Saturday, May 31, 2008

Life Gets Better For Graham Parker

One of the key figures to emerge from the British pub-rock scene in the 70s was Graham Parker., who with contemporaries Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Nick Lowe formed a whole new generation of respected singer/songwriters. He quickly gained a reputation for being an angry, outspoken young man, a Bob Dylan for the punk generation. His early work was much edgier, a folk-rock base overladen with snarling vocals and a bubbling rock energy.

Having beaten about the musical traps for the first part of the 70s, by 1975 Graham Parker had caught the attention of Stiff Records co-founder Dave Robinson. After piecing together a backing band, The Rumour, Parker released his debut album ‘Howlin’ Wind’ (1976) through the Mercury label, garnering almost universal critical acclaim. The album was produced by Nick Lowe, who not surprisingly produced Elvis Costello’s early work soon thereafter. Two more albums followed in quick succession but by early 1978 it was apparent that the newer kid on the block Elvis Costello was ascending far more quickly that Parker through the rock ranks, and soon eclipsed him for profile.

Parker felt constricted with his Mercury contract, and released the 1978 double live album ’The Parkerilla’ as a means to satisfy the terms of the contract and gain a release. Lifted from that album (in studio form) was the track ‘Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions’, which ironically became Graham Parker & The Rumour’s biggest Australian hit (#24) at arguably an overall low point in Parker’s career to date. Parker signed with Arista Records and would soon enter his most successful period. He kicked it off with a radio favourite at the time, a live version of the old Jacksons’ hit ‘I Want You Back’. His first album for Arista was 1979’s ‘Squeezing Out Sparks’ which featured the rough edges smoothed out and yielded the hit single ‘Local Girls’. It was very well received by both critics and fans alike and reignited the career of Graham Parker. The album sold over 200,000 copies and reached the U.K. top 20 and U.S. top 40. A follow up album in 1980, ‘The Up Escalator’, didn’t in fact take Parker to a higher career point, once again things seeming to stall in commercial and critical terms. Parker’s backing group The Rumour soon left the scene, and in 1982 Parker released the ‘radio friendly’ album ‘Another Grey Area’, using his fourth producer in as many outings, this time Jack Douglas (who had produced John Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy’).

1983’s ‘album ‘The Real Macaw’ also failed to ignite widespread awareness, but did yield my favourite Graham Parker track ‘Life Gets Better’. It was a fantastic pop song that truly put a smile on your dial, and I swear that the song and vocal delivery would have been comfortably at home on an Elvis Costello album, though the lyric lacked the acerbic Costello edge. The song didn’t chart in the U.K. or U.S. but did enjoy a good stay on the Australian charts (20 weeks) peaking at #35. I first nabbed a copy of the song via a compilation album called ‘1983 Summer Breaks’, and eventually tracked down a CD copy a few years back via an Arista Records compilation of Parker’s ‘Best Of’ work with the label. ‘The Real Macaw’ was in fact Parker’s last album with Arista, and in 1985 he released ‘Steady Nerves’ on Elektra Records (which featured the U.S. top 40 single ‘Wake Up Next To You‘). The Elektra deal was a short lived arrangement and it took until 1988 for another Graham Parker album to see the light of day with ‘The Mona Lisa’s Sister’ on RCA. It was a minor comeback of sorts by Parker, spending 19 weeks inside the U.S. top 100. But sadly it was a short lived comeback as follow up sets ’Live! Alone In America’ (1989), ’Human Soul’ (1990) and ’Struck By Lightning’ (1991) failed to strike gold with anyone but his most ardent followers.

Parker then moved back to working with the independent label, having worked with all but one of the major labels to that point. The Razor & Tie label released ‘12 Haunting Episodes’ in 1995. Rejuvenated by his new found freedom from the pressure of big label politics, Parker released a further two albums shortly after including ‘Acid Bubblegum’, a nice little paradoxical reflection of Parker’s music to that point. His work has remained regular and, at least for his loyal fan base, satisfying over the last decade up to and including his last album release with 2007’s ‘Don’t Tell Columbus’.

Whilst Graham Parker may not have notched up the same number of gold records and hit singles as the man who he was so often compared unfavourable to in Elvis Costello, he has produced some fine albums along the way. Most notably ‘Howlin Wind’ and ‘Squeezing Out Sparks’ which was named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top rock albums of all time.

