Sunday, August 31, 2008

Eruption Take A One Way Ticket To Hit Central

In 1979 I recall hearing a song called ‘One Way Ticket’ and thinking that it sounded very reminiscent of Boney M. Well, it wasn’t Boney M behind the track, but there was a very strong connection that contributed to the similarity in sound/style.

The artist was in fact a five piece disco/soul/funk outfit called Eruption. Eruption was formed in 1974 in London by vocalists Leslie Johnson (lead) Precious Wilson (backing), with brothers Gregory (guitar) and Morgan (guitar) Petrineau, Gerry Williams (keyboards) and Eric Kingsley (drums). Precious Wilson had been born in Jamaica and migrated to England with her family when she was seven. The other members of Eruption hailed from the Caribbean (Guyana) and Africa (Ghana), but they quickly made Britain there home, winning the RCA sponsored Soul Search Contest in 1975, scoring their first recording contract.

Their debut single ‘Let Me Take You Back In Time’ gave the band a profile on the soul/R&B charts during 1976/77 but mainstream success still eluded them. Exit lead vocalist Leslie Johnson and enter Boney M producer Frank Farian who saw the potential for another chart topping act. Farian assumed creative control of the group, signing them on with the German based Hansa Records label, making them label mates of Boney M (also supporting them on tour). Identifying the need for a charismatic focal point, Farian moved former backing singer Precious Wilson clearly out front of the band for their next single ‘Party Party’ (1977). But it would be the group’s next single that would elevate them to Boney M like heights of popularity. ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ (originally a UK#41 hit for Ann Peebles) hit the British charts in February 1978, shortly after debuting Stateside and in Australia. The electro-funk tune, credited to Eruption Ft. Precious Wilson, soared to #5 in the U.K., #18 in the U.S. and erupted to #1 on the Australian charts during June ‘78. Soon after their self titled album ‘Eruption’ (OZ#14) hit the stores, but surprisingly didn’t yield any more hits.

Just as many, including I can recall Molly Meldrum, were about to consign Eruption to the one hit wonder bin, they released the single ‘One Way Ticket’. The song was written by Neil Sedaka and had originally been the B-side to his 1959 hit ‘Oh! Carol’. But Farian gave it the Boney M production treatment and the Eruption version was virtually unrecognisable beside the original. Their version was funked up with a twist of reggae for good measure and debuted on the U.K. and Australian charts in mid ‘79. ‘One Way Ticket’ arrived at destination #9 in Britain and #10 in Australia, whilst it proved popular on the U.S. club circuit, peaking at #30 on the U.S. Club Play Singles chart. Their second album ‘Leave A Light’ only managed to illuminate as high as #42 on the Australian charts, and neither title track nor ‘Sweet Side’ broke out on the singles charts.

Singer Precious Wilson left Eruption soon after, and was replaced by Kim Davies. The new look Eruption released the album ‘Fight Fight Fight’ in 1980, but though the singles ‘Go Johnnie Go’ (Ge#10) or ‘Runaway’ (Ge#21) maintained the group’s profile on the Continent, Eruption couldn’t manage to buck against the rapid sinking of the good ship disco and all who crammed aboard her. Tragically singer Kim Davies was killed in a car accident and for a while Eruption put everything on hold to consider their future.

They recruited a new lead singer Jane Jochen, and following a compilation release in 1981, released an album of new material ‘Our Way’ in 1983. Sadly the poor sales of singles ‘In A Thousand Years’ and ‘Joy To The World’ indicated Eruption were approaching career dormancy. One final single in 1985 with ‘Where Do I Begin’ failed to spark any further interest, and Eruption soon called it a day.

Precious Wilson continued to record and tour throughout the 80s and 90s. In 1994 Farian released the compilation CD ‘Eruption Gold’, which featured several remixed Eruption tracks and Precious Wilson solo singles. Precious Wilson provided the vocals on the 1992 UK#19 hit ‘I Feel Love’ by techno group ‘Messiah’.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Rupert's Pina Colada Song

Rupert Holmes is best known for his U.S. #1 hit single ‘Escape (The Pina Colada Song), the song best known for one of the more memorable lyrics in popular music. But the career and talents of Rupert Holmes extended far before and beyond the line “If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain”.

Born in England, Rupert Holmes moving to New York with his
family at the age of six. That also happened to be the same age that Holmes wrote his first song ‘Nobody Loves Me’ (probably while harbouring thoughts of running away from home). As a child he studied the clarinet but was unable to indulge in his love of contemporary music until his teen age years exposed him to the music of the Beatles and the like. He formed his first band in high school, called the Nomads, soon after studying for a degree in music composition at the Manhattan School of Music.

