Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Howard Jones - A Synth Wizard Dreams Into Action

In September 1984, Howard Jones was riding high on the U.K. charts with his latest hit, ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’. The song had just been released in Australia, and Jones made an appearance as guest host on Australia’s famed ‘Countdown’ music show. Jones wowed ‘em with two ‘live’ in-studio performances, of his late ‘83/early ‘84 hit, ‘What Is Love?’, and he closed the show with the new release ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’. I recall sitting transfixed by Jones’ remarkable dexterity on keyboard and synth combo - of course I was a little na├»ve in those days, and still believed the guest performers on ‘Countdown’ actually played live (which very few did). Regardless, Howard Jones already had a well deserved reputation as a synth-guru, and virtual one man electronic-band. He moved with apparent ease between bass lines, percussion tracks, and catchy synth riffs, all without missing a trick - all this whilst managing to maintain control of a seemingly bizarre head of hair. And there I was, struggling to even contemplate the challenge of patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time (nope still can‘t manage that one convincingly). Dazzling dexterity and innate musical genius obviously don’t come as free giveaways with the Jones name. Did I just type that? I meant Smith.

Howard Jones was actually born John Howard Jones, and it’s entirely possible that he reverted to plain ole Howard to avoid any confusion with the latter day Australian Prime Minister. Actually, that’s not very likely at all, given Jones was born during 1955, in Southampton, England. At any rate, the call of music far out shouted any political ambitions, and by age seven young Howard was tinkering away on the piano. That he was a prodigious talent may, or may not have been evident at that point, but one thing was certain, in time Howard Jones would remove any semblance of doubt over that question. By his teenage years, Jones’ family had relocated to Canada, where for a few years he continued to nurture his love of music. It was in Canada that Jones joined his first band as an organist, whilst still in high school - a progressive rock outfit called Warrior.

The Canadian experience was a relatively brief one, and by his college years, Howard Jones was based back in England. He continued to play with a number of different semi-professional bands, but by the mid 70s, he had enrolled in the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Not unlike a young Iva Davies of the same period (see previous Flowers/Icehouse posts), Jones improved his understanding of musical theory, and honed his craft as a pianist and composer. But life as a classical pianist wasn’t for Howard Jones, and soon his love of popular music led him to break free of the stifling pro-classical environment. During the late 70s, Jones balanced playing in local Southampton jazz and funk outfits, with a need to pay the bills on time. So the keyboardist by night, ran a produce-delivery business by day, and gave piano lessons on the side. Fate then stepped in, as fate often does (usually wearing big jackboots), to radically change the direction of Howard Jones’ music career.

Howard’s wife Jan also worked in the fruit and veg business, and was injured in a vehicle accident whilst on a delivery run. A successful compensation claim resulted in her buying Howard his first synthesizer, a Moog Prodigy (previously he’d used a borrowed kit). As it turned out, a different delivery man, of the musical instrument variety, delivered two synthesizers to the Jones home. What’s better than one ‘you beaut’ Moog synthesizer? Two ‘you beaut’ Moog synthesizers! So, Howard Jones paid for the second synth, and began working on combining the sounds of both instruments, at the same time. During 1979, he began scoring gigs around the High Wycombe district as a solo act. At his solo shows, Jones would perform using only polyphonic keyboards, a sequencer, and a drum machine to accompany his vocals, which meant not having to split the pay check at the end of the gig (though he did have to shout the drum machine coffee). Possibly because he felt lonely on stage, Jones would often have a local mime artist, Jed Hoile, perform improvised choreography during his shows. Hoile would remain a regular support performer on Howard Jones tours over future years.

During a residency at London’s famed Marquee Club, Jones came to the attention of renowned BBC DJ, and talent spotter, John Peel (how many artists owe a debt to Peel for their first big break?), who arranged for Jones to play one of Peel’s famous BBC sessions. The BBC show brought Jones to the notice of the music industry at large. It was the early 80s, and ’New Wave’ was still enjoying boom times. Jones soon found himself playing tour support for the likes of OMD and China Crisis (see previous post). During the summer of ‘83, at the ripe old age of 28, Howard Jones was signed to the WEA recording label (Elektra in the U.S.). Having been writing and performing music for the most part of a decade, Jones had more than enough quality material on hand to record. His classical training, combined with his pop sensibility, would have led the suits at WEA to anticipate Jones’ debut set with quiet confidence.

Howard Jones’ debut single, ‘New Song’, made an almost immediate impact on the British charts, post its September ‘83 release. By October, he was booked to perform the song on ‘Top of the Pops’, the appearance helping to propel ‘New Song’ inside the British top ten (#3/US#27/OZ#60). The precise and austere synthesized atmosphere of ‘New Song’ gave an insight into Jones’ affection for the synth-pop movement, but unlike some of his technology-intensive contemporaries, Jones’ lyrics imbued his work with a warmth and accessibility not often associated with the synth-pop crowd. Rolling Stone magazine referred to Jones as “a high-tech hippie”, with his lyrics espousing humanist ideals, positive thoughts, and positive actions. Jones largely dispensed with the doom and gloom aspect of synth-pop, in lyrics like ‘New Song’s “Not under the thumb of the cynical few, or laden down by the doom crew”. The freewheeling lyrical love-in continued on Jones’ next single, ‘What Is Love?’. Perhaps the public had also had their fill of cold, melancholy synth-pop, as ‘What Is Love?’ found an answer at #2 on the British charts following its November ‘83 release (US#33/OZ#31). Jones’ ear for melodic hooks was well attuned, and when combined with his cheery, upbeat lyricism, it worked a treat on a music buying public, increasingly disposed to a more buoyant brand of popular music.