Geisha Experience A Short Time Chart Affair

Australian band Geisha had a string of minor hit singles during the mid 80s, the biggest of which was their 1986 hit ‘Part Time Love Affair‘ (#24). Sadly Geisha would never crack the top 20 despite writing some of the most finely crafted pop music of the era.

The Melbourne band formed in 1983 as Geisha Detail, drawing on musical and stylistic influences such as 70s glam rock and English New Romantic bands such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. At the heart of the band was singer/guitarist Chris Doheny. Doheny wrote the liner notes to Geisha’s 1998 ‘Best Of’ CD, and gave some interesting insights into the bands development and history. Doheny himself had been involved in bands since he was 14, inheriting a musical legacy of sorts from hits family. As he wrote “music is in my blood”. On the origins of the band’s name Doheny explained that his father had spent a lot of time in Japan immediately post-war. Doheny had been brought up with countless stories and had developed an interest in the culture. It was his idea that Geisha Detail’s members tie khaki brown died bandages around their calves in homage to Japanese soldiers - this was a fashion accessory Duran Duran had already employed in early promo clips.

With INXS as another strong influence musically, Geisha Detail started to take shape. After a legal dispute with a former member of the naming rights, Doheny changed the name simply to Geisha. Other members in the band during this period included Doheny’s younger brother Donoghue, recruited to bass. Geisha shared the same management as Pseudo Echo, who had recently broken through to the big time. The band was building up a solid live following and had sent out countless demo tapes looking for that same big break afforded stable-mates Pseudo Echo. That big break came via Michael Matthews at EMI in Sydney, who after receiving a blank tape from Geisha (an honest mistake) went to see the band play live. At the time Geisha were playing support for a small time U.S. act called Berlin. It was late 1984 and Geisha’s time had come. By year’s end they had recorded their debut single ‘Fools Way’. It received solid airplay and was promoted with a moderately expensive promo-clip, but fell just short of the Australian Top 50 (#53).

Within a few months Geisha’s eponymous debut album was released, and by the end of 1985 things were looking on the up and up. A solid touring schedule continued, and Geisha was regularly sharing the bill with the likes of Eurogliders, Kids In The Kitchen and Pseudo Echo. Chris Doheny wrote that ‘it was a lot of fun’. In December ‘85 the song ‘Kabuki’ (#42) debuted which was the first song I recall hearing of Geisha’s, and remains to this day one of my favourites. 1986 was a turbulent time for the band with several lineup changes, and the band’s biggest hit ‘Part Time Love Affair’ (which charted as high as #3 in the band’s hometown of Melbourne). By late ‘86 Geisha had been pruned down to a three piece, comprising Doheny, Ken Sheppard (bass) and Brett Luton (drums). Within months a completely revamped and expanded lineup was fronting audiences, with only Chris Doheny the constant. Doheny explained in retrospect he felt all the changes were a mistake as “all they did was confuse and alienate our audience”. He also wrote that had the original lineup been kept together Geisha would have been “much more successful”.
A second album ‘Midnight To Dawn’ (late 1987)failed to build on the foundations of the first, though yielded one moderately successful single in ‘Calling Your Name’ (#57). In April 1988 Doheny announced the end of Geisha due to a myriad of legal and contractual issues that were weighing the band down. Doheny went on to play in several covers bands through the late 80s and early 90s. In 1997 he issued his debut solo single ‘Can You Hear The Rain?’. In 1998 the original line-up of Geisha reformed to play a gig marking 10 years since the band’s break-up. Material originally recorded for a planned third album back in 1988 has recently been released for the first time as the CD ‘No Second Prize’, as well as Chris Doheny releasing the CD ‘Acoustic Memoirs Of Geisha’ (a subtle reference to the movie title - I think not).

In my humble opinion Chris Doheny was one of the most talented song-writers to emerge from the Aussie pop/rock scene during the 80s. I was fortunate enough to purchase a copy of ‘The Very Best Of Geisha’ on CD back in the late 90s. It’s rare to say about any group’s ‘best of’, but there really isn’t a dud track on this compilation. I haven’t seen it around in the shops for years but most of Geisha’s original material is now currently available through Chris Doheny’s website, which has a link to the CD reissues.

