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

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

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Queen At 50 – London Locations – Part 1

Back in September I spent a day walking around some of the Queen-related locations in Hammersmith & Kensington, following the Day 1 itinerary on the Queen Locations website. And my intention was to find most of the locations listed on that site over a series of walks – i.e. those that still exist that I can get to reasonably easily. However, due to the weather and the toughening up of Covid restrictions, I haven’t yet had a safe chance to go hunting for any more.

So this is Part 1 of what will be a very sporadic series, looking at some of the key places where the band lived, recorded and performed. As I don’t yet know when I will be venturing back into Central London, I wanted to share some of the photos I’ve taken so far as a Christmas bonus, rather than waiting until I’d completed my explorations.

Thank you to Judit Castellà for creating the Queen Locations site, which inspired me to do this and made it very easy for me to track down these places. Check out their site for additional notes and photos, and also their Queen Online article about how the site came together. As well as their Day 1 itinerary, further notes and photos about these locations can be found on Queen ConcertsMercury Paradise and the map on Shane’s Queen Site.

So let’s get on with it, and I hope you enjoy walking in Queen’s footsteps with me!

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Queen At 50 Reviews – Bohemian Rhapsody Covers

As discussed in depth in my previous post, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is an enduring classic that continues to increase in popularity 45 years on, as new generations of fans are introduced to it, most recently thanks to the movie of the same name and Queen’s tours with Adam Lambert. Freddie’s masterpiece, like his spirit and all of his music, will never die or be forgotten.

It is of no surprise, therefore, that it’s been covered in a myriad of styles by thousands of people, either tackling the full song or focusing on selected sections of it, despite the fact that it’s very brave of anyone to take on a song of such complexity that is so famous and well-loved.

In my previous reviews of Queen’s albums, I’ve always included cover versions as part of those posts. But such is the significance of Bo Rhap and the huge number of covers it’s had, coupled with the fact that it’s always nice to do some kind of special post at Christmas, that I’ve decided to give these interpretations of the track a space of their own.

Of course, it goes without saying that nobody can come close to Queen when reproducing any of their songs, especially this one. And there are plenty of covers out there that range from the decidedly average and uninspiring to the downright bizarre and awful. But there are also lots of beautifully arranged, excellently performed and cleverly interpreted versions too.

So in this post I wanted to share a long list of cover versions that I’ve found, divided into rough subsections to keep similar types together. I’ve compiled them into a big Youtube playlist as well (ending with a few minor covers of the album’s closing track, God Save The Queen).

Some are great in my view, some are not, and the rest are somewhere in between. But everyone’s opinions will differ. All I’ve tried to do is present a wide variety that I feel are of interest and worth exploring out of curiosity. It’s not every cover that exists by any means, but I feel it’s a very comprehensive and fair representation of what’s out there, listing most of the major versions and lots of hidden gems.

So buckle in for a long selection, and see which versions you like best!

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Queen At 50 Reviews – A Night At The Opera – Part 3

This is the final instalment of my deep dive into Queen’s epic 1975 LP, following on from Part 1 and Part 2. There is also a bonus post about Bohemian Rhapsody cover versions, but this post explores the rest of the main material.

The album of course finishes in style, courtesy of their biggest hit of all time, followed by a patriotic instrumental at the end. So let’s get straight on with it, as there’s plenty to discuss. I hope you enjoy!

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Queen At 50 Reviews – A Night At The Opera – Part 2

The first side of Queen’s hugely successful and perennially popular 1975 album, which I reviewed last week, is in itself quite a stunning collection of assorted treasures.

But those tracks were also paving the way for even more incredible delights on the flip side, for which there is a great deal to talk about. So much so, in fact, that I’ve had to split my reviews for the second side into 2 parts.

In this post, therefore, I’m going to take a close look at the next 3 tracks, then I’ll conclude the album in Part 3. The first track in this post is their longest song and one of their most complex, while the second is their most popular sing-along acoustic number that’s spawned a ton of live performances and covers, and the third is a delightful Dixieland tune. So I hope you enjoy!

