Queen At 50 Reviews – A Day At The Races

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.

The time has come for me to review Queen’s 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

The tracks on the album are 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
  6. Somebody To Love
  7. White Man
  8. Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy
  9. Drowse
  10. Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)

You can see all the videos I mention in this post and many more on my Queen & Covers playlists for this album. 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.

A Matt Wallace Remix 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.

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:

  • 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. I’ve included lots of them on my album playlist, but here I’ll mention a few of the most notable ones.

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. You can see an example of this from Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield on 9 May 2005, which was released on Return Of The Champions.

Reaching Out was dropped in 2008, but Tie Your Mother Down was still played near the top of the show, such as at 46664 Concert, Hyde Park, London on 27 June 2008, where the band played a short set for Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday.

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 there are videos of other performances online as well.

There were also a few occasions when they performed a pure rock version backed by a full band, which also sounded great, including Wildlife Rocks, Guildford Cathedral, 5 May 2014. For that special concert Brian joined The Troggs for a great performance of their hit Wild Thing, before bringing on Kerry Ellis for Tie Your Mother Down. You can see them doing the soundcheck for these songs earlier in the day as well.

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

There are hundreds of covers for this song, inevitably. I’ve included as many as I can on my covers playlist, but here are just a small number that are worth being aware of.

Official tribute band Queen Extravaganza have performed the song many times, usually with Marc Martel on vocals, including at the Official Freddie Mercury 70th Birthday Party in Casino Barriere Montreux, Switzerland on 4 September 2016.

 

Guitarist Robby Valentine has also performed the song live with his band in The Netherlands on several occasions, with the lead vocals provided by Marlies Schuitemaker (aka Maria Catharina), such as at the Queen Fan Club Convention in 2014. He also performed the track live with Peter Strykes at the Dutch Queen Convention on 3 November 2012.

Many other artists have also performed the song live, including David Jordan & The Stereophonics on Al Murray’s Happy Hour, a live performance by Twisted Sister in Stony Brook, New York on 10 September 1977, and a rendition by tribute group The Show Must Go On from 9 November 2011 featuring TV composer Bear McCreary.

Many other artists have also released recordings of the song, but more unusual versions include a really nice arrangement by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and a catchy ska version by The Carstomites from their tribute album Ska Flashes.


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 that 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. I’ve included lots of versions on my covers playlist, but here are few worthy of note:


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, including it as part of a medley. 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.

Cover Versions

There are a small number of covers I’ve included on my playlist, including a very nice instrumental arrangement by the Jakarta Concert Orchestra that begins with a snippet of Play The Game, and a beautifully choreographed ballet scene by Queen At The Opera at Natal Playhouse, Durban, South Africa in 1995,

 


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.

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!


6. Somebody To Love

Written by Freddie Mercury

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

This soul-searching, gospel-infused, harmony-rich, intricately-layered masterpiece, with Freddie’s poetic lyrics pleading for God’s help to find that special person to spend his life with, is always a joy to listen to and is easily the most famous song from the album. The main surprise to me is that it only reached number 2 in the UK chart, held off the top spot by Under The Moon Of Love by Showaddywaddy. It spent 6 weeks in the top 5 altogether though, of which 4 of them were at number 4, so that’s still impressive. And it did reach number 1 in the Netherlands, while also getting to number 13 in the USA.

Commentaries & Interviews

Brian and Roger discuss the track on the Absolute Greatest Hits commentary, where Brian explains: “You have to bear in mind we’d just had Bohemian Rhapsody, historically, it had just been a huge hit, and it was a massive vocal production. And this also is a massive vocal production, in some ways the counterpart of Bohemian Rhapsody, but in a gospel kind of style. Aretha Franklin was Freddie’s idol, and so he wrote it really with her in mind.”

They also note how complex the song is, and what a great track it is to perform live. They particularly enjoy recalling a performance in Auckland, New Zealand, where Freddie started the song off but forgot what he was playing, and also put his trousers on backwards, because he’d been drinking heavily with Tony Hadley! For Freddie, ever the professional, this was very unusual, as he wouldn’t normally be the worse for wear before a concert. But, as Brian observes, he “just had too good a time” on this occasion!

