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Old 01-20-2013, 12:24 PM   #1691 (permalink)
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Sky 2 --- Sky --- 1980 (Arista)


I believe this was the first fully instrumental album I ever owned, and it's still one of my favourites. I bought it after hearing what was their single in the charts at the time, "Tocatta", of which much more later, and though a lot of the album is not really anything near the updated, rocky treatment they gave poor old Bach, it's pretty much a winner all round, and there's kind of something for everyone on the album. If you like classical music, progressive rock with a twist, jazz or even instrumental pop music (think "Hooked on classics" and you're somewhere close) then you're probably going to find at least one track on this album that you'll enjoy. If nothing else, you can luxuriate in the meshing talents of five musicians from pretty much wildly varying genres, all at the top of their game, all coming together to produce something pretty special, and something, to be fair, they would not repeat or reproduce ever again. A unique album, in many ways, and worth taking the over sixty minutes it runs for to listen to.

So, who are, or rather were, Sky? Nowdays of course it's BSkyB, the satellite megamonster broadcaster, who almost have a copyright on that thing that hangs over each of us, you know, the one with the sun, the moon and the stars in it? But back in 1980 Sky the channel were only really getting going, and were in fact under threat from Superchannel (a battle the latter lost) and Sky the band were hitting the charts with a number one album and a number five hit single. Seems unlikely these days, but back then a lot of off-the-wall stuff could get into the charts; in fact, in some ways, the quirkier and more different it was the more chance there was that people would buy it, if only out of curiosity or for the novelty factor. Also of course explains why songs like Clive Dunne's (may he rest in peace) "Grandad" got to number one! But occasionally among the novelty and speciality records there was one that stood out, and Sky's "Tocatta" was one such. Still, I once again get ahead of myself.

Sky were formed around 1978 when classical guitarist John Williams (no, not that one!) collaborated with bass player Herbie Flowers, who had played with T-Rex, and Tristan Fry, a drummer whose impressive resume included work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, both of whom had worked on Williams's solo debut album and were then joined by Francis Monkman, founder of Curved Air, to help him record his second, and thereafter bringing in guitarist Kevin Peek they formed the band which they named Sky. Their debut under this name was released in 1979 to great acclaim. It was their second however that would bring them their biggest success, and conversely, a highpoint which their career would not scale again. Sky 2 was the point where the band realised, hey, this is not just a project between like-minded guys: people actually like this music we're making! The debut was I suppose akin to throwing out feelers, or if you prefer casting a net into a wide and possibly uncaring sea, whereas "Sky 2" was a huge haul of delicious and valuable proportions that made the boat heave as they pulled it aboard.

Ah, fishing metaphors, eh? Ya shoulda seen the one wot got away! But the trouble was that Sky didn't keep this rather balanced mix of classical updates, straight classical recordings, prog rock and jazz with a smidgeon of pop and easy listening. On their next album they tried pushing the jazz element more, this mostly brought about by the departure of Francis Monkman, who had been their main composer, and though the album was popular --- and Sky the band remained so --- their attraction was beginning to wane a little. But more of that in the closing section. Right here we're concerned with this album, their second, "Sky 2", and how it just ticks all the right boxes and became a minor classic, one of the few fully instrumental albums to top the UK charts.

The album is a double, and opens on "Hotta", with some bouncy percussion and almost Alan Parsons-style guitar joined by synthy keyboard building up in intensity and creating a nice boppy little tune, with a strong guitar line and some slick bass. Some very proggy keyboard runs from Monkman take over then, leaning into Jean-Michel Jarre territory for a time, before Peek's squealing guitar comes back in and Williams joins him on classical guitar. Near the end of the piece Tristan Fry cuts loose with a drum solo that would probably have raised some disapproving eyebrows back at the Royal Philharmonic, but here adds teeth to the composition before Peek takes over again with Flowers keeping the tight bassline and bringing the opener, er, to a close. "Dance of the little fairies", despite its giggle-inducing title, is a soft little piano piece that showcases the talent of Francis Monkman with some harpsichordal sounding keyboards too, and Kevin Peek adding in guitar flourishes while Flowers' steady bassline pulses through it all like a heartbeat.

