Back In the High Life
by Steve Winwood

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Album of the Year, 1986 Banner

Back In the High Life by Steve Winwood Steve Winwood is an artist who has had two major phases of his professional career. Starting as a teenager with the Spencer Davis Group, he was thrust into the international spotlight with a pair of mega-hits “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man”. This kicked off the first phase of his career playing and fronting several progressive rock bands including Blind Faith and, more prominently, Traffic throughout the late sixties and early seventies.

Then, in the 1980s, Winwood came back with the second phase of his career which was more distinctly pop and blue-eyed soul. He scored some minor hits from the albums Arc of a Diver in 1980 and Talking Back to the Night in 1982. These albums set the stage for the most successful album of his career – 1986’s Back In the High Life. Here, Winwood took some of the styles and methods that he had developed on the previous two albums and brought it to a whole new level.

The album achieves that elusive goal of combining great songs that will stand the test of time while also catering to the commercial appeal of the day. As we mentioned earlier in other reviews, this was no easy task in 1986 when the prevailing pop “sound” was at a nadir. Winwood and co-producer Russ Titelman sacrificed nothing here. The entire album managed to encompass the sounds of the eighties, as it uses its share of synthesizers and modern fonts without sounding dated. This was achieved by counter-balancing the “80’s” sounds with some traditional instruments, styles and Winwood’s distinctive and emotive vocals. There is also excellent songwriting, with most songs co-written by Winwood and Will Jennings and all including some cool lyrics and catchy melodies.

1986 is the third year overall that this new 2011 enterprise called Classic Rock Review has examined, the first two were 1971 and 1981. It may seem like we choose these years at random, there is a method to our madness as we choose to review years with significant anniversaries (that is anniversaries divisible by ‘5’), and it is the 25th anniversary of the music of 1986. With each of these review years, we choose an Album of the Year to review last, and for 1986 that album is Back In the High Life.
 


Back In the High Life by Steve Winwood
Released: July, 1986 (Island)
Produced by: Russ Titelman & Steve Winwood
Recorded: Unique Recording & The Power Station, New York, Netherturkdonic Studio, Gloucestershire, England, Fall 1985-Spring 1986
Side One Side Two
Higher Love
Take It As It Comes
Freedom Overspill
Back In the High Life Again
The Finer Things
Wake Me Up On Judgment Day
Split Decision
My Love’s Leavin’
Primary Musicians
Steve Winwood – Guitars, Keyboards, Synths, Lead Vocals
Phillipe Saisse – Bass
Jimmy Brawlower – Drums & Percussion

 
For a pop-oriented album, Back In the High Life is unique. Each of its eight tracks exceed five minutes in length which is something not seen much outside of prog rock, art rock, or dance tracks. This may be a further testament to the thought and effort put into these compositions. The album also contains some cameo appearances by popular contemporaries, diversely spread throughout.

The album kicks off with the song which would become Winwood’s only #1 hit of his long career, “Higher Love”. This nicely sets the pace for what we’ll expect from the rest of the album – Caribbean rhythms with synth, horns, funky bass, and the distinctive, upper-range vocals. This song is awash in good feelings; “Let me feel that love come over you…”, almost a gospel-like song, and it features soul star Chaka Kahn singing high background harmonies.

On the other end, the album concludes with a couple of interesting songs with very different co-writers. “Split Decision” was co-written by the legendary Joe Walsh and begins with a distinctive, crunchy riff from Walsh and then smoothly works towards a more Winwood-centric riff with organ and reggae beat in the verse and a soul-influenced chorus. The lyric is another take on the influences of good and evil on a person;

“One man puts the fire out, the other lights the fuse…”

“My Love’s Leavin'” was co-written by British eccentric artist Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and contains stark soundscapes which are ethereal and haunting, about facing reality and singing of hope and faith in the face of a loss.

Steve Winwood“Freedom Overspill” contains some rewarding instrumentation with an edgy, whining guitar providing some of the best licks on the album above a masterful arrangement of synths, organ, horns, and rhythm. It is very funky and very eighties, but somehow it is not a caricature. The lyrics paint a picture of a couple up all night hashing out their differences – “Coffee and tears the whole night through/Burning up on midnight oil/And it’s come right back on you”.

“The Finer Things” was another radio hit from the album, with its misty opening, bouncing, Police-like rhythms, and lots of changes throughout. The song rolls along like the river, at some points calm and serene while at others rough and tumbling rapids. This metaphor is explicit in the lyrics;

“So time is a river rolling into nowhere, I will live while I can I will have my ever after…” 

“Wake Me Up On Judgment Day” is a song about wanting to avoid struggle – to get to the good stuff without all of the pitfalls – “Give me life where nothing fails, not a dream in a wishing well”. The song kicks in like a sunrise, the burst of light then explodes from the dawn. Ironically, this song talks of “horns” but actual “horns” are used sparingly with a heavy bass line and much percussion.

But the single element that makes Back In the High Life a truly great album is the title song “Back In the High Life Again”. According to co-writer Jennings, the song was one that Winwood seemed to have little interest in developing when recording began on the album. Until one winter day Winwood returned to his mansion after his divorce to find everything gone except for a mandolin in the corner of the living room. Jennings said, “He went over and picked up the mandolin, and he already had the words in his head, and that’s when he wrote the melody.” The recording of this song for the album includes a lead mandolin along several other ethnic instruments such as acoustic guitar, accordion, bagpipes, and marching drums, with guest James Taylor on backing vocals. This is all as a backdrop for the excellent vocal melody by Winwood, which portrays the feeling of hope and optimism.
 

