Monday, September 29, 2008

Commotions-less Cole Under No Blue Skies

Following his split from the Commotions, singer/ songwriter Lloyd Cole decided a fresh start was in order all round, which led him to move to New York (not unlike a certain former Beatle had done almost two decades previous). Though Cole would never approach the commercial and critical heights of John Lennon, the next decade would see him continue to develop as an creative force. His eponymous debut solo album was produced by Lou Reed’s drummer Fred Maher, and featured among its players Robert Quine (ex-Voidoid) on guitar, singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet (see future post) on bass, along with contributions from former Commotions Neil Clarke and Blair Cowan. The lead out single in early 1990 was the hauntingly beautiful ‘No Blue Skies’ (which I bought on vinyl 45 at the time), the song again falling short of the commercial recognition in so richly deserved (UK#42/OZ#92). The song ‘Downtown’ scored Lloyd Cole a rare hit in the U.S., albeit on the genre based Modern Rock Track chart. ‘Don’t Look Back’ (UK#59) was the only other song hit on the mainstream charts from the ‘Lloyd Cole’ set, which fell just shy of giving Cole another top 10 album at home (UK#11/OZ#43). What the album proved was that Lloyd Cole had lost none of the wry, sardonic wit that had so effectively informed his earlier work with the Commotions, and his musicianship had reached a new level of emotional synchronicity to match.

Cole’s follow up effort was 1991’s ‘Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe’, which was a curious mix of half rock based songs and half lush string-laden ballads, very Burt Bacharach in style/arrangement. Though it continued Cole’s solid chart performance in the U.K. (#21), the U.S. once again remained a hard market to crack. The only single to chart from the album was ‘She’s A Girl And I’m A Man’ (UK#55). The lack of a commercial breakthrough, particularly Stateside, led to Capitol dropping Cole from their roster during 1992, whilst in the U.K. he switched to the Fontana label. His first album for Fontana was 1993’s ‘Bad Vibes’, and perhaps Cole’s edgiest work to date, incorporating elements of grunge style rock and electronica with psychedelic tones. It proved also to be his most inaccessible in terms of his fan base, only reaching #38 in Britain, and yielding the minor hit single ‘So You’d Like To Save The World’ (UK#72). The album was eventually released in the U.S. during 1994 on the independent Rykodisc label.

Cole then returned to his roots somewhat for his 1995 album ‘Love Story’ (UK#27). The album was a more bare bones acoustic-folk sound, and was produced by Stephen Street (who had recently worked with Blur). It proved a welcome return to form for Cole, and yielded his biggest hit in almost a decade with ‘Like Lovers Do’ (UK#24), a collaboration with former Commotions’ guitarist Neil Clark. Two more minor hits were also featured, in ‘Sentimental Fool’ (UK#73) and ‘Baby’ (UK#121).

Cole was then one of the artists listed as collateral damage following Universal Music’s buy out of Polygram, leaving him without a recording contract. That hadn’t stopped Polygram from having issued a collection of Cole’s best work both with the Commotions and as a solo artist, with 1998’s ‘The Collection’ (UK#24 - the CD that I purchased as a long overdue acquisition). Apparently Cole had a couple of albums worth of material already in the can when Universal pulled the plug, initially consigning the songs to a studio vault (in 2001 the independent One Indian label issued a collection of these songs as ‘2001 - A Collected Recordings By Lloyd Cole’ and ‘Etc.’, which was a collection of studio outtakes).

After a couple of years in the musical wilderness, Cole formed a New York based band called The Negatives, which featured Jill Sobule, Dave Derby, Mike Kotch and Rafa Maciejak in the line-up. The Negatives released one self titled album in 2000, which aside from a mainstream release in France, remained fairly inaccessible in most other markets. During 2003 Lloyd Cole recorded the album ‘Music In A Foreign Language’ (UK#114), with a largely stripped down folk-rock style. Cole recorded most of the album in his home studio and had to rely again on independent labels to distribute it.

Lloyd Cole reformed the Commotions in 2004 to perform a 20th anniversary tour of the U.K., the rediscovered magic captured on the album ‘Live At The Apollo, London’. Following the tour Lloyd resumed his solo career with the 2006 album ‘Antidepressant’ (UK#156), again recorded in his home studio with Cole covering most of the playing, with a little help from friends Jill Sobule and Dave Derby, and Commotions’ cohort Neil Clark. The album reflected a mature songwriter, in command of his craft and boasting the lyrical expertise to convey some very honest and insightful observations on life issues. Cole is still a regular live performer, though these days he opts for a more intimate setting, playing a lot of one man acoustic shows, with many of his songs adapted to simpler folk style arrangements, but delivered by a consummate storyteller.

It’s a genuine puzzlement that Lloyd Cole, both with the Commotions and as a solo act, never managed to crack the British top 10, Australian top 40, or the U.S. top 100 with a hit single. There were certainly no shortage of quality candidates, but regardless Cole proved himself a key and influential figure in the British ‘indie’ rock scene of the 80s. The Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ album ‘Rattlesnakes’ was included in the N.M.E. (New Musical Express) list of top 100 albums of all time, and the title track has been covered by Commotions’ devotees Tori Amos and Manic Street Preachers.

Lloyd Cole is apparently an avid golfer, often scheduling his concert tours in locations with easily accessible golf courses. To borrow some golfing parlance, Lloyd Cole may not have hit too many holes in one on the charts, but he’s a true ‘tour pro’ with a song writing/performance game to match some of the best in the business (just ask the Swedish, who constitute one of Cole’s biggest fan bases).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Break Out The Pom Poms!

When Toni Basil burst on to the pop charts during 1982, with pom-poms a blazing, few outside of film aficionados and those in showbiz, would have realised she was already a veteran in the entertainment industry, and had actually released her debut single some sixteen years before ‘Mickey’. Few may realise that even today, so it’s time to examine the life and times of one of the 80s most noted ‘one hit wonders’, and reveal one or two titbits behind Toni Basil’s worldwide chart topper ‘Mickey’.

Born Antonia Basilotta in Philadelphia, Toni Basil attended high school in Las Vegas, where, as you might have guessed, she was a member of the cheerleading squad. After high school Basil worked as a go-go dancer (it was the 60s), but soon moved on to working as a choreographer. She worked on 60s TV shows such as ‘Shindig!’, ‘Hullabaloo’ and ‘The T.A.M.I. Show’. In 1964 Basil made her motion picture debut in the Annette Funicello feature ‘Pajama Party’. Two years later she released her debut single ‘28’, penned by one Graham Gouldman (of future Hotlegs/10CC/Wax) fame. Over the next few years Basil appeared regularly in films, usually in minor roles. The most notable of these was as a New Orleans prostitute in a scene with Peter Fonda from the cult classic ‘Easy Rider’ (1969). She also appeared with ‘Easy Rider’ co-stars Jack Nicholson (in ‘Five Easy Pieces) and Dennis Hopper (in ‘The Last Movie’). Her work as a choreographer during the same period included ‘The Cool Ones’ (1967) and the Monkees’ feature ‘Head’ (1968), in which she also appeared as a dancer.

