Following A Night At The Opera, what else, but A Day At The Races. Queen once more took inspiration from the Marx Brothers and replicated the chronology of their movies, though as Roger Taylor assured viewers to Supersonic Saturday Scene, the next album would not be called Room Service or Duck Soup.
All the band were in high spirits when sessions for the new album commenced in July 1976 at The Manor before mixes were completed once more at Sarm East, with post-production at Wessex Studios. Freddie Mercury was now the proud recipient of two Ivor Novello Awards, for ‘Killer Queen’ and the outrageously complex ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. This was the kind of recognition from peers that repaid the hard graft and opened further doors.
Listen to A Day At The Races right now.
And yet there was significant change afoot. Roy Thomas Baker and the musicians decided they’d travelled far enough down the road together. Enter Mike Stone, the principal engineer and long-time technical associate whose overdubbing skills had so impressed on “Bo Rap”. Very much a Mercury ally, Stone’s quiet presence allowed for a relaxed beginning to what would prove to be a winning combination of clever commercial pop, albeit with a highly sophisticated edge, and Queen’s trademark heavy metal and classically influenced melodicism. The format worked admirably since A Day At The Races also went to #1 in the UK and breezed into the American top 5.
Prior to release, Queen played a short four-day summer tour, including a triumphant appearance at London’s Hyde Park where the new album’s title track whetted fan’s appetites. The concert was so well attended that the police enforced a curfew. No such problems in Edinburgh and Cardiff meant that those lucky audiences also got a preview of the forthcoming single ‘Tie Your Mother Down’. There was further change in the air; these would be the last dates in which Freddie sported long hair and his trademark Biba black nail polish.
Freddie, ever the artist, intuitively knew it was time for him to evolve. As David Bowie commented later, “Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest… he took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.” In years to come, Mercury would top polls as being the greatest frontman in rock of all time with the voice to match his dramatic intensity.
Still, as Freddie said of himself, “When I’m performing I am an extrovert, yet inside I am a completely different man.” A shy side shown to the outside world during any press campaign was balanced by the man’s feverish work mode, and time at The Manor in Oxfordshire was packed with incident as the perfectionist in him helped drive the show forward.
Often viewed as the companion to its predecessor – in many ways the pair can be viewed as a continuation, almost a belated double – advance orders exceeded half a million and the LP was the first from the band to be TV advertised – using clips from the Hyde Park show from early autumn. In keeping with their sense of fun Queen also promoted the album with a race meeting at Kempton Park. If this was serious business it worked wonders because A Day At The Races went straight to the top slot.
And what did we hear as we went under starter’s orders? We’re off! Queen’s first self-production for one thing, and a wonderfully diverse and challenging double fist of tracks to set them apart from the competition. Brian May’s opening, ‘Tie Your Mother Down’, was the perfect rock overture. Based on a teenage piece he’d written while studying for his PhD in Astronomy in 1968, May’s combo of acoustic and electric guitars, along with some fine slide lead is matched by one of Mercury’s most strident vocal; there is another background scene created by May’s Shepard tone harmonium which will appear in the finale of ‘Teo Torriate’ and is used as an introduction designed to create a feeling of resolution.
Riff-wise, Brian pays homage to fellow guitarist Rory Gallagher whose Taste track ‘Morning Sun’ was a personal favourite of his. The lyric, though somewhat atypical for him, had just the right amount of jokey camp moodiness to bring out the best in Mercury, who opined: “Maybe he (Brian) was in one of his vicious moods. I think he’s trying to outdo me after ‘Death On Two Legs’ actually.”
Freddie’s ‘You Take My Breath Away’ delighted fans with its multi-layered vocals and piano accompaniment giving the uber-balled a solo feel that allowed him to play it, unaccompanied, at Hyde Park, where he encouraged fans to join in, not that they needed any persuasion. He is less in evidence on ‘Long Away’, another Brian song with Roger Taylor providing the high harmony behind a rush of electric Burns 12-string and a melody line that has sweet echoes of vintage Byrds and Beatles moments. It’s a lovely thing.
As yearning and nostalgic ‘Long Way’ is, what follows is one of Mercury’s grandest bang-up-to-date social observations, ‘The Millionaire Waltz’, where the protagonist delights in mixing business with pleasure. Oddly overlooked and underrated at the time, this is a lost in the moment number. Equally worthy of rediscovery is John Deacon’s acoustically fired ‘You And I’, though this would eventually rise again as the B-side to ‘Tie Your Mother Down’. Perhaps these more downbeat pieces were Queen’s way of drawing breath since the big hit was about to arrive.
‘Somebody To Love’, though in no way an attempt to replicate ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, did allow the writer – Mercury – and his accomplice at the desk – Stone – full rein with soulful, gospel flavoured multi-tracked chorale. Meanwhile, the lyrical bent here was open heart for Mercury as he grapples with personal salvation and spiritual redemption. Clocking in at just less than 5 minutes, ‘Somebody To Love’ was the ideal opening single from the album and zoomed to #2. With its nods to R&B, most pertinently Aretha Franklin’s vintage ‘Queen of Soul’ period, this song became an instant fan favourite and is a track loved by everyone.
Brian’s ‘White Man’, a solid examination of how native American Indians were treated at the hands of European settlers, was an indication of the many facets the band felt capable of exploring. By contrast, Freddie’s ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’ is a ragtime extravaganza with an irresistible knees-up atmosphere and a sexual frisson that is abetted by the sly vocals, including the extra voice of Mike Stone. You can hear the enjoyment of the studio in this item – glam, music hall and witty, there is more than a touch of the autobiographical in this decadent nighttime adventure.
Roger’s ‘Drowse’ was something of a solo affair since the drummer plays the rhythm guitar and extra timpani, but Brian adds slide guitar again to one of the band’s more unusual, low-key moments, with its references to Clint Eastwood, Jimi Hendrix and William the Conqueror. Altogether a very sleepy Sunday afternoon vein of English whimsy runs through this ‘Drowse’.
Having been overwhelmed by the Japanese experience when they’d toured there, Brian’s ‘Teo Torriate (Let Us Cling Together)’ closes the album with two of the verses sung entirely in Japanese; it would be released to that market as a single. Adding to the Tokyo effect the writer also adds harmonium and plastic piano to the mix, resulting in a vibrant and warm conclusion to accentuate the wise lyric.
Released in time for the Christmas market, on 10 December 1976, A Day At The Races topped the UK charts on 26 December and made them platinum artists in America.
Once again Queen’s operatic and torch flavoured elements rose to the fore. They’d cleared another hurdle with aplomb. And if all that wasn’t enough, Groucho Marx sent the group a handwritten note to congratulate them on their excellent taste.