Sunday, August 30, 2009

Boris Wakes Up At #1

Given the prevailing winds of popular music during the mid 80s, the gentle, reggae tinged love ballad ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ has to rate as one of the more anomalous candidates to top the pop charts during 1986/7, but top the British and Australian charts it did, for a then 43 year old Jamaican born reggae artist named Boris Gardiner.

By the time Gardiner’s light and breezy, reggae tinged ballad washed onto chart shores in 1986, Gardiner himself had been cruising around the music biz for over twenty years. Kingston born Gardiner began his singing career in 1960 with The Rhythm Aces, and followed that up with a stint as vocalist/percussionist with one of Jamaica’s top acts at the time, Kes Chin & The Souvenirs. By 1964, he had broadened his music resume to include playing bass, via Carlos Malcolm’s Afro Jamaican Rhythm outfit. Over the next couple of years Gardiner honed his bass playing skills and began penning his own music, but after Carlos Malcolm’s band ended, Gardiner saw the time was right to form his own band, The Broncos, no doubt the band’s name influenced by their residency at The Bronco Club.

1968 was a good year, it was a very good year, and for Boris Gardiner it coincided with a stint as a session bass player at Jamaica’s famed ‘Studio One’ recording facility. Over the next year or two, he contributed to recordings by The Heptones, and Junior Marvin, and is credited with being part of producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s studio ‘house band’, The Upsetters, rubbing shoulders with several future Wailers. By 1969, The Boris Gardiner Happening was happening every week at The Hotel Kingston, in Jamaica, and Gardiner recorded his first single ‘It’s Nice To Be With You’ on the local Federal label, featured on his debut album of the same name. But Gardiner’s career was about to take a curious turn.

In late 1969, Boris Gardiner signed up with the Dynamic Sounds label, and recorded his sophomore album, ‘Soulful Experience’. The album included an instrumental track called ‘Elizabethan Reggae’, which earned a U.K. release via Duke Records. ‘Elizabethan Reggae’ found its way onto the British charts during January 1970, but initially was credited on the charts to one Byron Lee. Who was Byron Lee you ask? Well, in printing up the centre label for the vinyl 45’s, it appears that the name of the track’s producer, Byron Lee, featured somewhat more prominently than intended, and thus chart statisticians took Byron Lee as being the name of the artist. Byron Lee was indeed an artist of note in his own right, having been the front man for the renowned Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, but he was also a much sought after producer, and it was in his capacity as producer that he was associated with ‘Elizabethan Reggae’. After just one week inside the British top fifty, ‘Elizabethan Reggae’ dropped out of the chart, then re-entered a week later, this time credited to Mr. Lee. It took until the song’s sixth week on the British charts for Boris Gardiner’s name to appear alongside as the credited artist, and even then it was misspelt as ‘Boris Gardner’. However, that error was down to the record label itself misspelling Gardiner as ‘Gardner’. So, for the duration of his fourteen week stay inside the British charts during 1970, in which time ‘Elizabethan Reggae’ peaked at #14, Boris Gardiner was not properly credited for a single week. With any luck, Mr. Gardiner would have received the performance royalties at the very least. An album titled ‘Reggae Happening’ was also released in 1970 for the U.K. market, but for a while, for a very long while, Boris Gardiner would have to wait for his name to officially appear on British chart records.

Gardiner maintained a strong presence on the Caribbean music scene throughout the 70s, with The Boris Gardiner Happening touring the region regularly, in addition to forays into Europe and the U.S. The records continued on a regular basis, whilst Gardiner also tried his hand at film score and production work. By the mid 80s, it’s likely that the odds on Boris Gardiner shedding the ‘one hit wonder’ tag in Britain (or technically no hit wonder) would have been astronomical, but chart statisticians will tell you that some extreme anomalies can, and do, occur - take Bobby Pedrick Jr’s comeback on the U.S. charts as Robert John (see earlier post) as just one example. In 1986, ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ was to do for Boris Gardiner what 1979’s ‘Sad Eyes’ did for Robert John.

In late ‘85, Boris Gardiner and his band had a regular gig at the Inter-Continental Rose Hall. Local Kingston producer Willie Lindo approached Gardiner after a gig one night with the idea to record a handful of new tracks. One of those was a slow love ballad titled ‘I Wanta Wake Up With You’, originally recorded by country crooner Mac Davis on his 1980 top ten album ‘It’s Hard To Be Humble’. Lindo and Gardiner decided to do a slow, seductive reggae take on the song. However, ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ wasn’t the first choice single from the recording sessions. A reggae cover of the Jim Reeves’ song ‘Guilty’, and another Mac Davis tune called ‘Let’s Keep It That Way’ missed the boat, though the latter did achieve #15 on the local charts. Around the same time, the Jamaican music scene was swept up in the latest incarnation of dancehall reggae, with the digital driven ‘ragga’ variety dominating the club scene and radio airplay. Flying in the face of cutting edge fare, Boris Gardiner’s gentle, lilting reggae ballad ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ displayed sheer staying power, and outlasted the local ‘Boops’ craze (part of the wider dancehall scene) to eventually reach the top the local Jamaican music charts.

‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ came to the attention of Phil Mathias, an England based distributor for Jamaican artists. Mathias heard the potential for a hit record and initially backed the pressing of 500 copies. The pilot run sold out quickly, as did a follow up pressing - both pressings this time correctly crediting the artist as Boris Gardiner. When ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ opened its eyes at #196 on the British charts during July of ‘86, the bigger distribution muscle of Creole Records was enlisted to keep up with a growing demand. Around the same time, Chris de Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’ proved a slow, seductive ballad could achieve gold on the British charts. Gardiner arrived in Britain to begin the standard promotional tour as his single made steady progress up the charts. By August of ‘86, the alarm bell rang and ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ woke up at #1 on the British charts, having unceremoniously dumped some lady in red to #2. 16 years and 87 days after Boris Gardner last wooed the British charts with his ‘Elizabethan Reggae’, Boris Gardiner finally reached the chart summit with ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’. To that point, only one Johnny Mathis, and the great Stevie Wonder, had experienced a slower ride from British chart debut to British #1. Within six months, Boris Gardiner would be pushed back to #5 on that list by Jackie Wilson (with ‘Reet Petite’), and Ben E. King (with ‘Stand By Me’) - that’s pretty illustrious company to be in. What set Boris Gardiner apart on that list, was the fact that his first hit was an instrumental - Stevie Wonder’s ‘Fingertips Pt. II’ wasn’t strictly an instrumental, and didn’t actually chart in Britain anyway. Other artists to reach #1 in Britain, and also score an instrumental hit, are Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, The Shadows, Russ Conway, and Manfred Mann.

With three weeks at top spot, and nine weeks inside the top ten, ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ notched up sales of over half a million in Britain, making it one of the biggest hits of 1986 in the U.K. European sales were also solid, and the track was named the ‘Top Reggae Single’ of the year at the Canadian Music Awards. I recall hearing ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ for the first time late in ‘86. It was the height of summer here in Australia, and the tracks breezy Caribbean flavour leant itself well to a lazy, hazy sunny afternoon’s playlist. The track was actually released in Australia under the title ‘I Wanna Wake Up With You’, but the adjustment did nothing to hinder its chart performance. During a mammoth 35 weeks stay on the Australian charts, Boris Gardiner reached #1 during March of ‘87, and scored one of the hits of the summer.

As ‘I Wanna Wake Up With You’ made its slow and steady climb to the pinnacle of the Australian charts, Gardiner scored a follow up hit in Britain with ‘You’re Everything To Me’ (#11), followed by a minor Christmas hit, ‘The Meaning Of Christmas’ (UK#69). ‘I Want To Wake Up With You’ and ‘You’re Everything To Me’ were both featured on Gardiner’s album ‘Everything To Me’ (OZ#45), produced and arranged by Willie Lindo, and featuring the drumming talents of one Sly Dunbar.

Gardiner signed with RCA and continued to release albums into the 90s, including ‘Let’s Take A Holiday’ and ‘Reggae Happening’, but he didn’t wake up next to anymore international hits. Known affectionately as ‘The Ladies Man’, Gardiner has remained a popular figure on the Caribbean music scene, and though now well into his 60s, he continues to perform regularly and record new material.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Take A Deep Breath And Scream Aaaaaaaah!

During 1975, the first ‘dance-beat’ tremors began to be felt of the soon to arrive ‘disco tsunami’ that would wash over world pop charts throughout the second half of the decade. By its nature as a primarily studio-based style of music, some of the key players in the emergence of disco were music producers. Whilst the U.S. offered up a good share of these (Van McCoy, Jacque Morali, Desmond Child, Gamble & Huff, Bernard Edwards & Nile Rodgers), many were European based producers, who struck upon a winning formula of infectious melodies and danceable beats - they just needed decent singers to front each studio-based vehicle, or ‘group’. The likes of Frank Farina (Boney M, Eruption), Daniel Vangarde (Gibson Brothers, Santa Esmerelda), Alec R. Costandinos (Love & Kisses & Cerrone), and Giorgio Moroder (Donna Summer, Three Degrees) were key players in the emergence of the ‘Eurodisco’ movement.

Among the leading artists of the ‘Eurodisco’ explosion of the mid 70s, was the Munich based act Silver Convention. The project was the brainchild of producer Michael Kunze and writer/arranger Silvester Levay, who joined forces with session musicians to record the track ‘Save Me’ during 1974. ‘Save Me’ was originally released to the credit of Silver Bird, but after becoming a bit of surprise hit on the continent, the artist’s moniker was tweaked ever so slightly to become Silver Convention (Silvester Levay’s nickname was apparently ‘Silver’ - gold would soon become more appropriate). ‘Save Me’ was released in Britain in early ‘75 and achieved a respectable #30 mid year (OZ#83). It was all well and good to score a one off hit under an anonymous pseudonym, but if they were going to follow up with further single and album releases, Kunze and Levay needed to find identities to become the ‘face’ of Silver Convention - after all it was popular music convention to do so. The ‘face’ of Silver Convention took the form of three female session vocalists, Linda Thompson, Penny McLean, and Ramona Wulf. The trio’s first official release under the Silver Convention banner was the minor hit single ‘There Is Always Another Girl’.