In February of ‘84, the lyrically introspective ‘Hide And Seek’ (UK#12) hit the British charts by way of a lead in to the much anticipated release of Howard Jones’ debut album. Co-produced by Colin Thurston and Rupert Hine (see previous post), ‘Human Lib’ hit British stores in March of ‘84, and immediately hit #1 on the charts (for two weeks - OZ#68/US#59). Howard Jones penned all the album’s eleven tracks (in partnership on a few with co-lyricist William Bryant), and the album was proof that technically precise synth-pop could be imbued with melodic charm, and lyrical warmth. Howard’s hooks permeated the album throughout - some tracks were eminently danceable, though anything but dance-pop - and no doubt the tracks further sprung to life via thought provoking, but utterly unpretentious lyrics. The bittersweet lament of ‘Pearl In The Shell’ offered listeners a change of mood, and the album’s third British top ten single (#7) during mid ‘84. In June of ‘84, Jones hired his old haunt, the Marquee Club, to perform his ‘Human Lib’ album in front of a specially invited guest list of record company suits - as if he needed to say “I told you so”. Stateside, the groundswell of support for Howard Jones was growing, via regular rotation of his music videos on MTV, and the popularity of his refreshing brand of sunny-side up synth-pop with college radio stations.

In August of ‘84, Jones released the new single, ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’. Lyrically, the song promoted ideals of world unity, seeing beyond artificial barriers, to the purity of humanity - or something like that. Apparently Jones dedicated the song to the original spirit of the Olympic Games, perhaps by way of lament, given the current/recent Olympic events (boycotts and rampant commercialism) of the time. The invitingly catchy melody of ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’ was sufficiently endearing to push sales for the song to the upper reaches of the British charts (#4/OZ#16/US#49). In late ‘84, the obligatory remix album was released, with the less than inspiring title of ‘The 12” Album’, though at least some thought was put into the cover art, which featured a ‘miniature’ Howard Jones standing alongside a 12” ruler. The six tracks contained within offered little to any but Jones’ core fan base, which to be fair is probably who were the target audience (UK#15/OZ#56).

In early ‘85, Howard Jones began touring with a full backing band, which meant dispensing with one time stage sidekick and mime, Jed Hoile. The completely mimeless Jones entered the studio, supported by backing singers Afrodiziak (the trio of Claudia Fontaine, Naomi Thompson, and Caron Wheeler - who went on to front Soul II Soul), the TKO Horns (Dave Pleurs, Alan Whetton, Jim Patterson, Brian Maurice), and producer Rupert Hine. They all exited sometime a few months later, having laid down a dozen tracks for Jones’ sophomore album, ‘Dream Into Action’. The rhythmically lithe single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was released a few weeks in advance of the album, and became Howard Jones’ biggest hit to date (UK#6/US#5/OZ#11), officially sweeping aside any residual resistance in the U.S. The song’s lyrics were few, but succinctly encapsulated the notion of positive thought, whilst musically, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ pointed towards a synth-pop wizard at the peak of his creative powers.

The ‘Dream Into Action’ album made a bigger splash Stateside (#10/OZ#17), whilst it peaked at #2 in Britain. Jones was denied his second British #1 album by Phil Collins’ ‘No Jacket Required’, which in retrospect was mildly ironic, given Collins and Jones would soon collaborate on the latter’s biggest hit single Stateside. The follow up singles, the musically quirky ‘Look Mama’ (UK#10/OZ#20), which featured spoken word dialogue sampled from the 1974 film ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’, and the lyrically clever, and upbeat ‘Life In One Day’ (UK#14/US#19), further consolidated Howard Jones’ global profile. By the time of his performance at the Wembley ‘Live Aid’ concert in July of ‘85, Howard Jones was a bona fide synth-pop idol.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Peaches & Herb Reunited At #1

The team of Peaches & Herb scored two U.S. top five hits during the first six months of 1979, the first a rousing disco-dance floor anthem, the second a soulful, romantic ballad. It was testament to both the longevity and versatility of singer Herb Fame, who by the late 70s, had already racked up over a dozen Hot 100 hits, alongside three varieties of Peaches. Though the ‘role’ of Peaches changed a number of times over several decades, singer Herb Fame remained a constant throughout.

Back in 1965, Herb Feemster, soon to be Herb Fame, was working in a record store in his home city of Washingston D.C. Herb had been in love with music from an early age, and aside from being surrounded day in day out by the alluring scent of vinyl, he had already developed his vocal gift over many years, with church choirs and neighbourhood singing groups. One January day, Herb was working at the store when prolific songwriter and producer Van McCoy dropped by. McCoy had already been the creative force behind a number of hits, and hit artists, as well as recording as a solo artist. But the purpose of his visit that particular day, was to arrange for some in-store promotion for an up and coming vocal group he was working with, called the Sweet Things. McCoy was always on the look out for new vocal talent, and a conversation (and presumably some impromptu singing) with the producer, led Herb to being auditioned and signed as a solo act with Date Records.

One of the members of The Sweet Things was Francine Hurd Barker, better known to family and friends as ‘Peaches’. Like Herb, Francine ‘Peaches’ Barker had grown up singing in local Washington D.C. groups, and by her teens was fronting a vocal group called the Keynotes. After high school, Peaches fronted her own group, the Darlettes, who had also signed with Date Records. Following a name change to the Sweet Things, the group released several low key singles on the label, which brings us to the point at which the career paths of Herb ‘Fame’ Feemster and Francine ‘Peaches’ Hurd Barker intersected. During 1966, both Herb Fame, and the Sweet Things were in New York recording new material with producer Van McCoy. With individual recording sessions in the can, McCoy found he was ahead of schedule. Studio time was ludicrously expensive in those days, so rather than let go to waste, he used the left over time to record some tracks by Herb and Francine, as a duo. You could say he produced some amazing leftovers using Herb and Peaches - hmmm…too much?