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Queen At 50 Reviews – A Night At The Opera – Part 1

This is the big one, the album that launched Queen into the stratosphere. The previous release, Sheer Heart Attack, was already a joyous collection of majestic variety that sounded like perfection to many, and its predecessor Queen II was also (and still is) held in very high regard. And yet the band still felt they were learning and developing, and they were keen to push things further still for their next album.

They were also having a fresh start, having moved to EMI Records and recruited new manager John Reid (who also managed Elton John), after ending their contract with Trident Studios under a dark cloud. Queen hadn’t been getting paid fairly for the success of their previous work, due to the contract they’d signed up to, and that contract was very expensive to get out of. So they were broke, which placed considerable pressure on them. It was now all or nothing. Their next release had to be a big success, otherwise that would be it, Queen would be no more.

A 2-page spread from the Night At The Opera CD booklet, one photo on each page. On the left, Freddie Mercury sits in front of a microphone, wearing a leafy-patterned jacket over a white shirt and white trousers. On the right, John Deacon sits playing the bass guitar, wearing a yellow t-shirt and blue jeans

But they were up for the challenge, and determined to show the world what they were capable of. They had also been told by their new manager to make the best album they’ve ever done, with complete freedom to do whatever they wanted. So they made the most of the opportunity.

They incorporated everything they’d learned and played around with up to that point (clear influences can be heard on their earlier albums, e.g. songs on Queen II like My Fairy King), and took full advantage of the studio technology available to them (using 7 studios altogether). They had carefully written lyrics and distinctive melodies (with all 4 band members writing at least one track each), a range of simple to complicated song structures, multi-tracked harmonies (now working with 24-track tapes instead of 16), a myriad of musical styles and instruments (using what felt best for each song rather than sticking to a particular genre), and big production values. It was the most expensive album ever made at the time. And they named the album after a Marx Brothers film, even becoming good friends with Groucho Marx as a result.

Their incredible efforts gave us their first and most successful number 1 single, plus the first chart hit to be written by their bass player, and many other beautiful songs. It held the number 1 spot on 4 of its first 7 weeks in the chart (held off on the other 3 occasions by Perry Como’s 40 Greatest Hits, a very different record entirely!). It stayed in the top 40 for 34 weeks (including 12 weeks in the top 10 & 16 in the top 20), and as recently as last year it was still poking its head into the lower end of the Top 100 every so often, which it will continue to do now and again in the future, each time a new generation is introduced to the band in some way. Inevitably the most famous track on this album is the one that regularly draws people to it time and time again.

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Queen At 50 Reviews – Sheer Heart Attack

After the release of Queen II (which I reviewed last month), Queen made the most of its rightful success by going on tour in the UK, even playing in the Devon seaside town of Paignton where I was raised a decade later, and having their biggest gig at the Rainbow Theatre in London. They then embarked on their first ever tour of the USA, as the support act for Mott The Hoople, a role they’d also taken on during a UK tour the previous year.

Although Queen knew what they wanted and were keen to do their own thing, they also took the valuable opportunity to observe Hoople closely, and learnt a lot from them about performing live. The outcome was an everlasting respect and close friendship between the two groups, as recognised by the inclusion of All The Young Dudes during Freddie’s Tribute Concert in 1992.

Freddie didn’t enjoy being a secondary act however, recalling it as “one of the most traumatic experiences of my life”. But it’s Brian who can truly describe the experience in such terms, as he was struck down by hepatitis towards the end of the tour, from a dirty needle used for vaccinations earlier in the year, forcing their remaining gigs to be cancelled. He spent 6 weeks in hospital, doing a bit of songwriting when he could, while the rest of the band started to work on other new material in his absence. The initial joy at being discharged and returning to the studio was short-lived for Brian, however, as it transpired the hepatitis had aggravated an undiagnosed stomach ulcer, sending him back to hospital again.

When he was finally able to resume normal life weeks later, he found the band had been very busy on the new album, adding songs he hadn’t yet heard and leaving spaces for him to add his guitar and vocal parts. He later described it as being “very weird, because I was able to see the group from the outside, and was pretty excited by what I saw.” See this clip from the Days Of Our Lives documentary for a bit more detail into how it came together.

