'A Day At The Races': A Review By Rhys Thomas
A DAY AT THE RACES (1976)
September 18th 1976, Queen took a break from recording their fifth album to host a free concert for their fans at Hyde Park. No one had put on a free concert in the park since The Rolling Stones in 1969, which shows you just how big Queen were at the time.
Two hundred thousand people turned up, thousands more picnicked and joined in the fun outside the perimeter. Thanks to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘A Night At The Opera,’ five years of relentless touring and recording had paid off. Queen were finally the biggest band in country.
That year Queen won every poll and every award going, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was the biggest selling song of all time and ‘A Night At The Opera’ had gone platinum. It’s no wonder that the album they released on December 10th 1976 is an infectiously jubilant piece of music full of love, optimism, joy and laughter (oh, and a song about mistreatment of Native Americans, but that doesn’t really fit in with my point, so forget it for the moment). It may have been winter, but ‘A Day At The Races’ brought the sunshine of the hottest UK summer on record with it and went to Number One in the UK, Netherlands and Japan, and peaked Number 5 in the USA.
This album was written and recorded by Queen at their happiest, riding on the crest of a wave and loving every second before the inevitable bust ups, creative differences, trials and tribulations that beset any band once hugely rich and successful. Scores had been settled on ‘A Night At the Opera,’ dreams had been fulfilled, Queen had proved what they were capable of in a recording studio and this album allowed them to deliver more of the winning formula and enjoy the experience.
"The new songs are stronger and the playing is quite possibly better. The writing's better, too. A Day at the Races is a step ahead of our previous work. We tried to avoid over-complication, sterility- we tried to get a more basic feel in." Roger Taylor 1977.
The band decided to produce the album themselves without Roy Thomas Baker. Assisted by Mike Stone, their long time engineer, the band felt they were ready to take on the challenge. From July-November 1976, Queen recorded the album in only three studios this time, though it was just as expensive as the previous one costing around £40,000 (£250,000 today).
Although ‘A Day At The Races’ is widely regarded as a sequel to ‘A Night At The Opera,’ it’s more of an equal. Brian May once said he’d wished both albums had been released simultaneously as they were written at the same time and reflected a phase the band were going through. Queen didn’t set out to make a follow up album, what came out was a kind of extension, hence the fact they adopted another Marx Brother’s title. ‘A Day At The Races’ was the film that succeeded ‘A Night at the Opera.’ It has the same main cast and the same ingredients yet this all combined to make a completely different film altogether. The same applied to Queen and their ‘Day at the Races.’
Those looking for the hard rock of ‘Queen II’ or even ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ won’t find it on ‘A Day At The Races’ which is probably the ‘softest’ Queen album of all. In fact there are only two ‘heavy’ songs on the entire album, both written by Brian. Even Roger Taylor, often guaranteed to write a nice slab of modern times rock n’ roll is in a particularly mellow mood here.
‘A Day At The Races’ opens with the crash of a gong and an instrumental introduction from Brian on guitar, a prelude to White Man, almost like the gong in Rank films or the roar of the MGM lion, this is Queen’s very own ‘audio logo.’ This fades into another strange piece of guitar, actually played backwards which Brian described as an ‘audio equivalent of M.C Escher’s Never ending Staircase picture until out of nowhere, ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ demolishes the aforementioned, never ending staircase like a bulldozer and delivers Queen, back to the hard rock of which they had become accustomed.
‘Tie Your Mother Down’ a traditional rocker full of teenage male angst and sexual frustration. It’s about a young man who is desperate to get it on with a girl and will do anything to get her alone, only her family won’t let her. It is full of humourous lyrics that resonate in all us boys who have been in a similar situation - ‘take your little brother swimming with a brick, that’s all right!’
Freddie is also in a ‘softer’ musical mood. Gone are his rockier numbers like ‘Ogre Battle’ or ‘Great King Rat.’ Instead we have sensitive love songs like ‘You Take My Breath Away,’ a simple, brooding ballad not a million miles away from ‘Love Of My Life.’ Freddie’s first performance of the song at the Hyde Park gig is included here for the the first time.
‘This one I did myself, I multi tracked myself. So the others weren’t used on this for the voices. I played piano and basically, I don’t know how we managed to stay this simple you know, with all our over dubs and things. People seem to think that we’re over complexed, and it’s not true. It depends on the individual track really, if it needs it – we do it. So this is pretty sparse actually by Queen and our standards.’ Freddie Mercury, 1976
‘Long Away’ blows away the cobwebs, and has a ’39 feel to it. Written by Brian who later said he regretted that the song hadn’t reached a wider audience and wished it had been released as a single. Still, it did feature as the B-Side to ‘Tie Your Mother Down.’
‘The Millionaire Waltz’ is the stand out track on the album and is often overlooked as it was also never released as a single, probably because there were many comparisons with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Both are intricately arranged, there are lots of wonderful harmonies and over dubs and several time signature changes. However, ‘Millionaire Waltz’ is a far more upbeat than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ In an interview with Kenny Everett in 1976, Freddie claimed that the song was about Queen’s then manager John Reid.