Check out the promo clip for ‘Part Time Love Affair’ for a taste of Geisha:

Friday, May 30, 2008

Icicle Works Heats Up The Charts

Rock trio Icicle Works were among the throng of pop/rock acts that burst forth from the British new wave/neo punk music landscape of the early 80s. Liverpool native Robert Ian McNabb (vocals/guitar) had formerly played with City Lights, then Sunset Boulevard, before joining with Chris Layhe (bass) and Chris Sharrock (drums) to form Icicle Works in 1979. They took their name from the title of short story by science fiction writer Frederik Pohl.

Having released a couple of independent singles without much notice, Icicle Works signed with the flourishing Beggars Banquet label in 1983. Shortly after they released ‘Love Is A Wonderful Colour’ which turned a whiter shade of gold by reaching #15 on the British charts late in ‘83.
1984 saw the band breakthrough on the U.S. charts for the first and only time. Taken from their self titled album, the song ‘Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)’, as it was titled in the U.K., had its title re-jigged slightly to read ‘Whisper To A Scream (Birds Fly)’ for an American audience. Having reached only #53 in the U.K. (at its second attempt), the title rearrangement had some small affect with the song peaking at #37 in the U.S. and making the Canadian Top 20.

‘Whisper To A Scream (Birds Fly)’ featured multiple drum tracks, not unlike some other acts going around at the time like Adam & The Ants, Bow Wow Wow and King Trigger - though Icicle Works carried more ‘weight‘ in musical terms along the lines of Killing Joke or Simple Minds. The drum-line gave the song a pulsating effect that was hard to resist, well if you liked your music heavy on the percussion. I can’t help but think of Big Country also when I hear the song - power pop with a thumping beat. The bands eponymous debut album also cracked the U.S. and U.K. Top 40.

But Icicle Works would remain on the fringes of the rock scenes A-list for the remainder of the 80s, never quite being able to translate solid critical respect to sustained commercial appeal. The band had moved away from its harder edged new wave sound to explore other musical influences that could be argued to have alienated some of the bands traditional fan base. It wasn’t uncommon for an Icicle Works album like ’The Small Price Of A Bicycle’ or a single like ’Understanding Jane’ to lurk just outside the British Top 50. As for the American market, Icicle Works would sadly be consigned to one-hit wonder status, never quite fulfilling their potential realised by Merseyside contemporaries Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. By decades end Icicle Works a fury of personnel changes failed to gel and the band had been dumped by their record label, soon melting away to nothing. Among the horde of revolving door members during the last couple of years the Icicle Works was in business, was drummer Zak Starkey (son of Ringo).

Original drummer Sharrock went on to join The La’s, followed later by World Party and would play for the likes of Robbie Williams and Eurythmics. The heart and soul of the band Ian McNabb was signed to an independent label in 1991 and scored a couple of minor U.K. chart hits in 1993, including the well received album ’Truth & Beauty’. McNabb showed himself to be a durable talent throughout the 90s, punching out two more top 30 albums with ’Head Like A Rock’ and ’Merseybeast’. In 2006 Ian McNabb resurrected Icicle Works featuring ‘second generation’ bassist Roy Corkill and two new recruits in addition to McNabb, and the lineup has played sporadically across the U.K. over the last two years.

Ol '55 Do An Aussie Sha Na Na

Ol' 55 formed in Sydney during 1975, taking their name from the title of a Tom Waits song. But the music their image and the music they would perform could not have been further from Tom Waits. The band were managed by Glenn A. Baker and he played a hand in establishing their image and sound. Just as Sha Na Na and Flash Cadillac & The Continental Kids had done in America, Ol' 55 decided Australia were due an offering of 50s style rock ‘n’ roll delivered by a band that looked like that had just enjoyed a quantum leap direct from, yep that’s right 1955. (‘Happy Days’ was at the height of its popularity after all)

The authentic fifties rocker attire, greased up hairstyles added to the band’s strong stage presence and theatrics, but that would have been nothing had they not been able to deliver musically. Ol’ 55 were fronted by former chartered accountant Peter Bryan AKA the larger than life Frankie J. Holden (in honour of the iconic FJ Holden car). The band’s original lineup also featured Rockpile Jones (rhythm guitar/vocals), Patrick Drummond (lead guitar/vocals), Jimmy Manzie (bass/vocals), Wilbur Wilde (saxophone) and Geoff ‘Stovepipe’ Plummer (drums).

