Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dr. Robert Is Digging Your Scene

Visually The Blow Monkeys were a quintessentially 80s band - stylish and sophisticated, with a slickness that seemed straight from the fashion handbook of the ‘brat pack’. In musical terms their style was painted with a broader palette, innovative and even provocative but eminently chic.

British born Bruce Howard had spent his formative years living in Australia where he developed an insatiable appetite for pop music, collecting thousands of vinyl 45s during his teen years. His first experience as a performer came busking at Sydney’s Circular Quay in the late 70s, followed by a stint in the Darwin based punk band Exhibit A. He returned to England ready to try his hand at recording some 45s of his own. Adopting the moniker of Dr. Robert, vocalist/guitarist Howard formed the Blow Monkeys with Mick Anker (bass), Neville Henry (saxophone) and Tony Kiley (drums).

The Blow Monkeys released their debut album in 1984. ‘Limping For A Generation’ wasn’t indicative of the upbeat pop sound to come, drawing on a darker post-punk new wave sound, and failed to make any impact. Songwriter Dr. Robert rewrote the prescription to come up with a sound that would prove far more appealing in commercial terms. Their 1986 sophomore album ‘Animal Magic’ (UK#21,US#35,OZ#54) benefited hugely from the lead out track ‘Digging Your Scene’. The song oozed the style that the band’s image evoked, a smooth soul-pop track that was just plain cool. ‘Digging Your Scene’ burrowed its way into world charts (UK#12,US#14,OZ#16, Ger#25,Hol#37, IT#24) and put The Blow Monkeys on the map. The follow up single ‘Wicked Ways’ (UK#60) missed capitalising on the band’s initial success.
January 1987 saw the release of the album ‘She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter’ (UK#20,OZ#88). Despite the classy song ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way’ (UK#5,OZ#88), which was very much in the same style as ‘Digging Your Scene’, the band couldn’t consolidate on their earlier foray into the U.S. market. Although the song did feature prominently in a scene from the comedy flick ‘Police Academy IV: Citizens On Patrol’ (if you’ve seen the film you’ll recall the touching romantic encounter in the park featuring Bobcat Goldthwaite’s manic character). The Blow Monkeys also contributed the track ‘You Don’t Own Me’ to the hit 1987 soundtrack ‘Dirty Dancing’ (a cover of the old Lesley Gore hit). Two more solid singles followed in ‘Out With Her’ (UK#30) and ‘(Celebrate) The Day After You’ (UK#52), the latter featuring Curtis Mayfield.

1989’s ‘Whoops! There Goes The Neighbourhood’ (UK#46) proved a noteworthy effort, yielding a number of solid chart hits in the U.K. The biggest of these was ‘Wait’ (UK#7), which was actually credited to Robert Howard and Kym Mazelle, and is ackowledged as one of the earlier examples of house music. The band received the credit for the others hits, ‘This Is Your Life’ (UK#32) and ‘Choice?’ (UK#22), the latter featuring vocalist Sylvia Tella. It’s worth observing that the Blow Monkeys also wore their political affiliations (anti-conservative) very strongly on their lyrical sleeve, though to their credit the political manifesto element to their lyrics didn’t compromise the music side of things. A greatest hits package ‘Choices’ was also released in 1989 and gave the band their only top five album.

But by this stage the Blow Monkeys’ achievements were restricted pretty much to the U.K. market. Their final album, 1990’s ‘Springtime For The World’, though inventive in its engagement with world music elements, reflected the decline in interest in the band by mainstream pop aficionados, with only the title track (UK#69) making the charts. Dr. Robert pulled the plug on the Blow Monkeys shortly after. He then recorded under the pseudonym of Slam Slam for a brief time, collaborating with vocalist Dee C. Lee, and followed this with several solo efforts (in fact releasing five solo albums from 1994 to 2001). Dr. Robert also worked with Paul Weller on Weller’s debut solo album ‘Wild Wood’ post The Style Council, a logical association given both The Blow Monkeys and The Style Council weren’t averse to infusing a café style soul element to their work. His most recent solo release was actually in partnership with PP Arnold on 2007’s ‘Five In The Afternoon’.

As with so many 80s pop alumni, The Blow Monkeys dusted off the back catalogue and reunited in 2007. The original quartet have recorded an album of new material ‘Devil’s Tavern’ and have a British tour scheduled in support of the album‘s release during September 2008.

