Thursday, October 30, 2008

Oh My Aching Head!

In 1981 a song called ‘Wasn’t That A Party’ by The Rovers summed up in its light hearted lyrics the collective experiences of most of us who may have, at one time or another, overindulged in our consumption of certain alcoholic beverages. I can recall hearing the song at the time of its original release, but it wasn’t until many years later that I came across the song again on a compilation album, and rediscovered its mischievous charm and appeal.

‘Wasn’t That A Party’ was written and originally recorded by renowned folk singer Tom Paxton. The Rovers, I later became aware, had evolved from the 60s folk ensemble The Irish Rovers. Indeed their up-tempo southern style rockabilly version of ‘Wasn’t That A Party’ completely belied the Irish-Canadian origins of the band.

During 1963 a bunch of Irish born folk singers joined forces in their adopted home town of Alberta, Canada and called themselves The Irish Rovers, in reference to the traditional folk song ‘The Irish Rover’. The original line-up comprised brothers Will (vocals/drums) and George Millar (guitar), their cousin Joe Millar (bass), and Jimmy Ferguson (vocals). All four had been born and spent a good part of their childhood in Ireland before emigrating to Canada. By 1966 Wilcin McDowell (keyboards) had joined the line-up and the group had relocated to California. The latter half of the 60s saw The Irish Rovers score a string of mainstream hits with quirky renditions of folk standards. The most notable among their hits were ‘The Unicorn’ (1968-US#7/OZ#1), ‘(The Puppet Song) Whiskey On A Sunday’ (1968-US#75/OZ#2) and ‘The Biplane, Ever More’ (1968-US#91/OZ#27). They maintained a huge following in their adopted Canada throughout the 70s, and released another half a dozen studio albums. They also consolidated their popularity in Australia with regular tours down under, where other Irish folk acts like the Chieftains and Foster & Allen enjoyed like popularity. The Irish Rovers’ boisterous and high-spirited stage shows established them as a huge live drawcard, but album sales were waning and by the late 70s it was evident they needed a new approach to score another hit single. So they dropped the ‘Irish’ from their name and recorded a country rock version of ‘Wasn’t That A Party’.

Lyrically ‘Wasn’t That A Party’ was a very clever, tongue in cheek account of those times when celebrations and sometimes accompanying hi jinks are taken, well…maybe just a little too far - most often under the encouragement of an inebriated state of mind. And it’s only upon awakening the next morning that the fragmented recollections of the night before give rise to a pause for reflection, often coupled with a sense of mild (or maybe not so mild) embarrassment - not to mention having a head that feels like a “football” that encourages a vow “never to do that again”. Sometimes popular music can and should be simple and straight forward in its style and intent, and frankly it can be refreshing when it is. ‘Wasn’t That A Party’ by The Rovers was one such instance where the listener didn’t have to delve between the layers of music, or ponder over the intricacies of ambiguous lyrics in search of a hidden meaning or theme. It’s simply a catchy and engaging bit of fun that achieved what it set out to do - entertain. It entertained sufficient numbers of record buyers to reach #37 on the U.S. Hot 100, and #61 on the Australian charts during 1981.

The Rovers had some further moderate success in the U.S. with a few more novelty country-rock styled folk tunes, including ‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer’. But by the 90s they had returned to their folk roots and re-adopted the ‘Irish’ in their name. George Millar, Joe Millar and Wilcil McDowell are still performing with the band who have continued to tour well into the 00’s.

There are a few ‘homemade’ YouTube videos to accompany ‘Wasn’t That A Party’, but the following is, well, at least you can have a listen to a great song (must have been made by a Starsky & Hutch fan - terrible example for our law enforcement officers to set!)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's Five O'Clock - Time For Echo Beach!

In 1980 I wasn’t an office clerk and I didn’t live anywhere near a beach, but one of the biggest hits of that year ‘Echo Beach’ continued to echo in my mind ten years later when indeed I had become that office clerk, and coincidentally lived only a few minutes away from a beach. The lure of that mythical place in song helped me traverse the gauntlet between 4.30 and 5.00 in the afternoon on more than one occasion, as I imagine it has countless other worker drones.

Martha & The Muffins were the group behind the song ‘Echo Beach’ which during 1980 reached #3 here in Australia, #5 in Canada, and #10 in Britain. They hailed from Toronto, Canada (a nation that has produced more than its share of class pop/rock acts) and featured not one, but two Martha’s in their line-up. The kernel of the band began during 1977 with two college students David Millar (guitar) and Mark Gane (guitar), who had an idea to start a punk/new wave band. Martha Johnson had played in a couple of bands previous, The Doncasters and Oh Those Pants! She became the first Martha on board as vocalist/keyboardist. Next aboard was bassist Carl Finkler followed in turn by drummer Tim Gane (Mark’s brother) - now all they needed was a name. The Martha part was an obvious choice, but legend has it the band came up with the remainder of their moniker whilst eating cheeseburgers at a Harvey’s restaurant (I guess Martha & The Burgers just didn’t have the same ring to it). It was actually intended as a temporary measure but ended up sticking. In February ‘78 saxophonist Andy Haas began playing with the group, and soon after Martha Ladly became the other Martha in the mix. Ladly replaced David Millar in the line-up, but played keyboards and sang backing vocals. The band started performing regularly at the high profile ‘new wave’ club The Edge, and quickly established a strong fan base. They independently released the single ‘Insect Love’, and after submitting a demo tape to a New York music critic, Martha & The Muffins were eventually signed up to Dindisc/Virgin Records in early 1979.

Martha & The Muffins recorded their debut album ‘Metro Music’ (OZ#46/UK#34) in late ‘79. Produced by Mike Howlett, when it was released in early 1980 the album left no doubt as to the origin of the band, when it featured a map of a stretch of the Canadian coast on the cover (well I guess for the geographically challenged it may have still proved to be an issue). ‘Echo Beach’ put Martha & The Muffins on the music map as one of the most promising new wave pop/rock acts on the scene. Written by guitarist Mark Gane, it was a quality mix of guitar/synth pop-rock with an irresistible chorus hook and a kick ass saxophone solo (the 80s was the decade of the saxophone after all). A hectic touring schedule ensued (which resulted in a live EP later in 1980) which included opening for Roxy Music on a U.K. tour. Martha & The Muffins then set to work on their sophomore album ‘Trance And Dance’ in mid 1980, but by August the first casualty of the band’s internal frictions occurred when Martha Ladly left the group, with bassist Carl Finkle departing a few months later. The album ‘Trance Dance’ was a relative disappointment, and the singles ‘Suburban Dream’ and ‘Was Ezo’ couldn’t replicate the hit status of ‘Echo Beach’, making the second half of 1980 a forgettable period in the history of Martha & The Muffins.

The creative core of the group, Martha Johnson and Mark Gane, decided to carry on with Andy Haas and Tim Gane still devoted to the cause. They recruited a new bassist in Jocelyne Lanois in early 1981. Lanois’ brother Daniel ran a recording studio not far from the band’s Toronto base, and at the band’s behest he co-produced Martha & The Muffins third album ‘This Is The Ice Age’, released in late 1981. Having established a degree of autonomy from the suits at Virgin, the band used the album as a vehicle to express a new level of creative/stylistic freedom. The result was a less commercial but, as far as the band was concerned, more satisfying album. Unfortunately most major labels aren’t interested in the personal creative growth of their artist, and when the sales figures didn’t match previous efforts, Virgin dropped Martha & The Muffins from their roster.

