In 17th-Century Japan, Creaking Floors Functioned as Security Systems That Warned Palaces & Temples of Approaching Intruders and Assassins

Offer a cut­ting-edge secu­ri­ty sys­tem, and you’ll suf­fer no short­age of cus­tomers who want it installed. But before our age of con­cealed cam­eras, motion sen­sors, reti­nal scan­ners, and all the oth­er advanced and often unset­tling tech­nolo­gies known only to indus­try insid­ers, how did own­ers of large, expen­sive, and even roy­al­ty-hous­ing prop­er­ties buy peace of mind? We find one par­tic­u­lar­ly inge­nious answer by look­ing back about 400 years ago, to the wood­en cas­tles and tem­ples of 17th-cen­tu­ry Japan.

“For cen­turies, Japan has tak­en pride in the tal­ents of its crafts­men, car­pen­ters and wood­work­ers includ­ed,” writes Sora News 24’s Casey Baseel. “Because of that, you might be sur­prised to find that some Japan­ese cas­tles have extreme­ly creaky wood­en floors that screech and groan with each step. How could such slip­shod con­struc­tion have been con­sid­ered accept­able for some of the most pow­er­ful fig­ures in Japan­ese his­to­ry? The answer is that the sounds weren’t just tol­er­at­ed, but desired, as the noise-pro­duc­ing floors func­tioned as Japan’s ear­li­est auto­mat­ed intrud­er alarm.”

In these spe­cial­ly engi­neered floors, “planks of wood are placed atop a frame­work of sup­port­ing beams, secure­ly enough that they won’t dis­lodge, but still loose­ly enough that there’s a lit­tle bit of play when they’re stepped on.” And when they are stepped on, “their clamps rub against nails attached to the beams, cre­at­ing a shrill chirp­ing noise,” ren­der­ing stealthy move­ment near­ly impos­si­ble and thus mak­ing for an effec­tive “coun­ter­mea­sure against spies, thieves, and assas­sins.”

Accord­ing to Zen-Garden.org, you can still find — and walk on — four such uguisub­ari, or “nightin­gale floors,” in Kyoto: at Daikaku-ji tem­ple, Chio-in tem­ple, Toji-in tem­ple, and Nino­mu­ra Palace.

If you can’t make it out to Kyoto any time soon, you can have a look and a lis­ten to a cou­ple of those nightin­gale floors in the short clips above. Then you’ll under­stand just how dif­fi­cult it would have been to cross one with­out alert­ing any­one to your pres­ence. This sort of thing sends our imag­i­na­tions straight to visions of high­ly trained nin­jas skill­ful­ly out­wit­ting palace guards, but in their day these delib­er­ate­ly squeaky floors floors also car­ried more pleas­ant asso­ci­a­tions than that of immi­nent assas­si­na­tion. As this poem on Zen-Garden.org’s uguisub­ari page says says:

 

鳥を聞く

歓迎すべき音

鴬張りを渡る

 

A wel­come sound

To hear the birds sing

across the nightin­gale floor

via @12pt9/Sora News

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hōshi: A Short Doc­u­men­tary on the 1300-Year-Old Hotel Run by the Same Japan­ese Fam­i­ly for 46 Gen­er­a­tions

Watch Japan­ese Wood­work­ing Mas­ters Cre­ate Ele­gant & Elab­o­rate Geo­met­ric Pat­terns with Wood

Mes­mer­iz­ing GIFs Illus­trate the Art of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Wood Join­ery — All Done With­out Screws, Nails, or Glue

Omoshi­roi Blocks: Japan­ese Memo Pads Reveal Intri­cate Build­ings As The Pages Get Used

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Japan’s Inflat­able Con­cert Hall

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Japanese Artist Creates Bookshelf Dioramas That Magically Transport You Into Tokyo’s Back Alleys

Should you find your­self in a Japan­ese city, spend time not on the Star­bucks- and McDon­ald’s-lined boule­vards but on the back streets that wind in all direc­tions behind them. Or bet­ter yet, head into the back alleys branch­ing off those streets, those half-hid­den spaces that offer the most evoca­tive glimpses of life in urban Japan by far. Only there can you find pas­sage into the won­der­ful­ly idio­syn­crat­ic busi­ness­es tucked into the cor­ners of the city, from bars and restau­rants to cof­fee shops and of course book­stores. Those book­stores have long occu­pied Japan’s back alleys, but now an artist by the name of Monde has brought the back alleys onto book­shelves.

