Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hue & Cry's Labour Of Love Pays Off

A few years back, a whole spate of various artist compilation style music DVDs hit the market, courtesy of the Disky label. As far as I can tell, Disky Comm. were based in the Netherlands, but the song selection on most of the DVDs featured mainly British hits. Aside from being very reasonably priced, the series of DVDs caught my eye at the time because I’d developed a keen interest in tracking down as many classic popular music videos as possible. The volume, ‘Best of New Wave’, didn’t exactly adhere strictly to the spirit of ‘new wave’ artists, but was pretty close to the mark with the likes of Adam Ant, Duran Duran, XTC, China Crisis, Classic Nouveaux and the like. One artist that arguably falls outside the ‘new wave’ classification, was the Scottish duo Hue & Cry, who put together a string of hits on the U.K. charts during the late 80s/early 90s.

Hue & Cry were part of another ‘wave’ of British talent that emerged during the second half of the 80s. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there were a number of groups of that era who shared common ground, in terms of their chic high fashion image, slick production values, and a music style infused with an 80s brand of ‘northern soul’. The likes of Johnny Hates Jazz, Living In A Box, The Kane Gang, Blow Monkeys, Swing Out Sister, Go West, When In Rome, the re-invented ABC, Breathe, Danny Wilson, Hipsway (see previous posts), Curiosity Killed The Cat, Wet Wet Wet (see future posts) and The Big Dish (post on Rave & Roll blog - see ultra cool links). All (or most) managed to enjoy varying degrees of success Stateside, with their British brand ‘white soul’, but for Hue & Cry, the U.S. market remained an elusive one, in terms of chart success. Actually another band that emerged from that era, with similar brushstrokes of ‘northern’ soul in their musical palette, who also didn’t crack the U.S. market, were the brilliant Deacon Blue (see previous posts).

Hue & Cry also shared common ground with Deacon Blue (and Wet Wet Wet) in terms of their heritage. All three acts hailed from the musically fertile city of Glasgow. Now, chances are that if you’re not already familiar with the duo of Hue & Cry, that you’re thinking it comprised of two musicians with the surnames of Hue and Cry. A reasonable assumption, and one that I confess I too originally made. But Hue & Cry were in fact brothers, Pat and Greg Kane. Multi-instrumentalist Greg represented the Hue part of the act, whilst vocalist brother Pat was Cry. The Hue & Cry moniker was inspired by the Latin ‘hutesium et clamor’, meaning ‘a horn and shouting, which related to the idea of alerting the public to a criminal act (though I’m uncertain about the Kane brothers fugitive status).

Back in 1983, the brothers’ Kane started writing and performing music together whilst still in their teens. Pat was at University and already taking a keen interest in politics and the media, whilst younger brother Greg, fresh out of high school, had already received training as a classical pianist. One of Greg’s earlier gigs as a professional musician, came via a stint as a saxophonist with the band Valerie and the Week of Wonders, an outfit which also featured guitarist Brian McFie, future lead guitarist with The Big Dish.

Hue & Cry gained their first break during 1986, when the small time Glasgow label, Stampede, released the single ‘Here Comes Everybody’. The song didn’t manage to crack the local charts, but it did attract the attention of a bigger label fish (as opposed to babel fish), in the form of Circa, a subsidiary of Virgin Records. During the same period, Hue & Cry also appeared on a compilation album called ‘Honey at the Core’, compiled by John Williamson (not of the old man emu variety). It was a low budget, cassette only release, that featured many of Scotland’s finest up and coming artists, including Wet Wet Wet, Deacon Blue, The Bluebells, and The Big Dish. Hue & Cry contributed the track ‘Dangerous Wreck’, further solidifying their already growing profile on the Scottish music scene.

The Kane brothers entered the recording studio during the first half of ‘87, and their debut single on the Circa label surfaced soon after, in the form of ‘I Refuse’ (UK#85). Hue & Cry followed this up with a song which would prove the biggest hit of their career. ‘Labour Of Love’ was a funk inflected exemplar of pop brilliance, but beneath its snappy synth-driven funk surface, lurked an acerbically sharp set of politically charged lyrics. The song was written from the perspective of a downtrodden working class stiff, who has realised the falsehood in the Tory mantra of working yourself into the ground for a proud, individualist Britain - a lot of pain for not much gain. The song encompassed the duo’s basic left-wing, anti-Thatcher stance, and served to illustrate the concept behind the name Hue & Cry, which was to let people know they were being politically duped. ‘Labour Of Love’ received a major leg up via a last minute call up for Hue & Cry to appear on the BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ (in place of a visa-less Los Lobos). The song was already lurking around the fringes of the British charts, but soon exploded into the top ten mid year (#6). It was also backed by a very clever promotional video - they knew how to make music videos in those days. Hue & Cry explain on their website, that the fusion of smooth sounding pop-soul music with politically charged lyrics felt perfectly natural, and the two needn’t be mutually exclusive. Whilst not as overtly political as the likes of Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg, Hue & Cry still managed to lace their lyrics with intelligent, socially relevant, and politically insightful subject matter. More common ground with the likes of Deacon Blue, in that regard.

