Queen At 50 Reviews – A Day At The Races – Part 1

Booklet cover spread with a black background for the Queen album A Day At The Races. The front cover has a very colourful image of the Queen crest, consisting of a large phoenix with outstretched wings looking over a large letter Q, on top of which sits a small crab, on fire from the phoenix's breath. A crown sits in the centre of the Q, while a lion and a fairy appear together on each side of the Q. The band and album names are below the crest in white script lettering. The back cover features the track listing in white text.

Happy 50th Anniversary to Queen! Although they first performed under that name on 18 July 1970, it wasn’t until John Deacon joined on 1 March 1971 that the group had its final, official line-up, so the latter date is more appropriate. And as they’re my favourite band of all time, I started doing a special Queen At 50 series last year, reviewing each of their albums and songs in obsessive depth and excessive detail. So, if you haven’t already, do check out my first post about their debut album for a longer explanation of why I’m so into them.

For this post I’m moving on to their 5th album. The musical majesty and stellar success of A Night At The Opera was always going to be a tough act to follow, and impossible to beat. But Queen were up for the challenge, and set about making A Day At The Races between July and November 1976. They produced it entirely by themselves for the first time, now that they had sufficient experience and were keen to give it a go, instead of employing Roy Thomas Baker like they had before. They continued to use engineer Mike Stone though.

The album was designed to be a companion piece to its predecessor with a similar variety of music. So it was again named after a Marx Brothers film, and Groucho Marx sent a note to congratulate them on their success and their “sage choice of album titles”. It also had a similar cover design to the previous album, with the colourful Queen crest on the front, but everything was on a black background instead of white this time. Brian later expressed a wish that both Opera and Races had been released together, as “the material for both of them was written at the same time, so I regard the two albums as completely parallel.”

The band are also credited in fun ways in the sleeve notes – in addition to the usual mentions of vocals, piano, guitar, etc, Freddie is the “Choir Meister” and contributes “tantrums”, Brian is the “Leader of the Orchestra”, and Roger provides “Pandemonium”. John is merely credited as playing Fender Bass and doesn’t get anything extra, which is reflective of his nature as the quiet one in the group.

A Day At The Races 2

The album’s release was preceded by a 4-day tour in September, including their free Hyde Park show, which I discuss in detail during Track 2 of this post (You Take My Breath Away). They also attended a race meeting at Kempton Park on 16 October 1976, where they sponsored an event called The Day At The Races Hurdle, and there was even an accompanying board game.

Freddie also spoke to DJ Kenny Everett about the album on Capital Radio in November, and the edited version in that video is from the first disc of interviews in the deluxe edition of their On Air BBC sessions album in 2016. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, because Freddie gives nice little insights into some of the tracks, and gives his thoughts on how the band are perceived by the music press in the UK and America. The two of them also have some nice banter and laughs together, because they were very good friends, including when Freddie attempts to read the weather forecast near the end.

Thanks to all of that promotion, coupled with the huge success of A Night At The Opera, this new album was another big hit, quite rightly. Before it was even released there were half a million advance orders placed. And when it did come out, it instantly became their second number 1 album in the UK and their first Japanese number 1, as well as topping the charts in the Netherlands and reaching number 5 in the USA.

It had its critics too, of course, with Nick Kent from the NME describing it as “grotesquery of the first order”, as they preferred punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Damned who were making their mark at the time. But Queen didn’t care about what the press had to say, and it didn’t stop their latest work being hugely popular. It became the 4th most successful album that year, and was voted the 67th greatest album ever in a 2006 poll by the BBC.

And it is indeed another brilliant selection of songs. So here’s my personal review of each of the tracks, including a dive into other versions and performances as usual. I hope you enjoy!

Centre spread from the booklet in A Day At The Races, showing a photo of Queen performing on stage. From left to right, John is playing bass guitar, Roger is standing by a small bass drum while playing a tambourine, Freddie is singing in his white low-cut jumpsuit, and Brian is sitting on a stool playing acoustic guitar.

