Saturday, April 19, 2014

Eagles - Snapshot #1 - Solo Eagles Fly High

The word ‘legendary’ is bandied about far too much in relation to high achieving and/or influential music artists (actually it’s bandied about far too much in general).  But one band that merited the application of the world ‘legendary’ are the Eagles.  In the decade between their formation in 1971, and messy and prolonged disbandment in 1982 (though they hadn’t actively played together since 1980), the Eagles amassed several platinum albums, many millions in record sales, a clutch of Grammy Awards, sold out world tours, and had earned the widespread respect of their peers.  The band eventually reformed in 1994 (and as Glenn Frey stated “for the record we never broke up, we just took a 14 year vacation”), releasing the #1 album ‘Hell Freezes Over’ - a quip at what was once considered necessary for the band to ever play together again.  The album featured four new cuts, and eleven classics recorded at a MTV concert performance, and went on to sell over five million copies.

But what of the intervening twelve years, between the dissolution of the Eagles, and their eventual reformation.  What follows is a look in isolation at one solo project from each of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmidt, recorded during that period.

Eagles drummer/ vocalist Don Henley released his debut solo album ‘I Can’t Stand Still’ (US#24/ OZ#42) in August of ‘82.  Produced by Henley with Danny Kortchmar and Greg Ladanyi, and released on Elektra Records, the album featured 11 tracks in all, 6 of which had been co-written by Henley and Kortchmar.  The lead out single was ‘Johnny Can’t Read’ (US#42/OZ#49), a salutary tale about the declining state of the education system in the U.S., wrapped in a bouncing rock-a-billy coating.  But it was the follow up single that would announce Henley’s arrival as a solo artist.  ‘Dirty Laundry’ cleaned up its act and shone bright at #3 on the U.S. charts in early ‘83 (OZ#51).  Lyrically, it was an acerbic swipe at gossip, rumour mongering, and gutter journalism.  The track featured a blistering guitar solo from Joe Walsh.  The title track and third single, ‘I Can’t Stand Still’ (US#48), was a trouble in paradise love song.  Aside from his own talents, Henley assembled an impressive list of guest players, including former Eagles Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, J.D. Souther, Toto players Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather, and Warren Zevon.  The album (which I own on CD) was an impressive start to Henley’s post-Eagles career.  But bigger things were on the way.

Henley released his sophomore solo album, ‘Building The Perfect Beast’ (OZ#4/ US#13/UK#14) in late ‘84 and hit commercial pay dirt.  The album realised the hit singles ‘The Boys Of Summer’ (OZ#3/ US#5/UK#12), ‘All She Wants To Do Is Dance’ (US#9), and ‘Sunset Grill’ (US#22), as well as earning Henley a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.

The album , ‘The End Of The Innocence’ (US#8/ UK#22/ OZ#44) followed in 1989, and yielded the title track (co-written by Henley and Bruce Hornsby) as a hit single (US#8/ UK#48), as well as the track ‘The Heart Of The Matter’ (US#21).  In 1992, Henley returned to the upper reaches of the charts with ‘Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough’ (US#2/ OZ#4/UK#22), a duet with Patty Smyth.  Henley’s most recent solo album was 2000’s ‘Inside Job’ (US#7), with most of his creative energies directed to the reformed Eagles.

Eagles’ guitarist/vocalist Glenn Frey released his debut solo album, ‘No Fun Aloud’ (US#32/OZ#44) in May of ‘82 on the MCA label.  The ten track affair spawned two hit singles - ‘The One You Love’ (US#15), and ‘I Found Somebody’ (US#31).  Next up Frey released the album ‘The Allniter’ (US#37/UK#31) in mid ‘84, which yielded the hit singles ‘Sexy Girl’ (US#20), and ‘Smuggler’s Blues’ (US#12/UK#22), the latter featuring in an episode of the TV series ‘Miami Vice’, in which Frey was a guest actor.

Glenn Frey’s moment in the sun as a solo artist came via his 1985 hit single ‘The Heat Is On’ (US#2/ OZ#2/UK#12), lifted from the blockbuster Eddie Murphy comedy film ‘Beverly Hills Cop’.  Frey followed this up in late ‘85 with ‘You Belong To The City’ (US#2/OZ#20), culled from the ‘Miami Vice’ soundtrack album.

Three years elapsed before Frey resurfaced with the album, ‘Soul Searchin’ (US#36/OZ#49), released in August of ‘88.  The album featured ten tracks, eight of which had been co-written with regular song writing cohort Jack Tempchin.  The album’s only hit major single came in the form of ‘True Love’ (US#13/OZ#54), which I purchased at the time on vinyl 45. The track ‘Livin’ Right’ reached #22 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart (#90 Hot 100), whilst the title track performed well at #5 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart.

Four years later Frey returned to the fray with the 1992 album ‘Strange Weather’.  Frey worked with Jack Tempchin and Jay Oliver to pen 15 songs for inclusion on the album, but commercial fortunes were waning for Frey the solo artist, as the album missed the U.S. top 200, and only the single ‘I’ve Got Mine’ (US#91) made a dent, or at most small scratch on the paintwork of the Hot 100.  Prior to reforming the Eagles, Frey released a live album in 1993, a mixture of Eagles and solo work.  In 2012, Glenn Frey released the album ‘After Hours’, a collection of mellow classics from a bygone era, perhaps beginning to feel that he too is a mellow classic from a bygone era.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Neneh Cherry - Running In The Family

The term ‘runs in the family’ can have many and varied connotations, good and bad, depending upon context.  Popular music is sprinkled with family connections of all natures, and in the case of Neneh Cherry, the Cherry family tree has served to produce one of the most talented singer/songwriters to have emerged during the late 80s, and into the 90s.  The ‘Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia of Rock & Roll’ surmised her early career as encompassing styles as disparate as “dropping beats and wisdom like a cosmo boho”, through to “prancing like an African queen”.  It was doubtless the girl was artistically versatile, with depth and substance to match.

