Brian May becomes Queen’s frontman for ‘Long Away’
Perhaps the most famous anecdote about Queen guitarist Brian May is that he built the electric guitar he used for most of his musical career. It’s called the Red Special, and it was built with her dad when May was 16. So it’s ironic that the only single from Queen in which May sang lead vocals, “Long Away”, he primarily plays a 12-string Burns guitar. This choice, as much as the song itself, recalls the incessant creativity of May and the group.
“Long Away” is the third track from the band’s fifth album, A day at the raceswhich was a sequel to their 1975 masterpiece A night at the opera. This album had propelled Queen to the rank of international superstar thanks to 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 films, and the pairing of day and night in the titles suggested an almost cyclical link between them.
This connection extends through May’s songwriting and primary 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, conceptual and baroque compositions that make up much of the rest of this disc. May’s “Long Away” serves much the same purpose on A day at the races.
Watch Brian May, Roger Taylor and Taylor Hawkins perform “Long Away”
Opening with a shimmering 12-string riff on a stereo channel, the song sounds much different from 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 up behind him, not operating in their more traditional, old metal or glam/prog mode, but almost like a holdover from the 60s heyday. The sound of Laurel Canyon.
May’s 12-string playing echoes Roger McGuinn’s work with the Byrds, and the voice the band develops over it recalls the harmonies of the Beach Boys and the melodic sensibility of the Beatles. May sings the lead, with Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor backing him up on the high end, and the whole thing dances as easily as dandelion seeds in the wind.
As the track goes up, May’s Red Special guitar finally makes an appearance. He lays down a lead break on several overlapping tracks, layering them with all the taste and inventiveness that defines him as a player. As fellow guitar virtuoso Steve Vai the dish: May’s “solos are melodies, and they’re perfectly in place.”
The song’s lyrics are also perfectly representative of May, who, among her other pursuits, has a doctorate in astrophysics from Imperial College London and has an asteroid – 52665 Brianmay – named after her. 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 is a sad soul here today“But as tough as our lives can be, all is not lost. Assuming 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 you’re alone / A million lights above you / Smile towards your home.“
Listen to Queen’s “Long Away”
Queen never performed the song live, and when it was released as a single in the United States 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 confused by the sound of May’s voice. And perhaps, for that reason, it was the only single the band ever released during Mercury’s lifetime on which he didn’t sing lead.
But in the larger 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 bizarre and aggressive, heartbreaking and sexually playful (sometimes all at once), and involve intensive production approaches. (A night at the opera was 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 churning out tracks like “Long Away” that emphasized their singular gait by subtly contrasting it. Just as the song’s sunny, jangly vibe serves as a counterpoint to the band’s more rococo musical instincts, the lyrics spark Queen’s campier thematic tendencies, substituting sweet simplicity for emotionally ornate.
But most importantly, the song does all of this without disrupting the feeling that pervades A day at the races – and almost all of Queen’s work – which is that of a unified, multi-faceted musical sensibility that puts a wonderful luster on everything it touches.
The Best Song From Every Queen Album
A common thread runs through it all: a hard-won sense of individuality. Queen was a band like no other.