Bicycle Race

Written by: Freddie Mercury
Album: Jazz (November, 1978) 4th track
Single: October, 1978
Meter: 4/4, 3/4, occassional anomalies
Keys: Ab-Major, bb-minor, F-major, C-major, D-major,
Form:

| Chorus | Verse | Chorus | Bridge || Chorus'(first half) | "Race" |         | Verse | Chorus |

Beneath the catchy surface this song is perhaps the most complex 3-minute (3:01) pop-rock hit song ever in terms of harmony and rhythm, no less. This might be a provoking thing to claim, but I challange you to find even a close contest (preferably non-Queen). This piece provides a lesson of how to connect sections of different key, meter, tempo and style together, and keep them sound coherent. All four sections are in different key. The choruses are in Ab-Major, verses in bb-minor, bridge in F major, the "Race" section is in D-Major, moreover both the third chorus and the bridge are closing in C-Major. The number of 5 keys (none of which is enharmonic!) in a radio-hit song is a stand-alone feature. Beside this we have got meter change, anomalic measures, disorienting rhythms, uneven phrasings, cynematic parts, extravaganzas... the amount of clever details is enough for dozens of other hit songs, or epic progressive rock songs of twenty minutes and acyclic structure. But this song is a regular 3-minute pop-song with verses and choruses. It reminds us the lasting achievement of Queen and Mercury: proving that you can bring creativity into pop-music, and keep it sound catchy. If you can...
The songform has cyclic design, but we have two long sections that are not repeated at all. Each section can be divided to subsections. Queen performed this song live several times, but just an extract version (Chorus + Verse) as a part of a medley.

Walkthrough

Chorus

The song starts with a Queen signature powerful intro-chorus (a common feature with Fat Bottomed Girls from the flip side of the same single). There are four Choruses in the song without neighboring pairs. Except the third one, they can be divided into two sub-sections, both of which is very catchy an memorable. The first one consists of two blocks of three "bicycle" phrases, intervened by the opening measure of the second subsection with a microscopic change.

The "bicycle" phrases are arranged for five-part vocal harmonies that can be simplifed down to three chords of three parallel lines. The leading one on top (and bass as well) is static, two chromatically descending. Very simple concept, but not a common line cliche at all (I must confess that I could not find it yet anywhere else).
The key is ambiguous until the second subsection begins. The opening Eb chord have a tonic flavour but the subsequent chords keep us ambiguous. Even the Ab chord in the intervening measure doesn't sound like a tonic at that first time.

So better no functions added:

chords:    | Eb   | Daug | Bbm  | Ab Bbm7|top & bass:| Bb   | Bb   | Bb   | middle:    | G    | Gb   | F    |bottom:    | Eb   | D    | Db   | 

The second block of "bycicle" phrases are also have a blurred tonality due to an unusual chain major chords descending in flat thirds. This one I could not found yet either anywhere else (especially not in a chorus of a pop-rock hit song). No wonder since pop-music usually avoides weak tonality. A similar but ascending chain progression can be found in March Of The Black Queen.

Ab:| D       | B        | Ab      ||bIII/bIII| bIII     | I       |

Ten seconds passed from the song and we already heard two highly unusual chord progressions built in a catchy, bombastic vocal arrangement. Not bad...

The second half of the chorus is catchy and simple. Two phrases have each two-two subphrases, all variants none of them being quite the same.

Ab:/-------- 4x -------\| Ab Bbm3| Ab       | | I ii   | I        |


The first "bycicle" phrase of the intro-chorus is acapella. The bombastic effect is strengthened by stereo mixing.
In the second chorus the first block of "bicycle" vocals go unisono (octave-parallel). During the second three "bicycle"-s the bottom part gets a strange ornament. The last measure of this second chorus is cutted off. Why? Because the transition to the bridge is better this way.
The fourth and final chorus is the most "regularly" arranged, except an ascending guitar scale that nicely reprises the motif of the guitar solo. This guitar fill is harmonized on the 5.1 mix.

The third chorus is the most different variant:
1) It lacks the second subsection.
2) The chords are very different since this phrase has to lead the key back from C-major to Ab-major.

| F     | C/E   | Ab/Eb |C: IV   | I...  |Ab:     |       | I     |

Instead of the pivoting functions, the chromatic bassline combined with static inner line (C-nat) make this modulation sound right.

3) The second block of three "bicycle"-s is not modified except it ends differently: it slows down and the last "bicycle" chord is G7 (instead of Ab). It is resolved to a C, with a strong tonic flavor. It all sounds as light as any cliche progression.

| D       | B      | G7    || C|bIII/bIII| bIII   |V-of-iii                 C:| V     || I

This ritardando makes one imagine the bicycles rolling to the startline and stop.