Mon­de’s hand­craft­ed wood­en book­end dio­ra­mas, which you can see on his Twit­ter feed as well as in a Buz­zfeed Japan arti­cle about them, repli­cate the back alleys of his home­town of Tokyo. They do it in minia­ture, and down to the small­est detail — even the elec­tric lights that illu­mi­nate the real thing at night.

Scaled to the height of not just a book but a small Japan­ese paper­back, the likes of which fill those back-alley book­stores from floor to ceil­ing, they’re designed to slot right into book­shelves, pro­vid­ing a wel­com­ing street scene to those brows­ing through their own or oth­ers’ vol­umes in the same way that the actu­al alleys they mod­el come as a pleas­ant sur­prise to passers­by on the main streets.

Tokyo has become a beloved city to Japan­ese and non-Japan­ese alike for count­less rea­sons, but who can doubt the appeal of the way it com­bines the feel­ing of small-town life in its many neigh­bor­hoods that togeth­er make for a megac­i­ty scale? Mon­de’s dio­ra­mas cap­ture the dis­tinc­tive mix­ture of domes­tic­i­ty and den­si­ty in the cap­i­tal’s back alleys, reflect­ing the nar­row­ness of the spaces in form and their some­how organ­i­cal­ly man­made nature — step­ping stones, pot­ted-plant gar­dens, and all the small pieces of infra­struc­ture that have accu­mu­lat­ed to sup­port life in the homes of so many — in con­tent. Though Tokyo has for decades been regard­ed, espe­cial­ly from the West, as a place of thor­ough hyper­moder­ni­ty, its alleys remind us that with­in the some­times over­whelm­ing present exists a mix­ture of eras that feel time­less — just like the con­tent of a well-curat­ed book­shelf.

via Twist­ed Sifter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Japan­ese Wood­work­ing Mas­ters Cre­ate Ele­gant & Elab­o­rate Geo­met­ric Pat­terns with Wood

Mes­mer­iz­ing GIFs Illus­trate the Art of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Wood Join­ery — All Done With­out Screws, Nails, or Glue

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

The Toky­oi­ter: Artists Pay Trib­ute to the Japan­ese Cap­i­tal with New York­er-Style Mag­a­zine Cov­ers

A Pho­to­graph­ic Tour of Haru­ki Murakami’s Tokyo, Where Dream, Mem­o­ry, and Real­i­ty Meet

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Solar System Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Creates a Handcrafted Quilt to Use as a Teaching Aid in Her Astronomy Class

Ded­i­cat­ed teach­ers often go well beyond the call of duty, sac­ri­fic­ing large amounts of free time for the bet­ter­ment of their class­rooms and their pupils.

Any teacher who’s ever paid for sup­plies out of their own pock­et, then spent the week­end con­struct­ing an elab­o­rate bul­letin board dis­play, will appre­ci­ate the her­culean efforts of Sarah Ellen Hard­ing Bak­er.

Bak­er, a teacher and astronomer in Cedar Coun­ty, Iowa, is rumored to have spent 7 years embroi­der­ing a beau­ti­ful appliquéd quilt to use as a visu­al aid in lec­tures.

Fin­ished in 1876, the quilt is large enough that even a near-sight­ed stu­dent could see its plan­ets and moons from the back row.

Orbits are indi­cat­ed with silken threads against a black back­ground.

A comet in the upper left is thought to be Hal­ley’s Comet, whose last appear­ance would have been in 1835, 12 years before Baker’s birth.

The Smith­son­ian Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can His­to­ry, where Baker’s quilt is housed, notes that astron­o­my was deemed an accept­able inter­est for 19th-cen­tu­ry women, which may explain the num­ber of celes­tial-themed quilts that date to the peri­od.

Author and quilt his­to­ri­an Bar­bara Brack­man includes a few on her Mate­r­i­al Cul­ture blog, while her His­tor­i­cal­ly Mod­ern blog vis­its some more recent exam­ples, includ­ing one that makes use of a stars-and-earth hot-iron trans­fer pub­lished in Good House­keep­ing mag­a­zine, to accom­pa­ny an arti­cle cel­e­brat­ing the win­ners of its 1939 World of Tomor­row Quilt Con­test.

