Friday, February 28, 2014

Smokey Robinson - Snapshot - 'Being With You'

During 1981, I recall hearing a smooth R&B coated song called ‘Being With You’.  The artist was Smokey Robinson, someone who at the time I knew little of except that he had once performed with a backing group called the Miracles, and his voice was sublime.  ‘Being With You’ made an impression on me, but made a bigger impression on the charts.  So who is Smokey Robinson, and what’s the story surrounding ‘Being With You’?  Read on to discover more, no really…it’s a ripping yarn!

The year - 1955.  The place - Northern High School in Detroit.  The vocal group - The Miracles.  Comprising William ‘Smokey’ Robinson (lead vocals), Emerson and Bobby Rogers (tenors), Ronnie White (baritone), and Warren ‘Pete’ Moore (bass).  Emerson Rogers was replaced by Claudette Rogers in 1956.  By 1958 the quintet had recorded for the End label, but were signed soon after by one of Detroit’s leading labels, Tamla-Motown.

The Miracles debut on the charts came with 1960’s US#2 ‘Shop Around’.  Thirteen (unlucky for some) further top forty incursions occurred over the ensuing five years, including ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ (US#8), and ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’ (US#16).  As Smokey Robinson had handled all the lead vocals and written a good number of the songs (including for many other leading Motown artists), it was decided in 1967 that he should (officially) become the focal point.  And so the Miracles became Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.  The new formation scored their first top ten hit in late ‘67 with ‘Second That Emotion’, and eight more top forty hits followed through to the end of ‘69.

With the dawn of a new decade, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles finally broke through to the zenith of the U.S. charts with a song that had been originally recorded and included on their 1967 album ‘Make It Happen’.  ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ got a new lease on life in late 1970, crying all the way to #1 in both the U.S. and U.K. (OZ#7).  Strange was it then that soon after scoring their biggest hit as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, that Smokey Robinson decided to pursue some miracles as a solo artist.  The Miracles decided to carry on as a quartet with Billy Griffin on lead vocals.  The group had limited success over the course of the 70s but did score big with the 1976 US#1 ‘Love Machine (Part 1)’ (UK#3/OZ#89).  They had disbanded by the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, Smokey Robinson had continued to churn out the song writing credits for Tamla-Motown, as well as carrying on his official duties as Motown vice-president (a title he had held since 1961 - such was his importance to the fortunes of the label).  He released his debut solo album in 1973, imaginatively titled ‘Smokey’ and followed this up the next year with ‘Pure Smokey’ (a finer grade of Smokey).  A few minor hits were generated but it wasn’t until his 1979 album, ‘Where There’s Smoke’ (US#17), that Robinson fired up once more on the charts, with the U.S.#4 hit ‘Cruising’ (OZ#70).

Smokey Robinson would find his biggest solo success during 1981, in the form of the single ‘Being With You’.  It was the title track lifted from Robinson’s eleventh studio set (US#10/ UK#17/OZ#71).  The song came about as a consequence of another song Robinson had penned over a decade before.  The song ‘More Love’ had been a top forty hit (US#23) back in 1967, and it ended up being offered to Kim Carnes (see previous post) to record in 1980.  The Kim Carnes version, which climbed to #10, had been produced by George Tobin.  Robinson was impressed with the Carnes’ version and, as he so often did, he sent a batch of other songs on to the producer Tobin with a view of Carnes recording them.  By that time producer and artist had split company, so in lieu Tobin suggested producing Smokey Robinson himself recording one of the songs on offer - ‘Being With You’.

‘Being With You’ entered both U.S. and U.K. charts during March of ‘81.  The song peaked at pole position on the British charts mid year (for two weeks/ OZ#14), but was held off reaching top spot on the U.S. charts by none other than Kim Carnes with ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ - a tinge of irony in that lot.

Over the course of the 80s, Smokey Robinson continued to release a steady stream of new material with varied success.  1982’s ‘Touch The Sky’ (US#50) yielded the minor UK hit ‘Tell Me Tomorrow’ (#51), and a string of moderately selling albums followed.  But it was 1987’s ‘One Heartbeat’ album (US#26, #1R&B), that served up a pair of top ten hits Smokey Robinson style.  ‘Just To See Her’ was a standout and a logical single release (US#8/ UK#52/OZ#99), and was followed by the title track (US#10).  In 1989, Robinson contributed vocals to the song ‘Indestructible’, a U.K. hit (#30) for the Four Tops (see separate post).  Robinson had one final album release on the Motown label, with 1990’s ‘Love, Smokey’, effectively signing off after thirty years of recording on the Tamla-Motown roster.

A prolific and highly influential artist and writer, Smokey Robinson received due reward for his achievements by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.  This was followed by his receiving the Grammy Living Legends Award in 1989.

Over the ensuing twenty plus years, Smokey Robinson has continued to write and record music on a steady basis, though without the commercial rewards of times gone past.  Regardless, his legacy in the realm of popular music is assured for all time.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Aretha Franklin - Snapshot - 'Freeway Of Love'

 1985 marked somewhat of a revival in the career of the undisputed ‘Queen of Soul’, Aretha Franklin.  And it was a welcome revival, acting as a reminder to all just what a rare talent Ms. Franklin is.

