Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Former New Minstrel Sails Into Pop

Within the mediums of creative expression, it’s not uncommon for cross pollination to occur between the various streams of artistic endeavour. Music has a way of permeating film, and vice versa - throw in literature, poetry, design, pasta sculptures, and a whole myriad of other channels of inspired articulation into the creative broth, and you have a limitless scope of ideas. Over the last fifty years of popular music history, many songs have been written about, or referred to, a famous celebrity or historical identity, either indirectly through lyrical reference, or directly in the song title itself. Gorillaz made their own day in 2001 with the hit ‘Clint Eastwood’, Bob Dylan scored a knock out with his 1975 tribute to boxer Rubin Carter, ‘Hurricane’, George Harrison reminisced about his fallen comrade John Lennon in 1981’s ‘All Those Years Ago’, Bananarama must have been talking Italian to me when they sang ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ in 1984, U2 took a giant leap toward achieving their dream of being the biggest band in the world, with their 1984 smash ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, a tribute to Martin Luther King, Weezer enjoyed some happy days with their 1995 rocker ‘Buddy Holly’, and Steve Porcaro pined after his then girlfriend, actress Rosanna Arquette, in Toto’s 1982 top five hit ‘Rosanna’. And speaking of actresses featuring in song titles, Kim Carnes scored the biggest hit of her career, and one of the biggest hits of the 1980s, with 1981’s ‘Bette Davis Eyes’.

When Kim Carnes’ eyes first opened on the world, the actress who would lend her name to Carnes’ biggest hit had already assumed the mantle of screen icon. By 1945, Bette Davis had appeared in more than 30 films, including Oscar winning performances in 1935’s ‘Dangerous’, and 1938’s ‘Jezebel’. To give some perspective on just how big a star Davis was, she ranked second only to Katherine Hepburn in the American Film Institute’s list of greatest American screen actresses of the 20th century. L.A. born Kim Carnes also had an interest in acting, but it would take a backseat to her talents as a singer and songwriter. She reputedly penned (or crayoned) her first song at age three, and throughout her school years developed her craft as a singer, writer, and pianist. Upon graduating from high school, Kim Carnes leapt into a career in the music business, and balanced performing at local L.A. clubs, with session work recording demos for song publishers. During the mid 60s, she was a regular performer at small L.A. club venues (mainly belting out ballads), and it was less a case of smoke getting in her eyes, but rather her vocal chords, that contributed to Carnes developing her distinctive raspy, throaty voice.

By 1967, Carnes had hooked up with veteran folk outfit The New Christy Minstrels, whose line-up at the time also featured David Ellingson (Carnes’ future song writing partner and husband), and a young Kenny Rogers. But life as a wandering minstrel wasn’t for Kim, and she left to form a new folk duo with Ellingson, called surprisingly enough, Kim & Dave (I would have thought Carnes and Ellingson would have been catchier). The club work continued, but the couple’s primary source of income during the latter part of the 60s was via their song writing partnership (including penning and performing music for commercials). In 1967, Carnes also made her silver screen debut in the folk-themed musical, ‘C’mon, Let’s Live A Little’ (alongside songstress Jackie DeShannon), and penned the song ‘Sing Out For Jesus’, performed by R&B legend Big Mama Thornton in the riotous road movie ‘Vanishing Point’ (1971). The film’s soundtrack had been released on the Amos Records label (owned by Jimmy Bowen - co-writer of the 1957 US#1 ‘Party Doll’), and also featured Kim & Dave’s rendition of their song, ‘Nobody Knows’, which led to Carnes signing with Amos as a recording artist in her own right. In 1971, she released her debut album, ‘Rest On Me’, which did a lot of resting but not much else. For a born songwriter like Carnes, the album (produced by Bowen) also proved frustrating as it only featured two of her own songs.

Soon thereafter, Carnes left Amos and signed on the dotted line with A&M Records. By 1975, her self-titled album surfaced, with more than half the tracks penned by Carnes herself, and in partnership with Ellingson. Produced by Mentor Williams, the album boasted a distinctly middle of the road, country tinged flavour, and yielded Carnes’ first flirtation with the charts, via the single ‘You’re A Part Of Me’ (US#32 Adult Contemporary) - the album also featured the likes of David Foster (piano), Jim Keltner (drums), and Leland Sklar (bass) on its playing roster. Legendary producer Jerry Wexler (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan), co-helmed Carnes’ third album, 1976’s ‘Sailin’, recorded in part at Wexler’s Muscle Shoals studio facility, and boasting the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Again the album was roughly a fifty/fifty split between original and cover material, with the ballad ‘Love Comes From Unexpected Places’ winning the ‘Best Song’ gong at the 1977 American Song Festival. The song attracted the notice of ‘Babs’ aka Barbra Streisand, who recorded it for her 1977 album ‘Streisand Superman’. The Carnes/Ellingson song writing duo was soon cropping up on the track listings for artists such as Anne Murray, Rita Coolidge, and Frank Sinatra.

