Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Future Soap Star Plays With Player

I have no idea how many popular songs have been worked into gags on The Simpsons, but I’m sure aficionados of the show would have some clue. I am certain there have been some memorable one’s along the way, and among those that provided the biggest laugh (to me at any rate) was ‘Baby Come Back’ by Player. The basic premise was that Maggie Simpson (the baby) had gone walkabout and Homer called some hotline number for missing kids. When he was put on hold the recorded music playing was ‘Baby Come Back’ by Player - I’m sure the hilarity is lost in translation, but regardless it gave the song added significance to me, above and beyond the fact that it was a rather pleasant soft-rock hit from the late 70s.

Player (not to be confused with Player1 - see earlier post) were a pop rock quartet that formed in L.A. during 1977, and among its players were Peter Beckett (vocals/guitar), John Crowley (vocals/guitar), Ronn Moss (bass), and John Friesen (drums). Peter Beckett originally hailed from Liverpool and was a veteran on the music scene via several years playing with an outfit called Paladin. He felt the need for some sunny weather so hopped a plane over to California where he joined another band called Friends (of the non-sitcom variety), who recorded a self titled album in 1975. Friends evolved into Skyband thereafter, which likewise released a single album in 1975 (again self-titled), followed by a tour overseas prior to disbanding.

So in 1976 Beckett found himself a singer/guitarist without a band, but not without an invitation to a swanky L.A. party - the kind where lots of out of work actors and musicians try to make contact with all the right people. Apparently at this particular party all the guests were expected to wear white, but Peter Beckett wasn’t big on convention, so he rocked up wearing his favourite pair of denim jeans. To his relief he wasn’t the only rebel in jeans that night, and found a denim compatriot in John Charles Crowley III, a musician hailing from Galveston Bay in Texas. So they both wore jeans and both played music - it must be destiny that they should start a band. The pair first met up to jam a little and get a feel for the musical tastes and talents of one another. They first played together for a brief time in a band called Riff Raff, which released one single ‘Jukebox Saturday Night’ to little notice. The chemistry was good enough for Beckett and Crowley to agree to the idea of organising another band to play their own songs. It was L.A. and it was the mid 70s, so finding talented and available musicians willing to join a new band shouldn’t be a problem.

First player added to the mix was bassist Ronn Moss, who had played in L.A. groups Count Zeppelin and his Fabled Airship, and Punk Rock. Moss knew a drummer by the name of John Friesen (the two were childhood buddies), who had previously been the drummer and assistant musical producer for the Ice Follies. The initial quartet set about recording material for a debut album, and at that point were signed to the Haven Records label (with the production team of Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter). They adopted the name Player, the inspiration for which was no more interesting than taking the word ‘players’ (in reference to the cast on a television show) and removing the ‘s’. They also took a cover photo for their proposed album, but that was before the final unofficial member of the band, Wayne Cook, joined on keyboard duties (for touring purposes). The finishing touches were put on the album which was to be called, um wait for it….‘Player’ ta-dah! Sorry to get your hopes up there. With ten songs of promising soft rock in the can, Player suffered a bit of a set back when Haven Records went belly up. But Lambert and Potter weren’t going to let the project sink without a trace, so they negotiated a deal with the R.S.O. label, which just happened to be the home of the Bee Gees.

Just as well really because otherwise the great romantic soft-rock song ‘Baby Come Back’ may have been lost to world. Beckett and Crowley co-wrote the song reportedly inside of three or four hours. The pair took inspiration (lyrically at least) from the fact they had each recently broken up from their respective girlfriends, and it was a way of exorcising some of that angst and heartache (familiar story). They rehearsed the song with the band in Crowley’s garage during a heat wave over the summer of ‘77, and instinctively knew they had a potential hit single.

With the R.S.O. distribution/marketing machine behind them, Player released ‘Baby Come Back’ as their debut single in September ‘77. The radio friendly song was soon being added to every play list across the U.S. and debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in October ‘77. Music critics were quick to start drawing comparisons between ‘Baby Come Back’ and a lot of the other A.O.R. (adult oriented rock) songs, citing the Hall & Oates hit ‘She’s Gone’ as one. Player were also labelled as being derivative of groups like Foreigner, Steely Dan and even their R.S.O. label-mates the Bee Gees. Player themselves were unperturbed by the criticism, after all 99% of popular music is derivative to some degree. Besides, by January ‘78 ‘Baby Come Back’ had reached #1 in the U.S., spent three weeks at the summit, and went on to sell over two million copies during a seven month stint on the American charts. Incidentally the artist that Player replaced at #1 in the U.S. was none other than the Bee Gees (‘How Deep Is Your Love’). ‘Baby Come Back’ hit the Australian charts in January ‘78 and went on to a peak of #15 (UK#32).

Whilst ‘Baby Come Back’ was still on its ascent of the U.S. charts, Player hit the road for the first time and were soon the opening act for Gino Vanelli (see future post). Over the next couple of years they toured with the likes of Heart, Kenny Loggins (see future post) and Eric Clapton. Their follow up single maintained the band’s high profile Stateside, but ‘This Time I’m In It For Love’ (US#10) didn’t make an impact elsewhere. On the strength of the two hit singles, the ‘Player’ album racked up solid sales in the U.S. (#26/OZ#47) in early ‘78, and was a solid mix of laid back soft rock, with an occasional flirtation with harder edged fare.

For their sophomore album Player (now the quartet of Beckett, Moss, Crowley, Friesen) decided to ramp up the harder edged approach, and introduced more of a heavy guitar feel to some of the songs, even daring to experiment with some prog-rock material. ‘Danger Zone’ sold well enough (US#37), but didn’t manage to produce any major hits. The lead out single ‘Prisoner Of Your Love’ climbed to US#27, whilst the follow up ‘Silver Lining’ (US#62) achieved more in the way of an imitation leather lining in terms of sales. Crowley left soon after to pursue a solo career in country music.

The remaining core trio of Beckett, Moss and Friesen signed with the Casablanca label and released the album ‘Room With A View’ in 1981, with new vocalist/guitarist Miles Joseph. By now the popularity game was over for Player and the album tanked, though it did realise one minor hit in ‘It’s For You’ (US#46). Ronn Moss then departed and Beckett carried the Player name forward as the only founding member, along with Friesen, still involved. 1982’s album ‘Spies Of Life’ (US#152) was issued on RCA and Player managed to notch up one last hit with ‘If Looks Could Kill’ (US#48). Beckett then retired the Player brand to pursue song writing and performing as a solo artist, though he briefly played with Little River Band in the early 90s. Ronn Moss had opted for an acting career, appearing in a few minor movie roles before trying his hand at daytime television. He played the role of Ridge Forrester in the long running TV soap ‘The Bold & The Beautiful’. Moss and Beckett dusted off the Player name in 1995 and released the album ‘Lost In Reality’ (originally titled ‘Electric Shadows’) a year later, followed by occasional touring in the late 90s. Moss later released an album titled ‘I’m Your Man’ (2000) which featured a rerecorded version of ‘Baby Come Back’ and alerted many, who only knew him from his TV soap work, to the fact that he was also an accomplished musician. At time of writing Moss and Beckett are planning to resurrect Player once again.