Keen to avoid a career in cl
assical music, Holmes went to work as a contract writer for music publishing house Lou Levy Publishing, earning the princely sum of $45 per week. He spent the latter part of the 60s honing his song writing craft penning/arranging tunes for the likes of The Drifters, The Platters, Gene Pitney and even the Partridge Family. In 1970 he lent his vocal talents to the studio based male/female vocal quartet Street People, who scored a minor U.S. hit with ‘Jennifer Tomkins’ (#36).

During the same period in the late 60s/early 70s Holmes also wrote and played piano for both The Cuff Links and The Buoys, and produced the self titled 1971 album for Ol‘ Paint. Holmes scored his first top 20 hit as a songwriter when he penned The Buoys’ 1971 hit ‘Timothy’ (US#17). Inspired by the success of ‘Timothy’, Holmes embarked on a solo career as a performer. His debut album was 1974’s ‘Widescreen’, but the album missed the charts, so Holmes decided to add production duties to his workload to pay the rent. His next assignment was producing/arranging/co-writing Barbra Streisand’s 1975 album ‘Lazy Afternoon’ (he also wrote several tracks for Streisand ‘A Star Is Born’ soundtrack. That same year the workaholic Holmes recorded his self titled second album and worked the production controls on Sailor’s popular album ‘Trouble’ (which featured their biggest hits ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ and ‘A Glass Of Champagne’ - see future post).

Over the next three years from 1976 to 1978 Rupert Holmes based himself back in England and was producer for artists as diverse as Sparks (see future post), the Strawbs, and John Miles (see previous post), in addition to recording two more solo albums with ‘Singles’ (1977) and ‘Pursuit Of Happiness’ (1978), which yielded his first chart hit, albeit in a minor one, with ‘Let’s Get Crazy Tonight’ (US#72). If the music buying public at large didn’t already know the name Rupert Holmes, they soon would with a song that would become one of the biggest hits of the late 70s/early 80s era.

He signed with a new label in 1979, Infinity Records, his third record label in as many years. His first single would prove the breakthrough song in Rupert Holmes’ career. ‘Escape (The Pina Colada Song)’ showcased Holmes’ genius as a wordsmith as much as musician. Holmes often wrote his lyrics in the form of short narratives or vignettes. ‘Escape’ told the story of a man dissatisfied in his present relationship and hoping to meet someone exotic and interesting. He answers a lonely hearts newspaper ad with his own reply, arranging a meeting with this ‘strange woman’. Turns out when the two meet at a bar that the woman is his girlfriend. Holmes saw it as a potential new beginning for both. Obviously a lot of people related to the emotional subtext in the song, not to mention the catchy melody, sending ‘Escape’ soaring to the top of the U.S. charts for three weeks during December 1979. Around the same time the song was climbing up the Australian charts, peaking at #3 in early 1980 (UK#23). The follow up hit ‘Him’ was another connected with the whole relationships theme, and proved almost as successful in the U.S. (#6), though didn’t quite reach the same heights elsewhere (OZ#23/UK#31). Holmes released the album ‘Partners In Crime’ (US#33/OZ#59) in early 1980, which included ‘Escape’ and ‘Him’, and also yielded the minor U.S. hit ‘Answering Machine’ (#32).

MCA quickly released the follow up album ‘Adventure’ which, though featuring two minor hits in ‘Morning Man’ (US#68/OZ#94) and ‘I Don’t Need You’ (US#56), fell well short of its predecessor. MCA promptly dropped Holmes from its roster, sending the musical journeyman across to Elektra. 1981’s ‘Full Circle’ saw Holmes solo career come full circle back to the point where commercial success eluded him.

Holmes turned his energies back to a project that had been bubbling away for more than a decade. In 1971 Holmes had purchased a copy of Charles Dickens’ ‘The Mystery Of
Edwin Drood’ whilst on a cross country train journey. He so fell in love with the story that he set about writing a musical adaptation. His labour of lover was released in 1986 when the Broadway musical ‘Drood’ opened to packed houses, winning Holmes two Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Musical Score. That same year the Rupert Holmes penned song ‘You Got It All’ went to #3 on the U.S. charts for The Jets. In 1994 a compilation album titled ‘The Epoch Collection’ was released featuring the highlights of Rupert Holmes’ earlier work, including earlier attempts to hone his Broadway style. The same year his first album of new material in over a decade was released with ‘Scenario’. In 1996 he also wrote and worked as a producer on the nostalgia TV show ‘Remember WENN’ for the American Movie Classics cable network. In more recent years Holmes has continued his prolific output of artistic material including the Broadway hits ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’, ‘Say Goodnight Gracie’ and ‘The Hamburger Hamlet’, not to mention being the author of the historical thriller novel ‘Swing’ and the award winning ‘Where The Truth Lies’ (which was adapted to a motion picture in 2006 starring Kevin Bacon).