Their next single, ‘Strength To Strength’ (UK#46), didn’t exactly live up to its title so far as chart performance goes, but it did serve as another aperitif for Hue & Cry’s debut album, ‘Seduced And Abandoned’, released in November of ‘87. The album was greeted warmly by British fans, with sales pushing it to a peak position of #22 on the charts, early in ‘88. ‘I Refuse’ was re-refused, or at least re-released, during the same period, and second time around worked its way up to #47. In October of ‘88, the single ‘Ordinary Angel’ hit the British charts (#42), by way of lead in to the release of Hue & Cry’s sophomore album ‘Remote’. The duo retained the production services of Harvey Jay Goldberg and James Biondolillo, but their in-studio confidence was growing, and the Kane boys co-produced several tracks. The early ‘89 single, ‘Looking For Linda’, became the second British top twenty hit for Hue & Cry, peaking at #15, and no doubt aiding in sales for the ‘Remote’ album reaching a peak at #10. The album spawned two more hits, with ‘Violently’ (UK#21), and ‘Sweet Invisibility’ (UK#55), keeping the Hue & Cry brand of politi-pop well and truly in the public eye throughout 1989. In true late 80s style, the obligatory ‘remix’ album surfaced in December of ‘89, and ‘The Bitter Suite’ set (UK#47) was later packaged with the ‘Remote’ album as a double album.

Whilst Hue & Cry had been raiding the pop charts, citizen Pat Kane still maintained an active role on the Scottish political scene, and in particular was an outspoken advocate for Scottish political independence (he and Sean Connery would get on famously). In respect of their musical style, the Kane brothers opted to stretch their wings a bit on the next Hue & Cry album. 1991’s ‘Stars Crash Down’ won almost universal acclaim for its seamless melding of a myriad of musical styles, from folk, jazz, Latin, and country, whilst retaining elements of Hue & Cry’s much refined pop-soul fusion. ‘Stars Crash Down’ delivered the duo their second British top ten album (#10), though surprisingly only yielded two minor hits, with ‘My Salt Heart’ (UK#47), and ‘Long Term Lovers’, the latter featured on the EP release ‘Long Term Lovers Of Pain’ (UK#48).

Pat and Greg Kane, then fired up their own record label, Fidelity, via which they released the appropriately titled album ‘Truth And Love’ in August of ‘92. ‘Truth And Love’ gained a berth on the British charts, but unfortunately not in the first class, or even top ten sections (#33). It yielded only one minor hit in ‘Profoundly Yours’ (UK#74), and it appeared that the halcyon days of commercial success were now a thing of the past for Hue & Cry. Their old label Circa gave the duo’s bank balances (as well as their own) a short sharp boost via the April ‘93 release of the compilation ‘Labours Of Love - The Best Of Hue And Cry’ (UK#27). A remixed version of ‘Labour Of Love’ registered Hue & Cry’s last incursion into the British charts (#25), but the Kane brothers were already committed to moving beyond pop parameters with their next project.

In 1994, Hue & Cry collaborated with acclaimed jazz arranger/ composer Richard Niles on the album release ‘Showtime!’. The album, and accompanying single ‘Just Say You Love Me’, may have missed the pop charts, but the Kane brothers had displayed a daring to diversify into new, and for them, exciting areas of musical expression. The title of Hue & Cry’s 1995 album, ‘Piano And Voice’, pretty much defined the musical offering within. In 1996 they signed with the Scottish based jazz label, Linn Records, on a three album deal. For their next project, the Kane brothers enlisted the services of some world class jazz players, who happened to be in town for the 1996 Glasgow Jazz Festival. The resultant album, ‘Jazz Not Jazz’, a brew of pure jazz, watered down with other musical styles. Hue & Cry’s next move came with 1999’s ‘Next Move’ album, which saw the Kane’s push stylistic boundaries to near breaking point, with an audacious blending of ingredients. The album featured a radical ‘bebop’ style reworking of Prince’s ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’. A financially strapped Linn Records meant a planned third album release remained indefinitely shelved, and now label-less, Pat and Greg Kane took the decision to put Hue & Cry on long term hiatus.

Over the next few years Greg Kane focussed on his first love of studio related work, producing work for other artists, and DJing on the side. Throughout the Hue & Cry years, Pat Kane had maintained an active profile on the political scene, and soon established a career as an arts and political journalist across a range of media. He was one of the founding editors of the Sunday Herald newspaper, and a columnist with The Guardian. In between guest lecturer gigs, freelance writing, and an award nominated series for BBC Radio, Pat Kane found time to write the 2004 book ‘The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living’.