For more comprehensive coverage of all things 'Player', please check out the following cool web sites:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Beautiful South Carry On Up The Charts

The intelligent, bittersweet approach continued on 1992’s ‘0898: Beautiful South’ (UK#4), which gave the band their third consecutive top five album in Britain. Though the album didn’t yield any top ten singles, ‘Old Red Eyes Is Back’ (UK#22), ‘We Are Each Other’ (UK#30/US#10 Modern Rock Tracks), and the tale of small-time tragedy contained within ‘Bell Bottomed Tear’ (UK#16), kept The Beautiful South entrenched inside the British top 40 for most of 1992. Brianna Corrigan left soon after to pursue a solo career (though there was some talk that she had some issues with Heaton’s lyrics), and was replaced by new vocalist Jacqui Abbott. The chemistry within The Beautiful South remained strong, and was demonstrated on their next album ‘Miaow’ (UK#6) in March 1994. Four more British top 40 tracks were realised over the course of ‘94, with ‘One Last Love Song’ (UK#14) and ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ (UK#12 - a cover of the Fred Neil song, which had been a hit previously for Harry Nilsson) performing best on the charts. Already The Beautiful South had racked up more album and single sales than the Housemartins, and the band’s immense popularity at home was exemplified by the release of their first ‘best of’ package ‘Carry On Up The Charts’ in November of ‘94, which performed up to its name when it bolted to #1 in its first week of release (claiming the honour of being the 500th official #1 album in Britain), and sat at the summit for seven weeks.

The only activity from The Beautiful South in the studio during 1995 surfaced via the single ‘Pretenders To The Throne’, which became the group’s lucky thirteenth top 20 hit in Britain. They sharpened the lyrical barbs even further for their next album, 1996’s ‘Blue Is The Colour’, which soon proved gold was the colour found in The Beautiful South, as it shot to the top of the British charts soon after its release in November. It had been preceded by the single ‘Rotterdam’ (UK#5), and soon courted controversy via the second single. Despite having to release a slightly altered version to appease radio regulators, the song ‘Don’t Marry Her’ climbed to #8 in Britain and further consolidated The Beautiful South as one of the pre-eminent adult oriented pop outfits in the U.K. The consistent depth of quality material (and thrusting cynicism) on their albums was further illustrated by two more charting singles in ‘Blackbird On The Wire’ (UK#23) and ‘Liar’s Bar’ (UK#43). It was an album fit to drown collective sorrows in.

After taking a well earned sabbatical The Beautiful South resumed their stellar run of commercial success with the 1998 album ‘Quench’, which undoubtedly quenched the thirst of the band’s fans for new material, to the extent that it became The Beautiful South’s third consecutive #1 album in Britain soon after its release in October ‘98. The lead out single ‘Perfect 10’ stopped just one position short of being a perfect #1, whilst the follow up singles ‘Dumb’ (UK#16) and ‘How Long’s A Tear Take To Dry?’ (UK#12) indicated there was no let up of quality material from The Beautiful South, nor in audience demand for it. The album’s title reflected a central theme of alcoholism and self loathing, which surely would have proved overbearing had it not been for The Beautiful South maintaining a palatable mix of melodic pop, rock, jazz elements within the music, with smatterings of ironic humour.

2000’s ‘Painting It Red’ once again shot up the British charts (#2) but produced just one hit single of note with ‘Closer Than Most’ (UK#22). There were some substantial issues arose with promotion and touring, and thousands of copies of the CD for ‘Painting It Red’ had production faults. Shortly after the album was released vocalist Jacqui Abbott left the band. The remaining members of The Beautiful South opted to take an extended break to focus on other projects, and questions were raised in the press as to whether the end had come.

The Beautiful South reconvened for 2003’s ‘Gaze’ (UK#14), with a new female vocalist Alison Wheeler. It was their first album to stall outside the British top 10, and produced just one top 30 hit in ‘Just A Few Things That I Ain’t’ (UK#30). Their next album ‘Golddiggas, Headnodders and Pholk Songs’ (UK#11) put its hand up as the odd one out in The Beautiful South’s discography. It was an eclectic mix of quirkily arranged cover songs, including a version of E.L.O.’s ‘Livin’ Thing’ (UK#24). Heaton & Co. had one last album left in them which materialised in the form of 2006’s ‘Superbi’ (UK#6), and featured a typical selection of mordant, melodic pop fair (with a tad more rock in place of pop).

With worldwide record sales exceeding 15 million, there seemed little left to say or prove for The Beautiful South, and in January 2007 they made a formal announcement that they were splitting due to ‘musical similarities’ - typically ironic of a band that pushed the notion to its very limits over almost nineteen years.

Let's Spend A Little Time In The Beautiful South

Time to look at yet another song and artist that came to my attention via a promotional video of rare distinction. In late 1990 The Beautiful South released the single ‘A Little Time’ and backed it with a music video that reminded me very much of a Danny DeVito directed film that had come out just a year before. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, 1989’s ‘The War Of The Roses’ was a black comedy that starred Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as a couple, whose marriage descends into a comically macabre hell. As the film progresses each of the characters comes up with new and devilishly fiendish ways to exact revenge upon one another, with some results that make you cry with laughter, as much as wince with the shock of it all. If The Beautiful South didn’t take their inspiration directly from that film, then they must have built it around the same emotional template experienced by couples undergoing a messy break up. Regardless, the video was a brilliantly acerbic juxtaposition to the gentleness of the music for ‘A Little Time’, and in many respects represents that effective balancing of sweet and sour that The Beautiful South’s music and lyrics captured consistently for more than a decade.

The Beautiful South arose in early 1989 from the ashes of The Housemartins (‘Caravan Of Love’). Housemartins’ frontman Paul Heaton, and drummer/vocalist Dave Hemmingway (now focused on vocals/ keyboards), established The Beautiful South in their hometown base of Hull, England, and chose the name as a sarcastic counterpoint to their reputation as dour Northerners. Dave Rotheray (guitar), Sean Welch (bass), Dave Stead (drums-former roadie for the Housemartins), and a key ingredient Briana Corrigan (vocals, ex-Anthill Runaways), rounded out the line-up when she joined fulltime in 1990. It’s worth noting that, although not credited as an official member, Damon Butcher played most of the keyboard/piano parts on many of the band’s albums. Meanwhile former Housemartins bassist Norman Cook took a starkly different fork in the musical road and went on to form Beats International, later on becoming better known to the world as Fatboy Slim.

Heaton and Hemmingway kept the social conscience and no-frills image of the Housemartins, but worked on developing a much richer, and more layered musical style. They shared the vocals on much of the group’s material, alongside Briana Corrigan’s beautiful voice. Heaton tended to handle those songs with a harder political edge, whilst Hemmingway and Corrigan shared vocals more often on the softer, let’s call them, love songs. Their sweet vocal mix was augmented by cheery, jazz tinged hooks and at times lush orchestrations, that perfectly counterbalanced the bitingly caustic undercurrents often contained within the lyrics. The Beautiful South released their appropriately titled debut album ‘Welcome To The Beautiful South’ on the Go! Discs label in late 1989 (it featured a controversial cover image of a woman with a gun in her mouth). They had already made an auspicious beginning with the lead out single ‘Song For Whoever’ (UK#2) a few months earlier, followed by ‘You Keep It All In’ (UK#8), which signalled that, far from having to emerge from the Housemartins’ shadow, The Beautiful South were likely to leave the Housemartins’ legacy covered in their dust. Their debut album climbed steadily to a peak position of #2, and spawned a third hit single with ‘I’ll Sail This Ship Alone’ (UK#31). Heaton’s song writing also took on a new dimension through his collaboration with guitarist Dave Rotheray. Heaton’s arguably abrasive socialist voice was tempered somewhat by Rotheray’s contribution, though in songs like ‘Woman In The Wall’, they balanced sweet fluttering melody playfully against grossly macabre lyrics.

