Friday, March 14, 2014

The Genesis Of 'Abacab'

In 1986, I was afforded the opportunity to see Genesis in concert at Sydney’s Entertainment Centre.  I had just completed my high school studies and was excited, albeit a little nervous, as I hopped on the tour bus to take me to the ‘big smoke’.  It was my first big concert experience, and it was more than everything I’d hoped it would be.  With almost 20 years touring experience behind them, Genesis knew how to put on a show.  I’d later learn to appreciate the Peter Gabriel era Genesis, but at the time I was only familiar with the Phil Collins’ led outfit.  This was their ‘Invisible Touch’ tour, an album which saw Genesis reach the pinnacle of their career - in commercial terms at least.  The core trio of Phil Collins (vocals/drums), Mike Rutherford (guitar), and Tony Banks (keyboards), were augmented in concert by regular tour cohorts Daryl Stuermer (bass), and Chester Thompson (drums).  Almost thirty years later that concert experience has stayed with me as a highlight of my concert going ventures.  As quickly as I could I began buying up the Genesis back catalogue, including their 1981 album, ‘Abacab’, which to this day remains one of my choices among the band’s best offerings.

Genesis recorded a total of five albums, and the 1974 double album ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’, during Peter Gabriel’s tenure as lead vocalist.  During this period of their career the band were primarily an art rock come progressive rock outfit, demanding a concerted effort on the part of patrons to tap into the
depth of their sound.  Gabriel departed Genesis at the end of their 1975 tour, and would go on to achieve a phenomenally successful solo career (see future posts).  Rather than look beyond the band for a replacement
vocalist, the decision was made to add lead vocals to the duties of drummer Phil Collins.  Despite some reservations from other band members, Collins was confident he could do the job.

Genesis carried on in studio with the quartet of Collins, Rutherford, Banks, and long term guitarist Steve Hackett.  For touring purposes, the band enlisted Chester Thompson to share drumming duties, freeing Collins up to become the front man.  The pair would regularly perform a drum duet for each live show.  That incarnation of Genesis recorded two albums together - 1976’s ‘A Trick Of The Tail’, and the early ‘77 set ‘Wind & Wuthering’.  Hackett too left the band soon there after, also to pursue a solo career, though without the profile of Gabriel.  Once more Genesis were posed the question, do we recruit outside the band to replace Hackett?  The answer was the same as with Gabriel, with bassist Mike Rutherford stepping up to assume guitar duties.  The band brought Daryl Stuermer into their live configuration to handle bass responsibilities.

In studio, Genesis had been pared back to the trio of Phil Collins, Tony Banks, and Mike Rutherford, and in 1978 released their first album in that formation, with the appropriately titled ‘And Then There Were Three’, which contained their first bonafide commercial hit in the form of ‘Follow You, Follow Me’, and the sublime ballad ‘Many Too Many’.  Genesis followed that up with 1980’s ‘Duke’ set, yielding the guitar driven hit ‘Turn It On’, and the soulful, horn laced Phil Collins penned ‘Misunderstanding’.  By this time the band were sailing perilously close to becoming a pop-rock outfit.  But they still retained some of their art-rock roots, particularly on the pure album cuts.

If Genesis were sailing close to pop-rock territory on ‘Duke’, they docked at the pop-rock pier for 1981’s ‘Abacab’.  Released in September of ‘81, ‘Abacab’ was produced by Genesis, with acclaimed producer Hugh Padgham acting as sound engineer.  Phil Collins handled the lead vocals, percussion and drums, Tony Banks keyboards and backing vocals, and Mike Rutherford guitars, bass, and backing vocals.  The album featured nine tracks in all, with eight clocking over four minutes in length.  Six of the tracks were co-written by all three band members, with each of Banks, Collins and Rutherford composing one track.

‘Abacab’ was still ‘art-rock’ at its core, or album oriented rock, but it was layered with an increased number of pop hooks, relative to earlier albums.  The Genesis brand instrumental passages were still in evidence on tracks like the album version of ‘Abacab’, but they were less prevalent, and secondary to the band branching into other stylistic areas.  A reggae beat was in evidence on the track ‘Me And Sarah Jane’, whilst ‘Dodo’ was driven to extinction by a funk rhythm track.  Other album tracks included the oddball character of ‘Who Dunnit?’, the shimmering ‘Like It Or Not’, and the heavily percussed (as opposed to concussed) ‘Another Record’, which was another record all together from Phil Collins’ ‘Face Value’, but similar in sound.

The ‘Abacab’ album yielded four single releases.  ‘No Reply At All’ (US#29 - #2 US Mainstream Rock chart/ OZ#74), boasted the bold brass of the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section (see separate post), who had also recently featured on Phil Collins’ ‘Face Value’ album.  The atmospheric ‘Man On The Corner’ was closer to the traditional Genesis sound, and found the outskirts of the top forty (US#40/UK#41).  The eccentric ‘Keep It Dark’ (UK#33) was an engaging tale of alien worlds visited (but ssssshhhhoosh, don’t tell anyone) and was backed by an appropriately quirky promotional video.  The single remix of the title track, ‘Abacab’ (UK#9/ US#26 - #4 Mainstream Rock chart/ OZ#35), was the closest thing to guitar/synth driven rock on the album, and was remarkably close in nature to a ‘new wave’ song, at least in the single remix.  It was backed by a very effective performance based clip.  When I’m playing my copy of the Genesis ‘Video Show’ on DVD the volume always gets turned up for ‘Abacab’.

‘Abacab’, the album, earned Genesis their second #1 album in the U.K. (US#7/ OZ#18), following on from ‘Duke’, and confirmed the band’s growing commercial appeal. The ’Abacab’ album was a clear pointer to Genesis evolving from a predominantly progressive rock outfit, into a more commercially accessible band, an evolution that would reach its culmination on the mega-selling ‘Invisible Touch’ album.)))

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

XTC - Serious Skylarking

Now an exclusively studio-bound outfit, XTC returned to the fray in mid ‘83 with the release of the album ‘Mummer’ (UK#51), supported by the singles, the acoustically charged ‘Great Fire’, the soulfully smooth ‘Wonderland’, and the gently lilting ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’ (UK#50).  Though building on some of the foundations laid down by ‘English Settlement’, the album seemed to take  a step back in terms of having a coherent style, though in general it was critically well received in its intentions.

The late ’84 album, ‘The Big Express’ (UK#38/OZ#96), recovered some ground in terms of direction, and featured the delightful sea-shanty styled single ‘All You Pretty Girls’ (OZ#76), which I was very happy to eventually get hold of via the ‘Fossil Fuel’ compilation.  The follow up singles, the low key ‘This World Over’, and the raucous ‘Wake Up’ failed to awaken record buyers, though the band may have missed a trick in not releasing the enchanting portion of nostalgia-pop in the form of the sprightly ‘The Everyday Story Of Smalltown’.  Soon after the release of ‘The Big Express’, session drummer Pete Phippes took an express bus out of XTC, and was replaced by Ian Gregory (keyboardist Dave Gregory’s brother).