An Aussie Queen Of Pop Gives Us Goosebumps

Singer Christie Allen will always hold a special place on the honour roll for Australian popular music. For an 18 month period during 1979 and 1980, Allen was the undisputed queen of Aussie pop.
English born Christie Allen had been fronting a Perth band called Pendulum when former Twilights guitarist Terry Britten saw the singer’s potential at one of the band’s gigs. Britten had been working in Britain as a songwriter/producer (he’d co-written Cliff Richard’s hit ‘Devil Woman’), but he returned to Australia fulltime to work with Allen. In late 1978 Christie Allen released her debut single ‘You Know That I Love You’ (#67), which though it wasn’t a major hit, did attract enough airplay and positive reviews to indicate bigger things on the horizon.

‘Falling In Love With Only You’ hit the Australian charts in April ‘79 and soon the music buying public were falling in love with Allen, sending the song to #20 on the charts. Allen had the formula just right for the time, musically laying strong pop hook toppings over a very danceable base. Her vocal style fused sultry disco diva with a girl next door sound, not unlike what Olivia Newton-John was doing around that time (think ‘Deeper Than The Night‘). Allen’s next single would move her into the court of Australian pop royalty. Aided by a seminal appearance from Christie Allen on ‘Countdown’, ‘Goosebumps’ hit the charts in September ‘79 and would go on to become one of the biggest selling singles by an Australian artist for the year. Peaking at #3 ‘Goosebumps’ was one of Mushroom Records all-time biggest selling single releases, spending 24 weeks on the charts and selling over 60,000 copies in the process.
The time was ripe for Allen to release her debut album, ‘Magic Rhythm’ debuting in November ‘79 and though it sold well enough (#59) light weight pop wasn’t the preferred dish for album buyers at that time. Regardless the album realised another major hit single shortly after when ‘He’s My Number One’ reached #4 in Australia in early 1980. All the while Christie Allen had continued a solid touring schedule, backed by The Hot Band which featured several members of Richard Clapton’s touring band.

I’m not sure what the odds were at the time but it was no doubt a sure bet that Christie Allen would take out the prestigious TV Week/Countdown Award for Most Popular Female Performer for both 1979 and 1980 (the equivalent of today’s ARIA Awards). Allen had reached the same level of popularity and acclaim that Marcia Hines had experienced in previous years. The title track ‘Magic Rhythm’ was the next single release but only reached a relatively disappointing #38. Such was Allen’s popularity at the time that she was also the singing voice for the then popular soft drink Tarino (I’d forgotten all about that drink - kinda like Fanta).

A second album ‘Detour’ (#96) was released in late 1980, preceded by the single ‘Baby Get Away’ (#38) but yielded only one other minor hit with ‘Don’t Put Out The Flame’ (#68) in 1981, by that time Terry Britten had moved on to work in the U.S. Sadly Allen had to pull back from her hectic touring and recording schedule due to ongoing health problems, completely robbing her of the momentum her career had established.

After starting a family, the 1990s saw Christie Allen return to music, albeit in a low profile capacity, fronting a number of country music acts. 1998 she appeared at the Mushroom 25 Live concert, performing her biggest hit ‘Goosebumps’. I recall seeing her interviewed at the time and she was overjoyed at being able to perform the song again, not just for her fans but for her children who were in attendance.

Allen’s main writer/producer Terry Britten went on to co-write more hits during the 80s with Tina Turner (‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’), and worked as a producer with Pete Shelley and James Reyne. Sadly, Christie Allen passed away in August 2008 after a battle with cancer.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mornin' Little Oriole

In around 1986 I recall seeing a music video on the Australian music video show ‘Sounds’ for a song called ‘Mornin’ by singer Al Jarreau. From memory I’m pretty sure Al Jarreau was touring Australia at that time and the video followed an interview he’d just done with ‘Sounds’ host Donnie Sutherland. The song ‘Mornin’ had actually been released a few years previous (1983), but had only made a minor impact on the Australian charts (#82), though it had performed considerably better in the U.K. (#28) and the U.S. (#21). All I knew was that this was a beautiful song by a guy who had an exceptional voice, and the clip brought a smile to the face every bit as much as the song itself.

The man behind the song Al Jarreau was already a veteran of the music business by the time ‘Mornin’ dawned on the charts. He’d been singing since the age of four, performing in and around his home town of Milwaukee, whilst growing up. During his college/university years (graduating with a Masters Degree in Vocational Rehabilitation), Jarreau performed with a vocal group called The Indigos on the side. A career working in rehabilitation was on the cards but increasingly Jarreau was being lured into the world of music as a fulltime professional concern. By the late 60s he was working regularly on the San Francisco jazz club circuit with jazz impresario George Duke. Soon after Jarreau had made the commitment to dedicate himself fully to his musical gift.

