Queen: ‘A Day At The Races’ Revisited

❉ Eoghan Lyng reassesses Queen V, a sequel to the vaudevillian ‘Opera’ in name only.

The greatest disservice Queen ever paid to their fans was playing Sun City’s portentous theatres. The second greatest disservice Queen ever paid to their fans was ok-ing a film which reinterpreted Live Aid’s powerhouse performance as Freddie Mercury’s absolution as an AIDS victim. Queen’s third greatest disservice involved recording a wheezing rendition of We Are The Champions with Take That reject Robbie Williams (a song John Deacon had nothing to do with and publicly disavowed). And the fourth greatest disservice was naming their fifth album after another Marx Brothers film.

A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races shared the same well for inspiration in their titles. Thematically the title fit Opera, with regal theatrics heard on the opening Death On Two Legs, the vaudeville ditties Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon and Good Company, and the soaring I’m In Love With My Car before reaching their natural vocal histrionics on the excellent The Prophet’s Song. Gentler ballads You’re My Best Friend, ’39 and Love Of My Life seemed the fitting counter-arias on a gargantuan work that ended with the buoyant Bohemian Rhapsody and Mercurial instrumental God Save The Queen (a song that ended every Queen concert, except for those played in this writer’s native Ireland). It was a delightfully kitsch and pompous affair, closing a trilogy of superb albums, matching Queen II for ambition and Sheer Heart Attack for high quality songs.

Nothing about A Day At The Races suggested a jolly at the Darby, the band’s only instance of uninspired predictability. Made marketable in its title, the band’s fifth album was a humbler affair than its immediate predecessors, more thoughtful in lyric, more visceral in music. It was an album confident in its four writers; guitarist Brian May matching Mercury’s song count of four pieces, while the junior writers Roger Taylor and John Deacon had matured in their abilities. It had a softer, more sparce element to the album; a band grateful for their success rather than boastful of it. It was not the sound of four wealthy socialites throwing their expensive glasses over race tracked manoeuvres, rather an apposite collection of craftmanship and writerly nuance. And yet a harmonium motif opened and closed the album in precision, the band’s call-back to the pictorial Pink Floyd, making it the last of the proggy records Queen deemed unfashionable by News of The World.

Such it was in the prog world that melody made the main focus of an output. 10cc’s How Dare You and Genesis’ Wind and Wuthering expressed groups generating more interest in content than experimentation. By 1977, the more esoteric Steve Hackett and Kevin Godley had left their respective bands, leaving the remaining songwriters with the prospect of melody. Queen didn’t need a re-shuffle to condense their song-writing accreditations. They simply re-organised their respective domestic lives into their songs. Circus magazine accused Queen with the vicious “they’ve deserted art-rock entirely. They’re silly now. And wondrously shameless.” As a misappropriation of the title, the critics confused Races for a past project, rather than a reflective new one.

It is the considerate nature of the material: The band quickly dispenses of the one novelty track, the bone-crunching Tie Your Mother Down. But what a novelty song, a roaring rocker padded with licentious, lubricious lyrics. Between drum fills and cymbal splatters, Taylor joined May and Mercury on the chorus for an inspired fierce falsetto. A wild riff invited rockers to blare their baritones throughout their cover versions. The raw power of the track inevitably sounded more powerful in stadium than on record, one of the few tracks Paul Rodgers could muster in 2006 without suspicion.

Behind his heavy metal/blues rock proclivities, May was the most philosophical and sensitive member of the band. Beholden to the crowds of fans falling at their knees, mindful of the flight of the fallen tribe, wistful for a life beyond the skies, May completed Long Away, White Man and Teo Torriate, a trio of crepuscular ballads. Such was their confidence in their workmanship, Queen had produced Races entirely by themselves. Enclosed in spacy pyrotechnics, May’s guitars and keyboards gathered in the most epigrammatic of spaces, typifying mid seventies Queen.

Bassist/guitarist John Deacon was a crucial character in the stage of their careers. Absconding from their first two albums, Deacon’s songs were shorter and punchier to his bandmates, yet he also possessed an ear for commercial radio airplay, as presiding in You’re My Best Friend, Spread Your Wings and Another One Bites The Dust. The only married member in 1975, Deacon’s You & I voiced matrimonial happiness unknown to the others. Mercury’s barrelhouse piano parts strutted circularly throughout, and he rightfully boasted that it was Deacon’s best song promoting the album. Their band drummer had shown strides in his own writing. The last member to release a Queen single (1982’s Calling All Girls), Taylor’s earliest works were regularly rubbished by ham-fisted, juvenile lyrics.

Not so Drowse, an exquisite psychedelic powerhouse of idiosyncratic pop. With Mercury, Taylor shared a likeness for abstract lyricism, with Deacon, Taylor shared a tasty knack for rhythm guitar. Joining May’s jangly chord play, Taylor’s chords strove for the abiding. Traditionally granted one vocal per album (as was May, the elegiac Long Away is him singing), Taylor’s husky howl betwixt a mid way between Rod Stewart and Robert Plant.

And then there’s the band’s in-house piano player. Diminished quantity did not diminish his quality. Mercury’s four tracks conveyed encyclopedic knowledge of song-writing motifs, by which Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy was the only one that sounded remotely normal. Elsewhere, the gargantuan vocal pyrotechnics shimmerred with resosance on You Take My Breath Away. One of Mercury’s most magnificent vocal performances, doubtless any listener had any breath left as the song ended.  The meticulous The Millionaire Waltz, complete with magnetic guitars and wiry bass parts, bowed to Mercury’s beauteous balletic influences.

Somebody To Love, an empowering gospel track, brought Mercury to his divine muse Aretha Franklin for inspiration. Measured with May and Taylor, Mercury multi-tracked a mileage of voices cool in choir ambitions. It remains one of Mercury’s most accomplished pieces, steeped in wall rimmed vocal parts, but with lyrical gravitas sorely missing from Bohemian Rhapsody. Such was the cathartic nature of the song, May and Taylor could scarcely look George Michael in the eye while divulging through the rhythms Love craved at the 1992 tribute concert. This was Mercury crying from the heart, the lands of Rhye he envisioned only two albums ago a distant memory. It ranks among Queen’s greatest songs.

None of which evoke a day out with the gee-gees. And yet a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. Behind a cheap title comes a selection of songs which Queen could take justifiable pride in. It closed the ‘70s prog metal antics which a ten-set piece pirouetting behind melodic regalia. Egalitarian in rank, Queen could now justify their change from art rockers to song-writers par excellence.

❉ Queen – ‘A Day at the Races’ was released on 10 December 1976 by EMI Records in the United Kingdom and by Elektra Records in the United States. The album was reissued as part of the Hollywood Records remasters in 1991. It was also reissued by Paraphone in 1993. 

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His writing has also appeared in Record Collector, CultureSonar, Punk Noir Magazine and other titles.

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