It was around this time that XTC sowed the seeds of a plan to break free of the confines of the band’s identity, and pursue greater artistic freedom, in a kind of insurgency against trying to satisfy the record labels with commercial success.  The band once more hooked up with producer John Leckie to release an EP titled ‘25 O’clock’ in mid ‘85 under the alter-ego come pseudonym Dukes Of Stratosphear, in the process tapping into some fresh artistic inspiration with a more overtly psychedelic offering, harking back to some of their earlier influences, and indeed parodying them.

The Dukes’ venture paid dividends with a rejuvenated XTC re-entering the studio during the first half of ‘86 in partnership with acclaimed producer Todd Rundgren.  There were some well documented clashes between Rundgren and Andy Partridge, but the end result was the critically acclaimed return to form on ‘Skylarking’ (UK#90/US#70).  The lead out single was the seductive ‘Grass’, penned by Colin Moulding.  The B-side was a Partridge penned song called ‘Dear God’ (which I ended up purchasing on a CD-EP.  Though ‘Grass’ didn’t grow on the charts, a college-radio DJ liked what they heard on the B-side and soon the lyrically biting agnostic anthem ‘Dear God’ became a hit on the American college-radio scene.  Overall the album borrowed from the best of earlier albums like ‘English Settlement’ and married it to the lushness of mid 60s psychedelic rock, evoking the echoes of later vintage Beatles and Beach Boys, and marrying polished lyrical arrangements with meticulous instrumentation.

It was during this period that XTC found itself embroiled in all manner of litigation, against a former manager, and with an unwieldy record label relationship - at that time Virgin handled them in the U.K., whilst in the U.S. Geffen released their work under a licensee agreement.  It all fed in to the general perception that XTC were not enamoured with the music industry.  Unperturbed by legal wrangling, or perhaps to spite it, the band once more adopted their Dukes Of Stratosphear guise to release the album, ‘Psonic Psunspot’ in August of ‘87 - in 1989, the EP ‘25 O’clock’ and album ‘Psonic Psunspot’ featured on a combined album release titled ‘Chips From The Chocolate Fireball’.  By the end of ‘87, Ian Gregory had left the fold, to be replaced by drummer Pat Mastelotto (formerly of Mr. Mister - see separate post).

With said litigation proceedings placed to one side, XTC returned to the studio in late ‘88 to begin work on their next album.  They were partnered this time with producer Paul Fox, and once more their was producer/artist friction as Partridge wrestled for creative control of the project.  The result of their endeavours was the creatively well received ‘Oranges And Lemons’ album (UK#28/US#44), released in February of ‘89.  The lead out single was the delightful dedication of love, ‘Mayor Of Simpleton’, which I bought on vinyl 45 at the time.  ‘Mayor Of Simpleton’ became XTC’s first foray into the U.S. Hot 100 (US#72/UK#44), and was backed up by the brilliant blue skies feel of ‘King For A Day’.  Overall the album is brimming with psychedelic sonic brushstrokes, echoing the Kinks’ Ray Davies at his finest on tracks such as ‘The Loving’, and even offering up the Jethro Tull like ‘One Of The Millions’. The album received constant airplay on U.S. college-radio, and ‘Oranges And Lemons’ was voted as 1989’s college-radio album of the year.

After two years had elapsed, XTC returned to the studio environment with a plethora of newly penned songs to record.  They emerged with 32 new tracks in all, which were apparently dismissed in their entirety by the band’s British label.  Unruffled, XTC remained firmly behind the songs they had recorded, and eventually negotiated the release of fifteen of them in the form of the 1992 album ‘Nonesuch’ (UK#28/ OZ#72/US#97).  Produced by Gus Dudgeon, the album featured the lead out single ‘The Disappointed’ a richly crafted song telling of the collective identity of the lovelorn among us.  I purchased the song on a CD-EP, and the track fared well in both Britain (#33), and Australia (#31). It was backed by an engaging medieval style promotional video.  The quirkily titled ‘The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead’ was also released as a single (UK#71).  ‘Nonsuch’ was a marrying of some of the band’s late 80s psychedelic trimmings, with a verdant pop sheen.

Perhaps weary of in studio conflict over creative control, and record label pressure, XTC mainstays Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding pulled the plug on the band once the dust had settled on ‘Nonsuch’.  Partridge, who always seemed to have a diverse and sizeable collection of songs on hand, released two albums of new material within two years - ‘Through The Hill’ in partnership with Harold Budd, and ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ with Martin Newell.  Over the ensuing years Partridge kept his hand in the studio, working with the likes of Mission U.K., and Lilac Time.

After six years had elapsed, Patridge and Moulding reappeared from seemingly nowhere with a brand new XTC album, ‘Apple Venus Volume 1’ (UK#42), featuring 11 new tracks, and in the process delighting long patient fans with an album that captured the essence of XTC at their very best.  The companion piece, ‘Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Pt. 2)’, followed in 2000.

Though wider commercial success eluded XTC over the course of their journey, the band remained true to its influences and sonic vision, in the process gathering a legion of dedicated fans along the way.)))

XTC - Making Plans For XTC And More

About ten years ago I purchased a, long overdue, collection of the ‘best of’ British post punk/new wave band XTC.  I’d purchased a number of their singles over the years, but had yet to explore the band for all they were worth.  The purchase of the double CD release ‘Fossil Fuel - The XTC Singles’ (UK#33) featured 31 tracks in all and allowed me the chance to explore the band’s music a little more seriously.  There was barely a poor track in the songs assembled, and it left me with the question of why had XTC not been a bigger commercial success.  The short answer is they never actively pursued it - well that’s one reason - but for a more detailed appraisal of their career and more, please read on.

XTC were one of the leading constituents of the British post punk/new wave scene of the late 70s into mid 80s.  They were also one of the most enduring and eclectic acts to emerge from that era.  Though lumped by some observers as ‘new wave’, XTC resided more in the power-pop zone of the movement.  Early days their music was a meticulously crafted brand of art-pop, featuring inventive rhythm patterns, and sometimes weirdly placed melodic contortions.  Early critical appraisal compared them to ‘Rubber Soul’ era Beatles, but XTC were never ones to be pigeonholed, even by their loyal cult following.

The band’s roots burrowed back to 1973, in Swindon, a rustic outcropping of London.  Twenty year old Andy Partridge (vocals/guitar), recruited Colin Moulding (bass/vocals), Terry Chambers (drums), and Jonathan Perkins (keyboards), all three still in their teens.  They dubbed themselves the Helium Kidz, and took to local music circuits to hone their craft and build an audience.  Initially their style was born of a New York Dolls influenced brand of glitter-pop, mixing straight up rock& roll with quintessential English psychedelia that would inform their later work.