It didn’t take long for the slick stage act delivering a mix of classic rock numbers combined with 50s style original material (written by Manzie) to build up a strong following on the live circuit. Within a year they had released their first national top 20 single with ‘On The Prowl’. The song was lifted from Ol’ 55’s debut album ‘Take It Greasy’ which would eventually climb to #2, selling double platinum and spending 39 weeks on the charts. Their cover of ‘Looking For An Echo’ broke the band into the OZ Top 10 in mid ‘76, and this was quickly followed up by the irresistibly catchy Christmas song ‘(I Want A) Rockin’ Christmas’ which soured all the way to #7 in time for the festive season. Ol’ 55 became a regular on the ABC’s Countdown over this time, and for a while they were flying high with the likes of Sherbet and Skyhooks.

Early ‘77 saw a drummer recruited in Geoff ‘Spud’ Peterkin, and shortly after ‘C’mon Let’s Do It’ became the band’s 4th top 20 single in a row. By mid ‘77 both Frankie J. Holden and Wilbur Wilde had left the lineup, Wilde went on to join Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons shortly after. Mike Raffone was brought in to take on the lead vocals (ex-Silver Studs whose biggest hit was ‘Happy Days’). A second album ‘Fiveslivejive’ had been recorded prior to Holden/Wilde leaving but upon its release it failed to live up to the success of ‘Take It Greasy’.

A new single was recorded and released late in ‘77, ‘Stay (While The Night Is Young)’ reached #11. By 1978 Ol’55 were reduced to a five piece featuring Jones, Drummond, Manzie sharing the vocal duties. Ol’ 55 also tried their hand at a more contemporary power pop sound on their next single ‘Feels Like A Summer’s Night’ (#23). The next album ‘Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’ was released late in ‘78 but was lost in the rush of the burgeoning disco and punk movements. Ol’ 55 did break into the top 40 with the single ‘Ruby’ (#36) but for the remainder of ‘79 the band’s profile waned.

Soon after a major split occurred between the remaining original members. Bassist and main song-writer Jim Manzie was keen to continue the band’s new power-pop direction, whilst guitarists Jones and Drummond wanted to return to the bands original retro-rock style. Pat Drummond and Rockpile Jones left and took with them the name Ol’ 55. They recruited new players (including original drummer Geoff Plummer) and signed a new recording deal with RCA. 1980 saw this ‘new’ Ol’ 55 release a cover version of the Lou Christie classic ‘Two Faces Have I’ (US#6 1963), the song climbing as high as #15 mid-year. But it would be the last hurrah on the charts for Ol’ 55, the ongoing attempt to keep the flame alive on rock ‘n’ roll classics being snuffed out by the surge of new wave acts.

Manzie and Peterkin had gone on to form power-pop outfit The Breakers which folded within a year, after which time Manzie went on to be a producer. Ol’ 55 has been reunited several times over the years with various lineups and under various monikers, none of which were substantive. Wilbur Wilde went on to a career in television, whilst Frankie J. Holden has established a successful acting career.

Much of the bands material is readily available, save for the material recorded late in the piece with RCA. Don’t take this as official but I have heard that the masters for this material were lost or damaged, so the only way that you can find a copy of ‘Two Faces Have I’ is via a vinyl rip like this one: LINK REMOVED
Please refer to the comments from 'Mac61' below, for some additional information regards the vocal duties undertaken by various members of Ol'55.

Scarlett & Black Just Miss Gold

Scarlett & Black added their name to the honour roll of one hit wonders of the 80s with the single ‘You Don’t Know’ which reached #20 on the U.S. Billboard charts in early 1988. The song failed to chart in the U.K. or Australia, though I’m at a loss to know why. It did receive a fair amount of airplay around my home state of NSW and when I heard it I immediately purchased the vinyl 45. It even had the right sound to for the time, reminiscent of the likes of Climie & Fisher, T’pau and Boy Meets Girl. But alas it just didn’t hit the mark beyond the U.S.