Far from being just the guy who sang about pina coladas, Rupert Holmes is truly an artistic chameleon of rare and lasting genius, mastering the mediums of song writer, producer, arranger, performer, playwright, screenwriter and novelist, resulting in a forty year plus career to be celebrated.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Happy Birthday From Altered Images

Back in the late 80s I became a devotee of the British sci-fi comedy ‘Red Dwarf’ and have remained so since (yes I’m a bit of a sci-fi geek in addition to being a retro-tragic). What does that have to do with a blog celebrating classic pop/rock hits? Well, for those familiar with the show you might recall that in the early seasons one of the central characters, the hapless Dave Lister often expressed his unreserved infatuation with a former ship-mate Kristine Kochanski. The character of Kochanski appeared on a number of occasions through flashback and hologram images. She was a very cute and fiesty character and the actress who played her was C.P. Grogan. I had no idea at that time that C.P. Grogan was actually the former lead singer with early 80s British new wave band Altered Images - “phew!” I hear some of you exclaim, he’s finally getting back to music.

Altered Images formed in Glasgow during 1979 and quickly established themselves on the strong Scottish music scene, alongside the likes of Simple Minds. Fresh out of school the band comprised Tony McDaid (guitar), Caesar (all hail-guitar/keyboards), Michael ‘Tich’ Anderson (drums), Jim McElhone (bass) and Clare Grogan on vocals. They cut a demo and sent it to Siouxsie and the Banshees. Altered Images soon found themselves supporting to their idols for several dates on the Banshees’ ‘Kaleidoscope’ tour. Like so many other up and coming U.K. bands, Altered Images recorded a session of live numbers with the BBC’s John Peel, aiding in their securing a recording deal with Epic. Banshees’ bassist Steve Severin oversaw Altered Images’ early work, producing the band’s first two singles. ‘A Day’s Wait’ failed to attrack any attention, but the follow up ‘Dead Pop Stars’ (UK#67) caused a bit of a stir, given it was released just a few months after the assassination of John Lennon, though in truth the song had been recorded prior to the ex-Beatles’ tragic death.

Strongly influenced by the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure, Altered Images early musical style drew heavily on the darker goth like post-punk sound, which set up an effective juxtaposition with Clare Grogan’s vivacious vocal sound. Epic sought to lighten the tone of Altered Images’ sound for their debut album, bringing in producer Martin Rushent (Joy Division/Human League/GoGo’s). Meanwhile guitarist Caesar had left the band to reignite the Roman Empire, er I mean form a new band called The Wake. Guitarist/keyboardist Jim McIven joined the line-up in place of the emperor. The altered sound of Altered Images was captured in the more radio friendly ‘Happy Birthday’ which garnered the band their first major hit. ‘Happy Birthday’ soared to #2 on the British charts in late 1981, soon after peaking at #23 in Australia, whilst the album of the same name hit #26 in Britain. The song was later included in the 1984 John Hughes teen film ‘Sixteen Candles’. But Altered Images mainstream popularity came at the expense of some of the band’s original fan base who saw the dilution of their earlier darker sound with an infusion of light weight pop as selling out. Not that the band would have minded too much as they won the NME Best New British Group of 1981.

The single ‘I Could Be Happy’ was released in December ‘81, and by early ‘82 had established itself in a happy place at #7 on the British charts (OZ#30, US#45 Club Play Singles). The song would feature on Altered Images second album ‘Pinky Blue’ (OZ#23/UK#12) which hit the stores in May 1982. The album also yielded the UK#11 hit ‘See Those Eyes’ (OZ#96), the title track hit (UK#35) and a rather curious cover of Neil Diamond’s ‘Song Sung Blue’. Though at the peak of their commercial powers, Altered Images soon experienced a shake up in the ranks, with both drummer Michael ‘Tich’ Anderson and guitarist Jim McIven departing the scene. Steve Lironi came into the group on guitar whilst the made do with a session drummer(s).