By 1976, the Helium Kids moniker had blown away, and was replaced by the concisely dubbed XTC.  By now, the group were playing a lot of originals, mostly penned by Partridge and Moulding, and influenced by the likes of The Beatles later work, The Move, ‘Pet Sounds’ era Beach Boys, The Small Faces, and Captain Beefheart.  Though not pandering to the prevalent punk movement of the time, XTC retained some of the harder edged aspects of their early guise, and by 1977 had been identified by Virgin as having major potential, and signed to their label.  Before entering the recording studio, keyboardist Jonathan Perkins was replaced by Barry Andrews (ex-King Crimson).

In late ‘77, XTC released the debut single, ‘Science Fiction’, followed in quick succession by ‘Statue Of Liberty’, and ‘This Is Pop?’ (which puts me in mind of Australia’s Sports - see separate posts), the latter garnering some critical attention for the band, and revealing XTC to be a power-pop outfit in punk clothing guise.  Amongst the post-punk frenzy of Britain’s music scene in 1978, XTC found a loyal audience who pushed their debut album, ‘White Music’ (recorded in just one week), to #38 on the British charts. The album bubbled along with bursts of chaotic energy, capturing XTC at their early era rebellious best.

The frenetic single ‘Are You Receiving Me’ hit the airwaves in October of ‘78, and soon after featured on Australia’s ‘Countdown’ national TV program - that’s when and where I first saw XTC in action.  The song reached #86 in Australia, likely on the back of that one ‘Countdown’ appearance.  The source album, produced by John Leckie (later worked with Stone Roses and Radiohead), was titled ‘Go 2’, and proceeded to go all the way to #21 in Britain (OZ#93).  Partridge and Mouldings skills as song-smiths were becoming more evident, and ‘Go 2’ stretched the band stylistically into more adventurous art-pop territory, influenced in parts by a Brian Eno brand of idiosyncratic electronica.  A standout was the song’s opening track ‘Meccanic Dancing (Oh We Go!)’, featuring jolting rhythms and a burst of guitar driven power-pop in the middle eight.  The band were still keeping up a hectic touring schedule but soon after the release of ‘Go 2’ Andrews left the band (to join League Of Gentleman, and later to co-found Shriekback - see separate post), and was replaced by Dave Gregory (keyboards/synthesisers/guitar).

During the first half of ‘79, XTC laboured away in studio to record their third album, ‘Drums And Wires’ (UK#34/OZ#40), the band’s first U.S. release.  The lead out single, ‘Life Begins At The Hop’, did reasonable business (UK#54/OZ#94), but it was the quirky follow up single, ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ that promised a major commercial breakthrough for XTC.  Penned by, and featuring the lead vocals of bassist Colin Moulding, the song was backed by an eccentric video clip featuring the band members playing in some kind of asylum setting.  The combination of music and video worked, pushing ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ to #17 on the British charts (OZ#94).  The album wound back on some of the frenzied energy of its predecessors, offering a more cohesive sound, yet one that retained the band’s eccentricity and humour, evidenced by tracks such as ‘Day In Day Out’, ‘Ten Feet Tall’, and the anthemic ‘Roads Girdle The Globe’.  In amidst a hectic performance schedule the prolific song writing of Andy Partridge found a vehicle beyond the frontiers of XTC, in the form of the February ‘80 album release ‘Take Away (The Lure Of Salvage)’, released under the unassuming name of Mr. Partridge.

XTC spent the English summer in doors recording their next album, titled ‘Black Sea’.  Although the band had yet to register any commercial recognition in the U.S., the back catalogue release of their earlier work, and a burgeoning legion of fans on college campuses, saw ‘Black Sea’ reach #41 on the U.S. album charts (UK#16/OZ#27). The 1980 released album was less frenetic than earlier chapters of their career, and cast a stylistic haze of nostalgic psychedelia, harbouring hints of an elegiac model Kinks between its covers. Lyrically speaking, ‘Black Sea’ also saw XTC presenting a more overtly socio-political approach.  The single ‘Generals And Majors’ marched to #32 in Britain and to #24 here in Australia, and two further single releases, the drum heavy ‘Towers Of London’ (UK#31), and pop-ish ‘Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)’ (UK#16) further broke down the walls of commercial resistance for XTC.

The critically lauded album ‘English Settlement’ (UK#5/ OZ#14/US#48) was released in February of ‘82, and immediately made an impact, thanks in part to the lead out single, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ‘Senses Working Overtime’.  The track became XTC’s first foray into the British top ten (#10/OZ#12), and was followed up by the single ‘Ball And Chain’ (UK#58/OZ#97) two months later.  ‘English Settlement’ was, and has been, regarded as XTC’s finest hour, blending strains of folk rock, exotic rhythm patterns, and cutting edge synthesiser pop, blended through a prism of psychedelic rock - all up a more stylistically complex offering.  Furthermore, Andy Partridge’s acerbic wit, and eccentrically challenging lyrics lured the listener to be immersed by each and every track.  ‘English Settlement’ was released as a double album in Britain, but (minus four cuts) was reduced to a single album release in the U.S.  Like so many British post-punk bands, significant mainstream crossover success in America eluded XTC, but the band’s profile continued to grow on the indie and alternative scenes, via college-radio.

All signs were pointing to a major commercial breach by XTC, and the band set off on a major world tour, taking in Europe and the U.S.  But all was not well within the band, and more specifically with Andy Partridge’s health.  The band’s European tour had ended badly with Partridge collapsing on stage in Paris from exhaustion.  But he and the band pushed on through the discomfort which bellowed into Partridge suffering a nervous breakdown in California due to intense stage fright, just a few dates into their U.S. tour. XTC abandoned the rest of the tour, and it was announced subsequently that they would never tour again.  Partridge took the best part of a year to come to grips with agoraphobia, becoming a virtual shut-in.  In the fallout from events, drummer Terry Chambers left the band, and XTC were reduced to the core trio of Partridge, Moulding, and keyboardist Dave Gregory, with drummer Pete Phippes (formerly of Glitter Band) a regular contributor in-studio.

An XTC ‘best of’ was released in late ‘82.  ‘Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982’ (UK#54), also featured a limited edition companion album in the form of ‘Beeswax: Some B-sides 1977-1982’, to keep fans happy until XTC resurfaced once more to charm them with new material.)))

Diana Ross - Snapshot #2 - The Chemistry Behind A 'Chain Reaction'

The ‘first lady’ of the Supremes quickly assumed the mantle of the ‘first lady of Motown’ with her first string of singles in 1970.  With Ashford and Simpson still in the production booth, Ross released her official debut solo single in early 1970 with ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ (US#20).  In September of ‘70, Diana Ross replaced Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ at US#1 with a cover of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (#1 for 3 weeks/UK#6).  Her first solo #1 in the U.K. followed in 1971 with ‘I’m Still Waiting’ (#1 for 4 weeks).

