Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Life Of Surprises Is Born

Back in 1988, I purchased the vinyl 45 single ‘Cars and Girls’, by English outfit Prefab Sprout. At the time I didn’t have an appreciation for the song, beyond its surface appeal of melodic pop-rock, nor did I have an awareness of the career works of Prefab Sprout, beyond my liking of a minor hit from late ‘85 called ‘Appetite’. When I purchased Prefab Sprout’s ‘A Life Of Surprises: The Best Of’, about ten years later, I finally realised what all the fuss was about. Prefab Sprout had harvested a crop of timeless pop-rock classics, infused with rich melodies, jazz inflections, a heart of soul, and the quirky, thought provoking lyrics of wordsmith and front man, Paddy McAloon.

Paddy McAloon, and younger brother Martin, grew up in rural England during the 60s and 70s, fed by a musical diet of British legends like the Beatles, and the Who, along with American popular song standards from the songbooks of such luminaries as Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb. McAloon, the elder, formed his first covers band in the mid 70s, called Avalon, and by his college days was beginning to pen his own songs. In the late 70s, whilst attending college in Newcastle, Paddy McAloon decided the time was write to form a new outfit, through which to channel some of the songs he’d been writing. McAloon handled the vocal/guitar duties, whilst younger brother Martin came in on bass, and drummer Mick Salmon rounded out the original line-up. Over the next few years they honed their sound (which was initially a bit rough and ready, in the style of punk) on the pub and college circuits, as Prefab Sprout. The origins of the name Prefab Sprout have seemingly sprouted a mythology all their own. One theory (apparently kickstarted by McAloon himself), was that the name was chosen because he had misheard a line in the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood hit ‘Jackson’. He interpreted the lyric “hotter than a pepper sprout” as “hotter than a prefab sprout”, whilst other sources attribute the choice of name to McAloon’s desire to adopt a silly, meaningless moniker, along the lines of many of the bands he grew up listening to - Moby Grape, Grand Funk Railroad et al - maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. I’m certain an entire field of study could (and should) be devoted to the origins of band names.

In early ‘82, the first single sprung into being for Prefab Sprout. ‘Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’ had been turned down by several major labels, so the band financed the pressing of a thousand copies, and released it on their own Candle label. The song title forms an acronym that references the French city of Limoges, where McAloon’s former girlfriend had moved to study (he was apparently pining). The limited release run sold out quickly enough, and also attracted the attention of record store owner Keith Armstrong, who had recently launched his own independent label, Kitchenware. McAloon and co. were naturally concerned about the potential of being marketed as cutlery, but Armstrong convinced them that he could also market their music, and so the Prefab Four, sorry Sprout, signed on the dotted line. During this period, the band had expanded to a quartet, with the addition of an early fan by the name of Wendy Smith. Smith’s breathy, soprano range vocals would add a new dimension to the Prefab Sprout sound, and act as an effective counterpoint to Paddy McAloon’s lead. The template would be followed a few years later by their Glaswegian counterparts, Deacon Blue (see previous posts), a band whose jazz/soul tinged pop roots also harked back to Steely Dan, and whose sound echoed much of what was to come from Prefab Sprout. Their debut single was re-released in May of ‘83 on the Kitchenware label, and was followed up a few months later by ‘The Devil Has All The Best Tunes’, which garnered solid airplay, and flirted with the indie charts. Interest in the band had escalated to the point where Armstrong was able to arrange an eight album distribution deal through C.B.S. affiliate Epic.

In January of ‘84, Prefab Sprout released their first single via Epic, and ‘Don’t Sing’ managed to make inroads into the mainstream British charts (#64). By February, the band’s debut album hit shelves, and after said shelves were repaired, soon had fans, and several pop music critics, swooning in admiration. ‘Swoon’ boasted an exciting mélange of catchy, jazz-infused pop, laced with McAloon’s articulate, and meticulously woven lyrics, and sophisticated arrangements. The ‘Swoon’ set was described in some quarters as being a wee bit inaccessible on the surface, due in part to some of the song’s complexities, with opposing elements at times tripping over one another, but it must have exuded enough surface charm to lure listeners into pushing it to #22 on the British charts. In the liner notes to Prefab’s best of, McAloon refers to the band having laid down the backing tracks for the album in a single afternoon, giving them a further month to refine the sound with producer David Brewis. During the early sessions for the album, original drummer Mick Salmon had left the band to swim upstream, and session player Graham Lant was brought in to complete the job. The task of finding a replacement drummer became problematic, and the band went through a plethora of players over the ensuing months, for live and session work. Some of that live work included touring with Elvis Costello in early ‘84, who like many others, had been impressed by Prefab’s early work. Another to become enamoured with the band, was electro-pop guru Thomas Dolby (see previous post), who would soon strike up a fruitful working partnership with Prefab Sprout.

By mid ‘84, Prefab Sprout had finally found the right man for the drumming job, in Neil Conti, and having enlisted the production services of Thomas Dolby, they began work on material for a second album. In October of ‘84, the lead out single, ‘When Love Breaks Down’, was released for the first of what would be five attempts to break the song over an eighteen month period (though on first release it only managed to crawl to UK#89). After another failed attempt to launch ‘When Love Breaks Down’, the band’s next single, ‘Faron Young’ (UK#74), provided the official appetizer for Prefab Sprout’s follow up main dish. The album ‘Steve McQueen’ was released in Britain during June of ‘85, but due to objections from the estate of the late actor Steve McQueen, its title was changed to ‘Two Wheels Good’ for its eventual release Stateside. Producer Thomas Dolby (who also contributed keyboards) used his innate pop sensibilities to help McAloon and co. focus their energies to arrive at a more cohesive, and more openly accessible collection of songs. The album took less than a month to record, and maybe that helped in yielding a tighter sound.