Kunze and Levay then gathered together some studio musicians (which included future ‘Flashdance’ producer Keith Forsey on drums) and their three new vocalists to record an album proper for the Jupiter Records label. The resultant set was titled ‘Save Me’ (OZ#18/US#10), or ‘Silver Convention’ in some markets, and for some reason sported a pair of silver handcuffs on the front cover - perhaps in honour of Silver Convention’s arrestingly engaging music. The next single lifted from the ‘Save Me’ album would launch Silver Convention into the pop music stratosphere. The lavishly produced ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ took off on the U.S. charts in October of ‘75, and by late November had flown to #1, where it held altitude for three weeks (UK#28/OZ#11). ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ wasn’t the first disco-dance styled track to hit the top of the U.S. Hot 100, having replaced KC & The Sunshine Band’s disco-anthem ‘That’s The Way (I Like It)’, with the likes of the Bee Gees’ ‘Jive Talkin’, and Van McCoy’s ‘The Hustle’ having already signalled the disco behemoth’s intentions for world domination. Interestingly, co-writer Silvester Levay was originally going to call the song ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’, but just a half hour before recording began he revealed to producer Michael Kunze that he’d just heard another song called ‘Run Rabbit’ - and so it was that ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ hopped, or rather fluttered, into being (considering the song’s lyrics comprised just six words in total, it was a pretty significant change). The runaway success of ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ pushed the Silver Convention brand to the very vanguard of the disco movement, alongside the likes of Disco Tex, Gloria Gaynor, Bee Gees, KC & The Sunshine Band, and B.T. Express.

When Penny McLean (born Gertrude Wirschinger) got the call to hook up with the Silver Convention project, she was already in the midst of recording her own solo album, titled ‘Lady Bump’. The Austrian born McLean burst into the Australian charts during February of ‘76 with the title track single. Let there be no doubt, this lady could sing. ‘Lady Bump’ was a catchy enough disco-pop song, but what set it apart from the competition was McLean’s vocal performance. I was only seven years old when the song was released, but commercial radio was a regular companion at home and in the car, and ‘Lady Bump’ is one of those song’s that still rings loudest in the earliest foundations of my pop music memory. More specifically, McLean’s prolonged ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!’ during the chorus - as memorable as it was, I’m sure the single should have carried a warning about not playing it too loud around valuable glassware. ‘Lady Bump’ peaked at #9 in Australia during a mammoth 35 weeks on the charts (US#48), and McLean’s album also sold in solid gold numbers (OZ#12/US#59).

Silver Convention managed to build on the momentum of ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’, with the follow up single ‘Get Up And Boogie’, which of course was a bluegrass song - no sorry, I can’t make that sound convincing - take two - which was of course more of the same slickly produced, string-laden disco fare. ‘Get Up And Boogie’ did just that and hustled its way to #2 on the U.S. charts, and also notched up Silver Convention’s only British top ten hit (#7/OZ#19). It featured as the title track on the trio’s next album (OZ#15/US#13), released as ‘Silver Convention’ in the U.S. When you’re on a winning formula why change it, so the album boasted more of the same glossy Euro-disco mix, with a few playful splashes of funk and reggae thrown in for good measure. But the album yielded just one more minor hit in ‘No, No, Joe’ (US#60/UK#41), and was also the swansong album (can you have a swansong album?) for Linda Thompson. Thompson had also recently recorded her own solo album, as Linda G. Thompson, and scored a moderate hit with ‘Ooh What A Night’ (OZ#23).

Silver Convention didn’t miss a beat, and replaced Thompson with Rhonda Heath for their next album ‘Madhouse’ (OZ#61/US#65). The Hunze/Levay team was still firmly at the helm, and steered Silver Convention into more overtly funk-edged territory on several of the tracks, whilst on the UK#25 single ‘Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout Love’, the sound touches on facets of northern soul (which no doubt contributed to it finding an audience in Britain). Just as a point of interest, the song writing credits for Silver Convention were attributed to Silvester Levay (who wrote the music) and one Stephan Prager (lyrics). Prager was a pseudonym for producer Michael Kunze - and considering most of Silver Convention’s songs featured a scant volume of lyrics, Kunze really wasn’t adding that much more to his production duties. The group popped up in 1977 as the German entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, but only managed eighth placing with the track ‘Telegram’.

A revised trio, now featuring Suzie McClosky in place of Penny McLean, had one last tilt at the charts in 1978, with an album and associated single titled ‘Love In A Sleeper’ (OZ#90 - released as ‘Golden Girls’ in the U.S. - #71). ‘Love In A Sleeper’ proved popular in dance clubs (no surprise there) but it appeared that Silver Convention’s popularity among record buyers had accrued a degree of tarnish. Given that disco had reached its peak in 1978, it’s surprising that the project didn’t sustain some chart momentum, but there was such a deluge of disco-dance acts around that it’s possible that Silver Convention just got lost in the rush. Whatever the case, Silver Convention’s golden era was over. Penny McLean returned to the group in 1979 to record the single ‘Rollermania’, but the group pretty much disappeared from the scene soon after, and its remaining members once more assumed obscurity in terms of a public profile. Silvester Levay later set up base in the U.S. and experienced a degree of success there as a writer/arranger with prolific producer Giorgio Moroder, whilst Levay also worked with Moroder and Jim Steinman. The three primary members of Silver Convention, Ramona Wulf, Linda G. Thompson, and Penny McLean, have reunited on a handful of occasions for European television appearances, but by and large have withdrawn from the music biz (with the exception of the occasional live performance).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Boy In The Box Never Surrenders