Aretha Franklin was signed to Columbia Records as an eighteen year old, before switching to what would prove to be a long standing association with the Atlantic label in 1967.  Between 1967 and 1976, with the ace production team of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin in support, Franklin racked up no fewer than an astonishing 34 top forty hits in the U.S.  Some of the best known being ‘Respect’ (that’s R.E.S.P.E.C.T. to you and me), ‘Chain Of Fools’, ‘A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)’, ‘Think’, ‘Say A Little Prayer’, and ‘Spanish Harlem’.  It can’t be overstated the influence Franklin had in shaping soul and R&B music during this period.  Her last top forty hit on the Atlantic label came in 1976, with ‘Something He Can Feel’.  Aretha Franklin resisted the temptation to dive into the disco pool during the latter half of the 70s, preferring instead to take a break from recording.

Following an extended hiatus from recording, Aretha Franklin made a memorable appearance in the 1980 cult classic ‘The Blues Brothers’, where she belted out a blazing rendition of ‘Think’.  Soon after she signed with the Arista label and resumed her place in the charts with 1982’s ‘Jump To It’ (US#24), but it would be 1985 that would mark the return of the ‘Queen of Soul’ to the upper reaches of the mainstream charts.

In July of ‘85, Aretha Franklin released the single ‘Freeway Of Love’.  The track served to introduce Aretha Franklin’s prodigious vocal talent to a whole new generation of music lovers.  ‘Freeway Of Love’ was backed by a fun loving video clip, featuring appearances from saxophonist Clarence Clemons and drummer/producer Narada Michael Walden.  ‘Freeway Of Love’ zoomed through the chart traffic to find a parking space at #3 on the U.S. Hot 100 (OZ#6/UK#51).  The ‘Queen Of Soul’ was back - I can’t help but think there’s a line of comparison to be drawn between Franklin’s comeback and that of another 60s diva in Tina Turner.

In October of ‘85, the Eurythmics released the single ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ from their ‘Be Yourself Tonight’ album.  The song was a rollicking duet with none other than Aretha Franklin, and rushed up the world charts (US#18/ OZ#15/UK#9).

Soon after Franklin released her next solo set, ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’ (US#13/ OZ#15/UK#49).  The album, produced by Narada Michael Walden, featured guest appearances from Clarence Clemons (see previous post), Dizzy Gillespie, Carlos Santana, Peter Wolf (see J. Geils Band post), and several of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.  It was the biggest selling album for Franklin since 1972’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.  It also yielded a top ten hit with the title track (US#7/ OZ#38/UK#11).

1986 saw the album ‘Aretha’ released, spawning the hit ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ (US#21/ OZ#36/UK#58), a cover of the Stones’ hit, produced by Captain Jack’s Dad, Keith Richards.  The album also contained the song ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).  It was a duet that Franklin had recorded with former Wham! member turned solo superstar George Michael.  Produced by Narada Michael Walden (and co-written by Simon Climie - see Climie Fisher post), the song was released as a single in early ‘87 and rocketed up the charts worldwide.  By February, George and Aretha stood atop the pinnacle of the British charts and held station for 2 weeks - it was the first British chart topper for the ‘Queen of Soul’.  The song was recorded in Franklin’s home town of Detroit, and the accompanying promo video shot in part with Michael and Franklin on separate sides of the Atlantic - Franklin had by this time refused to fly.  But fly she did on the Australian charts, with ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ holding sway at #1 for four weeks in March.  The track also topped the U.S. Hot 100 for two weeks during April.  For both Aretha Franklin and George Michael it was a triumph, including earning a Grammy Award for best R&B vocal duet.

Aretha Franklin continued to release albums and singles well into the 90s, and on occasion beyond, with moderate commercial success, and not quite the level of critical admiration afforded her at the peak of her powers.

Over the last 15 years Aretha Franklin has largely shied away from the spotlight, save for the occasional live appearance in concert with friends, and on occasion at award ceremonies.  Included among those awards, are 15 Grammy Awards, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the first woman to be so), and in 1990 the Grammy Living Legends Award.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

J. Geils Band - More Than Just The Pages Of A Magazine

Over their previous couple of albums, the J. Geils Band had tempered hard edged rock and roll laced with funk and R&B, by introducing some pop sensibilities in an effort to make themselves over, and more commercially appealing in a new wave world.  The final chapter of their metamorphosis arrived in the guise of the November ‘81 album release, ‘Freeze-Frame’.

The lead out single was the infectious, anthemic rock n’ roll offering, ‘Centerfold’.  The song was rawness dressed in sleekness, a diametrically opposed combination that strikes the perfect pop-rock balance.  The song was written and produced by the band’s keyboardist Seth Justman.  ‘Centerfold' debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 at #70 in the first week of November ‘81.  Thirteen weeks later it was sitting atop the U.S. charts at #1, replacing ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ by Hall & Oates (see previous posts).  ‘Centerfold’ captured the classes attention at #1 for six weeks in total, before being replaced by ‘I Love Rock ‘n Roll’ by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts - see previous post.  The song was backed by an eye catching promotional video, set in a classroom of scantily clad female models, presumably under the tutorship of Peter Wolf.  I can recall whistling and singing the incredibly catchy chorus melody - “na na nana na nah, angel is a Centerfold” - hardly does it justice in black font, but you get the idea.  ‘Centerfold’ also revealed all at #1 here in Australia (UK#3) for one week during March of ‘82, replacing ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell, and in turn being replaced by ‘What About Me’ by Moving Pictures - see previous posts for both artists.