In mid 1978, Kim Carnes made her first foray into the U.S. Hot 100 with a song that she had recorded two years earlier. You’re A Part Of Me’ had been re-recorded by Gene Cotton (who had a dart at chart success in the late 70s) as a duet with Carnes. Released on Cotton’s home label Ariola, ‘You’re A Part Of Me’ peaked at US#36. Around the same time, Jim Mazza signed Kim Carnes as the first artist to the newly established EMI-America label (a subsidiary of Capitol/EMI). Carnes also had the honour of being the first artist to chart for the new label, with her early 1979 single, the country hued ‘It Hurts So Bad’ (US#56), lifted from the album ‘St. Vincent’s Court’. All but one of the album’s tracks had been penned by Carnes (with Ellingson), and Carnes also co-produced the set, which moved a tad toward more pop-rock oriented territory. The album also boasted a strong contribution from keyboardist Bill Cuomo, who would play a key role in Carnes’ biggest hit.

The dawn of a new decade would prove positive for Kim Carnes, and 1980 was kickstarted by a reunion with an old ‘minstrel’ from the 60s. Former New Christy Minstrels’ bandmate Kenny Rogers, decided to record an entire album of Carnes/Ellingson compositions, titled ‘Gideon’. It was an enormous vote of confidence that an artist of Rogers’ stature was willing to take a gamble on a, still, relatively unknown song writing partnership - but then Kenny always was the ‘gambler’. Rogers asked Carnes to duet with him on the beautiful ballad ‘Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer’, and the combination proved a winning hand on the charts (US#4/OZ#38). As ‘Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer’ was sitting pretty in the top ten, Carnes released her own new album, ‘Romance Dance’. The success of her duet with Rogers no doubt played a role in boosting exposure, and airplay, for her next single, ‘More Love’, a radio friendly rendition of the classic 1967 US#23 hit for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Carnes version (which boasted Darlene Love on backing vocals, not to mention a striking synth-intro) climbed to a high of US#10 (OZ#46) during mid 1980, and helped to push its source album ‘Romance Dance’ into the charts (US#57/OZ#89). The follow up single, ‘Cry Like A Baby’ (US#44), rounded out an impressive start to the decade for Kim Carnes, but a case of mistaken identity would soon propel her to a new echelon of eminence.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Pair Of Kingly Treasures - Jewel Two

The Canadian music scene of the late 70s and early 80s reflected the broadening evolution of popular music worldwide. The stylistic tightrope was walked between punk, disco, straight up rock, and a myriad of permutations in between. Edgy post-punk acts such as The Viletones, The Young Canadians, and Rough Trade, battled for attention with more traditional rockers like Sweeney Todd, Red Rider, and Payola$ (see previous Rock & Hyde post). As the new wave/power pop scenes emerged out of the post punk amorphous, bands like Rational Youth, Strange Advance, Deserters, Men Without Hats, and Martha & The Muffins (see previous posts for latter two), vied to not only challenge for dominance in Canada, but to make a splash in the big pond across the southern border. Not unlike the Australasian musical milieu, Canadian music fans were privy to an incredibly diverse range of styles during the ‘New Wave’ period. One act who managed to not only ascend to near heads of state status at home, but stood briefly within the realm of popularity in the U.S., were the high octane pop-rock quartet, The Kings.

During 1977, David Diamond (vocals/bass - not to be confused with keyboard virtuoso David Diamond of the L.A. band Berlin - see previous post), hooked up with ‘Mister’ Zero (guitar), Sonny Keyes (keyboards), and Max Styles (drums), to form a hard rocking band known as WhistleKing. The band originally based themselves in Vancouver (British Columbia), and Oakville (Ontario). Over the next couple of years, WhistleKing built up a reputation for being one of the hardest rocking live acts on the Canadian scene, and over time the band’s principle song-writers, Zero and Diamond, built up a cache of original numbers, which the band was steadily working into their live set. It wasn’t uncommon for the band’s songs to involve complex arrangements that extended beyond the bounds of snappy, three minute rock-bytes, but with the infiltration of the stripped down, slap in the face energy of punk/post-punk on the Canadian scene, WhistleKing recognised they needed to integrate some more brashness and brevity into their music. But punk these guys were not. Thankfully for WhistleKing, and some would argue for many, punks fury was tempered into a more melodically personable beast lumped under the heading of ‘New Wave’. ‘New Wave’ allowed the integration of a myriad of cutting edge, and more established styles under a more ‘hip’ and accessible umbrella. It was ok to possess a rawness of energy, but a certain amount of polished finesse was preferred.

In 1979, WhistleKing had gravitated to, arguably, the hub of the Canadian music set at that time, Toronto. They entered, and won, the Home-Grown talent contest (beating out over 600 competitors), with a song titled ‘Turn My Face’ (written by Diamond). Initially, the band’s victory earned them little more than a free lunch (I thought there was no such thing), but it also attracted the attention of several interested parties on the production and management side of things. Aside from a shift in music style, the band adopted a snappier moniker, shortening WhistleKing to simply, The Kings. I’m not aware of too many regents who are addressed by their actual names, so the foursome decreed that they shall be known by their stage names (as already mentioned - Dave Diamond, Sonny Keyes, Mister Zero, Max Styles), all very cool, all very ‘New Wave’. Relentless gigging further affirmed The Kings reputation as being one of the tightest, adrenaline pumping acts in Canada, and it was some of the band’s newer, shorter songs that were generating the biggest stir. By 1980, The Kings had accrued enough wealth within the royal vaults to book some recording time at the Nimbus 9 studio in Toronto. They worked steadily away on recording, what they hoped would be, enough material to constitute their debut album - at that stage, it was to be an independent release. The Kings’ debut album may well have arrived as an indie set, and may just as quickly disappeared, were it not for a timely visit to the Nimbus 9 studios by a record producer of some repute - Bob Ezrin.

