Thursday, September 11, 2008

Graham Bonnet Takes A Warm Ride On The Charts

Time to look under the hood and see what made the career of Graham Bonnet motor along during the late 70s and early 80s. It’s a curiosity that a singer born in Britain, who fronted the trans-Atlantic supergroup Rainbow for a tumultuous period, enjoyed his biggest commercial acclaim in Australia.

His earliest professional experience as a musician included a stint fronting a blues band, and later a jazz trio, which if nothing else helped Bonnet improve his vocal dexterity. Bonnet joined his cousin Trevor Gordon in the contemporary covers band Marbles during 1968. Trevor Gordon had done some session work with the Bee Gees previously in Australia, a connection which would play a part in Bonnet’s career a decade later. Bee Gees’ manager Robert Stigwood signed Marbles to a deal with his RSO Records label. Their first single ‘Only One Woman’, written by the Gibb Brothers, reached #5 in the U.K. and #20 in Australia, with the follow up ‘The Walls Fell Down’ peaking at #28 in Britain in early ‘69. Before year’s end the walls fell down on the group, sending Marbles scattering all over the place.

Graham Bonnet rolled into a period writing commercial jingles through the first half of the 1970s, and also tried his hand at acting, including scoring a role in the 1975 musical comedy film ‘Three For All’ as the character Kook.

In 1977 he released his eponymous debut album as a solo artist. The album, which was distributed by Ringo Starr’s label Ring O’Records, went completely unnoticed in the U.K., but made a huge splash down under. The lead out single ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ was a country rock tinged version of the old Bob Dylan song, complete with Frampton-esque talk-box guitar. The single reached #3 in Australia, propelling Bonnet’s album to #7. Most of the songs on the album were covers such as the Carole King penned ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ and Al Green’s ‘Tired Of Being Alone’. The only other song to chart was ‘Danny’ which peaked at #79 in late ’77.

Bonnet would ascend to even greater heights on the Australian charts during 1978. His single ‘Warm Ride’ was a suitably groove laden tune that had been penned by none other than the Gibb Brothers, and let’s face it, anything or anyone remotely connected with the Bee Gees during 1978 represented gold on the charts. ‘Warm Ride’ (which had been a discard from the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ sessions) was no different and took an express ride to #2 on the Australian charts. It was lifted from the album ‘No Bad Habits’ (OZ#6), which given some of Bonnet’s future issues, was probably a bit of a misnomer. But Bonnet’s career road was about to take yet another unexpected detour.

Following the departure of Ronnie James Dio from Ritchie Blackmore’s group Rainbow, Blackmore faced the unenviable task of replacing the charismatic front man. He recruited Graham Bonnet in late 1978, around the same time also enlisting the services of former Deep Purple band mate and bassist Roger Glover (see earlier ‘Butterfly Ball’ post). The revamped line-up, which also included drummer Cozy Powell and keyboardist Don Airey, recorded the August ‘79 album ‘Down To Earth’ (OZ#27/UK#6). The album featured a more commercially accessible melodic rock sound, yielding the hit singles ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ (UK#6/US#57) and ‘All Night Long’ (UK#5). But Bonnet’s tenure with the band would, as had his previous band stints, prove short lived. The band’s new sound wasn’t overly popular with mainstay Rainbow fans, who saw Bonnet as a pale imitation of Dio. That might have had something to do with the fact that Bonnet looked more like a James Dean imitator than a heavy metal rocker. Bonnet also failed to deliver onstage numerous times, including an infamous drunken appearance at the inaugural Castle Donington Monsters of Rock Festival in the summer of 1980. It was that misdemeanour that prompted Blackmore to give Bonnet the flick from Rainbow, though I read in a 2005 interview with Bonnet where he said that he wasn’t fired, it was simply a case of moving on to something different.

Bonnet did exactly that, when he bounced back with the solo single ‘Night Games’ in early 1981. The song was representative of its source album’s hybrid mix of hard rock and adult contemporary rock. ‘Night Games’ reached #6 in the U.K., Bonnet’s first solo hit in his home country, and the album ‘Line Up’ peaked at #62. The follow up single ‘Liar’ (a synth-coated cover of the old Argent hit) fell agonisingly shy of the U.K. top 50 (#51), but it seemed by 1981 Graham Bonnet was no longer in the minds of record buyers. The album did benefit from the power drumming of the legendary Cozy Powell, who must have been more forgiving of Bonnet’s lack of on stage sobriety than fellow Rainbow member Ritchie Blackmore, as well as contributions from Jon Lord (Deep Purple) and Francis Rossi (Status Quo). All in all the album was an inconsistent effort though, that pointed to the fact that Bonnet may be better positioned within the ranks of another band, rather than left to his own creative devices.

Bonnet found that group vehicle next with a short stint fronting the Michael Schenker Group on their 1982 album ‘Assault Attack’. Bonnet then co-founded the new band Alcatrazz, whose line-up would feature two of the biggest guitar legends of the 80s/90s in Yngwie Malmsteen (on 1984's album ‘No Parole For Rock N Roll’) and Steve Vai (on 1985's album ‘Disturbing The Peace’ - don’t you love heavy metal album names?). But even the contributions of two certified guitar geniuses couldn’t sustain the group, and following a disastrous third album ‘Dangerous Games’ (1986 - featuring a cover of ‘Only One Woman’), it was game over for Alcatrazz. During the next decade Bonnet contributed his vocals to work by Pretty Maids and Eddie Hardin, among others, and kick started his solo career again with the album ‘Here Comes The Night’ (1994), which featured a toned down Bonnet again tackling a bunch of cover tunes, including another new version of the old Marbles’ hit ‘Only One Woman’.

He must have placed a very effective ad in the music press for ‘rock vocalist for hire’, as he also provided vocal services for heavy metal acts Forcefield, Anthem, Blackthorne, Elektric Zoo and the Taz Taylor Band during the 90s and 00s. Perhaps the band he’s enjoyed the strongest association with over the last twenty years is Impellitteri, with whom Bonnet has recorded a couple of albums, most recently on ‘System X’ (2002).

Two more solo albums came to light, though neither ‘Underground’ 1998, nor ‘The Day I Went Mad’ (2001), attracted any great commercial attention, confirming that Bonnet’s best career miles were behind him.

More recently Bonnet has resurrected a version of his old band Alcatrazz, though his version doesn’t include former band mates Gary Shea, Jimmy Waldo and Jan Uvena, who have also broken out their own revamped mach of the band ( I can see a legal dispute over naming rights looming on that front). He also performed his biggest solo hits ‘Warm Ride’ and ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ on the 2007 Countdown Spectacular concert tour of Australia. After forty years in the business, to say Graham Bonnet is a rock and roll journeyman would be an understatement.

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