The cover art for ‘Steve McQueen’ (US#21/OZ#48/US#180) featured the band posing on a motorcycle, very much like the one used by McQueen in the classic film ‘The Great Escape’ (though it’s unclear which Stalag they commandeered it from), and it was an obvious homage to one of McAloon’s cult heroes. It was just one facet of Paddy McAloon’s general fascination with American culture, and his song lyrics often made reference, or paid direct homage, to individual icons and legends of popular culture, and on occasion parodied elements of said popular culture. Several tracks on the album made direct reference/tribute to some of McAloon’s musical heroes, including the country-tinged ‘Faron Young’ (an American country singer), and a tribute to soul legend Marvin Gaye on ‘When The Angels’. The rich melodies that bubbled beneath the surface on ‘Swoon’, burst forth this time around. McAloon’s innate musical quirkiness was still evident, and his mischievous, and at moments oblique wordplay, still permeated the lyrical content. The ‘Steve McQueen’ album went on to be voted #4 in New Musical Express’ annual ‘Album of the Year’ reader’s poll for 1985, and was generally hailed by critics as one of the year’s best. The silky smooth ‘Appetite’ promised to break Prefab Sprout in Australia (#45), whilst ‘When Love Breaks Down’ finally broke down the chart barriers (or jumped them on a motorcycle) to peak at #25 in Britain late in ‘85 (having charted in Australia back in March - #55). One more single, the heartfelt ‘Goodbye Lucille #1 (Johnny Johnny)’, hit the British charts (#64) early in ‘86, rounding out a stellar twelve months for Prefab Sprout. Though Thomas Dolby had covered much of the keyboard role in studio, an important auxiliary member of the Prefabs during this period was keyboardist Michael Graves, and guitarist Kevin Armstrong also supplemented the live roster. After the first stage of the support tour, which included a jaunt to Japan, the band had returned to the studio (minus Thomas Dolby) during mid ‘85, with the intention of recording an album, to be released as a limited edition souvenir for the next stage of their tour. But due to the sleeper single ‘When Love Breaks Down’ finally waking up, the band’s label held back release of the material, feeling that the current album still had some sales life left in it. The shelved material gathered dust for a further two years, and in between, Prefab Sprout would score the biggest selling album of their career to date.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Show With Everything But Yul Bryner

After the stellar career of Swedish supergroup ABBA came to a conclusion in late 1982, the group’s songwriters, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, found themselves at a bit of a loose end. With the ABBA group vehicle no longer in the garage, the pair looked for another avenue through which to channel their combined song writing genius. Enter lyricist Tim Rice, he of the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musicals association, and the trio struck up a collaborative endeavour together in early ‘83, working on songs for a proposed musical called ‘Chess’. The musical of ‘Chess’ didn’t hit the stage until it’s London West End premiere in May of ‘86, but work began on a soundtrack album back in 1984 (it’s not uncommon for a studio cast recording to precede the actual musical).

Recorded at Polar Studios in Stockholm, ‘Chess’ was still a work in progress, with lyrics still evolving, and a final line-up of songs for the proposed album, yet to be decided upon. The basic story behind the proposed musical, and associated concept album, involved a romantic triangle between a woman, and two chess players competing for the world championship. Hence, the themes of love, and er…chess, were prevalent in Rice’s lyrics. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus penned the suitably impressive, and theatrical, musical accompaniment.

The double album original cast recording for ‘Chess’, hit stores to much fanfare during late ‘84. Rolling Stone magazine called it a “dazzling score that covers nearly all the pop bases”, whilst Andersson, Ulvaeus and Rice must have been smiling from their work being referred to as a “rock symphonic synthesis” by Time magazine. All in all, the album was a hit, even without the musical, and spent seven weeks atop the Swedish charts (no surprise there), and reached #10 in Britain (US#47/OZ#35). The album tracks follow the basic narrative events envisaged for ‘Chess’, and its principle players were each assigned a central character to represent through song. Two major hit singles were spawned from the ‘Chess’ album, the second of which was the sweeping ballad ‘I Know Him So Well’, sung as a duet by female leads Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson (see previous post). ‘I Know Him So Well’ reached the summit of the British charts in January of ‘85 (OZ#21), and further bankrolled the success of the cast recording, already riding high on the back of its first hit single, ‘One Night In Bangkok’, by British born singer/actor Murray Head.

‘One Night In Bangkok’ opens with an atmospheric orchestral intro, which builds dramatically to a speaker splitting crescendo, then instantaneously segues into Murray Head’s spoken work rap. I was going to say Murray Head’s vocals, but he delivers each verse as if speaking rhythmically down a phone line - so, spoken word rap is closer to the mark. The chorus vocals, were sung by Swedish artist Anders Glenmark, and though infectiously catchy, it’s Head’s rapping verse that proves the highlight of the track for me. Rice’s lyrics reflect the thoughts of a world weary, cynical chess champion, and are replete with Bangkok-related references (where the championship match is being waged), and cutting moral barbs. Head (cast as the American chess champion) serves up just the right amount of biting sarcasm, with lines like “I get my kicks above the waistline sunshine”. I’m not sure if ‘One Night In Bangkok’ was a hit in Iceland, or the Philippines, or Hastings, but I do know for certain that it was a major hit here in this place - Australia. After peaking at #12 in Britain, ‘One Night In Bangkok’ hit the summit of the Australian charts during March of ‘85. It also reached the top five across most of Europe, and #3 in the U.S., going on to become one of the biggest selling singles across the globe for 1985. But ‘One Night In Bangkok’ wasn’t the first major hit for Murray Head, nor his first association with a musical in which lyricist Tim Rice had been involved. Though his global smash of 1985 was undoubtedly the high watermark of Head’s career, and briefly made the world his oyster, his achievements extended well before and beyond the bars, temples, and massage parlours of ‘One Night In Bangkok’, and are worth taking a closer look at.