Despite those setbacks, what ultimately resulted was another wonderful record, that went to number 2 in the UK and number 12 in the USA. Having been excessively complicated with Queen II, deliberately and delightfully so, they now wanted to aim for a more chart-friendly sound with comparatively simpler rock songs. But there were still many carefully constructed layers and harmonies, and the use of varied styles and instruments, across all of the tracks. So it was still quite a complicated production really, and the glamour and majesty of Queen was still very much forefront. But this album marked the transition from their progressive rock roots and fantasy songs to the more accessible classic style of rock and pop that they became best known for.

The cover contains a nice photo by Mick Rock of the band members spread out on the floor, shining from the glycerine and water they’ve been covered with. The band wanted it to look a bit like they’d been washed up on an island. It’s a nice look, and is perhaps reflective of the metaphorical rough seas they had to battle through to produce the album. I imagine Brian in particular was quite exhausted by the end of it.

So yet again it’s a pivotal part of the band’s story. And here are my personal reviews of each of the tracks, along with many other related versions and performances that have caught my attention. I hope you enjoy!

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Queen At 50 Reviews – Queen II

Following on from my in-depth review of Queen’s debut album, we now move on to the imaginatively titled Queen II, released in 1974. It’s not a very well known album amongst casual greatest hits consufmers, but there are many in the Queen fanbase who regard it as their favourite of all the band’s studio releases. It’s certainly one of mine, it’s amazing.

Artists including Axl Rose and Steve Vai have cited the album as an influence on their own work. And Brian May once told Classic Rock Magazine that it was his favourite album for a long time too, only superseded by Made In Heaven decades later. So the band themselves are very fond of it. They certainly prefer it to their first LP, which they were never fully happy with.

Centre booklet spread from the Queen 2 album. The 4 band members are dressed in white against a white background, so only their heads are visible. Again they're in a diamond formation - Brian at the top, Freddie at the bottom, Roger on the left and John on the right.

And it’s easy to see (or indeed hear) why Queen II gets so much love, because this is where things really start to get interesting, with its intricately arranged, artistically multilayered and beautifully harmonic compositions in a mixture of styles. It’s essential to listen to the album with headphones to fully appreciate how much work and perfectionism went into it. And they had more of a structure to the album this time, with a White side containing more emotional songs (4 written by Brian and 1 by Roger), and a Black side presenting songs in more of a fantasy vein (all written by Freddie).

Queen were ready to experiment, explore and be excessive. They were keen to push the boundaries and the technology, even wearing the oxide layers off the tapes as they added more and more musical layers to get a grand orchestral effect. And they were determined not to be bossed around or fit in with any expected norms. Yet remarkably they completed the recording within a month. Check out this clip from the Days Of Our Lives documentary for an insight into how it came together.

This was their moment. They needed to stand out from the crowd if they were to have any chance of success. And they did. The album reached number 5 in the UK, staying in the charts for 29 weeks and achieving Gold status, a significant improvement over their debut. Their dominance of overseas markets was still yet to come, but they were already doing a bit better there too, peaking at number 49 in America.

So here’s my review of each of the tracks, including a look at alternate versions, live performances, covers and more that I’m aware of, as explained in my previous post. And as I’ve said before, I’m not a music expert, just a very keen fan, and I’m sure there will be other Queen fans who disagree with some of my opinions, which is fine. Ultimately, this is all just for fun. So I hope you enjoy!

A black drawing of the Queen crest on a white background, below the album's title Queen 2. The crest has a large phoenix with outstretched wings looking over a large letter Q. A royal crown sits inside the Q, on the bottom, while a small crab sits on top of the Q. 2 lions and 2 fairies complete the picture, 1 of each sitting on each side of the Q and facing towards it.

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Queen At 50 Reviews – Debut Album

Queen are my favourite band of all time. Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon produced such incredible songs, albums, videos and live performances throughout their reign, with their own exceptional and wonderful sound, gifting us a magical legacy that will live on forever. Their music always makes me feel good, or in tougher times it makes me feel supported, and I never tire of listening to them.