Scarlett & Black’s self titled album barely registered on the charts, creeping up to #107, and also didn’t yield any further hit singles. The subject of one of my recent posts, Jane Wiedlin provided backing vocals on the album track ‘City Of Dreams (The Last Frontier)’. Former Australian pop heartthrob Mark Holden wrote the album track ‘Miracle Or Mirage’.

Scarlett & Black were in actuality the duo of Robin Hild (singer/songwriter/keyboardist) and Sue West (singer/songwriter), who was formerly a backing vocalist for U.K. outfit Doctor And The Medics (‘Spirit In The Sky’ 1986 UK#1). It was through their mutual work as session singers and songwriters that the pair met during 1983, whilst West was working with Doctor And The Medics.

Sue West went on to play with Los Angeles based power pop outfit Sparkle* Jet U.K. from the mid 90s through to the early 00s. The band enjoyed moderate regional success around California and the U.S. West Coast. Robin Hild has continued his work as a songwriter including composing tracks for single Fiona.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When Are Was (Not Was) Not Brothers?

In late ‘87 a song debuted on the Australian Charts called ‘Walk The Dinosaur’. It featured an infectious chorus full of nonsensical lyrics and was accompanied by a cool video clip. It struck the right chord with listeners who sent the song all the way to #9 in early ‘88. It reached #10 in the U.K. and #7 in the artists native U.S. But just who were Was (Not Was)?

Was (Not Was) was in fact a loosely assembled and variable R&B ensemble under the creative direction of composer/bassist Don Was and his ‘brother’ lyricist/flutist David Was. But just who were Don Was and David Was, and were they really brothers? Well, the short answer is that no they were not actually brothers in the sibling sense of the word. Don Was was born Don Fagenson, whilst David Was was also known as David Weiss. Having known each other since highschool the two started collaborating musically in 1980/1 in Detroit, setting about redefining musical genre boundaries, unafraid to mix and match styles, instruments and vocalists in search of the right sound. Incidentally the pair arrived at the name Was (Not Was) from a word game of Fagenson’s son.

Was (Not Was)’ eponymous debut album employed numerous musicians and vocalists, including members of P-Funk and Brownsville Station. Sweet Pea Atkinson performed the vocals on three tracks, and together with Sir Harry Bowens (formerly of the O’Jays) would become a regular vocalist over several Was (Not Was) albums. A fluid mix of dance, funk and rock melded together into a surprisingly coherent musical hybrid with acerbic/eccentric lyrical accompaniment, would prove over time to be their trademark. David Was characterised their music as “chocolate-covered razor blades” - sweet music containing cutting lyrics. The Was ’brothers’ were not averse to taking risks and each album proved to contain innovative and cutting edge elements. In doing so there was a certain amount of hit and miss in terms of wider commercial appeal, but it seemed to be a small price to pay to maintain the integrity of Was (Not Was).

The duo’s third album ‘What Up Dog?’ proved to be a breakthrough in chart success for Was (Not Was). In the U.S. the single ‘Spy In The House Of Love’ was the first to penetrate the fortress of the Billboard Hot 100, infiltrating all the way to #16. But that eccentric little funk number ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ was the song to breach the Oz and U.K. charts first. The album itself enjoyed limited commercial success but was a huge hit in critical terms. The third single released from ‘What Up Dog?’ was ‘Anything Can Happen’, a sweet soulful tune with a superb vocal by Sir Harry Bowens. The song only made the lower reaches of the U.S. and U.K. charts and missed the Australian chart altogether but I felt it was the finest song to come from the creative minds of Don and David Was (sadly my purchase of the vinyl 45 at the time failed to propel it into the charts).

In 1992 Was (Not Was) enjoyed one more foray into the Australia singles charts with the hit ‘Shake Your Head’ (#41), the song becoming their biggest U.K. hit (#4). It featured one of the more incongruent vocal combinations in Ozzy Osbourne and Kim Basinger. Proof once more that radical can work over rational, especially with Don and David Was at the controls.