During the 70s Basil worked as a choreographer on the George Lucas film ‘American Graffiti’ (1973) - she choreographed the dancing not the drag racing - worked as choreographer on David Bowie’s 1974 ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour, and struck up a long term association with Better Midler when she started working as a backing singer for the ‘Divine Miss M’ (she also appeared in 1979’s ‘The Rose’). All the while Toni Basil honed her technical skills in film making, working with both 8mm and 16mm formats. In the late 70s she founded the urban dance troupe the Lockers, with whom she maintained a close association over coming years. She also moved into directing/ producing music videos, including later on being at the helm on the breakthrough track for Talking Heads, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (she choreographed David Byrne’s jerky dance moves). Her foray into music video production during the late 70s/early 80s would prove a key ingredient in the next phase of her career.

Around the same time the hugely successful British song writing team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (Suzi Quatro, Smokie, Sweet and Mud), had penned a bunch of songs for British pop group Racey (see future post), to feature on their 1979 debut album ‘Smash And Grab’. The album yielded a string of hits, including the British and Australian mega-hits ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Lay Your Love On Me’, but the track ‘Kitty’ wasn’t counted among them. The song was then given to Toni Basil, with the lyrics reworked and the title changed from ‘Kitty’ to ‘Mickey’.  Just an aside of the trivia variety - Toni Basil appeared on the sitcom Laverne & Shirley during the shows 1978 season.  Basil played the part of a choreographer named, wait for it....Mickie - I've no idea if it inspired the song title or was just an amazing coincidence.  It was originally included on one of the first music video cassette releases, ‘Word Of Mouth’, a project Toni Basil had creative involvement in at every level. There were actually a number of these produced and released in the late 70s/early 80s, including by artists such as David Bowie, E.L.O., and of course Michael Nesmith’s groundbreaking ‘Elephant Parts’. But unlike other artists Toni Basil’s ‘Word Of Mouth’ was released in that one format only in the U.S.. As MTV hadn’t yet launched there was still a limited profile in America for the whole music video medium, and subsequently ‘Word Of Mouth’ suffered from a lack of its title.

But it was rightly felt that the song ‘Mickey’ in particular had the potential to be a big hit, so elsewhere during 1982, ‘Word Of Mouth’, and more importantly the song ‘Mickey’, were released simultaneously on video and record. By early 1982 the song ‘Mickey’ was more than two years old, and Basil was concerned that it had gone past its use by date, but truly classic pop rarely does. The song would prove to have substantial longevity both on the charts, and in the memories of those who were around at the time. ‘Mickey’ debuted on the British charts first in early ‘82, understandable given that countries strong affinity with the work of song writing team Chinn and Chapman. It climbed to #2 on the British charts and was soon released in other parts of the world.

A major factor in the song becoming a hit was of course the accompanying music video. Given Basil’s background as a one time cheerleader herself, and her professional background as a dancer/choreographer, she had come up with the concept of reworking the original Chinn/Chapman song to include the cheerleading chants, and built the music video around the idea of cheerleading routines. It helped propel ‘Mickey’ to the top of the pile in Australia, where it rallied at #1 for two weeks in mid ‘82, also peaking inside the New Zealand top five at the same time. Given ‘Mickey’s huge sales in other markets, the song came to the attention of Los Angeles radio station KIQQ. Before long it was registering inside the local top 5, and import copies were being shifted faster than they could be shipped in. Just two years earlier the song had been turned down by several American labels, among them Chrysalis, but by mid ‘82 there was no denying it had to be released Stateside. Chrysalis decided to back the single second time around, and by the first week of September 1982, ‘Mickey’ had debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 at #83. It didn’t exactly rocket to the top of the U.S. charts, but with the regular rotation of the music video, and promotional and television appearances by Basil, ‘Mickey’ finally hit the top of the American charts for one week during December ‘82.

Unfortunately the follow up single ‘Nobody’ (UK#52) wasn’t so fine, and consequently failed to blow as many minds as ‘Mickey’. It’s worth mentioning that despite her extensive background in other performance based endeavours, Toni Basil had only ever performed two live shows as a singer prior to the release of ‘Mickey’. She therefore didn’t have the advantage of a strong live fan base to support future record releases. Regardless, on the strength of ‘Mickey’ alone, her album ‘Word Of Mouth’ did eventually sell very well (UK#15/OZ#43/US#22). A little known fact is that several members of Devo (see future post), including the Casale and Mothersbaugh brothers, played on several album tracks, though they didn’t play on ‘Mickey’. ‘Word Of Mouth’ yielded two more singles, but neither ‘Time After Time’ or ‘Shoppin’ From A To Z’ (US#77) made any great impact.

Toni Basil released her self titled sophomore album in late 1983, featuring the singles ‘Over My Head’ (US#81), ‘Suspense’, ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ and ‘Street Beat’, but without the backing of a cheer squad, none made an impact on the mainstream chart field, though ‘Over My Head’ and ‘Street Beat’ both reached the top 5 on the U.S. Dance Chart.

The multi-talented Toni Basil then returned to her other loves of dance choreography and video production. Among her credits during the rest of the 80s were choreographing the music video ‘Beast Of Burden’ by Bette Midler and Mick Jagger (for which Basil received another MTV award nomination), choreographing the video for Tina Turner’s ‘Better Be Good To Me’, and directing/co-producing the music video for Linda Ronstadt’s ‘You Took Advantage Of Me’. Basil also continued to work in film/television and even commercials, occasionally as an actor (including with Thomas Dolby in the 1990 cult classic ‘Rockula’), but mostly as a choreographer. Her film credits over the last twenty five years have included ‘Delirious’, ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, ‘That Thing You Do!’ and ‘Legally Blonde’. Most recently Toni Basil has reunited again with Bette Midler, choreographing Midler’s 2008 Las Vegas show ‘The Showgirl Must Go On’.

In 2003, the music network VH1 ranked ‘Mickey’ at #5 on its list of the 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders. But the artist behind the hit Toni Basil, is anything but a one hit wonder in the field of entertainment, with a multi-faceted career spanning over forty years.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sigue Sigue Sputnik Launch A Chart Assault

During the mid 80s U.K. outfit Sigue Sigue Sputnik took the concept of self promotion and hedonistic excess to new heights, and in the process became a pop-rock sensation. The band was the brainchild of ex-Generation X bassist Tony James. After Generation X had released their third album ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ in 1981, vocalist Billy Idol (see future post) went on to pursue a solo career to great success. James, who had been a founding member of Gen-X, then set about formulating a group to rival Idol’s new found profile.

He started brainstorming with publicist Magenta Devine, sparking the right idea, devising a concept around that idea, and fleshing out that concept into a band. Along the way Tony James made several aborted attempts to modify pre-existing vehicles, played with various and sundry artists such as Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls, and did some production work for the Sex Gang Children among others. Slowly but surely James began to piece together the line-up of players/personalities that would eventually gel into a group. First on board was guitarist Neal X (Whitmore), who James discovered through an advertisement in Melody Maker magazine. The pair then spent a period of nine months through 1982/83 searching for a vocalist for their proposed creative enterprise. One of the singers James approached was Andrew Eldritch who was in a small band called the Sisters Of Mercy. Eldritch declined but he and James remained friends over the next decade, and would later collaborate when James joined the Sisters Of Mercy for a short stint during 1991. Annie Lennox also jammed with James one afternoon, but James decided he didn’t want a female vocalist - probably as well or Eurythmics may never have come to be.