Contents

See also: Ultimate Queen / Queen Vault / Wikipedia / UDiscover / Classic Rock Article

In this post I’m going to review all of the tracks on Side 1 of the album as follows. Click their names to jump to the reviews:

  1. Tie Your Mother Down
  2. You Take My Breath Away
  3. Long Away
  4. The Millionaire Waltz
  5. You And I

The reviews below also include references to tracks from their live albums. You can see all the videos I mention in this post and more on my Queefn & Covers playlists. So do feel free to check them out (along with my other Queen playlists) and see which versions of each song you like best!


1. Tie Your Mother Down

Written by Brian May

See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Song Facts / Lyric Video

This is the only song from the album for which Queen don’t have a lyric video on their official channel. Strange considering it’s one of their most popular songs!

On the album, this track starts with a 1-minute instrumental by Brian, consisting of a cool guitar intro, followed by a repeating harmonium melody that appears to continuously get higher for about 25 seconds (it was actually recorded going downwards and played back in reverse). That melody is repeated again at the end of the final track to bring the album full circle. This audio illusion is known as a Shepard tone melody, whereby lower notes fade in as the higher notes go out of hearing range, while everything in between remains at a constant volume. This cleverly fools the listener into thinking that it’s rising infinitely, even though it isn’t. There are many other examples of this effect online, along with nice explanations by Vsauce & Vox.

Only the album version includes that additional intro. Other versions of the track (single, video, instrumental, etc) omit it completely and go straight into the song. The most notable exception is the Air Guitar Edit, released on the compilation album The Best Air Guitar Album In The World… Ever, which begins with the closing guitar riffs from We Will Rock You before the main song kicks in.

The song itself is a fantastic heavy rock number of course, a powerful and exciting way to start the album. Brian had composed the main riff on a Spanish guitar while working for his astrophysics PhD in Tenerife. But he wasn’t sure about the title, which was a line he considered a joke, but as the others liked it he agreed to keep it.

On several occasions Brian has credited Irish musician Rory Gallagher as giving him inspiration for the track. Rory had been in a band called Taste, and it was the song Morning Sun from their On The Boards album that inspired Brian to write the main riff, as he explained in a BBC Radio 4 tribute programme to Rory. Likewise, in the Wire Choir section of Guitar World Magazine in November 1998, Brian broke down the main riff of the song in detail and explained how Rory had inspired the song. Freddie, meanwhile, joked in his interview with Kenny Everett that Brian must have been in one of his “vicious moods” when he wrote the song, and was trying to outdo him for Death On Two Legs from the previous album.

When released as a single in 1977, it reached number 10 in the Netherlands, but only number 31 in the UK and 49 in the US. However, it did much better in the UK when it was re-released in 1998 as a double A-side with their new song No-One But You, reaching number 13.

The music video was filmed at Nassau Coliseum, Long Island, New York in February 1977, while the band were on their US tour. As discussed by Brian and Roger in the commentary on the Greatest Video Hits I DVD, the explosion at the start actually knocked Roger off the stage, having been placed in a bucket next to his riser! You can just see Freddie looking behind him before a swift cut to Brian hides the fact that they had to stop the recording so the uninjured Roger could get back on his stool. Brian also discusses how he composed the song during the commentary.

Remixes

  • Matt Wallace Remix – This was included on the 1991 Hollywood Records remaster of the album. There’s some extra percussion and some effects on the vocals, while the guitars are omitted in a couple of brief sections for a more stripped back feel. And it works well.
  • Unreleased Trent Reznor Remix – This was on a Hollywood promo CD that got withdrawn and has a very different rhythm and arrangement. And it isn’t as good, especially because it takes out the guitar part that’s the central element of the song, so I’m not surprised it didn’t get a wider release. But it’s an interesting alternative for curiosity’s sake.

Isolated Tracks

A Backing Track Mix was included on the 2011 reissue of the album. As amazing as Freddie’s lead vocal always is, it’s also wonderful to hear the song without it, so you can focus more on the music itself. You can also sing along to the instrumental using their Karaoke Hits video.