When it came time to begin work on a follow up album, Corey Hart initially faced the issue of not having penned much new material. Apparently Hart found it difficult writing on the road (performance/ promotion tours/ dodging traffic), but no doubt he was also distracted by the fervent media attention and new sex-symbol status. Such was Hart’s profile at that time, that he was reportedly offered the lead role in the new Robert Zemeckis sci-fi flick ‘Back To The Future’, but declined in favour of remaining focussed on his music career - the role of Marty McFly of course went to Michael J. Fox. Instead, Hart returned to the recording studio, with Phil Chapman and Jon Astley once more at his side. The resultant album, ‘Boy In The Box’, was released in June of ‘85, backed by the lead out single ‘Never Surrender’. In ‘Never Surrender’, Hart had recorded a classy power-ballad, emotive and slickly produced - Bon Jovi could have used it as a template for any number of their power ballad hits. The songs lyrical theme of empowerment, and beating the odds, was backed by an appropriate promo video, and Corey Hart soon had the biggest selling single of his career (US#3/OZ#20/Ca#1). ‘Never Surrender’ earned Hart a Grammy nomination and Juno Award for ‘Single of the Year’. The crisp combination of guitar and keyboard provided the base over which Hart recorded a series of edgy, moody pop-rock melodies. The title track single, ‘Boy In The Box’, embodied the classic 80s guitar/synth driven sound, and delivered Hart another U.S. top thirty hit (#26), and a Canadian #7, late in ‘85. The formulaic rock ballad ‘Everything In My Heart’ followed, but the formula worked a treat and shot Hart straight to #1 in Canada (US#30), early in ‘86, followed by another Canadian top thirty single ‘Eurasian Eyes’ (#29). Hart’s ‘Boy In The Box’ album outsold its predecessor in the U.S. (#20), Australia (#35), and in Canada, it notched up just the second ‘Diamond’ certified album by a Canadian artist (that’s sales in excess of one million) - the first to achieve that was Bryan Adams with his 1985 ‘Reckless’ album. Corey Hart’s profile, popularity and heartthrob status, probably reached a peak during this period, and he was even asked to record the song ‘Danger Zone’ for the ‘Top Gun’ film (he turned it down, preferring to record his own material - Kenny Loggins got the gig instead).

Following sell out tours across the U.S., Canada and Japan, Hart once more returned to the studio, this time with only Phil Chapman to aid him in production duties for the 1986 album ‘Fields Of Fire’. The lead out single, ‘I Am By Your Side’, revealed a more mature and tempered sound, and once more Hart found himself sitting comfortably inside the top twenty (US#18/Ca#8). The album’s next single offering was a last minute inclusion from Hart - something that he was reputedly prone to do. ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ was a gentle rendition of the old Elvis hit, and the first of Hart’s singles not to be penned by the artist himself. It was a little at odds to his earlier work, but did indicate Hart’s willingness to try something different. ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ reached #24 on the U.S. Hot 100, and gave Hart his third Canadian #1 in early ‘87. Sales for the ‘Fields Of Fire’ album were more modest that its two predecessors, but still managed to crack gold in the U.S. (#63), and double platinum in Canada. The album yielded two more minor hits in, the flighty synth-rocker ‘Dancin’ With My Mirror’ (US#88/Ca#33), and the mid-tempo ballad ‘Take My Heart’ (Ca#50).

After a relentlessly frenetic period of touring and recording, Hart took some time out over late ‘87 and early ‘88 to recuperate. The single ‘Too Good 2 Be Enough’ kept his name in the Canadian charts (#19) during this period, though an album proper wouldn’t surface until August of ‘88. ‘Young Man Running’ was Hart’s first album without Phil Chapman, though Andy Richard stepped in to help with production duties. The lead out single, the cruisey ‘In Your Soul’, peaked at #2 in Canada, but sales south of the border were disappointing (US#38). Sales were less than stellar for the follow up singles, the acoustic pop-rocker ‘Spot You In A Coalmine’ (Ca#29), and the introspective ballad ‘Still In Love’, whilst the album ‘Young Man Running’ had only managed a gentle stroll beyond Canadian borders (US#121). Though still a young man at age 26, Corey Hart’s career had hit a crossroads, and matters were further complicated by a bitter fallout with his management, and a souring of his relationship with Aquarius Records. Hart spent the most part of a year shunning any media attention, whilst he contemplated his next move.

He re-emerged in March 1990, with his fifth (and final) album for Aquarius, ‘Bang!’, co-produced by Greg Edward. There was a hint of ‘back to the future’ as Hart played around with some of the verve and edge of his earlier work. The lead out single, ‘A Little Love’, could have been lifted straight out of the Bon Jovi or John Cougar Mellencamp songbooks. I recall buying the vinyl 45 of the single, and getting hooked by the shout it out loud lyrics of the chorus, “a little love will make your heart go bang-bang”. ‘A Little Love’ did manage to fire up enough to hit the top ten in Canada, and registered Corey Hart’s final foray into the U.S. top forty (US#37/OZ#70). The album’s title track, ‘Bang! (Starting Over)’, was deserving of being a top forty hit beyond Canada (#30), but alas missed the target elsewhere. The brooding ‘Rain On Me’ (Ca#72) also failed to produce a deluge of sales, leaving Corey Hart and his album ‘Bang!’ (US#134) high and dry on the charts. Another career crossroads beckoned, as the former pop idol struggled to establish a new mature pop-rocker identity.