Bak­er got just ten years out of her quilt before suc­cumb­ing to tuber­cu­lo­sis at the age of 39, the moth­er of 7 chil­dren, 5 of whom sur­vived her.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Mas­sive, Knit­ted Tapes­try of the Galaxy: Soft­ware Engi­neer Hacks a Knit­ting Machine & Cre­ates a Star Map Fea­tur­ing 88 Con­stel­la­tions

The Ancient Astron­o­my of Stone­henge Decod­ed

Too Big for Any Muse­um, AIDS Quilt Goes Dig­i­tal Thanks to Microsoft

Watch Nina Paley’s “Embroi­der­ma­tion,” a New, Stun­ning­ly Labor-Inten­sive Form of Ani­ma­tion

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this Decem­ber for the 10th anniver­sary pro­duc­tion of Greg Kotis’ apoc­a­lyp­tic hol­i­day tale, The Truth About San­ta, and the next month­ly install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Masterclass Is Running a Special “Buy One, Give One Free” Deal: It Gives You & Family Member/Friend Access to Their Complete Course Catalog

A quick fyi: Mas­ter­class is run­ning a Buy One, Give One Free spe­cial until Novem­ber 26 at 11:59:59 PM PST.

Here’s the gist: If you buy an All-Access pass to their 45 cours­es, you will receive anoth­er All-Access Pass to give to some­one else at no addi­tion­al charge. An All-Access pass costs $180, and lasts one year. For that fee, you–and a fam­i­ly mem­ber or friend–can watch cours­es cre­at­ed by Annie Lei­bovitz, Wern­er Her­zog, Mar­tin Scors­ese, David Mamet, Jane Goodall, Mar­garet Atwood, Helen Mir­ren, Mar­tin Scors­ese, Her­bie Han­cock, Alice Waters and so many more. If you’re think­ing this sounds like a pret­ty good hol­i­day present, I’d have to agree.

Note: If you sign up for a Mas­ter­Class course by click­ing on the affil­i­ate links in this post, Open Cul­ture will receive a small fee that helps sup­port our oper­a­tion.

Psilocybin Could Soon Be a Legal Treatment for Depression: Johns Hopkins Professor, Roland Griffiths, Explains How Psilocybin Can Relieve Suffering

Much of the recent sci­en­tif­ic research into psy­che­delics has picked up where researchers left off in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, before LSD, psilo­cy­bin, and oth­er psy­choac­tive drugs became coun­ter­cul­tur­al means of con­scious­ness expan­sion, and then banned, ille­gal sub­stances the gov­ern­ment sought to con­trol. Sci­en­tists from sev­er­al fields stud­ied psy­che­delics as treat­ments for addic­tion, depres­sion, and anx­i­ety, and end-of-life care. These appli­ca­tions were con­ceived and test­ed sev­er­al decades ago.

Now, thanks to some seri­ous invest­ment from high-pro­file insti­tu­tions like Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty, and thanks to chang­ing gov­ern­ment atti­tudes toward psy­choac­tive drugs, it may be pos­si­ble for psilo­cy­bin, the active ingre­di­ent in “mag­ic mush­rooms,” to get legal approval for ther­a­py in a clin­i­cal set­ting by 2021. “For the first time in U.S. his­to­ry,” Shel­by Hart­man reports at Rolling Stone, “a psy­che­del­ic drug is on the fast track to get­ting approved for treat­ing depres­sion by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.”

As Michael Pol­lan has detailed in his lat­est book, How to Change Your Mind, the pos­si­bil­i­ties for psilo­cy­bin and oth­er such drugs are vast. “But before the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion can be peti­tioned to reclas­si­fy it,” Brit­tany Shoot notes at For­tune, the drug “first has to clear phase III clin­i­cal tri­als. The entire process is expect­ed to take about five years.” In the TEDMED video above, you can see Roland R. Grif­fiths, Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Behav­ioral Sci­ences at Johns Hop­kins, dis­cuss the ways in which psilo­cy­bin, “under sup­port­ed con­di­tions, can occa­sion mys­ti­cal-type expe­ri­ences asso­ci­at­ed with endur­ing pos­i­tive changes in atti­tudes and behav­ior.”

The impli­ca­tions of this research span the fields of ethics and med­i­cine, psy­chol­o­gy and reli­gion, and it’s fit­ting that Dr. Grif­fiths leads off with a state­ment about the com­pat­i­bil­i­ty of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and sci­ence, sup­port­ed by a quote from Ein­stein, who said “the most beau­ti­ful and pro­found emo­tion we can expe­ri­ence is the sen­sa­tion of the mys­ti­cal. It’s the source of all true sci­ence.” But the work Grif­fiths and oth­ers have been engaged in is pri­mar­i­ly prac­ti­cal in nature—though it does not at all exclude the mystical—like find­ing effec­tive means to treat depres­sion in can­cer patients, for exam­ple.