The follow up single, ‘Freeze-Frame’, was the album’s title and opening track.  It’s a high power pop-rock nugget that bursts into life from the opening chorus shout followed by sharp synthesiser chords.  The track is wall to wall melodic hooks, woven together seamlessly into a four minute miracle of new wave energy.  ‘Freeze-Frame’ was backed at the time by a fun loving promotional video which intercut comic silent era film footage, with the band bouncing around on what appear to be parachutes, and then bringing out the industrial sized buckets of paint, all washed down by bottles of champagne.  In March of ‘82, ‘Freeze-Frame’ fast forwarded into the charts, until stopped frozen before it could reach #1 (US#4/ OZ#7/UK#27).

Single #3 was ‘Angel In Blue’ (US#40/UK#55), a new wave glossed slice of doo-wop.  The source album, ‘Freeze-Frame’, reached #1 on the U.S. album charts (UK#12/OZ#21) the same week that ‘Centerfold’ hit the top of the Hot 100, and eventually went platinum - the only platinum accredited disc of J. Geils Band’s career.  The album fitted perfectly into the new wave movement that was so dominant at the time, but there was enough original J. Geils Band DNA in the mix to keep long time fans interested.

On the back of such a commercial powerhouse as ‘Freeze-Frame’, the J. Geils Band staged a U.S tour that smashed box office records, and were also rewarded for paying their dues by supporting their heroes The Rolling Stones, on a European tour.  One of the Detroit dates on that live U.S. tour was captured on the live offering ‘Showtime! (Live)’ (US#23 - gold accredited), released in late ‘82.  The album yielded two charting singles, the doo-wop dedication ‘I Do’ (US#24), and a raucous cover of the classic ‘Land Of A Thousand Dances’ (US#60).  Several other J. Geils Band classics are also in the mix, including ‘Love Stinks’, ‘Sanctuary’, and ‘Centerfold’, but the album as a whole fails to offer up the same level of vigour as their 70s live outings.

Despite achieving commercial nirvana on their last studio album, all was not well within the J. Geils Band camp (this one time at band camp).  More specifically the partnership between core writers Peter Wolf and Seth Justman was not in a good shape.  Justman had been the prominent member of the team on ‘Freeze-Frame’, composing five of the nine tracks without Wolf’s input.  It was a long bubbling dispute that had intensified and came to a head when the band refused to record some material Wolf had co-written with Don Covay and Michael Jonzun.  Neither side would back down, and in the end Wolf was asked to leave the band in the middle of a recording session.

Wolf took some of that written material he had offered the J. Geils Band, and included it on his first solo album.  ‘Lights Out’ (US#24/ OZ#94) made a shining foray into the U.S. album charts late in ‘84, helped in no small part by the title track single (US#12/OZ#46), and the follow up single, ‘I Need You Tonight’ (US#36).  Given the meagre reception offered his old band for their first (and only) post-Wolf album, it would have been no surprise if Wolf had shown a little smile of satisfaction at his first outing post J. Geils Band.

His follow up album, 1987’s ‘Come As You Are’ (US#53), almost matched the performance of ‘Lights Out’, with the title track single again striding into the U.S. top 20 (#15/OZ#72), with a minor follow up hit in the form of ‘Can’t Get Started’ (US#75).

Wolf then parted ways with EMI, but kept on recording albums, from 1990’s ‘Up To No Good’, through to 2010’s ‘Midnight Souvenirs’ which peaked at #45 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, showing Peter Wolf had lost none of his commercial appeal.  Wolf continued to tour as a solo act, and in time would reunite with his old band mates on stage.

Now reduced to a quintet, and minus the front man presence of Peter Wolf, the J. Geils Band entered the studios in 1984 to record their studio follow up to ‘Freeze-Frame’.  Seth Justman and drummer Stephen Bladd handled the lead vocals, but neither were a match for the snarl of Peter Wolf.  Justman co-wrote all of the album’s nine tracks, along with his brother Paul, and produced the album as well.  Essentially the album, ‘You’re Gettin Even While I’m Gettin Old’ (US#80), is a Justman, synthesiser dominated affair, with flashes of the old J. Geils Band surfacing here and there, including on the only charting single lifted from the set, ‘Concealed Weapons’ (US#63/OZ#67).  When compared with its predecessor ‘Freeze-Frame’, it was no surprise that J. Geils Band saw the writing on the wall and called it a day soon after.

The band’s last released recording, and foray into the lower reaches of the charts was the single ‘Fright Night’ - US#91, in 1985, from the film of same name.  Given the departure of front man and key stylistic navigator, Peter Wolf, it was almost a given that the J. Geils Band ground to halt after just one more album together.  ‘Magic Dick’ Salwitz and J. Geils reunited in 1993 to form a blues band called Bluestime, and recorded two albums, ‘Bluestime’ and ‘Little Car Blues’, whilst other band members pursued various and sundry solo projects.

In 1999, the J. Geils Band reunited with Peter Wolf for a 13 date East Coast tour (less Bladd on drums).  In May of 2006, all six members took the stage at a special event to celebrate bassist Danny Klein’s 60th birthday.  A few more ‘one-offs’ followed over the next few years, including opening for Aerosmith at Fenway Park in 2010.  A series of short tours and one off performances followed, with the most recent outing of the J. Geils Band being as unofficial ‘kicker-band’ for Bon Jovi, in Detroit in 2013.  In September of 2010, J. Geils Band was a finalist nominee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - they missed induction that year, but surely it’s only a matter of time before they take their rightful place.