The audio commentary on Greatest Video Hits 1 also features Brian and Roger, where they reminisce about the Hyde Park show and the music studio that both appear in the video, and remark on the multi-tracking they used to create the gospel choir. Freddie, meanwhile, discusses why many of his songs are about emotion, as he’s a “true romantic… writing about things that everyday people go through”.

Elsewhere:

  • Brian is quoted as saying: “That was part of Freddie’s great gift: to take a song and keep building it until it almost became something else. Until it belonged to everybody. Somebody To Love was like that.”
  • John Deacon once stated that the song proved “Queen could swing as hard as it could rock, by channeling the spirit of gospel music”.
  • Roger Taylor, in Circus Magazine on 31 January 1977, observed: “Somebody To Love is Aretha Franklin-influenced. Freddie’s very much into that. We tried to keep the track in a loose, gospel-type feel. I think it’s the loosest track we’ve ever done.”
  • Brian May briefly told Absolute Radio about the Aretha Franklin influence and building up the vocal parts to create a gospel choir.

Alternate Versions

Outtakes from the recording, including interesting experiments with the harmonies that were never used in the final track, were played at a Queen convention. It means you get the copyright message over the top regularly and the audio quality isn’t great, so I don’t often share such recordings for those reasons. But it is interesting to hear this particular rarity.

The 1991 Hollywood Records reissue of the album included a remix by Randy “Badazz” Alpert (nephew of Herb Alpert). There’s some phasing in different parts of the track, a bit of extra percussion, and occasionally different ad-libs from Freddie, none of which really adds anything special. So it’s ok, but the original mix is easily superior.

Isolated Tracks

The vocals on this song are sublime to say the least, and are split between lead and backing vocals in the multitracks:

  • Lead Vocals – Freddie’s performance on this track is an absolute tour de force of power, energy and feeling, and I defy anybody not to say it sends shivers down their spine when they hear it, especially in isolation like this. For example, on several occasions when he sings the lyric “somebody to love”, it’s incredible how he holds and plays around with just the word “love”, extending it for a good 6½ seconds on one occasion, and hitting a superb high note for the word “to” later on that’s difficult for some performers to replicate on stage. Likewise, it’s impressive how he manipulates the final word in “I’ve got nobody left to believe” up to a higher register, and there are several other nicely held notes during the track. There’s also the repeating “find me somebody to love” choir section in the middle, and other moments beyond that, where his improvisations and “ooohs” sound magical. It’s just perfection all the way, nobody else can sing like him.
  • Backing Vocals – The linked video contains all the backing vocals as a complete track, but that’s not quite how they’re presented in the multitrack files. Most do reside on a separate track, but some of them are mixed into the lead vocal track when Freddie isn’t singing, so there are occasional gaps in the backing track as a result. Freddie, Brian and Roger all contributed to these wonderful harmonies (as John didn’t sing on the record), to give the impression of a 100-strong gospel choir. And it’s incredible what they achieved, it sounds amazing. Roger in particular, as on several other songs, demonstrates his ability for hitting some astonishingly high notes. The best example is around 2:55, at the end of “he’s alright, he’s alright, yeah, yeah”, where a lot of people mistake his high “yeah” for a guitar note! it’s only when you hear that part in isolation like this that you can clearly tell it’s him. And at the very end of the song you can hear Roger sounding a bit like one of the Bee Gees. There’s a bit of additional piano mixed into this track part way through too, to complement the main piano track.

All the other elements of the song play a crucial role as well, of course:

  • Freddie’s piano that underpins the whole track is a solid and beautiful piece of composition, and when mixed with the vocals makes a perfectly decent song all of its own. It also incorporates the double hand claps sequence in the middle of the song.
  • Brian’s guitar only features in the song for less than 50 seconds in the middle, but as ever he makes it count, with a rhythmic lead-in to his marvellous solo. He gives a little tutorial for the end of the guitar section in his 1983 Star Licks video.
  • John’s bass plays a counter-melody with some nice little touches here and there. Even if you heard this bassline without being told which song it belonged to, you’d still recognise it, as it fits so well.
  • Roger’s percussion is steady and effective, providing a firm rhythm throughout.

By combining the various tracks without Freddie’s lead vocal, you can hear a straight instrumental without any vocals or the instrumental with backing harmonies. Either way, it highlights how all the layers fit together like a perfect jigsaw. You can also sing along using the Karaoke Hits video.