“Six­teen mil­lion Amer­i­cans suf­fer from depres­sion and approx­i­mate­ly one-third of them are treat­ment resis­tant,” Hart­man writes. “Depres­sion is also an epi­dem­ic world­wide, affect­ing 300 mil­lion peo­ple around the world.” Psy­chotrop­ic drugs like psilo­cy­bin, LSD, and MDMA (which is not clas­si­fied as a psy­che­del­ic), have been shown for a long time to work for many peo­ple suf­fer­ing from severe men­tal ill­ness and addic­tions.

Although such drugs present some poten­tial for abuse, they are not high­ly addic­tive, espe­cial­ly rel­a­tive to the flood of opi­oids on the legal mar­ket that are cur­rent­ly dev­as­tat­ing whole com­mu­ni­ties as peo­ple use them to self-med­icate. It seems that what has most pre­vent­ed psy­che­delics from being researched and pre­scribed has as much or more to do with long-stand­ing prej­u­dice and fear as it does with a gen­uine con­cern for pub­lic health. (And that’s not even to men­tion the finan­cial inter­ests who exert tremen­dous pres­sure on drug pol­i­cy.)

But now, Hart­man writes, “it appears [researchers] have come too far to go back—and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is final­ly rec­og­niz­ing it, too.” Find out why this research mat­ters in Dr. Grif­fiths’ talk, Pollan’s book, the Mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­che­del­ic Stud­ies, and some of the posts we’ve linked to below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Use Psy­che­del­ic Drugs to Improve Men­tal Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

New LSD Research Pro­vides the First Images of the Brain on Acid, and Hints at Its Poten­tial to Pro­mote Cre­ativ­i­ty

Artist Draws 9 Por­traits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Exper­i­ments to Turn LSD into a “Cre­ativ­i­ty Pill”

When Aldous Hux­ley, Dying of Can­cer, Left This World Trip­ping on LSD, Expe­ri­enc­ing “the Most Serene, the Most Beau­ti­ful Death” (1963)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The Illustrated Version of “Alice’s Restaurant”: Watch Arlo Guthrie’s Thanksgiving Counterculture Classic

Alice’s Restau­rant. It’s now a Thanks­giv­ing clas­sic, and some­thing of a tra­di­tion around here. Record­ed in 1967, the 18+ minute coun­ter­cul­ture song recounts Arlo Guthrie’s real encounter with the law, start­ing on Thanks­giv­ing Day 1965. As the long song unfolds, we hear all about how a hip­pie-bat­ing police offi­cer, by the name of William “Obie” Oban­hein, arrest­ed Arlo for lit­ter­ing. (Cul­tur­al foot­note: Obie pre­vi­ous­ly posed for sev­er­al Nor­man Rock­well paint­ings, includ­ing the well-known paint­ing, “The Run­away,” that graced a 1958 cov­er of The Sat­ur­day Evening Post.) In fair­ly short order, Arlo pleads guilty to a mis­de­meanor charge, pays a $25 fine, and cleans up the thrash. But the sto­ry isn’t over. Not by a long shot. Lat­er, when Arlo (son of Woody Guthrie) gets called up for the draft, the pet­ty crime iron­i­cal­ly becomes a basis for dis­qual­i­fy­ing him from mil­i­tary ser­vice in the Viet­nam War. Guthrie recounts this with some bit­ter­ness as the song builds into a satir­i­cal protest against the war: “I’m sit­tin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army, burn women, kids, hous­es and vil­lages after bein’ a lit­ter­bug.” And then we’re back to the cheery cho­rus again: “You can get any­thing you want, at Alice’s Restau­rant.”

We have fea­tured Guthrie’s clas­sic dur­ing past years. But, for this Thanks­giv­ing, we give you the illus­trat­ed ver­sion. Hap­py Thanks­giv­ing to every­one who plans to cel­e­brate the hol­i­day today.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Reads His Sar­cas­tic “Thanks­giv­ing Prayer” in a 1988 Film By Gus Van Sant

Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s Hand­writ­ten Turkey-and-Stuff­ing Recipe

William Shat­ner Raps About How to Not Kill Your­self Deep Fry­ing a Turkey

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 13 Tips for What to Do with Your Left­over Thanks­giv­ing Turkey

The Impossibly Cool Album Covers of Blue Note Records: Meet the Creative Team Behind These Iconic Designs

If you stepped into a record store in the 1950s and 60s, you would like­ly be drawn almost imme­di­ate­ly to a Blue Note release—whether or not you were a fan of jazz or had heard of the artist or even the label. “If you went to those record stores,” says Estelle Caswell in the Vox Ear­worm video above, “it prob­a­bly wasn’t the sound of Blue Note that imme­di­ate­ly caught your atten­tion. It was their album cov­ers.”