A carnival-like organ then fleshes the song out as it gets a little more intense and some fine guitar from John Williams adds to it, and for a piece that only runs just slightly over three and a half minutes it's got a lot going on. "Sahara" then is Kevin Peek's composition, the only one he writes solo on the album, and it starts off as a nice little laidback guitar piece with twinkling piano before Fry's percussion bursts in and the piano gets harder, the whole thing then taking off on the back of Peek's chingling guitar, with a very Spanish/Mediterranean sound to it. You really get a sense of how good a guitarist Kevin Peek is here as he puts his instrument through its paces, slowing down as we head for the third minute of the almost seven the tune runs for, with a beautifully relaxing display of virtuosity, an island of calm in the storm, the oasis in the desert. Fry's drumming is big and bold here, and Monkman's piano tinkles along the edges, adding to but never detracting from or overpowering the guitar, the whole thing taking on quite a progressive rock feel again in the fifth minute, shades of mid-seventies Genesis, before on the back of Fry's punching, rolling drums it all ramps up again to the frenetic conclusion.

The longest track on the album, composed completely by Francis Monkman, "Fifo" runs for over seventeen minutes and is broken into four separate parts. Part I, known as "First movement: Fifo" is driven by Kevin Peek's electric guitar allied to Herbie Flowers' funky bass and Tristan Fry's at times almost Linn-sounding drumming, and moves along at a fine pace until the second part, or movement, "Adagio", not surprisingly, slows everything down on the back of classical guitar and piano, almost mirroring the sound of a feather falling, that sort of light, airy feel to the music, very little if any percussion at all, then "Scherzo", the third movement kicks it all back up again as a real rocky beat driven by Fry and Flowers takes the piano and organ, and accompanying guitars, into overdrive. More elements of Genesis and the Alan Parsons Project detectable in this melody, which gets quite insistent compared to the first two movements and slips into my favourite movement, the final one, "Watching the aeroplanes". Opening on a breathy, swirling keyboard passage almost like tubular bells at times, Peek's guitar cuts in and Fry's percussion hammers the way as the composition reaches its conclusion. Some great work from Peek and some fine, steady basswork from Flowers, lovely bit of guitar from Williams and the whole thing just fades down nicely then.

After that phenomenal piece, "Tuba Smarties" comes as a bit of a letdown, though it's fun I suppose, with Herbie Flowers adding tuba playing to his talents, and Tristan Fry taking the trumpet. The whole thing is, of course, arranged around a melody on the tuba (never the easiest of instruments to write for, I would imagine) and is perfomed live and with a certain comic twist, and for what it is I suppose it's well played, but to me it stands apart from the rest of the music on the album, and not in a good way. I'm not a huge fan of tuba music anyway. The next three pieces are straight-ahead classical compositions, the first and third with some rearranging by John Williams, though "Gavotte and variations" is left as it was when originally written. If you don't like classical music (shame on you!) you may as well skip these three tracks, as they're not really changed or modernised in any way.

"Ballet volta" is of course a chance for John Williams to shine at what he does best: classical guitar playing classical music, and though laid back and chamber music it's a joy to hear. Towards the end it gets a little more lively, the guitar getting somewhat harder and more forceful, but it still sounds like something lords and ladies would dance to in the olden days. Sticking with that basic theme, "Gavotte and variations" seems to be played mostly on harpsichord and acoustic guitar, with a very medieval feeling to it, getting a little faster as it goes along, with some fine piano and/or harpsichord playing by Monkman. It's the longest of the three classical pieces, clocking in at just over six minutes, while "Andante" is a beautiful slow classical guitar piece which perfectly complements the somewhat overlong and at times boring preceding track.

"Tristan's magic garden" seems to be mostly played on something like glass harp, vibes or marimba, but I couldn't say which: may even just be voices on the synthesiser. But it gives a lovely effect of wind blowing across the desert, or a garden indeed, and it's very relaxing and laidback. Fry then shows his talent as a timpanist --- a position he occupies with the RPO --- in a dazzling display of percussion that takes the whole piece up several notches, with what could very well be a xylopone in there too. "El cielo" then is another chance for Williams to display his talent on his instrument of choice, with fluting keyboards added by Monkman in another soft, lazy piece that just makes you think of blue skies and summer days. Sort of an accordion sound about the keys, very nice.