The commercial misfiring of ‘Bang!’ was the final nail in the coffin of Hart’s relationship with his record label, and Hart’s age of Aquarius came to an end (though soon after Aquarius issued a singles collection). By 1992, Hart had signed on with the Sire/Warner label in the U.S., but the first album for his new label stable proved to be a big disappointment, both critically and commercially. ‘Attitude & Virtue’ was reportedly lacking in both, and featured a largely uninspired and tired collection of songs, perhaps reflecting Hart’s general state of creative mind at the time. That said, his music still retained a loyal audience in Canada, and the album spawned several top forty hits, including ‘92 Days Of Rain’ (Ca#22), and ‘Baby When I Call Your Name’ (Ca#14). But not even guest spots from Terence Trent d’Arby (‘Love and Money’) and Canadian art-pop talent Jane Siberry could instil much spark into proceedings. Despite a concerted effort on the touring front in support of the album, Corey Hart’s career seemed to be on the wane. Disenchanted by the poor reception offered to ‘Attitude & Virtue’, Hart once more took time out, this time electing for an extended sojourn from the pressures of the music business.

By 1994, Corey Hart had met and fallen in love with Quebec based singer Julie Masse, penning several songs for her album ‘Circle In Love’. Once more the writer’s muse was by his side, and Hart began writing material, both for his next album project, and for other artists (including Celine Dion). In 1995, Hart signed on with Sony Music in Canada, and the following year released his self titled album. The 1996 ‘Corey Hart’ set revived Hart’s fortunes at home (selling platinum), and yielded three more hit singles, ‘Black Rain’ (Ca#2 - he does seem to have a preoccupation with inclement weather), ‘Tell Me’ (Ca#16), and ‘Third Of June’ (Ca#22), which took its inspiration and title from Julie Masse’s birth date. A sell out tour of Canada reaffirmed Corey Hart’s stature as more than just an flash in the pan 80s pop idol. Hart’s most recent studio album was 1998’s ‘Jade’, reportedly his personal favourite. It featured the singles ‘La-Bas’, a beautifully crafted French language song with his wife Julie Masse, and the seductive bayou-rocker ‘So Visible (Easy To Miss)’. Over the next couple of years Hart continued to collaborate with Celine Dion, touring with her in 1999, and penning the track ‘Prayer’ from Dion’s 2001 album ‘A New Day Has Come’.

In 2003, Hart was invited to record new vocals for ‘Sunglasses At Night’, with dance act Original 3, released on Sony, and a new ‘Best Of’ CD hit stores twenty years after the release of the ‘First Offense’ album. With over ten million albums sold worldwide, Corey Hart has nothing more to prove in terms of his merit as a recording artist. Over the last few years he has launched his own Siena Records label, and has invested much time and energy into writing and producing work for other artists, including Quebec based singer Garou, and French pop/dance diva Cherie. Having never surrendered, Corey Hart has earned time to kick back and relax with his family in the Bahamas, in between working with the next generation of pop sensations.


For anyone who has followed this blog from the beginning, you might notice that a theme has, just this very moment, developed in association with the 27th of August. Far be it from me to indulge in self aggrandisement, but Happy freakin’ Birthday to me. And to mark this traversing of 365 more days on this plain of existence, here’s the musical genius Stevie Wonder with ‘Happy Birthday’ (recorded originally as a dedication to the iconic Martin Luther King, and featured on Stevie Wonder’s brilliant 1980 set, ‘Hotter Than July’). Aside from the song’s title being relevant for me today, I simply love its vibrancy and sense of pure celebration. Whether it’s your birthday or not today, take a moment out to celebrate you for being you, and to enjoy the work of one of the greatest singer/songwriters to have graced this (or any other) planet.

But wait, there’s more! From The Beatles’ finest album, their eponymous 1968 set, better known as ‘The White Album’, here’s Paul ‘Wacky Macca Thumbs Aloft’ McCartney wailing away on ‘Birthday’.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hiding Behind The Shades

Fuelled in part by the explosion of popular communication mediums, most specifically radio, television, cinema, and associated channels of cultural dissemination, every decade since the second World War has produced its share of ‘era-specific’ popular culture icons, and the 1980s yielded more than its share. People, personalities, products, fads, movies, televisions shows, fashions, technology, ‘crazes’, songs, music styles - basically things of a cultural, lifestyle, or artistic bent, which, regardless of their origin, or cultural/lifestyle relevance beyond that particular ten year span in history, have remained intrinsically linked to that time, forever associated with that era via collective cultural memory. Who knows how future generations will view the key players of the 2000’s - at this point an educated guess could be hazarded - but in terms of leaving their mark, those people/things that are quintessentially 80s are, with the passage to time, more clearly identifiable.

The Rubik’s Cube, Pac-Man, Trivial Pursuit, leg warmers, the explosion of MTV (and the music video), Live Aid, Flashdance, the ‘Cosby Show’, ‘New Romantics’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album, the headband, my first pimple, those pesky little Gremlins, the Sony ‘Walkman’, big brash boofy hair, the goofball antics of those recruits at ‘Police Academy’, slogan t-shirts (remember “Choose Life” or “Relax”), Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” statement from ‘Wall street’ (some still haven’t learnt the ironic lesson from that), the development of the home gaming console and home video recorder, ‘ALF’, the urban scourge known as Yuppies, ‘Ghostbusters’, parachute pants, the arrival of a ‘Material Girl’ called Madonna, ‘Smash Hits’ magazine, ‘Miami Vice’, Ferris Bueller sparking an entire ‘Save Ferris’ movement, the emergence of rap, the wax-on wax off ‘Karate Kid’, the development of the compact disc, some time travelling kid called Marty McFly - and I best stop there, lest I list another thousand ‘80s’ inspired items.