For their third album Altered Images struck up a creative partnership with acclaimed producer Mike Chapman (Blondie, Suzi Quatro, The Sweet), resulting in a further shift to the commercial synth-pop end of the style spectrum. The 1983 album ‘Bite’ (UK#16/OZ#85) featured a very cool cover with Grogan posing in her best Audrey Hepburn imitation. The lead out single ‘Don’t Talk To Me About Love’ reached #7 on the British charts in March ‘83 (OZ#58), but it would be the last major hit for Altered Images. ‘Bring Me Closer’ (UK#29) and ‘Love To Stay’ (UK#46) brought to a close their association with the hit singles scene. During the tour to support ‘Bite’ Altered Images experienced further internal problems, resulting in further line-up changes which saw drummer David Wilde and keyboardist Jim Prime recruited for the tour, and later the eventual dissolution of the group in 1984.

After a recording an as yet unreleased solo album in 1987 (titled ‘Love Bomb’), and playing in the short lived outfit Universal Love School with Steve Lironi, Clare Grogan turned back to her other love acting (she had already appeared in the 1980 Bill Forsyth film ‘Gregory’s Girl’). Now going under the professional name of C.P. Grogan, she played the role of Kochanski in ‘Red Dwarf’ during the first few seasons of the show (however when the character became a regular crew member in the 7th and 8th seasons actress Chloe Annett played the role). She was also a regular on the British soap drama ‘East Enders’ and occasional TV/radio presenter, though on occasion would still lend her vocal talents to other artist’s work such as The 6ths. Lironi went on to work as a producer/session player with the likes of Hanson and Black Grape. Jim McElhone co-founded Hipsway (‘The Honeythief’ - see earlier post) prior to being a founding member with the hugely successful outfit Texas from the late 80s onward.

In 2002 Clare Grogan dusted off the vocal chords and performed several Altered Images hits live as part of the ‘Here And Now’ 80s revival tour across the U.K.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A New Hairstyle For A New Wave

Haircut One Hundred (or Haircut 100 to some) were the epitome of the clean cut fashion conscious British new wave band so prevalent in the first half of the 1980s (think Spandau Ballet or ABC, except that these guys wore Val Doonican style Arran sweaters). Musically they drew on a more diverse range of styles, such as Latin rhythms and jazz-funk textures, but by and large they played a light weight bubblegum style of pop that for a while, for a short while, proved very appealing to the masses.

The pop sextet came together in London during 1980. At the heart of the group was singer/songwriter/guitarist Nick Heyward, who also proved to be the face of the group. The first line-up featured Heyward, Les Nemes (bass), Tim Jenkins (guitar) and Rob Stroud (drums). Jenkins and Stroud both departed very early on, to be replaced by Graham Jones and Patrick Hunt respectively. Percussionist Mark Fox and saxophonist Phil Smith were initially brought in as session players but were soon added to the group’s official line-up.

Haircut One Hundred broke into the charts in October 1981 with their British #4 hit ‘Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)’ (OZ#97). The band were dissatisfied with drummer Patrick Hunt’s playing and subsequently fired him. Blair Cunningham was brought in on drums to provide a stronger sound live. It would be Haircut One Hundred’s second single and biggest hit that would establish their place firmly in the new wave museum of musical exhibits for decades to come. ‘Love Plus One’ was a catchy fusion of pop, funk and reggae that took the world by storm. The song debuted on the British charts in early 1982 and soared to #3. Soon after it made it to #10 in Australia, and broke the group in the U.S. (#37) - something many other British new wave acts failed to achieve.

Both songs were featured on Haircut One Hundred’s debut album ‘Pelican West’ (UK#2/OZ#27/US#31) which firmly cemented the group as the poster boys of the British new wave scene. ‘Fantastic Day’ (which Nick originally wrote when he was 15) notched up another U.K. top 10 single (#9/OZ#85) for Haircut One Hundred, quickly followed by another #9 hit with ‘Nobody’s Fool’, and suddenly critics and fans alike were talking about Haircut One Hundred in the same breath as Duran Duran as being the new wave of British pop royalty. But all was not well within the ranks of the band. The incessant media focus on enigmatic frontman Nick Heyward, combined with the singer undergoing a mental breakdrown from all the pressures, led to friction with the other members of Haircut One Hundred, that eventually led to the singer alienating himself from the rest of the group. He promptly left Haircut One Hundred in early 1983, just as the band was in the midst of recording their second album. The band limped on as a five piece, with percussionist Mark Fox shifting to lead vocal duties. The quintet moved over to PolyGram (Heyward was retained by Arista) and released the single ‘Prime Time’ in August 1983 but the song only reached #46 on the British charts and the follow ups ‘So Tired’ and ‘Too Up, Two Down’ sank without a trace, in stark contract to the Heyward era singles. The album ‘Paint And Paint’ was released soon after but with Heyward’s solo career in full swing by that stage, neither media nor marketing machine paid any attention to the album or band. When combined with a strong negative backlash from fans loyal to the Heyward model, Haircut One Hundred saw the writing on the wall and parted ways before the end of ‘83.