Kevin Peek gets to add his guitar to the mix too, and Fry's sussurating, sighing cymbals really do sound like breakers on the shore. "Vivaldi" then is obviously a tribute to the man, with snippets of the Four Seasons mixed up in a sort of classic rock interpretation of the master's work, heavy rolling percussion from Fry and sharp guitar from Peek and Williams backed up by solid keyboards from Monkman, thundering along as it goes, the whole piece very evocative of the punchy, urgent style of Antonio Vivaldi and ending on a fine guitar riff, taking us into the other large composition. Although broken into two parts, "Scipio" shows no distinction between the two, and runs for a total of just over eleven minutes, opening on an uptempo classical guitar melody, joined by bouncy percussion and some inventive bass from Herbie Flowers then some very soft and classical piano from Monkman, before he changes to full keyboards and punches it right up, the tempo rocking along nicely now, the classical guitar more or less subsumed by Kevin Peek's burgeoning electric, then some squelchy snyth and hopping piano as the classical guitar of Williams makes a return.

Some very videogames-sounding keyboards from Monkman and there's more of the prog rock feel to this as it goes along, with some funky basslines from Flowers. I really can't say, as I already mentioned, where part one becomes part two, but it's not really that necessary to know, as it's just a really nice piece of music, only let down, in my opinion, by the damp squib ending, where after building up to a big guitar and keyboards crescendo it all just sort of falls away to an annoying little fiddle-type sound on the keys and just, well, fades off into the distance rather quickly. Ah, but then there's "Tocatta"...

Bringing the album to a powerful and triumphant close is the piece that hit the charts for Sky in single form, and which brought them to my attention via that single. A rearrangement of Bach's "Toccata and fugue in D Minor", it's probably well known to most people by now, but in case you don't know it, it's a fast, rocky update of the classical piece, with great guitar runs and some fine synthwork, rolling, thundering percussion and it's a perfect ending to the album, bringing together the two main elements of Sky, classical music and uptempo rock arrangements.

TRACKLISTING

1. Hotta
2. Dance of the little fairies
3. Sahara
4. Fifo
(i) First movement: Fifo
(ii) Second movement: Adagio
(iii) Third movement: Scherzo
(iv) Fourth movement: Watching the aeroplanes
5. Tuba Smarties
6. Ballet -- Volta
7. Gavotte and variations
8. Andante
9. Tristan's magic garden
10. El cielo
11. Vivaldi
12. Scipio, parts 1 & 2
13. Tocatta

As I mentioned earlier, this was the album that "broke" Sky, if you can use such a word for a stellar collection of musicians who probably really didn't care if they made it big as Sky: each had his own separate and very successful career already. But this was the album that probably surprised many pundits by getting to number one and, more amazingly, giving the band a top five single. After this, however, the very nature of Sky seems to have been their undoing. Bucking the old maxim of "if it ain't broke don't fix it", they had found a formula that worked --- quite I'm sure to their surprise --- and immediately set about changing it. "Sky 3", their third album released the year following this, not only saw the departure of Francis Monkman but also pushed the band in a more traditionally jazz direction, while their fourth went one step further, consisting only of arrangements of classical compositions, no original material at all.

By now, Sky's popularity was on the wane. The fickle public, attracted to the different sound of the band, had begun to get bored as the novelty wore off, and those who were not fans of jazz failed to buy or at least enjoy the third album, while those not overly pushed about classical were loathe to invest in the fourth album. By the time their fifth album, the first not to be numbered, rolled around at the end of 1983, people weren't really interested any more and "Cadmium" sold poorly. Added to this the fact that John Williams, founder and leading light of the band, departed after the album and Sky were on the road to winding down really. Their sixth album was released to little relative fanfare in 1985, with several "guest stars", one of whom was Rick Wakeman, but interest was definitely leaking away and they recorded their last album, a tribute to Mozart, in 1987.

Although Sky never officially broke up, there has been no new recorded output from them for over twenty years now, so effectively they may as well have split. Perhaps someday they may reform, who knows, but for now "Sky 2" stands as a testament to their brief and unexpected worldwide popularity, showing the jaded record label executives and columnists that there was still room in the world for an instrumental band who revered classical and jazz music. Never equalled, never bettered, this album is a prime example of a zenith achieved but never repeated. The glory days of Sky. It all seems such a long time ago now.
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Old 01-21-2013, 03:57 AM   #1692 (permalink)
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Sky developed from John Williams' rock music albums, Changes and Travelling. I remember hearing these on BBC Radio 2 at the time, because I worked in a place dominated by an easy listening fan. The band had a mainstream hit with the excellent Toccata which got them a lot of coverage. Sky2 was released soon after, amid tabloid newpaper adverts, at a budget price.