The band signed with Canadian indie label Current Records and re-entered the recording studio during 1982 to record their second album under the production guidance of Daniel Lanois (Lanois would later work with the likes of U2 and Peter Gabriel). Drummer Tim Gane left the fray during this period, replaced by Nick Kent. The 1983 album ‘Danseparc’ (US#184) featured the band’s first extensive use of sampling, incorporating everything from bagpipes to Gregorian chants into the mix. It would be the last Martha & The Muffins album to feature direct creative input beyond the core team of Martha Johnson and Mark Gane.

Johnson and Gane decided to continue on as a duo, with a focus on studio recording. They dispensed with the old band name and took on a new moniker as M+M. One aspect that didn’t change was the presence of Daniel Lanois at the production controls. Johnson and Gane released their first album as M+M with 1984’s ‘Mystery Walk’ (US#163). For the first time in four years they had a stand out single to entice MTV and radio networks to get behind. ‘Black Stations/White Stations’ was a dance/funk classic, and featured a memorable bass line from session player Tinker Barfield, complimented by the horn section of Michael and Randy Brecker. The song reached #63 on the U.S. Hot 100 and was only prevented from hitting #1 on the Dance charts by Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’. It was followed up by the equalling engaging ‘Cooling The Medium’ (US#34 Hot Dance chart). With the change in name to M+M and a marked evolution of sound, to many beyond their core fan base, this was an entirely unrecognisable entity by comparison to the Muffins.
Lanois was otherwise occupied, so M+M enlisted the production services of David Lord (engineer/producer for Peter Gabriel, XTC) to collaborate with on their next album. The rhythm tracks were recorded in Canada in the first half of ‘85, and the duo then shifted base to England to complete the album with Lord. The album title ‘The World Is A Ball’ seemed an appropriate one, given the globetrotting nature of its assembly. By all reports the album was an eclectic affair, featuring a myriad of styles and tones. Lack of label support again acted to hinder M+M’s access to a wider commercial market. Johnson and Gane cut ties with their label and in fact Canada, for a time relocating long term to England. After a four year period, featuring relentless curves and hazards in the creative road, Johnson and Gane eventually arrived at the destination of another completed album in 1992. They once again adopted the tag Martha & The Muffins (though there was officially only one muffin) to release the album ‘Modern Lullaby’. Sadly, the timing of the album couldn’t have been worse, when the indie label backing it went belly up, leaving the band without any promotional or distribution support. Only one single ‘Get Ta Know You Betta’ (US#92 Hot R&B) received any kind of attention.

Disillusioned by the events surrounding ‘Modern Lullaby’, Johnson and Gane concentrated on life as a couple and as new parents. Their involvement in music during the remainder of the 90s was focussed largely on film and television soundtrack work. Martha Johnson recorded an album of children’s songs titled ‘Songs From The Tree House’, released in 1995. A retrospective collection of Martha & The Muffins was released via EMI Canada in 1998. Much of the band’s back catalogue has subsequently been repackaged and reissued in the years since. According to the band’s official website a new album titled ‘Delicate’ is in the works and has a tentative release scheduled for late 2008.Thanks to YouTube user gnowangerup for uploading the 'Echo Beach' video

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Can You Tell Me What A Wang Chung Is?

For mine, one of the signature moments in 80s pop music was the promotional video to Wang Chung’s 1986 hit ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’. It was one of those rare occasions when an already great song was enhanced to the point of sheer pop brilliance when accompanied by the music video. Epileptics may have been advised to view with caution, but I was experiencing fits of joy when I finally scored a remastered DVD copy of the music video for ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’ (with first rate audio quality) via its inclusion on the DVD compilation ‘Chartbusting 80s: Volume 3’ (if you live in Australia you should still be able to get your hands on this one). The only thing restricting my access to 80s pop-junky heaven was the absence of a 5.1 DTS remix on the audio - yeah I know that’s just being greedy. The coursing vibrant energy of the song, is matched perfectly by the frenetic chaos of the music video. But there was far more to Wang Chung than met the eyes or ears through ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’.

Rising from the ashes of a six piece band called 57 Men, the London based outfit formed ranks during 1979, calling themselves Huang Chung, and featuring the line-up of Jack Hues (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Nick Feldman (bass/keyboards), Darren Costin (drums) and ‘Hogg’ Robinson (saxophone/percussion). Huang Chung is a literal Chinese translation for ‘perfect pitch’. Within a year this new wave styled pop-rock group had laid down four tracks for the independent label 101 Records. The songs were included on a pair of various artist compilations released by the label. In 1980 Huang Chung issued their debut single ‘Isn’t It About Time We Were On Television?’ (subtle hint there). The single impressed the suits at Arista Records, who signed the group up to an album deal. In 1982 Huang Chung released their eponymous debut album (co-produced by Rhett Davies), which didn’t benefit from the inclusion of any stand out pop-rock singles (‘Hold Back The Tears’ and ‘China’ both missed the charts). Overall ‘Huang Chung’ sounded like an album from a band still searching for their sound, and in lieu of that, relying on formulaic new wave pop in an attempt to fit in somewhere, even if that somewhere wasn’t true to the band’s underlying identity. Interestingly the individual band members seemed to also be searching for an identity, as on the album notes Nick Feldman was credited as Nick De Spig, and Darren Costin was credited as Darren Darwin.

The band had a ponder over the next couple of years about their style, their sound, their image, even their name. When they resurfaced in early 1984 with their sophomore album ‘Points On The Curve’ (US#30/UK#34/OZ#56), Huang Chung had become Wang Chung. The band had been whittled down to a trio, following the departure of saxophonist ‘Hogg’ Robinson (in 1982), and would soon abandon trying to conquer their home market and set sight on the U.S. The band’s primary songwriters Jack Hues (born Jeremy Ryder) and Nick Feldman must have been listening to pioneering new wave synth-outfit Japan for a hint of inspiration, with several songs effectively melding elements of Eastern and Western musical elements. If you lived in Britain or Australia the first single released was the infectious ‘Dance Hall Days’ which danced on to the U.K. charts in January 1984 (#21), and later became a top ten hit (#7) in Australia. In the U.S. the single ‘Don’t Let Go’ (#38/OZ#94) actually hit the Hot 100 first in February, but was quickly followed by ‘Dance Hall Days’ when it debuted in April ‘84. ‘Dance Hall Days’ peaked at #16 on the Hot 100, but slew them on the dance floors when it shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music chart. Tracks like ‘Don’t Be My Enemy’ (US#86) and ‘Devoted Friends’ reflected a band that had dared to find their own identity.

So impressive were the cinematic qualities behind several of the songs on ‘Points On The Curve’ (co-produced by Chris Hughes) that Wang Chung were commissioned to record a nine song soundtrack for the William Friedken directed thriller ‘To Live And Die In L.A.’, starring Willem Dafoe. The brooding, at times ethereal, soundtrack was well received in the U.S. (#85), as was the title track single (#41). Wang Chung also contributed the song ‘Fire In The Twilight’ for the soundtrack to the John Hughes film ‘The Breakfast Club’. 1985 also saw Wang Chung leave their American label Geffen for A&M Records, whilst drummer Darren Costin departed, leaving Hues and Feldman to carry on as a duo.