Neneh Cherry was born Neneh Mariann Karlsson in the land of Volvo’s and all things ABBA, but moved to New York City at an early age.  She was raised and educated by her Swedish mother Moki (an artist), and step-father Don Cherry (whose surname she adopted).  Don Cherry was a world renowned jazz trumpeter who struck gold back in 1956 with the worldwide top five smash ‘Band Of Gold’.  Suffice to say jazz music was a mainstay soundtrack in the Cherry household, and a young Neneh soaked up the influences, in particular becoming a devotee of jazz luminary Ornette Coleman, often falling asleep to a jazz soundtrack whilst on tour with her step-father Don.

At age 17, Neneh Cherry relocated to London where she initially sang backup to the ska band Nails, then augmented the line-up of (nearly) all-girl punk outfit the Slits.  She already had a connection of sorts with the band, as step-father Don had provided guest trumpets on earlier work.  Following the demise of the Slits in 1981, Cherry followed drummer Bruce Smith (the father of her first child) to the newly formed outfit Rip, Rig & Panic, with whom she sang and played percussion.  The band was a stylistic blending of punk, funk, jazz, ska, and soul, that would inform Neneh’s future musical direction.  They released three albums - ‘God’ (1981); ‘I Am Cold’ (1982); ‘Attitude’ (1983) - before parting ways.  I recall seeing Rip, Rig & Panic guest on the TV sitcom ‘The Young Ones’ during the 1982 series.  Cherry followed up her tenure there with a debut single, titled ‘Stop The War’, followed by a new project Float Up C.P. during the mid 80s, and began rapping regularly at London clubs.  Her soulful vocals were also in much demand during that period and she appeared on The The’s ‘Slow Train To Dawn’ during 1986, and worked with Massive Attack as an arranger.  That same year Cherry met Cameron McVey (better known as Booga Bear), and the two formed a song-writing partnership that would bear considerable fruit before season’s end.

In 1988, Neneh Cherry entered the studio with producer/ musician McVey to record a revamped version of a song from McVey’s mid 80s project Morgan-McVey.  ‘Buffalo Stance’ was a funk-edged song laced with hip-hop beats, and interposed with Cherry’s wide-girl rapping.  It hit the charts during November of ‘88 and took a stance at #3 on both sides of the Atlantic (OZ#16).  Cherry came to notice as a woman of substance when she appeared on Top Of The Pops in a lycra bodysuit, whilst heavily pregnant with her second child.  The smooth and soulful ‘Manchild’, backed by a captivating music video, followed in May of ‘89 (UK#5/OZ#51) as a lead in to the release of Cherry’s debut album.

With such a diverse musical background, Cherry brought with her a melting pot of stylistic influences in the recording of her debut album - infusing it with hip-hop, jazz, soul, R&B, and avant-rock elements.  ‘Raw Like Sushi’ hit stores in mid ‘89 and soon served up a feast at #2 on the British charts (US#40/OZ#35).  The single ‘Kisses On The Wind’ blew in at #8 on the U.S. charts in late ‘89 (UK#20/OZ#52), and was followed by ‘Inner City Mama’ (UK#31), which further exemplified Cherry’s depth lyrically, addressing issues of motherhood and feminism with a maturity that belied her still young age (25 years).  In 1990, Cherry contributed the track ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ (cover of Cole Porter song - UK#25/OZ#63) to the AIDS research benefit album ‘Red, Hot and Blue’.  Soon after, Cherry returned to Sweden with now husband McVey to write and record her sophomore album in the township in which she grew up.

By late 1992, Cherry returned with the appropriately titled album ‘Homebrew’, a slightly less intoxicating set than her debut effort (UK#27/ OZ#74), which was led out by the single ‘Money Love’ (UK#23/ OZ#84).  The album featured guest spots from Gangstarr’s Guru, and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. The follow up single ‘Buddy X’ was, upon initial release, restricted to top 40 status (UK#35) - though it became a staple on MTV - but in late ‘99 was given a makeover and re-released by Dreem Team Vs. Neneh Cherry, and found a spot at #15.

After a quiet couple of years, Neneh Cherry came to the fore again in 1994 with the mesmerising and evocative single, ‘7 Seconds’, a duet with famed Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour.  Backed by an affecting promotional video, ‘7 Seconds’ took no time at all to peak at #3 in both Britain and Australia, and reached top spot in France (where it stayed for a remarkable 17 weeks) - I purchased the song on CD single at the time.  In March of ‘95, Neneh Cherry’s name was attached to the Comic Relief charity single, ‘Love Can Build A Bridge’, a British #1 hit that also featured Cher, Chrissie Hynde, and Eric Clapton.

Having released her work in Britain via the Circa label, Cherry signed with Virgin subsidiary Hut for her third album, 1996’s ‘Man’ (UK#16).  The album featured  the powerful feminist anthem ‘Woman’ (UK#9/OZ#16) which hit the charts mid year, a lyrical retort to the 1966 James Brown hit ‘It’s A Man’s World’.  Other featured tracks included ‘Kootchi’ (UK#38), and ‘Feel It’ (UK#38).

Neneh Cherry then took an indefinite sabbatical from solo recording to focus in part on family duties, but she remained actively involved in all manner of creative endeavours.  She formed a production company with her husband, has worked on several television projects, collaborated in jewellery design, contributed vocals to artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, and Groove Armada, and was an integral part of the band CirKus (alongside her husband, and daughter).  In 2011, Cherry returned to her jazz roots when she collaborated with The Thing, an experimental jazz group, with whom she felt a great affinity.

Following an absence from solo work of nearly eighteen years, Neneh Cherry released an album of new material in early 2014, titled ‘Blank’, with a European Tour in support announced soon after.

