Sunday, September 6, 2009

Watching The Sun Rise With Judie

From late 1974 to mid 1987, the ABC’s weekly music television program ‘Countdown’ provided a unique and much valued window into the world of popular music. On numerous occasions throughout this blog I’ve spoken about just how big an impact ‘Countdown’ played on the Australian music scene during that period. It was a virtual industry gospel and even its detractors couldn’t deny its key role in the development of up and coming artists careers, both at home and abroad. The shows format was tweaked here and there throughout its thirteen year history, but one constant remained throughout (aside from Molly Meldrum) - the national top 10 at the end of each week’s show. From the late 70s onwards I tuned in almost religiously to hear/see the latest releases, and to see which songs had broken into the much vaunted national top 10, culminating in the unveiling of the #1 song in the country.

Following its summer break, ‘Countdown’ returned to air in February of 1980 and naturally enough after a six week break I was on tenterhooks to see the first national top ten of the 1980s. The first chinks in disco’s seemingly impenetrable armour had begun to show through in the latter part of ‘79, and the 1980s promised to unleash a new wave (literally) of quality pop/rock artists. But as I’ve written before on this blog, the period of the late 70s/early 80s was a particularly tumultuous one in terms of the diversity of music styles and artists making an impact on the pop charts. ‘Countdown’s first national top ten of the new decade was no exception, and featured a myriad of different styles and acts. From well established rock acts like Fleetwood Mac (‘Tusk’) and KISS (‘Sure Know Something’), through ballads by Styx (‘Babe’) and KC & the Sunshine Band (‘Please Don’t Go’), an off the wall disco track from the future ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson (‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’), cutting edge new wave acts like The Police (‘Message In A Bottle’) and Mi-Sex (‘Computer Games’), the quirky synth-pop number ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ by the Buggles, the playful pop of Rupert Holmes’ ‘Escape (The Pina Colada Song)’, and an atmospheric ballad titled ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’ by the subject of today’s post, Judie Tzuke.

Judie Myers experienced her first dawn in April 1956, born of Polish heritage, which led to her adopting the family name Tzuke prior to embarking on her singing career. A showbiz streak ran throughout the Myers/Tzuke family, with her mother Jean a former television actress, and father Sefton having managed professional music artists (including at one time Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice). Her father was also a property developer, but the lure of the arts proved too much for daughter Judie.

By the late 60s, when every man, woman, and possibly their dog, aspired to be a pop star, Judie Tzuke chose the pathway of singer/songwriter during her early teen years. Her love of poetry melded well with her burgeoning talent as a singer and guitarist. By age fifteen, Judie Tzuke had left school and was performing regularly at local folk clubs in and around her home district of Yorkshire. Around 1975, she began working with fellow singer/songwriter Mike Paxman, not to be confused with Pacman - not that I’d presumed that you would do that. Paxman and Tzuke decided to start writing and performing as a duo, and came up with the imaginative name of Tzuke and Paxo. Though billed as a duo, they were accompanied by Paul Muggleton (who Tzuke would later have two children with). The Tzuke and Paxo combo came to the notice of American born producer Tony Visconti (he of the David Bowie, T-Rex, and Sparks association - to name a few). Visconti had already worked on a couple of albums with acclaimed folk/rock singer-songwriter Ralph McTell, so his sensibilities extended beyond the glam-rock scene. Signed to Visconti’s own Good Earth record label, Tzuke and Paxo released the single ‘These Are The Laws’, some time around 1977, but amidst the chaos of the punk explosion the song was confined to obscurity.

Shortly after, another singer-songwriter signed Judie Tzuke to a recording deal. Elton John’s Rocket Record Company offered Tzuke a label stable in which to develop her craft as a writer and performing artist (the label had taken an interest two years previous, but Tzuke did have enough material at that time). Songwriting partner Mike Paxman continued his musical collaboration with Tzuke, and the pair released the single ‘For You’ during 1978 as the lead out release for a planned solo album for Tzuke (though the song was originally credited to Paxo & Tzuke). The follow up single would prove the breakthrough vehicle for Judie Tzuke, and mark the dawn of a period of considerable commercial and critical acclaim. The sultry, atmospheric ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’ hit the British charts at the height of summer in July of ‘79, and ascended to a peak of #16. Within a few months the name of Judie Tzuke had filtered into the lexis of the Australian music scene. ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’ shone bright on the Australian charts for no less than 28 weeks from October ‘79 to April ‘80, and peaked inside the top ten in early 1980 (#8). I’ve always felt the song’s beauty lies in its simplicity and purity of performance. Tzuke’s vocals are sublime, and remain untainted by complex production, or an overbearing instrumental track - a simple synthesizer and string arrangement, backed by a crisp, clean drum track combine to carry the listener into another world. I’m not certain if ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’ was written or recorded during night time hours, and in point of fact the question bares no relevance whatsoever to this post. So why pose it you might ask? Well, my motive is nothing more nor less than an exercise in irritating obliqueness for the reader. As ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’ was high in the chart sky, Tzuke’s debut album ‘Welcome To The Cruise’ set sail on the charts (UK#14/OZ#15). Produced by John Punter, and recorded at London’s esteemed A.I.R. Studios, the album featured the earlier Paxo and Tzuke singles, though listeners had to wait until the last track on side two to hear ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’, so an alternative title may have been ‘Stay With Me Until The End Of The Album’.