The individual elements can also be heard on the multitracks, which are divided up in a standard way:

  • Vocals – Freddie’s vocals are fantastically powerful, and as always it’s a joy to listen to them on their own. You get to hear his improvised ad-libs much more clearly as well. Some of the backing vocals are mixed in too, while others are on a separate Extras track.
  • Guitar – This is an amazing performance by Brian with great pace and energy. When we get to the solo in the middle of the song, the Extras track provides a second layer, so you have backing and lead guitar sections from that point until the end.
  • Bass – Easily overlooked in the final mix, John has some nifty fingerwork going on here as he keeps pace with the main guitar riff, sometimes matching it and sometimes diverging into a counter-melody.
  • Drums – As usual, there’s a separate track for each section of Roger’s kit, but it’s best to hear them all together. He provides a strong, catchy rhythm, and you can hear Brian’s guitar in the background too.

Brian has also recorded brief guides to the guitar parts, allowing people to see his fingering positions close-up, in his 1983 Star Licks tutorial video and a 2020 lockdown Micro Concerto.

Live Performances

There have been countless live performances of this song by the band themselves and by Brian and Roger with other artists since Freddie’s death. It’s always one of their biggest crowd-pleasers.

Queen

Following the album’s release, Queen played this song on every tour, and sometimes included a few pyrotechnics as well. Consequently it appears on many of their live albums and in other videos online. Performances include:

Brian’s Solo Performances

Brian also performed the song with various musicians and backing singers as part of his solo career in the 90s:

He’s made guest appearances with other bands too, including:

Queen & The Foo Fighters

From the early 2000s there were a few occasions when Brian and Roger teamed up with the Foo Fighters to perform the song, and they make a pretty good combination:

In addition, you can also see:

Queen & Paul Rodgers

The song continued to be a regular part of the setlist when Brian and Roger were joined by Paul for their tours. Paul doesn’t have the same vocal talents as Freddie by any means, which he knew and he didn’t try to copy him. But he made the songs his own, and as a rock star this one was right up his alley, so he performed it really well.

The song was an explosive opener to their 2005 shows, following Paul’s brief rendition of Reaching Out that was effectively asking the audience to give him a chance as the new lead singer:

Reaching Out was dropped in 2008, but Tie Your Mother Down was still played near the top of the show:

The song was also on their Live In Ukraine release, and among the tracks on their special European tour downloads and on Super Live In Japan.

Brian May & Kerry Ellis

When Brian and Kerry were doing their acoustic concerts, they performed a wonderful stripped-back version of this song, with just guitar, piano and vocals. The first half has a slow, catchy, country vibe to it, before Brian swaps out his acoustic guitar for an electric one to rock the joint, Kerry singing along with the piano to bridge the gap. An official version is available on The Candlelight Concerts, from Stravinski Hall, Montreux, Switzerland on 19 July 2013, but other performances you can see online include:

There were, however, also a few occasions when they performed a pure rock version backed by a full band, which also sounded great, including:

Queen & Adam Lambert

As ever the song has continued to be a big hit during Queen’s tours with Adam. It was actually sung by Brian during their early shows though, with Adam only appearing at the very end:

Adam then took over the vocals in later tours, although they’ve only done a short version in the last few years. But it’s fun in any case, he sings it very well:

Cover Versions

Official tribute band Queen Extravaganza have performed the song many times, usually with Marc Martel on vocals. Examples include:

 

Guitarist Robby Valentine has performed the song live with his band in The Netherlands on several occasions, with the lead vocals provided by Marlies Schuitemaker (aka Maria Catharina):

Robby also performed the track live with Peter Strykes at the Dutch Queen Convention on 3 November 2012.

Other artists to have performed the song live include:

Rock bands that have released the song on their studio albums include:

And there have also been rock versions on multi-artist tribute albums and compilations:

Alternative versions that have been released include:

And further covers posted online include:


2. You Take My Breath Away

Written by Freddie Mercury

See also: Ultimate Queen / Song Facts / Lyric Video

A complete change of pace and style to the previous track, this is one of Freddie’s most gorgeous compositions and greatest love songs, performed with such depth of feeling in his voice, and stunning multi-tracked harmonies that he also sang himself. And he plays a beautifully gentle piano melody, which was released as one of the tracks on their unsuccessful video game The eYe, while Brian adds some lovely guitar in the middle. Plus there’s a nice bit of additional harmony at the end, if you continue listening after the song appears to have finished.