‘A Little Time’ was a sardonically edged love song that featured a sweet and gentle melody, which again belied the darker tone behind the lyrics. Hemmingway’s and Corrigan’s conversational style vocals, combined with the attention grabbing video (which rightly won the 1990 BRIT Award for ‘Best Music Video’, in spite of the obvious cruelty to teddy bears), sealed the deal for ‘A Little Time’ and helped propel it all the way to #1 on the British charts in October 1990. It gave Heaton and Hemmingway their second U.K. #1, following the Housemartins’ December ‘86 chart topper ‘Caravan Of Love’, but they had been beaten to the punch by Norman Cook, whose Beats International had already notched up a #1 back in March ‘90 with ‘Dub Be Good To Me’ (featuring Lindy Layton). ‘A Little Time’ became The Beautiful South’s only foray into the Australian charts (#57), which given their flurry of U.K. hits is quite perplexing. The source album ‘Choke’ cleared a path to #2 on the British charts (OZ#66), and spawned two more minor hits in ‘My Book’ (UK#43) and ‘Let Love Speak Up Itself’ (UK#51). There was a degree of critical backlash during this period, mostly centred around the perception that there was an element of overkill in Heaton’s relentless cynicism, but it was probably more to do with the degree of discomfort generated in listeners by the brutal truth lurking within the lyrics’ confronting subject matter.

Friday, November 28, 2008

It's A St-st-stutter Rap

Earlier this year the U.K. band Ben’s Brother scored a hit at home with the catchy pop love song ‘Stuttering (Kiss Me Again)’ (UK#41). It wasn’t the first time that the speech disorder had cropped up in the title of a British chart hit - history does have a habit of repeating itself after all. In 2001 Joe Ft. Mystikal scored a UK#7/OZ#19 hit with ‘Stutter’, and back in the late 80s a trio of British comedians did likewise with a cheeky, and very humorous novelty song called ‘Stutter Rap (No Sleep Til Bedtime)’. Whilst the employment of stuttering by vocalist Jamie Hardman in the Ben’s Brother hit was done so to illustrate a love struck young man overcome by nerves, the artist behind ‘Stutter Rap (No Sleep Til Bedtime)’ utilised the concept of stammering for comic effect. Not very politically correct I know, but it was only one facet of the whole tongue in cheek approach by Morris Minor & The Majors - and it proved very effective.

So who were Morris Minor & The Majors, and just what inspired them to record ‘Stutter Rap (No Sleep Til Bedtime)’? At the heart of the project was comedian, actor and writer Tony Hawks, whose alter ego was Morris Minor. The Majors were credited as Rusty Wing and Phil Errup (puns very much intended), but their real identities became, and remain, a bit of a mystery. By the late 80s the novelty song had become less common on the mainstream charts than at the start of the decade. There were exceptions of course, including The Firm’s ‘Star Trekkin’ (see earlier post) and Alf’s ‘Stuck On Earth’ (bit of an extraterrestrial connection there), but it was rarer to see a comedy based song take off on the charts.

The song ‘Stutter Rap (No Sleep Til Bedtime)’ was an inspired parody of the Beastie (or is it Toastie) Boys hit ‘No Sleep Til Brooklyn’, which featured on the legendary rappers 1987 debut album ‘Licence To Ill’. That album also yielded the worldwide hit ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)’. ‘Stutter Rap’ was produced by one Grand Master Jelly Tot AKA Jakko M. Jakszyk, also a singer/guitarist, who has worked with the likes of Dave Stewart and Sam Brown (see earlier posts). The Morris Minor & The Majors song hit the airwaves in December ‘87 and soon thereafter stammered its way onto the British charts. It was backed by a hilarious promotional video which played on the comical lyrics, pushing the whole geek rapper motif to the hilt, and also featured a cameo from Queen base player John Deacon (wearing a blue wig). ‘Stutter Rap (No Sleep Til Bedtime)’ escaped its own mouse trap to climb all the way to a peak of #4 in the U.K. and soon after b-b-b-b-bulleted to #2 here in Australia. I recall watching the OZ top 50 countdown on the ABC’s Rage every Saturday morning, back at that time, and the first time I saw the video for ‘Stutter Rap’, I hopped it to my local record bar that very morning to nab a copy. The song went on to sell over 220,000 copies around the world, and earned Morris Minor & The Majors the tag of one hit wonder in the U.K., but in Australia the trio were to have one more affair with the charts.

One thing that wasn’t uncommon on the charts during the late 80s, at least in Britain and Australia, were songs emanating from the production houses of Stock, Aitken & Waterman (some may have thought it a plague). Thus Morris Minor & The Majors found the inspiration for their second single ‘This Is The Chorus’, released in mid ‘88. It was a none too subtle jab at what was perceived as the formulaic, assembly line style song writing by the popular production/writing team of Stock, Aitken & Waterman. The accompanying promotional video played on that theme and featured look-alikes of several artists from the Stock, Aitken & Waterman stable, including Rick Astley, Mel & Kim, Bananarama, and Kylie Minogue (who was still a huge ‘Neighbours’ icon at the time). There’s a bit of connection there with ‘Stutter Rap’, which features a brief sampling of the theme tune to ‘Neighbours’ - ah useless trivia, can there ever be too much?. ‘This Is The Chorus’ managed to put the ‘S’ in hit here in Australia, and cloned the success of its source of inspiration by peaking at #27 during September ‘88. Though I was guilty of buying a handful of Stock, Aitken & Waterman brand singles at the time (we all have these momentary lapses of reason), in my defence I also purchased ‘This Is The Chorus’ to support the production team of Schlock, Aching & Wateringcan in their fight against banality in pop music.

‘This Is The Chorus’ represented the last comedic pot shot on the charts from Morris Minor & The Majors, though soon after Tony Hawks transferred the concept to a British TV sitcom called ‘Morris Minor’s Marvellous Motors’. It was written by, and starred, Hawks as a fictional bandleader who tries to balance an aspiring pop career with managing a garage. I’ve never seen an episode so can’t comment on whether it was funny, but it certainly qualifies as bizarre by way of concept. Perhaps the fact that the show only ran for one season provides a clue as to it’s comic merit.