The resulting material was, as comic character Kenny Banya might say, “Gold Jerry! Gold!’. Two of the songs laid down by the newly dubbed Peaches & Herb, were released as a single, but the A-side ‘We’re In This Thing Together’ didn’t attract much airplay. However, the B-side, ‘Let’s Fall In Love’, started being played by a local St. Louis radio station, KATZ, and by December 1966 had broken Peaches & Herb on the U.S. Hot 100. ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ already boasted considerable chart pedigree, having been an American #1 in 1934 for Eddie Duchin, and Peaches & Herb’s updated version delivered a US#21 (#11-R&B) hit in early ‘67. It was the beginning of a golden run on the charts for the newly formed duo Peaches & Herb. Next cab of the rank, was another cover song, ‘Close My Eyes’, penned by legendary R&B songsmith Chuck Willis, and originally a US#5 on the R&B charts for The Five Keys, during 1965. ‘Close Your Eyes’ didn’t blink twice on its way to #8 on the U.S. Hot 100 during mid ‘67. Over the course of 1967, Peaches & Herb notched up a further three U.S. top forty hits, ‘For Your Love’ (#20), a pristine cover of ‘Love Is Strange’ (#13), and ‘Two Little Kids’ (#31), all of which built on the duos burgeoning profile, that had earned them the tag ‘Sweethearts of Soul’.

1967 also saw Peaches & Herb release two albums of material, ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ (US#30), and ‘For Your Love’ (US#135), which featured all of the duo’s hits to date. With a string of top forty hits, the demands on Peaches & Herb were understandably intense, both for promotional appearances and touring commitments, and the hectic schedule led to Francine ‘Peaches’ Barker quitting the duo (for the first time), during 1968. The Peaches & Herb brand was simply too lucrative to let slip, so the decision was made to recruit a new female vocalist for touring purposes, with Marlene Mack stepping seamlessly into the role of Peaches. Francine Barker retained the role of Peaches in the recording studio. The old Intruder’s hit, ‘The Ten Commandments Of Love’ (US#55), was the duo’s first foray into the charts during 1968, and the follow up single ‘United’ (US#46/#11-R&B) reaffirmed a united front for Peaches & Herb (both versions). But over the ensuing twelve months, the crop of hit singles began to decline for the duo, with only ‘When He Touches Me (Nothing Else Matters)’ managing to find a place inside the top fifty (US#49).

By 1970, Francine Barker had left altogether to get married. Herb Fame, now without his regular studio partner, and with little prospect of regaining the commercial momentum of a year or two previous, took the decision to cut ties with the music business. During July of 1970, Herb took on a gig of a different kind, with the Washington D.C. police department. For a time during the mid 70s, both Herb Fame and Francine Barker released a handful of singles via their own Washington based BS label, but it would take the intervention of Van McCoy to once more kick start the Peaches & Herb brand. Though a noble profession law enforcement may be, what with the handcuffs and the high speed car chases, it didn’t feed Herb Fame’s creative soul in quite the same way as making music. At Van McCoy’s suggestion, Herb rekindled the Peaches & Herb flame with an all new Peaches. Former model Linda Greene became the new face and voice for Peaches, and during 1977 the duo released their first album of new material in seven years, with a self titled effort released on MCA, and produced by McCoy (who was arguably at the peak of his music producing powers at that time). Though the ‘Peaches & Herb’ album failed to spawn any hits, it was a solid dress rehearsal for what would prove to be the main event in Peaches & Herb’s career.

Back in 1965, Herb Fame was working just a short distance away from an old college friend, Freddie Perren, who was at that time serving behind the counter of Sabin’s record store. Perren too had gone on to a music career of considerable note, as a keyboardist, songwriter, and producer. He had been a key component of the production team known as the Corporation, who had been a driving force behind the early hits of the Jackson 5. By the late 70s, Perren was running his own record label called MVP Productions, and signed the newly resurgent Peaches & Herb to the label’s impressive playing roster (Yvonne Elliman, Gloria Gaynor, the Miracles, the Sylvers - see previous post). Backed by the distribution muscle of Polydor Records, Peaches & Herb released the album ‘2 Hot!’ in late ‘78. The lead out single, ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’, tapped into the coursing vein of disco, and soon shook its groove all the way to #5 on the U.S. charts during early ‘79 (OZ#13/UK#26).

A decade earlier, the original studio line-up of Peaches & Herb had scored a top fifty hit with the single ‘United’. Though Herb Fame and Linda Greene represented a new combination, it seemed appropriate for the reunited Peaches & Herb team to notch up their first chart topper with a song called, ‘Reunited’. The sugar-laden ballad was a polar opposite to the dance-floor hit ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’, but despite the dominance of disco (particularly in the U.S.), there was still room for a song of pure quality. The Perren produced ‘Reunited’ proved to be just that, and following its March ‘79 debut inside the U.S. Hot 100, the song soared to the apex of the charts in May. A four week stay at the U.S. summit coincided with ‘Reunited’s rise up both British (#4) and Australian (#8) charts. The song’s phenomenal popularity also acted as a spur behind platinum sales for the album ‘2 Hot!’ (US#2/OZ#50), and earned Peaches & Herb a star slot on Bob Hope’s famed television special from China. The album yielded a minor follow up with ‘We’ve Got Love’ (US#44), later in ‘79.