Whilst Nick Heyward didn’t quite match the heights he experienced whilst with Haircut One Hundred, he did manage to churn out an impressive string of top 40 singles. Heyward’s debut solo album was ‘North Of A Miracle’. The album debuted on the British charts in October ‘83 and peaked at #10. It yielded three top 15 singles, all pretty much standard commercial pop fare, though it was clear Heyward was enjoying the freedom of expression and artistic growth that a solo career offered. ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ ascended to #13 whilst Haircut One Hundred were still in the process of crashing and burning. ‘Take That Situation’ knocked on the door of the top 10 in mid ‘83, but was told to make do at #11, whilst ‘Blue Hat For A Blue Day’ hid any signs of a bad haircut at #14.

Several more low key single successes maintained Heyward’s presence on the charts over the ensuing two years, tracks such as ‘Love All Day’ (UK#31 6/84) amd ‘Warning Sign’ (UK#25 11/84) also hinting at a more serious and introspective songwriter beneath the former teen idol gloss. His sophomore album ‘Postcards From Home’ seemed to lack the spark of his debut, and only offered up one minor hit with ‘Over The Weekend’ (UK#43), whilst the album itself missed the charts altogether - perhaps the hordes of Heyward addicted teeny bopper fans had moved on to another glossy icon. 1988’s ‘I Love You Avenue’ did little to put the brakes on Heyward’s slide into relative pop obscurity, with only one single ‘You’re My World’ (UK#67) making the charts.

Heyward then took an extended hiatus before returning with the much meatier and complex album ‘From Monday To Sunday’ in 1993. Heyward explored and experimented with his style and sound, augmenting his pop-rock formula with string arrangements, power pop guitar and a notable absence of synthesizers. The Beatle-esque single ‘Kite’ reached #44 in Britain. 1995’s ‘Tangled’ saw Heyward continuing to search for the right balance and yielded the minor hits ‘The World’ (UK#47) and ‘Rollerblade’ (UK#37). Heyward then departed from the Epic label and released 1998’s ‘The Apple Bed’ on the independent label Creation Records. The last decade has seen the release of two more Nick Heyward albums, both collaborative efforts - 2001’s ‘Open Sesame Seed’ which featured actor/musician Greg Ellis reciting poetry to Heyward’s musical accompaniment, and 2006’s ‘The Mermaid And The Lighthouse Keeper’ with singer/actress India Dupre.

The rest of the Haircut One Hundred alumni went on to have careers of varying degrees of success, in and outside of the music industry. Drummer Blair Cunningham went on to join Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders during the second half of the 80s, then became a long term drummer with Paul McCartney’s band. I was fortunate enough to see McCartney live on his ‘New World’ tour in 1993 (5 times in fact), and Cunningham was every bit the consummate professional - put simply the guy is a freaking talented drummer. He also played with Alison Moyet and Big Dish during the 90s.

Original percussionist and reluctant replacement vocalist/songwriter Mark Fox (who before Haircut One Hundred was a school teacher) went on to become the co-owner of a record mastering facility in London. Guitarist Graham Jones moved to the south coast of England in the late 80s to do some surfing, like the place and settled in Cornwall, initially working as a guitar tutor and eventually starting up a business as a tree surgeon. Bassist Les Nemes moved to Spain originally for family and lifestyle reasons and kept busy in the music business with a covers band that played a mix of funk and rock. Saxophonist Phil Smith became a highly sought after session and touring player in the music business.

In 2004 Haircut One Hundred were featured on VH1’s series ‘Bands Reunited’. The group did indeed reunited for a one off live show, and there is no doubting they sounded first rate. Not surprising in a way given how musically active some of the members had continued to be, but still the chemistry has to be there, and it was. It left the former band mates, and Heyward in particular, open to the idea of one day reuniting in the studio to record some new Haircut One Hundred material. But as yet the positive spirit engendered by the reunion hasn’t seen a long term collaboration come to fruition.

Oh, and as for the origin of the band’s name. That was explained by guitarist Graham Jones in an interview on VH1’s Bands Reunited special. As Graham put it early on in the band’s history they were looking for a catchy name. They were at Nick Heyward’s place one day throwing all these names around and the most ridiculous suggestion was Haircut One Hundred, which as Graham indicated didn’t really mean anything, it just sounded different.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bad Habits Lead To A Hit Record

Billy Field seemed to come from left field when he burst onto the Australian charts in May 1981 with his jazz-pop single ‘Bad Habits’. But Mr. Field had developed some very good musical habits more than a decade earlier as a member of Sydney band King Fox.