Music Videos

The promotional video shows the band doing a staged recording of the track at Sarm East Studios, London on 4 November 1976, combined with visuals from their Hyde Park show a couple of months earlier (a concert that I discussed in my previous post). Every band member gets a fair amount of screen time, particularly Freddie in his shirt covered in colourful leaves.

John Deacon appears to sing backing vocals during the video, but doesn’t sing on the actual track, so it’s a visual cheat. The head of the band’s road crew, Peter Hince, explained to Mojo magazine in 2009 that: “Aesthetically, you had to have all four around the microphone, but John didn’t sing on the records. By his own admission he didn’t have the voice. He did sing on-stage but the crew always knew to keep the fader very low.” John’s voice can be heard on some bootlegs of live shows, however, so it wasn’t always faded out completely. Peter also told Mojo that the song was “always one of Queen’s best. The studio version was very polished, but on-stage there was so much more guts to it.”

The video has appeared on various “Greatest” video releases by the band, including the Greatest Video Hits I DVD. It’s also included with the 2011 reissue of the album on iTunes.

An alternative video, created from all 4 takes of the studio footage, some of it shown in split screen, was included on the Days Of Our Lives documentary DVD & Blu-ray. So that’s also really fun to watch. There’s also a teaser clip for the documentary on Queen’s Youtube channel that combines some of that music video with comments by the band.

There’s also a videos of Penny de Jager’s Ballet Troupe on TopPop, AVRO, The Netherlands in December 1976, with dancers performing a routine to the song. This was common practice for programmes like Top Of The Pops when artists were unable to appear in person.

And more recently the song was played during the opening credits of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, as the band prepare to play at Live Aid.

Live Performances

As if the record itself isn’t special enough, the song comes to life even more on stage. And as such, there are loads of live versions, many of which I’ve added to my album playlist. I won’t list them all here, but I will pick out some of the most interesting and exciting ones.

Queen Concerts

Queen always performed this really well live. It doesn’t matter that they can’t create a full gospel choir effect, because it’s not necessary with Freddie belting out the lead vocal as passionately and powerfully as he does. And the other band members sing backing vocals too – including John, even if he’s faded down a bit as he doesn’t have as good a voice as the others – but you can always hear Roger providing the higher notes.

A few notable examples of their live performances include:

  • Hammersmith Odeon, London on 26 December 1979 – This was when Queen performed in the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea. Freddie does some improvisation at the piano as an extended intro, with some extraordinary vocals before the song even starts properly. And he continued to do this during their shows in the 80s, sometimes incorporating a bit of call and response with the audience, and generally making it quite elaborate.
  • Montreal Forum, Canada on 24/25 November 1981 – Freddie extends the song further here with a bit of vocal jamming with the audience in the middle. You can focus on his voice even more closely in a semi a cappella mix, which Youtuber Chief Mouse has extracted from the DVD’s central surround channel. There’s also a nice commentary by Brian & Roger on the DVD, in which they talk about how it’s one of the last times it was just the 4 of them on stage with no assistance from an additional keyboardist, and why they made that change in later tours, as well as commenting on Freddie’s excellent piano and vocal skills.
  • Milton Keynes Bowl on 5 June 1982 – Again this is a longer version with Freddie having fun midway through. Apart from being on the Live At The Bowl album and DVD, the audio from this was also included as a bonus track on the 2011 reissue of A Day At The Races, and the video was available to stream as part of the Absolute Greatest release.

Queen & George Michael

George Michael’s fantastic performance of the song with Queen at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Wembley Stadium, London on 20 April 1992, backed by a gospel choir and the 72,000-strong crowd, was without doubt the highlight of the show. He absolutely nailed it, making the song his own without trying to copy Freddie, and having the vocal skills to reach some of those tough top notes that few could pull off.

And he engaged with the audience so well too, getting them all clapping and singing along with ease. That moment near the end when the band pauses and he gets the crowd to sing the word “love”, and in unison they do the complex descending melody on that single word perfectly, is just marvellous, embodying the joyful impact that Freddie’s music has had on everyone present. Brian’s huge smile immediately after says it all – he’s rightfully proud, as Freddie would also have been. The experience has also been recalled by Mike Moran, who worked with Queen and Freddie for many years.

