Queen: What the HELL is Seven Seas of Rhye About?
A band's first hit can define its entire career. It can provide the framework for how all future music will travel and be compared. In 1973, British rock band, Queen, went down a path that led them to superstardom. An idea borrowed from the world of the fantastic, and manifested from the mind of Freddie Mercury, ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ provided the blueprint that made Queen an international sensation.
Drummer Roger Taylor suggests the making of that song started them down the path to pioneering multi-tracking. They were going “over the top with production,” allowing them to create their own massive sound.
The Starting Point
Freddie Mercury (lead vocalist and pianist) hadn’t even quit his day job working in a clothing store in Kensington Market in London, England when Queen released their self-titled first album in 1973. It was after an opportunity to perform on the BBC’s Top of The Pops in February 1974 that Mercury decided it was time to commit to music full-time. They seized the opportunity to premiere their reworked song ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ and although the experience “wasn’t cool,” the song was a hit.
To say they were lucky to be there is an understatement. They weren’t scheduled to perform at all. David Bowie was scheduled to be on the show singing his new hit ‘Rebel Rebel,' but the video of his performance hadn’t arrived at the studio, and the show was in a panic. Queen was suggested as a last-minute replacement.
In the 2011 Queen documentary ‘Days of our Lives,’ Roger Taylor reveals: "There was a strike on at the BBC so we recorded it in the weather studio…Top of The Pops was incredibly uncool. It was rubbish; no one was actually playing..there were about 75 teenagers which were herded about the studio, and a bunch of aging disc jockeys present you…the drums were plastic, so they made this 'dook' noise when you hit them.”
Guitarist Brian May holds the memory in a more positive light, recalling: “It was an exciting experience because hey here you are on Top of the Pops and it's all happening…you thought you were, in a sense, becoming part of public consciousness.”
After the performance, the song got airtime on BBC Radio and became a hit on the UK Single Chart, peaking at number 10 and putting them on the map. It was the break they needed. Their debut album had gotten them enough attention to earn them a spot on Mott the Hoople’s UK tour in early 1974, but it wasn’t enough of a breakthrough to get them firmly planted in the public eye. It was a missing David Bowie video that acted as the catapult.
INSPIRATION AND MEANING
‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ was released on their first album as an “instrumental musical sketch,” but was reworked after Mercury decided to expand on it. In a 1977 radio interview, Mercury described the song as a "figment of his imagination." Inspired by a fantasy world he shared with his sister, Kashimara Bulsara, it has been suggested by Brian May that “Rhye was a place where Freddy imagined he was King.” In their musical, ‘We Will Rock You,’ the Seven Seas of Rhye is where the Bohemians are taken after they are brain-drained by Khashoggi.
In reality, The Seven Seas of Rhye is a body of water in the Colony of Calsahara. It forms the western border of Calsahara and the US in the Principality of Rhye. It’s comprised of a series of pools that vary in number. The claim that there are seven is completely arbitrary.
Though Mercury is given sole credit for the song on the album notes, Brian May was integral in creating the musical parts. According to May, Mercury said it was “his idea” and they were “his words,” so it was his song. The band went along with it and would soon find out that’s how the process would work moving forward.
The opening verse of the song:
Fear me you lords and lady preachers
I descend upon your Earth from the skies
I command your very souls you unbelievers
Bring before me what is mine, the seven seas of rhye..
The middle (3rd verse):
Sister I live and lie for you
Mister do or else die
You are mine I possess you
I belong to you forever
The final verse:
Begone with you short and shady senators
Give out the good, leave out the bad evil cries
I challenge the mighty titan and his troubadours
And with a smile
I'll take you to the seven seas of Rhye
Could it be that the man who changed his name to “Mercury” (he was born Farrokh Bulsara) wrote a story about the return of a King (or god?) to save his sister from evil? We may never know for sure, but this seems like a pretty good option seeing as how he mentioned his sister was included in his fictional world, he mentions saving her in the song, and he changed his last name to that of a god.
While the track is their earliest work to be featured on their Greatest Hits Album, and largely forgotten over the years, it’s what opened the box of creativity for the band and created the sound that would make them mega-stars. Their sound was huge and over-the-top moving forward, as were their on-stage performances.
If we’re to believe a simple shipping error may be responsible for all the fame and fortune these four men have achieved, maybe the song is about “a god or king saving the people.” But, maybe the king is Bowie?