Happy Japanese Queen Day! Following on from the wonderful variety of tracks on Side 1 that I reviewed previously, Side 2 of A Day At The Races continues to entertain with a mixture of offerings. It starts off with one of Queen’s most enduring and hugely popular hits, before taking us on a journey that ends up in Japan at the end of the album, which has important relevance to today, as explained for that particular track. So there’s plenty to cover as usual, and I hope you enjoy this latest set of reviews!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!