In 1946, Head was born head first into a show business family, with a documentary making father, and actress mother. Young Murray took a liking to acting at an early age, as did his younger brother Anthony (the latter going on to feature in the cult television series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’). Head, of the Murray variety, also took a liking to music, and by the mid 60s was juggling acting, song writing and recording endeavours. At age sixteen, he left home to pursue a recording/acting career in London, and actually cut a handful of singles with famed EMI producer Norrie Paramor (who had a long association with Cliff Richard and the Shadows), as well as making his film acting debut in the 1966 drama ‘The Family Way’. But until 1970, Murray Head remained just another in the throng of anonymous creative souls, all yearning and striving for that one big break (during this period in the pop wilderness, he reportedly sold insurance). Head’s break into big time music, came via an invitation from stage musical impresarios Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (who had produced Head’s third single ‘Some Day Soon’), to play the role of Judas Iscariot, on the original concept album for their proposed musical, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, which would help define the rock opera genre. The role provided the young singer/songwriter with the chance to become a superstar himself, though arguably not in the same league as Christ (incidentally played by Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan on the album). The 1970 album was a runaway success of biblical proportions, and served to launch the careers (for better or worse) of both Webber and Rice. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ went on to be a record beating musical on London’s West End, and Broadway, and a film adaptation was released in 1973. The stage musical version in Australia, helped launch the pop music careers of Jon English (see previous post), John Paul Young, and Marcia Hines (see future posts).

The title song, ‘Superstar’, not only aided, but was aided by, the success of the entire ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ franchise. Murray Head’s version from the studio cast recording, was released as a single in early 1970. The song briefly flirted with the U.S. charts (#74) in its original form, but made more of an impact in Australia, where following its debut in January of 1970, ‘Superstar’ soared to #5 nationally. I can recall the song still retained a high profile when I was at primary school, though the lyrics sung in the playground were modified slightly (something about “burning down the road on his Yamaha”). As the stage musical, and associated hype, gained an unstoppable momentum around the world, the single ‘Superstar’ was re-released, and credited to Murray Head with The Trinidad Singers, who presumably sang the chorus. Second time around, the single achieved a peak position of #14 on the U.S. Hot 100, early in 1971. As the London stage production got underway in 1972, ‘Superstar’ finally got underway on the British charts, reaching #47, though doubtless it would have peaked higher had so many people not already purchased the album (which was a worldwide #1).

But Head the aspiring actor was still a factor in the young artist’s career ambitions, and in 1971 he scored the lead role of a young bisexual designer called Bob Elkin, in the Oscar nominated film ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, directed by John Schlesinger, and also starring Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch, and an uncredited Daniel Day-Lewis. Head turned many heads with his standout performance, but the role failed to lead to bigger things. 1972’s ‘Nigel Lived’, was Murray Head’s debut album, and was essentially a concept album, with a selection of folk-rock style songs based around a fictional diary (and yes Murray actually does sing, very well as it happens - reminds me a bit of Peter Gabriel). With modest album sales, Head maintained an involvement in the acting game, appearing in a number of film/television/radio productions over the next couple of years, probably the most notable being 1973’s ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’, as Gawain.

In 1975, Island Records signed Head to record the album ‘Say It Ain’t So’, which spawned a cult hit single in ‘Say It Ain’t So, Joe’, Head’s best known song internationally, aside from his cast recordings. The album was produced by Paul Samwell-Smith (ex of The Yardbirds), but though the album found a niche audience, particularly in France, it didn’t manage to crack the charts elsewhere. Head, the actor, returned to the screen in the 1977 French film ‘Madame Claude’, in a role that made use of his fluent command of the French language (part of his early education background). 1979’s album ‘Between Us’, produced by Rupert Hine (see previous post), signalled the beginning of a more active period of involvement with music for Head. It was followed in relatively quick succession by the albums ‘Voices’ (1980), and ‘Find A Crowd’ (1981). Both albums boasted an impressive roster of talent, including Jeff Beck, Andy Newmark, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks, but neither found much of a crowd beyond Head’s increasing fan base in France, and French speaking territories in Canada (aided by his roles in a number of French films).

Over the next couple of years Head focussed on consolidating his profile in France, and other parts of Europe, with the album releases ‘Shade’ (1983-produced by Steve Nye), and ‘Restless’ (1984), both achieving gold certification on the continent. Head’s touring schedule was frenetic, and it was after one of his sell out concerts during 1984, that Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus asked Head to participate in the recording of their ‘Chess’ album. Though Head’s subsequent career endeavours went largely unheralded, beyond Europe that is, his creative output was prolific over the remainder of the 80s, including the 1986 album ‘Sooner Or Later’ (produced by Steve Hillage), and scoring music for a number of high profile French films. His 1992 album, ‘Wave’, made a big splash in France and Canada, and featured a couple of French language tracks, both of which went to #1 in the French territories.