In 1986 Wang Chung hit the high point on the curve of their career with the phenomenal pop-rock song ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’ (written/produced by Peter Wolf - formerly with Frank Zappa band). If ever a song was a metaphor for the concept of partying, then Wang Chung had nailed it. ‘Everybody Have Fun Tonight’ hit the U.S. charts in October 1986 and before year’s end had peaked at #2, held off from the top spot by the Bangles’ ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ (see future post). The fun continued in Australia where the song celebrated at #8 early in 1987. The song was indicative of a change of style on Wang Chung’s latest album ‘Mosaic’ (US#45/OZ#94), which saw the band move away from the edgier synth driven work of earlier albums, and embrace good old fashioned danceable pop-rock, with a myriad of musical influences thrown into the mix. The reviews were that the consistency of quality on ‘Mosaic’ suffered because of the change in style, but the album also produced another quality pop-rock song with ‘Let’s Go!’. The follow up single hit the U.S. charts in early ‘87 and became Wang Chung’s second consecutive top 10 effort (#9), and also performed well in Australia (#14). A third single was lifted from the album in mid ‘87 when the song ‘Hypnotize Me’ (US#36) was used in the Joe Dante/Steven Spielberg film ‘Innerspace’ (see Sep post for Rod Stewart’s ‘Twisting The Night Away’).

But by 1989 the party had started to wind down for Wang Chung. Their fourth album ‘The Warmer Side Of Cool’ (US#123) proved to be on the cooler side of warm in respect of sales, and the first single ‘Praying To A New God’ (US#63 - #22 Modern Rock Tracks) hinted that Wang Chung may have been worshipping at the wrong pop alter. That alter may have been the U.S. commercial radio networks, for whom the album seemed to be aimed at. In the process Wang Chung did come up with a handful of well constructed songs, including the catchy melodic rock of the title track, but took one step too far from the formula that had won so many fans over the previous decade (or maybe it was the just plain weird album cover that put people off). Whatever the factors behind Wang Chung’s decline in commercial fortunes, the duo of Jack Hues and Nick Feldman had lost most of their momentum. The tours wound down, the recording projects stalled, and by 1991 Wang Chung had gone the way of the 80s - a wonderful thing to celebrate, but essentially a thing of the past.

Jack Hues went on to work with a variety of artists over the next decade or so, including The Definition Of Sound, Tony Banks (of Genesis) and Kiki Dee. He then formed the band Strictly Inc. with ex-Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks, releasing the album ‘Only Seventeen’ in 1995. Hues is currently a key member of the band The-Quartet alongside key collaborator Sam Bailey, with Rutledge Turnlund and Michael Porter. They have recorded an album titled ‘Illuminated’, which was produced by Chris Hughes (co-producer of Wang Chung’s album ‘Points On The Curve’, in addition to Tears For Fears/Adam & The Ants).

Nick Feldman teamed up with former Culture Club drummer Jon Moss in a short lived act called Promised Land (released one album in 1992). In 1997 Feldman joined Hues again to support the release of a greatest hits package for Wang Chung. Some promotional and live performance touring followed during 97/98. Hues kickstarted a revamped Wang Chung line-up for a 2000 live tour, playing on the same bill as fellow 80s alumnus A Flock Of Seagulls and Missing Persons (see previous posts) on the nostalgia circuit. Meanwhile Feldman had moved into an A&R role with Warner, and later Sony. In 2005 Hues and Feldman performed together once more as Wang Chung on the TV show ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’. The duo have reportedly recorded some new material together since and as of 2007 they were in negotiations for a new record deal as Wang Chung.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Pop Classic Redone With A Touch Of Ritz

By the time U.S. dance/disco group Ritz scored their one and only hit in Australia with their version of ‘The Loco-motion’, the song already had a stellar profile as one of the most successful songs in popular music history.

‘The Loco-motion’ was written by the prodigious song writing team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. It was first recorded by Little Eva and her version reached #1 in the U.S. for one week during August 1962 (with Carole King singing backing vocals), and #2 in the U.K. shortly after. American band Grand Funk (sans the Railroad) returned ‘The Loco-motion’ to the top of the U.S. charts in May 1974, this time for two weeks. Their version reached #7 in Australia around the same time.

The song would remain absent from both U.S. and U.K. charts until a ‘singing budgie’ from Australia gave the song her own treatment in 1987/88. But in between times Ritz released their own ‘disco-fied’ version of the song, released as ‘Locomotion’ in late 1979. Their adaptation peaked at #12 on the Australian charts in early 1980, and spent a total of thirty weeks inside the top 100. Though it didn’t make any kind of impact in the U.S. or Britain, Ritz’s ‘Locomotion’ did become a hit in the group’s native France, and a #1 in New Zealand, for a total of four weeks in mid 1980. The song was lifted from the group’s only album - I bet you can’t guess the title. Well, ok yeah you guessed it - ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, though they avoided giving that particular song classic the disco-dance treatment. The album, produced by Ken Gold and released on Epic, also featured the single ‘Dance Until You Drop’ which missed seeing any chart action. The B-side to ‘Locomotion’ was a song called ‘Lazy Love’ (released in some markets as a separate single), which was penned by disco producer extraordinaire Desmond Child. Ritz were a black vocal trio, two male and one female singer. I’m afraid I haven’t been able to uncover anything definitive in terms of the names of the trio concerned - best I can discern from having a close look at the fuzzy, out of focus, and not 100% fully scanned album cover credits (I only have a vinyl single copy of the song), is that the female vocalist’s name was Sylvia Mason-James, and the male vocalist’s surnames were Nassiah and Jackson - though please don’t quote me on that. If anyone out there has an actual copy of the Ritz album ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ and can let me know the full names of the trio, I’d really appreciate it :)

Ritz released a couple of follow up singles during 1980 and 1981, but neither ‘I Wanna Get With You’ or ‘Workin’ Out’ managed to match the success of ‘Locomotion’. ‘I Wanna Get With You’ was co-written by Arthur Baker, who would later become a pioneering producer in the embryonic era of hip-hop. Over the next decade Baker worked with the likes of Gwen McCrae, New Edition, New Order and Naked Eyes (see future post).

The one time ‘singing budgie’ who would become an international ‘pop princess’ was Kylie Minogue. Her take on ‘The Loco-motion’, released as ‘Locomotion’ in Australia, peaked at #3 in the U.S. and #2 in the U.K. during 1988, having already spent a whopping seven weeks sitting atop the Australian singles chart from August 1987. It was the song that launched her now twenty plus year career.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Forget The Music, It's Money That Matters

For this post I thought I’d focus on a particular musical union between two unique talents, Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler.

Newman had been a professional songwriter since he was seventeen. During the 60s he wrote for the likes of Gene Pitney and The Alan Price Set, and was a member of Harper’s Bizarre for a time. He continued to write for other artists in the 70s and 80s (Nilsson) but soon began recording his own albums, the most well received of which ‘Little Criminals’, produced the 1977/78 hit single ‘Short People’ (US#2/OZ#12). He branched out into composing songs for films, among them ‘Ragtime’ (1981) and ‘The Natural’ (1984).