Before year’s end, Peaches & Herb had recorded a follow up album, ‘Twice The Fire’ (US#31), which only managed to inspire a lukewarm response. The lead out single ‘Roller-Skatin’ Mate (Part 1)’ (US#66) encapsulated everything that would soon be considered as dated about the disco boom. However, there was one more hit left in the Peaches & Herb cupboard, in the form of ‘I Pledge My Love’, a remake of the old Johnny Ace hit from 1955. ‘I Pledge My Love’ pledged itself to the U.S. top twenty early in 1980 (#19), whilst it struck a major chord in New Zealand (#1/OZ#73). Peaches & Herb’s follow up album, ‘Worth The Wait’ (US#120), proved to be a contradiction in terms, and 1981’s ‘Sayin’ Something!’ (US#168) was greeted with muted enthusiasm. The Herb Fame and Linda Greene model of Peaches & Herb had one final tilt at the charts via the 1983 Columbia release ‘Remember’, the title track of which served as a low key addendum to the duo’s latest phase of operations (US#35-R&B). Soon after, the Fame/Greene partnership was dissolved, and the Peaches & Herb name was once more (temporarily) retired.

Herb Fame returned fulltime to his job as a police officer, but by 1990 he’d found a new ‘Peaches’ in the form of Patrice Hawthorne. The duo toured occasionally, with Herb retaining his day job with the police department. Hawthorne eventually went on to become bandleader of her own orchestra. Meanwhile, Herb (and Greene) finally triumphed during 2001 in a long protracted legal dispute over unpaid royalties from the lucrative Polydor years. The outcome enabled Herb to finally retire his badge, and devote himself fulltime to Peaches & Herb. Sadly, the original ‘Peaches’, Francine Barker, passed away in 2005, but to this day the name of Peaches & Herb still perform, with Herb Fame now accompanied by his fifth ‘Peaches’, and the duo have just released a new album, ‘Colors Of Love’.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The New Improved Model Models?

In July of ‘85, Models appeared as one of the headline acts for Australia’s ‘Oz For Africa’ concert (our contribution to the global ‘Live Aid’ initiative). Models set included ‘Big On Love’, ‘I Hear Motion’, and their brand new single, ‘Out Of Mind Out Of Sight’ (penned by Freud). The glam rock inspired song bombarded the senses from the get go, and was a barnstorming rock and roller of a track. The song’s construction and execution was flawless, with the finished product loud and proud in all its crowd pleasing glory. Freud once more stepped up to the microphone for vocal duties, and played the sultry, seductive rock star for all it was worth. The accompanying music video showcased Models as hard edged rock ‘n rollers, with much denim and leather on show - not entirely unlike INXS. But though ‘Out Of Mind Out Of Sight’ was an engaging piece of polished pop-rock perfection, it possessed an undercover of brashness, and a raw passion permeated throughout. Models had effectively distilled a myriad of musical inflections into a perfectly moulded pop morsel. They’d also hit upon the formula for a #1 single, as in September of ‘85, ‘Out Of Mind Out Of Sight’ replaced Tina Turner’s ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ at the summit of the Australian charts, where it held on for two weeks. Discounting the EP release ‘Species Deceases’ by Midnight Oil, Models also hold the honour of being the only Australian artist to reach #1 at home during 1985.

As its title track was surging toward #1, Models’ new album hit stores in August of ‘85, and immediately hit the national charts. The Opitz produced set featured the three singles released to date, ‘Big On Love’, ‘Barbados’, and ‘Out Of Mind Out Of Sight’, along with seven other tracks, recorded across three studios (Rhinoceros, Platinum, Paradise). September of ‘85 represented the commercial zenith for Models, with the #1 single, and #3 album on the Australian charts. Manager, and sometimes pop alchemist, Chris Murphy had seemingly pulled all the right strings in aiding Models to finally break through as a big time player on the mainstream music scene. After seven years of seemingly boundless promise, the band had arrived as a wholly capable, cohesive, and confident unit. It’s arguably no coincidence that Models’ two biggest hit singles featured lead vocals from James Freud (the whole radio-friendly angle), but it would be a mistake to make such a clear delineation in the roles of Freud and Sean Kelly, as one being more commercially accessible than the other. Each party was astutely capable of transcending the full spectrum of stylistic expression.

Understandably, Models spent a lot of time on the road during the latter half of ‘85, during which time the sultry, brass laden single ‘Cold Fever’ (OZ#36) was released, with James Freud once more handling vocals. The song’s funky edge was infused in liberal doses throughout the ‘Out Of Mind Out Of Sight’ album, provoking more comparisons with INXS, and further alienating some who had become accustomed to the band’s earlier work, but of course attracting a good deal more critical and commercial acclaim on the flipside. Models had one more single release in reserve (the fifth lifted), with the more reserved, atmospheric ‘King Of Kings’ released in December of ‘85. The single signalled a return to front man duties for Sean Kelly, and also featured an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. ‘King Of Kings’ was a beautifully crafted song, and Models shared some of the wealth they’d accumulated over the previous year by donating all the proceeds from the single’s sales to the Salvation Army - though the charity’s coffers may not have been boosted by as much as either they or the band would have hoped, as ‘King Of Kings’ only reached #96 nationally.

In early ‘86, the band’s management company, MMA, then proposed that Models begin work on recording a follow up album to ‘Out Of Mind Out Of Sight’. It would appear that the logic behind this strategy went a little something like this. Geffen Records had backed the release of both the album, and single, ‘Out Of Mind Out Of Sight’, Stateside, and the mood was optimistic about the potential reception for both. That mood of optimism extended to the belief that it was a case of sooner of later, more than likely sooner, before Models became huge across the world. MMA reasoned that if the band already had another album in the can, or in reserve so to speak, they would be freed up to head off on whatever live tour or promotional jaunts that their impending superstardom generated. At a time of their (or management’s) choosing, the ‘here’s one we prepared earlier’ follow up album could be wheeled out to much fanfare. Seemed like a good idea at the time. So in early ‘86, Models jetted off to London to record their ‘in case of needing follow up album, press here’ follow up album. Kelly, Freud, Mason, Price, Valentine, and Wendy Matthews, all bunkered down at Trevor Horn’s state-of-the-art Sarm West Studios in London, alongside co-producers Mark Opitz and Julian Mendelsohn.