During his Capital Radio interview with Kenny Everett, Freddie explained: “I did this one by myself, I multi-tracked myself. So the others weren’t used on this for the voices. I played piano and basically… God, I don’t know how we managed to stay this simple, what with our overdubs and things. People think we’re over-complex, and it’s not true. It depends on the individual track really – if it needs it, we do it. So this is pretty sparse actually, by Queen standards.” To which Kenny replied, before playing the song: “Still sounds like the choirs of heaven. So here comes Freddie, plus Freddie, plus Freddie, plus Freddie, plus Freddie…”

Live Performances

As part of their promotion for the album, while they were still in the process of recording it, the band went on a 4-day Summer tour in 1976, with two concerts at the Edinburgh Playhouse, one at Cardiff Castle, and one at Hyde Park in London. And it was during these shows that Freddie premiered You Take My Breath Away on just piano and vocals, as well as the whole band performing Tie Your Mother Down. It was the crowd’s reaction to his love song that convinced Freddie to include it on the album.

The most notable of those shows was the legendary free concert in Hyde Park on 18 September 1976, that attracted over 150,000 people. It was organised by Richard Branson and had support acts including Kiki Dee (who sang to a cardboard cut-out of Elton John for Don’t Go Breaking My Heart), Supercharge, Steve Hillage, The Rich Kids (not the Midge Ure band) & Broken Wreck Chords.

Queen’s set was shorter here, as Tie Your Mother Down was omitted, and the band were prevented from doing an encore as they had already exceeded the curfew imposed on the gig. Freddie made his displeasure very clear, but apparently had to give in on threat of arrest, their tour manager Gerry Stickles quoted as saying that “The thought of being in jail in tights didn’t appeal to Freddie at all”.

The show was also professionally filmed, but was never broadcast on TV (except for clips used in adverts for the album), and has never been released in full, as there are apparently issues with the master tape. So it can only be seen via dodgy bootlegs online. However, 2 tracks from the show have surfaced on official Queen releases:

There’s also a wonderful video of Freddie performing the song at Earl’s Court, London on 6 June 1977, which was included on the iTunes edition of the 2011 reissue.

The Hyde Park and Earl’s Court performances appear to be the only decent live recordings of the song that exist, and they didn’t play it on later tours. However, in recent years during Queen’s tours with Adam Lambert, Freddie’s introduction to the song has sometimes been played as a lead-in to Who Wants To Live Forever?

Cover Versions

Though it may not be one of Queen’s better known songs, a lot of people have covered it very nicely.

Marc Martel, well known by Queen fans for his Freddie-like voice, has sung it on several occasions:

Others who have sung it while playing or being accompanied by piano, as on the original record, include:

In terms of stringed instruments:

There are also some lovely versions with a full orchestra by:

Then there are a cappella versions by:

And there are various instrumentals performed on:


3. Long Away

Written by Brian May

See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Lyric Video

This is a sad, but lovely and catchy, little tune written and sung by Brian. He sings it really nicely, with a bit of help from Roger for the highest parts, and there are pleasant backing harmonies from the two of them and Freddie.

Brian also plays an electric Burns Double-Six twelve string guitar for a change, having struggled with the thin neck of a Rickenbacker that he’d wanted to use out of admiration for John Lennon. But he does add his Red Special for one of the guitar solos as well. Music critics, in praising the song, noted the influence of The Beatles and The Byrds on its sound, and you can hear what they mean.

It was released as a single in the USA, Canada and New Zealand only on 7 June 1977, with You And I as the B-side, but it didn’t chart. It was the only single released by Queen during Freddie’s lifetime that wasn’t sung by him.