Enter Martin Degville, self appointed freak and weirdo, the perfect front man for any prospective pop agitators. Degville was at the time running a clothing/fashion shop called Ya Ya, and pushed the boundaries of postmodern/sci-fi futurist fashion. Still this trio who aspired to become pop-rock revolutionaries had no name, a potential drawback to creating a profile. They gathered as much inspiration from films such as Pink Flamingos, Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner, as from the music of Bowie, the Pistols and the Cramps. Their underlying ethos was to be at the cutting edge of everything before it happened. Flaunting convention, this unnamed band had come up with a bunch of song titles, more concepts really, but hadn’t gotten round to writing the music to accompany. The old Gene Vincent number ‘Be Bop A Lula’ became the basis for the next evolution in the group’s sound, over which layers of contemporary electronic sounds would be laid.

The then trio played their first official gig during 1983, with a marathon set of three songs. Soon after drummer Ray Mayhew answered the call to arms for the future ‘fifth generation of rock and roll’. Mayhew couldn’t yet play the drums but he had the look to match the overall image of the group, and that was what counted. What’s better than one drummer who can’t yet drum - two drummers who can’t yet drum - enter Chris Kavanagh to complete the band’s line-up. The whole two drummers thing had already been done a number of times, including Gary Glitter and Adam & The Ants. The band continued to rehearse dub versions of rock and roll standards, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ among them, and slowly began to supplement that with their own original material. A key ally then came on board to assist in honing the band’s sound - Mick Jones, who had just been sacked from the Clash (for the first time), started assisting James and the boys with sound mixing - actually you can hear the connection in Mick Jones’ later band Big Audio Dynamite (and II).

So now the group’s line-up was in place, they had a growing set of songs, a valuable ally as a sound mixer, a blueprint for a mind blowing image - but still no name! A friend of Tony James then showed him a newspaper article about a Russian street gang calling themselves Sigue Sigue Sputnik (meaning ‘burn burn satellite’) - the band now had their name, and James even designed an official logo. Via Mick Jones, the newly dubbed Sigue Sigue Sputnik gained access to a new Pro1 synthesizer, immediately opening up seemingly endless possibilities in the sound the were developing. Among the first songs written and recorded to incorporate the new technology was ‘Love Missile F1-11’. Around the same time several girls, among them ‘Amazon Woman’, Yana and Ace, joined as auxiliary members/road crew for live performances, and became known as the Ultravixens. Most group’s would have to already be famous to have their name on t-shirts, but Sigue Sigue Sputnik dispensed with that convention as well. It helps when one of the band members is still running a clothes shop, but it’s another example of the campaign of relentless, flagrant self promotion S.S.S. were embarking upon. Mick Jones then gifted Tony James a guitar capable of producing a synthesized bass sound. Dubbed by James ‘Elvis 1990’, the ‘space bass’ would prove another key component in the evolving Sigue Sigue Sputnik sound.

But James knew there was still one element missing from the whole package, a visual montage to accompany the band’s live playing (anyone thinking ‘Zoo TV’?). He set about creating a video tape comprised of snippets of all of the band’s favourite movies, combined with TV clips. Originally James had only intended for the video montage to play as a visual background, but by chance during the dubbing process he hit upon the idea of using some of the sound bytes from the film and television clips. The result was a new improved version of ‘Love Missile F1-11’ complete with explosions, gunfire and dialogue. Tony James felt that it was the audio-visual package that would sell Sigue Sigue Sputnik to the record companies, so it was a demo video tape that he presented to the label suits. It was eventually EMI that decided to take a punt on this virtual pop-rock sideshow. Soon Sigue Sigue Sputnik would take their outrageous sideshow to the world.

‘Love Missile F1-11’ unleashed Sigue Sigue Sputnik on the mainstream music scene. The band were marketed, as had been their own way, to the absolute hilt, saturating every media outlet and medium with their visual and written slogans, and if 24 hour cable channels had been more accessible at that time, it’s a fair bet Sigue Sigue Sputnik would have had their own dedicated network, with an endless stream of their own rhetoric. Possibly the only pop act more adept at self promotion during the 80s was Madonna, and both weren’t averse to using shock tactics to raise their profile. Sigue Sigue Sputnik were self declared darlings of the media, and for a while the media themselves believed it. But behind all the hype it shouldn’t be forgotten that they were a real band - they may not have been so at conception, but a long period of musical gestation had resulted in a group of dedicated, even skilled musicians. ‘Love Missile F1-11’ was a truly brilliant construction of music - I’d say song, but though melodic and catchy and rhythmically infectious, it could not be contained by the parameters of being a mere song - it was a multi-media experience that was indeed futuristic, albeit a post-apocalyptic future.

Britain fell in love with ‘Love Missile F1-11’, the song exploding at #3 on the charts there in the first half of 1986, whilst in Australia it found its range at #32. A quote on the cover of the single said it all: “Being the adventures of a young group whose principal interests are: ultra violence, video nasties, affluence, rockets, home computers, excitement.”. If you didn’t see through the surface of that mischievous deployment of provocative prose, then chances are you wouldn’t appreciate the sound within for what it was - shock rock cyberpunk from an artificial future.

The follow up single ‘21st Century Boy’ (UK#20) didn’t quite ascend the great heights of ‘Love Missile F1-11’, whilst the follow up singles ‘Massive Retaliation’ and ‘Sex Bomb Boogie’ came after the shock and novelty values had worn out. All featured on Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s debut album ‘Flaunt It’ (UK#10/OZ#70), produced by Giorgio Moroder. In keeping with their self proclaimed cynicism of the music business, whilst paradoxically selling themselves flagrantly to it (all part of the inside joke), Sigue Sigue Sputnik auctioned off advertising space between album tracks. The ads that made the cut were a combination of further self promotion such as ‘The Sputnik Corporation’ and ‘The Sigue Sigue Sputnik Computer Game’, with real companies such as i-D Magazine and L’Oreal also coming on board.

The single ‘Success’ (UK#31) was released late in 1988, and mischievously featured the words ‘Sputnik Aitken Waterman’, in reference to the production team behind the track, Stock, Aitken and Waterman. It featured on Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s sophomore album ‘Dress For Excess’ (no understated titles with this band), which featured the cover slogan “This time it’s music’, in reference to Tony James and the band aiming for a slightly more polished sound. But album sales were disappointing (UK#53), as were the 1989 follow up singles ‘Dancerama’ (UK#50), ‘Albinoni Va. Star Wars’ (UK#75) and ‘Rio Rocks’. Like so many who initially use the insatiable appetite of the media to their advantage, Sigue Sigue Sputnik to a degree became a victim of their own grand plan. The fascination and hype turned to derision and dismissal, with the band’s internal politics also conspiring to bring about a premature end to the caper. As Tony James stated on the official Sigue Sigue Sputnik website - “we couldn’t sustain this pretend bastardized version of Sputnik”.

Following Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s demise, Tony James went on to play with Sisters Of Mercy for a time. Chris Kavanagh joined Mick Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite II. In 2001 James reformed Sigue Sigue Sputnik with Martin Degville and Neal X, releasing an album of new material titled ‘ Piratespace’. In subsequent years they’ve continued to record and tour sporadically, whilst Neal X has also worked with Marc Almond (ex-Soft Cell), and Tony James formed the group Carbon/Silicon with old ally Mick Jones.