Verse
There are two verses in the song, both of them followed by a chorus section. The form of the verses is ABAB' with 3+2+3+3 phrasing. The first verse is preceded by a half measure. The economic arrangement is funk-tight with lots of tension (shades of Get Down Make Love - verse).
In the second half of the second verse we can find a few bass and vocal extravaganzas.
The vocal arrangement is antiphonal between lead and group of backing vocals. Some words are semi-spoken.
Both bass and drums apply some off-beat accents. In the third measure of the first (and third) phrase the drum beats the 6th eighth (three-and). It sounds simple but it's enough for most of us to lose the beat. Try to count it along!

bb:| Bbm  | -   | -   || i    | -   | -   || Gb7 |Eb7/G A1|| VI  | IV M7  || Bbm  | -   | -   || i    | -   | -   || Gb7 |Eb7/G |F1 G1 A1|| VI  | IV   |5  6  M7|

The Gb7 > Eb7 progression features double cross-relation: E > E-flat and G-flat > G.
In the first verse these last notes are backed by the piano; in the second verse the guitar takes over this role (in the first verse there's no guitar).

Bridge
The harmony modulates to F-Major, the meter changes to 3/4 and the tempo slows down for this section. The form of the bridge is built of three subsections:
1) the first one is 2x8 measures long, and has got an AA form. The first half of the phrases in this segment are backed with four-part harmonies. The harmony is open on both end, mainly a chain of fifths.

F:/-------------------------- 2x -------------------------\| Gm7  |  -  | C7   | - (D1)| F   | -    | Bb   | - (A1)|| ii   |  -  | V    |       | I   | -    | IV   |       |

2) The second subsection is uneven seven measures long and speeds up the harmonic rhythm. The bass-line is completed with fanfare-like guitar orchestration with a vivace feel. It's almost instrumental except some phrases shouted.

F:| Bb      | A         | Dm        | C1  F     | Dm        |   Dm      | Bb      C1 || IV      |V/vi       | vi        |     I     | vi        |    -      | IV         |               beats:   1   2   3   1   2   3   1   2   3   1   2   3   1   2   3   1                        D           C   F     E D       C   A   D     C Bb      C   Bicycle...

The rhythm is tricky. Just try to pick up and count along the 1-2-3 beats, and you likely loose the beat for first attempt unless you have a strong sense of rhythm. The above beat map under the chord chart (from the word "Go") may help.


Try to creat any catchy melody that is rhythmically misleading. You'll see how hard it is.

3) The third segment consists of three "bi-cycle race" phrases in three measures shared between two unisono groups of vocals. The dominant-flavor of this phrase leads the key to C-major, even tough the following chorus will not establish it.

C:| G  | C/G | G7  || V  | I   | V   |

This part is closed with an instrumental version of the "all I wanna do is" phrase from the end of the verse. This measure sets the meter back to 4/4.
By the start of the Bridge the tempo was slightly and abrutly slowed down. The return is done gradually.


"Race"
This is a very cinematic part of the song. It consists of two subsections: bicycle ring concert and the guitar solo of racing bikes.
There are bicycle rings of about seven different pitches in action here. Ordered as they enter: A, D, F, E, Ab, C^, G^. As originally bicycle rings aren't made for musical purposes, some of them are a bit "out of tune". The concert of the bicycle rings starts with some musical concept but soon it gets chaotic, there's no need to analyze it. An earlier appearance of a bicycle ring can be found in "Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon".

The guitar solo is introduced with a four-part guitar harmony built up from bottom to top. The chord consists of only two different notes, each note is thrilled by a half-step. The A-Eb interval here is called "diminished fourth" or simply tritonus (the distance of three whole steps). This chord aims to picture the tension of a start of a bicycle race.

Following this thrilling harmony, we have four ascending D-major scales, starting from degrees 1st, 5th, 1st, 5th respectively. These first four scales are eight notes long, each one preceded with an extra upbeat-note four steps below their starting tone.
The next four scales are only four notes long each. The first two of these consists of the first four notes of the D-major scale, the second one an octave higher. The third and the fourth scale fragments have the same concept upon the B-major scale.
The next four "scale fragments" are merely two notes long and backed with Em piano chord. Three of these (the 1st, 3rd and 4th) feature the same two notes shifted by one and two octaves respectively.

These scales can be associated with the racing bikes chasing eachother. Similar effect is often used in cartoons. The arrangement is antiponal enhanced by stereo panning.
In the song A Kind Of Magic (1986) we can find another guitar solo of similar concept. Freddie might have had major input in this one.

D:/--- 2x --\| D  | A  || I  | V  || D  | B  | Em || I  |V/ii| ii |


The ending of the "Race" section acts like a connector. The ascending bass is balanced out by a descending guitar harmony build-up:

piano, guitar, bass: | F#1 G#1 A#1 C#1... | repeated.     guitar harmony: | F#1 E1  D1  B1     |


This riff is repeated with heavy punctuated, manually damped crash cymbals. The guitar harmony is sustained. The ascending riff resonates with the one behind the phrases "all I wanna do is" and "president of America", also with the title phrase of the song Let Me Entertain You.
This riff features yet another rhythmic anomaly as the accents can be grouped as: 3+3+3+4+3+3+3+2. This patter of eights create a sequence of 6/8 > 7/8 > 6/8 > 5/8 metered measures. The last '2' is rather a '4' that is overlapped by the next section (verse).