As well as being included in the film of the concert, George Michael’s performance was also released on his Five Live EP in 1993, along with These Are The Days Of Our Lives with Lisa Stansfield from the same show, plus a few other live tracks. All proceeds from sales went to the Mercury Phoenix Trust. George & Brian were interviewed by MTV about it at the time.

The EP went straight to number 1 in the UK singles chart for 3 weeks, one of only 4 EPs ever to reach that position (others had been by Demis Roussos, The Special A.K.A. and Erasure). It was eventually bumped off the top spot by All That She Wants by Ace Of Base. And as a result of that chart success, George’s version of Somebody To Love was also included on Queen’s Greatest Hits III and the related VHS video in 1999.

For George himself, his performance came at a very difficult and poignant time. His first love, Anselmo Feleppa, had just been diagnosed with HIV, after they’d both been tested 4 months earlier. Yet George’s homosexuality was still a secret from everyone else, even his own family, and remained so until he came out in 1998. So he was having to deal with his partner’s diagnosis, and the devastating death of Freddie Mercury from complications resulting from AIDS, all by himself. Anselmo passed away from an AIDS related illness in 1993, the year after the concert.

In his 2017 Freedom documentary, George recalled: “I went out there knowing that I had to do 2 things. I had to honour Freddie Mercury and I had to pray for Anselmo. So it was so much to me all in that one performance. I’m so proud of the fact that I held on to that feeling, because I just wanted to die inside. It was just overwhelming for me, and I think what that did was turned on one of the best performances of my career.”

Similarly, in the Red Line interviews he said:

“This was the loudest prayer of my life. And it’s not an accident that the performance, probably most well-known in my career, was sung to my lover who was dying. That will hopefully never happen again. The fact that it happened that way… I mean, my God, talk about destiny.” 

“My subconscious knew this was very probably the most important performance of my life. So I went for five days to rehearse. Everyone else went for an afternoon. I went for five days because it had to be perfect. I think it’s probably my most famous performance.”

He also spoke about rehearsing for the concert in an interview with Chris Evans.

And it certainly was perfect even at the rehearsal stage. The DVD releases of the concert include a video of Queen & George rehearsing the song at Bray Studios, and his rendition is powerful and flawless, just like on the big night. You can tell that he really is taking it seriously and making the most of the experience. And the applause from his peers at the end shows the respect that everyone has for him. And, in hindsight, people have even more respect for his performance now, knowing the struggles he was facing at the time. It clearly took a great deal of courage to do the show, all things considered, so he’s right to be proud of it.

Brian May & Kerry Ellis

Brian and Kerry beautifully adapted this song for their acoustic shows, with Brian on acoustic guitar and Jeff Leach assisting ably on keyboards, while the vocals were shared between Kerry, Brian and the audience. It sounded completely different to the original record but still worked really nicely, and was a great number that everyone was encouraged get involved with.

Their performance at Stravinski Hall, Montreux, Switzerland on 19 July 2013 was featured on The Candlelight Concerts. There’s also a great version from Arena di Verona, Italy on 1 June 2015 where they’re backed by an orchestra and choir, but Kerry still gets the audience involved at a crucial moment, before giving an epic vocal outburst of her own. It was part of their set during Lo Spettacolo Sta Per Iniziare (The Show Is About To Begin), which was broadcast on TV.

Kerry has also performed the song independently of Brian with other musicians and groups, such as the Killer Queen Tribute Band at Obihall, Florence, Italy on 18 May 2012. And she’s performed it with Only Men Aloud, who released their own version of it, which I’ll mention in the list of covers below.

 

 

Queen & Adam Lambert

You’ll notice that I’ve skipped the Paul Rodgers era here. Paul’s voice wouldn’t have been able to do the song justice so, to the best of my knowledge, the song wasn’t featured in any of the Queen & Paul Rodgers concerts.

Adam Lambert, on the other hand, has the range and power to do it justice in his own style, and gets the audience involved of course. Some later performances begin with Adam accompanied only by Brian on guitar, instead of the traditional piano, before Roger joins in and the song builds.