The next few years saw Al Jarreau hone his vocal craft working in Los Angeles and New York clubs and nightspots, and he was soon making guest appearances on national TV shows with such luminaries as Johnny Carson and David Frost. In 1975 he was signed to Warner Bros. Records and released his debut album ‘We Got By’ soon after (actually Jarreau had released an album in 1965 called ‘1965’ but it was only released on a small independent label and received limited distribution). The album was universally acclaimed by critics and fans alike, and Jarreau was the new jazz vocal sensation at the age of 35. He especially made an impact in parts of Europe, with Germany awarding him their version of the Grammy for Best New International Soloist.

Jarreau’s touring and appearances schedule was frenetic to say the least, and his efforts paid off as he quickly gained a worldwide fan base. Following on from a second studio album ‘Glow’ (1976), a live double album ‘Look To The Rainbow’ (1977) was released, with Jarreau soon after winning his first American Grammy (Best Jazz Vocal) along with a slew of other prestigious rewards. The hit jazz oriented albums continued through the late 70s but it was Jarreau’s 1981 album ‘Breakin’ Away’ that would prove the ideal vehicle for him to crossover from the jazz genre to a more mainstream R&B/pop music sound. The album yielded Jarreau’s first Billboard Hot 100 hit with ’We’re In This Love Together’ (US#15), the song also becoming his first foray into the British singles charts (UK#55). The album ’Breakin’ Away’ also broke into the U.S. pop album charts in a big way (#9) as well as being Jarreau’s first hit album in the U.K. and Australia. The album was a showcase for Jarreau’s sublime vocals and also featured the hit title track (US#43) and ‘Teach Me Tonight’ (US#70). Like jazz guitar virtuoso George Benson before him, Al Jarreau had made the leap from the jazz world into the pop mainstream, without compromising his talents as a musician.

The follow up album ‘Jarreau’ (US#13/UK#39/OZ#50) featured an even more radio friendly sound, with a potent R&B kick to it. Several more hits followed, most notably the aforementioned brilliance of ‘Mornin’, along with ‘Boogie Down’ (US#77/UK#63), and ‘Trouble In Paradise’ (US#63/UK#36). 1984’s ‘High Crime’ featured more of a dance oriented R&B edge but didn’t quite hit the mark as well as its predecessor, though it did manage to reach #12 on the U.S. R&B charts. The next year saw Jarreau provide feature vocals for the Shakatak hit ‘Day By Day’ (UK#53).

Producer extraordinaire Nile Rodgers (Chic - see earlier post) oversaw 1986’s ‘L Is For Lover’ (US#30-R&B,UK#45,OZ#65) but despite bringing a new dimension to Jarreau’s vocal dexterity, the album seemed to be largely rejected by Jarreau’s established (jazz) fan base though reaffirmed his ability to broker new ground musically. He would score his biggest mainstream pop hit with the ‘Moonlighting Theme’ which featured in the 1987 hit TV show starring Cybil Sheppard and Bruce Willis. The song reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (#1 Adult Contemporary) and #8 in the U.K. (OZ#64).

Jarreau’s follow up album ‘Heart’s Horizon’ (1988) failed to capitalise on his recently ascended commercial heights, the album receiving some criticism for lacking cohesion and direction yet being nominated for a Grammy, and such was the size of Jarreau’s loyal fan base that the album still reached #10 on the R&B album chart.

The first half of the 90s saw Jarreau take his touring schedule around the world, whilst he found time to release two more albums. It seemed that the heady days of mainstream success were behind him, but Jarreau still retained a place among the elite of R&B/jazz vocalists. Stints on Broadway and collaborations with jazz, R&B and pop contemporaries continued to fuel Jarreau’s forty year love affair with music.

His latest solo album is 2008’s ‘Love Songs’, whilst he has recorded an album of material with George Benson entitled ‘Givin’ It Up’, not to mention an album of ‘Christmas’ songs planned for an October 2008 release. Add this to an almost non stop touring schedule, and it’s easy to see why Al Jarreau is regarded in such high esteem by his contemporaries and fans alike throughout the popular music world, reflected in the fact that he is the only vocalist in history to have won a Grammy Award in three separate categories; jazz, pop and R&B - not bad for someone who didn’t have their first hit album until age 35.

I’ve always thought that music should be uplifting to the soul - the following promo clip for Al Jarreau’s hit ‘Mornin’ captures the very essence of that ideal. Enjoy!

Monday, July 28, 2008

This Son Of A Car Drives Us To Glamour Camp

It’s been a while since I’ve made a post about a relatively obscure song/group. Often times it’s the little known classics that are among my favourites in a particular year. In 1989 I bought the vinyl 45 single ‘She Did It’ by an American artist called Glamour Camp. I remember hearing at the time that the lead singer was the son of former Cars member Ric Ocasek but really didn’t know any more than that.