Knopfler of course had been a founding member and front man with British band Dire Straits, who by the mid to late 80s had become one of the biggest acts on the face of the planet. In 1988 Randy Newman released his first solo album since 1983’s ‘Trouble In Paradise’. ‘Land Of Dreams’ featured a bunch of songs that saw the singer/songwriter recounting childhood experiences from his formative years in New Orleans (well at least for the first few tracks), which was unusual because Newman wasn’t noted for openly writing about his own experiences. Newman assembled a who’s who of the music business in terms of a production/performance roster. Production duties were shared between Hollywood film score impresario James Newton Howard, Electric Light Orchestra guru Jeff Lynne, and a ‘brother in arms’ taking a break from the battlefield, Mark Knopfler. Among the playing roster were several members of Toto, bassist journeyman Leland Sklar, Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell (along with Tom Petty), and Mark Knopfler himself.

I recall seeing the music video for the song ‘It’s Money That Matters’, and aside from recognising Newman’s unique vocals, was immediately struck by the opening guitar riff. “That’s trademark Knopfler” was my first thought - and sure enough Mark Knopfler did contribute guitar to (and produce) the song. ‘It’s Money That Matters’ flirted with the Australian top 100 (#96) in January 1989, having already been a #1 Album Rock Hit (#60 Hot 100) in the U.S. during 1988, whilst ‘Land Of Dreams’ reached a creditable #80 in the U.S. Lyrically ‘It’s Money That Matters’ is a clever and acerbically comic take on life in dollar driven modern day America.

‘It’s Money That Matters’ represents but one small piece in the ever evolving careers of Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler, but it was a rare union of two music icons, and one that actually worked. Even if you’re not a big Randy Newman devotee, but you have a liking for Knopfler’s guitar work, I would highly recommend you track down a copy of ‘Land Of Dreams’ just to score a copy of this great collaborative effort.

Breakin' At The Movies

In 1984 the break dancing craze was probably at its peak. I mean there were people busting moves on street corners everywhere, and you couldn‘t walk to the bus stop without risk of copping a stray foot in the head. Like just about any craze, Hollywood sniffed an opportunity to make a film, and hopefully make some opportunist producers a bundle of cash (I wonder if anyone's made a movie about yo-yo aces). The motion picture ‘Breakin’ (titled ‘Breakdance’ in the U.K. and Australia) announced its theme in the title, and was released in cinemas during May 1984. The basic synopsis was a struggling jazz dancer (Lucinda Dickey) meets up with two break dancers, played by Adolfo Quinones and Michael Chambers and together they become a dance sensation. A feel good movie deserves feel good music, so an accompanying soundtrack was recorded/compiled and released on the Polydor label.

The soundtrack featured solid electro-dance and funk edged contributions from dance acts like the Bar-Kays and Hot Streak, as well as a track from U.K. band Re-Flex with ‘Cut It’ (see earlier post). The two singles released from the soundtrack that charted were ‘99 ½’ by former soul/gospel singer Carol Lynn Townes (US#77/UK#47), and ‘Breakin’…There’s No Stopping Us’ by the duo Ollie & Jerry. I’ll expand a bit more on the career of Carol Lynn Townes later in the post, but Ollie & Jerry scored the really big hit single from the first ‘Breakdance’ film, helping to push the soundtrack to #6 in both Australia and Britain, and #8 in the States, making it one of the biggest selling soundtracks of the mid 80s.

The single ‘Breakin’…There’s No Stopping Us’ reached both the U.S. (#9) and U.K. (#5) top tens, and also peaked at #25 in Australia during mid ‘84. Ollie & Jerry also contributed another song to the soundtrack with ‘Showdown’. The duo’s full names were Ollie Brown and Jerry Knight, and both had some seriously good form on the board before they launched their tag-team project. Both hailed from Detroit and formed the rhythm nucleus of Ray Parker Jr.’s band Raydio (see earlier post). Brown sat at the drum kit, whilst Knight handled the bass duties and sang lead vocals on Raydio’s 1978 smash hit ‘Jack And Jill’. After Knight left Raydio during 1980 he signed a solo recording deal with A&M Records. He notched up a top 20 hit on the U.S R&B charts with ‘Overnight Sensation’ (#17-1980) from his eponymous debut album (R&B#51), and followed that up with the well received 1981 album ‘Perfect Fit’ (R&B#30). Knight was kept busy over the next couple of years as writer, producer and session player with the likes of The Whispers (vocals/arrangement), Janet Jackson (vocals), and Philip Bailey (see future post). Ollie Brown had remained active working with DeBarge, Gloria Gaynor, James Ingram and Patti Austin, to name a few. Polydor executive Russ Brown asked Brown to come up with some songs for a soundtrack to the film ‘Breakdance’. Brown duly sat through a preview screening of the film and a phrase uttered by one of the character’s caught his attention - “There’s no stopping us”. He then got together with old Raydio band mate Jerry Knight to pen and record ‘Breakin’…There’s No Stopping Us’. Brown & Knight went on to write and produce work with the likes of the Jets (see future post), Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin and Patrice Rushen.

The box office returns for ‘Breakin’ were sufficient to encourage the studio to back a sequel being made. The inventively titled ‘Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo’ hit the big screen in time for Christmas 1984. This time around saw our break dancing heroes return to bust a move on a greedy developer with plans to bulldoze a local community recreation centre. But don’t let the heavy machinery and urban development themes fool you - this was still a film where the dancing and music were paramount to proceedings. Cue soundtrack number two, featuring many of the same artists that contributed to the first effort. Ollie & Jerry were back on board and contributed two tracks ‘When I.C.U.’ and the title track ‘Electric Boogaloo’, which became the duos second chart hit, albeit a minor one, when it peaked at #57 in Britain in early ‘85. Firefox, who had contributed ‘Street People’ to the first soundtrack, returned with two more tracks ‘Radiotron’ and ‘Stylin Profilin’. But the standout track was by the former lead singer with New York based disco outfit Fifth Avenue.

Carol Lynn Townes sang the feel good dance track ‘Believe In The Beat’, and appeared in the film performing the song in the celebratory end sequence. ‘Believe In The Beat’ reached minor hit status on the charts (OZ#65/UK#56), and helped push the soundtrack to ‘Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo’ to the same achievement (UK#34/OZ#51/US#52).

Townes was born and raised in North Carolina and directed her vocal talents toward gospel music during her youth. She moved to New York and fronted soul/disco group Fifth Avenue during the 70s, releasing the album ‘Carol Townes And Fifth Avenue’ on RCA during 1976. In 1982 Townes was signed to Polydor as a solo artist and it was via her connection with that label that she became involved in the ‘Breakdance’ soundtracks.