He’s performed the song with Queen frequently, and a few examples from concerts and TV appearances include:

  • The Late Late Show with James Corden, 2 February 2017 – As part of their tour promotion, Queen & Adam appeared on this US comedy chat show for a Front Man Battle, where James unsuccessfully tried to prove that he could be the lead singer. Snippets of various songs were performed during the segment, but a shortened version of Somebody To Love was the big conclusion, with James and Adam doing a duet.

Cover Versions

Being one of Queen’s most popular songs, there are a wealth of different interpretations out there, and it’s testament to Freddie’s talent as a composer that it can be arranged in so many different ways to good effect. I’ve included a huge number of them on my covers playlist that you can dig though, but here are a few notable ones.

Adverts

  • Amazon Music – A Voice Is All You Need – There’s a nice snippet of Freddie singing in this 30 second promo for Alexa.
  • Confused.com 2010 – There’s a nice animation to go with the cover version sung in this advert, of which there is a bit of behind-the-scenes footage of the recording. There was apparently a bit of controversy near the start of the cartoon though, when the central character (Cara) appears to pull the microphone out from between her legs rather than a pocket, and there were complaints about about the over-sexualisation of the characters in later adverts. The ASA regulator also banned their adverts that made the inaccurate claim of being “18 million strong”, as seen in this case.
  • Honda Ridgeline 2016 Superbowl Advert – A flock of sheep sing the song in this commercial, having learnt it in the vehicle they were transported in.

Movies

We Will Rock You Musical

There are several recordings of this song being performed in the show:

Glee

Glee’s version has been the inspiration for many of the covers presented later in this post, such was the popularity and influence of the show.

Marc Martel

Lots of people auditioned for Queen Extravaganza in 2011 using this song, in their bid to be part of the official tribute band. And the one that went viral, with over 22 million views at the current count, was Marc Martel’s audition, as many people felt he sounded a lot like Freddie. I wouldn’t say they’re identical by any means, as some seem to suggest, as I can tell them apart very easily, but Marc is still very good. And such was its immediate popularity that he was inited to make a guest appearance on the Ellen Degeneres Show just a week after the video was released.

His brother David also put himself forward, incidentally. And he’s good, but he’s not as good as his sibling.

Marc was successful in becoming the lead singer for Queen Extravaganza, and sang this track with them on many occasions, including American Idol, Top 6 episode in 2012, a Queen edition of the series in which Brian May and Roger Taylor also performed some other songs with the finalists, in this Queen edition of the programme.

And he’s done various other performances of the song too, including:

Other Interpretations

  • Anthony Callea recorded a live version with Tim Campbell for his live George Michael tribute album.
  • Catherine Porter recorded a slow ballad cover featuring Brian May on guitar, which was released as a single from her album Gems For Ruby.

7. White Man

Written by Brian May

See also: Ultimate Queen / Song Facts / Lyric Video

This song, released as the B-side of Somebody To Love, is about Native Americans suffering at the hands of European colonists, poetically summarising their plight. It’s a heavy topic, and the song’s in a suitably heavy style to match – apart from the calm intro and outro sections that reflect how their idyllic lives have been disrupted, and which use the same melody as heard in the album’s lead-in section prior to Tie Your Mother Down. It’s a great rock track all round, with powerful guitars and percussion to accompany Freddie’s impassioned vocals.

When asked by Kenny Everett in his Capital Radio interview how they were able to make such a big noise on one record, after they had heard this song, Freddie replied: “That’s Mike Stone our engineer. We’re very bad in the studio for that actually. The poor engineer has to really suffer, because we really want as much level as possible, and we keep pushing the faders up and he keeps looking at the meters and going ‘Oh, it’ll never cut’. And then we give him the added task of going over to New York or wherever and saying ‘Make sure that cut’s as loud as possible’.” And Kenny explains to the listeners that “if a noise is too loud on a record, the little wobbly groove grunges into the groove next door, and the record skips.”

Live Performances

Queen played the song in concert during their tours for A Day At The Races and News Of The World, such as an example from The Summit, Houston, Texas on 11 December 1977. They never performed it beyond that tour as far as I’m aware, but a few vocal and guitar elements did make brief appearances in some concerts. There was even a nod to it in the later tours with Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert, as part of the guitar intro to Fat Bottomed Girls.

