Was Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' First 'Mongolian Rhapsody'

Thursday, June 1, 2023
Was Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' First 'Mongolian Rhapsody'

A remarkable unseen trove of Freddie Mercury’s handwritten working drafts for Queen’s immortal hits will be unveiled for the first time today at Sotheby's New York, before travelling to Los Angeles and Hong Kong. The manuscripts will then return to London as part of a month-long exhibition in August prior to their sale in “Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own” this September.

These sensational pages reveal the genesis of a roll call of Queen songs - most created during a burst of great creativity in the mid-1970s - which, almost fifty years on, continue to resonate throughout contemporary culture. They include Don’t Stop Me Now, Somebody to Love, We Are the Champions, and the star of them all, the enduring phenomenon that is Bohemian Rhapsody, which spills its secrets over fifteen extraordinary pages of lyrics and melodies, even revealing a possible alternative title to the song, Mongolian Rhapsody. In scope, quality and exceptional provenance, the collection of lyrics together afford an unprecedented glimpse into the creative mind of one of the 20th-century’s most influential song-writers.

All are emerging directly from Mercury’s personal collection which has been preserved and treasured in his beloved London home, Garden Lodge, since he lived there. Together, they take us on a journey of discovery right to the heart of Mercury as a creative artist, providing glimpses of the alternative forms these most celebrated songs may have taken, and even - in the case of one unpublished early notebook pre-dating Queen’s first record deal - revealing ideas for songs that were never released.


Handwritten working lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody c. 1974, est. £800,000–1.2m

© Queen Music Ltd - Sony Music Publishing UK Ltd

Written in black and blue ballpoint pen and pencil, this early draft for Bohemian Rhapsody encompasses all sections of this most ambitious of Queen hits, one of the most globally beloved and streamed songs – with almost four billion streams across Spotify and YouTube alone- and the third best-selling UK single of all time. As with many of the lyrics held within this collection, the draft text is written across 15 pages of stationery from the now defunct ‘British Midland Airways’.


Revealing untold insights into other possible directions the song could have taken, one page reveals that Mercury originally planned to call the song ‘Mongolian Rhapsody’, before crossing out Mongolian and replacing it with ‘Bohemian’ - rhythmically similar but with a different resonance.


On another page, we are presented with an alternative to the famous second verse “Mama, just killed a man.” Instead, a completely different wartime narrative is presented, “Mama, There’s a war began, I’ve got to leave tonight.” A third page, focusing on the operatic section of the piece, is completely covered in a burst of words and phrases: “Galileo,” “Fandango,” “Scaramouche” and “Thunderbolts and lightning” are all on there, but so are other words that were never used: “Matador,” “Belladonna.”

"Thanks to the sheer complexity of the music to Bohemian Rhapsody, and especially its unusual and varied structure, the song rests especially heavily on its lyrics to lend its coherence. In these pages we see Freddie Mercury wrestling in grand operatic terms with profound themes – sin, damnation, stoic acceptance – and witness the great efforts he goes to pinpointing precisely the right words to embody these emotions, and to create the most extraordinary narrative. Quite unlike anything that had been released before, Bohemian Rhapsody was the band’s greatest risk, which swiftly became their greatest hit.”

Dr. Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s Books & Manuscripts Specialist

Further Highlights From Freddie Mercury’s Lyrics


Autograph working lyrics to Somebody to Love, from 1976, estimated at £150,000- 200,000. As with the lyrics for Bohemian Rhapsody, this extensive draft is written across ‘British Midlands Airways’ stationery, spanning 19 pages in this case, with writing in black, blue, red and green ink. In terms of musical complexity and ambition, Somebody to Love presents a close rival to Bohemian Rhapsody, albeit with a very different sound. Mercury loved Aretha Franklin and here he seeks to evoke the power of a gospel choir with a big production number. In this draft, seven pages are devoted to the song’s lyrics, and 12 are dedicated to perfecting the musical harmony. Again, as with Bohemian Rhapsody, here we see Mercury working out detailed notes on the harmonies - experimenting in a way that is rare for a recording artist, but was crucial to achieving the Queen sound.


Draft lyrics for Somebody to Love, est. £150,000–200,000

© Queen Music Ltd - Sony Music Publishing UK Ltd

A completely unseen, unrecorded red notebook from the early 1970s, estimated at £120,000-180,000. This is believed to be Freddie Mercury’s earliest ever notebook of lyrics and one of his prized possessions at the time, dating back to the period before Queen were signed as a band. As well as including his own working lyrics (Stone Cold Crazy, Liar, and Keep Yourself Alive) the notebook reveals which songs by other artists Queen were performing at the time, with set-lists for early gigs featuring Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock and The Rolling Stones’Stupid Girl. It also includes doodles, designs for Queen’s logo and fragments of unpublished songs. Notes are written across 42 pages in total with coffee stains to the cover.