J. Geils Band - The Long Haul To The Top

When the J. Geils Band rocketed to the top of world charts in early ‘82, many would have thought (as I did at the time) that they were a relatively new artist who had suddenly cracked the formula for chart success.  But beyond the centrefold of their success lay a road paved with the ebbs and flows of a fifteen year ascent to the top.  What follows is a closer look at that journey.

In 1967, Boston based guitarist Jerome ‘J’ Geils started up an acoustic blues trio called, imaginatively enough, the J. Geils Blues Band.  Alongside J, were bassist Danny Klein, and harpist come harmonica come saxophone player ‘Magic Dick’ Salwitz.  A few months into the venture they recruited vocalist Peter ‘Wolf’ Blankfield, and drummer Stephen Jo Bladd, and soon after the quintet plugged in and went electric.  Both Wolf and Bladd had played together previously in the doo-wop and rock revivalist band the Hallucinations.  Their addition to the J. Geils Blues Band added the extra dimension of doo-wop and rock & roll ambience to  proceedings.  Wolf in particular had a larger than life persona, a kind of hyper-kinetic front man in the manner of Jagger and Iggy Pop.  Within a year they had dropped the ‘Blues’ from their moniker and added keyboardist, and song writer Seth Justman to the company.

The J. Geils Band played relentlessly in Boston and the East Coast and built up a strong following and reputation for being a dynamic live act, a bar band gone big (and baaaad), churning out a no-nonsense fusion of blues, rock, R&B, and soul.  The band had positioned themselves as East Coast ‘greasers’, the antithesis of the prevalent psychedelic-rock movement of the time.  Such was their reputation in the region that they were invited to play Woodstock in 1969, an invitation they declined (out of integrity or stupidity? - who knows).  They were playing support for Dr. John in 1969, when they were spotted by a talent scout from Atlantic Records, and they were duly signed to a recording contract soon after.

Atlantic released the J. Geils Band’s eponymous debut set in February of ‘71.  Though neither album or associated singles, ‘Homework’ and ‘Wait’, made the chart grade, critics were impressed with the band’s high energy takes on classic blues numbers by the likes of Otis Rush and John Lee Hooker, along with several Peter Wolf and Seth Justman compositions.  It was a meagre appetiser for what would be served up in the years to come.

What followed the night before, arrived ‘The Morning After’ (US#64) in the form of the J. Geils Band’s second album.  The album, released in late ’71, offered up the same blend of rock infused blues and soul numbers, with once again a mixture of covers and original songs on offer.  The track that brought the rock band to the attention of a more mainstream audience, was the top 40 cover of Bobby Womacks’ ‘Looking For Love’ (US#39).  The Justman/Wolf original ‘I  Don’t Need You No More’ is a dynamic album opener, and to prove the band had a gear other than overdrive, the rock ballad ‘Cry One More Time’ is on offer.

As the J. Geils Band had built up such a phenomenal following as a live act, it was logical that the group venture into live album territory, which is exactly what they did in October of ‘72.  ‘Live - Full House’ (US#54) was recorded at Detroit’s Cinderella Ballroom, and the band churns out songs from their first two albums.  J. Geils Band were among one of the most popular touring acts in the U.S. during this era.  Their shows were built around high energy, no frills, rock infused R&B.  Peter Wolf had the perfect onstage persona, fusing  scorching vocals with jive talkin’ DJ like banter (he had previously been a DJ on Boston radio station WBCN-FM, where he was known as Woofuh Goofuh), with a  churlish attitude reminiscent of Iggy Pop.  This album catches all the forceful rock energy J. Geils Band had to offer - and that was plenty some.

The band then returned to the studio in early ‘73 to record their third studio album.  ‘Bloodshot’ was released in April of ‘73, and boasted nine high energy tracks in all, with all but two original Justman and Wolf compositions.  The reggae inflected ‘Give It To Me’ closed the album but opened the single releases with a #30 effort.  The band performed the song on the U.S. TV show ‘In Concert’ where censors removed the phrase ‘get it up’ from the lyrics (it was still the 70s after all).  The doo-wop-ish ‘Make Up Your Mind’ skimmed the very surface of the U.S. Hot 100 (#98), but the album delivered J. Geils Band their first top ten effort (#10) and first gold album.

The follow up album, ‘Ladies Invited’ (US#51), was the first J. Geils Band album to boast all Justman/Wolf compositions between the covers.  The album was, in relative terms to ‘Bloodshot’, a commercial disappointment, but it lacked none of the verve and dynamism of previous outings.  The group were also receiving some attention in the gossip pages via Peter Wolf’s courtship and 1974 marriage to actress Faye Dunaway (the two would divorce in 1979).

In late ‘74, the band offered up another album with the quirkily titled ‘Nightmare…And Other Tales From The Vinyl Jungle’ (US#26).  The lead out single was ‘Must Of Go Lost’ (US#12/OZ#72), a honky-tonky-ish track that delivered the J. Geils Band their biggest hit under the Atlantic umbrella.  The follow up singles, ‘Gettin Out’ and ‘Givin It All Up’ missed the charts but sit comfortably in the album’s grooves which offer up ingredients from funk, serious blues, and tight yet expansive instrumentation.