Whilst work was well underway by Models on their next album, both their previous album (US#84), and its title track, ‘Out Of Mind Out Of Sight’ (US#37), had made moderate inroads into the U.S. market during mid ‘86. After recording had been completed on the next album, Models hopped on over to the States to play some live shows to promote the ‘Out Of Mind’ set. During November, British synth-pop act O.M.D. (see future post) invited Models to support them on a U.S. tour. Unfortunately, beyond the shows they were playing, interest in the U.S. for their music seemed to be waning. By December, Models opted to return home in time for the release of their ‘album in reserve’. Actually, by that time two new singles had already been released, and had performed quite respectfully on the charts. The mid-tempo, funk-laced ‘Evolution’ created a peak place for itself at #21 on the Australian charts, post its August ‘86 release. ‘Evolution’ was also included on the soundtrack to the U.S. teen comedy ‘Soul Man’, and the song’s 12” version boasted the extended title of ‘The Evolution Of Albert Einstein’. Another Sean Kelly composition stepped up to the single’s plate next, with the infectiously groovy ‘Let’s Kiss’ puckering up and planting one at #27 nationally late in ‘86. Both songs offered a clear indication as to what resided between the covers of Models’ new album.

‘Models’ Media’ went to air in early December of ‘86, and by Christmas was broadcasting from #30 nationally. No doubt there would have been some residual interest leftover from its predecessor, but as a stand alone effort, ‘Models’ Media’ had also already spawned two top thirty singles. Once more, a danceable funk-laden groove coursed through most of the tracks, but a track like the sweltering, reggae inflected ‘Shootin’ Train’, proved Models still had more than one gear to engage. Following the album release, the band then joined a stellar line-up of acts on the mammoth ‘Australian Made’ tour during January of ‘87 (sharing the bill with Mental As Anything, INXS, Divinyls, Jimmy Barnes, Triffids, The Saints, I’m Talking). In March of ‘87, the third single from ‘Model’s Media’ was released. From the opening shards of synthesizer, the Kelly/Freud composed ‘Hold On’ (OZ#30) announced itself as a pristinely polished pop-rock nugget that exuded a grandiose, almost epic atmosphere. In my humble view it is the stand out track on the album, and sits comfortably as one of the finest highlights in the Models’ songbook.

By the second half of ‘87, it was apparent that all within the Models’ camp was not sitting pretty, but the band fronted up for one last blast with the single ‘Oh! Darling’, a cover of the classic ‘Abbey Road’ track by The Beatles. Sean Kelly must have damn near launched his larynx across the studio floor while he was belting out the vocals. I’m not prone to being favourable toward covers of Beatles’ songs, but if they’re of quality I’ll gladly be so. In this instance, Models nailed the challenge, but their take on ‘Oh! Darling’ barely scratched the surface of the top fifty (#48), and in terms of new material from the band, that was all she wrote for Models.

In late ‘87, Roger Mason and Sean Kelly released the album ‘The Last Hoedown’, under the side-project moniker of The Clampetts. Associate vocalists, Kate Ceberano and Wendy Matthews were already laying the groundwork for their own solo careers. Models assembled during 1988 for an extended national tour under the banner, ‘Thank You Goodnight’ (ostensibly to pay off some creditors). Following the tour’s conclusion, it was announced the band had broken up.

Saxophonist James Valentine has spent much of the ensuing twenty years involved in television/radio presenting (just as well given the post 80s downturn in demand for sax players). Andrew Duffield and Roger Mason both went on to do score and soundtrack work for television and film, whilst drummer Barton Price eventually returned to New Zealand to pursue music interests. For more details about the immediate post-Models’ career of Sean Kelly, check out my previous post on Absent Friends, a virtual ‘supergroup’, comprising Kelly, Wendy Matthews, ex-Models’ mates Andrew Duffield and James Valentine, and a host of others. Kelly also formed the soul/funk infused Dukes during the early 90s, who released the album ‘Harbour City’ in 1992 (featuring the brilliant single ‘Faith’-OZ#35). During the second half of the 90s, Kelly played with an outfit called Interchange Bench, along with several other artists. In 2006, Kelly released his debut solo album, ‘Moons Of Jupiter’.

James Freud immediately reassumed solo status, and flew to New York to record an album with production genius Bernard Edwards (Chic). Reportedly, the album ended up becoming the most expensive ever backed by Mushroom Records. ‘Step Into The Heat’ was released in June of ‘89, following the lead out single ‘Hurricane’ (OZ#19), which I purchased on vinyl 45. The album only yielded one more minor hit, ‘One Fine Day’ (OZ#61), and failed to produce much heat of its own on the charts (OZ#22), leading to a parting of the ways between Freud and Mushroom. After a stint playing bass in Kylie Minogue’s touring band, James Freud then teamed up with Mental As Anything singer/guitarist Martin Plaza. The duo went under the name Beatfish, and released a self-titled album in late 1991 (OZ#83). The album was largely dance oriented, and yielded two minor hits, ‘Wheels Of Love’ (OZ#26), and ‘All Around The World’ (OZ#67), but Plaza soon after returned to duties with the Mentals, leaving Freud once more bandless. For a few years Freud earned a quid by composing and producing music for advertising campaigns (jingles for short). By 1996, he was ready to start recording another solo album, but the proposed ‘Big Mouth’ was shelved. One track reached finality in the production process, a surf-pop styled song titled ‘Postcard To Hawaii’. Freud put together a new band called Moondog (which included Plaza) to re-record the track, and eventually recorded an entire album with Moondog, titled ‘Postcard To Hawaii’, and released in early ‘97. In 2008, Freud finally released another solo album, titled ‘See You In Hell’, which was apparently well received.