Toronto born Ezrin was taking a well earned sabbatical at home, following his production work on an album titled ‘The Wall’, by a little known outfit called Pink Floyd. Well, let’s be honest - Bob Ezrin was one of the most respected, and high profile producers in popular music (KISS, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel). He’d also worked at Nimbus 9 in years gone previous, and it was by way of his association with one of the studios’ producers, Jack Richardson, that Bob Ezrin happened upon the recording sessions for The Kings. Ezrin was somebody, The Kings were nobodies, but it mattered not when Ezrin heard the tapes. Though the recording recipe was a little askew, Ezrin heard some key ingredients that he felt had real potential. With tapes in hand, benefactor Bob headed to L.A. and a meeting with Ken Buttice (A&R) of Elektra Records. Even if The Kings’ music hadn’t been great, it’s likely Ezrin wouldn’t have had the door slammed in his face. As it turned out, The Kings were offering just the right high energy, commercial pop-rock sound that record labels were clamouring for in 1980. Elektra duly signed The Kings to a deal, and the band set about rehearsing (and even re-writing) for the all important re-recording sessions - this time with Bob Ezrin at the helm.

Ezrin and The Kings re-recorded the material at Nimbus 9 (sounds like a planet), and six weeks later the band’s first album was in the can. Ezrin completed the final mix in L.A., and soon after the album, ‘The Kings Are Here’ (US#74), was regally released. Initially, Elektra released the track ‘Switchin’ To Glide’ as the first single, and though the pristine pop-rock track attracted some attention, and minor chart activity in the U.S., the band felt it had more potential in its originally intended form. That form took the shape of the second part of a two track medley with the album’s opening track, the equally buoyant ‘This Beat Goes On’, which effectively segues into ‘Switchin’ To Glide’. The Kings decided to exercise their creative sovereignty, and for once the record label saw sense. ‘This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide’ was released as a double-A during the second half of 1980. All up, The Kings invaded the U.S. Hot 100 kingdom for a total of 23 weeks throughout 1980, assuming a peak throne of #43. The double-A, or power-pop segue, was laced with snappy power chords, sublime harmonies, and quirky, head-turning fills throughout. It epitomised the very essence of ‘New Wave’ power pop.

The follow up single, ‘Don’t Let Me Know’, evolved out of the song that had won The Kings (then WhistleKing) the Home-Grown contest (‘Turn My Face’). Despite being a fine, hook-laden slice of power-pop, ‘Don’t Let Me Know’ was seemingly a victim of record label politics, and sadly languished at US#109 for just one week before fading from view. The singles were indicative of the high production quality, and wall-to-wall parade of high octane, pristine power-pop that shone throughout the album ‘The Kings Are Here’ - without fear of hyperbole, it was a non-stop pop-rock party-fest. Within the fabric of the early 80s music scene, The Kings had sewn themselves neatly along the seam between power pop and guitar driven rock, and had managed to bottle a high octane concoction of mischievous, infectious, rambunctious rock, served up in tracks like the aptly titled ‘Partyitis’, and the pulsating ‘Run Shoes Running’. The Kings were named ‘Most Promising Group’ of 1980 by Cashbox Magazine, and made a memorable appearance on Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand’ late in 1980. The band’s profile was at an all time high, and they were soon opening on tour for rock royalty such as the Beach Boys, and Eric Clapton. It was an auspicious debut, and there was everything to suggest that better was to come.

Sadly, the dreaded second album syndrome befell The Kings on their 1981 sophomore effort, ‘Amazon Beach’ (US#170), referred to subsequently as The Kings’ Waterloo. For a full account of the carnage that took place in and around ‘Amazon Beach’, check out the link to the band’s official website (at the bottom of this post), but in brief the key factors behind the apparent debacle can be surmised as follows. Firstly, Ezrin and The Kings shifted castles, or recording studios, from the now defunct (but cosy and central) Nimbus 9, to Phase One Studio, the latter being located somewhere in the wastelands of an industrial estate. Further adding to the loss of in-studio harmony, was an increasing breakdown in synergy between Ezrin and the band. The Kings would rehearse their new songs to, what they felt, were finely tuned, record-ready pieces, but ever the perfectionist, Bob Ezrin saw defects even when the band felt there weren’t any. Ezrin’s focus of attention was also divided between The Kings’ campaign, and working out of court, with both Murray McLaughlin, and on preparations for a new KISS album (‘Music From “The Elder”’). When Ezrin was off on another crusade, producer Charles Harrison Kipps was employed as a stopgap measure, but the move really only served to further disrupt any sense of cohesion. The tactical errors kept coming, as a mobile mixing station was used in place of sending the master tapes to L.A. for completion. Along the way, The Kings had made a number of comprises in song structure and arrangements, mainly in deference to Ezrin, with the result being the loss of some killer hooks, and melodic momentum. The suits at Elektra were suitably unimpressed, and voiced their concerns. The Kings stuck by the product they had arrived at under Ezrin’s guidance, but in truth it was out of loyalty to Ezrin, not a belief in the bastardised version of their original creative vision. It would prove a near fatal choice of allegiance for The Kings.