But the lure of making music together was ever present, and by 2005 Hue & Cry were back, via an appearance on the television show ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’. They turned in a stellar rendition of ‘Labour Of Love’, but lost out in the final to one Shakin’ Stevens (see recent post). Not to worry, the Kane brothers interest in live performing had been rekindled, and over the next couple of years Hue & Cry started appearing at various festivals. Paul and Greg Kane had accumulated a wealth of new material, and in 2008, Hue & Cry released their first studio album in nearly a decade, with ‘Open Soul’ (UK#130), followed up by a sell out British tour.

For more insight into the career and works of Hue & Cry, check out their official website here:

Friday, June 26, 2009

Just Like Bogie And Bacall - Only Different

Generally speaking the term ‘one hit wonder’ is bandied about a little too liberally, but in certain cases it’s an entirely apt definition to apply in reference to an artist’s career. In the case of Bertie Higgins, the line between the two camps is a little blurred. Higgins is generally corralled into the ‘one hit wonder’ camp on account of his 1982 top ten smash ‘Key Largo’. But in his native U.S., Higgins did actually trouble the chart statisticians on one further occasion, so in a technical sense, he does manage to avoid the tag.

Given his family heritage, it seemed that Bertie Higgins was destined at some point to become somewhat of a story teller. His great-great grandfather was the German writer/poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the man who penned the tragic play ‘Faust’, acknowledged as one of the great works of German, in fact world, literature. Elbert Joseph Higgins, or Bertie for short, didn’t gravitate directly to the world of literature, but eventually his music would be characterised by a distinctly literary flavour. He grew up in the community of Tarpon Springs, in Florida, so not a million miles away from the island of Key Largo, which would in time be forever associated with the Bertie Higgins’ name.

Higgins didn’t get his start in show business as a musician, but rather a ventriloquist, and some may think that a perfectly reasonable training ground for lip synching. However, Higgins didn’t graduate to lip synching, aside from in his music videos, but rather he leapt into the world of rock and roll as a drummer. Throughout high school and college, a studious Higgins tried to remain focussed on his studies toward a career in journalism, but all the while the music bug kept biting. High school proms, local dances, whenever the opportunity arose, he’d hit the skins. Eventually the itch to be a musician became too much, and Higgins left college to take up a position as drummer with a band called The Romans. It was the early 60s, and soon The Romans were touring the country regularly. They soon came to the attention of singing sensation Tommy Roe, who invited them to become his new backing band. Renamed The Roemans, Higgins and his band mates toured the world with Roe, opening for the likes of Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys, and Tom Jones. Whilst The Roemans enjoyed a steady income from their tour work with Tommy Roe, their own flirtations as a recording act weren’t so fruitful. During the mid 60s they recorded several singles for the ABC-Paramount label, but none managed to break the band in their own right.

By 1968, Bertie Higgins had grown tired of life on the touring circuit, and yearned for a change of pace, both in life and as a musician. He quit The Roemans and returned to his home in Florida, with a view to teaching himself the guitar, and becoming a song writer. Though Higgins was largely out of the mainstream spot light, he spent the next decade or so wisely. He’d made a number of friends along the way on his journey as a rock and roll drummer, and the likes of singer/songwriters Gordon Lightfoot and Jimmy Buffet remained close allies as Higgins developed his own craft. Bertie Higgins also kept up an interest in writing, more specifically screen writing, and actor/director Richard Boone became a mentor of sorts.

Higgins, Magnum, TC, and Rick, then began playing local clubs - wait, I shouldn't watch greatest hits television whilst writing these posts. Bertie Higgins began playing local clubs and was soon honing his performance craft at venues across Florida. By 1980, he’d had built up a cache of songs, and shifted base to Atlanta. There he struck up a partnership with producer Sonny Limbo, who had played a key largo, sorry, key role in the rise of Alabama, the southern-style rock band, not the state. Higgins had one song in particular that caught the ear of Limbo, a mid-tempo ballad with lyrics about a failed romance. With the help of Limbo, and new manager Bill Lowery, Higgins reworked the lyrics a tad. He drew on his personal love of classic Hollywood cinema, and wove the lyrics, (very) loosely around the Humphrey Bogart film ‘Key Largo’. The song was presented to a subsidiary label of CBS, Kat Family Records, who eventually succumbed to the song’s charms and agreed to release it.