Throughout the 90s, Head continued to play leading roles in several major French films, including the English speaking role of Lord Rochford, in 1996’s ‘Beaumarchais I’insolent’, co-wrote the screenplay for the 1999 film ‘Les enfants du siècle’, and released another hit album with 1995’s ‘Pipe Dreams’, featuring a mix of French/English language songs. Over the course of the early 00’s, Head balanced acting duties between projects in England and Canada, and continued to release albums, including 2005’s ‘Emotions, My Favourite Songs’, which saw Head cover some of his personal favourites, including a re-recording of ‘Say It Ain’t So, Joe’. With sixteen studio albums already in the can, screenplay work, and a seemingly endless string of roles in television/film around the world, Head’s pace of artistic endeavour shows no sign of waning.

Whilst Murray Head may not have reached the heady heights of being a ‘superstar’, he has managed to carve out significant careers across two separate strands of the entertainment caper, a feat rarely achieved over the course of a single decade, let alone over more than four.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mission (Phase One) - Complete. Stand By For Phase Two...

Greetings and salutations all. Today marks exactly a year since I launched the good ship Retro Universe into cyberspace. Initially, this blog was an outlet for me to express my thoughts and opinions about some of the songs and artists I enjoyed growing up (and still enjoy today), and in the process share some interesting titbits about those artists careers along the way. That’s still the intention by the way, but those half page blurbs during the early days have kind of expanded over time to become less potted, more epic length histories (sometimes covering two or three posts). I’ve enjoyed the process of developing as a writer (if you could call me that), but of late I’ve felt like I’m running out of steam and enthusiasm. Believe it or not I’ve got another forty plus draft posts in the can, and I’d planned to write about ninety more to take the blog through to the end of this year (that was when I’d intended to wind things up). But - best laid plans and all that - my heart’s not really in it at the moment, and I need to step away for a bit. Each post takes a lot of time and energy (and I mean a lot) - more than I’d originally intended investing - and I don’t want maintaining this blog to become a chore, or worse an ordeal, rather than an enjoyable hobby. So, time to take a break for a little while - freshen up, and hopefully regain that drive and enthusiasm which inspired me in the first place. When I return to the helm in a couple of weeks or so, and as Jo Jo Zep once sang “I will return”, I’ll post the longer ‘essay style’ drafts which I’ve already written, but in terms of penning future posts, I’ll attempt to take a more economical approach. Actually, if I take a look back at the posts I was writing during the first few months of the blog - that’s the style (and length) I’d like to get back to - less thorough I know - but more succinct, and less taxing (and time consuming) to research and write. If you’re a regular reader, or casual passer by, I hope you’ll keep Retro Universe bookmarked for future reference - I‘ll be back posting soon….stay tuned ;)

Enough of the self indulgent rant. Time to sign off (for now) with a highlight from one of my all time favourite artists - Electric Light Orchestra. E.L.O. (as they’re better known) evolved during 1971 out of the eclectic British psychedelic-rock outfit, The Move. Roy Wood (guitar/vocals), Bev Bevan (drums), Rick Price (bass), and recent recruit Jeff Lynne (guitar/keyboards/vocals) comprised E.L.O.’s initial line-up. Actually, it was the addition of Lynne to The Move’s roster that proved a key factor in the group’s metamorphosis into E.L.O. Roy Wood left after the band’s first album , leaving Jeff Lynne to take over at the controls. Over the next couple of years E.L.O.’s line-up was expanded to include (among others) Richard Tandy (keyboards), Kelly Groucutt (bass), and Mik Kaminsky (violin). Under Jeff Lynne’s creative direction, the Electric Light Orchestra lived up to their name with a unique brand of orchestral pop-rock, infused with strains of rockabilly, blues, 60s psychedelic rock, melodic pop, and straight up classical music arrangements.

My personal opinion (which is the only one I can really offer) is that no one before, or since, has come up with the unique sound that defined E.L.O., and the reason comes down to writer, producer, singer, guitarist, and considerable musical genius Jeff Lynne. Sure his ambitions for E.L.O. were grandiose, but both he and the band delivered on those ambitions, and then some. Over a fifteen year period, Electric Light Orchestra notched up a swag of gold/platinum albums, and almost thirty top forty hits (across the U.S., Britain and Australia). During the mid to late 70s, E.L.O. was one of the biggest live drawcards in the world, regularly selling out stadium venues. Songs such as, ‘Livin’ Thing’, ‘10538 Overture’, ‘Rockaria!’, ‘Hold On Tight’, ‘Telephone Line’, ‘Shine A Little Love’, ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’, and ‘Rock And Roll Is King’, became instant classic, um, pop-classics. Albums such as ‘A New World Record’, ‘Discovery’, ‘Time’, and ‘Out Of The Blue’, thirty years on still stand up to the most intense scrutiny and scream “eternal gem”. If I had to choose one song by Electric Light Orchestra that resonates more powerfully with me than any other - and that is a mighty tough choice - I’d choose ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ (US#35/UK#6/OZ#87). The track featured on E.L.O.’s 1977 double album ‘Out Of The Blue’ (US#4/UK#4/OZ#3), released on the band’s own Jet Records label. If ever my mind is in need of a ray of sunshine, something to cut a swath through a mental fog, Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ blows the clouds away. Put simply, ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ is a sublime slice of orchestral-pop heaven.

