Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Show With Everything But Yul Bryner

After the stellar career of Swedish supergroup ABBA came to a conclusion in late 1982, the group’s songwriters, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, found themselves at a bit of a loose end. With the ABBA group vehicle no longer in the garage, the pair looked for another avenue through which to channel their combined song writing genius. Enter lyricist Tim Rice, he of the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musicals association, and the trio struck up a collaborative endeavour together in early ‘83, working on songs for a proposed musical called ‘Chess’. The musical of ‘Chess’ didn’t hit the stage until it’s London West End premiere in May of ‘86, but work began on a soundtrack album back in 1984 (it’s not uncommon for a studio cast recording to precede the actual musical).

Recorded at Polar Studios in Stockholm, ‘Chess’ was still a work in progress, with lyrics still evolving, and a final line-up of songs for the proposed album, yet to be decided upon. The basic story behind the proposed musical, and associated concept album, involved a romantic triangle between a woman, and two chess players competing for the world championship. Hence, the themes of love, and er…chess, were prevalent in Rice’s lyrics. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus penned the suitably impressive, and theatrical, musical accompaniment.

The double album original cast recording for ‘Chess’, hit stores to much fanfare during late ‘84. Rolling Stone magazine called it a “dazzling score that covers nearly all the pop bases”, whilst Andersson, Ulvaeus and Rice must have been smiling from their work being referred to as a “rock symphonic synthesis” by Time magazine. All in all, the album was a hit, even without the musical, and spent seven weeks atop the Swedish charts (no surprise there), and reached #10 in Britain (US#47/OZ#35). The album tracks follow the basic narrative events envisaged for ‘Chess’, and its principle players were each assigned a central character to represent through song. Two major hit singles were spawned from the ‘Chess’ album, the second of which was the sweeping ballad ‘I Know Him So Well’, sung as a duet by female leads Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson (see previous post). ‘I Know Him So Well’ reached the summit of the British charts in January of ‘85 (OZ#21), and further bankrolled the success of the cast recording, already riding high on the back of its first hit single, ‘One Night In Bangkok’, by British born singer/actor Murray Head.

‘One Night In Bangkok’ opens with an atmospheric orchestral intro, which builds dramatically to a speaker splitting crescendo, then instantaneously segues into Murray Head’s spoken work rap. I was going to say Murray Head’s vocals, but he delivers each verse as if speaking rhythmically down a phone line - so, spoken word rap is closer to the mark. The chorus vocals, were sung by Swedish artist Anders Glenmark, and though infectiously catchy, it’s Head’s rapping verse that proves the highlight of the track for me. Rice’s lyrics reflect the thoughts of a world weary, cynical chess champion, and are replete with Bangkok-related references (where the championship match is being waged), and cutting moral barbs. Head (cast as the American chess champion) serves up just the right amount of biting sarcasm, with lines like “I get my kicks above the waistline sunshine”. I’m not sure if ‘One Night In Bangkok’ was a hit in Iceland, or the Philippines, or Hastings, but I do know for certain that it was a major hit here in this place - Australia. After peaking at #12 in Britain, ‘One Night In Bangkok’ hit the summit of the Australian charts during March of ‘85. It also reached the top five across most of Europe, and #3 in the U.S., going on to become one of the biggest selling singles across the globe for 1985. But ‘One Night In Bangkok’ wasn’t the first major hit for Murray Head, nor his first association with a musical in which lyricist Tim Rice had been involved. Though his global smash of 1985 was undoubtedly the high watermark of Head’s career, and briefly made the world his oyster, his achievements extended well before and beyond the bars, temples, and massage parlours of ‘One Night In Bangkok’, and are worth taking a closer look at.

In 1946, Head was born head first into a show business family, with a documentary making father, and actress mother. Young Murray took a liking to acting at an early age, as did his younger brother Anthony (the latter going on to feature in the cult television series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’). Head, of the Murray variety, also took a liking to music, and by the mid 60s was juggling acting, song writing and recording endeavours. At age sixteen, he left home to pursue a recording/acting career in London, and actually cut a handful of singles with famed EMI producer Norrie Paramor (who had a long association with Cliff Richard and the Shadows), as well as making his film acting debut in the 1966 drama ‘The Family Way’. But until 1970, Murray Head remained just another in the throng of anonymous creative souls, all yearning and striving for that one big break (during this period in the pop wilderness, he reportedly sold insurance). Head’s break into big time music, came via an invitation from stage musical impresarios Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (who had produced Head’s third single ‘Some Day Soon’), to play the role of Judas Iscariot, on the original concept album for their proposed musical, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, which would help define the rock opera genre. The role provided the young singer/songwriter with the chance to become a superstar himself, though arguably not in the same league as Christ (incidentally played by Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan on the album). The 1970 album was a runaway success of biblical proportions, and served to launch the careers (for better or worse) of both Webber and Rice. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ went on to be a record beating musical on London’s West End, and Broadway, and a film adaptation was released in 1973. The stage musical version in Australia, helped launch the pop music careers of Jon English (see previous post), John Paul Young, and Marcia Hines (see future posts).