In 2000, Models reformed, albeit briefly, for a series of live shows, and in 2001 an album of live rarities, ‘Models Melbourne’, was released on Shock Records. One reunion is rarely enough for bands these days, so in 2006 Kelly and Freud assembled another Models’ line-up for a series of shows. During 2008, Models celebrated thirty years since their original formation, with mainstays Sean Kelly and James Freud heading up the band for a celebratory tour.

Over the course of a tumultuous decade long career, Models may not have ascended to the very pinnacle of the Australian music scene (though they came damn close), but through their uncompromising, and at times pioneering music, they’ve left an indelible impression, and enduring musical legacy. Despite numerous line-up changes over time, Models remained resolute in their collective identity, and even when some cast a cynical eye during their more ‘mainstream’ phase, they maintained an absolute integrity in their approach to writing, recording, and performing music.

Thanks to Warwick from 80s Dreamer blogspot (see link in Ultra Cool Retro Links) for helping out with some great source photos, little known tidbits, and access to a 1986 interview with Sean Kelly. To read the interview in full, and much more, check out Warwick's Models' fansite at - http://handonhandle.ning.com/
Update - In October 2010, Models received a much deserved place in the A.R.I.A. Hall of Fame. Tragically, just one week later, one of the band's key talents James Freud died in tragic circumstances. With his right hand man gone, it's unlikely Sean Kelly will lead Models along the musical catwalk again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Planet Earth Is Blue And There's Nothing I Can Do

Chances are if you turn on a television, tune in a radio, pick up a newspaper, or stand in any kind of queue today, you’ll be reminded that forty years ago to the day, mankind first set foot (or even two) on the Moon. Now on July 20th, 1969, I was but a babe in nappies, so my own recall of said events is sketchy at best, but it seems there were plenty of people recording the episode for posterity. I’ll raise my hand and confess to being prone to subscribing to the odd (or even) conspiracy theory, and where the exploits of Apollo 11 and crew are concerned, such theories are bountiful. But I’m also a romanticist at heart, and though a fan of the film ‘Capricorn One’, I prefer to believe that Commander Armstrong and crew weren’t skylarking on a soundstage, but rather that the Eagle really did land, and Armstrong actually did make that giant leap for mankind. It wasn’t so much about sticking a flag in the lunar surface, or picking up some gravel, it was about doing something positive, and amidst the chaotic events of the late 60s, that had to stand for something. What’s this got to do with a retro music blog you ask? Two words - ‘Space Oddity’ - and if the fact that three humans were propelled to the moon in a tin can with less computing power than a pocket calculator doesn’t qualify as odd, then I don’t know what does.

After initial recording stints with the Pye and Deram labels, David Bowie signed a new deal in 1969 with Mercury/Philips. The future Ziggy Stardust’s first album for Mercury, titled (originally) in the U.K. as ‘David Bowie’ and in the U.S. as ‘Man Of Words/Man Of Music’, eventually surfaced in November of ‘69. The album had been preceded by Bowie’s first hit single, ‘Space Oddity’. Bowie had originally penned the track in 1968, intended for a proposed German television special titled ‘Love You Till Tuesday’. The song had remained sitting in a tin can, until Bowie decided to re-record it for his new album, with Rick Wakeman (Yes) providing cosmic style keyboards. Producer Gus Dudgeon (who later helmed ‘Rocket Man’ for Elton John) oversaw work on the freshly recorded version of ‘Space Oddity’ during June of ‘69. After checking ignition, the single was rush released on 11th July, 1969, to coincide with the much anticipated ‘shot for the moon’ Apollo 11 mission. ‘Space Oddity’ featured heavily on BBC television’s coverage of the lunar events, and really made the grade at #5 on the U.K. charts. Clocking in at just over five minutes, the psychedelic folk-rock opus announced to all that here was a rare talent, and over the ensuing decade and more, Bowie continued to push popular music boundaries. But the tale of Major Tom wasn’t an altogether happy one, and during 1969 at least, the U.S. shied away from dead circuits and impending doom.

In 1972, Bowie’s 1969 album was re-released on the RCA label under the title ‘Space Oddity’. Bowie had popped a lot of protein pills and had re-emerged as Ziggy Stardust, and following the success of the single ‘Starman’ (UK#10/US#65), it seemed apt to relaunch ‘Space Oddity’ upon the U.S., and since the sixth (and final) lunar landing had just been completed (Apollo 17 in December ‘72), the song’s vibe seemed more palatable. Second orbit around, Major Tom’s spaceship knew which way to go, and ‘Space Oddity’ docked at #15 on the U.S. charts in early ‘73 (OZ#9), aided in part by a new promo clip shot by Mick Rock, during the recording sessions for Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ album’.

But Major Tom’s mission wasn’t over by a long shot. Just a few months after Bowie had landed his first U.S. #1 with ‘Fame’, he notched up his first chart topper at home with another relaunch of ‘Space Oddity’, six years after the song had initially sat upon the launch pad. It had been included as part of a RCA ‘retrospective’ collection, and stepped through the door to the British #1 spot during November of ‘75. And Major Tom’s adventures didn’t stop there. It seemed he was floating in a most peculiar way for reasons other than zero gravity, and he wasn’t just popping protein pills upon his eventual return to Planet Earth, as chronicled in David Bowie’s 1980 hit ‘Ashes To Ashes’. Major Tom may have hit an all-time low, but ‘Ashes To Ashes’ hit an all-time high on the British charts during August of 1980 (#1/OZ#3), though astoundingly the Major’s green card wasn’t renewed on the U.S. charts. David Bowie’s Major Tom achieved a unique feat, in becoming the only lyrical character to reach the zenith of the British charts via two separate songs, and there are arguably few characters in popular music history to have assumed such cultural resonance and longevity - though of course flight director David Bowie at ground control deserves all the credit. In 1996, Bowie completed the Major Tom trilogy in song, with the release of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (UK#12), lifted from the Eno produced album ‘Outside’.