1975’s album ‘Hotline’ (US#36) missed the correct numbers for chart success, but did offer up another satisfying mix of originals and covers, all edged with the J. Geils Band high energy delivery.  The single release, ‘Love-Itis’ was a cover of an obscure soul song by Harvey Scales & the Seven Sounds, and opens proceedings that embrace everything from funk based soul to classic rock balladry.

With double live albums all the rage in the mid 70s, it was understandable that such a powerhouse live drawcard as the J. Geils Band should get in on the act, and so they did with 1976’s ‘Live - Blow Your Face Out’ (US#40).  The album(s) once more captured the furious kinetic energy of the band, recorded over two shows in late ‘75 - Boston Garden, and the Cobo Hall, Detroit.  The live track ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ (US#68) was released as a single, whilst other highlights included the nine minute epic ‘Chimes’.  Produced by Bill Szymczyk, the double disc set doesn’t disappoint.

By the time J. Geils Band arrived at the recording studio in 1977, they were at somewhat of a career crossroads.  They had enjoyed fleeting mainstream popularity, and were as big a live attraction as they had ever been, but their last couple of outings seemed to miss the mark, audience numbers wise.  They opted to release their next album, ‘Monkey Island’ (US#51/OZ#97), under the name Geils, possibly in an effort to re-brand themselves.  The band self-produced the album, and all but two of the nine tracks were original Justman/Wolf compositions.  The single released was a mellow, soft rock offering in the form of ‘You’re The Only One’ (US#83).  To display their range of stylistic playing, such a low key song was balanced by the high energy funk of ‘Surrender’.  It was an album of many modes, confusing on some levels, yet paradoxically cohesive in its diversity.

The J. Geils Band switched labels from Atlantic to EMI America in late ‘78.  When work began on their next album, Earth, Wind & Fire producer Joe Wissert was assigned the task of retaining the band’s energy, whilst melding it slightly to hone some of the course edges, introducing a sleeker, more polished sound to proceedings.  The resultant collaboration was late ‘78s ‘Sanctuary’ (US#49/OZ#82), the band’s first gold accredited disc since ‘Bloodshot’.  All nine tracks were penned by Justman and Wolf, including the radio friendly single ‘One Last Kiss’ (US#35/UK#74).  Other highlights included the searing rock of ‘Sanctuary’, the surging ‘Just Can’t Stop Me’, and the second single ‘Take It Back’ (US#67), a glistening cut of pop-soul.

Having traversed so much ground during the 70s, as the 80s dawned it begged the question of which direction the J. Geils Band would undertake next.  A strong clue as to that direction was offered up in the early 1980 album, ‘Love Stinks’ (US#18/OZ#43), a prelude of sorts serving to broaden the band’s mainstream appeal in readiness for the rush of popularity that was to come next.  Keyboardist and co-writer Seth Justman took on fulltime producer duties, and 8 of the 9 tracks on offer were written with Peter Wolf.  The synthesiser crept into the instrumental mix more than it had previously, in keeping with the burgeoning new wave movement of the time.  The opening single, ‘Come Back’ (US#32/OZ#31), was slick, funk-edged fare at its best.  The title track and single, ‘Love Stinks’ (US#38) would be at home comfortably in the Cars’ songbook.  The album’s opening track, and third single, ‘Just Can’t Wait’ (US#78), captures the synth/guitar synthesis so prevalent of early 80s perfectly, and was indicative of the evolution of the J. Geils Band in recent years - an evolution that needed to take just one more step before pay dirt would be struck.

Level 42 - On The Level

Driven by commercial interests, ie. their label, the mid 80s saw Level 42 make the conscious decision to shift to a more accessible pop-soul style of music, with King providing vocals on nearly all tracks, putting them in league with the likes of Deacon Blue, China Crisis, Hipsway, Style Council, and Swing Out Sister (see previous posts).  The movement became a dominant presence on British charts throughout the mid to late 80s.  However, Level 42 retained the added dimension of mild fusion funk, and jazz-rock to the mix, giving them a stylistic depth that critics (and fans alike) approved of.

In late ‘85, Level 42 released their fifth studio album, ‘World Machine’, upon the world.  The lead out single was the radio friendly, ‘Something About You’ (UK#6/US#7), which finally broke Level 42 in a major way Stateside.  The track was indicative of the style and sound across the album’s nine tracks.  Mark King was in fine vocal form, whilst Mike Lindup comes more to the fore with his falsetto vocal harmonies.  The follow up single, the soulful, slow tempo ‘Leaving Me Now’ (UK#15/OZ#98), further revved up the appeal of ‘World Machine’, pushing it to #3 in Britain (US#18), where it stayed for 72 weeks, eventually notching up double platinum status.  And it wasn’t just the public that fell hook, line, and sinker for the stylish new model Level 42.  Mark Sinker wrote in the N.M.E. in November of ‘85 - Level 42’s sound is like a “Brit-trot-punk band with glossy panther sheen, rippling hammer blow psycho motion, and pellucid colourwax drawl”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself, in fact I didn’t say it at all.