The album was released, featuring just eight completed tracks, and a front cover that, though playing on the title ‘Amazon Beach’ (with comic drawn Amazonian women), must have slipped past the gaze of the graphic design editor, because The Kings’ own name is partially obscured by the art work. The album’s only single, ‘All The Way’, went all the way to exactly nowhere, followed swiftly by an album that was mercilessly (but predictably) panned by critics. Sparks of the band’s first album flashed here and there, but by and large ‘Amazon Beach’ lacked the crispness and verve of its predecessor - it must have been a let down, not only for the band, but for the thousands of fans who would have keenly anticipated a successor to the throne every bit as pulsating as the first.

Despite the calamity of The Kings’ Waterloo experience, Elektra actually offered them a shot at redemption via a third album, but bad management advice saw the band decline and return label-less to Canada in 1982. However, the band’s Canadian manager, Gary Pring, instilled some momentum back into The Kings’ campaign, and negotiated a new record deal with the Canadian arm of Capitol Records. This time around, Diamond, Zero, Keyes, and Styles, produced the sessions themselves - if anyone was going to be to blame for another disaster it might as well be the band themselves. The Kings’ next release arrived just prior to Christmas ‘82, in the form of a four track EP titled ‘R.S.V.P.’. The highlighted track was the seasonal ‘This Christmas’, which was well received in Canada, and has subsequently been a regular on yuletide playlists. Around this period, The Kings experienced the first shift in the royal roster, with the departure of drummer Max Styles, replaced by a rotating roster of players, starting with Marty Cordrey, and eventually achieving stability behind the skins via Atilla Turi (from the late 90s).

By the mid 80s, The Kings had well and truly forsaken crown and sceptre as a recording act, though as a live band, they remained a popular drawcard. There was nothing half-hearted about their live performances, and the bands raucous spirit was captured, and eventually released, via ‘Party Live in ‘85’ (recorded in the band’s heyday, and released in the late 90s). The Kings remained a going concern as a live act throughout the 80s, but it appeared by the close of decade, that this particular musical monarchy had seen their best days. But in the late 80s, a decidedly delicious morsel of pop-rock regalia was rediscovered by U.S. regional radio. The sparkling ‘This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide’ seemed perched to pop the cork on a revival in The Kings’ fortunes. The song(s) were added to radio playlists across the Illinois area, but sadly, word of the resurgent interest didn’t filter across to the L.A. headquarters of Elektra Records, who had long since deleted both single and album from distribution.

As the 90s dawned, the once burgeoning empire of The Kings had been reduced to a part-time live band, as the remaining members took day jobs to pay the bills. Diamond and Zero kept penning songs together on the side, and eventually plans evolved toward recording an album of new material. Following the appearance of the song ‘Parting Of The Ways’ on the Bullseye Records 1991 various artists compilation, ‘Unsigned, Sealed and Delivered’, English-born producer John Punter (Slade, Roxy Music) was enlisted to assist the lads through the (now) daunting task of recording a new Kings’ album. The eighteen month studio odyssey was laborious, but a labour of love nevertheless. By 1993, ‘Unstoppable’ was released on the band’s own Dizzy Records label, and the band collectively held their breath in anticipation of the reception. The band still had a loyal legion of fans in Canada, and ‘Unstoppable’ was embraced for the accomplished album that it was (top ten Canada), and the relentless beat of the title track single (top ten Canadian rock radio). The acoustic fed ‘Lesson To Learn’ reflected a band that had matured, and was also well received in Canada. Overall, ‘Unstoppable’ boasted pockets of pulsating power-pop, but a more moderate, middle of the road, vibe acted as a stylistic ballast, tempering the band’ s previously feisty waters. Mister Zero (known throughout the rest of the galaxy as Captain) also snagged a U.S. distribution deal for ‘Unstoppable’ (with bonus remastered ‘This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide’). That deal eventually went sour, but by decade’s end, The Kings had negotiated a deal with Warner Canada to release a remastered copy of ‘The Kings Are Here’, with five bonus tracks, on CD (that also led to the release of the ‘Party Live In ‘85’ set).

Throughout this period, Mister Zero and David Diamond remained constant subject’s in The Kings’ kingdom, though Sonny Keyes continued as an associate member for some recording and writing duties. Atilla Turi established a regular tenure on drums, whilst touring keyboard duties were assumed by Peter Nunn and Rich Roxborough. In both 2001 and 2002, the original knights of the round record, Zero, Diamond, Styles, and Keyes, assembled for the Camp Trillium benefit concerts in Toronto. Bullseye Records then backed the release of the 2003 album, ‘Because Of You’. 23 years post their debut set, The Kings co-produced the album with Harry Hess, and came up with their most diverse work to date. The title track embodied the spirit and energy of its vinyl ancestor, whilst the quirky, chirpy ‘The Fools Are In Love’, proved The Kings had lost none of their pop-rock lustre.