Popular music also produced its share of 80s era identities. The 50s had Elvis, Cliff and rock & roll, the 60s had The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Motown, the 70s had KISS, ABBA, punk and disco, and the 80s served up its own unique suite of superstars/styles. Certain artists exploded into the pop culture consciousness, artists who may have experienced a substantive career span before/beyond the 1980s, yet when their name is mentioned, they are immediately identified with that decade - Culture Club, Duran Duran, A Flock Of Seagulls, Prince, Adam & The Ants, Cyndi Lauper, Wham!, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Human League, Pointer Sisters, Eurogliders, Eurythmics, Men At Work, Spandau Ballet, to name a few. Not to elevate him to the status of pop icon, but Canadian born singer Corey Hart did elevate himself to the status of quintessential 80s pop idol, with a string of North American (and Australian) top forty hits during the mid 80s (and beyond).

Born in Montreal, Canada in 1962, Corey Hart spent a large part of his early childhood moving about the world with his parents, and spent extended periods in Spain, Canada, the Bahamas, and Mexico (resulting in multi-linguistic talents, and a penchant for burritos). By his early teen years, Hart was living in Florida, and at age 13 his older sister introduced the budding singer/musician to the legendary Tom Jones. Jones in turn introduced Hart to fellow Canadian Paul Anka, and for a period Anka took the young singer under his wing (Anka later played a key mentoring role in the career of Michael Buble). Hart soon found himself in Las Vegas. Since he was too young to gamble, he recorded a couple of demo tracks under Anka’s guidance, including a cover of Anka’s hit ‘Ooh Baby’. Over the next few years, Corey Hart made the decision to focus all his energies on a career in music. After attempting to win the ‘World Popular Song Festival’ in Budokan, Japan, he returned to New York during 1981. Still only 19, Hart recorded some demo material with another legend of the music biz, Billy Joel. He returned to Canada, with newly recorded demo tape in pocket, and managed to snag a contract with Aquarius Records (attached to EMI), who saw in Hart a talented singer and songwriter, but more importantly, a marketable commodity as a post-teen pop idol.

In 1983, Aquarius sent Hart over to England to write and record some tracks for an album. Under the guidance of producers Phil Chapman and Jon Astley, Hart had access to some of the best studio musicians in the business during the three month long recording process at Revolution Recording Studios. Maybe word had been passed on by Billy Joel about this kid’s potential, but the likes of bassist Gary Tibbs (Roxy Music/Adam & The Ants), drummer Paul Burgess (10CC), and guitarist Michael Hehir (Sad CafĂ©), played on the sessions. One Eric Clapton also dropped by to play the Dobro (Resonator guitar) on the album track ‘Jenny Fey’, and it was reported that Pete Townshend also had an interest in proceedings. By August of ‘83, the album was thought to be in the can, and Hart flew back to Canada to begin preparations for its release. But Hart had just penned a new song that he felt was a sure fire hit, and so just as the album was at the final mixing stage, he convinced the label to add the track ‘Sunglasses At Night’ - the song would soon prove to be Hart’s breakthrough hit.

In November ‘83, Corey Hart’s debut album ‘First Offense’ was released. Interest was restrained to begin with, but when the promo video for the lead out single, ‘Sunglasses At Night’, started getting heavy rotation on MTV, the name Corey Hart exploded onto the pop music scene. Driven by a catchy, moody synthesizer beat, and Hart’s sultry vocals, ‘Sunglasses At Night’ burst into a forceful chorus, laced with crunching guitars and Hart’s passionate vocal strains - it was 80s era pop/rock at its best, spiked with a distinct new wave synth-pop flavour. The track was backed by a memorable promo video, which featured Hart wearing, you guessed it, Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses (it was the 80s), and being chased by authorities - a kind of futuristic rebel on the run scenario. The video actually ended up winning a Juno Award for ‘Video of the Year’. Despite displaying questionable common sense in his choice of night time eye-wear, Corey Hart soon found himself with a U.S. top ten hit (#7), and ‘Sunglasses At Night’ also made an impact in both Canada (#24) and Australia (#16) during 1984. I can recall Hart appearing on ABC’s Countdown and inducing a level of fervent screaming from the studio audience not witnessed since Bay City Roller days (aside from the screams of terror sparked by Iggy Pop’s microphone wielding antics). Almost overnight, Corey Hart was the latest pop idol - as the saying goes, teenage girls wanted to be with him, teenage boys wanted to be like him. Hart had no touring experience, but he needed to hit the road in support of the ‘First Offense’ album, and soon found himself wowing audiences as the opening act for Culture Club’s Canadian tour. Tours in support of April Wine, Thomas Dolby, Hall & Oates, and Rick Springfield followed over the course of the next year. Just as ‘Sunglasses At Night’ was riding high on the Australian charts, Hart’s second single, ‘It Ain’t Enough’, was released for the North American market. The song was a slower tempo, ‘lighter waving’ stadium ballad, and I have to admit I was never a big fan of it, but plenty of people were, and ‘It Ain’t Enough’ delivered Corey Hart his second U.S. top twenty hit late in ‘84 (#17/OZ#37/Ca#74).