Proof that the Cherry doesn’t fall far from the family tree came in the form of Neneh Cherry’s half-brother Eagle-Eye.  Born the son of Don Cherry and Neneh’s Swedish mother Moki, Eagle-Eye was so named due to his opening of one eye shortly after birth, whilst being looked over by father Don.  Like his half-sister Neneh (four years his senior), he was raised in New York City, though also like Neneh, he spent a good amount of time in tow as his father toured the world.  Through such experiences, Eagle-Eye soon gained an ear for drumming, and a multitude of other musical instruments.  But his first passion upon reaching maturity was firmly in the thespian arts, enrolling in the famed Manhattan School of Performing Arts (FAME!).  It wasn’t until he was 24 that Eagle-Eye Cherry gravitated to a formal musical environment, when he joined his first band, whilst still studying towards a degree.

Within two years he had been signed up to Sony’s subsidiary Work Records label, and contributed soon after on the Marvin Gaye tribute album, ‘Inner City Blues: The Music Of Marv’, in 1996.  It was during this period that Eagle-Eye Cherry amassed a solid catalogue of self-penned songs, that would form the basis of his debut album.  Said album, released on Polydor, arrived in mid ‘98 under the banner of ‘Desireless’ (UK#3/US#45).  Like older sister Neneh, Eagle-Eye infused a myriad of song styles, and influences on the critically lauded debut set, from 70s era funk, through Dylan-esque guitars, and Motown vocals, he quickly drew comparisons with Lenny Kravitz (see future posts).  The debut single, ‘Save Tonight’ was a world wide smash (UK#6/UK#5/ OZ#17), and was followed up by another British top ten hit with ‘Falling In Love Again’ (UK#8).  The source album, ‘Desireless’, went on to sell over four million copies worldwide, and achieved platinum status.

With a burgeoning reputation as a songwriter with innate sensibilities and a wide aural palette, Eagle-Eye Cherry was enlisted to compose the soundtrack albums for the films ‘Best Laid Plans’ and ‘Go’ in the year following his debut set.  With producers The Dust Brothers and Rick Rubin on board, Cherry released his sophomore album ‘Living In The Present Future’ (UK#12) in 2000.  It featured my favourite track of his, ‘Are You Still Having Fun?’ (UK#21).  Over the ensuing twelve years, Eagle-Eye Cherry released three further albums - ‘Sub Rosa’ (2003); ‘Live And Kicking’ (2007); ‘Can’t Get Enough’ (2012).  In early 2014, he released the single ‘Dream Away’.  With sister Neneh reviving her solo career, it may not be beyond the bounds of reality to envisage a creative collaboration between the two of them in the not too distant future.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Earth, Wind & Fire - Snapshot #2 - Welcome To 'Boogie Wonderland'

Previously, Maurice White had been intent on utilising the playing roster within the band, but for a new song he had written, he had in mind recording it with a bank of female vocals to compliment his own.  He recruited the services of female vocal trio the Emotions (see future post), who had scored a US#1 hit in 1977 with ‘Best Of My Love’.  The Emotions had toured with Earth, Wind & Fire previously and it wasn’t unheard of for the two acts to share the stage.  The trio comprised the Hutchinson sisters, Wanda, Sheila, and Pamela, who had come under the guidance of Maurice White and the auspices of his production house Kalimba Productions (the name taken from the African thumb piano - one of many exotic instruments White incorporated into the EW&F sound).  The song that Maurice White had written was ‘Boogie Wonderland’ (US#6/ UK#4/OZ#6), a hit that would be one of the defining anthems of the disco era.  Lush, and resplendent in style, ‘Boogie Wonderland’ renders its listener helpless in the face of an overwhelming urge to get up and dance, even those of us not proficient in shaking one’s booty.  The song was backed with a lavish performance based promotional video, showcasing the band’s stage craft and doubtless helping push the song to the upper reaches of the charts.

‘Boogie Wonderland’ was harvested from the source album, ‘I Am’ (US#3/ UK#5/OZ#12), which also yielded the silky smooth ballad, ‘After The Love Has Gone’ (US#2/ UK#4/OZ#62), which was one of the few songs not penned for the group by White (it had been co-written by the prolific David Foster).  The album also spawned the US#16 hit, ‘Star’.

With such an impressive benchmark to match, Earth, Wind & Fire took their time to re-emerge from the studio, but re-emerge they did in October of 1980 with the new album, ‘Faces’ (US#10/ UK#10/ OZ#55), but relative to ‘I Am’, the album was a commercial disappointment, producing just one top thirty hit in the guise of ‘Let Me Talk’ (US#44/UK#29).  It might have been resultant of the imminent demise of disco in the face of a ‘new wave’ of music, but White & Co must have been questioning whether the band were still relevant in their current mode of operation.

But disco, and dance music still had a mainstream audience, if a little hard to reach via the airwaves, and Earth, Wind & Fire (now with Bautista back on guitar) managed to access that audience with one last tilt at the upper reaches of the charts.  The album was ‘Raise!’ (US#5/ UK#14/OZ#37), and the associated single was the infectious ‘Let’s Groove’ (US#3/ UK#3/OZ#15), backed by a promotional video that showcased all of the band’s glitz and glamour, partnered with the era’s cutting edge video effects.  As the clip ends, Earth, Wind & Fire are shown to fade into the distance, symbolic perhaps of the path the band were to take from there on in.

Released in early ‘83, the album ‘Powerlight’ (US#12/ UK#22/OZ#82) represented more of a power-cut for Earth, Wind & Fire, as for the first time in a decade they released an album that failed to penetrate the top ten (though it did yield the top twenty single ‘Fall In Love With Me’ (US#17/UK#47).  Unperturbed, another album followed late in ‘83 in the form of ‘Electric Universe’ (US#40), which was the band’s poorest selling album since their Warner Bros. days.  With commercial fortunes drying up, and a sense of the band being directionless, Maurice White took the decision to place Earth, Wind & Fire on an indefinite hiatus from March of ‘84.  White pursued solo interests and continued to write and produce work for other artists, whilst Philip Bailey continued with a solo career he had made tentative steps towards back in ‘83.  Bailey would combine with Phil Collins on the 1985 US#2 ‘Easy Lover’ - see future post.