 
The song was later covered by Warren Zevon, whose bare-bones, emotional delivery has an entirely different mood from Winwood’s original release, mournful and melancholy, almost satirical. This despite the fact that Zevon did not change the key or melody for his recording. Perhaps the truest test for a quality song is when it can have several interpretations and “faces”, depending on its delivery, and “Back In the High Life Again” is truly a great song.

Back In the High Life was the final album Winwood would do for Island Records, a label he had been with for 21 years at the time of the album’s released in July, 1986. Despite this longevity, Winwood was still relatively young at 38 and he would go on to do more interesting things in the subsequent years; signing with Virgin Records and producing a few more hit albums in the late eighties, reuniting the band Traffic in nineties, and most recently working with former Blind Faith band mate Eric Clapton, with whom he toured in 2011.

~

1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

Graceland by Paul Simon

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Graceland by Paul SimonIn some of our previous reviews from the year 1986, you’ve probably already heard us mention several times our distaste for the slick sound that was predominant throughout releases issued that year. We’ve also lamented the fact that even established acts like Genesis and Journey seemed to fall into the “group think” of replicating this uninspired, artificial, “modern” sound to some extent or another. In the midst of all this, comes a breath of fresh air in Paul Simon’s Graceland, a true original.

The album contains a wide array of styles and sounds from vast corners of the globe, often intermingled together in ingenious ways by Simon, who was also the album’s producer. He enlisted over 50 musicians and singers to perform on this album, with a vast amount coming from South Africa and receiving their first exposure to a western audience. But African music is just one element on this diverse album which also includes a healthy mix of country, Tex-Mex, and reggae influence throughout, while also maintaining some of the signature Paul Simon styles that he had developed throughout his long career.

But simply throwing together all these elements is not, in of itself, enough to make a great album. It takes a bit of musical genius as well as the courage to take chances and go against the musical mainstream. Simon surely does this on Graceland. He uses the bass guitar as a lead instrument throughout, he adds the world elements strategically and in judicious doses perfectly straddling the line between the deep, philosophical artist and jocular clown to reach a notch of originality which is truly his and his alone.
 


Graceland by Paul Simon
Released: August 12, 1986 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Paul Simon
Recorded: Johannesburg, London, & New York, February 1985 – June 1986
Side One Side Two
The Boy In the Bubble
Graceland
I Know What I Know
Gumboots
Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al
Under African Skies
Homeless
Crazy Love, Vol. II
That Was Your Mother
All Around the World
(or Myth of Fingerprints)
Primary Musicians
Paul Simon – Lead & Background Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Bass
Ray Phiri – Guitars
Adrian Belew – Guitars, Synths
Bakithi Kumalo – Bass
Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Vocal Ensemble
Isaac Mtshali – Drums
Ralph MacDonald – Percussion

 
Paul Simon’s previous album was 1983’s Heart’s and Bones, which has since been praised by critics (including this one), but was a bitter commercial disappointment at the time of its release. Simon felt that he had lost his popular momentum and that his commercial fortunes were unlikely to change. So for the album which would become Graceland, he decided to be highly experimental since he had nothing to lose. After hearing a cassette recording of a song called “Gumboots” by Boyoyo Boys, he traveled to South Africa to embrace the culture and find a suitable place to record the album. For this particular song, Simon wrote the lyrics and melody but pretty much left the rest of “Gumboots” in tact – a fast-paced accordian-driven song that sounds like a warped version of polka.

The popular South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo play a big part in two songs – “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless” – the latter being completely a capella with much of the lyric in Zulu. The group was founded by the legendary Joseph Shabalala who co-wrote both of these songs with Simon. The final South African influence comes from the female vocal group The Gaza Singers who co-wrote and sang backup on the song “I Know What I Know”.

Paul Simon in 1986

The catchy and upbeat “You Can Call Me Al”, with lyrics describing a mid-life crisis, became the biggest hit from Graceland. Musically, the track features a penny whistle solo by Morris Goldberg and a palindromic bass run by Bakithi Kumalo. But the most memorable impression left by the song was the popular music video starring Simon and comedian Chevy Chase, in which the 6’9″ Chase lip-syncs the vocals while an annoyed-looking 5’3″ Simon mimics various instrumental sections, including the above-mention penny whistle and bass as well as percussion and horn parts. The video introduced the 45-year Simon to a whole new generation on MTV.
 

 
Graceland also contains several songs on which Simon collaborated with some of his American counterparts. He sings a beautiful duet with Linda Ronstadt in the calm and thoughtful “Under African Skies” and enlists Los Lobos as a backup band for the closer “All Around the World or The Myth of the Fingerprints”. But, by far, Simon’s most rewarding collaboration came in the album’s title song “Graceland”.

While still teenagers in the Bronx in the late fifties, a young Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (who at the time called themselves “Tom & Jerry”) would spend hours trying to master the harmonies of Phil & Don Everly. For the song “Graceland”, these same Everly Brothers provided background harmonies for Simon nearly three decades later. The song at once contains an upbeat, almost country & western sound, while also providing ethereal and deliberate lyrics on top. Simon would later say that this was the best song he ever wrote. While that may be a stretch, we do agree it is a great song.

Warner Brothers almost didn’t release this album because they thought it was too far “out there” for a mainstream audience to accept. When they finally relented, they were surely glad that they did as Graceland went platinum five times over. In the end, Paul Simon provided yet another example of the wonderful things that can be created when a talented musician strips away all commercial concerns and just lets his talent and instinct take over.