There’s no doubt that Sigue Sigue Sputnik were original, albeit a constructed brand of original, that drew on the influences of Yello, Kraftwerk, Suicide and Devo. Though they weren’t at the top for a long time, they carved themselves a small but memorable niche in the evolution of popular music - Sigue Sigue Sputnik truly were ‘21st Century Boys’ about fifteen years ahead of the timeline their contemporaries were following.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday Might Be On His Mind, But Gary Moore Still Has The Blues

Guitarist Gary Moore experienced a strong run of commercial success in Australia and Britain from the mid 80s to early 90s, but the career of this journeyman blues-rock guitarist extends long before and far beyond that period.

Born in Belfast, Ireland, Gary Moore joined the psychedelic rock outfit Granny’s Intentions during the late 60s, whilst still a teenager. Moore left to form his own band, with Granny’s Intentions’ drummer Noel Bridgeman, and bassist Brendan Shields. The band Skid Row (not to be confused with the U.S. glam-metal outfit from the 80s) recorded two albums ‘Skid’ (1970) and ‘34 Hours’ (1971), their style very much in the vein of progressive blues rock. Skid Row opened for Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, and Green played a key role in helping the young band secure a recording deal.

After Skid Row’s second album Moore split from the group and went on to form the Gary Moore Band during 1972. The line-up also featured Jan Schelhaas (keyboards), John Curtis (bass), Pearce Kelly (drums) and Philip Donnelly (guitar), with Moore handling vocals/guitar. The Gary Moore Band released just one album with 1973’s ‘Grinding Stone’, and were starting to establish a solid fan base, before Gary Moore was invited by Phil Lynott to join his band Thin Lizzy. Lynott was mates with Moore through a short stint in Moore’s first outfit Skid Row. Moore’s first tenure with Thin Lizzy was a brief one, filling in on guitar for a period of three months during 1974, replacing the departed Eric Bell, but Moore would return to the Thin Lizzy family a few years later.

Moore’s ‘have guitar will travel’ approach next saw him recruited to established progressive jazz-rock outfit Colosseum. During his stint with Colosseum the band moved toward a heavier guitar rock sound, providing the guitarist with a great environment to take his playing to a new level of skill. Moore recorded three albums with Colosseum - ‘Strange New Flesh’ (1976), ‘Electric Savage’ (1977) and ‘Wardance’ (1977) - and was afforded the chance to sing lead vocals on quite a few tracks (like Clapton had done before him, Moore was evolving into a more rounded musician). Old mate Phil Lynott put out an S.O.S. for Moore to fill in for injured Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson on the band’s early ‘78 tour of the U.S. Moore ended up staying on for an extended stretch which included several tours and playing on Thin Lizzy’s 1979 album ‘Black Rose (A Rock Legend)’. During the same period though he recorded with the likes of Rod Argent and curiously enough Andrew Lloyd Webber, and continued to pursue a solo career, enlisting the help of several former/current band mates (including Phil Lynott) on his first official solo album ‘Back On The Streets’ (UK#70), released in early ‘79. The album featured ‘Parisienne Walkways’, a beautifully constructed blues-rock track that announced to the world that here was a rare talent on the guitar. Phil Lynott handled the vocals on ‘Parisienne Walkways’, which strolled all the way to #8 on the U.K. charts in mid ‘79.

Gary Moore farewelled Thin Lizzy in late ‘79 and established a new band of his own called G-Force, featuring Tony Newton (vocals), Willie Dee (keyboards/bass/vocals) and ex-Thin Lizzy drummer Mark Nauseef. G-Force released just one low key self-titled album during 1980. Over the next couple of years Gary Moore oscillated between duties with the Greg Lake Band, and resurrecting his own stalled solo career. Moore’s next album was 1982’s ‘Corridors Of Power’ (UK#30), which benefited from support musicians such as bassist Neil Murray (ex-Whitesnake) and drummer Ian Paice (ex-Deep Purple). Moore then cleared the deck and recruited a new backing band for his next album, 1984’s ‘Victims Of The Future’. The album was well received and peaked at #12 on the British charts, also yielding two minor hit singles ‘Hold On To Love’ (UK#65) and the haunting ballad style ‘Empty Rooms’ (UK#51 - remixed in 1985 - UK#23). A live album ‘We Want Moore!’ (UK#32) was released late in ‘84. There was a regular turnover of muso’s supporting Moore during the mid 80s, with his band roster sometimes reading like a who’s who of rock talent, with the likes of Neil Carter (ex-UFO), Paul Thompson (ex-Roxy Music) and Glenn Hughes (ex-Deep Purple) numbered among them.

1985 proved a banner year for Gary Moore, scoring a UK#5 (OZ#62) hit with the classic ‘Out In The Fields’ (credited to Gary Moore & Phil Lynott), from the album ‘Run For Cover’ (UK#12/OZ#73). Several members of Irish folk legends The Chieftains were in tow by this point, and featured on Moore’s next live album ‘Rockin’ Every Night’ (UK#99/OZ#91). The next phase of Gary Moore’s career would see him elevated from respected blues guitarist/vocalist to a regular presence on the mainstream rock charts. His 1987 album ‘Wild Frontier’ (UK#8/OZ#41) produced the top forty hits ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’ (UK#20/OZ#94) and ‘Wild Frontier’ (UK#35/OZ#85 - one of Moore’s first overtly political songs). The album was dedicated to Moore’s former friend and band-mate Phil Lynott, who had died in 1986. The third single ‘Friday On My Mind’ was a surging rock cover of the former Easybeats’ 1966 Australian #1. Moore’s version featured plenty of screeching guitars with layers of pomp-rock style synth, and peaked at #26 in the U.K. and #25 in Australia. It was arguably Gary Moore’s first crossover hit, owing less to his blues-rock heritage and more to the big hair band’s so prevalent at the time.

Moore hooked up with legendary drummer Cozy Powell for his next album ‘After The War’ (UK#23/OZ#67) in 1989 (the title track reached UK#37), which also featured several tracks that reflected Moore’s views on the political situation in his home country. The album also included the track ‘Blood Of Emeralds’, again in honour of his fallen comrade Phil Lynott. 1990’s album ‘Still Got The Blues’ (UK#13/OZ#5/US#83) propelled Gary Moore into blues/rock superstar territory. The lead out single was a wailing cover of ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ (UK#48/OZ#37) featuring the mercurial Albert Collins (who would also feature on the track ‘Too Tired’ - UK#71). The title track ‘Still Got The Blues (For You)’ was a majestic blues ballad featuring Moore’s searing guitar work throughout. It was his only foray into the U.S. Hot 100 (#97) but performed considerably better in the U.K. (#31) and Australia (#16), and helped prolong the album’s stay inside the Australian charts to a marathon 44 weeks. It’s worth noting that during 1990 Gary Moore made one of his numerous cameo appearances on other artist’s work, when he punched out the guitar solo on the Traveling Wilburys’ single ‘She’s My Baby’, from the supergroup’s ‘Volume 3’ album.

‘After Hours’ (1992) became Moore’s biggest selling album, reaching both the British and Australian top five. By this stage Gary Moore had both feet firmly back on the blues side of the rock music field, reflected in hit singles such as ‘Cold Day In Hell’ (UK#24/OZ#45), ‘Story Of The Blues’ (UK#40) and his duet with blues legend B.B. King on ‘Since I Met You Baby’ (UK#59). Such was Moore’s popularity in Britain during this period that his next live album ‘Blues Alive’ (1993) peaked at #8 on the charts and featured a new version of the classic ‘Parisienne Walkways’ (UK#32), recorded at the Royal Albert Hall during October ‘92.