White reconvened Earth, Wind & Fire in mid ‘87, establishing the new playing roster of himself, Bailey, Verdine White, Andrew Woodfolk, and new guitarist Sheldon Reynolds.  It was the sleekest line-up the band had ever had, with other duties being augmented by session players.  The relaunched band released the album ‘Touch The World’ (US#33) in November of ‘87, but it generated only two minor hits in the form of ‘System Of Survival’ (US#60/UK#54 - #1US R&B), and ‘Thinking Of You’ (US#67).  Ralph Johnson (percussion) and Sonny Emory (drums) were added to the band for 1990’s ‘Heritage’ (US#70), but despite the band’s rich heritage, it was only their core fans that looked to purchase their work.

Two more albums surfaced during the 90s, ‘93s ‘Millennium’ (US#39 & about seven years too early), and ‘99s ‘In The Name Of Love’.  In 2003, Earth, Wind & Fire released the album ‘The Promise’, a mix of original material and classic hits of the band’s career, followed by a venture into neo-soul on 2005’s album ‘Illumination’, with Maurice White taking more of a backseat involvement in proceedings.  The band continued to tour over the ensuing decade, and in 2010 were collectively inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Their latest work was the 2013 album ‘Now, Then & Forever’.

Though strongly identified and aligned with the 70s disco phenomenon, Earth, Wind & Fire were a much more diverse musical force than could be contained by just one style.  They were also innovators in their craft, and strongly influenced many of their peers, and subsequent generations.  With album sales over and above 20 million, who could deny the band their rightful place of prominence in pop music folklore.

Earth, Wind & Fire - Snapshot #1 - The Elements Come Together

Some songs age well, whilst others are consigned to become dated almost overnight.  Though the disco era received an unfair mauling at the hands of pop-rock purists, in time it has become evident that the genre yielded some of the most pristinely crafted popular music, not just of its time, but imbued with a longevity of appeal thirty years after the word ‘disco’ was dismissed as throwaway music.  As with most music genres, disco eventually came back into fashion, and nostalgia has tinted it with an air of respectability.  For mine, disco was never ‘out of fashion’.  Sure it turned up its share of howlers, as any musical style does, but in the most part it produced finely crafted pop music that infuses the listener, the open minded listener, with a sense of high energy and freedom.  No song captures that brief better than Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Boogie Wonderland’.

Earth, Wind & Fire brought its many elements together in 1969, under the stewardship of Maurice White.  White had a vision for the band from early on in his life.  He grew up playing music, at one time jamming with Booker T. Jones, later of the Memphis soul band Booker T. and the M.G.’s.  At age 16, Maurice White entered the Chicago Conservatory of Music, with a view to becoming a music teacher.  Following a stint as a session musician at the renowned Chess Records’ studios (where he played with the likes of Jackie Wilson, Fontella Bass, and The Impressions), he joined a group called the Ramsey Lewis Trio.  The group toured the Middle East, whereby White became a student of mysticism, which would inform the vision for his own band.  He even drew a picture of what they might look like.

Relocating to Los Angeles, White first conceived of a new name for his band - Note: for a few months during 1969 whilst based in Chicago, White, and his assembled backing band at the time, were known as the Salty Peppers, but White wasn‘t happy with that name - I mean who would be?  Drawing from his astrological star sign, Sagittarius, he identified the three elements earth, air and fire (but no water).  He changed air to wind, and behold - Earth, Wind & Fire was born.  There was just one problem, he needed to find some musicians to fill the roster for his new project.  White not only looked for like minded musicians, but like minded people.  Most of the assembled band were vegetarians, and into mysticism and meditation - something the band did collectively before performances.  The original line-up for the newly born Earth, Wind & Fire was Maurice White (vocals, drums, percussion), Verdine White (bass), Wade Flemons (keyboards/vocals), Don Whitehead (piano/vocals), Michael Beal (guitar), Sherry Scott (vocals), Yackov Ben Israel (congas/percussion), Chet Washington (tenor sax), and Alex Thomas (trombone).

Earth, Wind & Fire first recorded as a brass laden, jazz/fusion/ funk band.  After their first two albums (‘Earth, Wind and Fire’ - US#93 and ‘The Need Of Love’ - US#89) failed to garner much interest, the band was dropped from the Warner Brothers’ roster at the beginning of 1972.  Maurice White had to rethink the conceptual side of the band, which included a virtual clean out of the ranks.  Maurice retained only the services of younger brother Verdine, and recruited a new line-up featuring Philip Bailey (vocals/percussion - a key recruit with his distinctive falsetto vocal style), Larry Dunn (keyboards/clavinet), Ralph Johnson (drums/percussion), Roland Bautista (guitar), Ronald Laws (saxophone/flute), and Jessica Cleaves (vocals).  The band signed to the Columbia label in ‘72, and released the album ‘Last Days And Time’ (US#87) which failed to improve much on previous efforts.  The band’s line-up was fluid in nature during this period (sometimes resembling a cast of thousands), and more changes were made late that year, with Al McKay (guitar), Andrew Woodfolk (horns), and Johnny Graham added to the mix.