Now those designs are hal­lowed jazz iconog­ra­phy, with their “bold typog­ra­phy, two tone pho­tog­ra­phy, and min­i­mal graph­ic design.” Of course, it should go with­out say­ing that the sound of Blue Note is as dis­tinc­tive and essen­tial as its look, thanks to its founders’ musi­cal vision, the fault­less ear of pro­duc­er and engi­neer Rudy Van Gelder, and the ros­ter of unbe­liev­ably great musi­cians the label recruit­ed and record­ed.

But back to those cov­ers….

“Their bold use of col­or, inti­mate pho­tog­ra­phy, and metic­u­lous­ly placed typog­ra­phy came to define the look of jazz” in the hard bop era, and thus, defined the look of cool, a “refined sophis­ti­ca­tion” vibrat­ing with rest­less, sul­try, smoky, classy, moody ener­gy. The rat pack had noth­ing on Blue Note. Their cov­ers “have today become an epit­o­me of graph­ic hip,” writes Robin Kin­ross at Eye mag­a­zine. (And lest we fetishize the cov­ers at the expense of their con­tents, Kin­ross makes sure to add that they “are no more than the vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion of an organ­ic whole.”)

Flip over any one of those beau­ti­ful­ly-designed Blue Note records from, say, 1955 to 65, the label’s peak years, and you’ll find two names cred­it­ed for almost all of their designs: pho­tog­ra­ph­er Fran­cis Wolff and graph­ic design­er Reid Miles. Wolff, says pro­duc­er and Blue Note archivist Michael Cus­cu­na in the Ear­worm video, shot almost every Blue Note ses­sion from “the minute he arrived.”

“One of the most impres­sive, and shock­ing things” about Wolff’s pho­to shoots, “was that the aver­age suc­cess rate of those pho­tos was real­ly extra­or­di­nary. He was like the jazz artist of pho­tog­ra­phy in that he could nail it imme­di­ate­ly.” Once Wolff filled a con­tact sheet with great shots, it next came to Miles to select the per­fect one—and the per­fect crop—for the album cov­er. These sat­u­rat­ed por­traits turned Blue Note artists into immor­tal heroes of hip.

But Reid’s exper­i­ments with typog­ra­phy, “inspired by the ever present Swiss let­ter­ing style that defined 20th cen­tu­ry graph­ic design,” notes Vox, pro­vid­ed such an impor­tant ele­ment that the let­ter­ing some­times edged out the pho­tog­ra­phy, such as in the cov­er of Joe Henderson’s In ‘n Out, which fea­tures only a tiny por­trait of the artist in the upper left-hand cor­ner, nes­tled in the dot of a low­er-case “i.”

Miles pushed the excla­ma­tion point to absurd lengths on Jack­ie McLean’s It’s Time, which again rel­e­gates the artist’s pho­to to a tiny square in the cor­ner while the rest of the cov­er is tak­en up with bold, black “!!!!!!!!!!!”s over a white back­ground. It’s “star­tling­ly get­ting your atten­tion,” Cus­cu­na com­ments. On Lou Donaldson’s Sun­ny Side Up, Miles dis­pens­es with pho­tog­ra­phy alto­geth­er, for a strik­ing black and white design that makes the title seem like it might up and float away.

But Miles’ type-cen­tric cov­ers, though excel­lent, are not what we usu­al­ly asso­ciate with the clas­sic Blue Note look. The syn­the­sis of Wolff’s impec­ca­ble pho­to­graph­ic instincts and Miles’ sur­gi­cal­ly keen eye for fram­ing, col­or, and com­po­si­tion com­bined to give us the pen­sive, mys­te­ri­ous Coltrane on Blue Train, the impos­si­bly cool Son­ny Rollins on the cov­er of Newk’s Time, the total­ly, wild­ly in-the-moment Art Blakey on The Big Beat, and so, so many more.