~

1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

Raised On Radio by Journey

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Raised On Radio by JourneyFollowing the most commercially successful era for the band, lead singer Steve Perry firmly took control over Journey‘s musical direction. The ultimate result of this new direction was this 1986 album Raised On Radio, an album which would (at least initially) become just about as popular as their biggest earlier albums, but ultimately would symbolize the decline and fall of Journey’s successful run in through the late 1970s and early 1980s.

After the 1983 album Frontiers and the subsequent stadium tour, the band took a bit of a hiatus to pursue different projects. Guitarist Neal Schon made the second of his two “experimental” solo albums, which prompted Perry to pursue his own solo album. Street Talk, released in 1984, contained the pop-rock and ballads that seemed a little too close to Journey’s signature sound for the other band members, causing some tension within the band. The five members of Journey, including Jonathan Cain on keyboards, Ross Valory on bass, and Steve Smith on drums, did re-convene to record a couple of songs for movie soundtracks later in 1984, but took virtually all of 1985 off.

Finally, the band wanted to record a new album, but Perry was hesitant to do so because his mother was ailing. When she convinced him to do the album, Perry was more determined than ever to take the reigns on the musical direction, something that he had slowly been doing as early as 1980, when founding member Greg Rollie departed. Perry’s idea for Raised On Radio (a title which he insisted on over the band’s original title of “Freedom”) was to forge a new sound that was a hybrid of traditional Journey and his solo own work. When early session work did not go over well, Perry convinced Schon and Cain to back him in firing Valory and Smith and Journey continued on as a trio.
 


Raised On Radio by Journey
Released: May 27, 1986 (Columbia)
Produced by: Steve Perry
Recorded: Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA, Autumn-Winter 1985
Side One Side Two
Girl Can’t Help It
Positive Touch
Suzanne
Be Good to Yourself
Once You Love Somebody
Happy To Give
Raised On Radio
I’ll Be Alright Without You
It Could Have Been You
The Eyes Of a Woman
Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever
Primary Musicians
Steve Perry – Lead Vocals
Neal Schon – Guitars, Vocals
Jonathan Cain – Keyboards, Vocals
Randy Jackson – Bass
Larrie Londin – Drums & Percussion

 
Much of the album has a feel similar to Perry’s Street Talk. However, there is one element that makes this definitive Journey (and, in reality, saves the album from musical oblivion) and that element is Neal Schon’s guitar work. Mainly floating above the rhythm, Schon’s excellent guitars add the only truly interesting and uplifting sonic value to this album, with the exception of a few songs with great vocals such as on the opening classic “Girl Can’t Help It”.

Raised On Radio does get off to a very good start. “Girl Can’t Help It” is the best song on the album, with a direct and crisp sound with a just slight flange, a simple but memorable piano riff, and some counter-harmonic guitars to accent it all. The song morphs from the simple, melodic first section to a more intense second part with some excellent harmonies. “Positive Touch” follows with a definite 1986 sound that is still quite entertaining. Guest Dan Hull adds a great saxophone and the song also contains an entertaining outtro section, highlighted by Perry’s majestic high-pitched melodies. To this point Raised On Radio still feels like the natural progression of the Journey sound.
 

 
Unfortunately, the album then takes a serious downward turn. Although both were significant pop hits, “Suzanne” and “Be Good to Yourself” are sub-standard to most of the vast radio hits of Journey’s past. These are mostly disposable songs, with just small sprinklings of guitar excellence and vocal harmonies. The greatest disappoint here is Cain’s keyboard work, which has really fallen off from the bluesy piano ballads of Escape and Frontiers towards a cheap and cheesy synth sound on this album.

The rest of Raised On Radio is high-end mediocre at best. “Once You Love Somebody” contains a nice funky bass by future American Idol host Randy Jackson and the title song opens with a nice blues harp by Hull, but both of these are really average songs on the whole. “I’ll Be Alright Without You” is the best song on the second side, as a soft-rock adult contemporary ballad with harmonized vocals nicely complemented by Perry’s crooning and Schon’s slow walk-up to the signature guitar riff in the outro. “The Eyes of a Woman” is a little doomy with deep, long string synths and the closer “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever” is an attempt to replicate past ballad smashes such as “Faithfully” that falls far short.

Following the release of Raised On Radio, Journey embarked on a tour which was initially very successful, but in early 1987 Perry suddenly and unexpectedly pulled the plug and the band was forced to cancel the rest of the tour and went on an indefinite hiatus. Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain teamed up with Cain’s ex-Babys’ band mates John Waite and Ricky Phillips to form Bad English in 1988 while Ross Valory teamed up with Gregg Rolie to form The Storm. They would not again reconvene as a band for nearly a decade, when the five members who made up Journey prior to Raised On Radio had a short-lived comeback. But the classic band was never again the same.

~

1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

The Bridge by Billy Joel

The Bridge by Billy JoelBilly Joel‘s 1986 studio album, The Bridge, represents a crossroads on many fronts. It is the seventh and final Billy Joel studio album to be produced by Phil Ramone. Ramone, starting with The Stranger in 1977, forged the sound during the most successful span of Joel’s career. It was also Joel’s first album during the 1980’s to not be focused on a single, overriding concept. 1980’s Glass Houses was punk/new wave, 1982’s The Nylon Curtain was social commentary, and 1983’s An Innocent Man was homage to musical styles and personalities of the past. The Bridge is very diverse, incorporating many styles as well as several guest musicians. On a final note, this album is first of Billy Joel’s “family-centric” releases that would wind down his career as a pop musician.

