New York based musician, producer and songwriter Richie Castellano discusses music, being on the road as a current member of Blue Öyster Cult, "The Tiger's Fang" film series and many other things of a nerdly nature.
I'm pleased to announce that my Bohemian Rhapsody video has passed 50,000 views. That's insane! I think today I will write about my obsession with that song. Here's where it began....
In 1992 (I think) I went to the movies with my dad to see "Wayne's World." When it got to the famous car scene and Bohemian Rhapsody came on, I asked my dad, "What is this?" He said, "This is Queen." I remember listening as the song just kept adding more and more layers of awesomeness until it just erupted at the famous headbanging climax. I was sold. This was officially the best song I'd ever heard and it only took one listen of only half of it to realize that. After the song was done and 12 year old me's mind had been thoroughly blown, I turned to my father and said in a very serious tone, "Why wasn't I told about this song?!?" He was a bit alarmed by my reaction. I was actually incredibly irritated that I had to go through the first 12 years of my life without hearing the greatest song ever written. My dad and I played music together, he introduced me to Motown and The Beatles. In my very under-developed opinion he was clearly negligent in his responsibilities to me as a musical mentor and a parent by omitting this song from my listening diet. He gave me a slightly puzzled look and said "I don't know. I don't listen to this kind of music." I was flabbergasted! How could you not listen to this?!? This is the only thing I wanted to listen to from that point on. Bohemian Rhapsody was in first place and everything else started at 4th place. My dad saw that I was not satisfied by his answer. If he knew the song and he knew the band who did it, then why didn't he think to tell me about it sooner? To shut me up he said, "Ask your uncle, he likes that stuff."
I got home from the movies and called my Uncle Phil.
"Hi Uncle Phil. Do you have Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen?"
"I think so."
"Ok, I'll be right over."
I remember seeing the CD in his wall unit. Queen greatest hits. There it was on the back; "Bohemian Rhapsody." I went home and put it on my CD player. Holy shit! There's a guitar solo in this song!!! In the movie, they start the song from after the solo. To my amazement, this song was even better in it's entirety! If this was the best song I ever heard, then this was clearly the best guitar solo I ever heard. It had everything. Beautiful melody, fast runs, perfect tone! I couldn't handle how awesome it was. I listened to the song non stop. I didn't even bother to listen to any of the other songs on the CD. Then something horrible happened. I realized I was going to have to leave my house at some point and I wouldn't be able to listen to it! I got fresh batteries and put them in my cassette walkman. Then I took a 60 minute cassette tape and recorded Bohemian Rhapsody 10 times in a row on each side. I did this so I could keep listening to it without having to rewind.
I remember just walking around my block several times while listening to the song over and over picking out something new every time. The layers seemed to be endless. I never heard that many vocal tracks. I never heard that guitar sound. I never heard those chord changes. And that voice!
When I wasn't listening to Bohemian Rhapsody I was trying to play it. MTV began playing the Queen video due to Wayne's World's popularity. I remember seeing Freddie crossing his hands to grab the high notes in the piano part. I saw that and went to our upright piano and tried to imitate it. If I remember correctly I was way off. But over then next few years I kept refining it. Changing a voicing here and there.
Fast forward to high school. I think it might have been senior year. My music teacher, Lou Mannarino played us a tape of a session that he did. He was hired as a singer to record a spoof version of Bohemian Rhapsody for some commercial. All the words were changed to promote some company, but I remember hearing it and feeling like someone hit me over the side of the head with a frying pan. This is possible?!?!?!? This can be recreated?!?!? Holy shit!!! It was like he gave me the key piece of information I had been missing. And right then I realized that I would be able to do this song live....with A LOT of help.
I don't remember exactly how I did it, but I went home and began to record the opera section on my analog 16 track. If I do some digging I may be able to find the mixdown tape somewhere, but I'm pretty sure that I had a lot of wrong harmonies and I can only imagine what the piano part was like. I probably sequenced it a painstaking pace. I mixed it down to a DAT tape because CD-R technology was still incredibly cost prohibitive in those days. There was a school rock concert coming up (I'm pretty sure that Curtis High School in Staten Island was one of the first to do official school rock concerts.) I told my friends, we're going to do Bohemian Rhapsody at the concert. I got it all planned out. Andy Ascolese will play keyboard. Chris Kuffner will play bass. Brendan Pezzoli from the Jazz band will play drums, and that freshman Matt Lindauer will do the guitar parts with me. Our teacher, Lou will sing it. I've heard him do it on that commercial. He's great! When the middle part comes up, we're gonna play to this track that I recorded at home. So, at the school rock concert, we did Bohemian Rhapsody live, and I remember it felt fucking awesome!
Fast forward to college. I started a rock cover band called Hit Me With It. Right from day 1, our big song was going to be Bohemian Rhapsody. We had a great singer named Jason Spoor. We played the song with my track for a little while but it wasn't really working out. It was time to re-do it. I remember Jason coming to my dorm room at Purchase College, and he and I recording that opera section right in the room onto my computer. People on my floor thought we were nuts. Eventually they realized what we were doing and a few of the music majors passing by would stop in to check it out.