So, until I once more return to the Retro Universe controls, peace and happiness to everyone, and be sure to take time over the next couple of weeks to listen to the music that you love.

And now….“Goodmorning, today’s forecast calls for blue skies”…enjoy ‘Mr. Blue Sky’.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

ABC - Alphabet City - The Later Years

Following the relatively disappointing reception offered ‘Beauty Stab’, ABC shifted their base operation to New York, and opted for yet another intense makeover. They retained Fry’s core manifesto of adhering to an acute sense of style, but skewed to a gimmicky, almost cartoonish image, and started playing around with dance beats, hip-hop rhythms and sampling. Their next single, the cynically laced ‘How To Be A Millionaire’, continued ABC’s slide down the pop ladder in Britain (#49), but attracted more attention Stateside (#20), in part due to regular rotation of the outlandish animated promo video, and in part due to the scheduling of its release in the U.S., which actually followed on the success of ABC’s next single (in Britain), the catchy and melodic ‘Be Near Me’. Both tracks featured a distinct flavour of mid 80s dance pop, reflecting ABC’s intuitive feel for the current mood in popular music. But whilst their finger may have been well and truly on the pulse, ABC’s willingness to incorporate new sounds into the mix, didn’t always gel so well. That said, ‘Be Near Me’ became the duo’s biggest selling single to date in the U.S. (#9), and racked up respectable numbers at home (UK#26). I have to say, that the promo video for ‘Be Near Me’ ranks as a tragically kitsch effort, with pseudo-members Yarrith and Eden adding little in terms of value, aesthetic or otherwise. The ensuing singles, ‘Vanity Kills’ (UK#70/US#91) and the sweet ballad ‘Ocean Blue’ (UK#51), both kept ABC’s name in the charts, albeit the lower reaches, into 1986, and were both lifted from the band’s third album, ‘How To Be A…Zillionaire!’, released in October of ‘85. I rate the up-tempo ‘Vanity Kills’ as a better song than ‘Be Near Me’, but I’m obviously in the minority there. Two promo videos were produced for ‘Vanity Kills’, the British version being a more story based, less brash affair, and featured the spoken word dialogue at both start/finish of the song (excluded from the original British album pressing).

Having regained some commercial momentum via the largely conceptual ‘How To Be A…Zillionaire!’ (UK#28/US#30), ABC were dealt a savage blow during 1986, when vocalist Martin Fry was diagnosed with Hodkin’s Disease (a form of cancer). The band were forced to take an extended hiatus, during which Fry received ongoing treatment. By early ‘87, Fry had reacted positively to treatment, and began working once more with Mark White, writing material for the next ABC album. With the long term diagnosis for Fry still unknown, the duo approached the recording process as if it may be the swansong album for ABC. Producer extraordinaire Bernard Edwards (ex-Chic - see earlier post), co-produced the sessions with Fry and White, who were now comfortable with the idea of carrying on as a duo (without the aesthetic baggage). Time for a new album, time for another change in musical style, but this time around ABC returned to an element that provided a strong undercurrent on ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ - soul. More particularly, facets of Motown brand soul, and British based ‘Northern soul’. In May of ‘87, the lead out single ‘When Smokey Sings’ was released, and within weeks was surging up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The brilliantly crafted track was an unabashed homage to the legendary Smokey Robinson, and Motown soul in general. It combined the finest elements of ABC’s pop-savvy melodies, sleek and stylish production values, and Fry’s impassioned vocal delivery. ‘When Smokey Sings’ deservedly became ABC’s biggest selling single in the U.S. (#5), and re-established the band’s profile at home (UK#11/OZ#25). Once more, ABC’s collective finger was on the pulse of popular music vogue, with Northern soul enjoying a resurgence during 1987, thanks also to the likes of the Kane Gang, Deacon Blue (see previous posts), Simply Red (see future post), and The Style Council.

The follow up single, ‘The Night You Murdered Love’ (UK#31), hit the British charts in September of ’87, and once more offered up a very catchy soul-pop number, with a mischievous funk edge (featuring the vocals of Tessa Miles AKA Contessa Lady V). The clever, and witty promo clip also showed that both Fry and White were enjoying this latest resurgence in ABC’s fortunes. Both recent singles were included on ABC’s fourth studio album, ‘Alphabet City’, named so in reference to a section of Manhattan, that Fry and White resided in during the recording of the album (ABC…Alphabet City…it works whichever way you look at it!). Following the success of ‘When Smokey Sings’, and ‘The Night You Murdered Love’, the album climbed steadily to a peak of #7 on the British charts, spelling the biggest album success for ABC at home since ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, not surprising given their latest effort encompassed elements of the same cinematic majesty that defined ‘Lexicon’. What did surprise, was the album’s sluggish sales in the U.S. (#48), perhaps in part due to the five month delay between hit single (‘When Smokey Sings’) and album release (you’ve gotta strike while the iron is hot!). Critics hailed ‘Alphabet City’ as a return to form for ABC, with co-producer Bernard Edwards no doubt having an influence on the group recapturing their earlier sublime studio slickness, though Anne Dudley returned to weave her orchestral magic on the tracks ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘One Day’. The album’s third single, ‘King Without A Crown’ (UK#44), was released late in ‘87, and stuck to the same soul infused pop feel of its forerunners.

