Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Call For The Ages

In mid ‘83 I heard a song on the radio that immediately roused my senses to fever pitch.  It was like a call to arms for the mind, body and spirit.  The song was ‘The Walls Came Down’ by the Call.  For all intents and purposes I was of the view (misapprehended as it was) that the Call were British - in fact I would have guessed Scottish to be more precise.  They just had that rousing ‘highlands’ passion to their sound (think Big Country or Simple Minds).  But as it happened, and as I discovered years later, the Call were in fact a quartet from Santa Cruz, California, formed in 1980.

The Call heard the call to instruments in 1980, comprising the quartet of Michael Been (vocals, guitar, and chief songwriter), Greg Freeman (bass), Scott Musick (drums), and Tom Ferrier (guitar).  By 1982, the Call had scored a recording contract with the Mercury label and released their eponymous debut album - recorded in England.  The album failed to make an impact on the charts, but earned positive reviews and came to the notice of Peter Gabriel (he of the Sledgehammer), who invited the band to open for him on his 1982 ‘Shock The Monkey’ tour (Gabriel was quite enamoured with the Call’s sound, referring to them as the ‘future of American music’).

1983 would witness a call to commercial breakthrough for the Call with the release of their sophomore album ‘Modern Romans’ (US#84/OZ#50).  The album was overtly political, or at least the songs within were in a lyrical sense.  None more so than the single ‘The Walls Came Down’ which was as ‘call to arms’ and ‘anthemic’ as they come.  Written by vocalist and guitarist Michael Been, the lyrics to ‘The Walls Came Down’ had been inspired by contemporary world events, as had many tracks on the ‘Modern Romans’ album.  ‘The Walls Came Down’ didn’t play on people’s fears (as the lyrics commented) but did play on their passion for rousing rock music.  Well they blew the horns and the song peaked at #74 on the U.S. Hot 100, but really found an audience here in Australia (OZ#21).  I recall seeing the black and white video on Countdown (black and white videos were all the rage circa 1983), and I remember wondering who the rather mature looking bearded gentleman on the keyboards was.  It was pointed out at the end of the video that it was none other than Garth Hudson, ex of the legendary Band.  Hudson contributed keyboards to the Call’s first three albums.

The Call had certainly come to the notice of critics and showed considerable commercial promise, but their third album didn’t produce according to the script.  1984’s ‘Scene Beyond Dreams’ (US#204) hit a different chord both lyrically and stylistically, with some of the rouse removed from rousing.  By this time bassist Greg Freeman had been replaced by keyboardist Jim Goodwin.  The album on the whole was a little too introspective and failed to find an audience beyond the Call’s core fan base.

The momentum initiated by ‘Modern Romans’ had been lost, and so too was the Call’s association with the Mercury label.  But Elektra Records still saw promise in the literate and fervent rock proffered by the Call and subsequently threw them a recording lifeline.  By 1986, the Call had emerged from the studio with their fourth album, titled ‘Reconciled’ (US#82), which revisited some of the Call’s earlier ardent stride to arms approach.  In mainstream terms it proved to be the band’s most commercially successful album to date, and it wowed the Call’s growing fan base on the college rock circuit.  The singles, the atmospheric and defiant ‘I Still Believe’ (US#17 - mainstream rock) and pulsating rocker ‘Everywhere I Go’ (US#38 - mainstream rock) both received airplay and commercial returns.  The ‘Reconciled’ album featured a star studded line-up of guest players - Peter Gabriel, Jim Kerr (Simple Minds), and the Band’s Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson - not bad credentials in that lot.

Once more the Call scaled back some of the rallying call motif for their 1987 album ‘Into The Woods’ (US#123), released on the Elektra label, and featuring the single ‘I Don’t Wanna’ (US#38 - mainstream rock), a lyrical declaration of intent.  The track ‘In The River’ was also well received on US college radio.  But something big was just over the horizon.

As if oscillating between stylistic extremes, the Call re-engaged with their buoyant, ardent pitch for their 1989 album ‘Let The Day Begin’ (US#64), released on the MCA label.  The lead out single was ‘You Run’, an
appealing pop-rock number, which peaked at #29 on the US mainstream rock chart (UK#78), and delivered a taste of what was about to come.  The album’s title track, ‘Let The Day Begin’, worked brilliantly as an anthem for the masses, everyone from the truck drivers to the school teachers to the ‘soldiers of the bitter war’.  The lyrics were matched with a strident and infectious guitar hook throughout.  ‘Let The Day Begin’ hit #1 on the U.S. mainstream rock chart (#51 Hot 100/ UK#42/OZ#74).

1990 saw the Call once more invert their sound to embrace a more roots oriented feel, not a million miles from the down home feel of the Band (logical that they would visit this style given Band-mates Hudson and Robertson had guest roles on earlier Call albums).  The single ‘What’s Happened To You’ (#39 US mainstream rock) was in its own laid back style a call for self reflection.  Taken from the ‘Red Moon’ album, the track featured backing vocals by none other than U2’s Bono.

In 1994, the Call’s front man Michael Been released a solo album, ‘On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakthrough’, and by 1997 the Call reconvened operations for the ‘Heaven & Back’ album.  That would prove to be the Call’s final studio album, but 2000 saw the release of the ‘Live Under The Red Moon’ set (does the title remind of another more well known live set?).  Following a lengthy stint on the road, the Call disbanded shortly after the album’s release.

Michael Been continued to work in the music business but as a soundman for his son Robert’s band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  Sadly, he suffered a fatal heart attack backstage in 2010.  Three years later, Jim Goodwin, Scott Musick, and Tom Ferrier reunited for a series of live shows, with Been’s son Robert handling vocal and bass duties.

Despite a great deal of promise and praise both from critics and peers, the Call didn’t manage to break free of a narrow bandwidth of popularity, mostly with college and indie rock circles.  A shame really, given their lyrical integrity and profundity of sound styles.

For those of you wanting to immerse yourself more in the world of the Call, there is an official website of the band of considerable quality which can be found here -

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