Over the next few years I played that song a lot. It ALWAYS went over. When you were losing the crowd, whip out Bohemian Rhapsody and you could save your gig. I kept toying around with the piano part here and there. It was my favorite thing to play on piano even though I only knew bits and pieces of it. A few years later, Ann Marie decided to do that song for her college recital, and we re-recorded that section yet again, this time with her singing everything.
No matter how many times I heard that song since Wayne's World, I never ever got tired of it.
Back to the present.
By this point I could play all of the piano part with the exception of the opera section. The B Bb A Bb bit was incredibly difficult for me. I realized that if I couldn't get that, I couldn't do this project. I just sat there building up the muscle memory to play that over and over. Ann Marie was ready to murder me because if you play those three chords over and over again, it's really really obnoxious. After I felt comfortable enough with the piano part, I decided to start the project. I set up a tempo map in Pro Tools. This was a pain in the ass. Queen didn't play to a click on this song. There are many parts that are Rubato. Pro Tools and Rubato don't mix well. Regardless, I had to tempo map the song out. I wouldn't be able to do it without a click.
Recording the piano took the longest by far. I did so many takes. I could have just programmed it in, but it was important to me that I actually play it this time. After the piano was done, I breathed a sigh of relief. In my mind the project was mostly done already because the thing I was dreading the most was over and done with. Luckily for me, the drum part isn't too crazy. I'm not a good drummer by any stretch of the imagination. I can play very basic things. I knew I wasn't going to be able to remember every fill like I had done with the other parts so I notated the entire drum part. Having the music right there in front of me made it a lot easier to deal with, although I think it was less about actually reading it and more about the actual act of transcribing it. That's the best way to memorize something...write it down.
The bass and guitars were a breeze. I loved doing the guitars. It was so much fun trying to get those sounds. I borrowed my friend, Chris Segalini's Vox AC-30 amp and used my little Brian May amp as a preamp and that got me really close. I even miked up that little amp for a couple of tracks.
When I got to the lead vocal I kind of hit a wall. Wait a minute...I can't sing this song. In every band I've ever been in, I've never sung this song. Sure, in the car, but not on stage. I didn't even know it I'd be able to do it at all. I hit record and did a rough take just to see if I could. I sang through the whole song and at the end of the take, my voice was completely fried. I was hoarse and in pain. I listened back, and to my surprise, I sang the whole thing! I hit all of the notes. It didn't sound great, but it was a functional take. I was satisfied with that. In my mind, I wouldn't be able to do it again without severely damaging my voice. I was very proud of the way it sounded as it was.
I showed it to Ann Marie and she told me that it could be a lot better. She said, "If you going to go crazy re-creating every single articulation in every part, then why wouldn't you treat the vocal the same way?" She had a point, but I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to sing like this much more. I took a break from the song at this point. I had no choice. I couldn't sing anymore for the rest of the day anyway. I listened back to what I did and thought, "she's right. If I can hit these notes at all, then I should go the extra step and try to match Freddie as closely as my own voice will allow." I really zeroed in on Freddie's lead vocal. It was an amazing experience. With each track that I recorded, I was peeling back the layers of this masterpiece. I was seeing the wizard behind the curtain but at no point was I ever disappointed it. Every new detail that I picked up was inspiring. Examining Freddie's lead vocal was like taking a master class in breath control and how to manage the break between chest voice and head voice.
In the end, Ann Marie was definitely right. Doing the vocal over with more attention to detail really made a huge difference. Unfortunately that also killed my voice again so I had to take another break. After that, I started to tackle the background vocals. This is another area where Freddie kicked my ass. I believe that the Queen harmony sound comes from the fact that he was able to flawlessly match his performances from take to take. Every nuance and articulation would be nearly identical from track to track. The harmonies sounded so lush and smooth as a result of his unique ability to do that. I did not have this unique ability and instead opted to keep doing it over and over until it matched. : )
By this time, my computer was ready to explode. Not only did I have a full band on there with nearly 16 guitar tracks, but I had 28 vocal tracks. I had to do pre-mix bounces of the background vocals. This was pretty cool because that's how Queen did the original. The only had 24 tracks to work with so they had to bounce. In the end it made the final mix much much easier.
The final mix was another opportunity to peel back another layer of this song. Getting the panning and effects as close as I could was an audio-geek's dream come true.
The video part was also challenging. I had Sony Vegas, which is great, but anytime you do a project with up to 12 separate videos on the screen at the same time, it can really chew up system resources on your computer. It was really hard to see what was going on while my computer was chugging along trying to keep up with everything. Although it was tough, doing the video was probably the most fun part. Video editing is a hobby of mine and it didn't feel like work.
Overall, I'm very happy with the way it came out. Oh, if you haven't checked it out, here it is:
There are few things I wish I could change, but nothing major. My video camera has an auto focus that constantly blurs out on me and I was forced to use some of those blurry shots at points. Also, some of the sync is slightly off as a result of my computer not being able to keep up during the video editing. Other than those minor issues, I'm very happy with it. It was a fun project that I was considering for a long time and it made me remember why I fell in love with this band in the first place.