Ross’ next few singles performed modestly, but the singer was turning her attention to a a television special, followed by her Oscar nominated performance playing blues legend Billie Holiday in 1972’s ‘Lady Sings The Blues’.  The title track from her 1973 album, ‘Touch Me In The Morning’, touched the top of the U.S. Hot 100 for one week in August of ‘73, replacing ‘The Morning After’ by Maureen McGovern, and in turn replaced by ‘Brother Louie’ by Stories.  The UK#9 ‘All Of My Life’ kept the name Diana Ross in the charts early in’74, followed up by ‘Last Time I Saw Him’ (US#14/ OZ#18/UK#35).  In 1975, Ross recorded an album of duets with Marvin Gaye, which yielded the UK#5 ‘You Are Everything’.  She then returned for her second major movie role in 1976’s ‘Mahogany’, the soundtrack to which yielded another #1 for Diana Ross the singer.  ‘Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)’ hit #5 in the UK, but knew where it was going to in the U.S., straight to #1 - replacing ‘I Write The Songs’ by Barry Manilow in early ‘76, and replaced after one week by ‘Love Rollercoaster’ by Ohio Players  - see future post).  Her second US#1 of the year followed in the guise of ‘Love Hangover’ (UK#10) which replaced ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Wings at #1 in April of ‘76, in turn being supplanted after two weeks by ‘Afternoon Delight’ by Starland Vocal Band - see separate posts).

Following a lead role as Dorothy in the Motown produced film flop ‘The Wiz’, Ross released two solo albums, 1977’s ‘Baby, It’s Me’, and 1978’s ‘Ross’ neither of which sold well or yielded any hit singles in the disco dominated charts.  The 1979 Ashford and Simpson produced album, ‘The Boss’, reclaimed some pop cache along with the US#19 title track.  But Diana Ross hadn’t scored a top ten hit in over three years.  Perhaps it was time for Ms. Ross to have a stylistic makeover.

Enter the Chic production/writing team of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards (see separate post).  Comprising eight tracks, all written by Rodgers/Edwards, the US#2 album ‘Diana’, yielded three major hit singles, ‘My Old Piano’ (UK#5/OZ#25), ‘I’m Coming Out’ (US#5/ UK#13/OZ#40), and the funk edged dance number ‘Upside Down’.  The latter hit #2 in the UK, and became Ross’ biggest post Supremes hit.  ‘Upside Down’ hit #1 in Australia during September of 1980, replacing ‘Moscow’ by Genghis Khan - see separate post - and in turn was displaced after 4 weeks by Leo Sayer’s ‘More Than I Can Say’.  In the US, ‘Upside Down’ went upside the charts to #1 for 4 weeks, replacing ‘Sailing’ by Christopher Cross, and in turn shot down by Queen’s ‘Another One Bites The Dust’.  ‘Upside Down’ was the fifth highest selling single in the U.S. for 1980, and holds the honour of being the #3 biggest selling Motown song of all time.  But an even bigger hit was just around the corner.

In 1981, Diana Ross released the album ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ (US#15).  The album yielded the top ten hits ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ (US#7/ UK#4/OZ#15), a cover of the old Frankie Lymon hit, ‘Mirror, Mirror’ (US#8), and ‘Work That Body’ (UK#7), the latter two hits during 1982.  But it was a Lionel Richie (see future post) penned ballad that would redefine the profile of Diana Ross’ solo career.  ‘Endless Love’ topped charts the world over, well apart from the UK (#7).  In Australia, the Ross/Richie duet hit #1 during October of ‘81, replacing ‘You Drive Me Crazy’ by Shakin’ Stevens, and in turn dislodged by Billy Field’s ‘You Weren’t In Love With Me’ - see separate posts.  In the U.S., ‘Endless Love’ set up an almost endless reign atop the charts from August of ‘81, displacing Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl’ (see future post), and nine weeks later being finally usurped at #1 by Christopher Cross’ ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’, Cross gaining revenge for ‘Upside Down’s pillaging of ‘Sailing’s #1 reign back in 1980.  ‘Endless Love’ set record after record.  It was the third highest selling single in the U.S. for the 1980s (behind ‘Physical’ by Olivia Newton-John, and ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ by Kim Carnes - see separate post).  It was the #1 duet of all time, and the #1 song of all time released on the Motown label.  Cue Ross departing from Motown and signing with a new label, RCA - go figure.

Over the next few years Diana Ross scored a handful of top ten singles, including ‘Muscles’ (US#10/ UK#15) in 1982, written, produced and with backing vocals by Michael Jackson, ‘Missing You’ (US#10) in 1984, and another duet, ‘All Of You’ (OZ#19/UK#43), this time with Julio Iglesias the same year.  Diana Ross would not return to the U.S. Top Ten again, but she had several more shots to fire at the UK and Australian charts, including one more foray into the #1 position.

During the early 80s, Bee Gee Barry Gibb had woven his writing and production management to revive the stalling careers of divas Barbra Streisand, and Dionne Warwick.  Since their halcyon days of the late 70s, the Bee Gees career had gone into decline, so it was understandable that they turn their hand to working with other artists.  It wasn’t that the Bee Gees had forgotten how to write and produce great music, but their brand had been tarnished somewhat by their association with the doomed disco movement - in time that tarnish would be buffed off and the Bee Gees would rightly return to the top of the charts with ‘You Win Again’ (1987) and ‘Alone’ (1989) - but that’s another tale to tell.

In 1985, Barry Gibb combined with brother Maurice to pen ten new songs for inclusion on the latest Diana Ross album, ‘Eaten Alive’.  The first single, and title track, bombed on the charts (UK#71), but the follow up single ‘Chain Reaction’ released early in ‘86, was to detonate on both the U.K. and Australian charts.  The song was a slice of Motown nostalgia meets classic 80s pop, with Barry Gibb’s trademark falsetto backing vocals, and was paired with a stunning promotional video, which inter-cut footage of a prowling seductive Diana Ross, with black and white footage of Ross portraying her ‘Motown era’ self.  ‘Chain Reaction’ exploded on to the British charts and hit ground zero, that’s #1, in the U.K. during March of ‘86, displacing Billy Ocean’s ‘When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going’ (see separate post), and in turn having the pin pulled after 3 weeks by Cliff Richard & The Young Ones with ‘Living Doll’.  In Australia, ‘Chain Reaction’ went thermonuclear at #1 also for 3 weeks from April of ‘86, and in a remarkable coincidence, it was book ended by Billy Ocean and Cliff Richard & The Young Ones here as well as Britain.  In the U.K., it had been over 14 years between #1 hits for Diana Ross (1971’s ‘I’m Still Waiting’ - she certainly had been made to wait), a record gap to that time.  Just as surprising was the fact that neither of those #1 British hits had made much more than a ripple Stateside - ‘Chain Reaction’ bombed at #66 on the U.S. Hot 100, though it did garner some support on the dance floors  (#7 on the U.S. Dance charts).