King Fox was formed whilst Field (and the rest of the group’s members) were still in high school. Field handled the vocals, whilst Paul Radcliffe (guitar/flute), Peter Muller (organ), David King (bass) and Andrew Evans (drums) rounded out the group. It’s true to say that the lads had an advantage, monetarily at least, over many other embryonic groups of the late 60s. Hailing from the affluent suburb of Vaucluse they were furnished with the very best instruments and equipment by their parents. But their parents couldn’t supply the talent (well not directly) and to King Fox’s credit they released a strong debut single on the Du Monde label. ‘Unforgotten Dreams’ was released in late 1969 and reached #7 in Sydney, charting for 17 weeks in total and reaching #27 on the Australian charts. The song was a promising example of contemporary late 60s psychedelic rock with hints of progressive rock ambitions.

The quintet released one more single ‘Tymepiece’, which flirted with the lower reaches of the Sydney charts, and had started work on an album. But the parental funding finished when all five members failed their end of years high school exams, and so too did King Fox MkI. All but Field revived the band in 1972 (presumably sans parental support) in 1972, but the single ‘I Think You’re Fine’ flopped, as did King Fox MkII soon after.

Billy Field meanwhile had left the big city for a stint working on the land for most of the 70s. The lure of the big city and the big music scene saw him return to Sydney and establish the Paradise Studios recording facility in 1979. Reliant on only himself to fund his passion for music, Field set about recording an album of his own. 1981’s ‘Bad Habits’ showcased Field’s passion for jazz and pop. His husky vocals proved the perfect foil for the slick horn sections and crisp production. The title track seemed ridiculously out of place so far as what might be prescribed as a winning formula for a hit pop song, but fortunately music doesn’t always follow the prescribed formula. ‘Bad Habits’ debuted on the Australian single’s chart in May 1981 and ascended to #4 by mid year, sitting comfortably inside the top 10 alongside the likes of Men At Work and Kim Wilde. Meanwhile the album ‘Bad Habits’ proved to be more than a curiosity, rocketing to #1 in Australia and lauding it over the competition for two weeks mid year, and spending 37 weeks inside the charts. The album also featured the tongue in cheek number ‘If I Was A Millionaire’, which of course Field was.

Looking more like a future CEO of Microsoft than a pop star, critics may have been tempted to pour cold water on Field as a serious player in the mainstream pop market, but the strength of his second single established this former rich kid as a quality singer/songwriter. The ballad ‘You Weren’t In Love With Me’ took the Australian charts by storm in August 1981. By early November it had knocked another ballad ‘Endless Love’ (Lionel Richie & Diana Ross) off the top spot of the charts, spending one week at the summit before none other than the Rolling Stones (‘Start Me Up’) supplanted it. ‘You Weren’t In Love With Me’ was released in the U.K. market in mid ‘82 reaching #67.

Field not only appeared on pop shows like Countdown but also on Australia’s ‘60 Minutes’ boosting his profile to superstar levels, briefly at least. He re-entered his Paradise Studios to record the sophomore album ‘Try Biology’ (OZ#21) which was released in late 1982. The lead out single ‘True Love’ reached a respectable #17 on the national charts, but the follow up title track single missed the charts altogether in early ‘83. It appeared that the Australian pop scene’s love affair with Billy Field was over.

Field continued to manage Paradise Studios and maintained his involvement in both R&B and jazz music scenes. He released three more straight jazz style albums in addition to flirting some more with pop/rock, including ‘Say Yes’ (1989) which featured the string section from Sydney’s Symphony Orchestra, ‘Rock & Roll Memories’ (1989) and ‘Western Light’ (1993). Billy Field continued to perform regularly throughout the 90s with his jazz group the Bad Habits Band. Aside from his production duties Field is also a music arranger of repute on the Australian jazz music scene, and is also a driving force behind the educational jazz big band project Kinderjazz, aiming to raise the profile of jazz music for children. It’s worth noting that the song ‘Bad Habits’ has been covered a number of times, more recently by ex-Van Halen front man David Lee Roth in 2002.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Top Of The Pops Blown To Smithereens

Unlike their New Jersey compatriots Bon Jovi, power-pop quartet The Smithereens never quite made it beyond the fringes of mainstream commercial success. The band came together during March 1980 when singer/songwriter/guitarist Pat DiNizio responded to an advertisement in the local music press, place by high school friends Jim Babjak (guitar), Mike Mesaros (bass) and Dennis Diken (drums).