The Bridge features vividly picturesque songs, each of which cross over well to other media. “Modern Woman” was featured in a Hollywood movie, “Big Man On Mulberry Street” was used in a television show, “This Is the Time” was commonly the backdrop during tributes and retirements, and “A Matter of Trust” was featured in one of the iconic music videos of the day. Even the lesser known songs on the album, such as “Temptation” and “Running On Ice” – sound like they would work well in the visual medium.

After a bit of a hiatus from recording, Joel began work on the album in 1985.
 


The Bridge by Billy Joel
Released: July 9, 1986 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: The Power Station & Chelsea Sound, New York City, 1985-1986
Side One Side Two
Running On Ice
These Are the Times
A Matter of Trust
Modern Woman
Baby Grand
Big Man On Mulberry Street
Temptation
Code of Silence
Getting Closer
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Piano; Keyboards, Guitar, Lead Vocals
Russell Javors – Guitars  |   Rob Mounsey – Synthesizers & Orchestration
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass  |  Liberty Devito – Drums & Percussion

 
The album’s first song “Running on Ice” shows that this is a long way from the “Piano Man” days. With a heavily “modern” (for 1986) sound which could be an updated version of the ska-influenced Police tracks and a frantic, sound-effect washed, tense verse that gives way to a flowing chorus section. The album then settles into a nice groove with “This Is the Time”. Featuring some excellently over laid guitars by Russell Javors, “This Is the Time” is a melancholy yet sweet ballad, which shows that Billy Joel was still in the upper pantheon of songwriting in 1986. It is a song of self-awareness, of a happy life and the grasping at the nostalgia which will surely follow these days –

“a warmth from the memory of days to come…” 

A Matter of Trust Single by Billy JoelIn the video for “A Matter of Trust”, Billy Joel is seen playing a Les Paul in this guitar-centric and entertaining hard rocker, which takes yet another departure from his traditional sound but was yet another hit. Joel is the absolute master of vocal melody making it all sound so natural and effortless, which plays a big part in being able to jump from genre to genre. “Big Man On Mulberry Street” goes in an almost completely opposite direction of the rock song. It is a Broadway-esque show tune with elements of big band and jazz. An extended version of the song was used on an episode bearing the same name on the hit television Moonlighting, starring Cybil Sheppard and Bruce Willis.

Rounding out the album’s second side, “Temptation” is another excellent song which hearkens back to 1970s-era Billy Joel in style. “Code of Silence” may be the only song in Joel’s catalog where he uses a co-writer, the flamboyant yet talented Cyndi Lauper. “Getting Closer” is a song of hope born out of the ashes of cynicism and features the legendary Steve Winwood on Hammond organ.
 

 
But the true legend on the album is Ray Charles. who performs a duet with Billy Joel on the song “Baby Grand”. The two originally got together when Charles found out that Joel had named his daughter Alexa Ray in honor of Ray Charles so Charles contacted him and suggested that they may want to work together, if they could find the “right song.” Joel considered Ray Charles one of his idols; “…as big of a pianist or as big of a star I could ever become, I could never be Ray Charles….” Joel got right to work, trying to compose a song in the style of Charles’ classic “Georgia on My Mind”, and wrote “Baby Grand” over the course of one night. Joel originally sang the song in his thick New York accent, but decided to do a Charles impression instead once he got comfortable working with him. The finished product is as much a tribute to Charles himself as it is to the instrument they both love.

Although The Bridge was a bit weaker commercially than many of Joel’s previous albums, it is a solid album through and through and especially shines in comparison to the weak music scene in 1986.

~
RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

Strong Persuader by Robert Cray

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Strong Persuader by Robert Cray The 1980’s music scene is best remembered by most people as a time when synthesized sounds ruled the radio waves and the glitzy MTV videos of hair bands and rap and hip hop artists were all the rage. In this unlikely era of technology driven pop, Robert Cray helped rein in the appreciation of a new generation for the blues. Some have criticized his blend of blues, soul and rock as a homogenization of the blues but his contemporary style was easily accessible and entertaining to a wide audience. His Gammy winning 1986 release Strong Persuader is credited with helping the Blues find new life as it spawned a top-five hit with “Smoking Gun”, with a video also shared frequent MTV screen time with the likes of A-ha and The Pet Shop Boys.

Perhaps Robert Cray’s brand of electric blues might be the result of his diverse background. Though he was born in Columbus, GA, he was an “army brat” and was raised all over the country. He started playing guitar in his early teens while living in Newport News, VA and cites blues legend Albert Collins as a major influence. Later, he would collaborate with Collins on his album Showdown!, which won a Grammy itself in 1987. Cray also lists guitar greats George Harrison, Eric Clapton and B.B. King as some of his early influences.

His third major label release, Strong Persuader remains one of his best albums to date. The songs all revolve around a common blues theme of love gone wrong. While he may not possess a technically perfect voice, Cray is a superb vocalist, delivering precisely the right emotion whether it be specific levels of sincerity, sarcasm, or cynicism. The sound of the album is simple, crisp, and clean and never muddled. It is modern electric blues featuring Memphis horns, steady bass and drums, and Cray’s signature, attack-heavy guitar style with no wasted notes.
 