In June 1994 Gary Moore temporarily followed in the footsteps of one of his guitar heroes Eric Clapton, when he joined ex-Cream members Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to form BBM. They scored a UK#9 album with ‘Around The Next Dream’. Moore followed this up with the 1995 solo album ‘Blues For Greeney’ (UK#14/US#5 Top Blues), a tribute to another of his guitar heroes Peter Green (of Fleetwood Mac), and featuring acclaimed bass player Guy Pratt (Killing Joke, Icehouse and touring bassist with Pink Floyd). The same year Moore scored his last entry into the UK Top 50 singles chart with ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ (#48), featured in the film ‘Mad Dogs And Englishmen’.

Gary Moore’s next two albums ‘Dark Days In Paradise’ (1997-UK#42) and ‘A Different Beat’ (1999) found the blues devotee exploring other styles, including the use of contemporary electronic rhythm tracks, and Moore then rededicated himself to his first love the blues, exploring the genre with great intimacy and passion across his next few albums; ‘Back To The Blues’ (2001), ‘Power Of The Blues’ (2004), ‘Old New Ballad Blues’ (2006), which were split by the alternative-rock influenced ‘Scars’ (2002). His latest album is 2008’s ‘Bad For You Baby’.

Whilst Gary Moore may not have received the same level of critical accolade or commercial acclaim as some of his predecessors or indeed peers, he warrants unconditional recognition as one of the most gifted blues/rock guitarists of the last forty years.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

From Velveteen To A Burst Bubble Of Babble

In March 1989 Transvision Vamp unleashed their new single ‘Baby I Don’t Care’, a thrashy trashy bubblegum- punk song that made an immediate impact on the British and Australian charts. I have to say the first time I heard the song I immediately thought that the guitar riff sounded suspiciously reminiscent of The Troggs’ classic ‘Wild Thing’, but I don’t ever recall a charge of plagiarism being levelled at the band, so consider my suspicion a misguided aural interpretation. Regardless, ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ proved to be the biggest hit of Transvision Vamp’s career, peaking at #3 in both the U.K. and Australia.

‘Baby I Don’t Care’ featured on the band’s sophomore album ‘Velveteen’ which was released in July ‘89 and debuted at #1 on the British album charts, soon after peaking at #2 in Australia. The follow up singles ‘The Only One’ (UK#15/OZ#34), ‘Landslide Of Love’ (UK#14/OZ#65) and ‘Born To Be Sold’ (UK#22/OZ#97) maintained a stellar run for Transvision Vamp throughout 1989, but the turn of the decade would signal a marked change of fortune for the band.

During 1990 Transvision Vamp returned to the recording studio to lay down tracks for album number three. They undertook to depart from the high energy pop-punk that had worked for them thus far, opting for what they called a more “swampy and mystical feel”, perhaps meaning moody - at least they were willing to take a chance on something new. Upon hearing the finished product, the suits at MCA were panicked into delaying the U.K. release of the album ‘Little Magnets Vs. The Bubble Of Babble’ indefinitely. As a result Transvision Vamp lost momentum on the charts and their profile quickly began to fade, even with constant sell out shows and the apparently still ubiquitous (though increasingly resented) Ms. James’ presence on the celebrity scene. The album was released elsewhere, but sank without a trace in the U.S., whilst it only managed to peak at #25 in Australia. Strangely, two of the album’s tracks were released as singles in Britain. ‘(I Just Wanna) B With U’ reached #30 in the U.K., and fared even better in Australia (#21), also providing Transvision Vamp with one of their only charting hits Stateside (#14 Modern Rock Tracks). During mid 1991 ‘If Looks Could Kill’ was the last single to chart for Transvision Vamp (UK#41/OZ#51).

The refusal of MCA to release ‘Little Magnets Vs. The Bubble Of Babble’ in Britain proved a fatal blow to the life of Transvision Vamp, the band splitting up following their final tour in late 1991. The only official Transvision Vamp release since was the 1998 compilation ‘Kiss Their Sons’.

Post Transvision Vamp, the band’s members have experienced mixed fortunes. Guitarist/songwriter Nick Sayer virtually retired from the music biz, said to be completely dismayed by Transvision Vamp’s swift fall from grace. Bassist Dave Parsons went on to join Gavin Rossdale, Nigel Pulsford and Robin Goodridge in the hugely successful alternative rock outfit Bush. Keyboardist/drummer Tex Axile (born Anthony Doughty) had already been somewhat of a punk/rock journeyman prior to his tenure with Transvision Vamp. Following the band’s demise Tex went on to play keyboards in a band called Max, who apparently recorded an album. He then embarked on a solo career, releasing his debut album ‘Diary Of A Genius’ in 1998, which was literally a one man project - Tex Axile wrote, produced, played all instruments, performed all vocals, and even did the cover artwork and photography. This was followed up by the 2000 album ‘Little Monsters’. His exploits have widened to include business interests, photography and documentary films.

During Transvision Vamp’s final tour, singer Wendy James had written a letter to Elvis Costello expressing her sense of frustration about the impasse with MCA over the stalled U.K. release of the band’s third album, and the unfolding downfall of the band. Upon arriving home from tour James found a demo tape of songs waiting for her, courtesy of Elvis Costello and his then wife Cate O’Riordan (ex-Pogues). The songs therein formed the basis of what would become Wendy James’ solo album ‘Now Ain’t The Time For Tears’. The album was released in 1993, funnily enough on MCA, and reached a respectable #43 on the U.K. charts. The advance single ‘The Nameless One’ debuted at #34 on the U.K. charts in early ‘93 but that was as high as it reached. The follow up ‘London’s Brilliant’ only managed a modest #62, whilst ‘Do You Know What I’m Saying’ missed the charts altogether.

Within 15 months of signing Wendy James as a solo act, MCA had parted ways with her. James signed with independent London based label One Little Indian Records. During 1995 she wrote and recorded tracks for a planned album with the working title ‘Lies In Chinatown’. Reportedly the album’s tracks displayed a more mature and substantive side to Wendy James the singer and songwriter. But again record label politics conspired against her and the album was never officially released. During 1997 James again attempted to relaunch her music career, but the material from those New York recording sessions are still in demo form. Three strikes and it seemed Wendy James had finally turned her back on the music industry for good, but in 2004 she put together the band Racine. Initially conceived as a front for another tilt at a solo career, Racine now features James with Henric Stahl, James Meynell and Ray Sullivan. They released their debut album ‘Racine No. 1’ in September 2006 and the follow up ‘Racine 2’ in March 2008. Wendy James and the lads have toured the U.K., Europe and the U.S. regularly over the last couple of years, and in August 2008 production began on their aptly titled third album ‘Racine 3’. The band’s style incorporates everything from urban dance grooves to reggae to synth-pop, and it seems Wendy James has moved well beyond the roots of her music career with Transvision Vamp.

If you'd like a more thorough insight into the truth behind the Wendy James/Transvision Vamp story, please take the time to visit 'DRYBABY' - the first and last word on the matter - you'll find a wealth of information here -

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wendy James Vamps It Up Transvision Style

To say Transvision Vamp’s Wendy James played the role of pop vixen to perfection would be understating the fact. The essence of the British quartet lay in combining catchy pop rock melodies and riffs with a punk edge, but the X factor which took them from being just another struggling garage band to Top Of The Pops, was the presence of vocalist Wendy James.