In early ‘86, Level 42 released the new single, ‘Lessons In Love’ (UK#3/ US#12/ OZ#65), almost a year ahead of it’s source album - my guess is they were trying to maintain the momentum established by ‘World Machine’.  Co-written by King, Badarou, and Phil Gould, ‘Lessons In Love’, was a pristinely polished piece of soul-pop, with exquisite instrumental craft, and smooth vocal harmonies.  Eventually the source album arrived in early ‘87, in the form of ‘Running In The Family’ (UK#2/ US#23/OZ#35), another double platinum disc to add to its predecessor.  The title track, ‘Running In The Family’ (UK#6/ OZ#43/US#83), consolidated Level 42’s position in the upper reaches of the charts.  It was the first Level 42 single I purchased on vinyl 45.  The soulful ‘To Be With You Again’ (UK#10) followed mid year, as did a stint as opening act on Madonna’s summer tour, before the band headlined their own arena tour, confirming their arrival as a major league pop-rock act.

The slow tempo ballad ‘It’s Over’ (UK#10) delivered Level 42 their fourth consecutive UK Top 10 single.  The soul tinged ‘Children Say’ (UK#22) was the fifth and final of nine album tracks to chart from the ‘Running In The Family’ album.  It was a prosperous period for Level 42, with the group being voted best British group three years running by Blues & Soul magazine.  Mark King was also in high demand during this period, working in studio with the likes of Nik Kershaw, Midge Ure (see previous posts), and Robert Palmer (see future post).  But the band was struck a double blow late in 1987, when both Gould brothers did a ‘running in the family’ and left the band.  It upset the balance of the band and in time would prove the undoing of the magical commercial formula they had attained over the ‘World Music’/‘Running In The Family’ phase of their career.  Guitarist Alan Murphy, and drummer Gary Husband were recruited to fill the vacancies.

The Gould-less Level 42 re-emerged in September of ‘88 with the album ‘Staring At The Sun’ (UK#2/ OZ#86/US#128), complimented by the lead out single ‘Heaven In My Hands’ (UK#12).  The rock infused soul of the track opened the album’s proceedings, but was a highlight among few from the ten tracks on offer.  The follow up single, ‘Take A Look’ (UK#32) was singularly uninspiring, though the funk laced ‘Tracie’ (UK#25) pepped up proceedings nicely.  I purchased both ‘Heaven In My Hands’ and ‘Tracie’ on vinyl 45 (the latter featuring photography by Linda McCartney on the cover art).  Overall, ‘Staring At The Sun’ had a few too many blind spots to be considered in the same league as its predecessors.

The band suffered a further set back in 1989 with the death of guitarist Alan Murphy, and didn’t release any new material save a greatest hits album ‘Level Best’ (UK#5), which contained one new track in the form of ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ (UK#39).  The best of package was the last on Polydor before the label dropped Level 42 from its playing roster.

Level 42 took some time out over 1990 and into ‘91, before recruiting new guitarist Alan Holdsworth, a renowned fusion guitarist, to the fold.  The new quartet signed with RCA and committed to recording a new album over the summer of ‘91, not to be confused with the summer of ‘69, which is a Bryan Adams song and belongs in an entirely different post.  ‘Guaranteed’ (UK#3) kept up the band’s streak of UK top 5 albums (now at 5), but the best single related stat it could manage was with the title track (UK#17).  Flashes of the verve and vibrancy of earlier efforts surfaced in patches throughout the album, including the up-beat single ‘Overtime’ (UK#62), and the horn driven funkification of ‘Her Big Day’.  The third single, ‘My Father’s Shoes’ (UK#55), didn’t have as much soul as other tracks, even venturing into a country-esque feel.  Whilst the album recaptured splinters of soulfulness, it was an inconsistent offering overall.

A three year wait elapsed before the release of Level 42’s 1994 album, ‘Forever Now’ (UK#8).  The album marked the return of drummer Phil Gould to the fold, and also marked a resurgence in creative form for the band.  The lead out single was the title track, ‘Forever Now’ (UK#19), evoking the likes of Kool & the Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire with it’s bold and brassy sound.  Two more of the album’s fifteen tracks found a reception inside the U.K. top 40 - ‘All Over You’ (UK#26), and the sleek ‘Love In A Peaceful World’ (UK#31).

Despite a return to creative form on ‘Forever Now’, Level 42 all but disappeared from view over the next ten years, save for some occasional tour dates, of which Mark King was the only constant member.  In 2006, the band resurfaced, featuring Mark King, Mike Lindup, with contributions from the Gould brothers on the album ‘Retroglide’.  There were one or two highlights harking back to the band’s glory days, but overall it lacked the funk-based edge of the band’s original sound, and offered more forgettable than memorable moments.

In 2010, Level 42 celebrated its 30th anniversary with a tour, and a four disc box set titled ‘Living It Up’, which featured a disc of newly recorded acoustic versions of Level 42 hits, by King and Lindup.

Level 42 - Levelling Up

 During 1987 and 1988, my vinyl 45s purchasing reached its peak.  It’s hard to estimate just how many singles I bought, but it would have been between 200-300.  One of those singles was ‘Running In The Family’ by Manchester quartet Level 42 (it wasn’t the last Level 42 45 I picked up).  I fell in love with the song, and not long after I bought my first CD player, I purchased a copy of the source album, ‘Running In The Family’.  To be more specific, I purchased the ‘Platinum Edition’ of the album, which featured several Shep Pettibone remixes.  It remains to this day one of my favourite albums to throw on and listen to from start to finish (maybe with a few repeat tracks thrown in).

