Maybe the most famous piece of trivia about Queen guitarist Brian May is that he built the electric guitar he has used for most of his musical career. It’s called the Red Special, and it was constructed with his father when May was 16. So, it’s ironic that the only Queen single in which May sang lead vocals, “Long Away,” he mainly plays a Burns 12-string guitar. This choice, as much as the song itself, serves as a reminder of May’s and the band’s relentless creativity.
“Long Away” is the third track on the band’s fifth album, A Day at the Races, which was the follow-up to their 1975 masterpiece A Night at the Opera. That album had catapulted Queen to international superstardom on the back of the single “Bohemian Rhapsody.” With A Day at the Races, the band opted for a pure more-of-the-same approach, making the album almost an extension as much as a sequel. Both featured the same style of artwork (one in black, the other in white), both took their names from Marx Brothers movies and the pairing of day and night in the titles suggested an almost cyclical link between them.
This linkage extends through May’s songwriting and lead-vocal contributions to the albums. His folk-influenced song “’39” appeared as the fifth track on A Night at the Opera, serving as a kind of palate cleanser between the more aggressive, high-concept and baroque compositions that make up much of the rest of that record. May’s “Long Away” serves much the same purpose on A Day at the Races.
Watch Brian May, Roger Taylor and Taylor Hawkins Play ‘Long Away’
Opening with a shimmering 12-string riff on one stereo channel, the song sounds far different than the others that precede it on the album. After several bars, May lays down another 12-string track and the rest of the band comes in behind him, operating not in their more traditional, early metal or glam/prog mode, but almost like a holdover from the heyday of the ’60s Laurel Canyon sound.
May’s 12-string playing has echoes of Roger McGuinn’s work with the Byrds, and the vocals that the band develops over this bring to mind the harmonies of the Beach Boys and the melodic sensitivity of the Beatles. May sings the lead, with Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor backing him on the high end, and the whole thing dances along as effortlessly as dandelion pips in the wind.
As the track rises, May’s Red Special guitar finally does make an appearance. He lays down a lead break on several overlapping tracks, layering them with all of the taste and inventiveness that defines him as a player. As fellow guitar virtuoso Steve Vai puts it: May’s “solos are melodies, and they’re perfectly in place.”
The song’s lyrics are also perfectly representative of May, who, among his other pursuits, holds a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College London and has an asteroid – 52665 Brianmay – named after him. The song contrasts our often-difficult lives here on Earth with the beauty and harmony of the world above us. “For every star in heaven,” May sings, “there’s a sad soul here today.” But as hard as our lives can be, all is not lost. Taking on the voice of the stars – and perhaps Queen’s celestial position as rock stars – May reassures us: “Take heart my friend we love you / Though it seems like you’re alone / A million lights above you / Smile down upon your home.“
Listen to Queen’s ‘Long Away’
Queen never performed the song live, and when it was released as a single in the U.S. on June 7, 1977, “Long Away” did not do well. In his book cataloging every song in Queen’s discography, musician Benoit Clerc speculates that this may have been because listeners expecting to hear Mercury’s voice were flummoxed by the sound of May’s vocals. And perhaps, for this reason, it was the only single the band ever released during Mercury’s lifetime on which he didn’t sing lead.
But in the broader context of Queen’s ’70s output, hit or not, the song epitomizes the band’s range and inventiveness. Both A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are filled with songs that can be weird and aggressive, heartbroken and playfully sexualized (sometimes all at once) and which involve intensive production approaches. (A Night at the Opera was famously reputed to be the most expensive album ever made at the time of its release.)
And yet at the same time, the band was more than capable of laying down tracks like “Long Away” that highlighted its singular approach by subtly contrasting with it. In the same way that the sunny, jangly vibe of the song serves as a counterpoint to the band’s more rococo musical instincts, the lyrics set off Queen’s campier thematic tendencies, substituting gentle simplicity for the emotionally ornate.
But most importantly, the song does all of this without upsetting the feeling that pervades A Day at the Races – and nearly all of Queen’s work – which is that of a unified, multifaceted musical sensibility that puts a wonderful gloss on everything it touches.
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A thread runs through it all: a hard-won sense of individuality. Queen were a band like no other.