Following her work on the ‘Breakin’ (‘Breakdance’) soundtracks, Carol Lynn Townes released a solo album later in 1985, titled ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’. It featured the dance hit ‘I Freak For You’ (#24 U.S. Hot Dance Music chart). She came up with one more album in 1988 titled ‘Try Me Out’, but neither album nor singles ‘You Keep Running’ Back’ and ‘What I Wouldn’t Do’, returned Townes to the charts again.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Just Breathe Deep And Raise Your Hands To Heaven

Breathe came to life on the pop charts during the late 80s, with a string of radio friendly tunes that saw the group knocking on the door of the coveted U.S. #1 spot not once, but twice, within the space of a few months. Then almost as quickly as they’d burst on to the scene, Breathe exhaled into obscurity.

Though they experienced their greatest commercial success Stateside, Breathe were actually a British group that formed in London during the mid 80s. In respect of their selling more records across the Atlantic than at home, Breathe shared that characteristic with fellow Brit acts of the mid to late 80s The Outfield, When In Rome (see April posts), Wang Chung and Cutting Crew (see future posts).

Breathe evolved out of a group of childhood friends, all of whom had attended the Yately School in suburban London. An earlier incarnation was a six piece band called Catch 22, which following graduation was pruned back to a quartet and retagged Breathe. The heart and soul (and lungs) that would produce Breathe’s music were David Glasper (vocals), Marcus Lillington (guitar), Michael Delahunty (bass) and Ian ‘Spike’ Spice (drums), with Glasper and Lillington handling most of the song writing duties.

During 1984 the quartet started laying down some of their songs on demo tapes, one of which wound up on the doorstep of A&M Records. Fortunately one of the staff noticed the parcel and took it inside for a listen. They must have liked what they heard because Breathe was offered a recording contract soon after. In June 1985 the lads entered the recording studio and finally emerged roughly two years later, in bad need of a shower but with an album’s worth of quality songs in the can.

‘All That Jazz’ was strictly speaking more angled toward the R&B side of pop music. Comparisons could be and were drawn between Breathe and fellow Brit-pop acts Johnny Hates Jazz (see future post) and Danny Wilson (see earlier post). It’s true to say that the British pop scene was in pretty decent shape during the second half of the 80s, with a plethora of quality acts jostling for commercial and critical attention. There wasn’t anything earth shattering to set Breathe apart from the rest of the pack, but the lengthy amount of time they spent in working on songs for ‘All That Jazz’ paid off in terms of a consistency of quality not always evident on their contemporaries work.

The album was actually released in Britain during 1987 via A&M Records, but for a time proved so much of a sleeper that the term narcoleptic wouldn’t be stretching things too far. But the cream eventually rises to the top, and the song to finally open the floodgates for Breathe was the sublime love ballad ‘Hands To Heaven’. David Glasper’s warm vocal style ran smoothly across the slick production qualities to produce a finished product that wouldn’t be out of place on a George Michael album - it’s no secret Michael was a strong influence on Breathe’s sound. ‘Hands To Heaven’ ascended all the way to #2 on the U.S. charts in mid 1988, occupying the rarefied atmosphere of the top 5 around the same time as George Michael’s own ballad ‘One More Try’. Adult contemporary radio fell in love with the song, and for a time in love with Breathe. ‘Hands To Heaven’ also received a saintly reception in Britain, peaking at #4 - the British public had finally been awoken by the song’s huge success Stateside. Australia (#95) forgot to set the alarm and slept through the whole breathing exercise, though I’m glad to say I purchased the song on vinyl 45 at the time. Regrettably one of the original quartet who had recorded ‘All The Jazz’ between 1985 and 1987, had already left the band before the album finally took off. Bassist Michael Delahunty can be seen on the cover for the original 1987 British release of the album, but he had departed the scene prior to the album’s American release (on Virgin) in 1988, and subsequent hullabaloo, and consequently Breathe is pictured as a trio on the U.S. album (and single) releases.

The band’s respective British and U.S. distributors differed on which single should be released to build on the momentum of ‘Hands To Heaven’. In Britain the more up-tempo soul edged number ‘Jonah’ (UK#60) showed up Breathe’s limitations on the more dance inducing material, but the U.S. release ‘How Can I Fall?’ was another beautifully crafted ballad that proved a perfect sequel. ‘How Can I Fall?’ matched the formula of ‘Hands To Heaven’ well (though in my opinion isn’t as good), and almost matched its performance on the U.S. Hot 100, peaking at #3 in late ‘88 (#1 Adult Contemporary). The suits in Britain couldn’t ignore those sales figures and rush released ‘How Can I Fall?’ in time for Christmas ‘88 (#48). Breathe had already gone one up on Virgin label mates Johnny Hates Jazz in the battle of the Brits to win over the U.S. pop music buying public.

Breathe achieved a rare feat by chalking up their third consecutive U.S. top 10 hit with ‘Don’t Tell Me Lies’ (#10) in early ‘89. The song was actually a more up-tempo pop/R&B number but once again fell well short of expectations in Britain (#45). Meanwhile the album ‘All That Jazz’, co-produced by Bob Sargeant and Chris Porter, had racked up some very impressive sales figures on both sides of the pond (U.K.#22/U.S.#34).

Around eighteen months later Breathe came up for air again with their sophomore album ‘Peace Of Mind’ (US#116). It was another batch of R&B tinged pop songs with a few ballads thrown in, but it lacked the consistency of quality offered up by ‘All That Jazz’. The lead out single ‘Say A Prayer’ received a solid amount of airplay and debuted on the U.S. charts during August 1990. It climbed to #21 (#3 Adult Contemporary) Stateside, but only flirted with the fringes of the Australian charts (#91), and missed the British charts altogether. Breathe had one last gasp of life on the American charts with the follow up ‘Does She Love That Man?’ (#34) in late 1990, the single credited to Breathe featuring David Glasper. But it seemed Breathe had run out of breath by 1991, and the trio went their separate ways, coincidentally around the same time as things went bad for Johnny Hates Jazz (though for very different reasons).

Information is a bit scarce as to what happened to the former members in the years subsequent. Ian Spice reportedly passed away in 2000. Marcus Lillington is listed as the Business Development Director with a web authoring firm called Headscape. David Glasper has made a return to singing in recent years and has a presence on MySpace featuring a couple of demo tracks, with indications that an album of new material is in the works.

Johnny B Finds One Way Home - Europe Discovers The Hooters

Please note: this post was originally published on October 2, 2008. The following is part two of two posts on the Hooters - part one is still in its original published date of October 2, 2008. This re-post is the same as the original, without the original link to a sample MP3 (removed on request from Fingers crossed this will be the last occasion I have to republish any posts. Onwards and upwards and forwards and all that jazz!

Expectations were high for the Hooters sophomore album ‘One Way Home’, which was released in mid ‘87. Fran Smith Jr. came on board in place of bassist Andy King for the album. Whilst ‘One Way Home’ didn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor in the U.S. (#27/OZ#81), it broke the band big time across Europe, with Germany in particular becoming the new hub of the Hooters fan base. The first single ‘Johnny B’ only managed #61 on the U.S. Hot 100 (#3 Mainstream Rock Tracks) and #74 in Australia, but became a major hit in Germany and other European territories. The single was backed by a live version of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, a fan favourite of the Hooters live shows and a reflection of Eric Bazilian’s love of all things Beatles. The follow up single ‘Satellite’ saw the Hooters launched into the pop-rock stratosphere across Europe, also becoming their biggest hit in the U.K. (#22), though again the band’s light continued to dim Stateside (#61). The Hooters also performed ‘Satellite’ on the ‘Top Of The Pops’, sharing the shows billing with one of their musical heroes Paul McCartney. The third single ‘Karla With A K’ (UK#81) also consolidated the Hooters new found profile in Europe.