To commemorate today’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, David Bowie is due to dare leaving the capsule once again, via the release of a digital EP, featuring four previously unreleased versions of ‘Space Oddity’. As I look to the futurama, I wonder if we shall ever see the likes of Major Tom, and the Apollo missions again.

Experience the first two chapters of the Major Tom odyssey via the following YouTube videos. For afters, I’ve included the video for a first class ‘Ticket To The Moon’ (UK#24), lifted from E.L.O.’s mercurial album ‘Time’ (not for any other reason other than I love the song…oh and one day I hope to emigrate to the moon, and open a little paddleboat hire business by the shores of the Sea of Tranquillity).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Models Of Modern Major Music Talent

There’s little doubt that the reunion of Sean Kelly and James Freud as creative entities, lent a new level of confidence, and vibrancy, to Models. James Freud’s seductively refined vocals, rock star strut, and polished playing, seemed a logical offset to Sean Kelly’s raw vocal vitality, jolting instrumentation, and all round manic edginess. Throw in Andrew Duffield’s inventive synth playing, and Barton Price’s powerhouse presence behind the drums, and the entire dynamics and texture of the band had shifted to a new level. There was every reason for those associated with Models to believe that this revitalised line-up possessed a commercial edge not apparent, or at least not realised, before.

Highly regarded producer Nick Launay (Birthday Party, Midnight Oil, Talking Heads, Kate Bush) was charged with the task of tapping into, and harnessing, this newly apparent pop-rock potential. The band worked on their new album during the first half of ‘83 (recorded in Sydney and mixed in London), and the first gem to be realised from the sessions arrived during September, in the form of the lead out single, ‘I Hear Motion’. The band approached the recording with a deliberate intent to shift the rhythm section more to the forefront, and instil a distinctly danceable flavour to proceedings. That’s not to say Models had in anyway forsaken their ballsy stylistic roots in complete deference to pop accessibility, but they were at least aiming to bridge the gap to formulate a hybrid style of sorts. When I hear ‘I Hear Motion’, I hear a finely tuned synth-rock machine springing to life. From the opening shots of Andrew Duffield’s synthesizer, followed by the explosion into action of Barton Price’s thunder clap of drums, I’m immersed in a cold, foreboding, yet hauntingly alluring world, that echoes strongly elements of the industrialised synth-pop that emerged out of Europe and the U.K. (early Human League, Ultravox, Daniel Miller, Faust, Kraftwerk). Kelly and Freud then kick start the pulsating guitar and bass components, but it’s Sean Kelly’s menacing vocals that add that extra layer of brilliance. Kelly oscillates between restrained snarls and explosive growls, delivering a lyric that synchs seamlessly with the background mechanics. To top things off, the song’s chorus chant incites you to stand up and march - I have no idea where too. There’s a strange and irrepressible sense of ebullience lurking in the surface menace. ‘I Hear Motion’ encapsulates both the old and new Models - the borderline chaos of disparate elements and styles, fine tuned to a polished end product. No doubt the band played the major part, but producer Nick Launay must surely be credited with achieving his brief of capturing the raw horsepower and extracting a thoroughbred performance from it. ‘I Hear Motion’ became Models first top twenty hit (OZ#16), and provided the gateway to a reinvented sound and image for the band (complete with slick ‘new romantic’ style suits in the promo video). As an aside, Andrew Duffield later revealed that his synth-riff in ‘I Hear Motion’ had been inspired by Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ - well if you’re going to be inspired, it might as well be by genius.

‘I Hear Motion’s source album, ‘The Pleasure Of Your Company’ (OZ#12), was released in October of ‘83, and quickly climbed up the national charts, in part on the back of the success of ‘I Hear Motion’. James Freud also took a share of lead vocal duties, and doubtless his smoother, ‘radio friendly’ vocals assisted in attracting a wider audience. In some respects, Kelly and Freud set up a very effective (and oft used) balance of sweet and sour in the vocal department. Fans had their first taste of the Models’ vocals, Freud-style, via the up-beat album track, ‘Facing The North Pole In August’. The occasional attack of the ‘bizzares’ crept into the mix, and why not, with ‘Watch Your Mouth’ resembling the bastard offspring of ‘Stray Cat Strut’ and a Phil Judd at his most eccentric. ‘No Shoulders, No Head’ surfaced during December as the album’s second single, but for mine, it was an oddly disengaging choice - the public at the time must have agreed, as the single failed to chart. But all was not lost, and over the 83/84 summer, Models snagged a support slot on David Bowie’s mammoth ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour of Australia (and maintained a hectic tour schedule in the ensuing months). Over time the term ‘crossover’ had begun to be attached to the Models’ brand, a reflection in part of their increasing commercial returns. By comparison to other Melbourne based acts such as Birthday Party or Hunters & Collectors, considered by some as ‘alternative’ or unconventional, Models’ had seemingly crossed the border into more commercial viable, or dare I say it, mainstream territory - but sold out they had not. The ‘crossover’ tag probably lost a little credibility with the chart performance of Models’ next single, ‘God Bless America’, released in April of ‘84. The song was backed by a very innovative and presumably costly video clip, shot in 3D, though perhaps the overheads were kept down by the fact that it was shot in a junkyard. The video clip did feature the band’s new backing singers, Kate Ceberano and Zan, of funk-soul outfit I’m Talking. But despite being an eminently listenable, and quite funky track, ‘God Bless America’ crawled to a disappointing #86 nationally.