‘Brian has orchestrated it fully with guitars, like he's never done before. He goes from tubas to piccolos to cellos. It's taken weeks. Anyway, this track is something that Queen has never done before - a Strauss waltz!' Freddie Mercury, 1976
John Deacon’s contribution to the album is a boisterous three minutes of romantic pop called ‘You And I.’ In many ways it was as much of a departure for the band than as any other as ‘You and I’ is probably the ‘poppiest’ song Queen had ever recorded to date.
Side Two opens with the song which was Freddie Mercury’s personal favourite, ‘Somebody To Love.’ As well as Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, Freddie also loved Aretha Franklin and this gospel inspired song was written with her in mind, although Freddie always intended to sing it. Roger, Brian and Freddie created the effect of an entire gospel choir this time by using their own three voices and million overdubs.
The song was a massive hit, reaching No.2 in the charts in 1976 and Number 1 in 1993, this time performed by George Michael, Queen and the London Community Gospel Choir live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. In 1989 , Freddie said he would have loved to hear Aretha sing it, or George Michael, of whom he also admired. Sadly, he never got to hear Queen and Michael’s stunning rendition, which still sends shivers down the spine.
Due to the Queen Musical, We Will Rock You, the song has recently been rediscovered by actresses and singers up and down the country who use ‘Somebody To Love as an audition piece.’ I’m pretty sure a majority of X Factor/American Idol contestants have killed it live on TV at some point in the last three years.
The live version of ‘Somebody to Love’ by Queen included on this 2011 Special edition is the finest example of Queen music in existence. The song is taken to a new level of magnificence and is a real showstopper.
‘White Man’ is the most powerful track on the album, both musically and thematically. It is rare example of a Queen song with a political message. In this case, Brian May’s attack on the ruthless European settlers who colonised The Americas, told from a Native American’s point of view. ‘White Man’ is immensely compelling and the lyrics remain relevant today.
‘Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy’ is a jubilant two minutes of toe tapping majesty. Along with ‘Seaside Rendezvous,’ ‘Millionaire Waltz’ and ‘Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon’ it is the last of Freddie’s vaudeville numbers, which disappear from subsequent albums, so make the most of it whilst it lasts.
‘I always do a vaudeville track, 'though `Loverboy' is more straightforward than 'Seaside Rendezvous', for instance. It's quite simple piano-vocals with a catchy beat; the album needs it to sort of ease off.’ Freddie Mercury 1976
The song was another hit for the band reaching No. 12 in the charts as part of Queen’s First EP in 1977. An alternative, live performance of the song, recorded for a Top Of The Pops features on the Deluxe Edition of this album.
‘Drowse’ is one of the few songs Queen recorded which sounds nothing like Queen, which is actually refreshing once in a while and is my one of my favourite Queen songs of all. Unlike most Taylor compositions on Queen albums in the 1970’s, it’s a relaxed song with an almost American feel, it sounds very much like latest songs by The Arcade Fire. With Brian on slide guitar, Roger’s big, echoey drum sound and excellent see-saw bass, it perfectly captures the hazy and lazy feel of the good old days mentioned in the lyrics, with Roger singing about the sad eyed goodbyes when he was younger as if he were 68, not 28. ‘I seem to have a rock and roll tag but I have my quiet moments as well and this [Drowse] is one of them.’ Roger Taylor, 1976.
The album comes to a climatic end with “Teo Torriatte.’ When Queen first touched down in Tokyo in April 1975 to begin their first tour of Japan, they were met by 3,000 screaming fans at the airport. At the subsequent shows, ‘Queenmania’ rivaled that of Beatlemania in the 1960’s. The Japanese were so crazy for Queen that Sumo wrestlers were hired at concerts to protect the band from devoted fans who tried to storm the stage. Fortunately the Sumo wrestlers were fully clothed and didn’t use any Sumo moves on the crowds, which is a bit of a shame as it would have been fun to watch, as long as no one was seriously hurt. Their second tour at the beginning if 1976 was even bigger and their popularity was so huge that they actually couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized, Queen didn’t even get this attention in the UK. So they decided to close the album with a song for, and dedicated to, their Japanese fans.
‘Teo Torriatte (Let us cling together)’ is another Queen singalong anthem, only in Japanese. Probably another first for a Western rock and roll band. Written by Brian, the song also features him on piano, harmonium and guitar. For years I wondered where on Earth they got the children from to sing the arm waving finale – obviously they didn’t have kids at all, it was Roger, Freddie and Brian up to their old vocal tricks again along with a few ladies singing along. In 2005 Brian re-mixed the song in High Definition for the Japanese ‘Queen Jewels II’ CD, included here as a bonus track.
‘Teo Torriatte’, was a fitting end to another brilliant Queen album, the last of its kind, but cling together the band had to do, more so than ever before as something evil was lurking around the corner, something spotty and angry which threatened the very existence of Queen and rock music as we knew it. It was called punk and only the strong would survive…