Of course Tony Hawk has gone on to have a great deal of success across a number of professional endeavours, from best selling author, actor, radio personality and still aspiring musician with his latest project called Probably Peru. Being the sci-fi geek that I am, I can recall him from a guest appearance in the Red Dwarf episode ‘Better Than Life’ (plus some voice over roles), but if you live in the U.K. I’m sure you’re a lot more familiar with the comic talents of Tony Hawk. I’d be very interested to know the real names behind The Majors’ characters of Rusty Wing and Phil Errup. If anyone out there has any inkling, please let me know by comment.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Former Buzzcock Declared Homosapien

The early 80s was a golden era for the synth-pop faction of the new wave movement, with the likes of Visage, Ultravox, A Flock Of Seagulls, Flowers (Icehouse), Mi-Sex and Johnny Warman regularly breaking into the Australian and British charts. Many of the more successful artists in the synth-pop faction had roots firmly planted in the punk scene that had exploded during the latter half of the 70s. The straight forward melodic minimalism of punk crossed over relatively seamlessly into many of the elements of new wave. It proved to be more commercially accessible, via the slickly produced dressing of synthesizer driven instrumentation, applied to the same stripped-down song arrangements.

One former punk pioneer, who turned his attention briefly to synthesizer rock, was the one time front man for seminal British punk outfit the Buzzcocks. Pete Shelley (not to be confused with Peter Shelley of ‘Gee Baby’ fame) was a co-founder of the Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto (Shelley was born Peter McNeish). The bands roots were laid in Manchester during 1975 and they played their first major gig in July ‘76 as support for the Sex Pistols. Devoto left the band in 1977 and went on to front Magazine (who later on provided several members of Visage - see earlier post), whilst the Buzzcocks continued on with Pete Shelley taking over lead vocals and song writing duties. After a couple of British top 20 albums (‘Another Music In A Different Kitchen’ and ‘Love Bites’) during 1978, the Buzzcocks commercial returns began to wane. Despite a huge fan base at home, and a cult following gained from their 1980 U.S. tour, the Buzzcocks eventually folded, in part due to their frustration at not being able to crack it for a big hit, but also due to a dispute with the parent label EMI over the release of their fourth album. Guitarist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher went on to form the band Flag Of Convenience, whilst Shelley turned his focus toward kick starting a solo career.

Shelley signed with the Island label in Britain (Arista in U.S.) and recorded his debut solo set during the first half of ‘81, with ex-Buzzcocks bassist Steve Garvey lending a hand. ‘Homosapien’ was released in Britain during September ‘81, but failed to make an impact on the charts. The title track was issued as a single but also missed in the U.K. I recall seeing the promotional video for the single ‘Homosapien’ on the ABC’s Countdown in late ‘81. By the time Countdown returned to our screens for the new year, ‘Homosapien’ was featured as a ‘chartbuster’ as it began rocketing up the Australian charts. In sharp contrast to the blistering punk-rock tempos of the Buzzcocks, Shelley had come up with a very catchy synth-laden, dance-oriented pop song, and a very clever video (lots of 80s cutting edge chroma-key and blue screen effects). Before long ‘Homosapien’ had evolved into a fully fledged top 10 being, peaking at #4 during April of ‘82, whilst the album climbed to #42 (US#121). The single was reissued in Britain but yet again failed to find an audience, though it received solid airplay in the U.S. and managed to notch up #14 on the Club Play Singles chart. ‘Homosapien’ was banned by the BBC (join the club) due to its lyrics being interpreted as sexually explicit. Shelley later explained in interview that it could be interpreted any number of ways, but essentially it was about being a human being, and falling in love with someone. Musically, the evolutionary roots of ‘Homosapien’ can be traced to an album of music Shelley recorded pre-Buzzcocks. In 1974 Shelley laid down a collection of tracks heavily laced with electronic instrumentation. The little known set eventually surfaced in early 1980 as ‘Sky Yen’.

Shelley dialled up his first hit single in Britain (albeit a minor one) with ‘Telephone Operator’ which debuted in the charts during March ‘83 and peaked at #66. Despite the previous success of ‘Homosapien’, Australia didn’t answer the call on ‘Telephone Operator’. The single was lifted from Shelley’s sophomore set ‘XL-1’, which attracted mild interest in both the U.K. (#42) and Australia (OZ#55)(US#151). He released a one off single ‘Never Again’ during 1984 on the independent Immaculate label, then signed a new deal with Mercury Records. Shelley’s only album for Mercury appeared in June ‘86, but ‘Heaven And The Sea’ sunk without a trace, leaving Shelley’s solo career effectively high and dry. In 1988 Shelley formed the short lived outfit Zip with Gerard Cookson (keyboards) and Mark Sanderson (bass), but it was likely that the only thing that was going halt Shelley’s career slide was a Buzzcocks revival.

In 1990 former Buzzcocks’ members Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle, Mike Joyce (drums, Ex-Smiths) and Steve Garvey (bass) reunited for a well received U.S. tour. Three years later (having been credited as being a major influence on the exploding grunge movement) the Buzzcocks released an album of new material titled ‘Trade Test Transmission’, with yet another U.S. tour following. A live album titled ‘French’ hit the stores in November ‘95, followed by 1996’s ‘All Set’. The Buzzcocks stability as a unit during the late 90s exceeded that of their earlier 70s incarnation. Over the last decade Shelley and Co. have continued to release albums with reassuring regularity, from 1999’s ‘Modern’ to 2008’s ‘30’, and in 2002 Shelley collaborated with Howard Devoto on the album ‘Buzzkunst’. But in terms of chart success here in Australia, ‘Homosapien’ remains the most evolved of Pete Shelley’s work to date.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cheap Trick's Dark Days Illuminated By The Flame

In 1982 Cheap Trick nervously awaited the reception for their latest album ‘One On One’, aware that in the absence of a substantial hit the trick might be up. The lead out single was the aforementioned pop-rock gem ‘If You Want My Love’. The song didn’t exactly set the world on fire in the U.S. (#45) or Britain (#57), but Australia fell in love with the track and pushed it all the way to #2 during the second half of ‘82. Sales of ‘One On One’ down under reflected Cheap Trick’s popularity at the time (OZ#25) but again other markets were less receptive to the Cheap Trick brand (US#39/UK#95). The follow up single ‘She’s Tight’ flirted with the lower reaches of the U.S. Hot 100 (#65) in late ‘82, but it would represent the last charting single for Cheap Trick, Stateside, for almost three years.

The Todd Rundgren produced album ‘Next Position Please’ (US#61) hit the stores in September ‘83, but signalled the start of a tough period for the veteran rock quartet. It spawned just two singles in ‘Dancing The Night Away’ and ‘I Can’t Take It’, but neither found a position on the charts. The only release from Cheap Trick during 1984 was the single ‘Spring Break’, which was the title track from the motion picture release. The titles for Cheap Trick’s next two albums in some respects reflected the plight the band found themselves in during the mid 80s. 1985’s ‘Standing On The Edge’ performed reasonably well (US#35) and garnered favourable reviews, but still well short of the band’s heady ‘Budokan’ days, though it did yield the minor hit ‘Tonight It’s You’ (US#44). The prescription offered by their 1986 album ‘The Doctor’ didn’t provide the much needed cure for Cheap Trick, but rather signalled a bottoming out of sorts, both creatively and commercially. Though it didn’t crack the charts, or yield any hit singles, ‘The Doctor’ did reintroduce Tom Petersson to his old Cheap Trick cohorts, whilst they were mixing the album. It would lead to Petersson returning to the fold in place of Jon Brant, and possibly provided the missing piece of the puzzle for the band to recapture some lost form.

