A Day At The Races (10 December 1976; EMI/ Elektra) is the fifth studio album by the British rock band Queen, comprising Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon.
Recorded at The Manor, Sarm West and Wessex Studios in England, Queen sought to build on the success of their previous album, A Night at the Opera. Both records took their names from Marx Brothers’ films, displayed similar art cover work and drew heavily on diverse musical genres such as heavy rock, gospel, jazz, piano-driven pop and Victorian music hall.
And the record achieved its objective because it hit number one in the UK, Japan and the Netherlands, and made number five on the US Billboard 200.
If the album had only spawned Somebody to Love, all the time and expense spent on producing it would have already made it worthwhile. If you have time, take a look now at Mercury in the accompanying video of a 1981 Montreal performance. Sitting alone at a piano, dressed in a Superman top, the clip shows all the reasons that made him such a star. Mercury is in complete control, as if he was made for the stage, as he starts the song he wrote in a quiet, almost playful, tone. As the song builds his trademark mic is flung to him, and he struts across the stage in full pomp. May then bursts in with his first solo on his Red Special at around 2’ 30”, while Mercury returns to his piano as the song builds once more. The church-style gospel choir sound was reportedly inspired by the great Aretha Franklin, and if you’ve seen the recently recovered live Franklin concert film, you’ll know Mercury is pressing all the same buttons. In fact, there might only be one adequate word to describe the experience: Hallelujah!
The album kicks off however with the heavy Tie Your Mother Down, which was written by May while on holiday in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, in 1968. Opening with an instrumental, it takes time before it starts to rock out and for the lead singer to bring his intensity to the song.
This is followed by the Mercury-penned piano ballad You Take My Breath Away, which perhaps like a lot of Queen songs gains something extra when it is played live. Long Away, composed and sung by May, and partly played on a Burns Double Six 12-string electric, is a sentimental number that seems to be striving for a Beatles-type sound, but never quite achieves it. A much better May song on the album is White Man, which refers to the harm done to Native Americans by European colonialists.
The exuberant Millionaire Waltz blends rock and waltz and might be described as ‘music hall pop’. Penned by Mercury the song is a tribute to Queen’s manager at the time, John Reid, who the band generously credited with an upturn in their fortunes.
The feel-good piano-driven Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy is another album highlight. Queen’s Top of the Pop performance of the song in 1977 finds the band in a sweet and inncocent moment around the start of their ascendancy to global superstar status, and is worth a viewing just for that.
There are some mis-hits on A Day At The Races but it contains more than enough standout tracks to confirm its status as a classic. If you fancy a sentimental but worthwhile trip down memory lane, then this is as good a place as any to start.