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Great Innovators are Relentless Rule Breakers

The song Bohemian Rhapsody was written by Freddie Mercury for Queen’s 1975 album A Night at the Opera. It broke all the rules for a popular music single release. At a time when most pop songs were simple and formulaic Mercury’s song was a complex mixture of different styles and tempos. It had six separate sections – a close harmony a capella introduction, a ballad, a guitar solo, an opera parody, a rock anthem and a melodic finale. It contained enigmatic and fatalistic lyrics about killing a man. And it was very long.

freddie-mercury
Freddie Mercury

When it was proposed to Queen’s record producers EMI that they release the song as a single they flatly rejected the idea. It was 5 minutes 55 seconds in duration and the general rule of the day was that radio stations only played items that lasted no more than three and a half minutes.

So Queen bypassed EMI and went straight to the DJ Kenny Everett. They gave him a copy on condition that he only play sections of it. He did this and the reaction was so strong that he played the whole six minutes several times on his weekend show on Capital Radio. On Monday morning hordes of fans went into music stores to buy the record only to be told that it was not available. EMI was forced to release it and the song that they claimed was unplayable went on to become one of their greatest hits. It was the first song to reach number one twice with the same version – in 1975 on its first release and in 1991 following Mercury’s death. It went gold in the USA with over 1 million copies sold. It had a worldwide resurgence in 1992 when it featured in the film Wayne’s World.

The song showcased another innovation. It had the first truly professional promotional video and it is credited by some with launching the MTV age of pop music videos.

Freddie Mercury first started working on ideas for the song in the late 1960s. He did not write it to please customers or to follow a formula for a hit record.   He wrote it as creative piece of self-indulgent musical expression. It was fiendishly difficult to record with the equipment of the day. It was extremely risky in the nature of its composition and lyrics. It was initially rejected as a single by a giant record company because it broke all the rules. Yet in 2002 it was named by the Guinness Book of Records as the top British single of all time.

Creative geniuses do not start by tinkering with what exists today. They do not listen to the demands of customers or bosses or critics. They start with their own revolutionary ideas and pursue them relentlessly.

Based on a chapter in Think like an Innovator by Paul Sloane published by Pearson.

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