1989's album 'Zig Zag' could only manage #115 in the U.S. and only yielded one minor hit with '500 Miles' (US#97 - #20 Mainstream Rock Tracks), which was a reworking of the traditional folk ballad written by Hedy West, and featured guest harmony vocals from folk legends Peter, Paul And Mary. The album, which reflected a band whose sound had matured beyond melodic pop, fared considerably better across Europe, with Sweden becoming the latest country to succumb to the Hooters sound. Two more singles ‘Brother, Don’t You Walk Away’ and the beautiful ‘Heaven Laughs’ were again big sellers in Europe, though the Hooters presence on U.S. charts had come to an abrupt halt. Consequently their U.S. label Columbia Records agreed to release the band from their contract soon after.

The following year saw the Hooters invited by Roger Waters (see previous post) to participate in the historic staging of ‘The Wall’ concert in Berlin, alongside music legends Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, The Band, and old friend Cyndi Lauper. Soon after the Hooters added multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Mindy Jostyn to the line-up, and signed a new recording deal with MCA. Their next album ‘Out Of Body’, recorded in Memphis, didn't surface until 1993. A feature track was ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, which saw the Hooters collaborate once more with Cyndi Lauper. ‘Out Of Body’ missed the U.S. mainstream charts but again was well received in Europe, prompting yet another world tour. 1994’s album ‘The Hooters Live’ (titled ‘Live In Germany’ for the European market) was released following that tour, but it would be the last new release of Hooters material for some time.

From 1995 the Hooters took a six year hiatus from band duties, with each member embarking on their own projects. Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman continued their song writing partnership, resulting in songwriting contributions to albums from Taj Mahal, Mick Jagger, Carole King, Sophie B. Hawkins and Jon Bon Jovi. Eric Bazilian had also recorded material for a proposed solo album, including a track titled ‘One Of Us’. He suggested the track for friend Joan Osborne’s new album ‘Relish’ (also produced by Rick Chertoff), on which Bazilian and Hyman had written most of the songs and performed most of the instrumental backing. Joan Osborne’s version of ‘One Of Us’ became a worldwide top 5 hit, earning a Grammy Award nomination, and becoming one of the biggest selling singles of 1995/96. Bazilian also co-wrote Robbie Williams' first single 'Old Before I Die' and the Ricky Martin recorded 'Private Emotion' (2000). Both Hyman and Bazilian continued to co-produce, write and perform on albums from artists as diverse as Jonatha Brooke, JC Chasez, Meat Loaf, and the Scorpions. Drummer David Uosikkinen worked with the likes of Patty Smyth, Cyndi Lauper and Rod Stewart. Guitarist Lilley left music altogether for a time, starting his own landscape gardening business, whilst bassist Fran Smith Jr. featured in a number of Broadway shows, including playing the role of Paul McCartney in the production ‘Beatlemania’. In the interim a number of ‘best of’ Hooters’ compilations were released, including 1996’s ‘Hooterization - A Retrospective’.

Following their reforming during 2001, for what was to be a one off performance, the Hooters focused most of their touring energies on Europe from 2003 to 2005, with their fan base still huge in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden in particular. Eventually the band returned to performing live in the U.S. during 2006. In 2007 the Hooters recorded their first studio album in fourteen years with 'Time Stand Still', which featured a great cover of Don Henley's 'Boys Of Summer'. The album was released on the band’s own label, seeing the Hooters return to the independent scene for the first time in almost 25 years. All reviews indicate that the Hooters had not compromised their unique sound, whilst still managing to sound as fresh as ever.

The Hooters line-up of Eric Bazilian, Rob Hyman, John Lilley, Fran Smith Jr., and Dave Uosikkinen is still going strong on the touring front, packing out venues across the U.S. and Europe during 2008. A new double album, featuring acoustic re-workings of their best songs and a live set, is due for release later in 2008.

Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

Please note: this post was originally published on July 12, 2008. The following is as per original text without the original link to a sample MP3 file.

'Break My Stride' was one of the most infectious little pop numbers of the mid 80s. When Matthew Wilder burst onto the U.S. charts with the song in September ‘83, not only did he go on to reach #5 Stateside, the songs appeal spread across the world, striding into the U.K. (#4) and Australian (#6) charts in early ‘84. Most hadn’t heard of Matthew Wilder previous to ‘Break My Stride’ and in truth most probably think that ‘Break My Stride’ was his one moment of glory in the music biz, but Wilder had a past and a future that extended his successful career in music well beyond just one smash hit.

Born in Manhattan, Matthew Wilder began his career as a performer in the early 70s. Whilst still a teenager he formed one half of the folk duo Matthew & Peter (sounds very folkish doesn’t it), regularly playing club venues around Greenwich Village. He moves to Los Angeles in the late 70s, initially making a buck by singing on TV commercials. Then came his big break when he scored gigs as a backing vocalist with both Rickie Lee Jones and Bette Midler.

In 1983 Wilder got his chance to take centre stage as a performer. The talented singer/songwriter released his debut album ‘I Don’t Speak The Language’ which featured ‘Break My Stride’. The huge popularity of ‘Break My Stride’ provided the impetus to push Wilder’s album up the charts also, cracking the top 50 on Billboard’s Top 200 and also making the Australian charts briefly. Unfortunately ‘Break My Stride’ was as good as it got, though ‘The Kid’s American’ was a quality pop song that deserved to chart higher than the #33 it reached in the U.S. in early ‘84.

Wilder had accumulated a lot of material, so much so in fact that a second album was released before the end of 1984. ‘Bouncin Off The Walls’ didn’t manage to bounce very high up the charts, the only hit being a minor one, with the title track reaching #52 on the U.S. charts. It seemed that Matthew Wilder would go the way of many of his 80s pop contemporaries and fade into obscurity.

But Wilder didn’t disappear completely, he just retreated from the spotlight to a position where he could continue to trade his craft as a singer, whilst developing further honing his song writing and production skills. During the remainder of the 80s and into the early 90s Matthew Wilder sang backup to the likes of Judy Collins, Brenda Russell and Vonda Shepard. In 1994 he produced and performed on the soundtrack to the motion picture ‘The Air Up There’.

But in 1995 Wilder was involved in an album project that dwarfed the success of 'Break My Stride'. No Doubt's 'Tragic Kingdom' became a multi-platinum monster of an album across the world. The man behind the production controls on ‘Tragic Kingdom’ was one Matthew Wilder. To my mind there’s more than a hint of ‘Break My Stride’ in the quirky rhythmic pattern of ‘Just A Girl’. He proved a perfect match for the group, hooking up with them again to produce the album ‘Return To Saturn’ in 2000. In between times he was involved in producing several more soundtrack albums, most notably the soundtrack to the 1998 film ‘Mulan’, which featured the U.S. hit ‘True To Your Heart’ by 98 Degrees & Stevie Wonder - the song co-written by Wilder. Wilder has become an oft featured producer on several Disney related albums over the last decade, most recently working with Miley Cyrus on the Hanna Montana related albums - adding engineering, mixing and performing to his production duties.