Cover Versions

In stark contrast to the previous smash hit song, there are hardly any covers for this deep cut album track:


8. Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy

Written by Freddie Mercury

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

Note: The Lyric Video uses the Top Of The Pops recording of the track, which differs from the album version as noted below.

Again a big contrast to the track preceding it, this delightfully jolly, romantic, harmony-rich, music hall style song was released on 20 May 1977 on Queen’s first extended play single (with Death On Two Legs, Tenement Funster & White Queen). It entered the charts at number 36 and peaked at 17 on 2 occasions during its 10 weeks in the top 40.

In his Capital Radio interview with Kenny Everett (who introduces the song as “a little frilly number”), Freddie remarks that “It’s in my ragtime mood that I get a chance to do on every album. And this time, yes, this is something I came up with this time around.”

Freddie sang the bridge line in the song (“Hey boy, where’d you get it from? Hey boy, where did you go?”) with their record producer Mike Stone, a rare instance of a non-band member contributing vocals.

Music Videos

The band performed the song on Top Of The Pops in July 1977 to promote the EP, by miming to a new recording made at BBC TV Centre in Shepherd’s Bush especially for the show. It’s similar to the album version of course, but it’s a little bit faster, Freddie sings the vocals afresh and plays some different piano, Brian plays a new guitar solo, and Roger sings more prominent vocals including the line Mike Stone had on the original. So it’s an enjoyable alternative version. The video is among the bonus features on the Greatest Video Hits 1 DVD, and the audio was included as a bonus track on the 2011 reissue of the album.

Other Versions

Queen performed a shortened version of the song as part of a medley during their A Day At The Races and News Of The World tours. There are no official releases of such versions though, sadly.

As for other artists, there are quite a few cover versions that I’ve included on my covers playlist, including a lockdown version by The Cog Is Dead, a version by Jason Mraz for the Killer Queen tribute album, a group choral version by The Treorchy Male Voice Choir, among various others, a group a cappella version by The Binghamton Crosbys, and an acoustic guitar version by Carlos Bonell & The Lara Symphony Orchestra.


9. Drowse

Written by Roger Taylor

See also: Ultimate Queen / Lyric Video

Roger sings the lead vocal here, reminiscing about his younger days, as well as playing electric rhythm guitar and timpani, while Brian plays slide guitar. It’s his only composition for the album and is in 6/8 time, just like I’m In Love With My Car on the previous album. I  much prefer his car song personally, but he does sing Drowse very nicely and the lyrics are quite poetic.

Queen have never performed the song live, though it was rehearsed with Adam Lambert prior to their Rock Big Ben Live show on New Year’s Eve 2014, after the track had been included on the Queen Forever compilation the previous month.

Cover Versions

We’re very much back in the realm of barely-covered songs with this one, which isn’t a surprise. The only notable renditions I can find are a recording by AB & The Gin House Bandits on the Horse Feathers & Animal Crackers tribute album, a music video by Norman Kapoyos & The Swinging Mood Orchestra, a live performance in Italy by tribute group Queen Obsession, and a solo cover on acoustic guitar by Mark Vayngrib.


10. Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)

Written by Brian May

See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Lyric Video

Queen have had an enormous following in Japan from early on in their career that continues to this day. The band first performed in Japan in spring 1975, where they had a very busy tour. And the close bond they formed with their fans back then has persisted to this day. Even a global pandemic couldn’t stop the country celebrating the 45th anniversary of the band’s arrival on 17 April 2020, a date officially known as Queen Day!

This song, therefore, was the band’s way of gratefully returning the love to their Japanese fans. It was exclusively released as a single in the country, reaching #49 in the charts, and has been included on Japanese Greatest Hits compilations as well. In March 2011 it was also released on the Songs For Japan charity compilation album, in support of those affected by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

It’s a beautiful track that makes use of harmonium and plastic piano, both of which are played by Brian in addition to his guitar, along with wonderful vocals, enhanced further by a local choir brought in for the chorus at the end.

And the most striking feature, of course, is that it has 2 choruses sung entirely in Japanese. Only 2 other Queen songs have choruses sung in a foreign language (Las Palabras De Amor & Mustapha), so it’s all the more unique in that regard. The band had help to interpret the lyrics from their friend Chika Kujiraoka, who they credit on the album sleeve.