Over their thirty year crusade, The Kings have notched up over 2000 shows, and show no signs of abdicating their place as a live act of rare distinction. Much of their back catalogue has been made available online, and the new releases keep coming, with the latest being the 2009 release DVD, ‘Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder’. The Kings are a band of exceptional quality, who have inexplicably flown under the popular radar for most of their career. For more insight into their music, and the opportunity to experience some of it first hand, check out The Kings’ fortress in cyberspace at -

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Pair Of Kingly Treasures - Jewel One

I’m certain I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but since I’m only repeating myself, charges of plagiarism are unlikely. Over the years, the primary motivation for me to purchase various artists compilations on CD has been to score long sought after tracks in digital format. But although I’ve gained much satisfaction from finally obtaining these long lost treasures, the real bonus has been discovering previously hidden gems, songs that at the time of release slipped under my radar (or Australia’s radar in some cases). Back in the mid 90s, I purchased several volumes of the CD series, ‘New Wave Hits of the 80s’, and the series proved a treasure trove all round. Two songs that came to my attention for the first time shared a few things in common (aside from featuring on the Rhino label series). ‘My Mistake’ by L.A. neo-rockabilly group The Kingbees (Volume 2), and ‘Switchin’ To Glide’ by Canadian pop/rock quartet The Kings (Volume 4). Aside from the obvious link via nomenclature, both tracks became the respective artists only foray into the U.S. charts, when they skimmed the mid to lower reaches of the U.S. Hot 100 during mid 1980, and both bands had a connection with Canada.

Sharing much in common with contemporary artists such as Rockpile, Stray Cats, Dr. Feelgood, Matchbox, Ol’55, New York based The Senders, Levi & The Rockats, Rocky Burnette, Shakin’ Stevens, The Blasters, Eddie & the Hot Rods et al, Los Angeles trio The Kingbees drew heavily on their love of 50s style guitar rock and rockabilly. They slotted neatly into the nascent high energy rock revivalist, or neo-rockabilly scene, which constituted a sub-set of the wider post-punk/power-pop genus, though a defiantly distinct sub-set. Although their more audacious and brash brethren, Stray Cats (see future posts), attracted more widespread attention, and commercial acclaim, due in no small part to an astute move to the U.K. (and the brilliance of Brian Setzer), The Kingbees remained Stateside and carved out a niche as a solid live act on the L.A. club scene. Like their genre mates, Stray Cats, The Kingbees were a trio, comprising bassist Michael Rummons, drummer Rex Roberts (sounds like the name of a hard boiled detective), and singer/guitarist Jamie James. The band formed during 1978, but James in particular had already clocked up a lot of mileage on the music scene. The Toronto born singer/guitarist had done a stint with hard rock trailblazers Steppenwolf, or at least a reformed version of them, throughout 1977. With the formation of his own group, The Kingbees, in 1978, Jamie James would go back to the future to source a new stylistic direction. The vibrant roots rock movement was causing a stir, and segued well alongside the raw, stripped down appeal of both punk, and power pop camps.

By 1980, The Kingbees had established a strong following on the West Coast live circuit, and soon scored a recording contract with the R.S.O. label (the very same label that boasted the Bee Gees as its marquee act). Like many of the roots rock, neo-rockabilly acts, The Kingbees played a mix of covers, and originals performed in like rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly style, but unlike their stylistically strident East Coast cousins, Stray Cats, James and co. took a more straight laced, though no less vibrant approach to their craft. Their 1980 eponymous debut album featured ten tracks in all, eight originals penned by James, seamlessly melded with two cover versions - Don Gibson’s ‘Sweet, Sweet Girl To Me’, and Buddy Holly’s ‘Ting-A-Ling’. The single release was the cooler than cool ‘My Mistake’, crisp and slick from start to finish. Jamie James employed the same echo-laden vocal technique as roots rocker Dave Edmunds, backed by an infectious guitar hook, and the tight rhythm section of Rummons and Roberts. For mine, ‘My Mistake’ would have sat well on the soundtrack to the film ‘American Graffiti’, evoking the notion of cruising city streets looking for mischief. ‘My Mistake’ caused a minor buzz on the U.S. Hot 100 (#81), but in The Kingbees hive of activity, Los Angeles, the song attracted a good deal more interest. It also did what most good rockabilly/roots-rock songs should do, and clocked in at under three minutes - a short, sharp blast of fun and sassiness.

The Kingbees’ debut album (US#160 - co-produced by David J. Holman and Rich Fitzgerald) kicked off with a rockabilly reworking of the Don Gibson country song ‘Sweet, Sweet Girl To Me’, and also served up a searing cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Ting-A-Ling’, which oscillated between brooding seduction and shards of pulsating guitar. Among the best of the Jamie James originals were the high octane, double time frenzy of ‘Man Made For Love’, the eminently danceable ‘Shake-Bop’ (chosen as the second single), the appropriately frenetic ‘Fast Girls’, the surf-rock styled ‘No Respect’, and the hit the dance floor oomph of ‘Everybody’s Gone’. Buoyed by promising commercial returns and positive press, The Kingbees returned to the studio in 1981 to record their sophomore album, ‘The Big Rock’. Whilst those runaway boys Stray Cats were rumbling in Brighton, The Kingbees opted to remain Stateside. With the same production team on board, James, Rummons, and Roberts laid down twelve tracks, eight James’ originals, and four covers. The trio hit the road for a national tour in support of the album, and prospects were boosted by an appearance on Dick Smith’s American Bandstand. The first half of ‘The Big Rock’ featured all James compositions, including the two singles releases, ‘She Can’t Make Up Her Mind’, and ‘Stick It Out!’, and struck a consistent vein of high energy rockabilly. The back half served up the effervescent ‘The Ugly One’, in addition to several covers, including Buddy Holly’s ‘Wishing’ (one of the few slow-cooker rockers on the album), and the evergreen Carl Perkins’ ‘Boppin’ The Blues’. There really wasn’t a match to strike between a lot of the material served up by The Kingbees, when compared to the superlative Stray Cats, though the latter did tend to stretch themselves more stylistically, and possessed a more furious edge to their sound on occasion. Where as Stray Cats had discovered the route to U.S. success, via Britain, Europe, Asia, and Australia, The Kingbees’ more direct attack on their home charts met with stiff resistance.