‘She Did It’ wasn’t exactly a major hit, in fact it wasn’t even a minor hit. The only chart that it snuck into was the Australian Top 100, when during May 1989 it featured for a single week at #98 - again like one or two other songs featured on this blog so far, it probably charted the same week I bought it.

Turns out Glamour Camp was formed by Christopher Otcasek whose father is Ric Ocasek of the Cars - Ric dropping the letter ‘t’ for his professional name. Rounding out the group was a line-up including guitarist Eddie Martinez, bassist Mark Egan, keyboardist Alexander Laserenko and drummer/percussionist Jimmy Bralower. Glamour Camp scored a recording deal with EMI, arguably on the strength of Otcasek’s family connection and released ‘She Did It’ as the first single lifted from their self titled debut album. The song’s video gained a bit of airtime on MTV but neither it nor the Glamour Camp album sold well. The song itself was quite a solid guitar/synth driven rock song - though I remember thinking Otcasek’s vocals weren’t strong enough to suit such a power-pop style. Also, given that the album featured only eight tracks with a total running time of just over 30 minutes, there wasn’t much to entice record buyers if ‘She Did It’ was the only strong track on offer.

Otcasek dropped the Glamour Camp tag thereafter but did contribute a song to the #1 soundtrack album for 1990’s ‘Pretty Woman’. He performed a cover of the Iggy Pop hit ‘Real Wild Child (Wild One)’. After that Chris Otcasek ended his short and relatively anonymous association with pop music.

Apologies but I couldn’t even find a promo clip for the song on YouTube, so in lieu of that have a listen and a look at one my favourite Cars’ songs, featuring Ric Ocasek (see future post) on vocals.
And as a special bonus treat here’s the ‘dub remix’ version of the Cars’ ‘Hello Again’. - LINK REMOVED

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Never Ending Story Delivered In Under Four Minutes

The relentlessly evolving narrative behind Limahl’s 1984 hit ‘Never Ending Story’ began its life in 1979 with an aspiring avant-garde instrumental quartet calling themselves Art Nouveau. The band then consisted of Nick Beggs (bass), Steve Askew (guitar), Stuart Croxford Neale (keyboards) and Jez Strode (drums). After releasing one single ‘The Fear Machine’, which only sold a few hundred copies, they set about finding a vocalist in an effort to break through commercially.

Through a process of auditions they chose Christopher Hamill in 1981. Hamill would prove the key vocal and visual ingredient that the band had been missing. He assumed the anagrammatic pseudonym of Limahl and soon the band were sporting classic multi-coloured spiked hair in very Duran Duran style. They were also sporting a new name, adopting Kajagoogoo as a lighthearted reference to the phonetic ramblings of a baby (gagagoogoo style), and a new sound commercial synth-pop, became their musical mantra.

The band started to pick up some regular gigs, but were not exactly self sufficient. In between gigs at London’s Embassy Club singer Limahl worked part time as a waiter. Kajagoogoo had attempted to catch the interest of several record labels with demos and live appearances but had failed to snag a deal. Limahl approached Duran Duran co-founder and keyboardist Nick Rhodes, who was a regular guest at the Embassy Club. Limahl persuaded Rhodes to listen to their demos and convinced him that Kajagoogoo were set to be the next big thing in pop music. Rhodes must have seen a young Duran Duran in the band as he took Kajagoogoo under his wing and sold both them and their music to EMI, who signed them in July 1982.

Rhodes worked with Duran Duran producer Colin Thurston to produce Kajagoogoo’s first single ‘Too Shy’. The song was classic formula pop for the masses, and the masses lapped it up. It debuted on the British charts in late January ‘83 and within a month had assumed top spot, in the process making Kajagoogoo an overnight sensation. ‘Too Shy’ went on to reach #6 in Australia, and more significantly broke Kajagoogoo in America when it reached #5 Stateside a couple of months later. Strangely enough the protégé Kajagoogoo had a British #1 hit before their virtual mentor and inspiration Duran Duran. The song’s title had originally been ‘Shy Shy’, but to avoid any confusion in association with the band’s Talk Talk and Duran Duran, it was decided to retag it ‘Too Shy’.

Kajagoogoo suddenly found themselves the subject of intense media hype, frenzied fans (dubbed ‘googoo-mania’) and a hectic and demanding touring, promotional and recording schedule. Their debut album ‘White Feathers’ (UK#5,OZ#53,US#38) was also co-produced by Rhodes, who must have felt that Duran Duran might have some stiff competition on their hands in the teen driven ‘new romantics’ market. The follow up single ‘Ooh To Be Ah’ reached #7 in the U.K., mainly on the back of the still strong hype surrounding Kajagoogoo, but the song’s lack of substantive quality was shown up outside of Britain where it failed to perform very well (OZ#68). ‘Hang On Now’ reached #13 in the U.K. and was the band’s only other U.S. chart hit (#78) in mid ‘83.

