This article was originally published to The Edge on 5th April 2015
How do you follow one of the greatest (and at the time most expensive) Rock albums every produced? 1975’s A Night At The Opera is still today Queen’s calling card. The album they’re best known for, in part because it contains their most well-known track ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Like that unparalleled song, the entire album is big, small, ridiculous, and head-bangingly amazing. The strongest testament to their layered sound, it was a huge success commercially, cementing their renown and success. 1976’s follow-up, A Day At The Races (similarly named for a Marx Brothers film) was Queen’s fifth album, and only a year after, could it possibly stand up?
Today we need not worry about the quality of A Day At The Races but at the time there was a sense that it was underwhelming. It was by no means a critically unsuccessful record, despite those reviews that called it out. Perhaps it’s because despite all the appearances that it is a direct sequel of an album to its predecessor, Races is less ridiculous. It does not oscillate between styles and tones with such flamboyant frequency, and is all in all a far tighter, arguably better record. Maybe this is in part because the band had now found international success. It wasn’t so much about grabbing attention anymore, but about continuing to produce the same quality so that they did not lose it. In that effort, there is no opening track more flamboyantly attention grabbing as the cheeky, punchy, and absolutely wildly enjoyable ‘Tie Your Mother Down’. Originally written by Brian May before Queen became Queen, its guitar solo is unmemorable, if only because the riff that supports the entire track is so iconic, nothing could match it. The influence of Queen can be seen in many bands, but variations on that style riff can be heard even today, in the song ‘Woman’ by Wolfmother for instance. It finishes with the raucous riff and Roger Taylor’s passionate drumming combining in a glorious mutual climax: guitarist, drummer, and listener. If you think that’s an obscene metaphor, you should listen closer to the lyrics.
Just as with Races, two of its tracks would go on to appear on Queen’s Greatest Hits (‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’). But what would be the point of talking about them here? The former is amongst their top five most well-known songs (probably) and the latter is obviously brilliant. What came after ‘Tie Your Mother Down’? You can’t follow that song with any rock song no matter how great. It’d be like Hans Zimmer following Beethoven after he closed with ‘Ode To Joy’. So Queen put ‘You Take My Breath Away’ immediately afterwards, a simplistic ballad, with just Freddie Mercury’s stunning voice and piano-playing skills and the tiniest hint of guitar. It is a haunting song, full of a depth that you will continue discovering even after you have decided you love it. ‘You and I’ is the 70s equivalent of an upbeat One Direction pop-rock song about love and relationships; and yes that’s a very good thing. ‘The Millionaire Waltz’ is tongue-in-cheek from start to finish. Building from a rapid piano melody, arriving at a head-banging, pogo-ing, crowd-pleasing guitar riff all via Mercury’s vocals and a subtle, notable bassline from John Deacon.
Then there’s the finale. As much as you might think that ‘Teo Torriate (Let Us Cling Together)’ is too familiar, with a chorus for the chorus, gentle and progressive drums, and the piano driving the melody, think about this. What other British rock song has Japanese in the chorus? It is calm, conciliatory, and the sort of thing you can imagine drunkenly bellowing into the night as your arms hang around your friends’ backs. Queen close the album with the same building guitar melody that followed the opening gong. It is a statement that takes huge balls: this is not the end, it is a new beginning. Then again, they had just closed out an album by forcing millions of people to sing together in Japanese. For a band that had already made it, and didn’t need to worry about becoming worldwide phenomenons, Queen took so many chances with this album. It is big, daring, tight, and only a little bit less ridiculous than A Night At The Opera. And that is absolutely fine. Like the best of sequels, A Day At The Races is familiar and fresh, at the same time.
A Day At The Races was released on 10th December 1976 on EMI/Parlophone