Was (Not Was) eclectic list of guest vocalists over the years have included Frank Sinatra Jr., Leonard Cohen, Iggy Pop, Kim Basinger, Elvis Costello and Donald Ray Mitchell. The list of guest players would be too longer to cover in this post. Don Was also took time to become one of the most sought after music producers, working on albums by artists as diverse as Was (Not Was)’ own alumni; Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, B-52s, Willie Nelson, Paula Abdul and Edie Brickell to name a few. He won the 1994 Grammy for Producer of the Year. After a 15 year hiatus Was (Not Was) reunited to release the album ‘Boo!’ in 2008, with Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens once again contributing to their brilliant vocals to the Was (Not Was) soundscape.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Go-Go Gets Stuck In Rush Hour

One of my favourite acts from the first half of the 80s were the Go-Go’s. The all-girl pop quintet formed in L.A. in 1978 (originally as the Misfits) and within three years were dominating airwaves around the world with tracks from their debut album ‘Beauty And The Beat’ (6 weeks at US#1). ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ (US#20, OZ#2) and ‘We Got The Beat’ (US#2, OZ#29) were instant 80s classics in my book, and many other books for that matter. Belinda Carlisle provided the vocals (and glamour), backed by guitarist/vocalist Jane Wiedlin, guitarist Charlotte Caffey, bassist Kathy Valentine and drummer Gina Schock.

All-girl pop/rock bands weren’t overly prevalent at that time but along with the Bangles, the Go-Go’s were the most successful in commercial terms. Their sophomore album ‘Vacation’ spawned another top 10 U.S. hit with the title track, and following an enforced break, due to guitarist Charlotte Caffey breaking her wrist, the band returned in 1984 with the album ‘Talk Show’ which yielded their last major hit single with ‘Head Over Heels’ (US#11). But all was not well within the group and by late ‘84 Jane Wiedlin had left, acting as a catalyst of sorts for the bands overall breakup shortly thereafter.

Belinda Carlisle went on to a solo career that, in commercial terms, dwarfed her achievements with the Go-Go’s - four top 10 singles both in the U.S. and Australia, and six top 10 British hits - ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ and ‘Leave A Light On’ among the biggest sellers. In relative terms the other former Go-Go girls didn’t fare as well; Charlotte Caffey formed the Graces with Merideth Brooks and Gia Ciambotti; Gina Schock fronted the short lived outfit House Of Schock; whilst Jane Wiedlin was finally given licence to take on the vocals fulltime when she launched her own solo career.

Wiedlin’s solo career may not have reached the dizzying chart heights of Belinda Carlisle, but it featured a number of hit albums/singles and showed Wiedlin to be a diverse and substantial talent in her own right. She released her debut self-titled album in 1985 which realised a minor hit single with ‘Blue Kiss’. Interestingly this wasn’t the first single to include Jane Wiedlin as a credited artist - in 1983 she featured on the single ‘Cool Places’ by duo Sparks (US#49). But it was Wiedlin’s second album that gave her a degree of credence as a solo artist. ‘Fur’ was released in 1988 and featured the hit singles ‘Rush Hour’ (US#9, UK#12) and ‘Inside A Dream’ (US#57, UK#64), but overall the album wasn’t received that well and languished outside the top 100.

The title track did provide a vehicle for Wiedlin to voice her protest at the fur industries cruelty to animals, and it was through this channel that Wiedlin organised the Go-Go’s reunion in 1990, which also coincided with a Go-Go’s ‘best of’. The reunion was brief though another more substantive one occurred in 1994 with new material recorded for the release ‘Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go’s’. Wiedlin also explored the world of acting with minor appearances in ’Star Trek IV’ (Wiedlin is a huge Star Trek fan), ’Clue’ and as Joan of Arc in the hit comedy ’Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’. But when the Go-Go’s reunited once more in 2000 and released 2001’s ’God Bless The Go-Go’s’ it’s a fair bet that Wiedlin would have welcomed being back in the fold as a Go-Go. That said Wiedlin has also performed voice-over work for TV, written a book about a three year stint living in Central America and continues to write and record music. The ‘rush hour’ of her career may have passed but Jane Wiedlin is still a Go-Go on the move.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Frankie Say 'Relax', Holly Say 'Blast'!