Freddie’s premature passing will forever remain a heartbreaking loss, as nobody else has (or ever will) be able to match him. Yes, of course there are many other fabulously talented singers and musicians whom I also love, but Freddie was very much a one-off, in the best possible way. There was even a scientific study analysing his amazing voice a few years ago.

It’s also essential to credit the contributions of Brian, Roger and John too, of course, all of whom are awesome musicians in their own right. And as well as being great performers, Queen are the only band where every member has composed more than one chart-topping single, and all 4 members were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. And there are many other impressive sales figures and single statistics out there, including 50 incredible facts from the Official Charts, if further proof were needed,

I first discovered Queen back in the 1990s when I went to see a tribute act in concert with some school friends. I already knew a few of their biggest hits, naturally, but the show opened my ears to so much more. I immediately got Queen’s Greatest Hits compilations, then in later years dug deeper to explore their albums and videos, and have continued to be in love with them ever since.

And we’re now approaching a highly significant milestone, as it will soon be Queen’s 50th anniversary – although exactly when you celebrate it depends on which date you use. They first performed under that name on 18 July 1970, hence I’m posting this exactly 50 years on from that date, as it’s as good a reason as any. However, the lineup was only finalised when John Deacon joined the band on 1 March 1971. So the latter is really more appropriate, and for that reason Queen are going to be officially celebrating their 50th in 2021. But hey, as our actual Queen has 2 birthdays every year, I think her majestic musical namesake can have 2 as well, right?

With that in mind, therefore, and because I have plenty of time to kill given the current worldwide situation, it’s the perfect opportunity for me to do a deep dive into all of their albums, DVDs and other bits and pieces, and write some reviews in the process. After all, there’s so much to explore, with such a wonderful variety to their music, and they weren’t afraid to be ambitious and experimental. Even now I sometimes discover new things that I hadn’t noticed before. It’ll take me a while to do all of this, of course – I’ll try and do a post every 2 or 3 weeks, but we’ll see how it goes. In any case, it’ll be fun to go through their output in detail, and I hope you enjoy coming on the journey with me!

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Lockdown Favourites – Weeks 1-2

Given that monthly recaps are rather redundant for the time being, I’m going to try and do updates on a more regular basis during the lockdown (which started here in the UK on 23 March). My aim is to do a post every week or fortnight about the things that I’m enjoying, to give you and me a positive distraction. But we’ll see how it goes. It will depend on how much I have to talk about.

It’s safe to say that things have felt very strange these last few weeks, and like everybody else I was very anxious about the situation at first. It’s still going to be a concern for a while, and all of the changes to our lives are a lot to get used to. But I know that we’re doing it for the right reasons, to save lives. And I do feel that my mother and I are adjusting as well as can be expected, we feel relatively relaxed at the moment. It also helps that I’m not checking news and social media updates as often as I was initially, and I’ve muted certain phrases and blocked various accounts to make browsing social media a calmer experience. Things like that certainly make a big difference to one’s mindset.

I’m already a homeworker too, so that’s made things easier. Although, as it happens, I haven’t fully gone back to work yet, because by chance I had already booked these past 2 weeks off to use up my annual leave quota (after an illness last year meant I couldn’t use as much holiday as I’d hoped). Granted, I couldn’t use this holiday time to go anywhere nice, except the local park, but the time has been very useful to ensure that Mum and I are stocked up and can settle into this temporary new way of living. So it will only be this coming week when I start getting into a proper routine again (although even then Easter ensures I’ll only have 2 four-day weeks). But of course, many people have far more difficult and stressful jobs than I do, especially our hard workers in the NHS who deserve every praise and much more for their incredible dedication during all of this.

It’s a very uncertain time, and we don’t know how long this will last, but I want to keep myself occupied as best I can. There are certainly lots of options for things to do – and if you need any ideas, check out my special Lockdown Resources page – so I’ll try my best not to get bored. And with that in mind, here’s my latest post and video update of things that have kept me occupied during the past couple of weeks. I hope you enjoy.

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