‘Key Largo’ hit the U.S. Hot 100 during November of ‘81, and by early ‘82 had sailed to a peak of #8 (#1 on the Adult Contemporary charts). It was an alluring slice of soft rock, and about as radio friendly as you could get, at least in the U.S., circa early 80s. The verse lyrics were standard romantic ballad fare, but also contained a couple of clever references to lines from Humphrey Bogart films, namely “Please say you will play it again”, and “Here’s looking at you kid”, though curiously inspired by ‘Casablanca’ not ‘Key Largo’. In fact, aside from the mentioning of ‘Bogie and Bacall’ (in reference to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall), and the line “Sailing away to Key Largo”, the song ‘Key Largo’ doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the film of the same name. No mention of gangsters, hostages, shoot outs and double dealing treachery, that featured in the plot to John Huston’s 1948 classic. Still, the song did have a breezy, tropical island feel to it, and the accompanying video clip suited the song to a tee. ‘Key Largo’ charmed its way into the Australian charts during mid ‘82, and cruised all the way to #2, though Britain weren’t really into the whole easy listening soft rock sound at that time, and the song floundered at #60 on the U.K. charts.

Bertie Higgins had just one more tilt at the major charts, via the follow up single ‘Just Another Day In Paradise’, which managed to dock at #46 on the U.S. Hot 100 (though it did reach as high as #10 on the Adult Contemporary charts). It was the title track from Bertie Higgins’ debut album, which stuck pretty much to the same melodic soft rock formula throughout. What set the album apart from the pack, were Higgins’ lyrics, which gave the album a bit of a conceptual feel throughout. The classic cinema theme ran throughout most of the songs, with several more references to ‘40s movies, and Humphrey Bogart in particular, woven through tales of romance and adventure. The album’s third single was even named ‘Casablanca’. The Bertie Higgins’ brand of ‘Trop Rock’ story telling must have appealed to the masses, because the album ‘Just Another Day in Paradise’ eventually went double platinum (US#38/OZ#32).

Though you could be forgiven for thinking that Bertie Higgins then sailed off the edge of the Earth, that was far from the truth of the matter. He released a follow up in 1983, titled ‘Pirates & Poets’, which featured an obvious combination of nautical and romantic themes. Roy Orbison even dropped by to sing backing vocals on the track ‘Leah’. Over the next ten years, Higgins retreated once more to the quiet life, but kept on writing music and tinkering with screen-plays. He also took time to open a restaurant, and continued to perform on an irregular basis. In 1994 the album ‘Back To The Island’ was released, which was basically a repackaging of songs from his first two albums.

The voyage appears far from complete for Bertie Higgins, and over the last ten years he’s recorded several more albums, with 2009’s ‘Captiva’, the most recent. He regularly tours with his backing band, the aptly named ‘Band of Pirates’, and even boasts an international fan club, who call themselves ‘The Boneheads’. Once a year, Higgins’ Boneheads gather for a seven day cruise under the banner of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ - not sure if that one arose before or after the motion picture franchise. Speaking of which, Higgins has also maintained an interest in film making, and has worked with one of his sons on several projects.

It’s likely that while ever he has access to a guitar, a palm tree, and a nice stretch of tropical island beach, Bertie Higgins will keep on making music, in his own engaging, story-telling style.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Kings Of Wishful Thinking Rule Supreme

Though the duo of Peter Cox and Richard Drummie had taken the pop world by storm during 1985 with their group Go West, their commercial compass had been knocked off course a tad by the relative disappointment of their follow up efforts during 1987. Some artists may have been pushed into trying to get the ship back on course quickly, and by any commercially appealing means necessary, but Cox and Drummie were used to biding their time, and determined to get the balance right on their next album. Though album #3 wouldn’t surface until late in 1992, the Go West name returned to the pop charts in a blaze of glory during mid 1990, with a single that not only opened the door Stateside for the duo, but blasted said door off its hinges.

Though a quality pop song in its own right, there is little doubt that ‘The King Of Wishful Thinking’ (penned by Cox and Drummie, with Martin Page) received a considerable boost in profile via its inclusion on the soundtrack to the hit romantic comedy ‘Pretty Woman’. Pretty much anything, or anyone, associated with ‘Pretty Woman’ got a lot of coverage in 1990. That aside, it was no more than Go West were due, given the lacklustre support offered their previous album. ‘The King Of Wishful Thinking’ answered Go West’s wishes when it bolted into the U.S. top ten (#8), following suit soon after in several other countries, including Australia (#5), though Britain remained more aloof to the song’s inherent pop allure. The single was released on the EMI label, due to its ties with the ‘Pretty Woman’ soundtrack, and had been produced by Peter Wolf, whose name crops up frequently throughout posts on this blog (connections with Wang Chung, The Escape Club, El Debarge, Big Country et al - among many others). And that is Wolf without the ‘e’, as opposed to the with ‘e’ variety associated with the singer from the J. Geils Band (see future post).