Early Red notebook with working lyrics, est. £120,000–180,000 © Queen Music Ltd - Sony Music Publishing UK Ltd

A yellow spiral bound A4 notepad with working lyrics and chords for songs from the album Jazz, estimated at £200,000-300,000. Discovered in his piano stool in Garden Lodge, this notebook is filled with 24 pages of draft lyrics for songs from the band’s seventh studio album, released in 1978. These include Let Me Entertain You, Don't Stop Me Now, Bicycle Race, and If You Can't Beat Them, and show us that even as Mercury neared the end of the process of finalising his songs, there were continual tweaks and enhancements to the language.

Yellow spiral bound A4 notepad with working lyrics and chords for songs from the album Jazz, est. £200,000–300,000

© Queen Music Ltd - Sony Music Publishing UK Ltd

Elsewhere in the collection are a further seven leaves of autograph manuscript lyrics to Don’t Stop Me Now from the same period, estimated at £120,000-180,000. Considered by some as an autobiographical song for Mercury, it was first recorded on Queen’s seventh album Jazz in 1978 but achieved so much popularity it was released as a single the following year.


Highlighted above is just a fraction of all the lyrics to be offered in Sotheby’s auctions, with many more to come, including four pages of draft lyrics with extensive revisions throughout for Queen’s hit song, Love of My Life (est. £40,000-60,000). A concert favourite, the song still ranks as one of the band’s most streamed songs.


Also to be included are the following major lyrics, previously announced in April: the autograph manuscript working lyrics to the band’s first big US hit, the waspish cabaret satire Killer Queen written across 13 pages of Electra Records stationery (est. £50,000-70,000); and the 9 pages of lyrics for Queen’s greatest anthem We Are The Champions (est. £200,000–300,000).


Full information regarding the remaining lyrics will be revealed with the release of the auction catalogue in late July or early August.

From left to right: Working Lyrics for Don’t Stop Me Now, est. £120,000–180,000; Autograph manuscript working lyrics to Killer Queen, est. £50,000–70,000; Autograph draft working lyrics for We Are The Champions, c.1977, est. £200,000–300,000 © Queen Music Ltd - Sony Music Publishing UK Ltd

Freddie Mercury’s Costumes Worn For the Revolutionary Bohemian Rhapsody Music Video


Alongside the announcement of the working lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, Sotheby’s today reveals a number of Freddie Mercury’s sensational costumes relating to the song’s ground-breaking promotional video, widely considered to be the earliest significant film ever produced for a single release. A week after its debut screening on Top of the Pops (just ten days after its production), Bohemian Rhapsody was propelled to No. 1 in the British charts for a nine-week reign, and instantaneously established video as the essential marketing tool in promoting a record, both nationally and internationally.


For the video, Mercury commissioned the designer, and his friend, Wendy de Smet to create a two-piece stage outfit comprising a catsuit and bolero of ivory satin with winged wrists and lower legs, inspired by the God of Mercury’s wings and in keeping with Queen’s predilection for only wearing black and white clothing at the time (estimate: £50,000-70,000). Mercury was heavily involved in its design, a passion that originated from his time at art school, which he said had taught him “always to be one step ahead.” In an interview, de Smet recalled: “Freddie wanted to look like the God of Mercury…he bought fabric from Borovich on Broadwick Street in London [where] you could buy fabric for stage costume…I made small quilted wings on the cuff…and quilted wings....like bird wings on the bottom of the pants…He had ideas and we worked on them together.” Mercury understood the history of fashion, its boundless opportunities for creativity, selecting materials with which he knew he could create something spectacular, while also being able to move freely on stage.


Mercury accessorized the catsuit with a traditional Victorian-style silver snake bangle, wearing it time and again during the mid-1970s (estimate: £7,000-9,000), and elsewhere in the video also appears wearing a black silk velvet jacket, embellished with straight and wavey vertical sequined strips (estimate: £30,000- 50,000). He frequently wore vintage garments, like this jacket, and was even known to swap outfits with Roger Taylor with whom he had a stall selling second-hand clothes, his graduate artwork and antiques in the now defunct Kensington Market in London during 1969 and 1970.  

Ivory satin catsuit, designed by Wendy de Smet, made for the Bohemian Rhapsody video, 1975, est. £50,000–70,000 


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Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.

Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.


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