The title song, ‘Superstar’, not only aided, but was aided by, the success of the entire ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ franchise. Murray Head’s version from the studio cast recording, was released as a single in early 1970. The song briefly flirted with the U.S. charts (#74) in its original form, but made more of an impact in Australia, where following its debut in January of 1970, ‘Superstar’ soared to #5 nationally. I can recall the song still retained a high profile when I was at primary school, though the lyrics sung in the playground were modified slightly (something about “burning down the road on his Yamaha”). As the stage musical, and associated hype, gained an unstoppable momentum around the world, the single ‘Superstar’ was re-released, and credited to Murray Head with The Trinidad Singers, who presumably sang the chorus. Second time around, the single achieved a peak position of #14 on the U.S. Hot 100, early in 1971. As the London stage production got underway in 1972, ‘Superstar’ finally got underway on the British charts, reaching #47, though doubtless it would have peaked higher had so many people not already purchased the album (which was a worldwide #1).

But Head the aspiring actor was still a factor in the young artist’s career ambitions, and in 1971 he scored the lead role of a young bisexual designer called Bob Elkin, in the Oscar nominated film ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, directed by John Schlesinger, and also starring Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch, and an uncredited Daniel Day-Lewis. Head turned many heads with his standout performance, but the role failed to lead to bigger things. 1972’s ‘Nigel Lived’, was Murray Head’s debut album, and was essentially a concept album, with a selection of folk-rock style songs based around a fictional diary (and yes Murray actually does sing, very well as it happens - reminds me a bit of Peter Gabriel). With modest album sales, Head maintained an involvement in the acting game, appearing in a number of film/television/radio productions over the next couple of years, probably the most notable being 1973’s ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’, as Gawain.

In 1975, Island Records signed Head to record the album ‘Say It Ain’t So’, which spawned a cult hit single in ‘Say It Ain’t So, Joe’, Head’s best known song internationally, aside from his cast recordings. The album was produced by Paul Samwell-Smith (ex of The Yardbirds), but though the album found a niche audience, particularly in France, it didn’t manage to crack the charts elsewhere. Head, the actor, returned to the screen in the 1977 French film ‘Madame Claude’, in a role that made use of his fluent command of the French language (part of his early education background). 1979’s album ‘Between Us’, produced by Rupert Hine (see previous post), signalled the beginning of a more active period of involvement with music for Head. It was followed in relatively quick succession by the albums ‘Voices’ (1980), and ‘Find A Crowd’ (1981). Both albums boasted an impressive roster of talent, including Jeff Beck, Andy Newmark, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks, but neither found much of a crowd beyond Head’s increasing fan base in France, and French speaking territories in Canada (aided by his roles in a number of French films).

Over the next couple of years Head focussed on consolidating his profile in France, and other parts of Europe, with the album releases ‘Shade’ (1983-produced by Steve Nye), and ‘Restless’ (1984), both achieving gold certification on the continent. Head’s touring schedule was frenetic, and it was after one of his sell out concerts during 1984, that Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus asked Head to participate in the recording of their ‘Chess’ album. Though Head’s subsequent career endeavours went largely unheralded, beyond Europe that is, his creative output was prolific over the remainder of the 80s, including the 1986 album ‘Sooner Or Later’ (produced by Steve Hillage), and scoring music for a number of high profile French films. His 1992 album, ‘Wave’, made a big splash in France and Canada, and featured a couple of French language tracks, both of which went to #1 in the French territories.

Throughout the 90s, Head continued to play leading roles in several major French films, including the English speaking role of Lord Rochford, in 1996’s ‘Beaumarchais I’insolent’, co-wrote the screenplay for the 1999 film ‘Les enfants du siècle’, and released another hit album with 1995’s ‘Pipe Dreams’, featuring a mix of French/English language songs. Over the course of the early 00’s, Head balanced acting duties between projects in England and Canada, and continued to release albums, including 2005’s ‘Emotions, My Favourite Songs’, which saw Head cover some of his personal favourites, including a re-recording of ‘Say It Ain’t So, Joe’. With sixteen studio albums already in the can, screenplay work, and a seemingly endless string of roles in television/film around the world, Head’s pace of artistic endeavour shows no sign of waning.

Whilst Murray Head may not have reached the heady heights of being a ‘superstar’, he has managed to carve out significant careers across two separate strands of the entertainment caper, a feat rarely achieved over the course of a single decade, let alone over more than four.


Anonymous said...

"Say it Ain't So" haunted me on and off for 30 years. I couldn't remember who did it, but the song would creep into my head every now and then and make me yearn to hear it again.

Then, one day last year, Canadian DJ David Marsden played it on his show and RalphD id'd it on his blog Marsbar Theatre ( I was able to find an electronic copy of it and, in doing so, found out that Roger Daltry had done a crackin' version of it as well.

Thank you for the immensely informative post on Murray Head. I remember him from my vinyl copy of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and from the still-often-played "One Night In Bangkok,"but never made the connection to "Say It Ain't So."


A. FlockOfSeagulls AKA Rhys Jones said...

Hi MissP,

you're welcome :). 'Say It Ain't So' was also one of those tracks that flickered in and out of my consciousness for years and I never made the connection with Murray Head. Similarly to yourself, I discovered it again a few years back via a local radio station - the local university has its own radio station and they play a really eclectic mix.

I had no idea Roger Daltry had recorded a version - actually while I'm typing this I'm imagining Pete Townshend's voice being suited to it as well.

Many thanks for your comment :)