10 December 1976
December is traditionally a slow month for new releases, so we’re lucky to get to revisit a classic today. I was five years old when this record was released. And though I consider myself a fan of Queen’s music, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I knew anything beyond their hits. I’ve listened to A Day At The Races before but it isn’t an album that I know very well, so today will serve as my first attempt to really get to know these songs.
“Tie Your Mother Down” is a hard rock classic, featuring Brian May’s crunchy guitar work front and center, making Freddie’s vocals almost secondary, a feat which shouldn’t even be possible. With the instrumental intro, it stretches to almost five minutes here and once it gets going it doesn’t let up.
“You Take My Breath Away” starts with an a cappella harmony, Mercury’s vocals layered one on top of the other to create a choral effect. It’s a love song sung delicately but passionately, Freddie accompanying himself on the piano and the rest of the band taking a break. It’s one of the prettiest Queen songs I’ve heard to date, with shades of The Beatles and Elton John tucked within its melody.
“Long Away” is a quintessentially ‘70s rock tune, featuring Brian May on lead vocals instead of Mercury. Written by May, it features some of the best guitar work on the album. There are hints of prog music in the song, mostly in the vocal harmonies, but it ends quickly at just three-and-a-half minutes.
Freddie returns in show tune form on “The Millionaire Waltz,” a playfully bizarre number that features Mercury’s piano and John Deacon’s bass as the only instruments through the first half of the song until Roger Taylor and May come roaring in for an enormous hard rock bridge before reverting to the piano-led waltz. This is one of those weird Queen-being-Queen songs that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully wrap my head around, though the hard rock portions are gorgeous.
“You And I” embraces pop music, courtesy of John Deacon who wrote and played acoustic guitar on this number. It would have made a fine single, but it ended up being just a footnote and has reportedly never been performed live.
The lead-off single for A Day At The Races was also the biggest hit off the record. “Somebody To Love” is classic Queen, with a great Brian May guitar solo, soaring vocals courtesy of Freddie, and the whole band multi-tracking their vocals to simulate a 100-voice choir. It was heavily influenced by American gospel music and that inspiration shines through, the song’s title phrase becoming a repeated hosanna over the last minute or so.
“White Man” is Queen at their heaviest, both musically and topically. The band plays like a heavy metal act while Brian May’s lyrics excoriate Europe’s history of Native American genocide.
“Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” sounds like it is directly responsible for half of Jake Shears’s songs. It’s a brilliant piano piece that brings to mind vaudeville and cabaret stage productions. A fantastic song, and one that leaves me wondering why I didn’t know it well before today.
Roger Taylor’s compositional contribution to the album is “Drowse,” a suitably sleepy tune reminiscent of Pink Floyd with it’s gently loping cadence and dreamy soundscapes. Taylor also takes lead vocals in this number, his voice a confident baritone that contrasts well with Mercury’s lead vocals on other songs, even if it is somewhat more limited in range.
The album ends with a love song to their Japanese fans in “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together).” It’s another Queen song that warps and transforms repeatedly throughout, with a chorus sung in Japanese and all the bombast of a rock concert and a fireworks show put together.
Ths record is a masterpiece and I’m stunned that it has taken me this long to really sink my teeth into it. The two big hits are songs everyone knows, of course, but cuts like “Long Away” and “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” are as good as anything on their Greatest Hits collections. While universally respected, Queen seems to suffer from a perception as primarily a singles band – people know and love their hits but I never hear their albums discussed with the same depth and attention to detail as those of, say, Bowie or The Beatles. Yet an album like A Day At The Races is absolutely worthy of that level of devotion and dissection.
Do yourself a favor – if you don’t own it already, get yourself a good copy of this record, whether on vinyl or CD (anything but streaming). Sit down and listen to it uninterrupted and see if it doesn’t stack up against some of your favorite albums of all time.
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Until next time, keep those discs spinning.