Reid Miles had the rare tal­ent only the best art direc­tors pos­sess, says Cus­cu­na: the abil­i­ty to “cre­ate a look for a record that was high­ly indi­vid­ual but also that fit into a stream that gave the label a look.” Learn more about his work with Wolff in Robin Kinross’s essay, see many more clas­sic Blue Note album cov­ers here, and make sure to lis­ten to the music behind all that bril­liant graph­ic design in this huge, stream­ing discog­ra­phy of Blue Note record­ings. To view them in print for­mat, see the defin­i­tive book, The Cov­er Art of Blue Note Records: The Col­lec­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream a 144-Hour Discog­ra­phy of Clas­sic Jazz Record­ings from Blue Note Records: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Cole­man & More

The Ground­break­ing Art of Alex Stein­weiss, Father of Record Cov­er Design

Enter the Cov­er Art Archive: A Mas­sive Col­lec­tion of 800,000 Album Cov­ers from the 1950s through 2018

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The Making of “Bohemian Rhapsody”: Take a Deep Dive Into the Iconic Song with Queen’s 2002 Mini Documentary

Despite being fraught with pro­duc­tion dif­fi­cul­ties, an absent direc­tor, and a crit­i­cal quib­bling over its sex­u­al­i­ty pol­i­tics, Bohemi­an Rhap­sody, the biopic of Fred­die Mer­cury and Queen, has been doing very well at the box office. And though it has thrust Queen’s music back into the spot­light, has it even real­ly gone away?

The song itself, the 6 minute epic “Bohemi­an Rhap­sody,” was the top of the UK sin­gles charts for nine weeks upon its release and hasn’t been for­got­ten since. It’s part of our col­lec­tive DNA, but with a cer­tain caveat…it’s noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult to cov­er. It is so fine­ly con­struct­ed that it can’t be decon­struct­ed, leav­ing artists to stand in the shad­ow of Mercury’s deliv­ery. Bri­an May, in the above video, gives cred­it to Axl Rose for get­ting close to the pow­er­ful high reg­is­ters of Mer­cury, but even that was a kind of karaoke. And let’s not even talk about Kanye West’s stab at it.

So it’s a good time to check in with this 45 minute-long mini-doc on the mak­ing of the song, which took the band into the stratos­phere. Pro­duced in 2002 for the band’s Great­est Hits DVD, it fea­tures gui­tarist Bri­an May and drum­mer Roger Tay­lor. The first part is on the writ­ing of the song, the sec­ond part on the mak­ing of the music video, and the third, the bulk of the doc, on the pro­duc­tion.

Don’t expect any expla­na­tion of the sub­ject mat­ter of the song–as May says, Mer­cury would have shrugged off any inter­pre­ta­tion and dis­missed any search for depth. And while Mer­cury always took care over his lyrics, the pow­er is all there in the music.

As for the video, that came about from neces­si­ty, as the band want­ed to be on Top of the Pops and tour at the same time. By using their rehearsal stage at Elstree stu­dios for the per­for­mance footage and a side area for the choral/­close-up seg­ments, they made a strange­ly icon­ic video. (Who doesn’t think of Queen’s four mem­bers arranged in a dia­mond when those vocals start up?). The two main effects were a prism lens on the cam­era and video feed­back, all done live.

The last part is fas­ci­nat­ing and a deep dive into the mix. Bri­an May, along­side stu­dio engi­neer Justin Shirley Smith, play just the piano, bass, and drums from the song at first. Mer­cury was a self-taught pianist who played “like a drum­mer,” with a metronome in his head, says May.

The gui­tarist also iso­lates his var­i­ous gui­tar parts, includ­ing the har­mon­ics dur­ing the open­ing bal­lad por­tion, the “shiv­ers down my spine” sound made by scrap­ing the strings, and the famous solo, which he wrote as a coun­ter­point to Mercury’s melody. It’s geek­ery of the high­est order, but it’s for a song that deserves such atten­tion.

Inside The Rhap­sody will be added to our col­lec­tion of Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Made Fred­die Mer­cury the Great­est Vocal­ist in Rock His­to­ry? The Secrets Revealed in a Short Video Essay
Hear Fred­die Mer­cury & Queen’s Iso­lat­ed Vocals on Their Endur­ing Clas­sic Song, “We Are The Cham­pi­ons”

Fred­die Mercury’s Final Days: Watch a Poignant Mon­tage That Doc­u­ments the Last Chap­ter of the Singer’s Life

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.