With waning album sales, the lads in Cheap Trick understandably felt a little nervous about their tenure at Epic, in fact they were even canvassing interest from other labels. The band’s fortune’s would soon be revived by a soft rock power ballad that, on the surface at least, was very un-Cheap Trick like. The song writing team of Nick Graham and Bob Mitchell had been based in the U.K. for several years, penning songs for the likes of Sinitta and Toyah Wilcox. They had been commissioned to write some songs for vocalist Elkie Brooks, and one of the compositions they offered up was a song called ‘The Flame’. Brooks duly rejected the song, but Graham and Mitchell felt it had potential, so slapped a makeshift vocal on it and sent out a demo hoping to snare some interest. One of the copies found its way to Don Grierson, a former Capitol Records suit who had assumed the position of senior vice president A&R for Epic. Grierson loved the song but wasn’t sure who within the Epic family was best suited to record it. He was perusing the label’s roster when he came upon Cheap Trick and felt they might just be the band to take the song to #1. Grierson approached producer Richie Zito to oversee production on a new Cheap Trick album, featuring ‘The Flame’. There was only one hitch - the band didn’t like the song, much less like the idea of Cheap Trick recording it. It ended up being the last song recorded during the album sessions, and Zito had to coax each member of the band to record their part one at a time. Robin Zander laid down his vocal track first with a guide track on keyboard. When Zander heard the playback his feelings began to change towards ‘The Flame’. By the time the track was finished, pretty much everyone from producer to record label to Cheap Trick themselves, knew they had a sure fire hit record.

‘The Flame’ was released April ‘88 and debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 soon after. It was a slow but steady burn all the way to #1 in July (for two weeks). ‘The Flame’ scorched up the Australian charts more swiftly and hit the #1 position in May ‘88 (spending three weeks at the summit). ‘The Flame’ was Cheap Trick’s first American top 10 hit in almost a decade and signalled a resurgence in the band’s career. The source album ‘Lap Of Luxury’ restored their place inside the top 20 (US#16/OZ#18) and provided the platform Cheap Trick sorely needed to reclaim their status as a first class live attraction, with all the bells and whistles of eccentricity still present on stage. And as bassist Tom Petersson told Music Express at the time - “It reaffirmed our faith in ourselves”. In a daring move the follow up single saw Cheap Trick covering an Elvis classic with ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. The gamble paid off with a piece of contemporary pop brilliance, and Zander’s vocals were a perfect fit. ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ soared up the charts in both the U.S. (#4) and Australia (#5), followed by the minor hits ‘Let Go’ (OZ#75 - a much underrated song), ‘Ghost Town’ (US#33/OZ#67) and ‘Never Had A Lot To Lose’ (US#75), rounding out a banner twelve months for Cheap Trick. In February ‘89 Robin Zander combined vocal talents with Heart’s Ann Wilson on the US#6 hit ‘Surrender To Me’ (the love theme from the film ‘Tequila Sunrise’).

With an all new ‘adult oriented rock’ audience in tow, Cheap Trick then faced the challenge of maintaining their collective lap of luxury by building on the momentum kick started by their previous album. ‘Busted’ (OZ#37/US#48) was released in September 1990, and had been preceded by the solid pop-rock number ‘Can’t Stop Fallin’ Into Love’ (US#12/OZ#24), which was on its chart ascent around the time I saw Cheap Trick play. The album featured backing vocals from Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders) and Russell Mael (Sparks - see future post) on a couple of tracks. ‘Busted’ spawned one more hit single with ‘Wherever Would I Be’ (US#50), which would prove to be Cheap Trick’s last U.S. hit single to date. They released a greatest hits compilation in late ‘91, that I recall purchasing at the time, and I played Cheap Trick’s version of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ relentlessly for a while - it is a seriously good version.

After an association spanning almost twenty years Cheap Trick finally parted company with Epic and released their next album on Warner Bros. 1994’s ‘Woke Up With A Monster’ (US#123) hit the stores in March but hit the bargain bins soon after. Despite an attempt by Cheap Trick to recapture their high energy rock sound of the late 70s, the album couldn’t find an audience in the mid 90s, and the band parted ways with Warner soon after. Ironically that same late 70s high energy sound was revisited by the band’s old Epic label on a sequel to ‘Live At Budokan’, titled appropriately enough ‘Budokan II’, and compiled from live cuts previously unreleased. Following a brief stint with the cult-indie label Sub Pop (with the single ‘Baby Talk’ released), Cheap Trick hooked up with the Red Ant-Alliance label and released their second eponymous album in June 1997 - roughly twenty years since their first was released. ‘Cheap Trick’ (1997) scraped into the U.S. top 100 at #99 and yielded the US#16 Mainstream Rock Hit ‘Say Goodbye’, but Cheap Trick’s days of magic were seemingly behind them. During 1998 Cheap Trick played a series of shows in Chicago with each night’s concert devoted to one of their first four albums. The best of the show’s performances were captured on the band’s self released 1999 album ‘Music For Hangovers’. 2001’s ‘Silver (live)’ (US#45 Independent) and 2003’s ‘Special One’ (US#6 Independent) catered to the needs of long term Cheap Trick fans, and showed the band had lost none of its vibrancy and verve.

But the Cheap Trick legend lives on to a legion of loyal fans. The band released their latest album ‘Rockford’ (US#101) in 2006, and it was hailed as their best album in 20 years - see comments for this post for more info. Cheap Trick has recently toured Australia again, this time in support of fellow rock luminaries Def Leppard. A 30th anniversary DVD of ‘Live At Budokan’ has just been released at the time of this post.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cheap Trick's Dream Police Take Custody Of A Hit

One fine Spring afternoon in 1982 I found myself walking across the school playground (or quadrangle as we used to call it) in the middle of a class period. I don’t recall how I had escaped the confines of the classroom, or indeed if I was a messenger boy for some lazy teacher, but there I was with a few minutes of precious freedom. Of course I had enjoyed other moments of freedom during those heady high school days, but what made this sliver of personal sovereignty so memorable was the soundtrack accompaniment to my purposeful crossing of school grounds. From the art department building, just a stones throw away, came the raucous vocal chorus of an 8th grade class, accompanying the song ‘If You Want Me Love’ by Cheap Trick. The song was at its peak on the national charts at the time, and similarly ranked high on my personal hit parade. I stopped halfway across the playground and stood mesmerised, listening intently, soaking up every moment, carefully framing the experience in a place of honour for my future museum of recollections. At the end of every chorus, each and every kid in that classroom sang at the top of their lungs the high pitched ‘ooooooooooooooooh’, and I could feel that uplifting energy surging through the air. I’ve thought about that moment a number of times over the ensuing 25+ years, and at times I’ve wondered why it resonates so strongly (and wondered why my art class experiences weren’t as much fun). I think like most things we associate with our youth it represents a moment of pure exuberance, and those moments become all too rare with the onset of adulthood. In that fragment of memory remains a connection with something extraordinary and elusive, a treasure untarnished by the accumulated layers of life’s worries and responsibilities. Over the years I’ve tapped into that magical memory sparingly though, aware that its enchantment might be lost if it’s not given time to recharge between uses.