Strong Persuader by Robert Cray
Released: November, 1986 (Mercury)
Produced by: Bruce Bromberg & Dennis Walker
Recorded: Sage & Sound, Los Angeles, 1986
Side One Side Two
Smoking Gun
I Guess I Showed Her
Right Next Door (Because of Me)
Nothin’ But a Woman
Still Around
More Than I Can Stand
Foul Play
I Wonder
Fantasized
New Blood
Primary Musicians
Robert Cray – Guitars, Lead Vocals
Peter Boe – Keyboards
Richard Cousins – Bass
Wayne Jackson – Trumpet, Trombone
David Olson – Drums

 
For how sanitized the may album sound, at its core Strong Persuader is really quite racy. This dichotomy is best portrayed on the song “Fantasized”, which contains some rather risque lyrics above an nonthreatening basic, soft-rock music track. If fact, “Strong Persuader” became a nickname for Cray himself due his skills at convincing young women as portrayed in the popular song “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” where he brags about his conquest being “just another notch on my guitar”.
 

 
The album’s opener, “Smoking Gun”, is perhaps Cray’s most popular song ever, accented by Peter Boe’s signature piano riff and a fine, “slow hand” guitar solo. The following song “I Guess I Showed Her” takes another musical direction, with a nice blend of cool jazz and funk, highlighted by the brass of Wayne Jackson with some ironic/comedic lyrics. Later in the album, Cray settles in to more traditional, guitar-driven blues and nearly-crooning vocals on songs like “I Wonder” and “New Blood”.

Throughout the rest of album, the songs vary with different combinations of these three styles, all held together by the consistent production of Bruce Bromberg & Dennis Walker. some of the highlights include the catchy and melodic “More Than I Can Stand” and the excellent “I Wonder”, with its totally unique solo technique which at one point seems to use alternate tuning and at another almost sounds like a banjo, and the cool lyric – “…Is this a dream or has Bob gone crazy?”

Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame just last month (May 2011), Robert Cray gave us an interesting and entertaining album a quarter of a century ago, which remains one of his most popular. Since Strong Persuader, Cray has released 11 studio albums but none have been as popular as this 1986 tour-de-force.

~

Robert Cray online

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Robert Cray website
Live Review of Robert Cray Band
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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1986 albums.

 

3.V by Zebra

3.V by ZebraThe three-piece rock band Zebra did not spend a long time on the national scene, nor did they have tremendous success while they were on that scene. But there is no doubt that they made some unique and original music while they were there. They are, in a sense, a rare and secret gem of a band which fewer have enjoyed than legitimately should have, due mainly to the lack of the support which they legitimately earned and deserved. That being said, there are some striking fouls and unforced errors that the band made once they did reach the national stage and it cannot be denied that, to a small extent, they had a hand in their own professional demise.

By 1986, the band was facing pressure from Atlantic Records to produce a hit album. Zebra’s self-titled debut album was released in 1983 to critical acclaim and moderate sales. They followed that up with the Jack Douglous-produced No Tellin’ Lies in 1984, but unfortunately this sophomore effort had weaker sales and a Luke-warm reception. For their third release, the band made a concerted effort to create a more widely-accepted pop-rock album and to this end, Zebra succeeded. However, by the time 3.V (pronounced “three point five”) was put on sale, the record company had all but pulled support for the project, dooming it to obscurity despite the fact that includes some of the band’s finest work. It would be the their last album for 16 years, a swan song of sorts as they spent their last creative energy on this final run at fame.

But back to the flaws and fouls committed by the band themselves. Although 3.V contains no terrible songs, the sequence of songs is suspect, such as opening with the uninspiring “Can’t Live Without” while burying the fine gem “About to Make the Time”. The album is plagued by clusters of both mediocrity as well as pure brilliance, which makes it feel unbalanced to the listener. Also, the confusing title – using mixed media to resolve a nonsensical phrase – was a serious faux pas for a band who really needed to hit this out of the park commercially. Finally, there is the production quality, something that had hampered the band’s sound on all of their recordings.
 


3.V by Zebra
Released: November, 1986 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Zebra
Recorded: 1986
Side One Side Two
Can’t Live Without
He’s Making You the Fool
Time
Your Mind’s Open
Better Not Call
You’ll Never Know
About to Make the Time
You’re Only Losing Your Heart
Hard Living Without You
Isn’t That the Way
Band Musicians
Randy Jackson – Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Lead Vocals
Felix Hanemann – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Guy Gelso – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

 
There is a surreal quality to the Zebra sound, a distance and narrowness which makes it either sound like it comes from some exotic, unidentified place or sound like it’s not quite professional. The truth is, it is a bit of both. Despite the band’s concerted effort to make a more pop-friendly album and the corresponding adjustment in production technique, 3.V still possesses this quality for better or worse.

On the downside there is “Can’t Live Without”, the opening and song and emphasis single from the album. After starting with a nice acoustic under some scat vocals, the song kicks into a full-fledged 80s sound, with an over-processed snare drum, saturation of keyboards, and a weak bass presence. The vocals stay mainly in the high register, which gives it a bit of monotony vocally. On most of this album, lead singer Randy Jackson alternates between the standard and falsetto voice, providing dramatic contrast in the process. But not on this opening song.

On the higher end, there are the songs which follow in sequence on the first side. “He’s Making You the Fool” contains some real sonic treats during the bridge and in the coda, with entertaining and alternating vocal motifs. This then fades into the real classic of the album, “Time”. Containing a pleasant 12-string acoustic throughout, which even allows bass player Felix Hanemann to get in some rare features of that instrument, this is perhaps the best piece that the band has ever recorded. Even with a heavier chorus, “Time” maintains a melancholy mood throughout and it contains a brilliant ending addendum section which really brings the whole piece home.