Live Performances

Queen never performed the song live during their years with Freddie, although they did apparently rehearse it before their 1977 tour named after the album.

It wasn’t until 2005 that it was finally included in a live setlist, when Brian performed an extract during some of Queen’s concerts with Paul Rodgers, such as their show in Nagoya, Japan on 1 November 2005, and there’s very brief evidence of him singing it at Budapest on 23 April that year. It was never included on any of the Queen + Paul Rodgers live releases, however, or in any of their later tours.

The only other performance I can find, which appears to be the only time it was ever played in full, is at a Taylor Hawkins concert at Scala, London in May 2010. Brian and Roger made a surprise guest appearance to join in with a few songs, of which this was one. It was a rare treat for the 200-strong audience, and there isn’t any decent quality footage of it. But the one complete video I can find is interesting for curiosity value at least, despite the awful audio. And there’s another angle in a much shorter clip.

Isolated Tracks

The different parts are divided up in a standard way in the multitracks:

  • Vocals – Here you get a mixture of solo vocals by Brian and lovely group harmonies, plus a high line by Roger on his own at one point. It’s really nice to be able to appreciate Brian’s singing on its own here. Even though he’s no match for Freddie, he still has a lovely quality to his voice.
  • Guitar – This makes a pleasant instrumental all by itself, there’s a lot of nice intricacies to his playing. When Brian’s Red Special solo kicks in, the 12-string guitar is bumped to a separate Additions track as a backing element, until they swap over for the long note at the end of the solo. The Additions track also has a hi-hat count-in at the start, and the brief shaking of a tambourine to fill the pause before the track’s coda..
  • Bass – A nice complementary melody from John, adding an extra layer of interest rather than repeating the main tune.
  • Percussion – Split into tracks for the kick bass and an overhead microphone, there’s a nice steady rhythm from Roger here. There’s nothing fancy about it, apart from a few little fills here and there, but it lays a solid foundation.

The resulting instrumental when you combine the non-vocal tracks is very nice too.

Cover Versions

It says much for how unknown and under-appreciated this song is that there are barely any covers of it online. There’s a faithful and well-produced version by Basix4 where he plays all the parts himself, apart from adding Roger’s drum track. There are nice group versions by Marcel Ferreira and tribute bands Queen Obsession & Queen Unplugged Project. And Czech artist Lucie Halamíková has sung it at the piano. But those are the only notable efforts out there. Sure, it may not be as much a classic as ’39 from the previous album, but still, I thought it might have resonated with more people.


4. The Millionaire Waltz

Written by Freddie Mercury

See also: Ultimate Queen / Song Facts / Lyric Video

The true definition of a hidden gem, this delightful song has so much packed into it, taking you on an exciting journey as it seamlessly combines various different musical styles. It’s a complex but very clever composition that only the mind of Freddie could generate, and it absolutely works. It is, in effect, the Bohemian Rhapsody of this album, though it sounds very different to it. It’s also another song for which headphones are highly recommended to fully appreciate, including the split channels of piano and bass at the start, John’s superb bass playing throughout, a couple of guitar runs that pass from one side to the other later on, and the overall orchestration and backing harmonies.

Freddie wrote the song about the band’s manager at the time, John Reid, as he confirmed in his radio chat with Kenny Everett. In that interview he also says that: “It’s very out of the Queen format really, and we always like to do that every album. And I think I went a bit mad on this one, I know. But it’s turned out alright I think. It makes people laugh sometimes.”

After the song was played on air, he continued: “I’d like to say that actually Brian did do a very good job on the actual guitars. He’s really taken his guitar orchestration to its limits. I don’t know how he’s going to… I don’t think he’ll ever outdo that one actually. And John played very good bass on that. And I think it’s good. We’re patting ourselves on our back again. I really feel that that’s worked out very well, especially from the orchestration point of view. Because he’s really used his guitars in a different sort of way, although he’s done lots of orchestrations before.”

Kenny responds, quite accurately, by saying “He’s probably the world’s greatest guitar technician really, isn’t he?” to which Freddie replies “Oh, I’d say that dear, easily!”, in a posh voice that leads them to joke about getting in some champagne.