A friend and I were browsing in a Virgin record shop in central London. It may have been in Oxford Street, but could have been in Tottenham Court Road or somewhere. It was notable at the time for having a range of imports, so you could get Nektar albums like Live in New York. Anyway, we heard something being played through the shop speakers, which we liked, so we asked at the counter and they said it was Sky2. We both bought a copy. The track turned out to be Watching the Aeroplanes, which I still think has a great riff and is a bit underrated.

Herbie Flowers played bass on Lou Reed's Walk On the Wild Side. He had the idea of multi-tracking accoustic and electric bass, although he neither received, or sought, songwriting credits. In the light of Matthew Fisher's success with A Whiter Shade of Pale, you would think he might reconsider.

Thanks for mentioning the album TH, it reminded me of my younger days trawling through London record shops and prompted me to dig it out and give it another listen. The only other Sky album I've got is a poor vinyl rip of Cadmium (1984), which I don't think ever made it to CD. It's very good, although the critics gave it a panning.

It seems a shame to me that Sky did not continue beyond the nineteen-eighties. Kevin Peek had serious financial problems, which I hope he has resolved.
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Old 01-23-2013, 05:18 AM   #1693 (permalink)
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The thing about this section is that it frees me. It releases the inner chauvinist, lech or whatever you want to call it: the part of me that wants to stare at women's behinds as they walk past, or that rates them as I watch them on the street. Look, we all do it, okay? Just most of us don't want to admit it. That's not to say I don't have the utmost respect for women --- I do, but what we think and what we do are of course two separate things, otherwise a lot of us would be in trouble, if not in jail!

So although I hate this song, particularly the way they used Stevie's “Edge of seventeen” (Yes I know she played on the record/video: doesn't mean I have to like it!), I can't fault the sexiness of it. And of course, it was written and shot to have that effect. I mean, who writes a song called “Bootylicious” and doesn't expect it to turn guys on? In some ways it's a really arrogant song, a total “look-at-me-how-sexy-I-am-aren't-I-gorgeous” that just makes you want to take them one by one across your .... ahem. Anyway, here it is for you to slaver over.
Destiny's Child --- Bootylicious --- 7 out of 10 on Trollheart's “Way-hay!” scale
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Old 01-27-2013, 09:49 AM   #1694 (permalink)
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There are people --- too many, unfortunately as far as I'm concerned --- who will hear a song, like it, buy it and then move on. These people are mostly what we used to call single-buyers; people who are more interested in what's popular and in the charts than in any one band. Their collection probably consists of hundreds, perhaps thousands of singles all of different bands. Having heard something they like, they have no desire to look further into that artiste's music. They may love the single, but they won't buy the album. Or they might, if it has enough hit singles on it, but are unlikely to play the whole thing through any more than once. They're not interested in collecting an artiste's discography, and they don't care what their new album sounds like. To some extent, I experience this first hand, as my sister is, or was, one of these people. There were certain songs she liked and no matter how much I tried to get her into the albums from which those songs came, or other albums, she wasn't interested. She's a big Bon Jovi fan, but her last experience of them was "Keep the faith", and she hasn't had any interest in their newer albums. Of course, now she's bedbound with MS, so I shouldn't put her down for not keeping up to date with music. But even when she was well and healthy, this was her attitude.

It's an attitude sadly too familiar and widespread, and it leads to, I suppose, singles being hits, and more than that, being one-hit wonders, or classed as such. But it's sad when people won't take the time to delve a little deeper, because they might surprise themselves and find a lot more music they like. We've all learned that lesson; indeed, for most of us it informs the way we pursue, discover and enjoy music. But because of this tendency to just buy "the hits", a large percentage of the population --- let's not be unkind and call them ignorant; let's say "uninformed musically" --- probably think that some bands only had one hit, or that all their music is like that one they like. All Foreigner music is "I want to know what love is". Everything a-ha have done is "Take on me", and Europe never wrote or had another hit after "The final countdown". It's a blinkered, biased view, but I suppose you can't blame these people. Some people are just not as into music as you and I. However I would like to set the record straight.