1973’s ‘Head To The Sky’ (US#27) served to increase the band’s profile, and featured their first top fifty single, ‘Evil’.  By 1974’s album ‘Open Our Eyes’, which yielded the top 30 single ‘Mighty Mighty’ (US#29), Earth, Wind & Fire had adopted a more overtly danceable style of music, layered in rich folds of funk, soul, and R&B, whilst retaining White’s positive, even metaphysical lyrics within.  The blueprint had been laid for a sound that would evolve over the next five years, one that was precise yet sensual, with a broad palette of stylistic brush strokes, from Latin-funk, gospel harmonies, unremitting horn sections, all under the production tutelage of Maurice White.  The band’s roster also stabilised during this period as White had found the right chemistry for the outfit.  It’s worth noting that the band’s live and studio sound was sometimes augmented by the Phoenix Horns, headed by saxophonist Don Myrick, who also appeared regularly on Phil Collins and Genesis albums of the early 80s - another connection between Philip Bailey and Phil Collins beyond their 1985 collaboration on ‘Easy Lover’.

In 1975, Earth, Wind & Fire released their sixth studio album, ‘That’s The Way Of The World’, which brought to the fore the falsetto vocal gymnastics of Philip Bailey.  The album was a conceptual affair intended to serve as a soundtrack to a film about an aspiring rock and soul band (I’m thinking semi-autobiographical), portrayed by the members of Earth, Wind & Fire at the time - Maurice White, Philip Bailey, Fred White, Verdine White, Larry Dunn, Alan McKay, Ralph Johnson, John Graham, and Andrew Woolfolk. The first single from the album was ‘Shining Star’, a funk based song that impinged more than slightly into the burgeoning disco/dance style.  ‘Shining Star’ entered the U.S. Hot 100 at #86 in February of ‘75.  Fifteen weeks later ‘Shining Star’ displaced Tony Orlando and Dawn atop the U.S. charts (OZ#95), only to be dimmed a week later by the arrival of Freddy Fender at #1.  The song also won the  band their first Grammy Award for ‘Best Vocal Performance By A Group’.  The #1 and double platinum album, ‘That’s The Way Of The World’ (OZ#84), also spawned a #12 hit in the title track.

It was during this period that Earth, Wind & Fire graduated to playing arena style venues, with their concerts featuring elaborate stage shows, and spectacular costumes.  With a solid schedule of touring under their belt, it was about time Earth, Wind & Fire released a live album, which took the form of ‘Gratitude’ (US#1), which was released in late ‘75 and produced the #5 hit single ‘Sing A Song’ in early ‘76 (one side of the double album set contained new studio tracks).  By year’s end, the band had recorded another studio album, ‘Spirit’ (US#2), which harvested the hit ‘Saturday Nite’, the band’s first incursion into British chart territory (#17/US#21).  By this stage, Earth, Wind & Fire were a flagship performer on the tidal wave that was disco music.  ‘All ‘N All’ (US#3 /UK#13/OZ#21) - the band’s fourth platinum album - opened proceedings for Earth, Wind & Fire in 1978, yielding the hit single ‘Fantasy’ (US#32/ UK#14/OZ#25).

With disco the dominant musical genus, Earth, Wind & Fire polished their collective glitter balls and gave a danceable overhaul to the Beatles’ classic, ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ (US#9/ UK#33), and followed that up with one of the consummate party anthems ‘September’ (US#8/ UK#3/OZ#12) in late ‘78.  Both hits featured on the mega-selling compilation, ‘The Best Of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol.1’ (US#6/ UK#6/OZ#7) which served as an entrĂ©e to what was to be a sumptuous feast of Earth, Wind & Fire music in 1979.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Genesis Of 'Abacab'

In 1986, I was afforded the opportunity to see Genesis in concert at Sydney’s Entertainment Centre.  I had just completed my high school studies and was excited, albeit a little nervous, as I hopped on the tour bus to take me to the ‘big smoke’.  It was my first big concert experience, and it was more than everything I’d hoped it would be.  With almost 20 years touring experience behind them, Genesis knew how to put on a show.  I’d later learn to appreciate the Peter Gabriel era Genesis, but at the time I was only familiar with the Phil Collins’ led outfit.  This was their ‘Invisible Touch’ tour, an album which saw Genesis reach the pinnacle of their career - in commercial terms at least.  The core trio of Phil Collins (vocals/drums), Mike Rutherford (guitar), and Tony Banks (keyboards), were augmented in concert by regular tour cohorts Daryl Stuermer (bass), and Chester Thompson (drums).  Almost thirty years later that concert experience has stayed with me as a highlight of my concert going ventures.  As quickly as I could I began buying up the Genesis back catalogue, including their 1981 album, ‘Abacab’, which to this day remains one of my choices among the band’s best offerings.

Genesis recorded a total of five albums, and the 1974 double album ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’, during Peter Gabriel’s tenure as lead vocalist.  During this period of their career the band were primarily an art rock come progressive rock outfit, demanding a concerted effort on the part of patrons to tap into the
depth of their sound.  Gabriel departed Genesis at the end of their 1975 tour, and would go on to achieve a phenomenally successful solo career (see future posts).  Rather than look beyond the band for a replacement
vocalist, the decision was made to add lead vocals to the duties of drummer Phil Collins.  Despite some reservations from other band members, Collins was confident he could do the job.

Genesis carried on in studio with the quartet of Collins, Rutherford, Banks, and long term guitarist Steve Hackett.  For touring purposes, the band enlisted Chester Thompson to share drumming duties, freeing Collins up to become the front man.  The pair would regularly perform a drum duet for each live show.  That incarnation of Genesis recorded two albums together - 1976’s ‘A Trick Of The Tail’, and the early ‘77 set ‘Wind & Wuthering’.  Hackett too left the band soon there after, also to pursue a solo career, though without the profile of Gabriel.  Once more Genesis were posed the question, do we recruit outside the band to replace Hackett?  The answer was the same as with Gabriel, with bassist Mike Rutherford stepping up to assume guitar duties.  The band brought Daryl Stuermer into their live configuration to handle bass responsibilities.