Following the pebble like reception offered ‘The Big Rock’, The Kingbees decided to vacate the rockabilly hive in 1982. In 1983, Jamie James released a solo album, ‘The Big One’, via the Vanity label, but aside from core fans it apparently did little. I haven’t heard the album, so can’t offer any insight as to its content by comparison to The Kingbees. There’s not a whole lot of information to source on the subsequent career of Jamie James (and less regards Rummons and Roberts), but according to Wikipedia, James hooked up with actor Harry Dean Stanton during the late 80s, and the pair took a quantum leap into a musical ensemble that continued through until 2000. In 1992, the Schoolkids label released the double CD, ‘The Kingbees - Vol. 1 & 2’, a composite of the band’s two original albums (and essential listening for rock-revivalist fans). The following year, Jamie James released his second solo album, ‘Cruel World’, and in 2000 he released the ‘Crossroads’ album. James must have an affinity with actors, because he then teamed up with Dennis Quaid (he of the Jerry Lee Lewis ‘Great Balls of Fire’ ilk), and the pair formed a rock and roll band called DQ and The Sharks - call me crazy (plenty do) but I’m guessing Jamie James wasn’t DQ. He has continued to be a presence on the Los Angeles music scene. As the lyric to ‘My Mistake’ goes - “I had to choose between school and a rock ‘n’ roll band. I made up my mind to rock as fast as I can.’ Enthusiasts of roots rock/rockabilly are no doubt pleased that James chose the latter as a vocation.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Ever Changing Fortunes Of Money

Following on from the reckless success of ‘No Control’ came ‘The Big Crash’ for Eddie Money - literally and figuratively. The title of his 1983 album, ‘Where’s The Party?’ (US#67), may have given a clue as to some of the issues creeping up on Eddie Money - he may well have been attending too many - parties that is (and the wrong kind). The album was generally lacking in originality and quality material, and could just as well have been a collection of throwaway tracks from the ‘No Control’ sessions. The killer hooks, and melodic finesse had been supplanted by dull and uninspired offerings. The Money/Dowd produced set wasn’t all bad though, and the title track was a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll charmer, but the singles, ‘The Big Crash’ (US#54), and ‘Club Michelle’ (US#66), yielded only loose change on the charts for Eddie Money. It later became apparent that Eddie Money had for some time been battling some serious problems with drug addiction, and over the next couple of years he took time out to seek treatment, and regain his health.

With his battle to recover from drug addiction having curtailed his career considerably, by 1986 Eddie Money was ready to prove, like his 1979 single, that you can’t keep a good man down. His triumphant return was announced by the stellar radio anthem ‘Take Me Home Tonight (Be My Baby)’. The song lured listeners into its brooding world, before launching them into an irresistible chorus hook, signed off on with a vocal cameo by none other than Ronnie Spector (of Ronettes’ fame) - she sang the “be my baby” bit. ‘Take Me Home Tonight (Be My Baby)’ also brought Eddie Money the accomplished saxophone player to the fore (in fact Money also attended to keyboards). The track soared to a high of #4 on the U.S. charts (OZ#46), but as had been the case with all his previous work, Money’s music held no currency on the British charts. Where some of Money’s previous albums had suffered from ‘filler’ syndrome, his 1986 set, ‘Can’t Hold Back’, didn’t refrain from serving up across the board quality. Money sounded like a man reinvigorated with life, and reconnected to his craft - and keen to make up for lost time. The laid back rocker ‘I Wanna Go Back’ eased its way to #14 on the U.S. Hot 100, further confirming that the ‘Money Man’ was back. ‘Endless Nights’ (US#21) offered up another radio friendly morsel during the first half of ‘87, and by the time that the fourth single, the crisp and catchy ‘We Should Be Sleeping’, underachieved at #90, the album ‘Can’t Hold Back’ had racked up platinum sales, peaking at US#20 in the process.