It was around that time that tensions within Kajagoogoo reached breaking point. The high fashion image and teeny bop pop sound that had opened the doors for them in the first place had driven a wedge between singer Limahl and the other band members. In mid 1983 the decision was made by the original quartet to sack Limahl from Kajagoogoo. As Limahl himself stated in a 2004 interview on VH1’s ‘Bands Reunited’, the band thought that by getting rid of him they would also be able to get rid of the teeny bopper group tag and could become a ‘serious’ band. In essence bassist Nick Beggs and the other members of the band confirmed as much, in saying that the original four members of the group wanted to move forward from the lightweight synth-pop of their first album and make their second album reflect the fact that both they and their fans were growing up. Beggs went on to say that he felt that Limahl wanted to “herald back to a very specific teen bop commercial sound”, and it was a case of any compromise being beyond their reach at that time, due also to a great deal of animosity within the band. In that same VH1 program the other members of Kajagoogoo expressed their obvious regret at having summarily dispensed with Limahl at the height of their fame, whilst Limahl himself likened the sacking to having “a stake driven through” his heart.

Kajagoogoo carried on as a four piece, with Beggs taking on the vocal duties for their next single ‘Big Apple’ (UK#8) in late ‘83, which would be their last major hit. They released one more album as Kajagoogoo, 1984’s ‘Islands’ (UK#35) being a mere shadow of their first effort. If the original quartet wanted to alienate their teeny bopper audience they succeeded, but what they failed to do was find a new audience to replace them. ‘The Lion’s Mouth’ (UK#25) was the only single release from the album that made it into the top 30. As for markets beyond Britain, Kajagoogoo were yesterday’s news. Drummer Jez Strode left and 1985 saw the group (now a trio) tweak their name to Kaja for the album ‘Crazy People’s Right To Speak’. The album missed the charts altogether, producing just one minor hit in ‘Shouldn’t Do That’ (UK#63), and the band broke up soon thereafter.

Meanwhile Limahl pursued a solo career in earnest. By late 1983 he had released his debut single ‘Only For Love’ which performed solidly on the U.K. charts (#16). The song reached #50 in Australia and #51 in the U.S. (albeit almost 18 months later on the back of Limahl’s next and biggest solo hit). Limahl then struck gold when he was chosen to perform the theme song for the film ‘The Never Ending Story’. The Giorgio Moroder written/produced song was a perfect vehicle for the singer to showcase his talents, and perhaps send a message to his former band mates that they made the wrong decision in firing him. ‘Never Ending Story’ reached #4 in Britain, #6 in Australia and #17 in the U.S. Unfortunately Limahl couldn’t follow up that success, his debut solo album ‘Don’t Suppose’ languishing in the lower reaches of the British charts (#63) along with the next single ‘Too Much Trouble’ (#64). His next album ‘Colour All My Days’ (1986) may have had the advantage of having Moroder at the production controls, but it sold poorly, whilst 1992’s album ‘Love Is Blind’ was only released in Germany. It seemed Limahl needed Kajagoogoo as much as they needed him.

When VH1 approached the former Kajagoogoo members in 2004 to organise a one off reunion, Nick Beggs was a music producer, Steve Askew a guitar teacher, Stuart Croxford Neale a software salesman, Jez Strode was a businessman and Limahl was still active as a singer. A one off reunion was all that did eventuate at the time, though the band and especially Limahl actually sounded quite sharp. But once again frictions between members and contractual issues stymied the reunion initiative.

In 2007 Beggs, Askew and Neale recorded once again as Kajagoogoo. The tracks are due to be released in 2008 in hard copy album form under the title ‘Gone To The Moon’. Limahl and Strode have also rejoined the fray in 2008 for a series of concerts, and plans are under way for the quintet to play at the annual Retrofest Show in August 2008. Here’s hoping Kajagoogoo ‘take 2’ can last longer than ‘take 1’.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Art Takes Us To Watership Down

By the time Art Garfunkel hit #1 in the U.K. during 1979 with the song ‘Bright Eyes’, he had already had a presence on world music charts for over 20 years. He first hit the charts in the U.S. in late 1957 as one half of the duo Tom & Jerry. In case you didn’t already know Tom & Jerry were old school mates Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. In that guise they scored the US#49 hit ‘Hey, Schoolgirl’.