U.K. group Frankie Goes To Hollywood took the world by storm in the mid 80s. Storming into the British charts in late ‘83 with the single ‘Relax’ (produced by Trevor Horn), the quintet hailing from Liverpool (and who had been around since 1980) set up residence at the #1 position on the U.K. charts for a total of 15 weeks throughout 1984. ‘Relax’ (5), ‘Two Tribes’ (9) and ‘The Power Of Love’ (1) all reached the summit on the singles charts, whilst the double album from which they were lifted ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ also stood atop the charts for a week. ‘Relax’ also reached #10 in the U.S. (at the second attempt), and the same three single all went top 5 in Australia. In reaching #1 in the U.K. with their first three singles, Frankie Goes To Hollywood equalled the record set by Gerry & The Pacemakers in 1964.

It was a case of ‘top that’ for singer Holly Johnson (born William Johnson), backing vocalist Paul Rutherford, guitarist Nasher Nash, bassist Mark O’Toole and drummer Peter Gill, and sadly when they released their follow up album ‘Liverpool’ in 1986, it was in relative terms a huge flop (it still reached #5 in the U.K.). The closest thing to a major hit single from the album was ‘Rage Hard’ (UK#4). But neither album nor single reached the U.S. or Australian top 40. Within 12 months Frankie Goes To Hollywood had succumbed to internal and contractual problems and went their separate ways.

Vocalist Holly Johnson then spent the next two years in legal dispute with record label ZTT. Eventually Johnson was able to break free of his previous ‘Frankie’ contractual restrictions, and in 1989 he released his debut solo album ‘Blast’. The British public welcomed the returned of Holly Johnson, sending his album to #1. The first two singles were also received well. ‘Love Train’ (featuring Brian May on guitar) was a reworking of the old O’Jays hit and reached UK#4 (US#65, OZ#33), whilst ‘Americanos’ matched the UK#4 spot but missed the mark in the U.S. and Australia (#92). ‘Americanos’ was a playful take on the cultural vagaries of American society and was accompanied by a clever promo clip.

Holly Johnson released a follow up album with 1991’s ‘Dreams That Money Can’t Buy’ but it sold poorly. Johnson soon after was diagnosed with HIV and largely retreated from the recording biz. He published an autobiography in 1994 entitled ‘A Bone In My Flute’, and continued his work as an artistic painter. After forming his own recording label ‘Pleasuredome’ in 1999, Johnson released a third LP ‘Soulstream’. I can recall seeing a VH1 ‘Bands Reunited’ special from circa 2003 that focussed on Frankie Goes To Hollywood. They did manage to get all the former bandmates in the same room together, including Holly Johnson, but it was Johnson he decided not to go ahead with a concert reunion performance. Probably a good thing given almost twenty years had past and it would have a been a long shot to have recaptured that original ‘Frankie’ energy and verve. Whatever the issues were with the band’s protracted and messy demise, Frankie Goes To Hollywood shone as bright as any pop/rock act could, albeit only briefly - they were the 80s pop supernova.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Little Carl's No Little Stevie But This Detroit Kid's Still OK!

When singer Carl Carlton notched up his one and only career chart hit in Australia in 1983, it belied the fact that he already had a 15 year career established in the U.S. including a top 10 hit almost a decade earlier.

The Detroit native was originally signed at age 14 by talent scouts from Lando Records. He contract was bought out by Texas label Back Beat Records, and in a marketing ploy he changed his name initially to Little Carl Carlton, modelled after the early career of (Little) Stevie Wonder. Little Carl Carlton scored a top 40 R&B hit in the U.S. in 1968 with ‘Competition Ain’t Nuthin’, and over the course of the next two years racked up another three R&B top 40 hits including 1970s ‘Drop By My Place’. Carl Carlton had by then reached an age where the ‘Little’ moniker was no longer tenable and it seemed that his career might have stalled as a result.

Having recorded his version of ‘Everlasting Love’ (a 1967 hit for Robert Knight) in 1972, it was shelved by his recording label until 1974. Upon its eventual release (remixed with a stronger disco feel appropriate for the time) the now all grown up Carl Carlton had his first and only top 10 hit on the mainstream U.S. charts. A minor hit ‘Smokin Room’ (#91 1975) followed then contractual problems once again threatened to prematurely end Carlton’s fledgling career. After several years in the music wilderness, during which time Carlton released only one single, he resurrected his career once more with the 1981 single ’She’s A Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked’ (US#22). The harder edged funk sound was accompanied by a raunchier image for Carlton on his accompanying self titled album.