In the last 15 years Matthew Wilder hasn't broken stride in his prolific work as a record producer, also at the controls on albums by Christina Aguilera, Dana Glover, Coco Lee and Kelly Clarkson. Far from being the one shining light in Wilder’s music career, ‘Break My Stride’ represents but one small chapter.

Dance outfit Unique II had an Australian top 5 hit in early 1997 with their version of ‘Break My Stride’. Below you'll find the cool promo clip to 'The Kid's American'. Enjoy!

Liberty Keeps The Dream Alive

Please note: this post was originally published on 3 May 2008. It has been slightly modified and the original link to a sample MP3 has been removed.

1989 was an especially eventful year. Tim Berners-Lee developed this curiosity called the world wide web, students were told they could no longer loiter in Tiananmen Square, city planners decided Berlin no longer needed a wall smack bang in the middle of the city (I think it had something to do with blocking the cycle track), and I found myself listening to a German group singing about keeping a dream alive, whilst I was stuck in gridlock along Parramatta Road in Sydney's western suburbs.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that the German quintet Freiheit sang about 'Keeping The Dream Alive' the same year that East and West Germany underwent the transformation toward unity. Freiheit is German for 'freedom' or 'liberty'. The band actually goes under the moniker of Munchener Freiheit in Europe - named after a square in their home city of Munich.

Freiheit had enjoyed considerable success in their native country in the early to mid 80s, their biggest breakthrough coming with the 1986 album Von Anfang An ('from the beginning'). Freiheit then set their sights on penetrating the English speaking pop markets, and so began recording in both German and English. 1988's 'Fantasy' was to be their breakthrough album in the lucrative U.K. market. 'Keeping The Dream Alive' reached #14 in Britain and #55 in Australia. When I first heard the song (whilst breathing in Sydney traffic fumes) I actually thought it may have been a new track from Paul McCartney (he was due to soon release his 'Flowers In The Dirt' album). The song was not dissimilar in style to McCartney's 1983 song 'Pipes Of Peace', and then when it hit the lush orchestra laden chorus the melody reminded me of Cyndi Lauper's hit 'Time After Time', with more than a hint of E.L.O. about it. Curious but very effective mix. Maybe it was the traffic fumes.

None of that detracts from the originality of Freiheit's sublime composition and stellar performance of 'Keeping The Dream Alive' (featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and The Jackson Singers). I guess a lot of pop's greatest songs have been derivative in nature. Anyway, I purchased the vinyl 45 at the time and later scored a copy on CD via the songs inclusion on a volume of the Time-Life CD series 'The Emotions Collection', though I've not tracked down a copy of the Freiheit source album 'Fantasy'. 'Keeping The Dream Alive' peaked at #14 on the British charts in December 1988 and #55 in Australia in April '89.

Freiheit recorded one more English language album before focusing their attention once more on their home market. According to Wikipedia (which is where I've managed to find most of the info for this post) Freiheit , once more Munchener Freiheit, represented Germany in the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest, finishing 18th. They continue to record and tour around Europe.

How would Freiheit have fared had they been an American or British artist? Who knows, but 'Keeping The Dream Alive' is every bit as good as any power ballad by Foreigner or Phil Collins.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Removing Song Links

Hi all,

over recent times I've received several notifications from regarding the removal of a number of previous posts from my blog due to infringement of copyright - with relation to the inclusion of the song links. Since this is just a hobby and I've no wish to get involved in any legal wrangles I've removed the links to sample mp3s. So sadly I won't be sharing any more examples of the fine work of these artists, but as I've always intended I would urge all visitors to Retro Universe to support the artists involved regardless, and purchase their work if it is currently available.
I'll republish several posts that have been taken down in recent days - but future posts will not include links to sample mp3s. I hope that you'll all stay tuned though for my own ramblings on some of the great songs and artists of the mid 70s through early 90s period in popular music.

Keep the faith always!
A. Flock Of Seagulls

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Adventures Of A Broken Land

During 1988 I began the gradual transition from buying singles on vinyl 45 format to CD format. It was gradual because for a few years there were relatively few single releases available on CD format, or at least they were a bit scarce to find at times. If memory serves me correctly the first CD single I purchased was ‘Age Of Reason’ by John Farnham (which was actually a picture disc) - either that or ‘Heaven Knows’ by Robert Plant. The Robert Plant CD single was an interesting one (aside from being a great song). The version I bought was on 3 inch CD single format. That was the same format I purchased two more singles on during 1988, both by an Irish/English band called The Adventures. For those of you not familiar with the mini-CD single format, the size of the CD was actually 3 inches in diameter and came with a plastic adaptor that clipped onto the outside, in case your CD player couldn’t handle the smaller version. The plastic frame was pretty flimsy and the attachment tabs were notoriously fragile. It’s not surprising the mini-CD format didn’t last long. After a brief flirtation with ‘cassingles’ to follow, I leapt fulltime into the CD maxi-single format.

The two 3” CD singles by The Adventures that I purchased during 1988 were ‘Broken Land’ and ‘Drowning In The Sea Of Love’, both inspired songs lifted from the band’s album ‘Sea Of Love’. But The Adventures adventure had begun a few years earlier, and is worth recounting. Lead vocalist Terry Sharpe and guitarist Pat Gribben had cut their teeth in the Belfast based power-pop outfit The Starjets during the late 70s/early 80s (released one album in 1979 titled ‘God Bless The Starjets’). By 1984 the duo had relocated to London and put together a new band called The Adventures. Rounding out the line-up were Pat Gribben’s wife Eileen (vocals/violin), Gerard ‘Spud’ Murphy (vocals), Tony Ayre (bass) and Paul Crowder (drums). The sextet signed with the Chrysalis label and manager Simon Fuller (who would later mastermind the Spice Girls). They released their debut single ‘Another Silent Day’ in late 1984 (UK#71). The follow up single ‘Send My Heart’ again flirted with the lower reaches of the British charts (#62) in late ‘84, and was later released in Australia (#92) in 1985. The band then released their debut album ‘Theodore And Friends’) in 1985 (re-titled and re-packaged as ‘The Adventures’ for the U.S. market), and toured in support of Tears For Fears. The album featured a set of songs filled with shimmering guitar riffs and the boyishly pure vocal work of Terry Sharpe. Lyrically there was a strong tone of the spiritual and a core theme of universal love throughout, without being overwhelming in its sense of optimism. Two more singles were yielded in ‘Two Rivers’ and ‘Feel The Raindrops’ (UK#58) during 1985, completing a strong arrival on the pop/rock scene for The Adventures.