After time apart the pair joined forces again in the mid 60s, this time under their own names. The folk-rock duo of Simon & Garfunkel would go on to score no less than sixteen U.S. Top 40 hits in a five year period. This would include their global 1970 #1 ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, the first time Art Garfunkel would be involved in a British chart topper, but not the last.

Following their split in 1971 both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released a steady line of solo albums, though it’s fair to say that for the most part Paul Simon garnered the higher profile and greater commercial return of the pair. Though perhaps not receiving the critical or commercial acclaim of his former partner, Garfunkel in his own way established himself quite a prestigious solo career, particularly during the 1970s.

Though he never scored a solo U.S. #1 (1973’s US#9 ‘All I Know’ was his best effort), Garfunkel hit the apex of the British charts twice. His first #1 in the U.K. was a cover of the old Flamingos hit ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, which sat atop the heap for 2 weeks in late 1975. Art Garfunkel’s second U.K. #1 would set a benchmark that his more esteemed former cohort Paul Simon would never equal.

Songwriter Mike Batt had penned the song ‘Bright Eyes’ back in 1976 for the proposed animated film version of the book ‘Watership Down’. Batt himself had been writing hit songs for some time, but was not known as an artist in his own right. His work as a singer/songwriter and producer was better known under the name The Wombles. Batt penned and recorded eight British hit singles (including four top 10) and four hit albums under the guise of a bunch of mythical furry creatures who resided in Wimbledon. In summer 1975 Mike Batt charted for the only time in his career under his own name, when he was credited with New Edition on the UK#4 hit ‘Summertime City’.

When Mike Batt wrote ‘Bright Eyes’ he had Art Garfunkel firmly in mind as the man to voice the song, but he didn’t envisage that Garfunkel would agree to do it. Having recorded it for the film soundtrack in 1978, the singer was initially reluctant to even have the song included on his next album, let alone have it released as a single. But upon learning of the box office success of the film ‘Watership Down’ across Britain and Europe, Garfunkel agreed to have his version of the Mike Batt written/produced song released as a single.

An animated promotional clip was specially commissioned for ‘Bright Eyes’ and within five weeks of having debuted on the British charts, the song was sitting at #1. It remained their for six weeks, selling over a million copies and becoming the biggest selling hit in Britain for 1979. It reached #1 in several other European countries and also reached #2 here in Australia, where it charted for a total of 24 weeks. Suffice to say Garfunkel also agreed to have ‘Bright Eyes’ included on his album ‘Fate For Breakfast’. The album reached #2 in Britain and #3 in Australia (his biggest selling solo album in those two countries), due in no small part to the huge popularity of ‘Bright Eyes’. The album also yielded the minor hit ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ (a cover of the Skyliners song), and another beautiful track called ‘Finally Found A Reason’. Bizarrely the song ‘Bright Eyes’ didn’t even crack the Top 100 in the U.S., just emphasising what disparity there was at that time between particularly the U.S. and U.K. markets.

Garfunkel of course has continued to record and tour in the 30 or so years since, and even reunited on one or two memorable occasions with Paul Simon. Though it’s fair to say that Paul Simon has had more hit singles and albums than Garfunkel, one statistic which he is unlikely to ever match is the fact that Garfunkel has scored two British #1 hits as a solo artist, something Simon has yet to do even once.

Mike Batt continued to write and produce hits for other artists throughout the 80s and 90s, including work with Cliff Richard, David Essex (1983’ ‘A Winter’s Tale’) and the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward. He also wrote or co-wrote music for stage and screen, and collaborated with artists in the classical and opera realms. More recently he was a driving force behind the all-girl violin pop-quartet Bond, and is the guiding force in the career of Katie Melua, writing her beautiful 2003 hit ‘The Closest Thing To Crazy’.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Beyond Fame And Flashdance, You'll Find Irene Cara 'Out Here On My Own'

It’s a fair bet to say that Irene Cara was destined for fame from a very early age. Born in New York City into a musical family, she was already a gifted pianist by age five and was soon studying music, dancing and acting. Before long she was singing on local Spanish language radio and appearing on local New York TV shows including ‘Electric Company’, and made an appearance performing on Johnny Carson‘s ‘The Tonight Show’. Her Broadway debut came at age eight and two years later Cara was singing alongside Roberta Flack and Sammy Davis Jr. at a Duke Ellington tribute concert.