But again the timing wasn’t quite right and Carl Carlton’s career began to wane once more over the course of the 80s but did include that one and only Australian chart hit in early 1983. ‘Baby, I Need Your Loving’ was taken from Carlton’s fifth studio album ‘The Bad C.C.’ (1982). The song itself was originally a smash for the legendary Four Tops in 1964 (also charting in Australia and Britain for Fourmost) and Johnny Rivers (1967). Carl Carlton’s version was more contemporary in sound with heavy synth and electronic drums. Sacrilege you may quip, but I don’t think the 80s dance/funk treatment of this soul classic in any way undermined the songs shining quality, in fact it gave it an interesting new lease on life. ’Baby I Need Your Loving’ reached #12 in Australia and charted for a marathon 27 weeks but failed to attract the same level of attention in the U.S. beyond the R&B charts.

Carlton took an extended break from recording following 1985’s ‘Private Property’, recording just one album during the 90s with ‘Main Event’, but returned to a more productive period between 2001 and 2004 releasing four albums. Though never rising to the career heights of Stevie Wonder, Carl Carlton has managed to maintain a viable presence in the music industry for over 35 years, and by any measure that’s a fine achievement.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fall Of Rome Signals Reyne Of New Solo Empire

By the time aussie band Australian Crawl’s race was run in January 1986, they had sold over a million records in Australia alone. Seven top 20 singles, including the #1 ‘Reckless (Don’t Be So)’, and five top five albums were only part of Australian Crawl’s musical legacy. They were one of the most popular live drawcards of the era, and without doubt a large part of that appeal could be attributed to their charismatic front man James Reyne. It was always going to be a tough gig to follow Australian Crawl, but it was a fair bet the Nigerian born Australian James Reyne would meet the challenge.

It took Reyne over a year following the break-up of Australian Crawl before he finally scored a solo recording deal. The deal came via a contact with Roger Davies one time manager for Sherbet, then Tina Turner and Olivia Newton-John. In a twist of fate Reyne would later play the part of Roger Davies in the 1993 Tina Turner bio-pic ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’. With the services of producer Davitt Sigerson and a host of top American session players at his disposal, James Reyne’s debut self titled album was released in September 1987.

‘James Reyne’ soared up the Australian charts and eventually peaked at #4, in the process going triple platinum (210,000 copies). The album’s success was in part fuelled by a string of brilliant single releases. ‘Fall Of Rome’ was the first single released a month in advance of the album release. It was a guitar driven rock number featuring Reyne’s signature vocal drawl and surged to #3. The follow up single ‘Hammerhead’ (#8) was my favourite Reyne track (of that album or any other). In contrast to ‘Fall Of Rome’, ‘Hammerhead’ was a slower tempo number with a strong blues based rhythm line, and featured backing vocals from Olivia Newton-John. I guess it would be like comparing Australian Crawl’s ‘Things Don’t Seem’ with ‘Downhearted’. I did hear that 'Hammerhead' was an anti-drugs song. Either way Reyne had made the transition to solo act almost seamlessly. The album yielded three more hits with ‘Rip It Up’ (#34), ‘Heaven On A Stick’ (#59) and ‘Motors Too Fast’ (#4).

The follow up albums ‘Hard Reyne’ (1989) and ‘Electric Digger Dandy’ (1991) both went top 5 and the hit singles continued to flow. All the while James Reyne continued to grow as a songwriter/performer and explore new musical fields. 1992 saw him record a #2 hit duet with James Blundell covering the Dingoes song ‘Way Out West’. He then joined the Company Of Strangers with song writing partner Simon Hussey, session guitarist Jef Scott (who had worked with Reyne on his solo albums), old friend and aussie pop icon Daryl Braithwaite and also brother David Reyne (an original member of Australia Crawl). Company Of Strangers’ self titled album was a platinum effort, yielding three top 40 singles.

Reyne’s commercial returns dropped off in the latter part of the 90s but the critical acclaim continued for albums such as ‘The Whiff Of Bedlam’ (1995) and ‘Speedboats For Breakfast’ (2004). Following 2005’s acoustic album ‘And The Horse You Rode In On’ James Reyne latest album was ‘Every Man A King’ (2007). After 30 years in the biz James Reyne has proven himself a consummate professional with a rare talent for penning some of Australian rock music’s most memorable songs.