The band shifted label camps to Elektra (WEA) for their long awaited sophomore album ‘The Sea Of Love’ in 1988. It was the high point for The Adventures, both critically and commercially. The album was overflowing with lush vocal arrangements and soothing harmonies. Most of the songs had a richer, more layered sound, but were not weighed down by the intricacy of the studio production. The crisp synth intro to the majestic ‘Broken Land’ was searing in its purity and clarity, matched only by Terry Sharpe’s vocals backed by the succulent harmonies Eileen Gribben and ‘Spud’ Murphy. ‘Broken Land’ was lyrically inspired by the unrelentingly fractious religious and social balance in guitarist Pat Gribben’s homeland of Ireland, and a yearning for unity and peace. The song peaked at #20 in the U.K., #46 in Australia and #95 in the U.S., and apparently was the most played song on BBC Radio 1 during 1988. The follow up single was the equally sumptuous ‘Drowning In The Sea Of Love’ (UK#44), featuring the pristine vocal harmonies, and shimmering guitar style The Adventures were building a strong reputation upon. The album ‘The Sea Of Love’ (UK#30/US#144) also yielded the single ‘One Step From Heaven‘ later in 1988, and the band played in support of Fleetwood Mac on a European tour. The slicker studio production on the album did nothing to detract from the emotional accessibility of The Adventures’ music, and just emphasised their collective talent as musicians and songwriters.

During 1989 vocalists Eileen Gribben and ‘Spud’ Murphy both departed the band, reducing The Adventures both in numbers and richness of sound. Their next album ‘Trading Secrets With The Moon’ (UK#64) in 1990 was consequently characterised by a more stripped down, introspective feel. It was more of an attempt at folk-pop, lacking the lush harmonies and cinematic musical scope offered on ‘The Sea Of Love’. The lead out single ‘Your Greatest Shade Of Blue’ missed the charts completely, and the promise offered by their previous album was disappointingly lacking on ‘Trading Secrets With The Moon’.

The Adventures had one more attempt to recapture the magic of their earlier work on 1993’s ‘Lions And Tigers And Bears’ (now on Polydor). I’ve not heard the album but the general consensus from the critics was that it lacked inspiration. The Adventures were retracing old ground without the benefit of the freshness offered on their previous material (and even other’s material in the form of a cover of the old Mamas And Papas song ‘Monday Monday’). The irresistible guitar hooks and inspiring vocal harmonies that had once sounded so crisp had arguably become formulaic in nature. The single ‘Raining All Over The World’ (UK#62) was a rare highlight. With grunge and dance movements in full swing the band saw the writing on the wall, and before the end of 1993 the remaining four members of The Adventures decided to take different creative paths, though never officially split. Guitarist Pat Gribben continued to work as a songwriter, collaborating with singer Ryan Molloy in recent years, and Terry Sharpe has continued for several years working in a covers band called The Dead Handsomes. In August 2007 The Adventures (Terry Sharpe, Pat Gribben, Eileen Gribben) reunited for a handful of shows in Belfast. They reportedly re-recorded some of their earlier songs such as ‘Send My Heart’ and ‘Broken Land’ with a view to issueing a greatest hits package in 2008, but nothing more has eventuated in terms of recording or performing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Little Heroes Greet The Charts With Bon Voyage

Throughout popular music history there have been those high profile acts that always seem to be in the headlines, whether for their music or otherwise. During the early 80s the Australian music press was dominated by the likes of INXS, Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl and the like - I guess the equivalent of Hollywood’s ‘A-list’. But there were just as many artists producing quality music consistently, who perhaps didn’t attract the attention or receive the plaudits they deserved. Melbourne band The Little Heroes were one such act.

During 1978/79 there was a popular band called Secret Police who were a regular on the Melbourne pub rock circuit, particularly around the Carlton district. Secret Police comprised vocalist/guitarist Roger Hart (AKA Roger Wells), bassist John Taylor, drummer Bruce Pumpa, guitarist Andrew Callender, and saxophonist Peter Linley. They didn’t release any records under their own name, but did feature on a various artists compilation titled ‘The Melbourne Club’, released in 1981, albeit after Secret Police had been disbanded.

In 1980 Hart, Taylor and Pumpa rose from the ashes of Secret Police to join keyboardist David Crosbie (of non-Stills, Nash & Young association) to kick start a new venture called The Little Heroes. The new line-up competed in the Victorian State heat of the 1980 Battle of the Sounds, finishing a creditable second. The result was enough to advance The Little Heroes to the national final, which they duly took out, earning a cool $5000 for their trouble ($5000 to a struggling pub rock band in 1980 was big bikkies).

Flush with their success The Little Heroes entered the recording studio and self released their debut single ‘She Says’ in November 1980. It impressed enough for the Giant/CBS label to sign them up to record an album. Prior to commencing work on their eponymous debut set, The Little Heroes recruited new drummer Huk Trelour (ex-Bleeding Hearts) in place of Bruce Pumpa. ‘The Little Heroes’ album was issued in August 1981 and attracted enough business to push it to #81 on the Australian album chart, though the three singles featured - ‘For A Bleeding Heart’, ‘Last Number One’ and ‘India Was Calling Me’ - failed to break The Little Heroes on the singles chart. Soon after the band had their third drummer within a year when Alan ‘Clutch’ Robertson joined the line-up.

The Little Heroes bunkered down in the studio during the first half of 1982 to record their sophomore album ‘Play By Numbers’ (now on EMI). The advance single release in April was the pensive ballad ‘One Perfect Day’. The song reminded me of something English singer/songwriter Ralph McTell might come up with. It became by far and away The Little Heroes biggest commercial hit, peaking at #12 on the Australian charts in mid ‘82 (climbing as high as #6 in Melbourne). The follow up singles ‘Young Hearts’ (#42) and ‘Saturday (Afternoon) Inside’ didn’t match the perfection of ‘Perfect Day’, but did assist in maintaining interest in the ‘Play The Numbers’ album which peaked at #37 later in 1982.

1982 also marked a relatively turbulent period in the band’s roster, with original members David Crosbie (keyboards) and John Taylor (bass) both replaced by Martin Fisher (ex-Breakers) and Peter Leslie respectively. Before the end of 1982 both Fisher and Leslie had split to join Dear Enemy (see earlier post). They in turn were supplanted by Paul Brickhill (see earlier MEO-245 post) on keyboards, and following a very brief tenure from Rick Loroit, by Anthony Tavasz (ex-Modesty) on bass. The Little Heroes line-up was also expanded to include new guitarist Paul Bell, giving Roger Hart a greater freedom to focus on his vocal duties.

In amongst all the turbulence of line-up changes, The Little Heroes said bon voyage to Australia for a period during mid 1983, during which they recorded their third album ‘Watch The World’ at Farmyard Studios in the U.K., under the production supervision of Rupert Hine (see earlier post). The album surfaced in September ‘83, and went on to crack the top 50 in Australia. The title track single only rose to #73, but its follow up ‘Bon Voyage’ performed better (#51), though not to the level on the charts that would do justice to such a great song.

It was perhaps the commercial disappointment of ‘Watching The World’ that contributed to The Little Heroes calling it a day in June 1984. It’s a pity really because The Little Heroes seemed to be a band that were just hitting stride, as exemplified on ‘Bon Voyage’ and another great song from ‘Watching The World’ called ‘Modern Times’. Whatever the reasons for The Little Heroes not reaching their absolute potential, they nonetheless left us with a fine body of work to savour. Vocalist Roger Hart went on to become a writer, and published a book on meditation in 1997. As mentioned in an earlier post on MEO-245, Paul Brickhill went on to head up the Australian Ballet School.

EMI released both ‘Play The Numbers’ and ‘Watching The World’ albums on a CD twin pack in the 90s but it’s been a while since they’ve been available to buy new.