In about 1990 I recall buying a ticket to see Cheap Trick in concert, actually it was a double
bill with the Australian band the Angels. The Angels had experienced a huge revival at the time and were the headline act, but it was Cheap Trick I was more interested in seeing - well it was really that one song that I wanted to hear live - ‘If You Want My Love’. They did play it, and played it quite well, but sadly the magic wasn’t replicated by the crowd, many of whom were more interested in the Angels (and some of whom were off their collective faces). So in that makeshift circus tent on the cities foreshore, I realised something very important that night. Those memories that are forged early, and shine the brightest, are impossible to replicate later on - all the more reason to treasure them for what they are. My God that sounds so freaking ‘Wonder Years’ - bleeegghhh! I promise I’m not the spirit of Kevin Arnold reincarnated, or even that voice over guy Daniel Stern, so before you switch over off the nostalgia network to escape this incessant reminiscing, here’s a bit more about the band behind the song - Cheap Trick. Cheap Trick formed during 1972 in the city of Rockford, Illinois, though their earliest origins can be traced back to the early 60s during which time guitarist/songwriter Rick Nielsen played with a number of bands including the Phaetons, the Grim Reapers and a band called Fuse, which also featured bass player Tom Petersson. They released a self titled album in 1969 on the Epic label which sank without a trace. Over the next year or two Nielsen and Petersson joined up with ex-Nazz members Robert ‘Stewkey’ Antoni (vocals) and Thom Mooney (drums - future Paris - see recent Bob Welch post).

By 1972 they had taken on the moniker of Sick Man Of Europe and relocated to Philadelphia. Drummer Brad Carlson (soon to b
e known as Bun E. Carlos) joined the line-up and a vocalist by the name of Randy ‘Xeno’ Hogan fronted the act for a time. Not surprisingly Sick Man Of Europe failed to crack it, and the members returned to Rockford to rethink their strategy. They added singer/guitarist (and former folkie) Robin Zander to the mix and hey presto Cheap Trick was born. Under the guidance of new manager Ken Adamany, the pop-rock quartet of Robin Zander (vocals/guitar), Tom Petersson (bass), Bun E. Carlos (drums), and the wacky guitar wizard/chief song writer Rick Nielsen (who reputedly already owned a growing collection of guitars that numbered in the dozens) started doing the hard yards playing the bar and club circuits - for the next five years. They finally landed a record deal with Epic, after being discovered by Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas. They’d also built up quite a reputation for zany, bordering on cartoonish stage antics, and persona to match, with rock geek extraordinaire Rick Nielson the natural focal point (along with his collection of baseball caps). In early ‘77 Cheap Trick released their eponymous debut album (produced by Jack Douglas), which contained all the best elements of their live work, with crunching, melodic and slightly off-beat rock, laced with oft times quirky, bordering on irreverent lyrics.

Their sophomore album ‘In Color’ (OZ#93/US#73) hit the shelves in the U.S. in August ‘77 and proved the breakthrough set for the Illinois rockers. It took their first attempt at pristine power-pop and refined it to a near flawless formula. Irresistible hooks bubbled to the surface on tracks like ‘Clock Strikes Ten’ and ‘I Want You To Want Me’ (which missed first time
around as a single release). Comparisons were drawn to the melodic genius of The Beatles, though in fairness to Cheap Trick they were quickly establishing a solid repertoire of material in their own right, brim full of cheeky attitude, piercing power chords, and finely crafted pop. The band kept up a relentless touring schedule around the world during this period, and played on average 300 gigs a year, including opening for rock giants KISS, Santana and Queen. They found time to record a third album during the first half of ‘78 titled ‘Heaven Tonight’ (OZ#84/US#48) which spawned Cheap Trick’s first chart hit with ‘Surrender’ (US#62/ OZ#32), followed by ‘California Man’ (OZ#91) in early ‘79. In contrast to modest sales at home, Cheap Trick’s first three albums had all achieved gold certification in Japan, prompting the band to tour their extensively. In late ‘78 the band recorded a live performance at the famous Budokan Arena venue in Tokyo and released it as a live album, titled funnily enough ‘Live At Budokan’. Initially the album was only intended for release in Japan, but such was the demand for the title on import that it received a worldwide release soon after. Given the band’s strong reputation as a class act on stage, it was appropriate that their first major hit single was a ‘live’ recording. ‘I Want You To Want Me’ was reworked from its original ‘In Color’ album version, and took on a whole new high energy dynamic, capturing the rampant kinetic force that was Cheap Trick live. It rocketed to #7 on the U.S. charts in mid ‘79 and performed well in Britain (#29) and Australia (#43), raising the band’s global profile immeasurably. ‘Live At Budokan’ also took the band’s album sales to new levels (UK#29/OZ#32/US#4) going triple platinum, and yielded another U.S. top 40 hit with the single ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ (US#35), Cheap Trick’s take on the old Fats Domino classic. Needless to say Cheap Trick also became one of the most popular international acts to visit Japanese shores. They’d risen to be the headline act at arenas and stadiums, but the one thing still missing from the Cheap Trick profile was an arresting studio hit.

They pulled a rabbit out of the hat with 1979’s ‘Dream P
olice’. The rollicking rock refrain rocketed up the charts here in Australia to peak at #10 late in ‘79. It also consolidated Cheap Trick’s rock appeal Stateside, where it climbed to #26. The album of the same name further established the band’s growing reputation across the world (OZ#7/UK#41/US#6), and realised another two hits, with ‘Voices’ (US#32) and ‘Way Of The World’ (UK#73). Cheap Trick provided the song ‘Everything Works If You Let It’ (US#44) for the motion picture ‘Roadie’ (starring Meat Loaf), then set about work on their next album ‘All Shook Up’ (OZ#68/US#24). The album (produced by George Martin) appeared to have been somewhat of a miscalculation for the self-confessed Beatles’ devotees, who set aside their proven melodic-rock formula in pursuit of a more ornate, Beatlesque sound. The album yielded only one minor hit with ‘Stop This Game’ (US#48/OZ#97), and it appeared that the runaway train that was Cheap Trick had come to grinding halt. As a small footnote to the George Martin/‘All Shook Up’ album experience, it was rumoured that Zander, Nielsen and Carlos contributed to the recording sessions for the John Lennon/Yoko Ono album ‘Double Fantasy’ during 1980. Though none are credited, it’s not clear if any of the tracks they contributed to wound up on the final cut, but given ‘Double Fantasy’s producer was Jack Douglas, the guy who played a key role in getting Cheap Trick signed with Epic, it’s a reasonable bet there is some truth in that rumour. Soon after the release of ‘All Shook Up’, bassist Tom Petersson took his leave of the band to form another group with his wife Dagmar, and was replaced initially by Pete Comita, then in turn by Jon Brant. The band were then hit by the ignominy of having an entire album of recorded material rejected by their label Epic (who were extremely gun shy following the debacle of ‘All Shook Up’), which led to a flurry of legal action. It seemed that Cheap Trick had hit a low point in their ten year career. It would take something special to revive the group’s flagging fortunes.