Next comes a 180-degree mood shift with the inspiring and uplifting “Your Mind’s Open”, a great song fueled by good keyboards (also played by Hanemann), just the right flavoring of acoustic and vocal effects, and some vivid lyrics such as “taking safaris right up into the sky…”

The true highlight of the second side is “About to Make the Time”, a very interesting, acoustic-driven song with steady bass riff and good bass presence throughout. It is a philosophical song which establishes a long pattern that works very well with repetition and should have been placed as the last song on the album – it would have been a gem of a closer.

The rest of 3.V contains mostly adequate but unspectacular songs, all within the Zebra style and musical direction, but in no way furthering the band’s quest to remain any longer with a major label. It is really a shame because this band had the potential to create much more quality material.

~
RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

1986 Images

So by Peter Gabriel

A little over a decade after departing from Genesis as their elaborate frontman, Peter Gabriel released his fifth and most successful solo album. After releasing four consecutive albums with the same exact title, “Peter Gabriel”, this fifth album was given the complex and elaborate title of So. Produced by Gabriel and Daniel Lanois, the album includes performances by some thirty musicians and singers, including some recognized names like Stewart Copeland, Nile Rogers, and Kate Bush.

The album has a quintessential mid-eighties sound, with plenty of synthesizers and over-sequenced percussion. But, it does however have a soul to it, with just the right mixture of diverse genres throughout that range from Psychedelic to R&B/Soul to World Music. So would be a huge commercial success for Gabriel, fueled by a handful of hit songs that were lifted themselves by either interesting, critically acclaimed music videos or an inclusion in a popular film. In fact, So would be the pinnacle of Gabriel’s chart success overall, including his esteemed career with Genesis.
 


So by Peter Gabriel
Released: May 19, 1986 (Geffen)
Produced by: Daniel Lanois & Peter Gabriel
Recorded: Ashcombe Studios, Bath, England, February-December 1985
Side One Side Two
Red Rain
Sledgehammer
Don’t Give Up
That Voice Again
In Your Eyes
Mercy Street
Big Time
We Do What We’re Told
This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)
Primary Musicians
Peter Gabriel – Synthesizers, Piano, Vocals
David Rhodes – Guitars
Tony Levin – Bass
Manu Katche – Drums & Percussion

 
The opener “Red Rain” sets the pace for the album with it’s emphasis on (mainly sequenced) percussions and fully synthesized accents and effects. The sound is ethereal with very little attack or accent. Much like the material from his old Genesis days, Gabriel sings in vivid detail about a dream and has stated this song to be one of his personal favorites. The album’s pace is accelerated by “Sledgehammer”, the most popular song on the album, with a funky beat and Motown-influenced arrangement that is intersected with a signature pan flute sound for the middle lead. One would think that the bamboo and the brass would not mix, but they serve to make this song very edgy and original.
 

 
“Don’t Give Up” is a duet with Kate Bush and one of the gems from So as it musically migrates along with the mood of the lyric. Starting with interesting, recursive bass pattern That accompanies the confident beginning to a more subdued main theme, shrouded in doubt, then ultimately back to a Gospel-like, piano section during the hope and resolve of the final section.

The fine first side concludes with another pop hit, “That Voice Again”, with its percussion-guided verse and some nice keyboards to supplement the chorus. It is an almost pro-religious song about making the right choice when confronted by a tough choice, which seems to contradict the scoff at religion in another hit song, “Big Time”-

…and I will pray to a big God as I kneel in a big church…”

Here Gabriel returns to the funky beat and melody, making this a fine dance song laced with some nice high end vocal textures between the verses and in the outtro.

Although not a hit at the time of the album’s release in 1986, “In Your Eyes” would find new life when it was featured in the Cameron Crowe film Say Anything in 1989 and would eventually go on to become one of Gabriel’s most recognizable songs ever. It is a straight-forward, romantic song which this album needed, but it still maintains an edge over run-of-the-mill love song due to it’s sound scape and delivery. The song is constructed masterfully, from the patient, extended drum fill in between the verses to the world-music influenced vocal parts in the coda. It also contains a distinctive, signature riff in the pre-chorus section which brings the whole piece to a new level emotionally.

The remainder of So includes a tribute to the poet Anne Sexton called “Mercy Street” and two art-rock pieces including “We Do What We’re Told (Milgrim’s 37)”, which refers to the 1961 Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, and contains a vibe that is almost comparable to a late 1960s Pink Floyd style sound scape piece, but with an updated, 1980s sound throughout. The closing “This Is the Picture” is a little more put together and upbeat than the previous song, and was co-written by Laurie Anderson, who also performs vocals on the track.

In a year and era of somewhat weak efforts by established artists, So was a complete and original effort which showed that Peter Gabriel still had some artistic fuel left in the tank.

~

1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1986 albums.

Third Stage by Boston

Tom Scholz is a figure unlike any other in the history of rock n roll. A natural inventor, Scholz studied at M.I.T. as a mechanical engineer. After graduating, he worked at Polaroid, where he learned the basics of audio engineering and began experimenting with his own sounds. Starting in 1969, he recorded and re-recorded the music that would comprise the debut album Boston, a masterpiece that was finally released in 1976 (Classic Rock Review will look at that album in December). After the phenomenal success of their debut, the band produced the follow-up Don’t Look Back in the relatively short time of just two years. Released in 1978, Scholz never felt like it was quite “done” and swore that he’d not rush out another album. It would be eight solid years before the next album, Third Stage would see the light of day.