The problem as I see it with this approach is that those outside of their fanbase or those not interested in the genre, or music generally, think this is all there is to a band, and that attitude gets around. So anyone hearing, for instance, a-ha's "Angel in the snow" would be surprised it's not a poppy, electro dancy song. They expect everything to sound the same --- I don't know why --- and they get a little miffed when this doesn't happen, and so don't buy another song from that band. But for the band themselves these big hit singles, --- sometimes their only mainstream successes --- can hang around their collective necks like a millstone, dogging their careers like the very albatross for which this section is named. Because they've been so successful, and because their next single isn't almost exactly the same, people turn away, and the band --- who probably don't really care --- soldier on, producing album after album and perhaps gaining awards and respect among their peers, but all this passes by unnoticed by the general public. To them, the band only ever had one song, and that's all they care about.

So in this section I'm looking at singles which were the commercial highpoint of a band's career, but which, after the dust had settled, they moved on from and went on to do quite well --- in some cases extremely well---, while the "single-buyers" stuffed the record away in their growing collection and forgot all about them. While the sometimes unexpected success was rarely if ever the end of a band, commercially it could seem so. DJs would know them by this single. Radio stations would play it and nothing else from the band, no matter how old it was. The band would become defined by this single, and in the eyes of the public, outside of those "in the know", they never released anything else, or nothing worth hearing anyway.

Follow you follow me
Genesis
Released February 25 1978
From the album "And then there were three"
Backed with "Ballad of Big" in the UK and "Inside and out" in the USA
Chart position: 7 (UK) 24 (USA) --- first chart success for Genesis in the States


Without question the biggest hit single for Genesis, and their first proper entrance into the pop charts since "I know what I like" in 1973, the final track off the first album to feature only the remaining three core members of Genesis --- Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Phil Collins --- shot them into the top ten and made people who had up till then only considered Genesis as a book in the Bible sit up and take notice. The song is a complete departure from their usual progressive rock pieces, most of which tended to be quite long and focussed on esoteric subjects, such as mythology, fantasy or folklore, or rural themes. It would be seen as their first real love song, and probably is really, although "Wind and wuthering" has the sublime "Afterglow". More importantly, it was an accessible song from the band. The lyric deals with simple themes: love, devotion, friendship. I guess you'd say it's Genesis's "chick song", and certainly after it became a hit the band do note in documentaries that there was a sudden increase in the female audience at their gigs.

Although it did phenomenally well for them, considering this was their first hit single and they had at this time been in existence for almost a decade, its success was not repeated with the followup single, another love song, "Many too many", which just missed the top forty here and did nothing Stateside. After that of course Genesis would become more commercial and by virtue of this become better known, with more hit singles from "Duke" and indeed later albums like "We can't dance", but this was their high point, and ask anyone --- who's not a fan or a person interested in music --- to name one Genesis song and the likelihood is that this will be the one they point to. It's quite sad really, because although I love the song it is a much weaker track than others on the album, particularly the powerful "Burning rope" and the beautiful, eerie "Snowbound", to say nothing of the menacing "The lady lies". Perhaps the label shot themselves in the foot too, by backing it (at least on this side of the water) with what is without question the worst track on the album, the risible "Ballad of Big", which I always skip over when playing the album. In the days of physical vinyl singles, it was often the practice to turn the disc over and see what was on the B-side. Anyone doing that here would have been most disappointed. Maybe it would have been a different story had one of the songs I mentioned above been chosen to accompany the big hit, or even "Scenes from a night's dream", or "Undertow". Or anything but that bloody song!

But this is how it went, and as a result, though Genesis became better known and accepted off the back of that single, and indeed changed their musical direction --- whether in an effort to replicate or cash-in on that success or not I won't speculate --- there must have been times when they got weary of the constant calls for it at their concerts. "How about Supper's ready instead?" No, give us "Follow you follow me". Oh bloody hell, okay, here we go again....

Philistines.
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Old 01-27-2013, 12:47 PM   #1695 (permalink)
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Nice!
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Old 01-28-2013, 11:36 AM   #1696 (permalink)
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Being something of a smug bastard when growing up, I knew what music I liked and pretty much frowned on everything else. It was like I had the secret of music and no-one else understood it. I sneered at the pop charts, the pretty-boy new romantic and new wave bands, laughed at punk and was just totally disinterested in disco, ska, reggae and the rest of the huge musical spectrum that failed to fit in to my narrow music worldview. Even if I heard a song that I had to admit was good, I wouldn't: if it was by a band or artiste I didn't like I would pretend I hated it, though secretly liking it. Someone would say "but don't you like that song by them" and I'd reply with "Shutupshutupshutup!" Yeah I know: the maturity and arrogance of youth, huh?

