals and his lyrics. “Nothing really matters to me.” Perfection.
The Millionaire Waltz is actual proof of how talented every single member of Queen is, and how far they’ve grown as artists after recording Bohemian Rhapsody. While Bohemian Rhapsody is generally labelled as “Freddie’s song,” which it is, The Millionaire Waltz is 100% a QUEEN song. It’s joyous, astounding, and it showcases what every single member of the band can do. A good example is how we get to hear Deacon show off his underrated bass-playing skills a little, whereas in BoRhap he takes a backseat and instead complements the others. It’s a song that perfectly displays what each person can do, and how well they go together. That’s why it’s a great song.
Bohemian Rhapsody, on the other hand, is definitely a masterpiece. It’s rich, it’s mysterious, it’s soulful, it’s rock and roll, it drags you in. You can hear the technical flaws but, as Brian May said in an interview once, that’s just the way it is, just like life. Besides, the real star of the song is the lyrics. So many people can identify and relate to them and the overall raw feel, sound and emotion of the song. That’s why it’s so timeless, and why it’s a great song, too.
At the end of the day, one is THE song that will remain timeless and in the hearts of those who hear it forever, while the other is a precious gem hidden amongst some of Queen’s best work, waiting to be discovered and appreciated. While this does not settle the argument between which is “better,” it gave me the closure I needed to realize that they needn’t be compared and instead be loved individually.
So what makes a song great? Ultimately, everyone has an opinion, and not everyone’s tastes are the same. But we can all agree that it doesn’t matter how polished it is or how great the musicians are. What matters is how it reaches people, triggers emotion in those who hear it, and how the song endures as time goes on. And for me, personally, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Millionaire Waltz, and Queen’s music in general is going to endure and resonate with me forever.