At the age of eleven Cara won an Obie Award for her performance in the off-broadway production ‘The Me Nobody Knows’. An established concert performer by age 12, she began writing her own songs, her early style strongly influenced by the likes of Carole King and Ellie Greenwich. Next the prolifically talented Cara found herself conquering the film world winning a lead role in the 1976 motion picture ‘Sparkle’. The film was a showcase for Cara’s talents as both actress and singer but surprisingly it didn’t open the floodgates on her career. The next three years saw her focus more on television work including a key dramatic role on the mini-series ‘Roots: The Next Generation’. It seemed that all the groundwork had been laid, now Cara only needed the right vehicle to propel her to the top.

That vehicle arrived via the role of Coco Hernandez in the 1980 Alan Parker directed film ‘Fame’. The film was a musical based around the lives and experiences of a group of students at a New York drama school. Cara was tailor made for the role, and not only garnered rave reviews for her acting performance but sang the anthemic title track to the film, which would become her first big hit. On the back of the film’s huge popularity the song flew high to #4 in the U.S. and soon after followed suite in Australia (#3). Curiously it completely missed the U.K. charts in 1980, but two years later when the ‘Fame’ TV series took off the song did the same thing soaring to #1 in Britain and holding that spot for three weeks. The song was written by Michael Gore (brother of Lesley) and Dean Pitchford (who would contribute to numerous hit soundtracks in the 80s including ‘Footloose’), and was nominated for an Academy Award.

The follow up hit from the dance oriented ‘Fame’ was the gentle and emotive ballad ‘Out Here On My Own’. Irene Cara displayed her considerable range as a vocalist on the song, which was co-written by Lesley Gore (1963 #1 ‘It’s My Party’) and also nominated for an Academy Award. It wasn’t the monster hit that ‘Fame’ was, but ‘Out Here On My Own’ certainly wasn’t shunned by music lovers, reaching #19 in the U.S., #41 in Australia and #58 in Britain. Cara finished the year by being nominated for two Grammy Awards and a Golden Globe.

Cara then recorded her debut album in 1981 ‘Anyone Can See’, but aside from the title track (US#42) the album failed to yield any hits, and it appeared that the fame Irene Cara had risen to the year before, would soon fade. It was reasonable that she had drawn comparison’s to the ‘queen of disco’ Donna Summer both in image and vocal style, and it would be through a mutual association that Cara would once again reassert herself as a pop diva to be reckoned with.

Anyone who figured on ‘Fame’ being the pinnacle of Irene Cara’s music career didn’t count on a catchy little number called ‘Flashdance…What A Feeling’. The lead track from the 1983 motion picture ‘Flash dance’ (which Cara didn’t star in) was co-written by Cara, Keith Forsey and the prolific writer/producer Giorgio Moroder, who had been such a strong factor in Donna Summer’s career. Cara was quick to distance herself from the whole ‘Donna Summer sound-alike’ line pushed by the media, and rightly so given that she had well and truly earned the right to be her own person with a career resume stretching back over fifteen years. ‘Flashdance…What A Feeling’ was one of the biggest hits of 1983 and one of the signature tunes of the 1980s. It spent a marathon six weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., and beat that duration by another week in Australia. By comparison its peak position of #2 in Britain seemed a disappointment. But surely the fact that it earned Irene Cara an Academy Award at her second attempt, and a slew of other honours, more than compensated. In a strange move ABBA tribute group Bjorn Again had a top 20 in Australia in 1994 with their cover of ‘Flashdance…What A Feeling’, and in 2002 Cara herself was involved in another hit cover this time by Swiss based DJ Bobo.

Irene Cara released her second album later in 1983 titled appropriately enough ‘What A Feeling’ (OZ#49/US#77). The next single to be released was the dance track ‘Why Me?’ which reached #5 in Australia and #13 in the U.S. A role in the movie flop ‘D.C. Cab’ didn’t help her career, but the film did feature a minor hit for Cara in ‘The Dream (Hold On To Your Dream)’ which charted late in 1983 (US#37/OZ#84). She bounced back to form somewhat with her next single ‘Breakdance’ which considering the year of its release 1984, was perfectly timed and found Cara back inside the U.S. top 10 (#8) and the Australian top 20 (#19), though it would be the last time she would traverse that territory. Cara’s last appearance inside the Billboard Hot 100 was the single ‘You Were Made For Me’ (#78) in mid ‘84.

Cara then took a much deserved sabbatical, though in retrospect the loss in her career momentum was never regained. Cara had a support role in the critically acclaimed 1984 film ‘The Cotton Club’ but a role in the 1985 Clint Eastwood film ‘City Heat’ did little to rejuvenate things on either the acting or music front. A succession of film flops over the following decade compounded the slide from A-list material. Her 1987 album ‘Carasmatic’ proved to be anything but charismatic in nature and missed the charts completely. She continued to tour sporadically throughout the 90s, still being a major drawcard on the club venue circuit. She also fronts a dance band called Hot Caramel and runs her own production studio.