But life gets you in the end, and what goes around comes around. I've already faced my demons last year in my tour though the music of boybands, and been more than a little embarrassed to have to agree that some of their music isn't as bad as I had made it out to be, and indeed I recall hearing Westlife's "Flying without wings" and Take That's "Rule the world" and thinking, in my secret heart, man those are good songs, while the more abrasive, arrogant part of me refused to accept that and tagged the songs as crap, not because they were (which they weren't) but because of who it was by.

So now I'm (a lot) older and (a little) wiser, and I've come to realise, a little late, that it's not who plays the music but the music itself that's important. To paraphrase something I heard once, it's the song not the singer, and if I happen to enjoy a song by band A or artiste B, it doesn't mean I (have to) like all their music, or that I instantly become a fan. Almost following on from yesterday's new section, "The Albatross", I may become one of those people who buy, or listen to, one song, and never go any further with that artiste. But the fact remains that there is music in my collection now that I would never have envisaged listening to, never mind owning, thirty years ago. Ah, how age changes you!


Where did you heart go? --- Wham --- 1986

When I first heard this I do admit that I thought "hold on, that's a Wham! song! That's pretty damn good!" but I more or less steered clear of it because of who Wham! were, and how much I, at the time, hated them for their pretty-boy image and dominance of the charts with uptempo, dancy, pop tunes. This was taken from the last album released by Wham! in 1986, "Music from the edge of Heaven" as well as "The final", the latter of which was basically a greatest hits album, both released just prior to the band breaking up ahead of George Michael's shot at the solo limelight. It was also the B-side of their last number one hit single, the eponymous "Edge of Heaven". It makes a lot more sense to me now that I read that the song is in fact a cover version, which is not surprising as it was, at the time, totally different to anything else these guys had released. In fact, the only song comparable at all is 1984's "Careless whisper" from the second album, and when released as a single it was credited to Micheal only, and in effect became his first number one.

"Where did your heart go" was originally written by and performed by electro/funk/disco outfit Was (Not Was) but did not chart for them. When George Micheal rearranged it for Wham! --- Andrew Ridgeley not only had no input into the process but it looks to me like he didn't even play on the song --- he kept it fairly true to the original, and the result is a laidback, soft, melancholy love song that yearns for answers to questions that rarely yield such. It has some lovely smooth sax care of Andy Hamilton, and quite a downtempo South American feel to it. Although not his own composition, it shows the direction George Michael was leaning in, and foreshadows great ballads like "Father figure", "A different corner" and "Kissing a fool"; more mature, thoughtful songs that would often take a look at social issues, and culminate in, for me, his most telling and powerful song, "Mother's pride".

It's clear at this point that Ridgeley is surplus to requirements, and Michael does not need him. He has built his career to date on the success of Wham! but he knows he is the only real member: he writes almost all the songs, does the arrangement and production, and takes the lion's share of the vocal duties. He is, quite literally, the voice of Wham! and everyone knows it. No-one is going to wonder what happened to "the other guy", and indeed Ridgeley will later give up the pretence of a musical career. But this song does show that George was beginning perhaps to realise that the Wham! formula had been stretched as far as it could reasonably be expected to be, and it was time for a change. The party was over, but for him, a whole new one beckoned.

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Old 01-29-2013, 04:23 AM   #1697 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Big Ears View Post

A friend and I were browsing in a Virgin record shop in central London. It may have been in Oxford Street, but could have been in Tottenham Court Road or somewhere. It was notable at the time for having a range of imports, so you could get Nektar albums like Live in New York. Anyway, we heard something being played through the shop speakers, which we liked, so we asked at the counter and they said it was Sky2. We both bought a copy. The track turned out to be Watching the Aeroplanes, which I still think has a great riff and is a bit underrated.




.
Well all I can say is fair play to you! If I was in a record shop in my teens/early twenties with a mate, and we both liked an album we'd take turns buying and the other would tape the album. So one week say I'd buy Iron Maiden and my buddy would take a loan and copy it, the next week we'd want Black Sabbath and he'd buy it and I'd make a tape. Money were tight back in them days! Ah, memories! So you weren't one of those (unlike me!) who were contributing to that annoying logo they used to put on record sleeves --- "Home taping is killing music --- and it's illegal!" Hah! Wonder what they'd think now? Mind you, it was a pretty cool logo...
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Old 01-30-2013, 09:50 AM   #1698 (permalink)
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Heartbeat City --- The Cars --- 1984 (Elektra)


Although the Cars had been around for six years before this album was released, and had indeed had hit singles such as "My best friend's girl" and "Just what I needed", this was the one that commercially broke them wide open, yielding five top forty singles, two of which hit the top ten, and properly introducing the band to the world at large. Ironically, it was also the album the Cars would never match in subsequent releases, and after "Door to door", its followup, hit the shops three years later it became essentially their swan song. They broke up, but reformed in 2011 to release a new album. The magic though, it would seem, was long gone by then.