During the 70s, Mark King (bass) became friends with the Gould brothers, Boon (guitar), and Phil (drums), when they were living on the Isle of Wight.  King had played the drums in other bands, but when the trio decided to start a band of their own, it was Phil Gould who won out in the battle of the drummers stakes.  With opportunities limited at home, the trio opted to move to the big smoke, Manchester, during 1978.  They soon after hooked up with keyboardist Mike Lindup to complete their line-up.

The quartet soon became regulars on the London funk and jazz-rock fusion scene (influenced heavily by the likes of Stanley Clarke, Average White Band, and Herbie Hancock), aligning themselves with the likes of Atmosfear and Incognito.  Level 42 played mostly instrumentals during their early days, with Mark King handling any vocal requirements.  King also developed his distinctive thumb slapping bass style during these formative years (in time he would be voted the best bassist in the world by Blues & Soul magazine), which would provide a signature dynamic to the Level 42 sound.

Level 42 were signed to Andy Sojka’s independent Elite label in early 1980.  Over the summer they laid down 8 tracks in all that would comprise their debut album, ‘Strategy’ (later released in 1982 by Polydor as ‘The Early Tapes July-August 1980’ - UK#46).  It’s important to note that a fifth musician, keyboardist Wally Badarou (the unofficial fifth member), contributed significantly to the debut album as well as subsequent albums (he would co-write a number of the band’s hits).  The two singles lifted from the album were well received on the London dance club scene, and made a mild splash in the mainstream charts; ‘Love Meeting Love’ (UK#61) and ‘Wings Of Love’.  Five of the eight tracks were instrumentals, allowing the quartet to show off their considerable instrument craft.

Having shown considerable commercial potential, Level 42 were snapped up by the Polydor label in early ‘81.  The band hit the studios to lay down another eight tracks, this time to be released as their self-titled sophomore effort (UK#20).  The album was a mix of slick soul and R&B, produced once more by Andy Sojka, and realised three minor hit singles; ‘Love Games’ (UK#38), ‘Turn It On’ (UK#57), and ‘Starchild’ (UK#47).

In early ‘82, Level 42 began an extended run playing at London’s famous Barracuda Club, further solidifying their reputation with a legion of fans.  By mid ‘82, the band had recorded their third album, ‘The Pursuit Of Accidents’ (UK#17), which by no accident yielded three more top fifty hits; ‘Are You Hearing (What I Hear)?’ (UK#49), ‘Weave Your Spell’ (UK#43), and ‘The Chinese Way’ (UK#24), keeping the Level 42 brand in the British charts into 1983.  The writing stakes for Level 42 were evenly shared between members, though King was a stronger contributor overall.  It’s also worth noting that all but one of the ten tracks clocked in at over five minutes, so at this stage Level 42 were not geared toward being a ‘singles’ band.

For 1983’s album, ‘Standing In The Light’ (UK#9), Level 42 signalled a shift in style and substance that would lay down the early plans for future chart domination.  Of the nine tracks, all but one stopped the clock at under five minutes, much more palatable for commercial radio to air, and all of the tracks featured vocals.  They were clearly positioning themselves for greater commercial accessibility.  Produced by Larry Dunn and Verdine White (of Earth, Wind and Fire - see future post), it spawned three more British hits, including their first foray into the top ten; ‘Out Of Sight Out Of Mind’ (UK#41), ‘The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’ (UK#10 - very Earth, Wind and Fire come Kool & the Gang, and worth noting King and Lindup shared lead vocals), and ‘Micro-Kid’ (UK#37).

In the summer of ‘84, Mark King released a solo album titled ‘Influences’ (UK#77), but immediately following that returned to the Level 42 fold to work on the band’s fifth studio set.  The lead out single, ‘Hot Water’ (UK#18) received a warm round of applause from record buyers, whilst the follow up ‘The Chant Has Begun’ let itself be heard at UK#41.  The source album, ‘True Colours’ (UK#14), didn’t quite come up to the level of its predecessor, but Level 42 were displaying a consistent standard of quality and commercial appeal on their product.

They band were also one of the top live drawcards on the London club scene, captured in the summer ‘85 album release ‘A Physical Presence’ (UK#28), an album of live recordings from UK club dates.

Level 42 had steadily built a momentum toward mainstream appeal, but as yet hadn’t broken through in a major way.  Their next album release would change all that.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Fleetwood Mac - Snapshot - A Majestic 'Mirage'

Having been somewhat of a chameleonic band during their first decade together, in 1975 Fleetwood Mac struck upon a more settled line-up comprising, Mick Fleetwood (drums), John McVie (bass), Christine McVie (vocals, keyboards), Lindsey Buckingham (vocals, guitar), and Stevie Nicks (vocals).  The revamped line-up also marked a stylistic change, and generated a significant boost in commercial fortunes.  The band’s ‘75 vintage eponymous album (US#1/ OZ#3/UK#23) - yielding hits ‘Rhiannon’ (US#11/ OZ#13/UK#46)  and ‘Say You Love Me’ (US#11/ OZ#38/UK#40) - topped charts the world over and sold in the millions, but it was merely a forerunner to the behemoth of an album in 1977 - namely, ‘Rumours’ (US#1/ OZ#1/UK#1).  The ‘Rumour’s album set a commercial (and arguably critical) benchmark that was unlikely to ever be repeated by Fleetwood Mac (or most other artists for that matter).  Every one of the album’s 11 tracks was a winner, and the album was exponentially greater than the some of its parts.  With the likes of ‘Dreams’ (US#1/OZ#19/UK#24), ‘Go Your Own Way’ (US#10/ OZ#20/UK#38), and ‘Don’t Stop’ (US#3/ OZ#30/UK#32) leading the way, it landed on virtually every available turntable at the time. It was a case of ‘beat that if you can’.