Given his remarkable comeback, Money might well have felt he could walk on water, and late in 1988 he did just that - at least in song. The radio-friendly finesse shone through once more on the single ‘Walk On Water’, heavy on keyboards, heavy on slick production, heavy on soaring harmonies, heavy on Eddie in career best form, and featuring Eddie’s old band mate Jimmy Lyon once more on lead guitar. ‘Walk On Water’ performed a minor miracle at #9 on the U.S. charts, but a poor exchange rate left the song floundering at #91 in Australia. The song was penned by Jesse Harms, formerly Sammy Hagar’s keyboardist, and I could imagine Hagar performing the song. The track featured on Money’s seventh studio album, ‘Nothing To Lose’ (US#49), and after what he’d experienced over the last decade, the title was apt. By and large there weren’t any great surprises on the album, with Money employing the same, or at least similar, formula of well-crafted pop-rock throughout - it worked last time, so why not. The follow up single, ‘The Love In Your Eyes’, sighted a peak position of #24 on the U.S. Hot 100 in early ‘89, though ‘Let Me In’ only received access as far as #60.

Ten years as a recording artist, and riding on the high of a major comeback - time for a greatest hits album to celebrate! In late ‘89, Columbia released the compilation ‘Greatest Hits: The Sound Of Money’ (US#53- ch-ching!), featuring ten of the most likely suspects from his career to date, with the bonus enticement to Eddie Money fans of three new tracks. I had only had a passing interest in the work of Eddie Money to that point. Many of his previous hits had received little to no coverage here in Australia, though I was familiar with the better known singles such as ‘Baby Hold On’ and ‘Take Me Home Tonight’. But the new single release from his greatest hits album caught my attention late in ‘89. ‘Peace In Our Time’ was inspiring in its anthemic brilliance, crystalline in its sound, uplifting in its lyrics - it sends my spirits soaring every time I hear it. As much as I’ve come to appreciate a good deal of Eddie Money’s music, ‘Peace In Our Time’, for me, remains at the pinnacle of his work. It also represented Money’s last major splurge on the pop charts (US#11), though by the dawn of the 90s, his consistency of presence on the charts over the preceding decade had resulted in record sales exceeding eleven million units.

In 1991, Eddie Money had one last tilt at chart success with the album ‘Right Here’ (which boasted no fewer than five producers), but despite the minor hits ‘Heaven In The Back Seat’ (US#58), ‘Fall In Love Again’ (US#54), and the US#21 hit ‘I’ll Get By’, it appeared the album buying public had moved on (more than likely to grunge), as sales for ‘Right Here’ petered out at US#160. In 1992, Money was near the head of the queue to try and cash in on the new MTV ‘Unplugged’ series, but the edge was lost in the translation from lushly produced pop-rock, to stripped down acoustic. Columbia then dropped Money from their account, or roster even, but he found a new home at Wolfgang Records, releasing an album of new material in 1995, titled ‘Love And Money’. Over the next couple of years, Money paid the bills with regular touring, and a number of compilations and live albums were released, including 1997’s ‘Shakin’ With The Money Man’. By 1999, the world was ready for a new Eddie Money album, or at least Money was ready to record one, and it arrived under the title ‘Ready Eddie’. It was a ‘back to the future’ style affair, revisiting the classic album rock territory which defined the first half of his career. Over the last decade the compilation releases have kept the royalty cheques flowing for Money, whilst he still tours on occasion. Money’s latest studio offering surfaced in 2007, with the veteran rocker revisiting some of the music he grew up with. ‘Wanna Go Back’ was a nostalgia laden homage to some of the classic 60s hits that had inspired young Edward Mahoney all those years ago. Everything from ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, through ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’, and ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances’, got the Eddie Money treatment, and on three tracks his daughter Jesse shared vocal duties. In 2009, Eddie Money the man became Eddie Money the musical, with his life story and music featured in ‘Two Tickets To Paradise: The Musical’. Through all the ups and downs of a turbulent career, Eddie Money has remained, above all else, true to the music he loves.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Aspiring Cop Chooses To Walk A Different Beat

When a singer or rock band achieves superstardom, it’s often a assumed that they’ve always ‘made music’ for a living, but that’s a popular misconception. Whilst it’s true that some ‘pop stars’ leave school/college and rarely stray from the road to fame (save for the odd casual job to pay the rent), others have forsaken a completely different career to pursue their rock ‘n’ roll dream. Rockin’ Rod Stewart once aspired to be a pro-footballer, but opted to kick a goal on the charts instead; Australia’s ‘Voice’ John Farnham gave up his plumber’s plunger in favour of singing about ‘Sadie’ the cleaning lady; Shaggy did his share of touring with the U.S. Marines before touring the top of the charts; Sheryl Crow left her job as a school teacher when she decided all she wanted to do was have some fun singing for a living; and singer Eddie Money realised the life of a New York City police officer wasn’t for him, choosing to march to a different beat.

Brooklyn born Edward Joseph Mahoney wanted to be a policeman when he grew up - after all his father was a New York City police officer, so you could say that young Eddie was a ‘NYPD blue blood’ - well alright then I know I’ve overstepped the limits for lame puns with that one, but what are limits for if not to be broken now and again. After leaving school, young Edward gained a place at the New York Police Academy, with a view to graduating as Officer Mahoney (not of the Steve Guttenberg variety). But Mahoney had developed a passion for rock music, and began regularly moonlighting in a rock and roll band, the Grapes of Wrath, at local New York City night clubs, singing under the moniker of Eddie Money. Soon, the singer Eddie Money realised that pursuing a career in music just made more cents, not to mention potentially earning him more dollars. Thus Officer Mahoney handed in his badge, and singer Eddie Money (with trusty saxophone in hand) shifted to California in search of a rock star’s life.

