Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Birth Of A Crescendo Rock Quartet, Or Maybe Quintet

If I were to pose the question which country of origin did The Babys hail from, I would think a good number might say the U.S.  After all that was the country they enjoyed a good deal of commercial success in during the late 70s, but despite their power pop/A.O.R. music style, the rock quartet actually hailed from London.  The Babys managed to align themselves with the power ballad movement which burst to prominence in the U.S. from the mid to late 70s and hit its peak during the 1980s.  The power ballad generally followed a formula of sorts, which could best be described as crescendo rock.  Two examples of that era that encapsulate the crescendo rock formula were ‘More Than A Feeling’ by Boston, and ‘Baby It’s You’ by Promises, both of which took listeners on an emotional and sensory rollercoaster ride of under 4 minutes, but the likes of Journey, REO Speedwagon, Styx, Heart, and Foreigner all enjoyed considerable success during the era.  A song’s intro and verses would feature a gentler vocal with delicate crisp keyboard or guitar accompaniment, and would then explode in a surging, spine tingling, wall of sound chorus that completely envelops the listener - rinse and repeat with a refined middle eight, refrain, or bridge thrown in - and there you have it, crescendo rock for the masses.  Of course writing a hit song, even one that taps into a formulaic approach is never that easy, otherwise countless other bands would have cracked the top 40 code.  As it happened, an English band, became one of the leading proponents of the power ballad/crescendo rock genre.

In 1976, the British music scene had been hijacked by punk, but not everyone was enamoured with minimalist thrashing and destruction of instruments.  A more palatable and appealing diversion from punk was delivered in the form of power pop.  So it was that a young singer and guitarist called John Waite co-founded The Babys.  Waite had been playing in rock and jazz bands since he was a teen, and only ever considered one career path.  The name of The Babys was chosen as ironic, because the band intended to play a boisterous brand of music.  Waite actually took on bass duties in addition to vocals, and was joined in The Babys by Wally Stocker (guitar), Mike Corby (keyboards/guitar), and Tony Brock (drums).  They adopted an interesting strategy to attract interest, not from British record labels, but from the potentially more lucrative Stateside scene.  Producer Mike Mansfield came up with the concept for one of the first video demos.  A budget of US$10,000 (substantial dough in those days) was used to produce the video, which highlighted the groups looks and image as much as the music they were playing - Waite did his best Ziggy Stardust impression, appearance wise.  It was a gamble, but one that paid dividends as The Babys were signed by the Chrysalis Records label.  Chrysalis already had several high profile A.O.R. (album oriented rock) acts on their books, and recognised the potential of the English quartet to crack the lucrative U.S. market.  There was no point in playing on the British invasion angle, and all the resources in terms of recording, production, promotion were geared toward presenting The Babys as a U.S. style power pop/AOR artist and gaining significant airplay on FM radio.

In late ‘76, The Babys eponymous debut album was released.  The recording had been overseen by heavyweight producer Bob Ezrin, but of the ten tracks included none stood out as a hit single with the possible exception of the power ballad ‘Over And Over’.  Despite substantial marketing clout from Chrysalis ‘The Babys’ only managed to crawl to US#133 - but it was early days, and the band’s full potential had barely been tapped.

The band spent a considerable amount of 1977 in studio, this time with producer Ron Nevison, who had worked with the Todd Rundgren vehicle UFO.  The Babys debut set offered only a glimpse of their potential, but this time out the band delivered with a perfectly blended palette of elaborately balanced power ballads and stripped back, hard rocking numbers.  The suits at Chrysalis must have known they were on a winner, as a massive marketing campaign went into full swing for the release of The Babys’ sophomore album ‘Broken Hearts’ (US#34/OZ#9).  The lead out single was the stunning power ballad (crescendo rock) ‘Isn’t It Time’.  The single was a tour de force and showcased both The Babys as a unit, and John Waite’s range as a vocalist.  It mattered not that ‘Isn’t It Time’ wasn’t penned by the band, as The Babys made it their own in studio.  The intro and verse act as the calm before a storm, caressing the listener with pure soothing sounds, before organised bedlam is unleashed in the chorus, with John Waite trading vocal refrains with The Babettes (the female backing vocalists), whilst a lush orchestral filled the sonic palette with brass and string backing.  It was a powerhouse song, unpretentious in style, and breathtaking in delivery.  ‘Isn’t It Time’ peaked at #13 on the U.S. charts (perhaps shy of expectations), #45 in Britain, but surged all the way to the toppermost of the poppermost in Australia, that’s #1 by the way.  The follow up single ‘Silver Dreams’ (US#53) showcased The Babys mastery of simple, delicate, atmospheric playing, and is perfectly counterbalanced with a track like the guitar driven ‘And If You Could See Me Fly’.  The Babys also toured extensively in support of the album, adding further to their growing profile Stateside.