Songwriter/guitarist Nick Christian Sayer had accumulated a collection of songs that he felt would make good records, but he needed a band, and most of all needed a charismatic and talented singer to bring those songs to life. Wendy James was a struggling would be vocalist who would make extra money by singing in clubs to backing tracks of artists like Patti Smith. As fate would have it Sayer was a patron at one such late night gig during November 1983, and saw in James the key to unlocking the potential in his songs. James was also a drama student at the time but put her studies aside to pursue pop stardom with Sayer.

The duo spent the next eighteen months piecing together a demo tape of six tracks: ‘We Travel’, ‘Space Junk’, ‘Sky High’, ‘I’ll Do Anything’, ‘Rocket To Me’ and ‘Satellite Boy’. You might think from that collection that Sayer also harboured ambitions to work for N.A.S.A., but the common theme actually reflected their original intent for the songs, which were to comprise a soundtrack to a sci-fi film they both wanted to make, tentatively titled ‘Saturn 5’. Their grand ambitions to revamp the music scene and their common love for the futuristic sci-fi scene, led them to call their proposed band Transvision Vamp.

They relocated to London and over the next two years continued to pursue their ambitions to realise a ground breaking, earth shattering pop-rock act. Through a meeting with then Pink Floyd manager Steve O’Rourke, Sayer and James were introduced to recording engineer/producer Duncan Bridgeman - who would later be a key player in their career. One thing led to another which led to another, and by late 1986 Dave Ambrose of MCA gave his seal of approval to the duo’s demo work and signed them to a record deal. On December 8th 1986 Transvision Vamp moved a giant step from being a concept to reality with a record contract in place.

Sayer and James began the recording process in earnest, but obviously needed some other musicians to complete the Transvision Vamp sound. Bass player Dave Parsons and keyboardist/drummer Tex Axile completed the band’s first rollcall. They recorded their debut album ‘Pop Art’ during 1987, and captured the surging energy of their pop-punk sound perfectly. The first single released was actually ‘Revolution Baby’ in August of ‘87, but the marketing machine wasn’t quite in place and the song fizzled out at #77 on the U.K. charts. In April of ‘88 ‘Tell That Girl To Shut Up’ (originally recorded by Holly and the Italians) hit the stores and soon hit the charts, peaking at #45 in Britain (OZ#52). The song would be released in the U.S. later in the year and crawl to #88, but the U.S. didn’t cave to the allure of Wendy James and Transvision Vamp, and ‘Tell That Girl To Shut Up’ remained the band’s only Hot 100 hit Stateside.

Everything changed for Transvision Vamp with the release of their next single ‘I Want Your Love’. The song showcased Wendy James’ brooding and breathless vocals, but it would be her image that would act as a major catalyst in catapulting the band to the summit of the pop scene. Acting every bit the platinum blonde screen siren, James pouted and preened to the camera throughout the promo clip for ‘I Want Your Love’. Backed by a menacing group of pseudo punk rockers, James became the antithesis of all things prim and proper that had dominated the U.K. pop scene in the preceding year or so. Acts like Rick Astley and even the then girl next door Kylie Minogue, were polar opposites to Wendy James and Tranvision Vamp - she was the new Debbie Harry and they were the new Blondie, or maybe The Clash with Debbie Harry out front. The critics and fans lapped it up, sending ‘I Want Your Love’ hurtling to #5 on the U.K. charts in mid ‘88, and to #7 in Australia soon after (where the track spent a walloping 30 weeks on the charts). The album ‘Pop Art’ rode the crest of the Wendy James popularity wave, breaking to #4 in Britain and #15 in Australia (where again Transvision Vamp spent a marathon 54 weeks on the charts - US#115). It’s worth noting that for their live shows during this period, Transvision Vamp performed as a quintet, with drummer Pol Burton coming into the fray, allowing Tex Axile to focus on keyboard duties.

The single ‘Revolution Baby’ was naturally re-released and second time around fared a lot better (UK#30/OZ#22), whilst another single ‘Sister Moon’ (UK#41/OZ#91) also kept the chart presence going. All the while the media savvy Wendy James’ profile in the press continued to overshadow the rest of the band.
If you'd like a more thorough insight into the truth behind the Wendy James/Transvision Vamp story, please take the time to visit 'DRYBABY' - the first and last word on the matter - you'll find a wealth of information here -

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fun In The Sun, Caribbean Style

A decade before the Australian band Models hit #1 in their home country with a laid back song called ‘Barbados’, a British duo did likewise in the U.K. Jeff Calvert was a trainee engineer at Morgan Studios and knew Geraint Hughes (AKA Max West - his professional name) through Hughes’ involvement with a rock band called Quasar. When time allowed they used the studio facilities to record their own compositions. The first such song to be released on record (via Mickie Most’s RAK label) was ‘The Ghost Song’, a Christmas themed novelty tune aimed at the 1974 festive market. Unfortunately the song was released a tad too late to cash in on its intended audience and missed the charts completely.

Unperturbed the lads set their sights on the lucrative summer market with another tune designed to capture the feel of a Caribbean island paradise (an appealing notion for those who were confined to an English version of summer). Calvert had in fact just returned from a holiday to Barbados and his experiences provided the base inspiration for the song. Reputedly the pair penned the song in about two hours (some - not me - would later argue the quality reflects that). With best simulated reggae personas, Calvert and Hughes dubbed themselves Typically Tropical and recorded a laid back reggae style song called appropriately enough ‘Barbados’. It was a feel good song that managed to achieve what it set out to do in evoking images of laying back on a sun drenched beach enjoying the good life. The most memorable aspect of the song though was a spoken word intro/middle segment by the fictional pilot Captain Tobias Wilcock (AKA Max West AKA Geraint Hughes) of Coconut Airways, with the part of the Bridgetown air traffic controller performed by Jeff Calvert.

‘Barbados’ had originally been slated for a release via the legendary reggae label Trojan Records, but David Howell of the Gull Records label sensed a hit record when he heard the demo, and stepped in at the last moment with a better distribution offer for Typically Tropical (offering them £1500 to finish recording the track and a guaranteed three single releases if ‘Barbados’ proved to indeed be a hit). The song debuted on the British charts in early July ‘75 (this time they’d got the release date right), and flew up the charts to #2, where it had to set up a holding pattern for two weeks whilst the Bay City Rollers taxied along runway #1 with ‘Give A Little Love’. Finally, the record buying public gave Typically Tropical clearance to land at #1 during August 1975. However, passengers were quickly ushered into the terminal, and Coconut Airways Flight #372 was removed from the tarmac to allow Stylistic Airlines to land with ‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’. In Australia, Typically Tropical were forced to divert to a regional airstrip, but still managed a respectable #20 on the charts. All in all the Coconut Airways experience would be enjoyed by over 500,000 satisfied customers.

Aside from writers/producers Jeff Calvert and Geraint Hughes, who shared vocal duties, Typically Tropical was made up of various and sundry session musicians, including guitarist Chris Spedding (‘Motorbikin’), Clem Cattini (drummer for the Tornados), keyboardist Roger Coulam, percussionist Frank Ricotti and guitarist Vic Flick. Following the runway….er runaway (and perhaps unexpected) success of ‘Barbados’, Typically Tropical put together an album titled ‘Barbados Sky’ (which sold a meagre 8000 copies). Two more singles were released, ‘Rocket Now’ in October ‘75, and ‘Everybody Play The Fool’ in May ‘76, but neither got off the ground. A plan to re-release ‘The Ghost Song’ for Christmas ‘75, was mistimed again with the single hitting the stores in early ‘76 (released under the name Calvert & West). A handful of stand alone singles were released over the next few years under the Typically Tropical (and on one occasion Rollercoaster) moniker, including ‘Jubilee’ in 1977 and ‘Lady D’ (1980), but Typically Tropical had enjoyed their moment in the sun, and soon departed for destination unknown. Geraint Hughes and Jeff Calvert continued to work together, writing and producing for artists as divergent as Sarah Brightman and Judas Priest. These days Geraint Hughes apparently composes production library music, while Jeff Calvert runs his own recording studio and reportedly became a pilot, though not with Coconut Airways.