Following the phenomenal success of ‘The King Of Wishful Thinking’, particularly in the U.S., there must have been enormous pressure on Go West to fast track their next album, or at least a follow up single, but it was more than two years before their next release. Good things come to those who wait (allegedly), and so it was for Go West fans, with the release of the 1992 album ‘Indian Summer’ (UK#13/US#154). Peter Wolf stayed the course to helm the album, which saw Go West expand on the blue-eyed soul/R&B motif hinted at on some of their earlier work, and refine the formula. The result was a more mature and accomplished sounding album, written and recorded by musicians in command of their craft, though some of the songs did tend to have a sameness about them. Recorded in the U.S., there was an impressive roster of guest players on the album, including vocalist Siedah Garrett, Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, bassist Freddie Washington, and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. The lead out single, ‘Faithful’ (UK#13/US#14/OZ#61), was an up-tempo, feel good, ray of pop-soul sunshine, and its chart performance showed that audiences had remained faithful to the Go West brand, despite the long wait between drinks. Go West then turned to a cover for their next single, ‘What You Won’t Do For Love’, a smooth groovin’ R&B number, that had originally been a US#8 hit for Bobby Caldwell in 1979. Go West’s version didn’t quite match the chart performance of the original, but still delivered them another top twenty hit at home (UK#15/US#55). The third single, ‘Still In Love’ (US#43), followed much the same slickly produced R&B formula, but missed the mark on the British charts, whilst single #4, ‘Tell Me’, just couldn’t be differentiated enough from its predecessors to stand out as a commercial hit.

Later in ‘93, Go West released their first official ‘greatest hits’, titled ‘Aces And Kings - The Best Of Go West’ (UK#5). The compilation included the most obvious suspects from their first three albums, alongside a few new tracks. Cox and Drummie showed no fear in taking on the classic Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song, ‘Tracks Of My Tears’, and slowing its tempo considerably (UK#16). Studio wizard Tom Lord Alge went to work on ‘We Close Our Eyes’, and his ‘93 remix version peaked at #40 on the U.K. charts.

By the mid 90s, Cox and Drummie were ready to take an extended break from Go West duties, and go their separate ways for a while. Richard Drummie focussed on writing and producing for other artists, whilst Cox had penned enough material to record his debut solo album, a self titled effort, released in 1997 (UK#64). Cox (and Go West) then ended their long union with Chrysalis Records, but in 2001 Blueprint Records released the live Go West set, ‘Live At The NEC’. The bulk of the album’s material had been sourced from Go West’s 1993 ‘Aces And Kings’ tour, but included two new tracks, ‘Hangin’ On For Dear Life’, and ‘All Day, All Night’, an indication that Go West was still a going concern for Cox and Drummie. Peter Cox released a couple of low key EP’s later in 2001, then in December 2003, joined with Drummie and former Spandau Ballet front man Tony Hadley, to record an album of covers. The album, ‘Tony Hadley Vs. Peter Cox & Go West’, was released to coincide with a 2004 U.K. tour of the same name. The trio tackled tracks from Robert Palmer, Tom Petty, Don Henley among others. The tour was a runaway success, and before year’s end Peter Cox released his second solo album, ‘Desert Blooms’, indicating his willingness to balance both Go West and solo projects.

2005 saw Go West embark on a sell out 20th anniversary tour, and the tours continued throughout 2006 and beyond, whilst Cox released another solo album, ‘Motor City Music‘. In 2008, Go West toured Britain and Australia, followed by the release of their first album of new material in over fifteen years. 2008’s ‘futurenow’ was warmly received by long standing fans of Go West, and sparked another surge of interest in the duo. During 2009, Go West have embarked on an extensive tour, under the banner of ‘By Request’, and the latest news is that Peter Cox and Richard Drummie are working on material for a proposed album, in collaboration with Tony Hadley and singer Paul Young (see future post).

Monday, June 22, 2009

Go West Bang And Crash Their Way Into The Charts

Over the course of half a century, the duo has been very well represented in popular music history. I’ll make the distinction here between ‘duo’ and ‘duet’, the latter being a one off collaboration between two separate pop entities. The more traditional concept of the duo, in the pop music context, represents the ongoing creative collaboration of two people, united under a single moniker. Some of pop’s best known duos were united by common parentage, such as the Everly Brothers, the Proclaimers, Nelson, the Carpenters, and Mel and Kim, others by marriage, such as Ashford and Simpson (see previous post), Peaches & Herb, and Captain & Tennille. But most pop music duos have come about via the union of two likeminded musicians, or at least they started out as likeminded, who decided to pool their creative energies under a united front - think Simon & Garfunkel, the Righteous Brothers (who weren’t actually brothers), Outkast, Savage Garden, Roxette, Sam & Dave, or PM Dawn.