For Diana Ross, the major hits era in the U.S. had come to a close.  She released four more albums from 1987’s ‘Red Hot Rhythm and Blues’, through to 1994’s ‘Forever Diana’, the latter being released on her new label EMI.  Though serious chart action continued to elude Ross at home, in the U.K. it was a different story with four major hits there over that period - ‘When You Tell Me That You Love Me’ (UK#2); ‘One Shining Moment’ (UK#10); ‘Your Love’ (UK#14); and ‘Not Over You Yet’ (UK#9) - that last hit being in late ‘99.

Over the last decade Diana Ross has slipped into virtual retirement with 2007’s ‘I Love You’ her latest release.  But doubtless, her lasting legacy to popular music is assured for all time.)))

Diana Ross - Snapshot #1 - 'Reflections Of The Supremes'

1986 was a significant year in this author’s life.  It’s the year I completed high school, and had to consider seriously what new direction I would take, what changes and decisions would help shape my life from there going forward.  One thing would remain a constant though, and that was my passion for music, and 1986 offered up plenty of instant classics to indulge that passion.  One such slice of pop heaven was the infectious ‘Chain Reaction’ performed by the legendary Diana Ross.  But aside from the artist performing the song, there lay another pop prodigy who played an integral part in the song’s radiance.  It was a combination of rare talents that propelled the song to the top of the charts here in Australia.

The journey to legend status began for Diana Ross in the late 50s.  Ross, along with Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Barbara Martin formed a group called the Primettes, a female vocal group put together to perform live with the Primes (who would eventually morph into thee Temptations).  One time Diana Ross neighbour, Smokey Robinson, introduced The Primettes to Motown mogul Berry Gordy, but as they were still in high school Gordy felt they should wait.  After learning their craft some more by hanging around the Motown studios, Gordy finally deemed them ready for a recording contract in January 1961.  Now reduced to the trio of Ross, Ballard and Wilson, they changed their name to the Supremes.  Their first nine singles failed to chart earning them the nickname ‘the no-hit Supremes’, but the beginning of an association with the gun song writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland would see their fortunes change dramatically for the better in 1964.

Single number ten was ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, which went directly to #1 on the U.S. Hot 100 (UK#3/OZ#19) in the summer of ‘64, going on to sell 2 million copies for good measure.  ‘Baby Love’ learned how to walk at US#1 for four weeks during October of ‘64 (UK#1/OZ#38), and the Supremes rounded out a stellar 1964 with the US#1 ‘Come See About Me’ late in ‘64.  The Supremes sensational streak of #1 singles continued into 1965 with ‘Stop In The Name Of Love’ (US#1/UK#7), ‘Back In My Arms Again’ (US#1), and ‘I Hear A Symphony’ (US#1) late in the year.  By this stage they were rivalling the Beatles as the most dominant artist on the U.S. charts.

During this period the marketing machine behind the Supremes was in overdrive, with the trio appearing regularly on national television, and playing at least one major concert venue each week.  But it was on the charts that they continued to dominate.  ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ notched up the Supremes seventh chart topper in September of ‘66 (US#1/UK#3/OZ#14), followed soon after by ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ (US#1/UK#8) to round out the year.  All of these songs were to become long time classics of the pop era, and have been covered numerous times over the years by other top line artists.  1967’s ‘Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone’ (US#1), and ‘The Happening’ (US#1/OZ#2/UK#6) kept the Supremes name at the top echelon of the charts, but a change in that name was just around the corner.  Ballard left the group during this period and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong.  For some time it had been evident that Diana Ross was the focal point of the Supremes.  She handled most of the lead vocal duties, and in essence Wilson and Birdsong were backing singers.  Motown head Berry Gordy positioned Ross as the clear lead singer, and during 1967 the Supremes became Diana Ross & the Supremes.  Around this time the trios association with Holland-Dozier-Holland also came to an end, with the husband and wife team Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson (see separate post) given a chance to write for the group.

Despite the changes, the chart toppers continued for Diana Ross & the Supremes, in the form of ‘Reflections’ (US#2/UK#5) in late ‘67, and ‘Love Child’ (US#1/OZ#3/UK#15) in late ‘68 - but the trios halcyon days were slowly fading into pop folklore.  They reunited with old friends Eddie Kendrick and Paul Williams (formerly of the Primes) now members of the Temptations.  Aside from appearing together in two television specials the two acts released a clutch of singles, including ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ (US#2/UK#3), and ‘The Rhythm Of Life’ (OZ#5).

During 1969, rumours abounded that Diana Ross was going to split from the Supremes to pursue a solo career.  In essence she already had, as several singles that had already been released under the banner of Diana Ross & the Supremes, were recorded by Ross with anonymous backing singles.  One of those singles, ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ (US#1), was the Supremes 12th, and final, chart topper.  In November of ‘69, it was formerly announced that Ross had parted ways with the Supremes, and her final live performance with the group took place in January of 1970 in Las Vegas.  Jean Terrell replaced Ross, and the trio resumed under the banner The Supremes.  But post Ross, Motown boss Berry Gordy pulled back support for the group (likely in favour of Ross’ solo career), but despite this The Supremes notched up several top twenty hits over the next couple of years, the biggest of which was ‘Up The Ladder To The Roof’ (US#10/UK#6) in 1970, and ‘Stoned Love’ (US#7/UK#3) in ‘71.  Over the next five years the fortunes of The Supremes continued to steadily decline, with the hits drying up, and the line-up changing a number of times, with Wilson the only consistent member.  Their last top forty single was ‘I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking’ (US#40) in 1976, and the trio gave a farewell concert in London during ‘77.))

Monday, March 10, 2014

Doobie Brothers - Snapshot - 'What A Fool Believes'

Elsewhere on this blog you can access a number of posts chronicling the career of singer/ songwriter Kenny Loggins.  In 1978, Loggins released his sophomore solo album, titled ‘Nightwatch’.  Within the grooves of said album lay a track that Loggins had composed with good friend Michael McDonald.  It was a tale of love lost, or rather love that never really was at all.  Loggins included the original version of ‘What A Fool Believes’ on his platinum album, but didn’t release it as a single.  McDonald took the song back to his band, the Doobie Brothers, with a view to recording it for their next album in late ‘78.  But McDonald saw the song as having greater commercial potential than to be just another album track. As it would turn out ‘What A Fool Believes would realise that potential and much, much, more.

The Doobie Brothers formed as a quartet in San Jose during 1970 (taking inspiration for their name from the slang term for a joint).  The original line-up comprised Tom Johnston (vocals/guitar), Pat Simmons (guitar/vocals), Dave Shogren (bass), and John Hartman (drums).  They started out playing a brand of bar room boogie that drew good crowds.  In 1971, they signed to Warner Brothers, and released an eponymous debut album, produced by Ted Templeman, that missed the charts.  Bassist Tiran Porter then joined in place of Shogren, and a second drummer was added to the mix in the form of Michael Hossack.