It was the mid 70s, and the West Coast music scene was thriving. Money began singing at various bars and venues around the Bay Area, and soon came to the notice of promoter Bill Graham, who signed Money to a management contract. Graham arranged for some demos to be made, and in 1977 helped secure Eddie Money a recording deal with the Columbia label. Money’s rough and ready voice was tailor made for an era when album oriented rock dominated the airwaves - his vocals echoed the same raw and raspy quality of the likes of Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Steve Perry, and Huey Lewis, yet like those artists, Money also had a controlled, polished quality to his singing. Most of all, Money served his music up with an unmistakable passion. That passion sprang to life on his eponymous debut album, released late in ‘77. Ex-Doors’ producer Bruce Botnick helmed proceedings, and Money was supported by an impressive roster of players, including saxophonist Tom Scott, ex-Steve Miller bassist Lonnie Turner, and guitarist (and right hand man) Joe Lyon.

Money and Lyon co-wrote the album’s first single, ‘Baby Hold On’. The mid-tempo rock ballad boasted an infectious, almost hypnotic guitar riff. ‘Baby Hold On’ possessed the kind of radio friendly hook to propel it into the U.S. Hot 100 in February of ‘78. The track held on to a peak of #11 Stateside, and also introduced Australian audiences to the sound of Money (#19). The follow up single, ‘Two Tickets To Paradise’, an energizing blitz of guitar-driven rock, featured an “excellent guitar riff”, to coin a phrase later uttered by Homer Simpson. Written by Money about his then girlfriend, ‘Two Tickets To Paradise’ was catchy, blue-collar rock at its best, and was soon saturating rock airwaves across the U.S. (#22/OZ#86), eventually working its way into popular culture via use in television and films. The popularity of both singles pushed sales of the ‘Eddie Money’ album to an eventual double-platinum status (US#37/OZ#31), and the album itself received a heavy work out on DJs turntables at rock format stations (aiding in crossover top 40 success). The third single, ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ (US#72), was an impressive rendition of the 1962 top ten hit for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the album track ‘Wanna Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’, a spirited blast of boogie rock, proved one of the popular ‘radio’ hits of 1978.

Money boosted his accounts further with the release of his 1979 sophomore album ‘Life For The Taking’, once more helmed by producer Bruce Botnick. As with just about every other respectable rock and roll figure at that time, Money succumbed to a degree from the tidal wave of disco/pop drowning the U.S. charts, but the album retained enough rock and roll soul to pass muster with true rock aficionados. The lead out single, ‘Maybe I’m A Fool’ (US#22/OZ#51), was a fine slice of blue-eyed soul that would have sat comfortably within the Hall & Oates songbook. The follow up, ‘Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’ (US#63), incited a liberal upping of volume levels, and reminded everyone that at heart, Eddie Money was a rock ‘n’ roller. Despite reaching a higher peak position Stateside, the album ‘Life For The Taking’ (US#17/OZ#64) didn’t match the double platinum achievement of its predecessor. Money rounded out the 70s with the single ‘Get A Move On’ (US#46), featured on the soundtrack to the futuristic satire ‘Americathon’.

Money’s first offering of the new decade, via the single ‘Running Back’, didn’t exactly see him running back to the top forty (US#78). The song had a distinct reggae-rhythm feel to it, and reminds me of something Eric Clapton might have recorded a few years previous. Maybe it was just too big a departure not to have alienated the rock radio scene, and the follow up single, ‘Let’s Be Lovers Again’ (with Valeria Carter - backup singer with James Taylor), also went largely unnoticed (US#65) late in 1980. Both tracks were lifted from Money’s third album, ‘Playing For Keeps’ (US#35), produced by Ron Nevins, and also featuring the very alluring song ‘Trinidad’ (reminds me of something Bad Company or maybe even Joe Walsh would have recorded).

Money bounced back to form during 1982, aided in no small part by his savvy engagement of the promotional video format. MTV had been up and running since the previous August, and it was apparent that the music video network had the potential to engage a whole new audience, beyond the demographics of rock radio. Eddie Money was among the first wave of artists to take full advantage of the visual medium to augment his music. The single ‘Think I’m In Love’ returned Eddie Money to the black, well to the U.S. top twenty (#16/OZ#54). It was backed by a very cinematic styled promo video, shot in black and white (b&w was all the rage in the 80s). Money engaged the medium to the maximum, embracing the narrative potential of film, and imbuing everything with tongue in cheek humour - an approach adopted by many soft-metal rockers throughout the 80s. Most importantly, the song ‘Think I’m In Love’ was a sleek slice of catchy pop-rock, tailor made for the top 40. Doubtless the return to form had Eddie Money laughing all the way to the blood bank. ‘Think I’m In Love’ was lifted from Money’s fourth studio album, ‘No Control’ (US#20). Veteran producer Tom Dowd (Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart) came on board, whilst long time guitarist Jim Lyon left the scene, following a major falling out with Money over musical direction. It was apparent from the hook laden album that Money had elected to adopt a more melodic, pop-accessible slant to his music, eager to regain some lost commercial ground. The shift was further illustrated by follow up single, the sultry, blues edged ‘Shakin’ (US#63). The song’s playfully sexy lyrics were matched by a cheeky promo video, which quickly became a staple on MTV’s regular rotation lists.