Arguably the proliferation of pop duos reached its peak population during the 1980s. Though the following examples may have experienced a lifespan either side of the decade, they no doubt were most readily associated with the 80s - Pet Shop Boys, Wham!, Hall and Oates, Eurythmics, Yazoo, Naked Eyes, PhD., Hue & Cry, Erasure, Red Box, Freeez, Communards, Soft Cell, Inner City, Godley & Crème, Nu Shooz, Sly Fox, Boy Meets Girl, The Globos, Big Bam Boo, Timbuk 3, and The Quick - to but scratch the surface. Many other bands drifted in and out of ‘duo’ status, such as ABC, The Korgis, Tears For Fears, Wang Chung, O.M.D., Air Supply, America, The Style Council, and the Reels. Among the throng of pop duos jostling for attention during the 80s, was the British act Go West, featuring vocalist Peter Cox and multi-instrumentalist Richard Drummie.

The first spark in the genesis of Go West occurred during 1974 when Peter Cox and Richard Drummie first met. Both were still in their teens at the time, Cox already a keen vocalist with experience in professional choirs, and his own band called Bodie, and Drummie a talented guitarist, singer, and keyboardist (involved with a band called Free Agent). The two kept in touch of the ensuing years, earning a quid in cover bands, and by 1980 had forged a strong collaborative partnership as songwriters. Around that time they had been signed as professional writers with ATV Music, under the name of ‘Cox and Drummie’, but they didn’t possess an outlet by which to record their own music. Without a backing band, or label, Peter Cox and Richard Drummie had only one option by which to make it as recording artists. With the backing of manager John Glover, the duo hired some studio time, actually in the form of a Porta studio (better than a porta-loo), and recorded two songs that formed part of an already considerable cache of material.

The two songs they recorded were ‘We Close Our Eyes’ and ‘Call Me’. Glover presented the tapes to Chrysalis Records, and forty days later Cox and Drummie had themselves a record deal (there’s a reference to the ‘forty days’ in the liner notes to their first album). Of course it didn’t hurt that the pair also possessed pop-star idol looks and a natural stage presence, but above all it was their finely crafted, soul infused pop which sealed the deal. The pair adopted the name Go West, and entered Chipping Norton Studios to lay down tracks for a debut album. Producer Gary Stevenson helmed the sessions, in which Cox and Drummie handled much of the playing, augmented by some impressive session players, such as fretless bass ace Pino Palladino, and guitarist Alan Murphy. In February ‘85, Go West’s debut single ‘We Close Our Eyes’ hit the British and U.S. charts. Chrysalis must have had a lot of faith in the surging synth-pop number, because they hired the acclaimed Godley and Crème to direct the music video. It was actually a pretty straight forward affair in hindsight, but the promo video for ‘We Closed Our Eyes’ garnered a huge amount of airplay, particularly on MTV, and became one of the iconic music videos of the era. It was perhaps because of it’s relative simplicity, that it stood out from the crowd - music videos were becoming very elaborate affairs in the mid 80s. Regardless, the video no doubt played a part in pushing the single ‘We Close Our Eyes’ to a peak of #5 on the British charts, and #8 here in Australia (US#41). It was an auspicious beginning for Go West, and just reward for Cox and Drummie, who had laboured for the most part of a decade to reach the point of being ‘overnight sensations’.

Chrysalis would no doubt have been confident of Go West avoiding the one hit wonder tag, chiefly due to the quality of the follow up single ‘Call Me’, one of the two tracks that had originally caught the label’s interest. ‘Call Me’s sound was a little less forceful than its predecessor, but it was another slice of infectious, new wave inflected synth-pop. The single debuted on the charts during mid ‘85, and was backed by (imho) a very clever and eye catching promo video, which saw Cox and Drummie having to contend with a hundred foot tall woman (probably a reverse take on the whole King Kong concept), and much primitive C.G.I. ‘Call Me’ made a call at #12 on both the British and Australian charts (US#54), around the same time that Go West’s self titled debut album began to make serious inroads into the charts. The album featured just nine tracks, but all up represented a finely crafted serving of classic 80s era pop, melded seamlessly with strands of R&B and soul for good measure. The next single ‘Goodbye Girl’ was a slower tempo, R&B styled track, which showed that the lads had more than one gear by which to express their musical talents. ‘Goodbye Girl’ said hello to the British charts during August of ‘85, and went on to peak at #25 (OZ#55). Around the same time, a remixed version of the album track ‘Eye To Eye’ was released in the U.S. (#73).

Peter Cox and Richard Drummie may have also received a boost in the wardrobe budget during the year, as the jeans and singlets attire of earlier videos had been supplanted by sharp looking suits for the likes of ‘Goodbye Girl’, and the fourth (British) single from the album, ‘Don’t Look Down’. The 60s soul inflected track is my personal favourite of Go West’s early material, and was backed by a promo video that featured the lighter side of Go West (the band) on the road. In late ‘85/early ‘86, ‘Don’t Look Down’ looked up all the way to #13 on the British charts, and #26 in Australia. Over the course of four hit singles, the ‘Go West’ album had notched up impressive sales (UK#8/OZ#19/US#60), and proved to have considerable longevity on the charts, including an 83 week stint inside the British top 100. It’s worth mentioning that the lads also make a point of thanking The Quick (see previous post) for the “vibe”, via the liner notes. The album went on to sell over 1.5 million copies worldwide, and helped earn Go West the 1986 Brit Award for ‘Best British Newcomers’.

