Sunday, 8 July 2012

QUEEN: A Day At The Races


(#178: 8 January 1977, 1 week)

Track listing: Tie Your Mother Down/You Take My Breath Away/Long Away/The Millionaire Waltz/You And I/Somebody To Love/White Man/Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy/Drowse/Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)

Listening to Queen’s individual studio albums, as opposed to simply their various Greatest Hits collections, I am more and more convinced that they are the Morecambe and Wise of rock. By that I do not mean that Freddie slapped Brian around the face and coughed “Arsenal!” or that Roger Taylor has short, fat, hairy legs, but that they are indubitably British, with a much-loved, audience-loving frontman who died too young, and that the people who claim they “love” them know only their “best bits.” Indeed I wonder what would happen if I stopped someone in the street and asked them if they knew any Queen beyond “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the other half-dozen or so of their songs regularly recycled on oldies radio; I suspect that most people would not, and that furthermore, if they delved beneath the hits, they might be rather surprised, and maybe not a little nonplussed, at what they find.

And just as watching any conventional episode of The Morecambe And Wise Show might in some cases lead to baffled viewers wondering what all the fuss was really about, then it’s equally possible that anyone listening to A Day At The Races might shrug their shoulders in bemused indifference. I know we have had things like Another Black And White Minstrel Show, The Rolling Stones No. 2 and The Best Of The Stylistics Vol II - not to mention Led Zeppelin II-IV - but this must be the first bona fide number one album that is the custom-built sequel to another number one album, and it is the regretful case that Races does not match the standard set by A Night At The Opera.

You certainly couldn’t fault the group for not trying; if anything, they try a little too hard here – although the cover insignia designs are different on each album, there is the Marx Brothers titular follow-on, the black album succeeding the white, and, over most of its ten songs, the mighty shadow of “Bohemian Rhapsody”; the whole album in fact starts with the gong that ended “Bo Rhap” and goes for a similar construction throughout. But, sadly, it doesn’t really come off. Mercury’s performances aside, there is little of the unforced humour that helped bring Opera its magic; the effortless, verging on insolent, stylistic genre-jumping prevalent on Opera now sounds forced and unnatural (there are no channel-hopping jump cuts, replaced as they are by ponderous ambient interludes). There is no “Bo Rhap”-style climax to sum the record up, no real sense of emotional deliverance. Instead the group’s eclecticism now begins to resemble a trap; the genre-hopping is superseded by what sounds like genuine confusion about what this group Queen should be, what they should sound like, what they ought to say.

Note that “ought”; A Day At The Races sounds like the album Queen felt they ought to make after Opera, rather than an album they wanted to make, and moreover the superb sequencing and editing on Opera show how important a part producer Roy Thomas Baker had to play; Races they opted to produce themselves (although a young Tim Friese-Greene helped engineer, and is thanked on the sleeve) and the result is rather how one would expect a Beatles album to sound like without George Martin there to curb their indulgences.

That all having been said, “Tie Your Mother Down” is one of the great album opening tracks; after a minute’s preamble of Oriental riffs and backwards harmonium, the song rips into being, Mercury’s “Oh!” exclaimed with the supreme confidence of someone springing out of bed, already wearing his jodhpurs, promising a great start to a hopefully great album. It’s clear from both the lyric and Mercury’s half-spoken snarl of a vocal that the song is a send-up of Jagger/Stewart-style jailbait cock rock (“Take your little brother swimmin’/With a brick (that’s all right)”) as he urges extreme violence against his would-be lover’s protectors before concluding “Why can’t they understand I’m just a peace lovin’ guy?” There is even a little Robert Plant takeoff towards the end and a complete assurance on the part of the whole group, a certainty which doesn’t really exist anywhere else on the record. It did only moderate business as a single, and so missed the Greatest Hits cut, but is one of their finest rockers and for years thereafter (although May had had the riff to hand since 1968) the staple opener to their stage act.

Then, disastrously, crucial momentum is lost. Following a meandering multitracked Mercury acappella Beach Boys vocal tribute, Mercury is largely alone with his piano to sing “You Take My Breath Away.” A clear attempt to reproduce the impact of Opera’s “Love Of My Life,” the song is not without its merits but its recitative nature – Mercury takes his time with it, doesn’t rush it and in part performs it out of tempo – clashes with the mood the opener set up, and the song isn’t strong enough to transcend that boundary. May briefly appears with a little guitar chorale, Taylor swishes his cymbal once, but the vocal and keyboard textures noticeably thicken when the song shows itself not to be a simple expression of idolatry: “Anywhere you go, I’ll be right behind you/Right until the ends of the earth” – does this remind you of another similarly-titled song? For something that depends on emotional power rather than brute volume, “Breath” is possibly misplaced here, and would have worked much better in a live or solo context (one of my regrets about Mercury is that he did not live long enough for Rick Rubin to get him and his piano into the studio for the solo album that surely would have happened).

All of a sudden, with the May-written and sung “Long Away,” we are in Big Star/power pop territory; a very confident mid-seventies soft rocker which, save for Mercury’s occasional massed harmonies and the characteristic long drone guitar pause in the centre, you would hardly recognise as a Queen track; May still looking for spiritual assurance (and his queries echo those of Mercury’s in “Somebody To Love”), the whole reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub playing what Lena terms “The Atheist’s Lament” (or possibly “The Astrophysicist’s Lament”).