It was almost two years before ABC surfaced once more, with 1989’s album ‘Up’. Ever the style-chameleons, Fry and White introduced elements of house music to several tracks, but the lead out single was more of a straight up melodic-pop offering. ‘One Better World’ (UK#32) was ABC’s explicit plea for love, peace and tolerance, and featured an appropriately celebratory brass section. ‘Up’ managed to crawl up to #58 in Britain, but became ABC’s first album to miss the U.S. charts completely. The follow up single, ‘The Real Thing’ (UK#68), was a minor league performer, and it could be argued that ABC should have stuck to what they had done best, via ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ and ‘Alphabet City’ sets. ‘Up’ also marked the end of the group’s five album tenure with Phonogram/Polygram, who subsequently released the obligatory ‘best of’ compilation, ‘Absolutely’ (UK#7/OZ#99).

ABC then signed with Parlophone (EMI), and released their first album for the label in August of ‘91. The advance single, ‘Love Conquers All’, proved anything but conquering on the charts (UK#47). Its source album, ‘Abracadabra’ (UK#50), was sadly lacking in the melodic-pop magic ABC had cast so effectively in their early career. Flirtations with techno, and Philly brand soul, provided some daring ingredients to ABC’s latest recipe, but though under the tight studio guidance of David Bascombe, the album failed to gel into a cohesive final dish. The follow up single, ‘Say It’, featured an additional mix by Italian house group Black Box, and edged into the lower reaches of the British top fifty (#42), in early ‘92.

The ABC brand then went on indefinite hiatus, with Fry stepping away from the music business for several years during the mid 90s. In 1996, Fry was ready to resurrect ABC, but guitarist Mark White elected not to be involved. Fry essentially returned as a solo artist under the ABC banner, for the 1997 album ‘Skyscraping’. Heaven 17 front man Glenn Gregory (see previous post), co-produced the album with Fry and Keith Lowndes. The trio had worked together in 1995, and recorded some experimental dance tracks under the moniker of the Magic Skulls. The chemistry was good, and on ‘Skyscraping’ Gregory and Lowndes co-wrote all eleven songs, and provided most of the instrumental backing on the set, which witnessed Fry returning to some of the pop-grandeur of ABC’s earlier ‘New Romantic’ incarnation. Contemporary dance beats provided the rhythmic baseline upon which layers of glam-style guitars, and lush synthesizer arrangements were built. Once more Fry returned to the Bowie and Ferry school of style, in a virtual homage to his musical heroes, and once more he managed to pull it off. ‘Skyscraping’ received only limited release, initially in the U.K. only, through Blatant Records, and spawned the minor U.K. hit ‘Stranger Things’ (#57). The album’s released coincided with a bit of a nostalgic resurgence in the ‘New Romantic’ era artists in Britain, and buoyed by positive reviews for ‘Skyscraping’, Fry took a revamped ABC line-up out on the road. The tour resulted in the 1999 live set, ‘The Lexicon Of Live’, featuring a rejuvenated Martin Fry, resplendent in his trademark gold lamé suit. A repackaged greatest hits hit shelves in 2001, featuring two knew songs from Fry, ‘Peace And Tranquility’ and ‘Blame’, and ABC were soon supporting Robbie Williams on tour.

In 2004, ABC became the focus of VH1’s ‘Bands Reunited’ programme. With the assistance of ex-Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs, a good mate of Fry’s, the programme not surprisingly obtained Fry’s commitment to the proposed ‘one-off’ reunion show, and drummer David Palmer agreed to take time out from his Rod Stewart touring commitments, but sadly neither Stephen Singleton or Mark White agreed to participate. Regardless, Fry and Palmer played together on-stage for the first time since Palmer’s departure post ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ world tour in ‘83. Nick Beggs joined in on base, and the audience was thrilled to hear Fry belting out some of ABC’s best. The same year, Fry, Palmer (and Beggs) joined forces again for the Prince’s Trust concert, dubbed ‘Slaves To The Rhythm’. The concert was a 25th anniversary celebration of the work of writer/producer extraordinaire Trevor Horn, and featured those artists who had benefited immensely from his in studio wizardry. I recently saw the video for ‘Slaves To The Rhythm’ for the first time, and there’s no doubt that Martin Fry had lost none of his vocal dexterity, as he belted out ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘All Of My Heart’, and ‘The Look Of Love’, from the Horn produced ‘The Lexicon Of Love’.

Extensive touring continued throughout 2005 to 2007, with the likes of Go West (see future post), Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley, and many reformed and rejuvenated acts from the 80s era. Following a stint in the U.S. during 2006, Fry, Palmer, and new keyboardist Chuck Kentis, began working on material for a new ABC album. ‘Traffic’ finally drove into the stores in April 2008, and reunited Fry with ‘Beauty Stab’ producer Gary Langan. ABC toured Britain soon after, alongside fellow 80s alumnus Heaven 17 and Human League, on the ‘Steel City Tour’. Fry and co. show no signs of slowing down, with tour dates slated throughout 2009, including a proposed performance of ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ album at the Royal Albert Hall in April. The band will be backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by none other than Anne Dudley (who knows maybe Trevor Horn will drop by - STOP PRESS - thanks to Chris for letting me know that Trevor Horn did indeed make a guest appearance at the Albert Hall show - all reports are it was a magic evening for all concerned)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The ABC Of Making Hit Records - The Early Years

I’ve said it before, and no doubt will say it again - 1982 remains to this day my favourite year, in terms of the output of popular music released. Doubtless, most people likewise have a favourite year, or era, in popular music history, a period that resonates strongly with them through the increasing haziness of memory, brought on with the passage of time. Of the 200 plus songs that reached the Australian top forty during 1982, I would struggle to name more than 10 or 15 that would prompt me to hit the skip forward button. If I could view 1982’s popular music harvest objectively, I might temper my enthusiasm, but therein lies the charm of the era for me - I simply cannot think of the songs and artists of that time without feeling a sense of warmth and connection. One artist that burst into the public’s consciousness, as well as my own, during 1982, was British band ABC. In the quarter century since the release of their landmark debut album ‘Lexicon Of Love’, the title has assumed the status of being one of the seminal works of the early 80s era. It not only launched the band on a decade long career at, or near, the top of the pop music tree, but also yielded a string of major hit singles, that conquered world charts.