But this was the heyday of the Cars, and you couldn't turn on a radio without hearing their AOR, airwave-friendly brand of mature rock, Ric Ocasek's always somewhat stilted voice the main one behind their hits. It helped of course that they turned to production supremo Robert John "Mutt" Lange for help, and his pin-sharp production on every track is one of the many things that makes this album so engaging. Rather amazingly, the Cars' two previous big hit singles came in 1978, from their debut self-titled album, and despite having three more after that until "Heartbeat City" came along, they troubled the charts no further. That all changed with the release of this behemoth, and it was suddenly the album to have.

Relying a lot more on electronic music and synthesisers, it's a marked departure from the previous "Shake it up", and it opens with "Hello again", perhaps an appropriate title for a band who were probably thought dead after 1981's effort. With a bouncy, almost talking synth from Ocasek and Fairlight programming from Greg Hawkes, it somehow manages to retain its rock teeth, perhaps due to the guitar work of Elliot Easton. Equally at home in the disco or rock arena, "Hello again" is a great introduction to the album, and shows the Cars right back on top form. It positively buzzes with energy and action, as does most of the album, and it runs into a slower, moodier track with chiming guitar driving most of the melody. "Looking for love" would be covered the next year by German pop artiste Falco under the title "Munich girls", and here it goes from slow, brooding to uptempo bopper in a heartbeat (hah!) and back again, so that you're never quite sure whether the song is meant to be a ballad or not. Great whistling keys from Hawkes and a thumping bass from the late Ben Orr help move the song along, and it takes us into "Magic", which changes the whole game.

With a swirling keyboard intro joined by a stuttering guitar that then blasts its way in on the back of jangly piano, it's another rocker and carried on Easton's powerful, sharp guitar work. Great backing vocals as was often the hallmark of the Cars, and a guitar echo effect taken right out of Norman Greenbaum's classic "Spirit in the sky". Ocasek has always been identified as the voice of the Cars, but that changes for the standout, the big hit single, the one everyone knows. Probably the Cars song that has appeared on more various artists compliation albums than any other, and certainly their most famous, "Drive" is the big ballad, and lead vocals are taken by Orr, who does a fantastic job on it. It's just as well, because although Ric could have sung this, his somewhat quirky, sometimes annoying style would I think not have suited this song. As it is, Orr's gentle but firm delivery works perfectly, and Ocasek's softly trumpeting keyboards form the basis of the melody, with Fairlight "sighing vocals" adding to the atmosphere. Everyone surely knows the song by now, and it's gone down as one of the best Cars efforts ever, certainly instrumental in shifting so many millions of units of the album.

Things kick right back up then again for the high energy, uptempo "Stranger eyes", with those "speaking" synthesiser effects and a galloping percussion from David Robinson, Orr remaining on vocals. He only gets the three songs to sing, as Ric Ocasek, as is his wont, retains pretty tight control over the album, writing all but one of the songs (the other of which he co-authors) and no doubt lending a hand with the production, but as I say Lange's steady hand on the tiller steers this album into waters hitherto uncharted for the Cars, and helped yield them an album which turned quadruple platinum. Another single is next, with a driving guitar line from Easton and bouncy keyboards from Ocasek. "You might think" also gained the band great exposure thanks to its innovative music video. Great guitar solo from Elliot here too, and it's just a real fun song.

There, sadly, for me, is where the album begins to take a small dive in quality. The next three tracks are in my opinion much weaker than those which have preceded them. "It's not the night", the only song on the album not solely written by Ocasek (he co-writes it with Greg Hawkes) is built on a swirling, rippling keyboard melody with staccato guitar and a nice bassline, and it's not a bad song, in fact of the three it's probably the best, but I find it a little wanting. Nice hard guitar from Elliot Easton, but somehow it just doesn't sound like it's all coming together, not to me anyway. It also features Benjamin Orr on vocals again, for the last time on the album. I think Ocasek's vocal would have been a better fit for this, personally, but there you go. Samply keyboards run in "Why can't I have you" and it's the second ballad, with Ocasek back behind the mike, not so much of the guitar in this, in fact the synth sounds very cello-like at times.