Sales for the ‘First Offense’ album continued to mount up in North America. The album peaked at #31 in the U.S. (gold certification), #76 in Australia, and notched up triple platinum sales in Hart’s native Canada, where it spawned two more top forty hits, ‘She Got The Radio’ (#40), and ‘Lamp At Midnite’ (#38). ‘First Offense’ was classic, commercial brand 80s pop/rock - nothing more, nothing less. It may sound dated these days, with fat keyboard riffs, and brooding saxophone solos, but therein lies its charm. On the back of the album’s runaway success, Hart was nominated for a Grammy Award for ‘Best New Artist’, but was beaten out by another 80s pop icon - Cyndi Lauper. It’s worth noting that, despite being mostly recorded there, ‘First Offense’ made absolutely no impact in Britain - in fact Corey Hart never scored a hit single there - further emphasising the rank disparity between U.S. and British popular music markets.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Guess Who's Standing Tall On The Charts

During the 70s, it wasn’t entirely uncommon for the solo artist behind a hit single to boast a considerable musical pedigree, often times as a vocalist, or key member, with a well known 60s/70s band. The likes of - Jon Sebastian (ex-Lovin’ Spoonful), Jay Ferguson (ex-Jo Jo Gunne), Nick Lowe (ex-Brinsley Schwarz), Bob Welch (ex-Fleetwood Mac), Dave Edmunds (ex-Love Sculpture), Gary Wright (ex-Spooky Tooth), Elvin Bishop (ex-Paul Butterfield Blues Band), John Stewart (ex-Kingston Trio) - see previous posts - Eric Carmen (ex-Raspberries), Brian Cadd (ex-The Groop), Diana Ross (ex-Supremes), Stevie Wright (ex-Easybeats), Peter Tosh (ex-Wailers), Peter Frampton (ex-Humble Pie), Boz Scaggs (ex-Steve Miller Band), David Gates (ex-Bread), Rod Stewart (ex-Faces), Lou Reed (ex-Velvet Underground), Eric Clapton (Cream/Yardbirds), Steve Winwood (Traffic), and not forgetting some lads from Liverpool who used to be in a group called The Beatles - all opened their solo accounts with a hefty carry over credit from their group days. Burton Cummings was another hit maker of the 70s whose name can be added to that list. For those of you not already familiar with the name Burton Cummings, prior to scoring a blockbuster hit ballad in 1976, he had fronted the Canadian rock group The Guess Who for almost a decade. Far from being anonymous, The Guess Who had forged a strong identity as purveyors of top ten singles and albums.

Cummings had joined his first band, the R&B styled The Deverons, in the early 60s. Around the same time, several fellow Winnepeg natives, including vocalist/guitarist Chad Allan and guitarist Randy Bachman, had established a rock band called Chad Allan and the Silverstones. By 1963, they’d released their first singles as Chad Allan and the Reflections, and by 1965 that moniker had been tweaked to Chad Allan and the Expression (to avoid confusion with the Detroit band The Reflections). In 1965, they released a cover of the old Johnny Kidd and the Pirates hit, ‘Shakin’ All Over’, which became a hit in Canada, and peaked at #22 on the U.S. Hot 100. The band’s Canadian record label, Quality Records, then came up with the goofball publicity stunt of releasing the associated album with the words ‘Guess Who?’ printed on the cover, by way of implying that the band may actually have been a famous British guitar band incognito. The name stuck, and the Canadian rock outfit became The Guess Who. Burton Cummings joined around this time in place of keyboardist Bob Ashley, and soon after Cummings also assumed vocal duties when Chad Allan departed the band to return to fulltime studies. For a while The Guess Who carried on as the quartet of Cummings, Bachman, Jim Kale (bass), and Gary Peterson (drums), but they lived up to their new moniker over the next couple of years by remaining largely anonymous. By the late 60s, Cummings and Bachman had steered the band away from the straight up guitar driven British invasion sound, and had incorporated a mix of styles from harder edged rock, through blues, early prog-rock, and elements of jazz (Cummings was also an accomplished flutist and saxophonist and introduced a wider range of instrumental styles).

By 1969, The Guess Who had found a strong music identity that would usher in a period of phenomenal commercial success for the band. The album ‘Wheatfield Soul’ (US#45) proved to be the breakthrough, and spawned the U.S. #6 single ‘These Eyes’. The cleverly titled follow up album, ‘Canned Wheat (Packed By The Guess Who)’, further consolidated the band’s growing profile with the hits ‘Laughing’ (US#10), and ‘Undun’ (US#22). In February 1970, The Guess Who released their third album within the space of a year, with ‘American Woman’ (US#9), which elevated the Canadian rock quartet to the upper branches of the U.S. popular music tree. It yielded the U.S.#5 hit ‘No Time’, but it would be the album’s title track that would become The Guess Who’s signature song. ‘American Woman’ wasn’t, as the title might imply, about an American woman, but was in fact a searing indictment of U.S. military policy and the general decline in American social values. Themes aside, ‘American Woman’ was a guitar rock juggernaut, propelled along by a raucous fuzz-guitar riff, and Cummings raw, snarling vocals. ‘American Woman’ achieved the coveted #1 spot on the U.S. Hot 100 (UK#19/OZ#43), and went on to become a guitar rock anthem for future generations. The band even performed at an official Presidential function at the White House (minus the politically contentious ‘American Woman’ in their set).