In studio, Genesis had been pared back to the trio of Phil Collins, Tony Banks, and Mike Rutherford, and in 1978 released their first album in that formation, with the appropriately titled ‘And Then There Were Three’, which contained their first bonafide commercial hit in the form of ‘Follow You, Follow Me’, and the sublime ballad ‘Many Too Many’.  Genesis followed that up with 1980’s ‘Duke’ set, yielding the guitar driven hit ‘Turn It On’, and the soulful, horn laced Phil Collins penned ‘Misunderstanding’.  By this time the band were sailing perilously close to becoming a pop-rock outfit.  But they still retained some of their art-rock roots, particularly on the pure album cuts.

If Genesis were sailing close to pop-rock territory on ‘Duke’, they docked at the pop-rock pier for 1981’s ‘Abacab’.  Released in September of ‘81, ‘Abacab’ was produced by Genesis, with acclaimed producer Hugh Padgham acting as sound engineer.  Phil Collins handled the lead vocals, percussion and drums, Tony Banks keyboards and backing vocals, and Mike Rutherford guitars, bass, and backing vocals.  The album featured nine tracks in all, with eight clocking over four minutes in length.  Six of the tracks were co-written by all three band members, with each of Banks, Collins and Rutherford composing one track.

‘Abacab’ was still ‘art-rock’ at its core, or album oriented rock, but it was layered with an increased number of pop hooks, relative to earlier albums.  The Genesis brand instrumental passages were still in evidence on tracks like the album version of ‘Abacab’, but they were less prevalent, and secondary to the band branching into other stylistic areas.  A reggae beat was in evidence on the track ‘Me And Sarah Jane’, whilst ‘Dodo’ was driven to extinction by a funk rhythm track.  Other album tracks included the oddball character of ‘Who Dunnit?’, the shimmering ‘Like It Or Not’, and the heavily percussed (as opposed to concussed) ‘Another Record’, which was another record all together from Phil Collins’ ‘Face Value’, but similar in sound.

The ‘Abacab’ album yielded four single releases.  ‘No Reply At All’ (US#29 - #2 US Mainstream Rock chart/ OZ#74), boasted the bold brass of the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section (see separate post), who had also recently featured on Phil Collins’ ‘Face Value’ album.  The atmospheric ‘Man On The Corner’ was closer to the traditional Genesis sound, and found the outskirts of the top forty (US#40/UK#41).  The eccentric ‘Keep It Dark’ (UK#33) was an engaging tale of alien worlds visited (but ssssshhhhoosh, don’t tell anyone) and was backed by an appropriately quirky promotional video.  The single remix of the title track, ‘Abacab’ (UK#9/ US#26 - #4 Mainstream Rock chart/ OZ#35), was the closest thing to guitar/synth driven rock on the album, and was remarkably close in nature to a ‘new wave’ song, at least in the single remix.  It was backed by a very effective performance based clip.  When I’m playing my copy of the Genesis ‘Video Show’ on DVD the volume always gets turned up for ‘Abacab’.

‘Abacab’, the album, earned Genesis their second #1 album in the U.K. (US#7/ OZ#18), following on from ‘Duke’, and confirmed the band’s growing commercial appeal. The ’Abacab’ album was a clear pointer to Genesis evolving from a predominantly progressive rock outfit, into a more commercially accessible band, an evolution that would reach its culmination on the mega-selling ‘Invisible Touch’ album.)))

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

XTC - Serious Skylarking

Now an exclusively studio-bound outfit, XTC returned to the fray in mid ‘83 with the release of the album ‘Mummer’ (UK#51), supported by the singles, the acoustically charged ‘Great Fire’, the soulfully smooth ‘Wonderland’, and the gently lilting ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’ (UK#50).  Though building on some of the foundations laid down by ‘English Settlement’, the album seemed to take  a step back in terms of having a coherent style, though in general it was critically well received in its intentions.

The late ’84 album, ‘The Big Express’ (UK#38/OZ#96), recovered some ground in terms of direction, and featured the delightful sea-shanty styled single ‘All You Pretty Girls’ (OZ#76), which I was very happy to eventually get hold of via the ‘Fossil Fuel’ compilation.  The follow up singles, the low key ‘This World Over’, and the raucous ‘Wake Up’ failed to awaken record buyers, though the band may have missed a trick in not releasing the enchanting portion of nostalgia-pop in the form of the sprightly ‘The Everyday Story Of Smalltown’.  Soon after the release of ‘The Big Express’, session drummer Pete Phippes took an express bus out of XTC, and was replaced by Ian Gregory (keyboardist Dave Gregory’s brother).

It was around this time that XTC sowed the seeds of a plan to break free of the confines of the band’s identity, and pursue greater artistic freedom, in a kind of insurgency against trying to satisfy the record labels with commercial success.  The band once more hooked up with producer John Leckie to release an EP titled ‘25 O’clock’ in mid ‘85 under the alter-ego come pseudonym Dukes Of Stratosphear, in the process tapping into some fresh artistic inspiration with a more overtly psychedelic offering, harking back to some of their earlier influences, and indeed parodying them.

The Dukes’ venture paid dividends with a rejuvenated XTC re-entering the studio during the first half of ‘86 in partnership with acclaimed producer Todd Rundgren.  There were some well documented clashes between Rundgren and Andy Partridge, but the end result was the critically acclaimed return to form on ‘Skylarking’ (UK#90/US#70).  The lead out single was the seductive ‘Grass’, penned by Colin Moulding.  The B-side was a Partridge penned song called ‘Dear God’ (which I ended up purchasing on a CD-EP.  Though ‘Grass’ didn’t grow on the charts, a college-radio DJ liked what they heard on the B-side and soon the lyrically biting agnostic anthem ‘Dear God’ became a hit on the American college-radio scene.  Overall the album borrowed from the best of earlier albums like ‘English Settlement’ and married it to the lushness of mid 60s psychedelic rock, evoking the echoes of later vintage Beatles and Beach Boys, and marrying polished lyrical arrangements with meticulous instrumentation.