Following on from the disappointing performance of Models’ last two singles, Sean Kelly seemed poised to pull the plug on the band, and had reportedly been rehearsing with a new band. Recognising that Models may be on the threshold of the big time, Mushroom Records arranged for big shot American producer Reggie Lucas to produce a few new tracks. On the surface it seemed an odd move to hand pick a producer, with a background as a jazz musician, and most readily associated with dance/R&B material in the production stakes. But quality is quality, and the involvement of Lucas was enough to convince Kelly and the rest of Models to return to the studio and lay down some new cuts. The first result of the collaboration arrived in October of ‘84, in the form of the exceptional single ‘Big On Love’ (co-written by Kelly and producer Lucas). If ‘I Hear Motion’ evoked a sense of raw mechanics at work, ‘Big On Love’ lubricated the machinery with fluid funk. Of course the smoothness required a few rough edges, just to jolt the senses. Sean Kelly’s blistering, crunching guitar, and trademark vocals, infused the track with just the right amount of bullish attitude, projecting a primal lust into the lyrics. Above all else, ‘Big On Love’ is a kick ass song - a crying shame that more were not seduced by its lure (OZ#24). Although not immediately apparent at the time, ‘Big On Love’ served as an appetizer for Models’ next album - but there would be one or two more twists in the road before the band arrived at that station.

The latter part of ‘84 witnessed a couple of key events which further altered the bandscape for Models. Keyboard/synth player, and Sean Kelly’s lieutenant, Andrew Duffield, parted ways with Models in what could only be described as acrimonious circumstances. Details at the time were sketchy, and the matter was subject to much conjecture and scrutiny within the music industry and media, but it was never quite clear whether Duffield dived overboard, or was encouraged strongly to walk the plank. In his 1986 interview with Smash Hits magazine, Sean Kelly alluded to a key factor being the increased pace of creative output, something that apparently didn’t sit well with Duffield. Whatever was at the heart of events, it was a potentially cruel blow to the balance of the band going forward - or at least it could well have been, had Models continued on the same trajectory. Duffield’s replacement was found in the form of Roger Mason, James Freud’s old band mate from his Radio Stars/Berlin days (so there was kind of a ‘keeping it in the family’ ring to it). Meanwhile, Andrew Duffield continued to write and record his own music, and in 1988 released the solo album ‘Ten Happy Fingers’ on his own Retrograde label. I recall seeing an interview which featured Kelly and Duffield talking about Models (can’t quite recall the source - or vintage), and though the two were most definitely on talking terms, there were still one or two light hearted barbs made in reference to Duffield’s departure. Around the same time that Mason replaced Duffield, Models also decided to recruit a saxophone player, back in the days when they were in plentiful supply, and still a much valued commodity in the popular music industry. James Valentine had built up a strong rep around the traps, and he became the fifth Model at the end of ‘84, whilst Canadian songstress Wendy Matthews came on board as a backing vocalist (Matthews and Kelly would become a couple for the next eleven years).

Models then opted to shift their base of operations to Sydney, and signed to a new management company, MMA. Friends, mutual admirers, and the biggest band in the land, INXS, just happened to be the star client for MMA, under the management auspices of Chris Murphy. Models and INXS had been on friendly terms for years, and in a sense came up through the ranks during the same period - the difference now being that INXS was on the verge of cracking the international market - in a big way. The album to do that for INXS had been ‘The Swing’, on which Models’ Sean Kelly and Andrew Duffield had contributed some backing vocals. At INXS’ encouragement, Chris Murphy took a personal interest in helping Models achieve the same degree of commercial success being rained down upon INXS. But a tad more tweaking in the band’s sound and style would be required, to further align Models to a more commercially accessible pop-rock angle. The shift in approach would inform the style on their next album, but as ever, Models didn’t completely forsake their post-punk roots, and would manage to effectively weave the two strands together, with edgy synth-rock counterbalancing melodic pop-rock.

At the beginning of 1985, Models began work on material for their fourth studio album. Producer Reggie Lucas oversaw early production work on Models’ next single, with local hot shot producer Mark Opitz (Angels, Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, INXS - surprise, surprise) later remixing the track. Opitz then assumed the reigns for the remainder of the album’s recording. In March of ‘85, Models signalled their clear intent to walk the radio-friendly pop line with the release of their new single. ‘Barbados’ was a slow tempo, reggae-tinged song, that was radically removed from the band’s previous single ‘Big On Love’ (ironically the recently departed Duffield co-wrote ‘Barbados’ with Freud). The song had a breezy, almost dreamy quality that washed over listeners with its warmth and charm. James Freud handled lead vocals, and his voice had a soulful, crooning quality to it, though given the song’s subject matter it could have been interpreted as a deliberately slurred edge. Despite the languid, sunny disposition of ‘Barbados’, lyrically, the song had a much darker side, exploring themes of alcoholism, and impending suicide. Freud acted out the character role in the accompanying promo video, directed by none other than Richard Lowenstein (who worked extensively with U2, and guess who else - INXS). The full version of the video didn’t make it past the television censors at the time, with the removal of several scenes relating to an inferred suicide by Freud’s lyrical character (the video’s theme was apparently inspired in part by the film ‘The Deer Hunter’). I’m Talking’s Zan Abeyratne, and Kate Ceberano, appeared in the video clip, with Ceberano credited with backing vocals for the track. Ironically the theme of alcoholism dealt with in the lyrics rang true in life for Freud, and the title of his first autobiography, released in 2002, was ‘I Am The Voice Left From Drinking’, a line lifted directly from the lyrics to ‘Barbados’ (in 2007 he published the follow up ‘I Am The Voice Left From Rehab’). ‘Barbados’ dawned on the Australian charts shortly after its release, and washed ashore to a high tide of #2 by mid year, establishing it as by far and away Models’ biggest selling single to date. But they were about to go one better.

Thanks to Warwick from 80s Dreamer blogspot (see link in Ultra Cool Retro Links) for helping out with some great source photos, little known tidbits, and access to a 1986 interview with Sean Kelly. To read the interview in full, and much more, check out Warwick's Models' fansite at - http://handonhandle.ning.com/