Soon after, guitarist Randy Bachman left the band, prompted by an increasingly fractious relationship with Cummings - religious convert Bachman didn’t approve of the band’s supposedly hedonistic lifestyle. Randy Bachman went on to form Brave Belt which later evolved into Bachman-Turner Overdrive, who scored a string of guitar-rock hits, including the barnstorming ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’, and ‘Taking Care Of Business’. The Guess Who were now firmly under the creative direction of Burton Cummings, who recruited two new players to round out the band’s line-up, Kurt Winter (guitar), and Greg Leskiw (guitar). That line-up returned The Guess Who to the U.S. top ten late in 1970, with ‘Share The Land’ (#10), lifted from the album of the same name (US#14), which boasted a strong mix of riff-ridden guitar rock, and more complex blues arrangements. The stream of chart hits began to dry up over the next couple of years, with only 1971’s ‘Rain Dance’ (US#19) managing to break the top twenty drought. By 1974’s ‘Road Food’ album, The Guess Who were no doubt feeling starved of success. The novelty style rock hit ‘Clap For The Wolfman’ (US#6/OZ#39), a tribute to the iconic disc jockey Wolfman Jack, finally re-established The Guess Who’s identity as a top ten band, albeit briefly. By now the band had experienced numerous personnel changes, but Burton Cummings remained the creative focal point, aided during this period by ace guitarist Dominic Troiano. The Guess Who released two albums during 1975, ‘Flavours’ and ‘Power In The Music’, but neither managed to yield a major hit (though ‘Dancin’ Fool’ peaked at US#28). By late ‘75, Cummings and the band decided to wind up The Guess Who.

During the late 70s, original bassist Jim Kale led a revamped line-up under The Guess Who banner, but it wasn’t until 1983 that key members Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings put aside past differences and played a series of Guess Who shows (with Kale and Peterson) across Canada (resulting in the ‘Together Again’ live album). The Guess Who brand cropped up occasionally over the next fifteen years, in various guises, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the ‘American Woman’ era line-up played together again. By 2004, Kale and Peterson had assumed control of The Guess Who brand, and have continued to tour with various playing rosters.

Following the abandonment of his Guess Who identity, Burton Cummings signed a deal with the Portrait label to record his debut solo album. Helmed by acclaimed producer Richard Perry, Cummings’ self titled set featured a mix of styles, including a big band version of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’ (not sure if he had Randy’s blessing on that one). The stand out track was the soaring ballad ‘Stand Tall’ which showcased Cummings powerful vocals. From its gentle opening, ‘Stand Tall’ surged into an emotively uplifting chorus. Its poignant and powerful lyrics have no doubt proved an inspiring and uplifting tonic for many downhearted souls over the years. ‘Stand Tall’ did indeed live up to its title on the charts (US#10/OZ#7), and went on to sell over a million copies. A world away from the shuddering rock of ‘American Woman’, ‘Stand Tall’ proved the versatility of Burton Cummings as a writer and vocalist. The track helped push sales of the ‘Burton Cummings’ album to top thirty levels (US#30/OZ#32), the album also yielding the minor hit ‘I’m Scared’ (US#61/OZ#69).

The title of Cummings’ follow up album, ‘My Own Way To Rock’ (US#51/OZ#83), was indicative of the album’s more rock oriented feel, though the associated singles, ‘Never Had A Lady Before’ (OZ#81), and ‘My Own Way To Rock’ (US#74), returned Cummings to relative anonymity on the charts (at least beyond his native Canada). 1978’s ‘Dream Of A Child’ saw Cummings explore a range of styles, including covering some Motown classics. The album was a huge seller in the Canadian market, but sales failed to migrate south of the border, and only the single ‘Break It To Them Gently’ (US#85) registered on the U.S. chart radar. On the back of the huge success of ‘Dream Of A Child’ in Canada, Cummings inked a new deal with the Columbia/Epic label, but it came at a price as Cummings lost a considerable degree of the creative autonomy he had grown accustomed to. The album ‘Woman Love’ yielded the Canadian hit ‘Fine State Of Affairs’, but a U.S. release was blockaded, and Cummings’ attitude toward the album’s finished form could probably be summed up in the title of the opening track, ‘Feels All Wrong’. The follow up album, ‘Sweet Sweet’ (1981), did little to sweeten the deal between Cummings and Columbia. During that period, Burton Cummings spent an increasing amount of time based in California, and began composing music for motion pictures. In 1981, he even appeared in one of these said motion pictures, ‘Melanie’, which featured one of Cummings’ own songs ‘You Saved My Soul’ (US#37/OZ#47). Unfortunately, ‘You Saved My Soul’ didn’t prove to be enough to save Cummings’ career at that point. The aforementioned sporadic reunions with The Guess Who followed throughout the 80s, but Cummings didn’t release another solo album until 1990’s ‘Plus Signs’. Beyond his core fan base in Canada, the album went virtually unnoticed.

Over the ensuing fifteen years, Burton Cummings kept a pretty low profile, save for further reunion dates with The Guess Who, but he continued to write and record on occasion with old band mate Randy Bachman. The pair eventually began touring and recording together under the Bachman-Cummings banner, and despite lacking overdrive, they released the ‘Jukebox’ album in 2007. In November of 2008, Burton Cummings released his first solo album of new material in eighteen years, with the ‘Above The Ground’ set, and is still going strong on the touring front.