As had become a fashion (one partly inspired by Human League - see recent post), Go West then released an album of remixed tracks, arguably by way of a stop-gap measure to keep their name in the charts until an album of new material surfaced. The remix album ‘Bangs & Crashes’ (OZ#45) was released as a double vinyl album (and single CD) in mid 1986 (note: I don’t have a British chart position for ‘Bangs & Crashes’ as its chart performance was lumped in with sales for the original ‘Go West’ set). The album featured mostly remixed tracks from the debut set, including several handled by Julian Mendelsohn, along with a couple of bonus live tracks (recorded on Go West’s first major tour).

Peter Cox and Richard Drummie approached work on Go West’s sophomore album, with a view to dispensing with some of the straight up, radio friendly pop that had been the cornerstone of their debut album. Pin up idols they may have been, by Cox and Drummie were also mature musicians in their 30s, and rightly wanted to make an album more akin to people of their own generation. In short, they also wanted to stretch their wings beyond hook-laden pop. Producer Gary Stevenson returned, along with many of the same session players from the first album (several of whom had supported Go West on tour). The lead out single, ‘True Colours’, actually carried many of the same melodic synth-pop hallmarks of their earlier singles, but despite being a fine song, it languished in the lower reaches of the British charts during late 1986 (#48). The band then experienced somewhat of a setback when the computer system, containing much of the completed work for their next album, decided to crash. Consequently, it was back to the studio drawing board, and several months passed before Go West released their follow up single, and associated album.

‘I Want To Hear It From You’ made itself heard in mid ‘87, though not with as many people as Go West might have liked (UK#43/OZ#80). The track featured some sublime vocal harmonies in the chorus, and a kickass funky bass line (courtesy of Pino Palladino), but failed to gain much airplay. Go West released their ‘Dancing On The Couch’ album shortly after, the album’s title being in reference to the book ‘The Red Couch: A Portrait Of America’. The single ‘I Want To Hear It From You’ featured a pull out poster of Cox and Drummie perched on a giant red couch, whilst the album’s cover showed the pair sitting on a red couch with the British Houses of Parliament in the background. Go West then hit the road on their ‘Runaway Train’ tour, but unfortunately, though the tour was a sell out, the album didn’t prove to be a runaway hit on the charts (UK#19/OZ#95/ US#172). The album spawned just one more hit in Britain, with the jazz inflected number ‘The King Is Dead’ (UK#67), which enlisted some help from Kate Bush. The connection with Bush came via Go West’s touring guitarist Alan Murphy, who had worked in studio with Bush (and later hooked up with Level 42 - see future post). The poor sales for the first three singles prompted Chrysalis to pull the plug on the proposed fourth single, ‘From Baltimore To Paris’, which is a pity, because the laid back R&B styled number is a quality song. Go West did achieve one further success associated with their ‘Dancing On The Couch’ album, though it came via the album’s U.S. release. Stateside, the album featured a remix of the track ‘Don’t Look Down - The Sequel’, which hadn’t been included on the original British album. The song delivered Go West their first, but not last, U.S. top forty hit late in ‘87 (#39).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A First Class Beach Boys Impersonation

In a recent Retro Universe post, so recent in fact that it immediately precedes this post, I explored the early career work of writer/singer and producer John Carter, leading up to and including his studio based project Kincade.

After Carter wrapped up his involvement with Kincade (that’s the group, not the singer who adopted the name), he turned his considerable creative energy to putting together another studio based outfit, a conduit via which he could continue reaching the public with his song writing. In partnership with his wife Gill Shakespeare, Carter had penned a sunny side up pop song, that he felt had all the potential to echo the best of what the Beach Boys had produced a decade earlier. Carter turned to vocalist Tony Burrows, who he had worked with, initially via Burrows’ involvement as a replacement for Carter in the Ivy League, and then with the 1967 studio effort, The Flower Pot Men. In the interim Carter had remained prolifically productive, but Burrows too had gone on to be involved with a myriad of different pop projects.