Quickly establishing themselves on the local live circuit, The Smithereens recorded their debut four track EP ‘Girls About Town’ (all tracks featuring ‘girl’ in the title) in late 1980 on the independent D-Tone label. Early on the band showed an unabashed penchant for guitar driven power pop, harking back to the sounds of the Sixties British Invasion groups like the Kinks and The Who, but laced with DiNizio’s acerbic take on life, love and the world (strongly influenced by Elvis Costello). Their 1983 EP ‘Beauty And Sadness’ was another independent release, as a big label contract continued to elude the talented quartet. The band sustained their career over the next four years by playing a combination of original material and covers, along the way supporting older acts like the Beau Brummels and Otis Blackwell (who they recorded with as well) on the revival circuit.

In 1985 Pat DiNizio had planted the seed for the band’s future success when he submitted a demo tape to Enigma Records. Former college DJ and Smithereens’ fan Scott Vanderbilt was now an A&R man with Enigma. Soon after The Smithereens released a live EP ‘The Smithereens Live’ in 1987, Vanderbilt signed them to Enigma’s roster (they were soon picked up by Capitol Records). The Smithereens released their debut album ‘Especially For You’ later that year, the album featuring guest appearances from Suzanne Vega (see future post) and Marshall Crenshaw (who was credited under the pseudonym Jerome Jerome). The album performed solidly on the Billboard Album charts (#51) and Australian Top 100 (#97), and yielded a minor hit (#99) in ‘Blood And Roses’, which benefited from its inclusion in a B-grade film called ‘Dangerously Close‘ and associated music video which gained some airplay on MTV. Enough promise was shown to encourage both band and label to continue their mutual quest for pop supremacy.

The Smithereens second album ‘Green Thoughts’ (1988 - OZ#85/US#60) consolidated the band’s status as potentially the next big thing on the modern rock scene. The single ‘Only A Memory’ again flirted with the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 (#92). The Smithereens third album saw the group aiming squarely at the mainstream modern rock market. Producer Ed Stasium helped the group gain a harder edged sound overall on 1989’s ‘11’ (which featured a very cool cover paying homage to the ‘Oceans 11’ film). The album achieved gold status in the U.S. (#41/OZ#94) and yielded the band’s biggest commercial single to date ‘A Girl Like You’ (US#37) in late ‘89. The follow up ‘Blues Before And After’ (#94) highlighted DiNizio’s morose lyrical bent hadn’t been compromised by the band’s push for marketability.

Album #4 ‘Blow Up’ (US#120/OZ#60) was released in early 1992 and proved another strong ticket in the group’s campaign to rival the likes of new chart sensations Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It featured two great pop-rock songs, ‘Too Much Passion’ (US#37/OZ#87/Ca#22) and my favourite track ‘Top Of The Pops’ (OZ#90/Ca#58). ‘Top Of The Pops’ was a tongue in cheek swipe at the superficial vagaries of the rock business, the band unreservedly thumbing their collective noses at the very industry they continued to seek the approval of. I purchased the song on CD single, which also featured a MTV ‘unplugged’ version of ‘A Girl Like You’ and The Smithereens take on The Beatles ‘The One After 909’. But as appealing as The Smithereens retro-power pop sound had become, it was sadly never flavour of the month and the band suffered in the shockwave produced by the explosion of the alternative rock/grunge movements.

The Smithereens made the move to RCA for their next album, 1994’s ‘A Date With The Smithereens’ (US#133). They reunited with producer Don Dixon (who had worked with them on their first two albums), and they also acquired the services of Lou Reed playing guitar on two of the album’s tracks. But The Smithereens foot had been firmly removed from the doorway to commercial rewards by the whole grunge revolution, and the fact that they pre-dated the Brit-pop movement by a couple of years didn’t help their cause.

Despite not cracking the big time The Smithereens had gathered a loyal fan base which stood firmly by them in the decade to come and beyond. Following the release of two compilation albums, ‘Blown To Smithereens’ (best of) and ‘Attack Of The Smithereens’ (rarities), the band shifted to the smaller Koch label. In 1999 they released ‘God Save The Smithereens’ following a five year hiatus from the recording studio. 2006 saw original bassist Mike Mesaros leave the fold, replaced by Severo ‘The Thrilla’ Jornacion. The 2007 album ‘Meet The Smithereens!’ featured the band doing a song for song tribute cover of the album ‘Meet The Beatles’. It reached #24 on the US Top Independent albums chart, proving the band could still command an audience for their music. ‘Christmas With The Smithereens’ confirmed they still had a sense of adventure, and most recently 2008’s ‘Live In Concert! Greatest Hits And More’, recorded at the Court Tavern in New Jersey, showcased The Smithereens as still being a kickass live act. At time of writing The Smithereens is planning the September 2008 release of ‘B-Sides The Beatles’, their second tribute album to the ‘Fab Four’, featuring cover versions of all the Beatles’ B-sides up to 1966. A cool band just keeps getting cooler.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

99 Red Balloons Rise To #1

One of the seminal one hit wonders of the 1980s, and a song that will forever be associated with that time, was ‘99 Luftballons’ by West German rock quintet Nena. I say West German because at that time 1983/4 Germany was still divided into East/West, as was Nena’s home city of Berlin. In fact the political divide between ‘communist’ East and ‘democratic’ West provided much of the inspiration for the song.