“The Millionaire Waltz” encapsulates the problems at work on this album; within the group there are at least two forces wanting to pull their music in two different directions. It alternates between a cheerful camp piano-and-bass waltz and an all-out rocker, neither comfortable with the other – though I note, as with so many of these tracks, a tendency for the song to pause midsong for thought, or perhaps catching its breath. As Mercury is well on his way to inventing Rufus Wainwright, along comes a violent transition (“Come back to me!”), and via a quick Marlene Dietrich impression (“My fine friend”), forces its way back into – the third section of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It is as though they cannot escape its shadow, and is jarring, rather than enjoyable, listening; yes, there is the quiet-loud-quiet alternating that would delineate so much of late eighties/early nineties American rock (and which, from the sound of it, I also suspect was a major influence on Earl Brutus; see, for instance, “On Me, Not In Me” from an album entitled Your Majesty, We Are Here), but not the point. Side one closes with John Deacon’s “You And I,” a competent slice of Elton-ish yacht rock which May repeatedly tries to engulf with his heavy riffing. It sounds like two records playing at once, although I note the House-anticipating piano riff at fadeout.

“Somebody To Love” was both the lead single and the album’s main setpiece; since it made number two as a single, I shall keep my comments here to a minimum. It’s enough to say, however, that Mercury delivers his most committed performance on this album, taking the love/God self-questioning of the first section of “Bo Rhap” into more psychologically tortuous waters; in the middle eight his vocal runs almost at riot, ignoring bar lines, tempo and so forth, as Lydon’s on “Holidays In The Sun” but he manages to pull himself together (with self-mocking “He’s all right, he’s all right” backing vocals). Thematically it’s “Another Saturday Night” gone to church, though Lena sensed a compatibility with “A Change Is Gonna Come” and pointed out the piano quotes from “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring.” Inspired by Aretha Franklin’s gospel work, “Somebody To Love” finally reminds me of, of all people, Kevin Rowland; the same obsessive searching for “something” or “somebody” (“Where have you hidden it?” you can almost hear him asking), the same, near-religious commitment to escape and personal freedom. With “Tie Your Mother Down,” it is also the record’s best group performance.

May’s “White Man” tries to be Races’ “Prophet’s Song,” the record’s big rock epic, but unlike its predecessor never gets past first base; the lyrical theme is the same as “Indian Reservation,” complete with Cherokee tom-toms from Taylor, and despite (again) that quiet-loud-quiet trope, it is ponderous and proves that Queen at their most earnest were also Queen at their least entertaining. After that it is a relief to get into the familiar puddles of Mercury’s “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” (strange how the album’s two most immediately memorable songs were both written by Freddie) which confidently revisits and reshapes “Seaside Rendezvous” with a sudden dip into 10cc territory (“Hey boy where do you get it from?”) and the only convincing use of the noun “patter” in pop outside “Dick-A-Dum-Dum” (as well as a nice meditative interlude, distantly reminiscent of “Beautiful Dreamer”) which makes you wonder – May and Taylor may have been rockers wanting hard rock, but Mercury was happy with pop art, or art-pop.

Certainly there is little to be happy about with Taylor’s “Drowse,” a very long-sounding 6/8 trudge with atrocious lyrics (“Waves of alternatives wash at my sleepiness/Have my eggs poached for breakfast I guess” - See The Old Lady Decently this is not) and nothing of the spirit and enthusiasm of his previous “I’m In Love With My Car.” The album then limps to an unsatisfying close with “Teo Torriatte,” written by May as a tribute to the group’s Japanese fans. If anything, the track reminds me of the hits of Slik; doleful minor key piano verses bolted to an incongruous (and musically illogical) jaunty major key chorus. Pink Martini could probably make a decent fist of the song, but as it moves towards its inevitable stadium singalong finale (the backing chorus make it sound like an Official English World Cup anthem) and then meanders morosely to fade, succeeded by a reverse reprise of the album’s opening to bring the track’s final running time to 5:55 (the same length as “Bo Rhap”) one does not feel liberation, or euphoria, but rather a feeling that Queen on occasion were not tough enough with themselves, as self-producers; much of the record betrays a sense of tracks not good enough to make it onto Opera, a too-hasty attempt to reproduce Opera’s adventure and power. Though their popularity in Britain remained relatively undiminished, Queen do not reappear in this tale until 1980, and by the time News Of The World came out in the autumn of 1977 they found, possibly to their surprise, that they had to battle for their chart place along with everybody else. For 1977 may well be the toughest of Then Play Long years to negotiate; seventeen different albums, including Races, made it to number one – which means that it will take me about four months to get through it – and less than half of these are, at the time of writing, still in print. Indeed I note with some disquiet that this number includes no less than four 40-track double compilations. There will be many acts we have not seen on TPL for quite some while – and some we have not seen before. I do not know how recognisable this tale will still be once I get to 1977’s end. But, just as the 1976 Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show is, in its way, cognisant of the fact that something, somewhere, needs to change, and soon, it is also the case that hurried “sequel” albums may not be the “day” Brian May wants us to look for.

Then again, was it not Queen who cancelled at the last moment their appearance on Thames Television’s Today show in December 1976, thus allowing another EMI act to take their place?

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