With nearly two years of production work and millions of dollars invested in its production, the 1979 double album, ‘Tusk’ (US#4/ OZ#2/UK#1), was always destined to be branded a ‘commercial flop’ by comparison to ‘Rumours’, irrespective of the fact that it sold in very respectable numbers and spawned the hypnotic ‘Tusk’ (US#8/ OZ#3/UK#6), and the sensual Stevie Nicks track ‘Sara’ (US#7/ OZ#11/UK#37) as top ten singles.  Fleetwood Mac followed up the ‘Tusk’ album with a lengthy world tour resulting in their first ‘live’ double album set. ‘Fleetwood Mac Live’ (US#14/ OZ#20/UK#31) captured the artistry and kinetic energy of the quintet brilliantly.

Following their world tour Fleetwood Mac went on hiatus during 1981 to pursue solo interests.  Lindsey Buckingham released the album ‘Law and Order’ (US#32/ OZ#10) which yielded the huge hit ‘Trouble’ (OZ#1/ US#9 /UK#31) - see previous post.  Whilst, Stevie Nicks released the smash debut album ‘Bella Donna’ (US#1/ OZ#1/UK#11), which featured the hit singles ‘Edge Of Seventeen’ (US#11), ‘Leather And Lace’ (with Don Henley - US#6/OZ#68), and ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ (with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - US#3/ OZ#10/UK#50). 

By 1982, the five Macs reconvened en masse in the studio to work on their fourth studio album together as a unit.  The result of their collective toils was the majestic ‘Mirage’ album, released in June of ’82 (US#1/ OZ#2/UK#5) - and my personal choice as favourite Fleetwood Mac album.  Co-produced by Ken Caillat and Lindsey Buckingham, the album comprised  twelve tracks in all, with writing and vocal duties shared equally between Buckingham, McVie, and Nicks.

The crystalline ‘Love In Store’ (US#22/ OZ#96) opens proceedings, featuring Christine McVie’s angelic vocals.  Lindsey Buckingham’s ‘Can’t Go Back’ provides a dose of rock and roll nostalgia next up.  Stevie Nicks goes down home country on ‘That’s Alright’.  Swirling vocal harmonies sweep up the listener on Buckingham’s ‘Book Of Love’.  and then comes the Stevie Nicks masterpiece ‘Gypsy’, softly lilting yet compelling at the same time.  ‘Gypsy’ (US#12/ OZ#17/UK#46) was released as the second single from the ‘Mirage’ album and was backed by a cinematic scale promotional video (they knew how to make them in those days).  McVie’s seductive ‘Only Over You’ ends proceedings on side one (yes back in the day albums featured a side one and a side two).

Lindsey Buckingham kicks off the second half of ‘Mirage’ with his dreamy, quirky dedication to the ‘Big Apple’, New York City, on ‘Empire State’ (close to my personal choice of tracks on the album).  The stylish ‘Straight Back’ from Stevie Nicks entrances listeners next.  To follow comes one of my favourite Fleetwood Mac tracks of all time.  Written by Christine McVie and Robbie Patton (scored US#26 hit in 1981 with ‘Don’t Give It Up’ - co-produced by McVie), ‘Hold Me’ (US#4/OZ#12) is a lush affair, defined by pristine vocal harmonies throughout, and was backed by a visually captivating promotional video.  Lindsey Buckingham then touches on a slice of rock-a-billy for ‘Oh Diane’ (UK#9), before ears turn to his ‘Eyes Of The World’.  The album is rounded out by Christine McVie’s lamenting ballad ‘Wish You Were Here’.

This incarnation of Fleetwood Mac had one more commercially big album in them, realised as 1987’s ‘Tango In The Night’ (US#7/ OZ#5/UK#1), featuring the hits ‘Big Love’ (US#5 /OZ#16/UK#9), ‘Seven Wonders’ (US#19/ OZ#23/UK#56), and ‘Little Lies’ (US#4/ OZ#16/UK#5), before Lindsey Buckingham upped microphone and went his own way.  The Mac recruited some handy replacements for Buckingham and released ‘Behind The Mask’ (US#18/ OZ#10/UK#1) backed by a world tour (which I was privileged to witness first hand in Sydney).  Five years passed before a Nicks-less Fleetwood Mac released 1995’s ‘Time’.  But within two years the ‘classic’ five reunited for the 1997 live set ‘The Dance’ (US#1/UK#15), which featured a collection of their big hits interspersed with a handful of new tracks.  Six years later Fleetwood Mac the quartet (now without Christine McVie) released a studio album of all new material on ‘Say You Will’ (US#3) which careered into the U.S. top ten, confirming that the Fleetwood Mac brand was still strong.  Over the ensuing decade the quartet of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood have continued to tour sporadically, in between further solo projects.  It’s this authors aim to see Fleetwood Mac at least once more before they hang up their instruments.