  • An accurate translation from the actual Japanese, according to Wikipedia, would be: “Let’s go hand in hand, my beloved. In a quiet evening, light the light, embracing loving teachings.”
  • The English chorus in the song is a more poetic interpretation: ““Let us cling together as the years go by, oh my love, my love. In the quiet of the night, let our candle always burn, let us never lose the lessons we have learned.”

On the album, the track finishes with a 1-minute Shepard tone melody that continuously rises. This is a repeat of the same tune that precedes the first track, Tie Your Mother Down, bringing the album full circle, and as such you can find out more about it in my previous post. The edits of the song on the single and Greatest Hits albums in Japan fade out early during that outro.

High Definition Mix

In 2005 a new High Definition Mix was released on the Jewels II compilation album in Japan, including the Shephard tone melody at the end. And 6 years later a stand-alone edit of the HD mix, which omits the Shephard tone outro and brings the song to a definitive end instead, was included as a bonus track on the 2011 reissue of A Day At The Races. Brian had always been happy with the original mix, but subsequent advances in technology enabled him to revisit it, generating a fresh version that gives more clarity to some of the background vocals and instrumentation. It sounds really nice as a result.

Live Performances

Queen played this song in their Japanese shows during their tours from 1979 to 1982. These concerts would always be very late in each tour, sometimes at the very end, so occasionally you can hear that Freddie’s voice is tired and cracking a bit. But he sings this song beautifully in any case. Brian, meanwhile, would play the piano for this number, just as he does on the album, a rare sight for him to do so on stage.

The first time they ever did it was at Festival Hall, Osaka on 20 April 1979, where Freddie tells the crowd: “We’re gonna do a song for the first time ever. I don’t know if you understand this. I think you’ll get the gist. And we’d like everybody to join in.” And they do, eagerly. A later version can also be seen from Seibu Lions Stadium, Tokorozawa, Saitama, Tokyo on 3 November 1982, a show that was released on VHS and Laserdisc exclusively in Japan, under the title Live In Japan. But 8 of the tracks, including this one, were also included on the DVD for Queen On Fire – Live At The Bowl, as a Tour Highlights From Tokyo feature.

Next, the only recording I can find of the song being performed outside of Japan is from Brian May and his band, as part of his solo career, at Aston Villa Leisure Center, Birmingham, England on 5 December 1993. It’s an enjoyable rarity.

The song was also performed in Japan during the Queen + Paul Rodgers era,  starting off as an acoustic solo by Brian, before Roger joins in with backing vocals and percussion, and then it becomes a full band performance as Paul joins them for the bridge section onwards. One such example is from Saitama Super Arena, Tokyo on 27 October 2005. That concert was released in Japan on the Super Live In Japan DVD, while elsewhere in the world a highlights DVD of the show (including this song) was bundled in with special editions of the Cosmos Rocks album.

The song has still played its part in the Japanese legs of the Queen + Adam Lambert tours too. Adam isn’t involved though, as it’s in Brian’s solo acoustic set. For example, there’s a lovely solo rendition by Brian on acoustic guitar, accompanied by the audience at Summer Sonic Festival, QVC Marine Field, Chiba, Tokyo on 17 August 2014. This concert was released in Japan under the title Live In Japan, while 3 of the tracks (excluding this one) were later released in other countries on Live Around The World.

Cover Versions

There are a fair number of covers that I’ve included on my covers playlist, including a lockdown performance by Berklee Japanese Ensemble, a version by Mêlée on the Japanese edition of their album The Masquerade, a rendition by tribute band Lucie & The Diamonds, and a classical version by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Royal Choral Society (which PiotreQ has beautifully combined with Queen’s version).


Conclusion

So that concludes my look at this album. Inevitably it isn’t quite as good as its Night At The Opera predecessor, but such margins of quality between tracks and albums are small, and there isn’t a bad song here. As ever we’re gifted with a fascinating variety of themes and styles that are all distinctively Queen, and it’s all very enjoyable to listen to. So I hope you’ve enjoyed my detailed run-through!

Check out my Queen & Covers playlists to explore the official videos, live performances, rarities, and other versions of the songs. 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 I’ll see you again soon for the next album, News Of The World!

Author: Glen

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

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

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