The Ghostwriters Pen An Instant Classic

In early 1991 Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst finally found a window in his hectic schedule that coincided with bassist Rick Grossman (Hoodoo Gurus/ex-Divinyls) and ex-Do Re Mi drummer turned Popstuds guitarist Dorland Bray. The trio had known one another since 1979 and had planned to record something together for several years. Hirst encountered a degree of resistance from his Midnight Oil band mates, who weren’t that keen on extracurricular activities. As a result Hirst agreed to certain conditions, most notably that for any album to be released neither his name nor likeness could appear on the cover art, music video or any associated promotional material - you have to wonder if that was what inspired the name of the band, Ghostwriters.

The Ghostwriters project was essentially a studio band, due in part to another restriction placed upon Hirst by Midnight Oil, that his new band not perform live. Regardless of the conditions, Hirst undertook drumming and vocal duties on the Ghostwriters debut album, with Grossman, Bray and ex-Nates guitarist Andy Dickson rounding out the sound. The lead out single was ‘…Someone’s Singing New York New York…’ which was released in October ‘91. It had all the hallmarks of a classic Midnight Oil song, with cutting, politically sharp lyrics wrapped inside an engaging rock melody. Hirst’s vocals were as strong as ever (I always felt he was underused in that regard within Midnight Oil). ‘…Someone’s Singing New York New York…’ peaked at #29 on the Australian charts and spent 19 weeks inside the top 100 (it was also one of the earlier CD singles I purchased - just after a brief flirtation with cassingles). The ‘Ghostwriters’ album was released in December 1991. The Leszek Karski/Rob Hirst produced set (released on Virgin) sold modestly and peaked at #81 nationally. It spawned two further singles in early ‘92, ‘Runaway Bay’ and ‘World Is Almost At Peace’, but neither could repeat the early success of ‘…Someone’s Singing New York New York…’.

The trio of Hirst, Bray and Grossman returned to their respective bands and it would be another three years before Ghostwriters was resurrected. Second time around it was the duo of Rob Hirst and Rick Grossman, as Bray wasn’t involved. In Bray’s place the Ghostwriters’ sound was augmented by session players Mark Moffatt (guitar), Chris Abrahams (organ/mellotron), Jan Preston (piano) and the horn section from a little band called Hunters & Collectors. Ghostwriters’ sophomore album ‘Second Skin’ was released on the Mercury/Polygram label in August 1996, but neither it, nor the singles ‘International Rules Of Love’ and ‘Impossible Shame’, made an impact on the charts.

All but free of his Midnight Oil shackles, Rob Hirst expanded the range of Ghostwriters activity for their third album ‘Fibromoon’ in 2000 - credited to Rob Hirst and The Ghostwriters. Rick Grossman was still on board and the project was joined by Lee Moloney (drums/percussion) and Beau Young (guitar/keyboards) - and the Ghostwriters finally hit the road.

In April 2007 the Ghostwriters unveiled their latest album ‘Political Animal’ (on Sony/BMG), which was a mix of earlier material re-recorded live in studio, along with four new tracks. The title was appropriate given the album’s explicit themes dealing with political, social and ethical issues. The sound of the album is a harder edged rock style in keeping with the passionate nature of the songs. Ex-Midnight Oil guitarist Martin Rotsey joined the fray to add his own unique high energy sound to the mix. The band played a killer set at the 2007 ‘Live Earth’ show. Over the last several years Rob Hirst has balanced his time and energy between the Ghostwriters and his drumming duties with the Australian blues outfit The Backsliders. The Backsliders have released three albums ‘Hanoi’ (2002), ‘Live’ (2005) and ‘Left Field Holler’ (2007) (I was lucky enough to see them on a couple of occasions during 2003).

Monday, November 24, 2008

When Is A Bee Gees Song Not A Bee Gees Song?

More than a decade before Samantha Sang struck gold across the world with her 1978 hit ‘Emotion’, she had enjoyed a successful pop career in Australia under the name Cheryl Gray. Her birth name was somewhere between her two assumed nom de plumes. Cheryl Lau Sang was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1953. She began performing on local radio programs at the age of eight, won a string of talent contests, and by her teen years the gifted singer had signed with EMI. As Cheryl Gray she released six singles from 1966 to 1968, including ‘Brand New Woman’, ‘You Were There’ and her most successful effort ‘You Made Me What I Am’, which reached the national top 10 in 1967. During this period Gray was affectionately known as ‘the little girl with the big voice’.

In 1969 Gray decided to try her luck on the British scene. She was soon performing on the same bill as established acts like The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and the Bee Gees. Gray took on the moniker of Samantha Sang for her first U.K. release, which was penned by one Barry Gibb (he of the falsetto Bee Gee variety), but neither ‘The Love Of A Woman’, nor the follow up ‘Nothing In The World Like Love’ made an impact on the charts. Visa issues also conspired against Sang establishing herself on the British scene at that time, with the singer (who was still only 17 at the time) forced to return to Australia. A few years later Samantha Sang resurfaced in the U.S. via a new record deal with Polydor. Her debut album was 1975’s ‘Samantha Sang and Rocked the World’. The album spawned three singles - ‘It Could Have Been’, ‘Raining Every Day Since Monday’ and ‘Can’t You Hear The Music?’. The answer to the last title must have been in the negative, at least so far as the general public hearing Samantha Sang’s songs (hmmm ‘Sang’s song’ - try saying that five times really quickly). Incidentally Samantha Sang also sang in the 1975 stage musical ‘The Magic Show’, alongside Wendy Stapleton (future lead singer with Wendy & The Rocketts - see Oct. post).

Miss Sang needed something special to bring her vocal talents to the attention of the music buying public. It was 1977 and if you needed someone to write you a sure fire hit song, who better than the Brothers Gibb. Barry and Robin had composed a song titled ‘Emotion’, which as good as it was couldn’t find a spot on the next Bee Gees release. Rather than waste it, they offered it to Samantha Sang to record on her next album. Barry Gibb produced Sang’s version and contributed backing vocals along with brother Robin. It should be noted that Sang was also under the management umbrella of the Robert Stigwood Organisation, which strengthened the Bee Gees connection even further. ‘Emotion’ hit the U.S. charts in November ‘77 (before Australia) and sailed on up to #3 early in ‘78. Australia soon followed suit and pushed ‘Emotion’ to #2 during the same period. The song was released as ‘Emotions’ in the U.K. (which kind of makes sense as it sounds like they’re singing “emotions” in the chorus) and Sang hit #11 on the British charts in the first half of ‘78. The reason I titled this post ‘When Is A Bee Gees Song Not A Bee Gees Song?’, was because in all honesty the Gibb brothers’ vocals are more prominent in the final mix than Samantha Sang, particularly in the chorus, though in all fairness Sang’s voice was a pitch-perfect fit for the Bee Gees sound. Regardless, Samantha Sang received just kudos for a worldwide top 10 hit, and was awarded the prestigious Cashbox-Billboard gong for ‘Top New Female Singer’.