In 1999 Eurodance pop group Vengaboys reworked the tune for ‘Barbados’ into their international hit ‘We’re Going To Ibiza’, achieving the rare feat of returning a former U.K. #1 to the top spot again, albeit under a radically different guise.

Personally I love the song ‘Barbados’ and feel it absolutely achieves what Jeff Calvert and Geraint Hughes set out to do - write a cruisy, breezy pop-reggae song designed for just one purpose - enjoyment.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Electric Pandas Shock Big Girls

In 1984 a diminutive rock chick with a powerful set of lungs electrified the Australian pop-rock scene with her band Electric Pandas. The band formed during 1983 with Tim ‘Pretty Boy’ Walter (guitar), Warren Slater (bass) and Mark ‘Hips’ Stinson (drums), fronted by the high energy presence of Lin Buckfield (vocals/guitar). They built up a strong live following on the East Coast of Australia, playing a hard-hitting style of melodic pop rock. Buckfield came up with the name of the band in reference to the English punk rock outfit Exotic Pandas. Buckfield had known the band whilst living in the U.K. during the late 70s, and drew upon that band’s sound to a degree in her own band’s early work.

They were signed to the Regular label, becoming label mates to high profile artists such as Mental As Anything, Icehouse and Cockroaches. Their first single was the defiant pop rock anthem ‘Big Girls’. The track was soon featured on radio playlists and Molly raved about Electric Pandas on his ‘Humdrum’ segment. Soon ‘Big Girls’ was sitting pretty inside the top 10 in Sydney (#8) and peaked at #18 nationally mid year, and big things were predicted for the band. A relentless touring schedule led up to the release of Electric Pandas’ debut EP ‘Let’s Gamble’ (OZ#81) in December ‘84.

Lin Buckfield then put a broom through the band, with an all new support line-up now comprising Craig Karl Wacholz (guitar, ex-The Dischords), Marcel Chaloupka (bass, ex-Moving Parts), and Phillip Campbell (drums). That line-up then entered the studio to record Electric Pandas’ debut album. But before any more Electric Pandas material surfaced, singer Lin Buckfield stepped outside the confines of the band to record a duet with Australian Crawl front man James Reyne (see earlier post). The catchy ‘R.O.C.K. Rock’ was released on the Freestyle label during April 1985, and peaked at #44 a few weeks later.

The lead out single for the Electric Pandas’ forthcoming album was ‘Missing Me’, which was released mid ‘85 and reached a respectable #41 on the Australian charts, though it clearly lacked the punch of ‘Big Girls’. The band also performed the song on the Australian ‘Oz For Africa’ concert (our contribution to Live Aid), in addition to ‘Let’s Gamble’.

The album ‘Point Blank’ was released in September ‘85 and sold steadily enough, but already there were signs that Electric Pandas’ had lost a considerable amount of voltage. The disappointing track ‘Italian Boys’ (produced by ex-Moving Pictures Charles Fisher) crawled to #90 on the single’s chart toward the end of ‘85, around the same time as the album ‘Point Blank’ peaked at #32 (guitar maestro Tommy Emmanuel contributed to a couple of tracks). The line-up changes continued around the band’s anchor Lin Buckfield, with Brad Holmes replacing Phillip Campbell on drums, Neil McDonald stepping in for bassist Marcel Chaloupka, with keyboardist Charlie Chan expanding Electric Pandas to a quintet. But the new look Electric Pandas didn’t release any more material, other than recording the jingle for the latest Coca-Cola television advertising campaign during 1986 (also appearing in the commercial), and by April 1987 Lin Buckfield called it a day for the band.

Buckfield went on to form another band F.O.O.D. with ex-Panda Craig Karl Wacholz (guitar), Ray Spole (bass) and Glen Patterson (drums). They continued in the same pop-rock vein but a funk element started to creep in with the 12” single ‘Happy House’ in 1990. The transformation to dance-funk act coincided with the addition of saxophone players Neil McKenzie and Dieter Pruggo, with Buckfield renaming the band Happy House. Signed to the dance label Shock, Happy House released a 12” single ‘What U Wanna Do That For’, followed by the 7 track CD EP ‘Shelter Down’, but neither charted. The band released their eponymous debut album during 1993 and followed it up with the 1995 EP ‘Passion’ in June 1995, soon after moving out to find other accommodation.

Lin Buckfield went on to become a current affairs researcher with Australia’s Nine Network, then a television reporter (working on the respected ABC’s ‘Four Corners’). She played in another band called MisChalin, and currently plays in a Sydney band called the Bully Girls. Electric Pandas’ keyboard player Charlie Chan is now signed as an artist with Sony Classical.

From big girls to bully girls, pint sized rocker Lin Buckfield is surely the closest Australia has to their own Suzi Quatro.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Former School Teacher Rings The Bell At #1

Undoubtedly one of the best known ‘one hit wonders’ in pop music history is vocalist Anita Ward, who scored an international #1 hit during 1979 with the disco classic ‘Ring My Bell’. But there’s more to the Anita Ward story than one memorable song.

Anita Ward grew up in a musical family, with both her parents amateur singers and her older brother a keen singer/drummer. But it was when she started attending Rust College that she took her interest in music to a more professional level. She joined the Rust College A Cappella Choir, and honed her talent on gospel and classically based material. A college administrator called Chuck Holmes heard Ward audition for a production of ‘Godspell’ and offered to manage her as a singer. Soon after Holmes arranged a recording session with Juana Records, and Anita Ward’s first single was a little known song called ‘Spoiled By Your Love’ (later included on her album). Nothing much seemed to be happening with that song, and it was while waiting to record some more material that Anita Ward put her recently acquired college degree in psychology to good use. For a period of time she worked professionally as a substitute teacher in the Memphis elementary school system to pay the bills.

But soon after Ward was introduced to singer/songwriter turned producer Frederick Knight, who owned the Juana Records label. Knight had in fact scored a top forty hit himself back in 1972 with the song ‘I’ve Been Lonely For So Long’ (US#27) but that would be nothing compared to the monster hit he would go on to pen and produce for Ward. Initially Knight signed on to produce a three song demo session for Anita Ward, but soon the singer’s extraordinary vocal talent prompted Knight to extend the recording sessions into a full album project.

At the end of the sessions Knight and Ward agreed they needed one more song to round out the proposed album. Knight had previously written a song called ‘Ring My Bell’, originally intended for teenybopper singer Stacy Lattisaw (who would go on to have several 80s hits including ‘Let Me Be Your Angel’). The song’s original lyrics focused on teens gossiping away on the phone, so Knight duly gave the song a lyrical overhaul, and decided in the process to give it the full disco treatment. Ward was reportedly less than keen on the song but agreed to record it. It took just two days, with Knight himself playing most of the instrumental accompaniment, including the use of a synthesized drum, for one of the first times on a major hit record. The additional synthesizer work of Carl Marsh also became a signature feature of the track, and was much duplicated on future disco/dance tracks for other artists.

