Friday, December 5, 2008

Bad Case Of Insomnia? Try Some H2O

In the early to mid 90s I was collecting a series of CD compilations via Time-Life called ‘The Emotions Collection’. I already had some of the songs, but most of the volumes contained at least two or three rare gems that I hadn’t been able to track down previously. Occasionally there would also be a ‘bonus gem’, that is a song that I hadn’t come across previously, but which upon first listen I realised that I’d discovered a hidden treasure. The song ‘Dream To Sleep’ by H2O was one such prized find.

I didn’t recall hearing the song from when it was originally released back in 1983, in fact I’m not certain that it was even issued here in Australia. The only information I could glean from the CD track listing was that the single had been released via BMG Records (I was guessing it was RCA or a subsidiary label at the time), and the song writing credit was listed as Kenneth Dorman, Ross Alcock, Peter Keane, Colin Gavigan, Colin Ferguson and Ian Donaldson, who I assumed to be the members of H2O.

The song itself is a mid tempo synth-driven ballad, strongly suggestive of the work of group’s like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Fiction Factory (see earlier post) in both atmosphere and instrumentation. The group behind the song H2O (not to be confused with the 90s vintage American punk band of the same name), hailed from Scotland. They came together in late 1978 in their home city of Glasgow (how many class acts have originated from there), and at the heart of the band was vocalist Ian Donaldson (formerly of punk outfit Skroo). Joining Donaldson in the original H2O pool were guitarist Andrew Innes (later of Primal Scream), who was soon replaced by Davie Wells, Kenny Dorman (drums) and Alan McGee (bass). They played their first gig on Mayday 1979, performing from the back of a truck (hopefully a stationary one). In 1980 H2O’s line-up was expanded to include Ross Alcock (keyboards) and Colin ‘Biggles’ Gavigan, while McGee was replaced on bass by Colin Ferguson. Rather than continue in the punk rock vein (or on the back of a truck), Donaldson steered H2O in the direction of a smooth white soul brand of synthesizer pop, which provided the perfect vehicle for Donaldson’s richly aromatic, and emotive vocals.

H2O signed to local indie label Spock Records in 1981 and released their debut single ‘Hollywood Dream’ (produced by Kenny Hyslop) soon after (in truth Spock Records was the band's own creation - as guitarist David Wells commented, the band hoped the 'label' association would help them get played on the radio). The single didn’t crack the British charts but attracted enough local interest (including an appearance on BBC-Scotland, and regular airing on Radio Clyde) to catch the attention of RCA, who signed H2O during 1982. Guitarist Davie Wells left the band during this period, and was replaced by Peter Keane (Wells actually left the music industry altogether for a time, but now runs his own Scottish based label called Neon Tetra Records). In early ‘83 H2O entered the recording studio with producer Tony Cox to lay down some new tracks. The first wave of new H2O material surfaced in May ‘83 with the aforementioned ‘Dream To Sleep’. On some U.K. pressings of the single, the sleeve cover noted the title as ‘I Dream To Sleep’, whilst the record label itself listed the title as ‘Dream To Sleep’. Either way the beautifully crafted track, dripping with languorous ambience, oozed its way onto the British charts soon after and drifted smoothly on a cloud of serenity all the way to a peak level of #17 in mid ‘83. Whether it was lack of label support or just a case of a great song cruising beneath the sonar, H2O’s ‘Dream To Sleep’ failed to awaken any interest in the U.S. or Australia.

The splendid ‘Dream To Sleep’ promised a potential deluge of quality material from H2O. The follow up single ‘Just Outside Of Heaven’ was a more up tempo affair and flirted with the lower reaches of the British top 40 (#38) in the second half of ‘83. Following a tour with Kajagoogoo (see earlier post), work was undertaken on H2O’s debut album in preparation for an early ‘84 release. Recorded at London’s Livingston Studios between October ‘83 and March ’84, the Tony Cox produced ‘Faith’ featured the two previous singles and a mix of tracks that clearly reflected H2O’s high regard for ‘new romantic’ heavy weights Spandau Ballet. The Spandau Ballet formula echoed through some of H2O’s funky bass riffs, and Ian Donaldson’s baritone vocals bore a striking similarity to Tony Hadley’s (and Lloyd Cole - see earlier post). Unfortunately ‘Faith’ didn’t yield any more hit singles, as ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain?’ and ‘All That Glitters (Rusts In Time)’ both missed the charts. Maybe it was the aquatic motif in the song titles, but RCA dropped H2O from their roster soon after.

H2O experienced more commotion in the ocean during 1984 with a new bassist Johnnie McBriar and drummer Phil Kean now on board. They continued to tour throughout 1985 but with no record deal in place, the strain told and the waters parted in H2O during October ‘85. Ian Donaldson and Ross Alcock continued their writing partnership and shopped around demo tracks during 1986 in search of a new record deal. Ex-Skroo guitarist Frank O’Hare, George Sinclair (bass) and David Edgar (drums) were added to the H2O mix, and the new line-up played a number of showcase gigs in an attempt to get a bite from the big fish labels. The big fish looked elsewhere for a feed but the small fish indie label Legend Records took the bait and signed H2O to a new deal. They recorded the EP ‘Blue Diamond’ in 1987, and released the title track as a single. The five track set also included a cover of ‘I Fought The Law’. Despite solid radio airplay, and Donaldson’s vocal dexterity on display with the title track, the EP once again went unnoticed. For H2O the torrent of commercial returns had been a brief one, but had clearly evaporated - and soon after an appearance on the TV show ‘Meltdown’ in 1987, so too had the band itself.

In the years following their effective split, H2O played a number of one off gigs, including a charity gig in 1994 and most recently a Christmas concert in 2003, serving as a 20 year celebration gig for the band’s biggest hit ‘Dream To Sleep’.

Donaldson went on to have a solo career of moderate success in Scotland, before joining the Scottish group Fourgoodmen with Derek Forbes, Michael MacNeil and Bruce Watson. Original bassist Alan McGee later founded Creation Records (who have boasted the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream on their roster). Most of the other H2O alumnus have gone on to work in various other local Scottish acts over the years. A special word of thanks to H2O guitarist David Wells for his comment (see below) and additional info. related to the band.


muso-man said...

Hi There

good article and pretty accurate all round, however it might be worth mentioning that before I joined, the original guitarist was Andrew Innes (Primal Scream) and the original bass player was the self same Alan McGee who later founded Creation Records (My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, Jesus and Mary Chain, Oasis) and later Poptones.

Spock Records was the bands own (fake) label. We made that up to help get "Hollywood Dream" on the radio, and it worked in Scotland anyway as Radio Clyde played it often.

When I departed from the group, I left the music industry alone for the next 20 years, but now run a label called Neon Tetra Records in Scotland. I still see some of the original band from time to time.


David Wells

A. FlockOfSeagulls AKA Rhys Jones said...

Hi David,

many thanks for the comment and additional info./clarification re. my post. I've updated my post to reflect the changes (with a word of thanks for your input). All the best.

Rhys AKA A.FlockOfSeagulls