When the band wanted to release the single in 1975, various executives suggested to them that, at 5 minutes and 55 seconds, it was too long and would never be a hit. The song was played to other musicians who commented the band had no hope of it ever being played on radio. According to producer Roy Thomas Baker, he and the band bypassed this corporate decision by playing the song for Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett: “we had a reel-to-reel copy but we told him he could only have it if he promised not to play it. ‘I won’t play it,’ he said, winking…” Their plan worked – Everett teased his listeners by playing only parts of the song. Audience demand intensified when Everett played the full song on his show 14 times in two days. Hordes of fans attempted to buy the single the following Monday, only to be told by record stores that it had not yet been released. The same weekend, Paul Drew, who ran the RKO stations in the States, heard the track on Everett’s show in London. Drew managed to get a copy of the tape and started to play it in the States, which forced the hand of Queen’s US label, Elektra. In an interview with Sound on Sound, Baker reflects that “it was a strange situation where radio on both sides of the Atlantic was breaking a record that the record companies said would never get airplay!” Eventually the unedited single was released, with “I’m in Love with My Car” as the B-side. Following Everett’s escapade in October 1975, Eric Hall, a well known record plugger, gave a copy to David “Diddy” Hamilton to play on his weekday Radio One show. Eric stated “Monster, Monster! This could be a hit!”
The song became the 1975 UK Christmas number one, holding the top position for nine weeks. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the first song ever to get to number one in the UK twice with the same version, and is also the only single to have been Christmas number one twice with the same version. The second was upon its re-release (as a double A-side single with “These Are the Days of Our Lives”) in 1991 following Mercury’s death, staying at number one for five weeks.
In the United States, the single was also a success, although to a lesser extent than in the UK. The original single, released in early 1976, reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100, while a re-release in 1992 (timed to tie in with the song’s appearance in the hit film Wayne’s World) reached number two. In a retrospective interview, Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone explains the song’s relatively poor performance in the US charts by saying that it’s “the quintessential example of the kind of thing that doesn’t exactly go over well in America”. Its chart run of 24 weeks, however, placed it at number 18 on Billboard’s year-end chart, higher than some number ones of the year. The single was also certified gold for sales of over one million copies in the US. In its 1992 chart resurgence, it lasted 17 weeks on the chart and peaked at number two, with a year-end chart position of 39. It was certified gold by the RIAA a second time on 8 August 2005 for digital download sales over 500,000, and quadruple platinum on 23 April 2014 for combined digital sales and streams. It has sold 3.8 million digital copies in the US as of February 2015. With the Canadian record-buying public, the single fared better, reaching number one in the RPM national singles chart for the week ending 1 May 1976.