ABC weren’t, strictly speaking, a new romantic outfit, nor could they be neatly pigeon holed within the synth-pop bracket, but they drew heavily from both areas. Their smoothly blended composite of musical styles and influences, combined with the ubiquitous layering of campy, self-conscious theatrics so strongly associated with the new romantic movement, served to forge an engaging identity for ABC, and aided in the band’s eventual rise to become one of the most successful British based pop groups of the 1980s.

During 1979, twenty one year old Sheffield University student Martin Fry was the editor and chief of a British fanzine called ‘Modern Drugs’. As part of the fanzine’s scope of keeping a finger on the pulse of cutting edge popular culture, Fry often interviewed up and coming artists (Sheffield was a hive of activity during that period, with the likes of Human League, and Cabaret Voltaire also on the rise). 1979 also saw Mark White (guitar/synthesizer), and Stephen Singleton (sax/synthesizer), as two thirds of the Sheffield based synth-pop act Vice Versa, along with vocalist Dave Wyndham. In 1979 Vice Versa released their debut mini-LP, the cassette only ‘8 Aspects’, along with the single ‘Stilyagi’, boasting a moody synth-based sound, not unlike contemporaries Human League and Ultravox (see future posts). In January 1980, the trio released the single ‘Music 4’, on their own Neutron label, and Fry had occasion to interview the band for his fanzine. The single tanked, and in the months following, vocalist Dave Wyndham left Vice Versa, leaving White and Singleton in need of a new front man. The whole ‘New Romantic’ phenomenon had just exploded, with Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet suddenly offering a glamorous, high fashion, stylised form of pop group, which banked on attracting an audience tired of punk’s nihilistic posturing, and anger mongering. White and Singleton remembered the charismatic Martin Fry from their earlier interview, and invited him to join Vice Versa. The trio recorded one single, ‘Stilyagi’, released in June 1981, before they changed their name to ABC, and added the rhythm section of Mark Lickley (bass), and David Robinson (drums).

The newly expanded alphabetic enterprise, retained some of the synth-pop sensibilities of the earlier Vice Versa era, but with hints of R&B style pop, and in Martin Fry they now boasted a singer and front man possessing matinee idol looks, matched with polished pop sensibilities, and a silky smooth voice that would propel them to the next level. Fry also gave the band an image makeover, in line with his grandiloquent vision for a modern pop act. Like all associated with the ‘New Romantic’ movement, there was a deliberateness and excessive self-consciousness in everything ABC planned, both musically and image wise. Fry had more than a hint of David Bowie’s ‘Thin White Duke’ about him, both in vocal cadence, and refined, graceful presence, whilst his singing style evoked the romanticism of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry at his emotive best. The original ABC quintet released just one single together, with ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ released again through the band’s Neutron label, distributed via Phonogram. The single hit the British charts in October of ‘81, and reached a very respectable #19 before year’s end. Shortly after, both Lickley (bass), and Robinson (drums) departed, and replacement drummer David Palmer came on board for the recording of ABC’s first album.

Ex-Buggle (see Feb 09 post) Trevor Horn had recently turned his energies fulltime to production, and ABC counted among the first artists to reap the rewards from Horn’s in-studio genius. In fact, Horn’s influence can’t be understated, in terms of aiding a relatively new band to record one of the most polished and lavish sounding records in pop music history. Much of the production team that supported Horn, including Anne Dudley who provided much of the sumptuous orchestration, helped to form the basis of operations for Horn’s soon to be realised ZTT label. Over the course of late 1981/early 1982, ABC and Horn worked in partnership to record ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ album, released via Phonogram/Mercury during June of ‘82. The album had been preceded by the dramatic synth-pop opus ‘Poison Arrow’, which was released in Britain during February of ‘82. ‘Poison Arrow’ penetrated the British charts almost immediately, and shot to a high of #6 (the female vocal refrain was by Karen Clayton). The track’s release elsewhere was delayed to coincide with the release of its source album ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. As would become synonymous for ABC, the promo video for ‘Poison Arrow’ was tailor made for the new ‘MTV’ generation, and pushed the refined suaveness of Fry and co. to the limit. Australia were struck with a ‘Poison Arrow’ during mid ‘82 (#4), whilst the U.S. were effectively targeted in early ‘83 (#25). The song itself, adhered to a general conceptual theme which ran throughout the album’s lyrics, focussing on heartache and doomed relationships, not much new ground there, but in terms of living up to its title, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ succinctly defined its own content.