Things get back rockin' then for "I refuse", with a very electro/pop beat though still with some good guitar work, but sounding rather like something you might hear from Laura Branigan around that time. Nice snarly bass from Orr and more bubbling synths and Fairlight work, then they finally up the ante and return to the calibre of songs we heard in the first five or six with the closer, the title track, which opens on deep sonorous synth and wind noises and then a thick pulsing bass line that pulls in the track, and again it's driven mostly on synth, though there are some nice touches on guitar from Easton. The main keyboard riff persists through most of the song, falling away for the chorus then back in, and indeed it is quite like the heartbeat of the song. Great percussion from Robinson, and little synthy touches from Hawkes and Ocasek add to the somewhat stark, bleak atmosphere of the song, with a warbling keyboard solo from Ocasek and little voice effects in the mix too (I think they may be talking in French?). Great strong ending to a really classic album, that has deservedly gone down as the zenith of the Cars' career, and taken its place among the great rock albums of the eighties.

TRACKLISTING

1. Hello again
2. Looking for love
3. Magic
4. Drive
5. Stranger eyes
6. You might think
7. It's not the night
8. Why can't I have you
9. I refuse
10. Heartbeat City

Of course, it's hard to stage a comeback when one of your core members is no longer around, and the tragic death of Benjamin Orr in 2000 effectively drew a line under the Cars' career. Their last album with him, "Door to door" was released in 1987 and they broke up, but after a long time apart they came back together for another album in 2011, "Move like this", dedicating it to the memory of their late bandmate and friend. While it was an okay album, I felt it was missing something: whether that was Ben Orr or something else I don't know, but it just didn't feel like a real Cars album to me. Here though, the Cars were firing on all cylinders (sorry!) and produced one of the seminal AOR albums of that period. In a way, it's probably good that they never bettered it, because it now stands as the best work they ever did together as a band, and I think it deserves that honour.
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Old 02-02-2013, 05:44 PM   #1699 (permalink)
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Here I am going to pull you up on your Cars album review Firstly, Heartbeat City wasn't an album that pulled them back from the dead. Candy O, Panorama and Shake it Up were all huge selling albums and they were already a huge band (just not very popular in the UK though) In fact I can remember buying Shake it Up when it first came out and it was a huge seller in the USA as had been all their albums been before that. In between the singles from the first album and Heartbeat City, both "Let's Go" and "Shake it Up" were big sellers. What Heartbeat City did though, was to break the band as a huge MTV act and they put out some of the slickest videos around at the time. The Heartbeat Music video (a collection of several songs) and their 1984/85 Houston concert got a lot of TV air time and I remember they were the most modern and slickest videos around at the time. The album Heartbeat City I agree did benefit hugely from Mutt Lange's production, but if you listen to Shake it Up there are signs that they were headed in a more synth direction anyway.

Gradually album by album Benjamin Orr's vocals were on less songs but on Door to Door he had more songs than normal, maybe because Ric Ocasek was more focused on production duties.
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Old 02-04-2013, 05:23 AM   #1700 (permalink)
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What you say has merit, and to be honest I'm not that totally familiar with the Cars' output prior to HC other than their singles. Nevertheless, I always base my view of a band's popularity on this side of the water, and if you look at the below page from Wiki showing their discography, you can see that their first four albums, while big in the US certainly, made nary a scratch on the UK market. Even at that, their only big singles before HC were "Just what I needed" and "My best friend's girl" (1978) which reached 17 and 3 on this side respectively, and "Shake it up" (1981) which got to number 4 in the US. It's only when HC is released we see big hit singles in the US and much more airplay in the UK and Europe, leading to an album which went 4Xplatinum.

The Cars discography - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I see what you mean about sales though; they were very steady on the US side weren't they? It's more a case of who knew the Cars (who wasn't a fan) prior to the release of HC, and for me as I say those two singles were it. After HC everyone knew "Drive" and the other singles to a lesser extent. Still, what you say is true, but certainly from at least a personal standpoint, this for me is when the Cars seemed to explode onto the scene. Remains one of my favourite albums without question.
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