The Doobie Brothers shifted style to incorporate a West Coast guitar/ harmonies driven rock feel to their sound.  This was evidenced on their second album, ‘Toulouse Street’ (US#21/ OZ#57), which went gold and produced the hits ‘Listen To The Music’ (US#11/ OZ#50), and ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ (US#35).  The band struck platinum with their 1973 album, ‘The Captain And Me’ (US#7), which spawned the top ten hit ‘Long Train Runnin’ (US#8/OZ#58), and ‘China Grove’ (US#15/OZ#61).  Keith Knudson then joined on drums (in place of Hossack), and a fifth member was added in the form of keyboardist Bill Payne.

1974’s ‘What Were Vices Are Now Habits’ (US#4/ UK#19/OZ#24), yielded the Doobie Brothers’ first chart topping single.  ‘Black Water’ (OZ#22) debuted on the U.S. charts in December of ‘74, and bubbled to the top of the Hot 100 in March of ‘75.  Guitarists Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons handled most of the song writing duties during this part of the band’s tenure.  In what was the continuation of a virtual revolving door policy with regards personnel, ex-Steely Dan guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter came on board in place of Payne (on went on to join Little Feat).

April ‘75 marked the release of the Doobie Brothers’ fifth studio album, and the last for some time with Tom Johnston in the mix.  ‘Stampede’ didn’t exactly cause one among record fans, but it sold in good numbers to reach #4 Stateside (UK#14/OZ#6).  It yielded the rollicking ‘Take Me In Your Arms’ as a top 30 single (US#29/OZ#94).

The band hit the road over the summer of ‘75 in support of the album, but just a few dates in vocalist and guitarist Tom Johnston fell ill with a stomach ailment and had to pull out of the band indefinitely.  On Jeff Baxter’s recommendation, Steely Dan session player Michael McDonald was drafted in at short notice to continue the tour commitments.  McDonalds R&B/funk roots, powerful falsetto styled baritone vocals, and deft soulful keyboard playing would have a marked effect on the musical direction of the Doobie Brothers.

The first ‘McDonald era’ album hit the streets in March of ‘76, in the form of ‘Takin’ It To The Streets’ (US#8/ UK#42/OZ#7), supported by the title track single (US#13 /OZ#94).  In addition to having substantial input into the writing of new material, McDonald also oversaw the reworking of old Doobie Brothers’ songs to suit his vocal style, and more polished R&B/funk come AOR (adult oriented rock) sound.  In essence he was the key figure in creative control.  A ‘best of’ collection was issued in late ‘76, and Johnston attempted a return to the band, but when it was clear McDonald was now in firm control, he opted out again.

A relatively stable band line-up was in evidence during this period, led by McDonald (vocals/keyboards), Baxter (guitar), Simmons (guitar/vocals), Porter (bass), Hartman (drums), Knudsen (percussion).  1977’s ‘Livin’ On The Fault Line’ (US#10/ OZ#16/UK#25), yielded the hit single ‘Little Darling (I Need You)’ (US#48/OZ#55), but it would be the band’s late ‘78 album release that would yield the biggest hit of the Doobie Brothers’ career.

Long time producer Ted Templeman was on hand to oversee proceedings on the ‘Minute By Minute’ album (US#1/OZ#6), released in late ‘78.  The album comprised ten tracks of which McDonald had a hand in writing seven, with guitarist Pat Simmons taking the lead on the balance.  Apparently there had been a good deal of conjecture over whether to release the band’s 1975 chart topper ‘Black Water’ as a single, with it originally being relegated as the B-side to the single ‘Another Park, Another Sunday’.  After the B-side got added to every FM radio play list in the country, ‘Black Water’ was released as a single.  Producer Ted Templeman recalled to Billboard Magazine that there was no such initial doubt over ‘What A Fool Believes’.  The moment McDonald played the demo in studio, it was unanimous that they had a hit on their hands.  Co-written by McDonald and Kenny Loggins (see previous posts), ‘What A Fool Believes’ was perfectly suited to McDonald’s rich soulful baritone.  The song debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 in February of ‘79, and by April 14 had supplanted the Bee Gees’ ‘Tragedy’ at #1 (OZ#12/UK#31), in turn being replaced a week later by Amii Stewart’s ‘Knock On Wood’ (see previous post) - disco still ruled the airwaves at the time.  The emphasis in the mix for ‘What A Fool Believes’ was squarely on McDonald’s keyboard playing and vocal harmonising, with guitarists Pat Simmons and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter left with little to do - in one of the clips for the song, Baxter looks positively bored on the sidelines (maybe one reason why he left the group soon after).  Regardless, the song scooped the pools at the ‘79 Grammy Awards - Record of the Year; Song of the Year; whilst McDonald won for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists; and the album ‘Minute By Minute’ was awarded for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.  The album, ‘Minute By Minute’, went on to sell over three million copies and also spawned another top twenty single with the title track (US#14).  The style and sound of the Doobie Brothers circa ‘79 was barely recognisable compared to their humble beginnings as a country-boogie band, but the sales numbers didn’t lie, and the evolution had paid dues.

Post ‘What A Fool Believes’ witnessed the first personnel shake up in some time, with the departures of Baxter and Hartman for guitarist John McFee and Chet McCracken (drums) respectively, and the addition of Cornelius Bumpus on saxophone.  1980’s ‘One Step Closer’ (US#3/ OZ#18/UK#53) spawned the top five hit ‘Real Love’ (US#5/OZ#53), but it would prove to be the final Doobie Brothers’ album under Michael McDonald’s stewardship.

No new material surfaced over the ensuing eighteen months and in March of ‘82 it was announced that the Doobie Brothers had disbanded.  A live album (US#79) was recorded later that year and released in June of ‘83.  By this time Michael McDonald was already forging ahead on his solo career.

The Doobie Brothers, featuring original members Tom Johnston, Pat Simmons, and John Hartman, reformed in mid ‘88 alongside percussionist Bobby LaKind and bassist Tiran Porter, and released an album of all new material a year later.  The album ‘Cycles’ (US#17/OZ#45), showed the band had lost none of its 70s vintage verve, and spawned a top ten single with ‘The Doctor’ (US#9/ UK#73/OZ#32), though the 1991 follow up album ‘Brotherhood’ failed  to possess the same prescription for success and missed the mark.  Undeterred, the Johnston model Doobie Brothers hit the road once more in 1994 for a major summer tour.  By 1995, McDonald had rejoined the band’s ranks and was in studio with Johnston for the first time with the album release, ‘Rockin’ Down The Highway’.  By 2000, McDonald had departed once more, leaving Johnston, Hossack, Knudsen, McFee and Simmons to release the album ‘Sibling Rivalry’.  The Doobie Brothers latest offering was the 2010 set ‘World Gone Crazy’, featuring Johnston, Simmons, Hossack, and McFee with Michael McDonald a guest player on the track ‘Don’t Say Goodbye’.

