QUEEN — A Day At The Races (review)

QUEEN — A Day At The Races album cover Album · 1976 · Hard Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
Oh how the tides had turned for QUEEN in two short years. After completing the “Sheer Heart Attack” tour the band was destitute despite cracking the top 20 with two singles, having a high charting album and a successful world tour that consisted of 77 live performances. This was mostly due to the miscreancy of their manager Norman Sheffield. After firing the shady bloodsucker, the band hired Elton John’s manager John Reid who would instill in them the confidence to sally forth and crank out the best album possible. Lo and behold, QUEEN did just that with the lauded classic “A Night At The Opera,” a behemoth work of massive proportion that took everything QUEEN and put it on steroids. The album was considered the most expensive ever to make at the time with lavish production and countless studio time to make it one of the most classic albums in recorded music.

So how does one follow “A Night At The Opera?” Well, with A DAY AT THE RACES of course. Realizing that they had at last found the limelight they deserved with shady managers well behind, QUEEN went the logical route and created a sequel to their 1975 masterpiece with basically the same exact album cover albeit with a black background substituting for a white and yet another Marx Brothers film title which prompted Graucho Marx to contact the band and congratulate them on their success and excellent choice of album titles! The one two punch of Marx Bros film titles prompted the band to promise that there would never be any albums titled “Duck Soup” or “Room Service” in the future and that a new chapter of QUEEN would begin with the very next album.

QUEEN’s fifth album was eagerly anticipated and basically went platinum before it even went on sale but it when it did hit the market it shot up to #1 in various countries like the UK, Japan and the Netherlands as well as hitting #5 on the US Billboard 200. QUEEN were now superstars a mere two years after being on skid row and dangerously close to having no future as a band at all. Commercially A DAY AT THE RACES continued all the fortune and fame that “A Night At The Opera” had won this eccentric English quartet however despite the attempt to create a sequel which finds a similar musical approach of incorporating bluesy heavy rock, piano pop, waltzes and Victorian music hall themes with other disparate genres, the album comes off with a completely different feel. Unlike the previous album, this one also has gospel and jazz elements but tends to have less of the progressive rock nuances more present on the first four albums despite the many time signatures that do occur.

While A DAY AT THE RACES very much uses its predecessor as the template, there was a deliberate attempt not to merely carbon copy and paste onto a new album despite the almost identical album covers. Once again the entire band lent a hand in both the songwriting process and multi-instrumentalism with the usual Mercury and May tracks receiving the most exposure. Predictably the May penned tracks are heavier and guitar oriented. The feisty opener “Tie Your Mother Down” actually dated back to 1968 at the time when when May was working on his PhD in Astronomy and wrote the track on a Spanish classical guitar while vacationing in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The track was resurrected and given the heavy metal treatment and one of the better track on the album which made the perfect opener to SHOUT to the world that QUEEN was back.

Likewise, May’s other contributions included “Long Away” on which he not only played guitar but sang as well as the closer “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)” which has two choruses sung in Japanese. The best May penned track is sure the heavy “White Man” which tackles the sticky subject of the atrocities that Native American populations were subjected to by the conquistadors of Europeans who stole and killed with impunity and how they continue to do so. This is one of the heaviest tracks the band has ever cranked out with chunky guitar riffs and rough and tumble harmonic vocal delivers by all the members.

Both Deacon and Taylor contribute a song each just as on the previous album. Deacon’s was “You And I” which is a piano driven track where Deacon himself plays acoustic guitar but not nearly as memorable as his outstanding “You’re My Best Friend” on “Opera.” Likewise Taylor delivered the guitar slide heavy “Drowse” which utilized the same 6/8 time signature that he used with “I’m In Love With My Car” although it sounds nothing like that track. Instead it is a mid-paced rock track with a very bluesy feel. Likewise, while decent not as memorable as “I’m In Love With My Car.”

The rest of the lion’s share was written by Freddie Mercury who implement this piano jangles as the basis for the songwriting process. He cranked out the expected similar ballads such as “You Take My Breathe Away” which began with a rather cool multi-tracked vocal intro turned piano ballad and outroed the same way. While Mercury would spew with vitriol on “Death On Two Legs” about his former business manager, on “The Millionaire Waltz” he would do the exact opposite by dedicating this one to his current manager John Reid who helped turn the tides. The track is noticeably similar to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in that the piano arrangements utilize the same multi-key and multi-meter elements as well as the multi-tracked guitars and vocal styles. The track also has many time signature changes making this one the most progressive on the album. The tasty “Somebody To Love” was influenced by the gracious gospel work of Aretha Franklin and become the big hit of the album.

While QUEEN was riding high by 1976 as they quickly became one of rock music hottest musical acts, it was also clear that there seemed little they could do to top the majesty of their miracle album “A Night At The Opera.” While all the elements were recycled for the following A DAY AT THE RACES, this sequel is clearly not up to par with the magnanimous and outlandishness of its predecessor. While there are many great tracks on board, none have the graced by the hands of god effect that “Opera” delivered with ease. At this point QUEEN was becoming formulaic as a pop rock act and would become more of a brand name rather than a true art rock band that had launched them into the limelight. Despite not living up to the magnitude that “Opera” delivered, A DAY AT THE RACES is still a stellar QUEEN album that delivers all the expected eccentricities, musical diversity and of course seas of overdubs to infinity. While Mercury’s wings may have become singed because he flew too high too quickly, at this point he and the rest of QUEEN were still airborne at least.
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