The finely crafted pop-melodrama continued unabated with the follow up single ‘The Look Of Love’, which hit British charts to coincide with the release of ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. ‘The Look Of Love’ was backed by one of the most visually stunning, and engaging music videos of the decade, and expanded on a notion that was hinted at in ‘Poison Arrow’, that ABC, for all its surface pretentiousness, weren’t above planting tongues firmly in cheeks, and having a laugh at themselves. The video in part paid homage to a sequence from Gene Kelly’s star vehicle ‘An American In Paris’. Personally, I’d consider ‘The Look Of Love’ (which lyrically was a mirth tinged exposition of the vagaries of love) to be the centrepiece of ABC’s brilliant ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ album. It was a savvy union of new wave posturing with a coating of slick pop polish, and encapsulated Trevor Horn’s measured lavishness of production, Anne Dudley’s sublimely lush orchestrations, Martin Fry’s accomplished and dramatic vocal gymnastics, and the flawless playing of Mark White, Stephen Singleton, and David Palmer. ‘The Look Of Love’ was a near to perfect pop song, and given such, almost underperformed on the charts (UK#4/OZ#7/US#18), though I doubt ABC were complaining about the returns. ‘The Look Of Love’ was actually recorded in four parts, with ‘Part One’, the album version, and the subsequent three parts featuring various instrumental and vocal remixes. A dance remix of the track reached #1 on the U.S. dance charts in December 1982.

By the time ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ hit British stores, in early July 1982, ABC’s popularity had reached fever pitch, and consequently the album debuted at #1 first week in. It held sway at the summit of the British charts for four weeks (OZ#9/US#24/Ca#1), and garnered rave reviews all round from the music press and public alike. There was a minority who saw the set as a being a mite too polished, but I doubt those people would have appreciated much of what the ‘New Romantic’ movement had to offer. ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ basically defined all that was debonair and deliciously kitsch about the whole era, yet through sheer quality, has retained a freshness and crisp vitality far beyond the lifespan of most of its contemporary fare, and more than twenty five years on still rates high on many critics ‘all-time best album’ lists. It also provided the crisp, smooth, densely layered sonic template upon which Trevor Horn built a production empire (and formed the in studio collective, Art Of Noise). It spawned one final major hit, with the dramatic ballad ‘All Of My Heart’ (UK#5/OZ#21), in late ‘82, coupled with yet another high-concept promotional video (they knew how to make ‘em in those days). In fact, ABC were so enamoured with the visual medium, that in partnership with director Julien Temple, they released a full length conceptual video (approx. 55 minutes), ‘Mantrap’, showcasing songs from ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, pieced together around an espionage/thriller style plot. The film also featured a favourite among ABC fans, ‘Theme From Mantrap’, originally released as the B-side to ‘Poison Arrow’.

ABC hit the road in earnest over the latter part of ‘82, and into ‘83, during which time session drummer Andy Newmark replaced David Palmer, who himself went on to become somewhat of a drumming journeyman, initially joining Yellow Magic Orchestra after ABC’s tour of Japan, and later going on to tour extensively with Rod Stewart.

Having enjoyed such a mammoth success, critically and commercially, with ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ album, ABC promptly abandoned the formula, and consciously opted for a rawer, grittier, rock infused feel for their sophomore effort, ‘Beauty Stab’, released in November of ‘83. It was a radical departure from the ultra-stylised lavishness of its predecessor, a hard-edged realist antidote for the sumptuousness of ‘Lexicon’, and as a consequence alienated some critics and fans alike, who had waited with salivating anticipation for ‘The Lexicon Of Love - MkII’. The lead out single, ‘That Was Then But This Is Now’, preceded the album’s British release by a month, and peaked at #18 in the U.K. late in ‘83 (US#89/OZ#63) - the title could be read as a conscious declaration by the band to move on to a new chapter, not to mention the cover art featuring an electric guitar (a none too subtle clue that the synthesizer was going to take more of a back seat overall). Next to ‘The Look Of Love’, I’d rate ‘That Was Then But This Is Now’ as ABC’s finest moment on record. I purchased the vinyl 45, after seeing the very cinematic promo clip (which featured ABC sans the designer suits), and the record got a relentless workout on my newly acquired turntable. It was edgy, synth-rock at its best, and simply begged to be played loud, particularly the surging mix of thumping drums, searing guitar licks, and ‘Star Wars’ laser style synth-bullets, during the tracks’ crescendo like finale. Trevor Horn had already committed to his next project with Yes, so Gary Langan co-produced the album with ABC (Langan had engineered ‘Lexicon’). The Roxy Music rhythm section of Andy Newmark and Alan Spenner, augmented the remaining core trio of Fry, White and Singleton, but though ‘Beauty Stab’ surges with raw energy in places, the line-up couldn‘t (or wouldn’t) recapture the pop brilliance that critics and fans expected. The follow up single, the laid back R&B tinged ‘S.O.S.’ (UK#39), failed to attract much of a response to its cry for attention, and though ‘Beauty Stab’ managed to pierce the U.K. top twenty (#12), it was a relative flop elsewhere (OZ#58/US#69). But what the album did achieve, was to mark ABC as more than one dimensional, embracing of growth, and innovation (what they might refer to as their doctrine of change), and it was those traits that would prove crucial to the group’s longevity.

Shortly after the release of ‘Beauty Stab’, original member Stephen Singleton opted to leave the band (joining the growing queue of saxophone players without a home - that queue reached near epidemic proportions post the 80s). David Yarrith, and Eden (AKA Fiona Russell), were recruited during 1984 to provide aesthetic support for the remaining duo of Martin Fry and Mark White (perhaps they wanted to retain the group dynamic, at least for photo shoots and promo videos).