It hadn’t taken Michael McDonald long to fashion himself as a solo act.  He released his debut set, ‘If That’s What It Takes’ (US#6/OZ#41), in late ‘82, spawning the hit single ‘I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)’ (US#4/ OZ#64/UK#43).  In 1983, McDonald teamed up with James Ingram on the duet ‘Yah Mo B There’ (US#19/UK#12).  His 1985 album featured a harder edged sound, but ‘No Lookin’ Back’ looked forward at #45 on the charts, with its title track single peaking at #34.

1986 witnessed McDonald return to the top of the U.S. Hot 100, this time in partnership with soul icon Patti LaBelle.  Written and produced by the legendary Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, ‘On My Own’.  The track had originally been intended for LaBelle to sing on her own, but on listening to the playback, Bacharach and Bayer Sager felt certain it should be a duet, with a male vocal needed.  Michael McDonald was offered the chance to lay down some vocals.  Originally ‘On My Own’ wasn’t slated to be a single release, thereby allowing McDonald to record beyond the bounds of his Warner Brothers contract.  The two vocalists laid down their tracks in two different cities but when the finished product was fed through the mixing desk, all concerned knew they had a major hit.  ‘On My Own’ peaked at #1 in June of ‘86 (UK#2/OZ#12), replacing Madonna’s ‘Live To Tell’, and maintaining its solitude at the top for three weeks, before Billy Ocean’s ‘There’ll Be Sad Songs’ (see previous post) took over.  It was only after the song hit #1 that LaBelle and McDonald met face to face for the first time, performing the song on ‘The Tonight Show’.

McDonald ran into the US top ten a few months later with the single ‘Sweet Freedom’ (US#7/UK#12), lifted from the soundtrack to the Gregory Hines, Billy Crystal action comedy ‘Running Scared’.  McDonald didn’t release another album of solo material until 1990’s ‘Take It To Heart’ (US#110), but did return to the top 20 once more with the 1992 hit duet ‘Ever Changing Times’ with Aretha Franklin (see previous post).  His fourth solo album, 1993’s ‘Blink Of An Eye’ proved to be a missed in the blink of an eye effort.   After stints back touring with the Doobie Brothers, and involvement with Steely Dan alumnus Donald Fagen’s ‘New York Rock and Soul Revue’, McDonald released his first album in three years with 1997’s ‘Blue Obession’.  Over the ensuing decade, McDonald release a number of Motown and Christmas related albums, before returning to his soul roots on 2008’s covers album ‘Soul Speak’.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Moody Blues - A 'Gemini Dream' & Beyond

The five members of the Moody Blues reconvened for business in 1978, and recorded the platinum selling album ‘Octave’ (UK#6/ US#13/ OZ#16), which yielded the hit single ‘Steppin’ In A Slide Zone’ (US#39).  But the band had re-emerged into the maelstrom that was disco music, not to mention the tail end of punk, and burgeoning new wave movement.  Would they be able to recapture the commercial prosperity of the early 70s?

Keyboardist Mike Pinder didn’t hang around to find out as he left the band during their post ‘Octave’ tour, replaced by ex-Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz.  The Moody Blues then kept their heads down once more during 1979 and 1980, perhaps wisely awaiting the departure of disco from the crowded stylistic scene.  In 1981, they popped their heads up once more with the album ‘Long Distance Voyager’ (US#1/ UK#7/OZ#7) which topped the U.S. charts and voyaged into top ten territory the world over.  In critical terms though the album was lambasted in some quarters as being out dated and lacking any real drive at originality.  In my view, the album worked a treat.  It was recorded at the band’s own Threshold Studios, and found the band in fine form.  ‘The Voice’ was an inspiring piece (US#15/OZ#91), whilst Hayward, Lodge, Thomas, and Edge all contributed worthy tracks to the album.  For mine though, the stand out track on the album, and arguably my favourite Moody Blues song, is ‘Gemini Dream’ (US#12/OZ#36).  It does have a touch of the E.L.O.s about it, which surely can only be a good thing, but its harmonies and melodic hooks are what work for me.

1983’s album, ‘The Present’ (OZ#16/ UK#15/US#26), was a less successful outing.  Aside from ‘Sitting At The Wheel’ (US#27), it’s only charting single was ‘Blue World’ (US#62), which deserved to fare considerably better.  Some were wondering at that time whether the Moody Blues could rediscover a mainstream audience in the era of glitzy MTV styled acts.

The answer came in the affirmative with the 1986 top ten hit ‘Your Wildest Dreams’ (US#9/ OZ#20), a Hayward penned song that introduced the Moody Blues to a whole new generation.  The song itself was a superbly crafted slice of melodic pop-rock, nostalgic in tone, and was accompanied by one of the finest promotional videos of the year, directed by Brian Grant. It featured the fictitious Mood Six, playing the Moody Blues at a younger age back in the 60s (with a focus on Justin Hayward as the main character), telling the tale of young love, a first love, and the lament of that same love lost, then found again for about ten seconds, then lost again, with a hint of ‘to be continued’.  The source album, ‘The Other Side Of Life’ (US#9/ UK#24/OZ#34) revived in part the band’s early 70s sales form.

But gone were the prolific album a year days, instead the Moody Blues focussing on an extended tour followed by an extended period of writing and recording for their next album.  They returned to the world of album releases with 1988’s ‘Sur La Mer’ (UK#21/ OZ#35/US#38 - I purchased the album on CD some years later).  The album featured the lead out single, ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere’ (US#30/ OZ#38/UK#52), which I purchased on CD single.  The song was a stylishly produced companion piece to ‘Your Wildest Dreams’, with the promotional video carrying on the on again, off again, and eventually on again love affair between Hayward and his muse over time.  Nostalgia and melodic hooks draw the listener into the story beautifully, and deliver one of the Moody Blues’ more memorable hits.  I purchased the follow up single, ‘Here Comes The Weekend’, on vinyl 45, completing a trio of format purchases from just one album.

By the early 90s, Moraz had left the band, leaving the core duo of Hayward, Lodge, Thomas, and Edge, to try and carry the story of the Moody Blues forward.  1991’s album, ‘Keys To The Kingdom’, proved to be the band’s lowest selling album to date (UK#54/US#94), but a boost in their touring fortunes arrived the next year with a sell out tour for the 25th anniversary of the ‘Days Of Future Passed’ album.  The band was supported by a full orchestra, and the tour was captured and released as ‘A Night At Red Rocks (Live)’ in 1993.