Judie Tzuke wasted no time in recording and releasing her sophomore album, ‘Sports Car’ (co-produced by Tzuke and Paxman), in May of 1980. The album sped into the British top ten (#7/OZ#67) around the same time that Tzuke found herself as the opening act on Elton John’s world tour. From playing small folk club venues, Tzuke found herself performing before an estimated 450,000 in New York’s Central Park (I wonder if that was the Elton John show where he wore a Donald Duck costume). Everything pointed toward Judie Tzuke cracking the code for American success, but as has hampered the career momentum of so many artists, Tzuke encountered problems on the distribution side of things. Elton John’s Rocket Records realigned itself to a new U.S. distributor, and the availability of Tzuke’s albums/singles Stateside became problematic. She recorded a third album for Rocket Records, with 1981’s ‘I Am Phoenix’ rising to #17 on the British charts. Produced by her partner Paul Muggleton, the album confirmed Tzuke’s popularity at home, though it failed to yield any hit singles, with neither ‘Black Furs’ or ‘Higher And Higher’ cracking the charts.

Tzuke then parted ways with Rocket Records and signed on with Chrysalis for her 1982 album ‘Shoot The Moon’. She enjoyed unprecedented support as a live artist during that period, embarking on an extensive tour of the U.K., highlighted by two sold out shows at the famed Hammersmith Odeon, and a headline performance at 1982’s Glastonbury Festival. Her popularity on tour bolstered sales for ‘Shoot The Moon’ (UK#19), though the album’s associated singles, ‘Love On The Border’, ‘I’m Not A Loser’, and ‘Late Again’, all remained stuck on the launch pad. By year’s end the double album ‘Road Noise - The Official Bootleg’, which chronicled the best of Tzuke’s live work, had parked itself on the British charts (#39). Long time creative cohorts Mike Paxman and Paul Muggleton remained on board for Judie Tzuke’s fifth studio album, ‘Ritmo’, released during the second half of ‘83. ‘Ritmo’ (UK#26) marked a change in style from Tzuke, with a more dance oriented and electronic edge to proceedings. Despite garnering positive reviews, and heavy airplay for the lead out single ‘Jeannie No’, neither album or single managed to strike a rhythm on the charts.

Tzuke read the writing on the wall at Chrysalis Records, who had withheld release of ‘Ritmo’ beyond the U.K., and opted to take things into her own hands by forming her own label, Legacy Records. 1985’s ‘The Cat Is Out’ (UK#35) was recorded entirely at Tzuke’s own home studios, and once more featured more of a dance oriented style. The lead out single was a dance-ified version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘You’, but Tzuke’s attempts to keep pace with cutting edge 80s dance fare didn’t result in a long overdue follow up hit. The associated tour was a success, but in terms of sales the cat remained well and truly in the bag for Judie Tzuke. Over the second half of the 80s Tzuke switched focus to motherhood, following the birth of her first daughter Bailey. By 1989, she had returned to the studio to record the album ‘Turning Stones’ (UK#57), this time on the Polydor label. Though an initial eight album deal was signed, the partnership with Polydor proved problematic with a major impasse arising out of a dispute regarding the associated tour. The upshot was a cancelled tour and withdrawn album, leaving Judie Tzuke at yet another career crossroads.

Columbia Records threw Tzuke a lifeline, and guided the artist in a return to some of her music roots. The lead out single was a cover of the Beach Boys’ classic ‘God Only Knows’, and the associated 1991 album, ‘Left Hand Talking’, also included a reworking of ‘Stay With Me Til Dawn’. The same year Judie Tzuke provided backing vocals on singer Thomas Anders’ album ‘Whispers’, also produced by Paxman and Muggleton. 1992’s ‘Wonderland’ album, recorded at Tzuke’s own Big Ocean Studios, found a release via Essential Records, but couldn’t find a home on the charts, despite featuring the talents of guest players Brian May (Queen), and violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy. The album also marked a change of song writing partner for Tzuke, with Bob Noble co-writing the bulk of the tracks. Tzuke then opted to once more take control of her own work, and with partner Paul Muggleton, established Big Moon Records.

The first release on Big Moon was 1996’s ‘Under The Angels’, which once more featured an impressive array of guest players, including gun bass player Phil Spalding (GTR/Mike Oldfield), and legendary sticks man Andy Newmark (John Lennon, Bryan Ferry, Eric Clapton et al). Tzuke hit the road for the first time in over four years, resulting in the 1997 live set ‘Over The Moon’. ‘Secret Agent’ followed in covert fashion during 1998, and the follow up live set, ‘Six Days Before The Flood’, didn’t produce a deluge of sales (though it does feature a striking cover). Tzuke finally gained the publishing rights for her Rocket Records’ era work, and promptly celebrated by embarking on the ‘Phoenix Tour’, and remastering/reissuing her first three solo albums, this time via her own Big Moon label. Over the last ten years Judie Tzuke has maintained a steady output of studio and live albums, from 2001’s ‘Queen Secret Keeper’, which garnered rave reviews, the covers album ‘The Beauty Of Hindsight’ (2003), to the back to back sets ‘Songs 1’ (2007), and ‘Songs 2’ (2008). Tzuke has broadened her horizons as a songwriter in recent years, and has penned work for other artists, in addition to contributing vocals. Her daughter Bailey Tzuke has also established a promising career as a vocalist, with her most notable achievement to date being as guest vocalist on the 2007 hit ‘Unvited’ by Freemasons (in addition to backing vocals on her mum’s recent albums). At time of writing Judie Tzuke shows no signs of slowing in her 50s, either as a songwriter or performer.

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