It was during this period that XTC found itself embroiled in all manner of litigation, against a former manager, and with an unwieldy record label relationship - at that time Virgin handled them in the U.K., whilst in the U.S. Geffen released their work under a licensee agreement.  It all fed in to the general perception that XTC were not enamoured with the music industry.  Unperturbed by legal wrangling, or perhaps to spite it, the band once more adopted their Dukes Of Stratosphear guise to release the album, ‘Psonic Psunspot’ in August of ‘87 - in 1989, the EP ‘25 O’clock’ and album ‘Psonic Psunspot’ featured on a combined album release titled ‘Chips From The Chocolate Fireball’.  By the end of ‘87, Ian Gregory had left the fold, to be replaced by drummer Pat Mastelotto (formerly of Mr. Mister - see separate post).

With said litigation proceedings placed to one side, XTC returned to the studio in late ‘88 to begin work on their next album.  They were partnered this time with producer Paul Fox, and once more their was producer/artist friction as Partridge wrestled for creative control of the project.  The result of their endeavours was the creatively well received ‘Oranges And Lemons’ album (UK#28/US#44), released in February of ‘89.  The lead out single was the delightful dedication of love, ‘Mayor Of Simpleton’, which I bought on vinyl 45 at the time.  ‘Mayor Of Simpleton’ became XTC’s first foray into the U.S. Hot 100 (US#72/UK#44), and was backed up by the brilliant blue skies feel of ‘King For A Day’.  Overall the album is brimming with psychedelic sonic brushstrokes, echoing the Kinks’ Ray Davies at his finest on tracks such as ‘The Loving’, and even offering up the Jethro Tull like ‘One Of The Millions’. The album received constant airplay on U.S. college-radio, and ‘Oranges And Lemons’ was voted as 1989’s college-radio album of the year.

After two years had elapsed, XTC returned to the studio environment with a plethora of newly penned songs to record.  They emerged with 32 new tracks in all, which were apparently dismissed in their entirety by the band’s British label.  Unruffled, XTC remained firmly behind the songs they had recorded, and eventually negotiated the release of fifteen of them in the form of the 1992 album ‘Nonesuch’ (UK#28/ OZ#72/US#97).  Produced by Gus Dudgeon, the album featured the lead out single ‘The Disappointed’ a richly crafted song telling of the collective identity of the lovelorn among us.  I purchased the song on a CD-EP, and the track fared well in both Britain (#33), and Australia (#31). It was backed by an engaging medieval style promotional video.  The quirkily titled ‘The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead’ was also released as a single (UK#71).  ‘Nonsuch’ was a marrying of some of the band’s late 80s psychedelic trimmings, with a verdant pop sheen.

Perhaps weary of in studio conflict over creative control, and record label pressure, XTC mainstays Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding pulled the plug on the band once the dust had settled on ‘Nonsuch’.  Partridge, who always seemed to have a diverse and sizeable collection of songs on hand, released two albums of new material within two years - ‘Through The Hill’ in partnership with Harold Budd, and ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ with Martin Newell.  Over the ensuing years Partridge kept his hand in the studio, working with the likes of Mission U.K., and Lilac Time.

After six years had elapsed, Patridge and Moulding reappeared from seemingly nowhere with a brand new XTC album, ‘Apple Venus Volume 1’ (UK#42), featuring 11 new tracks, and in the process delighting long patient fans with an album that captured the essence of XTC at their very best.  The companion piece, ‘Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Pt. 2)’, followed in 2000.

Though wider commercial success eluded XTC over the course of their journey, the band remained true to its influences and sonic vision, in the process gathering a legion of dedicated fans along the way.)))

XTC - Making Plans For XTC And More

About ten years ago I purchased a, long overdue, collection of the ‘best of’ British post punk/new wave band XTC.  I’d purchased a number of their singles over the years, but had yet to explore the band for all they were worth.  The purchase of the double CD release ‘Fossil Fuel - The XTC Singles’ (UK#33) featured 31 tracks in all and allowed me the chance to explore the band’s music a little more seriously.  There was barely a poor track in the songs assembled, and it left me with the question of why had XTC not been a bigger commercial success.  The short answer is they never actively pursued it - well that’s one reason - but for a more detailed appraisal of their career and more, please read on.

XTC were one of the leading constituents of the British post punk/new wave scene of the late 70s into mid 80s.  They were also one of the most enduring and eclectic acts to emerge from that era.  Though lumped by some observers as ‘new wave’, XTC resided more in the power-pop zone of the movement.  Early days their music was a meticulously crafted brand of art-pop, featuring inventive rhythm patterns, and sometimes weirdly placed melodic contortions.  Early critical appraisal compared them to ‘Rubber Soul’ era Beatles, but XTC were never ones to be pigeonholed, even by their loyal cult following.

The band’s roots burrowed back to 1973, in Swindon, a rustic outcropping of London.  Twenty year old Andy Partridge (vocals/guitar), recruited Colin Moulding (bass/vocals), Terry Chambers (drums), and Jonathan Perkins (keyboards), all three still in their teens.  They dubbed themselves the Helium Kidz, and took to local music circuits to hone their craft and build an audience.  Initially their style was born of a New York Dolls influenced brand of glitter-pop, mixing straight up rock& roll with quintessential English psychedelia that would inform their later work.

By 1976, the Helium Kids moniker had blown away, and was replaced by the concisely dubbed XTC.  By now, the group were playing a lot of originals, mostly penned by Partridge and Moulding, and influenced by the likes of The Beatles later work, The Move, ‘Pet Sounds’ era Beach Boys, The Small Faces, and Captain Beefheart.  Though not pandering to the prevalent punk movement of the time, XTC retained some of the harder edged aspects of their early guise, and by 1977 had been identified by Virgin as having major potential, and signed to their label.  Before entering the recording studio, keyboardist Jonathan Perkins was replaced by Barry Andrews (ex-King Crimson).