This wasn’t intended to take so long. In fact, the first side was written and recorded between 1980 and 1982, but technical difficulties and an eventual lawsuit by the record company CBS slowed the whole process down. To Scholz, the successful completion of this third album turned into an obsession. He claimed to have pushed the record button over 1 million times and filled over 100 reels of tape with music. He decided to use separate 24-track tapes for music and vocals and synchronize via a new digital machine. But it turned out that the high tech machine “was a lemon” and so an engineer was hired to “use his thumbs” to keep each machine running in sync. Further, Sholz refused to use any orchestral instruments, synthesizers or MIDI synchronization on Third Stage – making his job as producer infinitely harder in the process, but preserving the sound’s integrity. The only deviation from the sound of the 1970s albums, was his own invention The Rockman, which he developed over the long course of this project and which would prove to be a much more lucrative product than the album ever was.

Once the CBS lawsuit was settled in Scholz’s favor, he was free to sign with MCA and release Third Stage in late 1986. It would go to become the most successful album commercially and spawn the band’s only #1 hit.
 


Third Stage by Boston
Released: September 23, 1986 (MCA)
Produced by: Tom Scholz
Recorded: Tom Scholz Hideaway Studio, 1980-1986
Side One Side Two
Amanda
We’re Ready
The Launch
Cool the Engines
My Destination
A New World
To Be a Man
I Think I Like It
Cancha Say / Still In Love
Hollyann
Primary Musicians
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Drums, Percussion
Brad Delp – Lead & Harmony Vocals   Jim Masdea – Drums

 
Although portrayed as a band, Boston was more like a duo with Scholz providing on the music, production, and performing most of the instrumentation and Brad Delp doing all the lead and harmonized vocals. The result is musically excellent but a bit weak lyrically. There is also a bit of disparity between the album’s earliest tracks on side one and the more recent material on side two, especially when it comes to Delp’s vocals.

“Amanda” was the very earliest song written for the project in 1980. A sweet and beautiful love song, with excellent, harmonized guitars, the song immediately reminded fans of the immense talent of Boston and, in turn, it became the band’s first and only #1 hit. “We’re Ready” follows as a nice compliment to “Amanda”, with it’s moderate, deliberate riff and beat, that does pick up at parts, but always manages to come back to earth and ease into the mood of the song.

The band then “launch’s” into the experimental and very majestic intro to “Cool the Engines”, in keeping with the their tradition of intro pieces. The song itself is musically superb with many areas of creative stop-and-start throughout. The lyrics do have a tinge of preachiness that may be a bridge too far for casual fans.

This brings us to perhaps the downside of “Third Stage”, the concept itself. Apparently coined by Scholz, the “third stage” is supposed to be that age of enlightenment beyond childhood and adulthood. It is portrayed most vividly in the song “My Destination” – a variation on the tune of “Amanda” that ends the first side and contains the lyric;

It’s not who you can be, it’s what you can see that takes you there, your destination…

In all, the theme comes off kind of new-age-y and forms a slight chasm between band and fan, especially during some of the more forgettable songs on the album’s second side, especially “To Be a Man” and the dreadful “Cancha Say (You Believe In Me)”.

However, the second side does contain a few highlights; the smooth and straight-foward rocker “I Think I Like It” and the pleasant closer “Hollyann”, which bleeds nostalgia for the 1960s and contains an interesting little organ solo in the middle, accompanied by little more than a strumming, acoustic guitar.

In the end, Third Stage would prove to be Boston‘s commercial peak. It would take yet another eight years for the band’s fourth album in 1994, Walk On (a project which, ironically, Delp “walked off”) and another followed near the end of the century. But Boston would never quite reach that sound again.

~
RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

Mean Business by The Firm

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Mean Business by The Firm

After the big success of their eponymous 1985 debut, the super-group The Firm followed up with their sophmore release in early 1986 called Mean Business, which would end up being the short-lived super-group’s final album. At first listen, this album seems to be sub-par to the debut, or at least much more under-developed at best. But, upon each closer and subsequent listen, one discovers that this album is actually quite good and original in its own right.

Unfortunately, not many people have taken this closer listen and the album had a short ride to the proverbial dust bin. This was due, in part, to the actions taken by the band themselves as The Firm suddenly decided to call it quits just a few months after Mean Business was released, signifying their own apparent disapproval of this work.

Musically, the album is filled with spastic and rudimentary riff lines from Jimmy Page, odd but solid musical timings from the rhythm section of Tony Franklin and Chris Slade, and powerful, nearly strained vocal performance by Paul Rodgers. It is an uneven album, with heavy influence from Page here and heavy influence from Rodgers there, along with some experimental pieces by the band as a whole. There are a few songs that feel under-developed and a few that feel over-produced. But with every listen, they all seem to get better and better.
 


Mean Business by The Firm
Released: February 3, 1986 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Jimmy Page, Paul Rodgers & Julian Mendelsohn
Recorded: 1985
Side One Side Two
Fortune Hunter
Cadillac
All the King’s Horses
Live in Peace
Tear Down the Walls
Dreaming
Free to Live
Spirit of Love
Musicians
Paul Rodgers – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jimmy Page – Guitars
Tony Franklin – Bass, Keyboards
Chris Slade – Drums, Backing Vocals

 
The album begins with the only survivor from the short-lived XYZ project. In 1981, following the death of drummer John Bonham and the disbandment of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page decided to join forces with Chris Squire and Alan White, formally of Yes. The would-be super-group was to be called XYZ (for ex- Yes and Zeppelin), but fell apart within a year and yielded no recorded material. “Fortune Hunter” is a reworked song from that project, written by Page and Squire. Through the first three verses, the song displays many of the characteristics that will be found throughout this Firm album – a frenzied and frantic riff with strained vocals – but then it suddenly deviates sharply into a “quiet” middle section before quickly rebounding and building back to the fast pace.

