The British rock band Queen recently marked a special milestone in its career: the 40th anniversary of "Bohemian Rhapsody," which is generally regarded as the group's signature song. Written by the group's legendary singer Freddie Mercury, the nearly six-minute track of rock and opera is not only Queen's most beloved hit but an integral part of popular culture--from its inclusion in the 1992 film comedy Wayne's World, to the Muppets' version of it from 2009. As part of the song's anniversary, Queen is releasing this Friday A Night at the Odeon--Hammersmith 1975, an archival live recording that features a performance of "Bohemian Rhapsody." That will be followed by a special limited edition 12-inch vinyl reissue of the song for Record Store Day Black Friday on November 27.
Just as memorable as "Bohemian Rhapsody" is its music video, featuring the band members--Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon--in shadowy black. With the exception of Queen's fans, not many people probably know that the video is a recreation of a photograph taken by Mick Rock for the cover of the band's 1974 sophomore album Queen II. With the group presented in mostly darkness, and Mercury's hands covering his chest in a dramatic pose, it's an image that has been associated with the band ever since.
In a recent interview, the British-born Rock recalls that the origins of that photo could be traced to a friend named John Kobal, who amassed a collection of vintage Hollywood photos that the film companies were throwing out. Through Kobal, Rock came across a black and white photo of Marlene Dietrich from the 1932 Josef Von Sternberg-directed film Shanghai Express.
"I got to know him -- he was in the whole [glam] scene in London," Rock, who had recently published a photo book titled The Rise of David Bowie, 1972-1973, says of Kobal. "He wanted me to take some pictures for his new book. And also he gave me a book, and on the front was a picture of Marlene Dietrich on the set of Shanghai Express, which I often talked about. It was one of the rare occasions where I was directly inspired by somebody else's photograph. The eyes are almost hooded--I hooded them. It was only Marlene, who had learned about posing and lighting--because she used to light herself from Josef Von Sternberg. Of course, she was already an established actress in Germany, and they did [the 1930 film] The Blue Angel."
Around that period, Rock--who had also photographed David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop--had previously done a photo session with Queen, then an aspiring rock band who had released its self-titled debut album in 1973. "I was in the music business in London at the time," Rock says. "I had gained a certain flavoring. This all came about because of this [glam] thing, especially because of David, Lou and Iggy. That had gotten me a certain cachet and I was getting work because people loved them, and that's why certainly Queen came to me. First they wanted a session to promote the first album, which hadn't made much clack. And then at the same meeting, they played me Queen II. And I reacted, 'Led Zeppelin meets Ziggy Stardust.' That was my response and that was exactly what they wanted to hear.
"And they needed an album cover," Rock continues, "the theme was it had to feature the group and it was going to be a gatefold. Freddie was already a star, even though he wasn't. He was a master of projection like David. So they said black and white theme, featuring the group in a gatefold. That was my brief."
As Rock remembers, he showed the dark and glamorous Dietrich photo from Kobal's collection to Mercury. "I don't know if it was the shot itself or the idea that [Freddie] could be like Marlene Dietrich--probably a combination of the two," he explains.
Rock and the band began working on what would become over time the band's iconic 'black' image in early 1974 at Rock's studio. "It was a lot of fiddling about," he says of that session. "They were in and out of the f---ing mirror...But I did a lot of shots, including some where Freddie's hands were in different positions, and when John and Roger are on different sides--and in black and white as well as color--and some with Brian with a veil over his head."
In accordance with Queen II's theme of opposites (the vinyl sides of the record were named 'Side White' and 'Side Black,' as opposed to the conventional 'Side A' and 'Side B'), the photographer also shot the band dressed in white. "There was some discussion on what should be the front cover," says Rock. "The other three kind of thought the white one, they were kind of a bit intimidated at that moment. I do remember somebody saying it looks very pretentious because it looked like they were a huge deal, when in fact they weren't at that moment. Of course, they lived up to the picture in time."
Rock also spoke of Mercury's influence when it came to the band's presentation. "They were democratic," he says, "but on the visual side of things they tended to do what Freddie wanted. He designed the logo, he actually named the band 'Queen,' and how he got away with that shows the naivete of the rest of the band."
"My own fascination with this project was its duality," recalled Brian May in the 2003 photo book Killer Queen about the sessions with Rock. "Soundwise, the Queen II album was already totally and deliberately split down the middle. It had a 'Side White' and 'Side Black' both very different in character, so different in fact that it was almost like two Queen albums going in opposite directions...We had evolved our stage costume designs to be pure black and white, again a duality. So it was important to me to develop the two concepts of photographs side by side...Mick had the skill to convert these dreams into fine pieces of art."
A year later, Queen released its fourth album A Night at the Opera, which contained "Bohemian Rhapsody." For the song's video, the band and director Bruce Gowers revisited the cover of Queen II--the clip became important in the history of music videos (Queen returned to the Queen II image once again for the video of the band's 1985 single "One Vision"). Referring to the shadowy photographs taken by Rock for the original Queen II shoot, May said in Killer Queen: "To the world at large, these dark pictures will forever evoke "Bohemian Rhapsody.""
Aside from his images of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie from the '70s, the Queen II photograph--which will also be the cover of the upcoming re-release of the Bohemian Rhapsody single for Record Store Day Black Friday--is probably one of Rock's most recognizable works. "It became their most famous image," Rock says, "not that it matters in a certain sense, because the music overwhelmed everything. That's fundamentally how that all went down."