Soon after the release of ‘Broken Hearts’, The Babys underwent their first personnel change with the departure of keyboardist Mike Corby, who was replaced by a key song writing addition to the mix in the form of Jonathan Cain, whilst bass player Ricky Phillips was also recruited to free up Waite for vocal and rhythm guitar duties.  All of this took place during the sessions for the band’s new album.  On initial presentation to the studio suits, the band were told to make some changes which included adding in a few new songs rounding out to a track listing of nine new songs.  ‘Head First’ (US#22/OZ#18) hit the shelves in early ‘79, and was supported by the title track lead single (US#77) penned by the original core trio of Waite, Brock and Stocker.  Most of the other tracks were also written in house, including the energetic rocker ‘Love Don’t Prove I’m Right’ and the acoustic ballad ‘You (Got It)’, but the stand out track wasn’t penned by the band themselves.  ‘Everytime I Think Of You’ proved a perfect book end of sorts to ‘Isn’t It Time’.  The intro to ‘Everytime I Think Of You’ gently welcomes the listener with John Waite’s restrained vocals, and Jonathan Cain on piano.  Sweet shimmering strings are overlaid to enrich proceedings as Waite continues to caress with his vocals.  Thirty seconds in Tony Brock’s drums burst to life, and surging strings flow in unison.  John Waite’s energised vocals are met in kind by the Babettes vocal refrains as they trade lines through the surging wall of sound chorus.  Time to take a breath as all grows quiet over the bandscape for the next verse, and repeat escalation of intensity toward the next chorus  that comes rushing toward a crescendo.  Enter guitarist Wally Stocker to deliver a sublime and restrained solo overladen with a lush string arrangement bridging to Waite delivering one more verse which pulsates into the final tumultuous chorus and fade to finish.  It’s impossible to capture in words the sheer brilliance of a track like ‘Everytime I Think Of You’, but a US#13 and OZ#6 chart result in early ‘79 doesn’t do justice to the song, which would prove to be, in my humble opinion, The Babys’ finest moment.

In 1980 The Babys waved their British heritage by entitling their new album ‘Union Jacks’ (US#42/OZ#58), ironic given newish recruits Cain and Phillips are American.  The band also moved in a slightly different musical direction, hinted at on the album cover which featured the band with black leather jackets and serious rock cred facial expressions.  Studio time for the album had been shared with producer Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Pat Benatar, Journey, Foreigner), who helped the band move away from some of the ornate power balladry of albums past, and engage with the more immediate and pared back sound of new wave/power pop.  Cain’s synthesizer and Stocker’s punchy guitar come to the fore to compliment Waite’s vocals, whilst Phillips and Brock pump out infectious rhythm lines.  Perhaps the closest to the band’s previous lush crescendo rock is the title track which at almost six minutes far exceeds the track times elsewhere on the album.  The single ‘Midnight Rendezvous’ (US#72) shapes up as a quintessential new wave synth/guitar driven track, but it lacks that hook laden quality offered by much of the competition at the time.  The follow up single, ‘Back On My Feet Again’ (US#33/OZ#92), is a personal favourite of mine and for some reason reminds me of The Who - perhaps its Jonathan Cain’s synth-riff.

Late in 1980, The Babys released their fifth and, what would prove to be, final studio album.  ‘On The Edge’ (US#71/OZ#98) was wall to wall Babys’ compositions, which might on the surface suggest team harmony, but on closer inspection (and listening) it was clear that there were some unhappy Babys in the crèche…um….studio.  The band’s level of frustration had grown over the course of their last album, which failed to build on the success of earlier albums by delivering a knock out blockbuster hit.  Cain once more was positioned front and centre with his keyboard and synthesizer riffs but the hand is overplayed, and the overall balance of the album suffers as a result.  The Cain and Waite penned ‘Turn And Walk Away’ (US#42) was an agreeable little rocker and was an apt title to round out The Baby’s Hot 100 experience.  There’s nothing inherently sub par about the tracks on ‘On The Edge’, it’s just that nothing stands out as a track that you’d want to play over and over.

If the band had been ‘on the edge’ while recording the album, they effectively went over the edge soon after.  With internal disputes rife and seemingly a loss in musical direction and inspiration, keyboardist Jonathan Cain was the first to go separate ways in early ‘81 when he joined Journey (see previous posts).  Soon after Brock, Stocker and two smoking barrels…oops, I mean Phillips moved on to other projects.  That left vocalist John Waite with only one choice, to embark on a solo career.  In time that career would exceed the pinnacle of The Babys’ achievements, and would eventually lead down a road toward reconciliation with some of his Babys’ cohorts.

But all of that is a tale for another post - coming soon to a blog near you, in fact this blog.

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