'Sons of Anarchy' music supervisor breaks down killer Queen montage
This post contains plot details of “Black Widower,” the Sons of Anarchy season 7 premiere that aired on Sept. 9. Read our full recap and postmortem with creator Kurt Sutter and EP/director Paris Barclay.
Gemma, Jax just killed a man, and it was epic thanks to Sons of Anarchy composer/music supervisor Bob Thiele, who found out last January that creator Kurt Sutter wanted to end the premiere of the FX drama’s final season with a montage set to a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“It doesn’t really fit our model in terms of ’60s music,” Sutter says, “but the story behind that song feels very parallel to the show in terms of someone being condemned and looking for redemption. It’s such a crazy ass song, and I throw these things at Bob…”
Lucky for him, Thiele—leader of the show’s house band, the Forest Rangers, now working on a PledgeMusic album—was up to the challenge. “I was like, ‘Holy s–t, how do you take a song as iconic as that and built around studio technology, which is so contrary to the way we work, and make it original and try not to piss off every Queen fan ever?'” Thiele’s answer, now available on iTunes along with the premiere’s opening song (“Never My Love” covered by Audra Mae featuring Billy Valentine), was broken down by Sutter and music editor Charles Sydnor into five parts.
PART 1: Jax contemplates what he’s going to do to the Lin Triad member Gemma blamed for Tara’s murder as he waits for word that the Grim Bastards have delivered him.
THIELE: As is true with so much of the stuff we do, we start out at a very contemplative and softer voice. That “Is this the real life…” is a very somber and quiet part of the song, so that was easy. I just had one voice and the acoustic guitar. We later said, “What if it’s little kids singing it?” And so I got these three kids from a school that my kid went to school to, The Center for Early Education. The choral director, Ellen, did this beautiful arrangement. She got the three best boys [Laughs] and she worked with them for like two weeks straight. I thought they were just gonna sing one melody line, but they ended up singing a very complex three-part harmony. So I was really blown away when she brought me what they were doing. I was like, “Ohmygod, this is amazing.” They were two sixth graders, one fifth grader. I don’t think their mothers are gonna let them watch the show. They can actually hear themselves, but I wouldn’t want to see it on TV at that age.
PART 2: Wendy and Nero are at Gemma’s with Thomas, while Gemma’s talking to Tara and telling Jax he’s all set to murder the man.
THIELE: I’d like to think of the band the Forest Rangers as being another character on the show. If you look at screen time, we have a lot of lines. I think the instrumentalists in the band and the singers that we use are identifiable to the show. So the White Buffalo is one of our really familiar true voices. He sang that whole dark low, “Mama, I just killed a man”—and that’s really what’s happening on-screen. Kurt obviously knew what was gonna happen when he came up with this idea.
PART 3: Gemma is home, where Nero comforts her, not knowing what she’s done.
THIELE: That whole middle “Scaramouche” section of the Queen version is built around piano and Freddie [Mercury]’s voice multi-tracked. There was no way we could even approach that, so it became a total reinvention. If Sons of Anarchy has a really identifiable music sound, it would be the acoustic guitar in a bare essential way, and that’s what I did: I just started strumming, just basically one chord. “I see the silhouette of a man, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango” is sung with a really bluesy soulful voice, and that’s Billy Valentine. To me, without hyperbole or exaggeration, this guy is one of the best singers on the planet. Kurt has on occasion written his name into the script when we’re doing a cover. It’ll be, “And now Billy Valentine sings ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,’ a Forest Rangers cover.” Kurt is very much aware of how I work and who I work with. It’s really interesting because I’ve been involved in other series doing the music for them, and the collaboration isn’t remotely as involved. There is a really strong collaborative relationship that Kurt and I have, and I think that’s what really separates the whole musical fabric of Sons of Anarchy from a lot of other shows.
PART 4: A blood-spattered Jax rubs salt in the man’s wound.
THIELE: This is the real rock section of the song in the Queen version with that really strong guitar riff. It’s balls out. This was a section that I had a really hard time with because I kept trying to find another way to frame it, and it was toward the end of my mission to create this song that I sorta said, “We don’t have to prove anything. We’ve already rearranged the first three sections. Let’s come back to what it truly is, what Queen did.” It’s sorta like Queen’s version—you can’t mess with that. And also, dramatically, with what is going on on-screen, the energy is high. You don’t want to drop out. This is a song that’s building, building, building, building, so this is the pinnacle of the arrangement.
PART 5: Jax strikes the fatal blow.
THIELE: That’s when it comes back down to, “Nothing really matters. Anyone can see….” It’s almost like a traditional sonata theme where it’s ABA—we’re coming back to the beginning. Here’s the summation of what just happened. The very last phrase of the song is sung by Franky Perez, who sang that whole [fourth] section, but he’s joined by one of the children, so those two voices close the montage.