Whilst their catalogue of past albums continued to sell in very respectable numbers, the Moody Blues didn’t release another album of new material until 1999’s ‘Strange Times’ (US#93), by which time the musical landscape must have seemed strange indeed to a quartet of musicians having ridden the wave of success for over thirty years.  Thomas retired from band duties in 2003, but Hayward, Lodge, and Edge continued to tour well into the 00’s as a trio, with hired hands to back them.  But for the Moody Blues, the timeless flight of days passed was limited to thoughts of nostalgia.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Moody Blues - 'Days Of Future Passed' Revisited

The calendar years 1987 and 1988 were unusual in respect to my patterns of music purchasing.  I bought my first CD player at the end of 1987 (with the third paycheque from my first fulltime job), and so for the first time dived into the digital world.  ‘Brothers In Arms’ by Dire Straits was my very first CD (I doubt I would have been alone in that).  But there was a problem - actually two problems with going hog wild on a CD spending spree.  The first problem was the limitation of material available on the (still relatively new) format  - some titles I would just have to wait for the respective label to release.  The second problem was the cost of buying a CD.  It was in most cases a prohibitively pricy proposition.  On average CD’s cost upwards of $30 - which in the late 80s still represented a reasonable amount of disposable income.  So I had to choose carefully as to which titles I would outlay the readies for.  For about 18 months I purchased a mix of CD’s, vinyl records, and cassettes.  Over time the balance shifted in favour of the digital format as more titles were released and prices slowly came down.  One of the albums I recall purchasing in 1988 was a Moody Blues’ ‘greatest hits’.  I was very keen on getting a number of songs in particular - but at the time I couldn’t find a Moody Blues’ ‘greatest’ on CD - this was before the age of the internet and being able to simply download music at my leisure wasn’t an option.  So, in lieu of a CD purchase, I invested about $12 on a vinyl album.  The CD compilation took its place in my collection a couple of years later.

One of the standout Moody Blues’ tracks that I played over and over was ‘Gemini Dream’ from 1981.  It’s worth delving into the world of the Moody Blues to present an overview of their stellar career, and a closer appraisal of ‘Gemini Dream’ and its 1981 source album ‘Long Distance Voyager’.

The 60s witnessed an unprecedented explosion of new bands and artists, and the pressure on each to jostle for a position of notoriety must have been immense.  Into this musical melting pot came an ingredient by the name of the Moody Blues.  The band’s roots lay in the Birmingham blues and R&B scene of the early to mid 60s.  The original quintet were Denny Laine (guitar/vocals), Mike Pinder (keyboards/vocals), Ray Thomas (flute, harmonics, vocals), Graeme Edge (drums), and Clint Warwick (bass/vocals), all of who brought considerable craft and experience to the table from previous bands.  The band’s name is a combination of blues (as in the style of music they loved), and Moody taken from Mike Pinder’s favourite song - Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’.

After building up a solid live following with a combination of blues standards, Motown covers and some original material, the Moody Blues came to the attention of talent scouts and were soon signed up to the Decca label.  They released the single ‘Go Now!’ in late ‘64, and the song rocketed to #1 in the U.K. (US#10/OZ#14).  The band eventually released an album in July of ‘65, modestly titled ‘The Magnificent Moodies’.  But the band’s fortunes waned over the ensuing 18 months and by the end of ‘66, both Warwick and Laine had left the scene.  Denny Laine went on to be a core member of Paul McCartney’s 70s powerhouse Wings (and would on occasion sing ‘Go Now! During concerts).

Most groups would have folded completely at the loss of two key members, but the remaining Moody Blues opted to recruit some replacements.  In late ‘66, Justin Hayward (guitar/vocals), and John Lodge (bass/vocals) were both hired.  Their presence in the Moody Blues would not only radically change the stylistic direction of the band, but also their commercial fortunes.  The band signed a new recording contract with Deram and set about rebuilding their brand.

In 1967, the Moody Blues joined the wave of bands to become enamoured with the Mellotron (a keyboard able to recreate flute/violin and other instruments - think the Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields’).  It opened up a whole new suite of possibilities for the band, and soon they shifted away from straight up blues and rock, to a more psychedelic, classical amalgam.  They released the landmark album ‘Days Of Future Passed’ (UK#27/ US#3/OZ#18) in 1967, featuring, what would arguably be their signature song, ‘Nights In White Satin’ (UK#19/OZ#8), one of the most emotive songs of its time, or any time for that matter.

They followed up with a string of three albums in quick succession; ‘In Search Of The Lost Chord’ (UK#5/ US#23); ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’ (UK#1/US#20 - now on the band’s own Threshold label); and ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ (UK#2/US#14) - all serving to further enhance the band’s commercial fortunes and solidify their place among the pre-eminent British acts at the time (not a million miles away from the evolution of  Pink Floyd).  Their work during this time had evolved into a hybrid of rock and orchestral pop - they were in essence one of the first progressive rock bands (think Genesis - though arguably more on the commercial pop end of the scale).  In interview, Justin Hayward explained that in lieu of music videos (which were yet to evolve into what they are today), the band placed a lot of emphasis on the album’s cover art to evoke a sense of thematics.

The 70s started for the Moody Blues where the 60s left off, releasing the album ‘A Question Of Balance’ (UK#1/ US#3/OZ#4), featuring the epic single ‘Question’ (UK#2/ US#21/OZ#36).  The orchestral sections of the song have always put me in mind of the title music that might be used for a western - grandiose in scale.  By this time, critics of the band were levelling the charge of their music being bombastic and pretentious, with overly elaborate orchestral sections and overly verbose and obtuse lyrics.  But my view is the Moody Blues were far from pretentious in their music - they were ambitious and ground breaking in much of what they did.  They were one of the first ‘classical-pomp’ groups, that had graduated from playing clubs to filling arena’s and releasing albums almost at whim.

It would be wrong to categorise the Moody Blues as simply a ‘concept album’s band’, restricted to recording musically elaborate, and lyrically weighty songs.  They had the equally adept skill of penning more commercially accessible fare, without compromising the integrity of their work.  The early 70s saw the release of two more albums; 1971’s ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ (UK#1/ US#2/OZ#5 - which spawned the hit single ‘The Story In Your Eyes’ - US#23), and 1972’s ‘Seventh Sojourn’ (UK#5/ US#1/OZ#5) which yielded the hits ‘Isn’t Life Strange’ (UK#12/ US#29/OZ#39 - which is about as introspective as it gets), and the crowd pleasing ‘I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band’ (US#12/ UK#26/OZ#39 - perhaps a thumbing of the nose at critics, as if to say “we can play appealing commercial pop-rock as well as anyone”).

Having dominated album charts and established a massive live following over the previous six years, the Moody Blues took the decision in early ‘73 to put the band on hold for an indefinite sabbatical.  All five members actively pursued various and sundry solo projects, though Hayward and Lodge spent part of the time away working as a duo called the Blue Jays.  During their absence their record label released a best of compilation, and a live set to appease hungry fans.