To close the album, a near-opposite song “Spirit of Love” was chosen. Driven by Franklin’s piano riffs, this quasi-epic is probably the song that Page had the least influence on, as it is pure pop and even incorporates a full chorus towards the end, which makes one believe it was inspired by Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”. The deviation between the opener and closer, while adding to the overall oddness of the album, also puts into context the diverse material in between.

“Cadillac”, with its slow, trance-like blues, fueled by the excessively long, droning guitars by Page, is one of the more interesting songs on the first side. The song is held together by the methodical rhythm of Franklin and Slade, and contains just enough skipping in time to make it quite interesting.
 

 
Paul Rodgers contributes the next two songs – the synth-driven pop song “All the King’s Horses”, which was ill-advisedly slated as the emphasis single from Mean Business, and the darker. message-driven “Live In Peace”. This latter song has a very Bad Company-ish vibe, with Page adding a nice guitar lead.

The second side contains, perhaps, the best three songs on the album. Tony Franklin contributes the jazzy “Dreaming”, a unique and off-beat, gem which contains some very surprising turns. The other, collaborations by Rodgers and Page, offer some insight of what could have been had this group stayed together a while longer. “Tear Down the Walls” is a good, catchy pop-rock song that could’ve (and should’ve) been a hit in 1986, while “Free to Live” contains another rudiment-driven riff, that is accented brilliantly by some excellent vocals.

While this may not quite rise to the level of The Firm’s 1985 debut (although a strong case may be made that it does), Mean Business is well worth the listen.

~

1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1986 albums.

5150 by Van Halen

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NOTE: This review was original published in May 2011 but has been re-purposed for the 30th anniversary of the album on March 24, 2016.

5150 by Van HalenWith the possible exception of AC/DC, it is hard to find an example of an established rock band with a single, charismatic, lead singer that becomes even more successful once that singer is replaced. After the acrimonious departure of David Lee Roth in early 1985, Van Halen was at sea for a while as they actively searched for Roth’s replacement. Their record company, Warner Brothers, did not want them to continue on with the same name, feeling like it might distort the successful branding. Further, many long-time fans were hoping for reconciliation and dismissing any serious chance at reformation with a new lead vocalist.

Unfortunately, the rift between Roth and the rest of the band was far too deep and with Roth publicly declaring the band dead and making grand plans for a solo music and acting career, the band was determined to carry on without him. After briefly entertaining the idea of using multiple singers on their next album, Van Halen decided they wanted a permanent band member to front them. Enter Sammy Hagar, a well established rock star in his own rite, as the lead singer in the band Montrose and as a solo artist.

Further, Hagar was also a proficient guitarist, which freed up Eddie Van Halen to further branch out on the keyboards, as he had started with the previous album, 1984 (MCMLXXXIV). The band scored a couple of big hits from keyboard-driven songs on that album and that trend would certainly continue with 5150.
 


5150 by Van Halen
Released: March 24, 1986 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Mick Jones, Donn Landee, & Eddie Van Halen
Recorded: Nov. 1985 – Feb. 1986, 5150 Studios, Hollywood, CA
Side One Side Two
Good Enough
Why Can’t This Be Love?
Get Up
Dreams
Summer Nights
Best of Both Worlds
Love Walks In
5150
Inside
Musicians
Sammy Hagar – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Eddie Van Halen – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Michael Anythony – Bass, Vocals
Alex Van Halen – Drums & Percussion

 

Another factor that led to the new sound of 5150 was the absence of producer Ted Templeton, who had produced all of the band’s previous six albums. This left production duties to the band itself, led by Eddie Van Halen with the help of Mick Jones and Donn Landee. This production team moved away from the traditional “live” sound of previous albums and towards a sleeker 1980s sound, especially among the three keyboard-driven songs, each of which would become huge hits.

Two of these hits used the long-string sound that Eddie Van Halen had established on the previous album. “Dreams” is the standout here, showcasing Hagar’s vocal range as well as the band’s pop sensibilities, while maintaining a unique, dynamic edge. Perhaps the first true “love song” in the Van Halen catalog, “Love Walks In” features Hagar on lead guitar and showcases some excellent background harmonies by Eddie Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, which had become a longtime staple of the band’s sound.

The most unique-sounding and innovative of these keyboard songs is “Why Can’t This Be Love”, where Van Halen uses a wild-sounding synthesized clavichord for the main riff while Hagar providing some rhythm guitar support. Being the first single to be released by the band in the Spring of 1986, this song re-introduced the band with a fresh and unique sound that was mainly well-received. However not everyone was impressed with the new sound, as a lot of longtime fans felt alienated by the dual whammy of replacing Roth and moving further away from the guitar-driven sound of the group’s early days. Soon these fans would adopt the name “Van Hagar” for this new formation, so to derisively avoid acknowledging this as a continuation of that earlier band.

Van Halen in 1986

5150 does contain a solid handful songs that would have fit into the style of some on the band’s early work including the songs “Summer Nights”, “The Best of Both Worlds” along with the album’s opening track “Good Enough”. However, none of these really rise to the level of the band’s better guitar-driven songs of the past. One exception to this is the standout title song “5150”, an upbeat jam with a catchy melody that highlights the talents of both Eddie Van Halen and his older brother, drummer Alex Van Halen.

Van Halen did score their first ever #1 album with 5150, a feat that served to validate their decision to move forward with a new frontman and updated sound. The band would continue use this formula with similar success, as all four of their Hagar-era albums reached the top of the album charts, stretching well into the early 1990s.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of the 30th anniversary of 1986 albums.