Nena formed during 1982, featuring Carlo Karges (guitar), Joern-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Peterson (keyboards), Jurgen Dernal (bass, Rolf Brendel (drums, ex-Stripes), and vocalist Gabriele ‘Nena’ Kerner (formerly also with The Stripes), from who the band took their name. In fact when the band scored their one major hit outside of continental Europe, many people thought that Nena was a solo female singer, rather than a rock group. The band released their first single ‘Nur Getraumt’ (‘Only Dreamt’ - Ger#2/Aut#9) in late 1982, but the song didn’t make an impact beyond their home nation. That task would be achieved by the title track from the group’s debut album.

‘99 Luftballons’ was written by Fahrenkrog-Peterson and Karges and featured on the album of the same name (OZ#25/US#27 - the album was titled ‘Nena’ in Germany-#1 and the UK-#31). The song was released in its original German lyric form everywhere but the U.K. In the U.S. ‘99 Luftballons’ rose as high as #2 in early 1984, whilst Australia fell in love with song to such a degree that it spent five weeks atop the singles chart from April 1984. In both markets the single featured a B-side English language version ‘99 Red Balloons’. That version was recorded at the behest of the English record label who deemed the English market too insular to be receptive at that time to a German language single. Kevin McAlea was given the job of translating the song’s lyrics to English. Though the song’s clear anti-nuclear/anti-cold war message may have been rendered more comprehensible to the English audience in a literal sense, the song was such a brilliantly constructed electro-pop song that surely the German language version would have been a runaway hit anyway. Regardless ‘99 Red Balloons’ spent three weeks at #1 in Britain during March ‘84, making it one of the biggest selling songs in Britain for that year. ‘99 Red Balloons’ also became the fourth British #1 single by a German based artist inside of two years, the three previous being ‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk, ‘Seven Tears’ by The Goombay Dance Band, and ‘A Little Peace’ by Nicole.

The English language song ‘Just A Dream’ was a disappointing performer on the non-European charts (OZ#71/UK#70), and the only other single to chart for Nena in Australia was ‘It’s All In The Game’ (OZ#95) from their 1986 album of the same name. However, Nena tha band scored a number of major hits in (West) Germany, including ‘Leuchturn’ (#2) and ‘Feuer und Flamme’ (#8-1985), and throughout continental Europe and Japan. Their 1986 German release ‘Eisbrecher’ bombed on the charts at home and by 1987 Nena the band had split.

Gabriele ‘Nena’ Kerner spent the remainder of the 80s and 90s balancing family life and a solo career. She released half a dozen albums during the decade 1989 to 1999, and her biggest solo hit single was ‘Wunder Geschen’ in 1989, which peaked at #19 in Germany. She was also active in television, hosting the shows ‘Metro’ and ‘Countdown Grand Prix’.

Nena, the singer not band, returned to the limelight during 2002 when a 20th anniversary CD was issued entitled Nena featuring Nena, consisting of some new arrangements of her old band’s biggest hits. An English language version of the 1984 Nena German #3 hit ‘Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann’ titled ‘Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime’ was performed as a duet with Kim Wilde (see earlier post), reaching #1 in Austria and the Netherlands, and #3 in Germany. Nena has released three German language pop albums since, and in 2007 released the English language album ‘Covers’, featuring, appropriately enough, Nena performing cover versions of songs by the likes of the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Nena has toured consistently around Europe in the last decade and has also leant her voice to recording German language dubs for popular motion pictures, including ‘Eragon’ and ‘Arthur And The Invisibles’.

You might be interested to know that Gabriele Kerner gained the nickname of ‘Nena’ when she was on vacation in Spain as a three year old. ‘Nena’ is an alternate spelling of the Spanish word nina, meaning ‘little girl’. I bet her parents never envisaged the name ‘Nena’ becoming so synonymous with 80s pop music.

For those of you who’d like to compare the German and English language versions of Nena’s biggest hit, you can find them both here: