The song “Bohemian Rhapsody”–which was released 40 years ago, Oct. 31, 1975–did not appear destined for the hit parade. It was, in TIME’s words, “a six-minute cut that mingles introspection with Gilbert and Sullivan operatics” by a band with little public profile. Yet it quickly topped the charts in England and propelled Queen on a 21-city U.S. tour.
The critics never saw it coming.
“Unfortunately,” TIME opined, “Queen’s lyrics are not the stuff of sonnets.” The New York Times, reviewing a 1978 appearance at Madison Square Garden came down equally hard: “Lyrically, Queen’s songs manage to be pretentious and irrelevant. Musically, for all the virtuosity—though it was cheating a bit to turn over the complex middle portion of their ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to a taped version, with empty stage and flashing lights—the songs still sound mostly pretty empty, all flash and calculation.”
But that skepticism is long gone. Rolling Stone eventually put “Bohemian Rhapsody” on its list of the 500 greatest songs ever, and it also has pride of place on TIME’s own list of the greatest songs since 1923.
Read more about the rise of Queen, here in the TIME Vault: Hail to Queen
Musicians on the Cover of TIME
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Write to Lily Rothman at firstname.lastname@example.org