I knew I had to review this record when I looked up on my way home from a few drinks after work and spotted this on the façade of a Victorian building on Dale Street, Liverpool.
I’ve loved Queen A Day At The Races since I was given a 4th generation copied tape of it when I was 14, I have really vivid memories of listening to it on my Walkman in the fields and woods around the house I grew up in, closing track ‘Feo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)’ in particular. I didn’t get around to buying the vinyl until three years ago though.
Their 5th album and second nod to the Marx Brothers*, there’s a school of (rockist) thought that A Day At The Races marks the last point of Queen as an undiluted rock band before they tipped over into generally poppier territory. Nonsense, of course, but there you go. A Day At the races is an unabashed sequel to the all-conquering A Night At The Opera and as such despite some real barn-storming moments of its own is maybe over-shadowed by its more grandiloquent sibling.
It kicks off brilliantly with most rockers’ favourite Queen, umm, rocker ‘Tie Your Mother Down’, a bit of widescreen scene-setting, a gong and away we go with some great 70’s rock. The band all hit their stride on this one and as always Mercury’s vocals and May’s guitar just knock me sideways, this is such a great way to blow the doors off a new album – raunchy and pretty daft all at the same time, with some lyrics that you’d struggle to get away with 39 years later,
Get your party gown
Get your pigtail down
Get your heart beatin’ baby
Got my timin’ right
Got my act all tight
It’s gotta be tonight my little
At the risk of exposing myself to y’all** my absolute favourite track on the album is next up, ‘You Take My Breath Away’. It’s by far the simplest song on A Day At The Races and comes across as a rare heartfelt moment in the back catalogue of this archest of bands. It’s pretty much a solo Mercury piano effort, apart from some vocal multi-tracking and became a live favourite fast – there’s a great live version from 1976, before it was even recorded which I’ve linked to below, where Freddie’s vocal is just perfect. I loved this one from first listen onwards, each object of my adolescent affections being mentally photo-shopped in over her predecessor as the years ticked on.
Whilst I like ‘You and I’ and ‘Long Away’, they are definitely the lesser lights in this company, possibly a bit too straight-forward. My tastes run more towards the eccentric musical hall charms of ‘Millionaire’s Waltz’, a distant cousin of ‘Killer Queen’ in its rockier stage and a track resplendent in May’s precision-engineered fat red guitar tone and that trade-marked vocal multi-tracking. I really dig the fact that this could only have been produced by a single band in history, no-one else ever has, or ever will, sound like this – plenty of grubby rockers out there can bash out ‘Tie Your Mother Down’, not many can (or would want to) turn their hand to a ‘Millionaire’s Waltz’.
Another thing I love about all the Queen albums from this period is the sheer variety on offer, bands just don’t do that anymore – we’re far too bound up and hemmed in by genres these days. Queen, once they’d broken free of their moorings after the first two albums just turned their royal noses up at such conceits, they were just Queen and had a strong enough identity to be whoever and make whatever they wanted. I mean just check out what they were wearing at the time:
The second side of A Day At The Races is pretty damn awesome from start to finish. One of my favourite Queen songs kicks it all off with ‘Somebody To Love’ which is just pure bonkers gospel pop rock brilliance and a favourite 1537-family car sing-a-long to boot. It hits my definition of musical perfection in that you could neither add, or subtract anything to improve it at all – no, not even a six-minute multi-tracked 9 piece Peruvian nose flute hoedown section^^. This is followed up by the equal parts gnarly and gauche ‘White Man’, a song about the plight of the native Americans which rocks hard and which used to be host to Brian May’s big guitar solo live; needless to say his playing is fantastic here, cutting even but its the Taylor/Deacon rhythm section I notice most on this one.
Maybe its just part of the job description to not get the kudos but in Roger Taylor and John Deacon Queen had such a brilliant, stylistically flexible rhythm section. Again, there were plenty of rock drummers and bassists out there but how many could switch from that into whichever curveball was served up next? Not only that but both were capable of writing great tunes too on occasion.
Switching track again we come up against ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’ another great sumptuous pop track with Mercury vamping and camping it up over the top (literally). It’s throwaway lightweight nonsense of the highest order, never a tune I seek out particularly but one I’m always happy to hear. Roger Taylor’s ‘Drowse’ is one I’ve always really liked since way back when, it does what the title promises too, it is lazy, hazy, drowsy and slightly dreamy. I used to like it because a) I always thought Taylor was the coolest member of the band and b) it sounded like nothing else Queen ever did. It’s good to hear May play some slide guitar too. Plus the sheer cheek of rhyming ‘waves of alternatives wash at my sleepiness’ with ‘have my eggs poached for breakfast, I guess’ is worth a 1537 bonus point, or two.
Ending with a real epic was always a must for Queen and here we get ‘Feo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)’, a full-on showcase for the sheer outrageous sumptuousness of the band. Yes a piano-driven ballad, sung half in Japanese, transforming halfway through into a pomp rock titan is precisely the reason why punk had to happen in the same year as A Day At The Races saw light, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lose yourself in it, or admire its architecture in full Technicolor. This is full fat, full caffeine Queen and once or twice a year will do me fine for this.
I don’t have the capacity to be remotely objective here, Queen were my first real musical crush and these albums are far too much part of me to look at analytically; I swear I could identify the gaps between the songs for you, which is what happens when you listen to an LP 95,000 times. As Freddie put it,
Look into my eyes and you’ll see
I’m the only one
You’ve captured my love
Stolen my heart
Changed my life
A Day At The Races is not their best at all, but like all their other 70’s work it stands proud and exists entirely on its’ own resplendent terms, the message is if you don’t like it that is very much your problem and your loss. Queen may have toasted their audiences with champagne and guitar solos but that’s a rather punk attitude at play there – maybe they had more in common with the barbarians at the palace gates than everyone thought.
*News Of The World really should have been called Duck Soup.
**in a strictly emotional sense you understand, if you want the other kind then allow me to redirect you to 1537-buttnaked.com; God help you.
^I think this is what eventually cost them in the US, they just hadn’t built up sufficient loyalty before they sodded off on their pop/funk spree to sustain them.
^^and the lord knows there’s not many songs you could say that about.