In late ‘77, XTC released the debut single, ‘Science Fiction’, followed in quick succession by ‘Statue Of Liberty’, and ‘This Is Pop?’ (which puts me in mind of Australia’s Sports - see separate posts), the latter garnering some critical attention for the band, and revealing XTC to be a power-pop outfit in punk clothing guise.  Amongst the post-punk frenzy of Britain’s music scene in 1978, XTC found a loyal audience who pushed their debut album, ‘White Music’ (recorded in just one week), to #38 on the British charts. The album bubbled along with bursts of chaotic energy, capturing XTC at their early era rebellious best.

The frenetic single ‘Are You Receiving Me’ hit the airwaves in October of ‘78, and soon after featured on Australia’s ‘Countdown’ national TV program - that’s when and where I first saw XTC in action.  The song reached #86 in Australia, likely on the back of that one ‘Countdown’ appearance.  The source album, produced by John Leckie (later worked with Stone Roses and Radiohead), was titled ‘Go 2’, and proceeded to go all the way to #21 in Britain (OZ#93).  Partridge and Mouldings skills as song-smiths were becoming more evident, and ‘Go 2’ stretched the band stylistically into more adventurous art-pop territory, influenced in parts by a Brian Eno brand of idiosyncratic electronica.  A standout was the song’s opening track ‘Meccanic Dancing (Oh We Go!)’, featuring jolting rhythms and a burst of guitar driven power-pop in the middle eight.  The band were still keeping up a hectic touring schedule but soon after the release of ‘Go 2’ Andrews left the band (to join League Of Gentleman, and later to co-found Shriekback - see separate post), and was replaced by Dave Gregory (keyboards/synthesisers/guitar).

During the first half of ‘79, XTC laboured away in studio to record their third album, ‘Drums And Wires’ (UK#34/OZ#40), the band’s first U.S. release.  The lead out single, ‘Life Begins At The Hop’, did reasonable business (UK#54/OZ#94), but it was the quirky follow up single, ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ that promised a major commercial breakthrough for XTC.  Penned by, and featuring the lead vocals of bassist Colin Moulding, the song was backed by an eccentric video clip featuring the band members playing in some kind of asylum setting.  The combination of music and video worked, pushing ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ to #17 on the British charts (OZ#94).  The album wound back on some of the frenzied energy of its predecessors, offering a more cohesive sound, yet one that retained the band’s eccentricity and humour, evidenced by tracks such as ‘Day In Day Out’, ‘Ten Feet Tall’, and the anthemic ‘Roads Girdle The Globe’.  In amidst a hectic performance schedule the prolific song writing of Andy Partridge found a vehicle beyond the frontiers of XTC, in the form of the February ‘80 album release ‘Take Away (The Lure Of Salvage)’, released under the unassuming name of Mr. Partridge.

XTC spent the English summer in doors recording their next album, titled ‘Black Sea’.  Although the band had yet to register any commercial recognition in the U.S., the back catalogue release of their earlier work, and a burgeoning legion of fans on college campuses, saw ‘Black Sea’ reach #41 on the U.S. album charts (UK#16/OZ#27). The 1980 released album was less frenetic than earlier chapters of their career, and cast a stylistic haze of nostalgic psychedelia, harbouring hints of an elegiac model Kinks between its covers. Lyrically speaking, ‘Black Sea’ also saw XTC presenting a more overtly socio-political approach.  The single ‘Generals And Majors’ marched to #32 in Britain and to #24 here in Australia, and two further single releases, the drum heavy ‘Towers Of London’ (UK#31), and pop-ish ‘Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)’ (UK#16) further broke down the walls of commercial resistance for XTC.

The critically lauded album ‘English Settlement’ (UK#5/ OZ#14/US#48) was released in February of ‘82, and immediately made an impact, thanks in part to the lead out single, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ‘Senses Working Overtime’.  The track became XTC’s first foray into the British top ten (#10/OZ#12), and was followed up by the single ‘Ball And Chain’ (UK#58/OZ#97) two months later.  ‘English Settlement’ was, and has been, regarded as XTC’s finest hour, blending strains of folk rock, exotic rhythm patterns, and cutting edge synthesiser pop, blended through a prism of psychedelic rock - all up a more stylistically complex offering.  Furthermore, Andy Partridge’s acerbic wit, and eccentrically challenging lyrics lured the listener to be immersed by each and every track.  ‘English Settlement’ was released as a double album in Britain, but (minus four cuts) was reduced to a single album release in the U.S.  Like so many British post-punk bands, significant mainstream crossover success in America eluded XTC, but the band’s profile continued to grow on the indie and alternative scenes, via college-radio.

All signs were pointing to a major commercial breach by XTC, and the band set off on a major world tour, taking in Europe and the U.S.  But all was not well within the band, and more specifically with Andy Partridge’s health.  The band’s European tour had ended badly with Partridge collapsing on stage in Paris from exhaustion.  But he and the band pushed on through the discomfort which bellowed into Partridge suffering a nervous breakdown in California due to intense stage fright, just a few dates into their U.S. tour. XTC abandoned the rest of the tour, and it was announced subsequently that they would never tour again.  Partridge took the best part of a year to come to grips with agoraphobia, becoming a virtual shut-in.  In the fallout from events, drummer Terry Chambers left the band, and XTC were reduced to the core trio of Partridge, Moulding, and keyboardist Dave Gregory, with drummer Pete Phippes (formerly of Glitter Band) a regular contributor in-studio.

An XTC ‘best of’ was released in late ‘82.  ‘Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982’ (UK#54), also featured a limited edition companion album in the form of ‘Beeswax: Some B-sides 1977-1982’, to keep fans happy until XTC resurfaced once more to charm them with new material.)))