The follow up single ‘You Keep Me Dancing’ was less endowed with the Bee Gees mojo but still managed a climb to #40 in Australia and #56 in the U.S. Sang’s album ‘Emotion’ achieved a gold certification in sales and peaked at #29 in the U.S. (OZ#35), and was positively reviewed across the board. Her follow up album ‘From Dance To Love’ was typically flavoured with an assortment of contemporary disco-dance offerings, including a version of ‘In The Midnight Hour’ (US#88), but Sang’s window of opportunity had passed. For all the success ‘Emotion’ brought to Sang, it’s just possible that the fact the song sounded so much like a Bee Gees song counted against her in the long run.

In 1994 the Bee Gees recorded their version of ‘Emotion’ but the song didn’t see the light of day until its inclusion on the 2001 compilation ‘Their Greatest Hits: The Record’.

In 2004 Sang, now residing back in Australia, announced a return to live performance and the release of her previous three albums on CD. A double CD compilation titled ‘The Ultimate Collection’ was also released in 2005. Sang has most recently sung a collection of standards amounting to the album ‘And The World Listened’, which is available via her own website.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

For Bob Welch, It's All About The Eyes - Ebony Eyes

Over the course of its history Fleetwood Mac’s band roster has assumed proportions akin to the cast of a Hollywood epic (including the extras). Among the band’s alumnus the name Bob Welch probably doesn’t spring to mind too readily to anyone other than committed fans of the Mac. But between the critically acclaimed Peter Green years and the commercially lucrative Buckingham/Nicks phase, Bob Welch played a pivotal role in the transition of Fleetwood Mac from dedicated blues outfit to commercial pop-rock powerhouse. Beyond his tenure with the band Welch also notched up a string of well-crafted chart hits in the late 70s.

Born in L.A., the son of well known producer Robert L. Welch, young Bob Jr. took to music at an early age. He played with the show band Seven Souls during the 60s, jetting across the U.S. and Europe, playing exclusive resorts and night clubs. Welch found a liking to the French way of life and settled in Paris for a period of time, where he studied the French language at the Sorbonne in the late 60s. Welch’s path of destiny would soon have him traversing the English Channel to reconnect with his work as a musician. He released an album of material in 1970 titled ‘Bob Welch with Head West’.

In early 1971 Fleetwood Mac found themselves one guitarist short after Jeremy Spencer felt compelled to go walkabout in L.A. (he had joined up with a religious cult). Bob Welch came on board, and soon established himself as a key member both as guitarist/singer and songwriter, supplementing the work of Danny Kirwan and Christine McVie (Welch actually wrote about 40% of the songs the band released during his residence). The next few years was a typically tumultuous time for Fleetwood Mac, during which they released the albums ‘Future Games’, ‘Bare Trees’, ‘Penguin’, ‘Mystery To Me’ and ‘Heroes Are Hard To Find’, which continued their shift to a more melodic pop-rock sound. The period also coincided with protracted legal complications and several more changes to the playing roster. By 1974 Fleetwood Mac made the decision to relocate to California, but Welch opted to remain in Britain (citing exhaustion as a reason), effectively ending his tenure with the group.

Whilst Fleetwood Mac recruited a little known couple by the name of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and went on to mega-stardom, Welch formed a new group in 1975 with the power rock trio Paris, also featuring drummer Thom Mooney (replaced by Hunt Sales for album #2) and bassist Glenn Cornick (ex-Jethro Tull). Paris released two albums with ‘Paris’ (1976) and ‘Big Towne 2061’ (1976), both of which solidified Welch’s reputation as a classy writer/performer, though missed the mark commercially.

Welch then opted to go the commercial route as a solo artist and recorded the album ‘French Kiss’ in 1977 - well if his old Fleetwood Mac band mates could enjoy a wall full of platinum records why couldn’t he. The lead out single was the revamped radio friendly version of ‘Sentimental Lady’ (originally included on Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bare Trees’ album) which made a huge splash on the U.S. charts where it peaked at #8 late in ‘77. The song benefited from the production skills and backing vocals of Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham (who pretty much had the Midas touch at that point). The follow up single broke Bob Welch on the Australian charts, and featured all the hallmarks of a classic pop rock hit with a hypnotic chorus hook. In March ‘78 ‘Ebony Eyes’ debuted and rocketed to #2 mid year, also peaking at #14 on the U.S. charts. The album ‘French Kiss’ puckered up to #8 in Australia and #12 in the U.S., and also spawned the US#31 hit ‘Hot Love, Cold World’.

Welch stuck to the same formula on 1979’s album ‘Three Hearts’ (US#20/OZ#49). More of the same slickly produced pop-rock was served up via the singles ‘Precious Love’ (US#19/OZ#37) and ‘Church’ (US#73), and the set also boasted contributions from Fleetwood Mac members Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood. In an apparent moment of madness Welch included a funked up version of the Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ - but then it was the late 70s. During the height of his popularity, Welch became a regular guest host on various music and variety television shows, including ‘Dick Clark’s New American Bandstand’, ‘Solid Gold’ and ‘Midnight Special’ (one of my favourite shows from that era). He also hosted an episode of Australia’s ‘Countdown’, on which he performed both ‘Ebony Eyes’ and ‘Precious Love’ in studio. Welch went on to host his own pre-MTV syndicated weekly music variety TV show ‘Hollywood Heartbeat’.

In late ‘79 Welch released ‘The Other One’ (US#105) but the album lacked the knock out hit offered on his previous sets, and tracks like ‘Rebel Rouser’, ‘Spanish Dancers’ and ‘Hideaway’ took on a sameness that failed to attract any great attention. Producer John Carter attempted to add the missing ingredient to Welch’s next album ‘Man Overboard’ (1980-US#162), but the Fleetwood Mac crew were a no show. The single ‘Don’t Rush A Good Thing’ failed to incite any kind of rush to the record bar from fans, though it did surface again on the CD release of Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ album (also produced by Carter).

Welch jumped to the RCA label for his 1981 self titled album, but the move didn’t revive his flagging commercial fortunes. 1983’s ‘Eye Contact’ also failed to see any chart action, and it appeared by the mid 80s that Bob Welch’s slickly produced up-tempo pop-rock could no longer find an audience (which seems a bit strange given slickly produced up-tempo pop-rock from the likes of Foreigner and Journey didn’t have trouble finding a home on the charts, in the U.S. especially).

Welch shifted his home base to Phoenix, Arizona in 1987 and started up the band Avenue M. Over the course of the 90s he turned his attention to song writing, and contributed tracks for artists such as the Pointer Sisters, Don Nix and Kenny Rogers. Welch co-founded the renowned ‘Singers Night’ at the famous Bluebird CafĂ© in Nashville, and has performed regularly at the venue for more than a decade. He is also an official endorsee for Gibson guitars and has performed at guitar clinics across the U.S. In 1999 Bob Welch returned to the recording studio and released his first album of new material in over fifteen years. ‘Looks At Bop’ was a tribute to the ‘be-bop’ music of the 40s and 50s and reflected an artist with a diverse interest in musical styles and history. The 2004 live set ‘From The Roxy’, and two compilations ‘Bob Welch: His Fleetwood Mac Years And Beyond’ (featuring new recordings of his best known material), showcase a considerable talent. Welch’s relationship with his former Fleetwood Mac band mates unfortunately was soured over issues of past royalties due, and he was excluded from the band’s 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.