Through a connection with Knight’s Juana Records, the Miami based T.K. Disco label jumped at the song and offered to distribute Ward’s debut album ‘Songs Of Love’ as well. ‘Ring My Bell’ was released in the U.S. in May 1979 and debuted almost immediately on the Hot 100. By July the song was ringing the bell at #1, staying there for two weeks. Such was ‘Ring My Bell’s appeal to the disco market, it debuted in both Britain and Australia within a few weeks of its American debut, and in fact reached #1 in Britain two weeks before it topped the U.S. charts, again spending two weeks at the summit. ‘Ring My Bell’ didn’t quite reach #1 in Australia (#3), but was only stopped by the likes of Racey (see future post). To give some idea of just how big the disco craze was at that time, during the weeks that ‘Ring My Bell’ sat atop the U.S. charts, the top five also featured Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Hot Stuff’ as well as ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge. ‘Bad Girls’ eventually supplanted ‘Ring My Bell’ at #1. A 12” remix of the song by Richie Rivera also added to the song’s immense popularity at the time. On the strength of the single, Ward’s album ‘Songs Of Love’ peaked at #8 in the U.S. (OZ#73).

Anita Ward wasn’t a fan of disco per se, preferring ballad and mid tempo R&B, and on the whole the balance of her album’s material reflected that. So when it came time to find a follow up for the disco smash ‘Ring My Bell’ the cupboard was pretty bare. The follow up single ended up being ‘Don’t Drop My Love’, but the song bombed (US#87). Anita Ward recorded a follow up album with Knight titled ‘Sweet Surrender’ which had included ‘Don’t Drop My Love’, but the album and a couple of subsequent single releases, ‘Llama A Mi Puerta’ and ‘Can’t Nobody Love Me Like You Do’, missed the charts completely, and soon Ward’s name was well and truly overtaken in the disco diva pecking order. But ‘Ring My Bell’ would ring loud again on the charts in Australia during 1989, for blonde bimbo singer Collette (OZ#3).

During 1981 Anita Ward received serious head injuries in a car crash, the ongoing effects of which have proved a factor in hampering any kind of major comeback at a music career. There was also a major falling out between Ward and writer/producer Knight, resulting in all sorts of legal action preventing Ward from releasing any new material in the States, that wasn’t recorded by Knight. Apparently Ward had recorded a third album with another producer but it only received a very limited release outside of the U.S. All in all, having read an interview conducted with Anita Ward from around 2000, it was a pretty unpleasant turn of events, that also badly handicapped any chance of a second phase to her recording career. The writer/producer of ‘Ring My Bell’ later recorded his own follow up to the song titled ‘Let Me Ring Your Bell Again’, but it fell on deaf ears.

In 1998 a ‘best of’ collection was released by Anita Ward, not surprisingly featuring ‘Ring My Bell’, with a remix of the song released in 2000. The song has also been sampled by numerous artists over the last 30 years, including the 1991 hit ‘Ring My Bell’ by Monie Love Vs. Adeva (OZ#29/UK#20), and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince hit of the same name in 1991/2 (US#20/UK#53/OZ#45).

Anita Ward did in fact return to teaching for a time after her recording career lost momentum, but has performed/toured on occasions during the years since. On New Year’s Eve 2002 Anita Ward appeared at New York’s Times Square before an estimated audience of 750,000 people. She sang ‘Ring My Bell’ a cappella style as a prompt for 50,000 of the audience to simultaneously ring bells, setting a world record in the process. See what the power of just one song can achieve!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Healthy Breakfast Club Will Put You Right On Track

Pop-dance group Breakfast Club are probably best known for three things; at one time featuring future mega-star Madonna in their line-up, sharing their name with one of the iconic films of the 1980s (‘The Breakfast Club’ directed by John Hughes), and scoring a major hit with the funky ‘Right On Track’. Not a bad basis for notoriety when you think about it, but there was a little bit more to the Breakfast Club story than that.

Dance-pop outfit Breakfast Club formed originally during the late 70s in New York City. The first line-up formed around the core of brothers Dan Gilroy (vocals/guitar) and Ed Gilroy (guitar). Bassist Angie Schmit was joined by one Madonna Ciccone on drums/vocals to round out the line-up. Madonna and Gilroy had been romantically involved, but after a period of time the ambitious Madonna was pressuring for a lead vocal role, leading to a split in their relationship and Madonna’s split with the band during 1980. Breakfast Club did record a number of demo tracks during Madonna’s tenure, including ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Shine A Light’, but nothing has ever been officially released. Madonna then hooked up with another old boyfriend from Michigan called Stephen Bray. Bray was a drummer, and soon Madonna formed a new group called Emmy & The Emmys (her nickname was Emmy at the time) with the future ‘Material Girl’ taking on vocal duties, and bassist Gary Burke playing bass. Burke was also playing with the Gilroy brothers in a revamped version of Breakfast Club during the same period.

By 1981 Madonna was taking the first steps on her quest for world domination as a solo act, signing firstly with Gotham Records (still with Emmy in tow), then later with Sire Records in 1982 as a solo act, taking with her several songs she had co-written with Stephen Bray. Emmy was officially consigned to a future paragraph in a Madonna biography, so Bray joined Burke and the Gilroy boys in an expanded Breakfast Club. The quartet signed with Ze Records but for several years remained without a record, whilst Madonna had indeed conquered the world.

Breakfast Club then signed with MCA and recorded their debut album during 1986, featuring nine tracks, most of which had been written by Bray and Dan Gilroy. The lead out single was the funky sounding ‘Right On Track’. The song was produced by Jimmy Iovine (U2, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks) and featured backing vocals from Jocelyn Brown (former backing vocalist with Luther Vandross and George Benson among others). ‘Right On Track’ also featured a fun, quirky video clip, directed by Jeff Stein, which became a popular feature on MTV. The song debuted on the U.S. charts in March ‘87 and went on to peak at #3, soon after reaching #4 in Australia (UK#54). Shortly after the Breakfast Club released their eponymous debut album (OZ#26). Stephen Bray also co-produced several tracks, something he’d already done for old flame and former band mate Madonna on her multi-platinum album ‘True Blue’ (on which he co-wrote the title track). The success of both their album and single earned Breakfast Club a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist for 1987 (which was won by Jody Watley).

The follow up single ‘Kiss And Tell’ only managed to ascend to #48 in the U.S. but didn’t chart at all in Australia. ‘Never Be The Same’ reached #8 on the U.S. Hot Dance Music chart, and was followed by ‘Expressway To Your Heart’ (US#30 Hot Dance Music chart) a cover of the old Gamble-Huff song. Famed funk/R&B producer Deodato (who had worked with Kool & The Gang) produced the track ‘Rico Mambo’ which was also released as a single but didn’t chart.

Breakfast Club returned to the studio in 1988 with plans to record another album. By that stage Randy Jackson had replaced Gary Burke on bass, and percussionist E. Doctor Smith had come on board. They released the single ‘Drive My Car’ (a cover of The Beatles’ classic) which was featured on the soundtrack to the motion picture ‘License To Drive’, but again didn’t crack the charts. The second album was never released and Breakfast Club soon cleared the table, washed the dishes and then waited patiently for lunch.