In the early 60s, Burrows had been a member of The Kestrels, a vocal harmony group who toured with The Beatles during 1963, and also featured the future song writing team of Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook. Greenaway and Cook later had involvement with the likes of the Fortunes, Joe Dolan, Blue Mink, and the Hollies, and recorded as David and Jonathan - it’s all just one rich pop tapestry isn’t it. Post The Flower Pot Men, Burrows remained in demand as the voice for several studio based projects. Among his most notable vocal credits were, The Pipkins’ ‘Gimme Dat Ding’ (US#9/UK#6/OZ#61 - 1970 - which united him with ex-Kestrel Roger Greenaway), White Plains’ ‘My Baby Loves Lovin’ (US#13/UK#9/OZ#20 - 1970), ‘United We Stand’ from Brotherhood Of Man (US#13/UK#10/OZ#8 - 1970), and the British chart topper ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)’, credited to Edison Lighthouse (US#5/OZ#2 - 1970). Doubtless, Burrows would have spent little time outside of the recording studio during 1970, and I can’t think of any other singer or musician that would have had involvement with four separate groups, all of whom scored an international top ten hit - in the same calendar year! It seems a travesty that Burrows didn’t receive credit at the time for being the voice behind all of those hits. Such was the prolific presence of Burrows in British pop at that time, that in one single edition of the famed Top of the Pops television show, Burrows appeared as front man for three separate acts, though like Carter, he had made a conscious decision to no longer be a touring musician.

There was a degree of backlash from certain sections of the music press over Burrows’ involvement in so many ‘groups’, and for a time he found it difficult to maintain a profile on the music scene. His attempts at establishing an up front solo career were thwarted somewhat by his previous association with the studio based projects, with his songs often being excluded (unfairly) from radio playlists. In lieu of gaining recognition as a solo act, Burrows retreated to the studio once more, contributing backing vocals for the likes of Elton John (on his ‘Madman Across The Water’ album), Rod Stewart, and Cliff Richard. He bided his time in the background until one day in the early English summer of ‘74, he received a call from old mate John Carter. Singer Chas Mills was also invited to contribute vocals for the track ‘Beach Baby’, Carter’s attempt at a Beach Boys’ pastiche. The Beach Boys were themselves enjoying a bit of a revival in popularity, and the ever astute Carter sensed an opportunity to tap into the public’s desire for the now nostalgic California sound of the mid 60s. Jonathan King’s U.K. Records backed the project, and in June of ‘74, the studio group First Class made their chart debut in Britain with ‘Beach Baby’. The production had all the hallmarks of a Brian Wilson helmed record, boasting complex vocal arrangements, densely layered harmonies, and lyrics that longed for the simple beach life. By July, the sun drenched U.S. had succumbed to the song’s sand and surf spell, and even a winter laden Australia followed soon after. ‘Beach Baby’ not only captured the sound of the Beach Boys, but matched the chart performance of some of their biggest hits. By August of ‘74, it had peaked at #4 in the U.S., #13 in Britain, and #11 in Australia.

As had been the case with other studio based projects that had boasted the services of Carter and Burrows, First Class necessitated the cobbling together of an actual working group, for the purposes of touring and promotion. Singer Del John was recruited, alongside Robin Shaw (bass), Spencer James (guitar), Clive Barrett (keyboards), and Eddie Richards (drums). The quintet hit the road to take First Class to the public, and they were even pictured on the cover for First Class’ self-titled debut album, though none sang so much as a note or strummed a chord on any of the album tracks. Whilst the ‘shop front’ group went about their business, Carter, Burrows and Mills continued to record in studio, but the follow up single, ‘Bobby Dazzler’, proved more of dud than dazzler. In fact the only further foray for First Class into the charts, came via a reworking of two previous Carter penned hits. The First Class version of ‘Dreams Are Ten A Penny’ chalked up some loose change at #83 in the U.S., whilst the old Ivy League song ‘Funny How Love Can Be’ peaked at US#74, during mid ‘75. A second album was released under the First Class banner, with 1976’s ‘The First Class SST’, but the group’s moment in the sun had passed with ‘Beach Baby’. John Carter, Tony Burrows, and Chas Mills came to an agreement to exit First Class thereafter. It’s a definite paradox that so many supposed ‘one hit wonders’ should have shared the same creative engine room of John Carter (and Tony Burrows for that matter), but then things aren’t always what they appear to be.

Following the First Class flirtation with fame, Chas Mills retired from the music business and opened up a restaurant in North London. Tony Burrows retreated once more to in studio anonymity as a session singer, for both recording artists and on commercials, but his during the late 90s he finally received some of the accolades so richly deserved for his earlier work. A compilation CD was released on Rhino Records, featuring many of the hits he had provided vocals for, and he toured the U.S. to support the release. In the decade since, Burrows has continued to tour on occasion, in between ongoing studio work. John Carter continued to write and record music, occasionally releasing his songs under other pseudonyms, but he didn’t return to the charts. Most of his studio work in subsequent years was focussed on writing and recording jingles for commercials - a potentially very lucrative pursuit. More recently, Carter has turned to managing and re-issuing much of his back catalogue music, via his own Sunny Records label.