In 2007 the United World Chart ranked ‘Flashdance…What A Feeling’ as the 22nd most successful song in popular music history. Irene Cara may be proof that fame is fleeting, but equally that a naturally gifted and dedicated artist will always rise to the top of the talent pool.

Thanks to YouTube user gnowangerup for uploading the video clip for 'The Dream'

Harpo - Not To Be Confused With The Marx Variety

For most people the name Harpo probably conjures up images of a the curly haired silent member of the legendary Marx Brothers, and the most musical thing about him was that bicycle horn he used to toot. But to those of you who recall the little known hitmakers of yesteryear Harpo is also the guy who sang the hit ‘Moviestar’.

Of course Harpo wasn’t his real name, but the Swedish born Jan Svensson started his showbiz career in children’s theatre, so maybe he was a fan of the Marx Brothers work. By the late 60s Harpo had developed an interest in music and began writing his own songs and touring as a singer soon after. He came to the attention of Stig Anderson who signed him to the Polar Music label, with an arrangement in place for Harpo to record an album of children’s songs in Swedish, to be produced by none other than Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (they of the ABBA fame).

The album didn’t come to fruition so Harpo soon moved over to the EMI label, releasing his first two singles, ‘Honolulu’ and ‘Sayonara’ (strange choices for a Swedish singer but anyhow), in 1973. Both songs reached the Swedish top 10, with ‘Sayonara’ holding down the #1 spot for five weeks in early ‘74. He toured throughout Europe in support of his debut album ‘Leo The Leopard’ during most of ‘74, with two more singles ‘My Teenage Queen’ and ‘Baby Boomerang’ (the Swedes were big on boomerangs at the time), also charting well.

Early 1975 saw Harpo record the track that would introduce him to the English speaking world. Taken from the album of the same name, ‘Moviestar’ was your classic light weight pop song. That’s not to detract from it being a great song, but it didn’t aspire to be anything more than pure pop. The song also featured backing vocals from one Anni-Frid Lyngstad, better known as Frida from the pop supergroup ABBA. Frida had also sung backing vocals on another album track called ‘Pin Up Girl’.

‘Moviestar’ didn’t exactly deliver Harpo that result, but it did make him a music star, albeit for a limited time. The song had already soared to the top of the Swedish and German charts during 1975, before it hit the Australian charts in early ‘76. ‘Countdown’s Molly Meldrum must have had a liking for the song, or maybe Harpo, because it became a regular on the music show’s playlist. ‘Moviestar’ debuted on the Australian charts in March of ‘76 and had peaked at #3 by mid year, going on to spend a mammoth 34 weeks inside the top 100. ‘Moviestar’ also performed well on the British charts, reaching #24.

The album of the same name sold well enough in Australia and yielded the follow up hit ‘Horoscope’ (OZ#24) in late ‘76, the song having already been a Danish #1. ‘Motorcycle Mama’ was also a top 10 hit in Germany around the same time, and for a period Harpo was rock royalty across Europe. But Harpo’s personal horoscope apparently didn’t foretell of the dip in his fortunes that would follow. The hit ‘Television’ was taken from Harpo’s U.S. recorded album ‘The Hollywood Tapes’ (seems to me he must have been a frustrated actor). Soon after Harpo hit the headlines for a different reason, having been imprisoned for a month for refusing Swedish Military Service. Around the same period Australian charts farewelled Harpo for the final time with the minor hit ‘Rock N Roll Clown’ (#80).

A free man once again, Harpo then made the curious career move of making the album of Swedish children’s songs he’d originally planned pre-‘Moviestar’, then followed this up with an album of rock song covers again recorded only in Swedish. He then attempted to revive his flagging pop career with the 1980 single ‘She Loves It Too’ but soon after was severely injured when he was kicked in the face by one of his horses (all pop stars have horses or cars or both apparently). Harpo did make a recovery (though sadly lost sight in one eye) and even dedicated his next album ‘Starter’ to the offending horse - shows he doesn’t hold a grudge.

Harpo never regained the momentum of his mid 70s career, but continued to record and release albums regularly through the 80s and early 90s. He also turned his hand to producing several Swedish groups, including the popular Shanghai, and started his own record label Igloo Records in 1987. Aside from recording a couple of new tracks for a greatest hits compilation in 1997, Harpo remained quiet on the recording front until 2005’s album ‘Jan Harpo Svensson 05’ credited to, you guessed it, Jan Harpo Svensson. He then set about a regular touring schedule through parts of Europe over the next couple of years, and remains popular throughout Scandinavia and Germany in particular.