Brian May, meanwhile, told Q Magazine in March 2008 that “This was our greatest musical excess. It teems with baroque life and makes Bohemian Rhapsody look easy. Great piece of Freddie.”

Live Performances

Queen didn’t perform the track live very often, but they adapted it really well for the stage despite its complexity. A video of their magnificent performance at The Summit, Houston, Texas on 11 December 1977 was one of the streaming videos that accompanied their Absolute Greatest compilation. It’s the only time a live version of this song has been officially released, but naturally it’s circulated online since. And there is also a bootlegged video of a similar performance from Earl’s Court, London on 6 June 1977.

As you can tell from the abrupt way those videos start and end, the song is part of a medley. In Houston it starts immediately after Get Down, Make Love, and in Earl’s Court it follows on from Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, while in both cases the outro leads in to You’re My Best Friend.

Cover Versions

There are enjoyable versions of this song live in concert from:

And other interpretations include:


5. You And I

Written by John Deacon

See also: Ultimate Queen / Lyric Video

John’s only composition on the album, on which he also plays acoustic guitar, is a cheerful and catchy delight, centred around a great piano melody and lovely lyrics. It’s also worth keeping in the headphones for, as there are some interesting splits between the lead and backing vocals at certain points. The song was released as the B-side to Tie Your Mother Down and the overseas single for Long Away.

The song was never performed live on stage, more’s the pity. The only alternative version is an instrumental demo played at the 2005 UK Fan Club Convention, which omits some backing vocals and guitar, and winds down to a definitive end rather than fading out. Being a convention recording, it’s not great quality and has the usual copyright note repeated over it, but it’s still interesting.

In his Kenny Everett interview, Freddie observed: “It’s good. His songs are getting better every time actually, I’m getting a bit worried actually! He is sort of quiet, lots of people think. Don’t underestimate him, he’s got a fiery streak underneath all that, really. But I think, because I talk so much anyway, he likes to let me do all the talking. But once people sort of crack that thin ice, then he’s alright, you know. You can never stop him talking then.” He then goes on to explain that he’s a bit shy as well, that he doesn’t go “tearing around life” like he does on stage as people assume.

Cover Versions

This is another song for which covers are very few and far between, which is a surprise and a shame. From tribute groups there’s a good version by Master Stroke with nice vocal harmonies by Ema Caradoso, a fun live performance by a Korean band with English vocals, and an acoustic rehearsal by Queen Obsession. And at the piano there’s a pleasant rendition performed by David Manara, along with instrumentals by Melina Mercury & Yumeddie (also here).

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga also has a track called Yoü and I on her album Born This Way, which is completely unrelated to the Queen song. However, it does feature Brian May as a special guest on guitar, and samples the beat from We Will Rock You. In an interview with The Sun she said: “I fell to the floor crying and laughing when I found out that I’d got him on the song. I called myself Gaga after Queen’s track Radio Ga Ga.

Brian doesn’t appear in the music video, but he did take part in Gaga’s great performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on 28 August 2011, much to the obvious delight of the audience, especially Dave Grohl when the camera cuts to him!


Conclusion

That concludes the first side of the album. All of the songs are great, so it’s a pity they’re not all well known. But hopefully they prove to be an enjoyable surprise to anyone graduating from the greatest hits to Queen’s deeper layers. Digging into the band’s albums is always a very rewarding experience, even for die-hard fans, but even more so if it’s the very first time.

Check out my Queen & Covers playlists to explore the official videos, live performances, rarities, and other versions of the songs, including videos not mentioned above. I’ll update them in the future as I become aware of new videos. And if there are others I should check out and consider adding to these or any of my Queen playlists, do let me know.

And if you’ve enjoyed this review so far, be sure to join me for Part 2, when I’ll be going through the various tracks on the second side of the album, including the iconic Somebody To Love, and a track that was Queen’s gift to Japan. See you then!

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger & Youtuber with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

5 thoughts on “Queen At 50 Reviews – A Day At The Races – Part 1”

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