All posts by douglasharr

I have been working in the high tech industry for more than 20 years and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration w/Computer Science from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I have two wonderful children and am married relationship living San Francisco, CA. I write now for Gonzo Weekly magazine in Britain and own a publishing company, Diego Spade Productions, Inc. I have been an avid music aficionado all of my life, and attend an average of about 15 concerts a year, collecting all the decent video and concert films I can find on DVD.

B-52’s Roam into Cosmic Santa Barbara

B52s_AG_3Keith_144“We didn’t have a goal of what we wanted to sound like when we started out,” says Keith Strickland, the multi-instrumentalist behind some of the B-52’s‘ biggest hits. “We just knew we wanted it to be fun.” And fun is an understatement when it comes to this Athens, Georgia-based band’s music and lively concert performances. Their music is infectious; it compels the audience to dance. It’s most often the sound of unbridled joy, yet at times anger and frustration seep through. While the band wore their punk influences, and was labeled “New Wave” in the 1980’s and 90’s, their sound was different than so many acts that emerged in the decade, and it has stood the test of time. “We didn’t really consider ourselves punk, but we knew that we were going to be a part of that. We didn’t really call ourselves “New Wave.” I remember we got called that when we started playing the clubs in New York” said Strickland.

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This is one of the blessed acts whose perfect debut album established an identity for each member and for the songs that would follow through the next decade. The lineup would not change into the mid 80s – Cindy Wilson & Kate Pierson on lead vocals (Kate adding keyboards) joined Fred Schneider who was a type of lead vocalist; a raconteur, mascot and all around party starter. Ricky Wilson (guitar) and multi-instrumentalist Keith Strickland rounded out the five-piece band. Every member of the group was unique, each bringing their talents and fresh attitude to their dance extravaganza.

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B52s_Debut_CoverReleased in 1979 and simply titled The B-52s, the debut album included tracks the band played consistently in concert over the last 40 years, including the demands-you-dance “Rock Lobster” and the slightly sinister “Planet Claire.” On the latter, Cindy Wilson established herself as the true lead single of the band. Though mates Fred and Kate both have led many of the B-52s hit songs, it’s Cindy whose voice is so joyous, yet at times so haunting. Though the lyrics are often playful and childish, the way Cindy delivers them can break your heart. “Why don’t you dance with me, I’m not no Limburger!” indeed.

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In 1980, Wild Planet continued the party started as night fell on the 70s. It was followed in 1982 by their most experimental, artful album Mesopotamia, made with The Talking Head’s genius David Byrne. Though creative differences kept this from being a full-length release, it sports Cindy’s absolute greatest vocal work on the sweet and sour “Loveland.” Finally, 1983’s Whammy firmly established the band as one of the best from the fertile period of the early 80s.

A tragic turn of events unfolded when Cindy’s brother, guitarist Ricky Wilson contracted and passed from the then-incurable insidious disease AIDS in 1985. The assembled potpourri Bouncing off the Satellites was released in 1986 and the band went on hiatus without a supporting tour.

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Their inevitable return to form, Cosmic Thing (1989) will be remembered by many as their best effort, closing the 80s with a well-rounded collection of songs that punctuate every aspect of their sound. Songs like the contagious “June Bug,” and mature “Dry County” snuck in between mainstays like “Love Shack.” “Channel Z,” and “Roam.” The album was an instant hit, reaching the top 10 in the US & UK and number one in Australia and New Zealand. Strickland sums it up with “There was something magical about that album, how it all came together. We sequenced it in a way that we felt told a story. I don’t know if anybody’s ever noticed it, but one song leads into the other in a nice way. It tells a story from beginning to end.” The album brought the 1980s to an ecstatic close.

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The tour for Cosmic Thinglasted from July 1989 into 1990, ushering in a new decade that would see Cindy take a second break from the band. The US dates kicked off with three wild nights at the San Francisco Fillmore the 28ththrough 30th that July 1989, and ended with several dates “down under.”

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Somehow I never had the chance to catch the B-52s live until their excellent January 7 1990 performance at the Santa Barbara Events Center at UCSB. It was everything one would hope. Lacking just a bit of the edge from the band’s early days, the rejuvenated band nonetheless gave exceptionally spirited performances, tearing through a succession of hits, keeping the tempo fairly even with clear, pitch-perfect vocals and Fred’s call-response brilliance coloring it all. The near-perfect set list was finally captured on a live CD now included with the re-release of Cosmic Thing. The tracks played in Santa Barbara were:

  1. Cosmic Thing
  2. Bushfire
  3. Give Me Back My Man
  4. Lava(Private Idaho at Fillmore)
  5. Dry County
  6. Dance This Mess Around
  7. Private Idaho(Lava at Fillmore – so the two switched order)
  8. Strobe Light
  9. Mesopotamia
  10. Junebug
  11. Summer of Love
  12. Roam
  13. Love Shack
  14. Planet Claire(Party Out of Bounds at Fillmore)
  15. Rock Lobster
  16. Whammy Kiss(not played at the Fillmore)
  17. Channel Z

B52s_Live83_Cindy_300dpiThe B-52s continue to tour at the time of this writing, playing list of songs that do not stray far from the Cosmic Thingset, the height of their popularity. The B-52s deserve a place at the top rung of 1980s acts, emblematic as they were of the ability of new wave music to bring light colors to salve the darkness.

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Simple Minds, Brilliant Things

SimpleMinds2019 SITR CoverSimple Minds hail from Scotland, the most successful musical export from that land during the 80s, with five number one albums in the UK.  The long time leaders of the band, Jim Kerr (vocals) and Charlie Burchill (guitars) take a rather unique approach to music, poetry and stagecraft. The band’s music has gone through several evolutions, which range from the first four art-rock/krautrock inspired albums, to the transitional fifth 1983’s New Gold Dream, to the follow up rock heavy Sparkle in the Rainin 1984. The pinnacle of their early more experimental work are the pair of “EP” records Sister Feelings Call and Sons of Fascination both dropped in 1981 without a release in the states.

Released in 1982,New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84) would be the first record available in the states without paying the import fees. after the band signed with A&M records. This landmark record had a production draped in layers of lush, romantic synth, and echoes of Roxy Music, Japan, and Duran Duran. It’s a gorgeous record that pinned the band’s profile to the New Romantic movement.

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This incarnation of their sound while popular lasted just a moment, as the next release, Sparkle in the Rain (1984), went to #1 in the UK, even as it was a big turn in the road for Simple Minds. In contrast to New Gold Dream and to extent earlier efforts, Sparkle In The Rain presented a muscular, aggressive version of the band, a demanding wall of sound produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had been at the helm for U2, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie and the Banshees and others.  The stadium rock sheen led one fan called it right – “art school rock with fantastic bombast.”

Sparkle In The Rain begins with a spoken count in for opening track “Up On The Catwalk”  (1,2, 1-2-3-4) followed by the crack of drummer Mel Gaynor’s snare in time with Mick McNeil’s ringing piano chords on his new Yamaha Grand. It’s a fantastic way to start the album – a powerful song with lyrics about hypocrisy in Britain, constructed from a riff and a promise that “I will be there” instead of a chorus, delivered with urgency by lead singer Jim Kerr.  Throughout the record, guitarist Charlie Burchill’s adds rhythms, serpentine licks and washes of color to each track, often begging the attentive listener to wonder how he is achieving the sound.  Again on this album as with their back catalog, bassist Derek Forbes, one of the absolute best players in that era, drives many of the tracks with his propulsive, creative leads – demonstrated by just a cursory listen to the hit “Waterfront” or “Kick Inside of Me”, the latter including fierce vocals from Jim that sounds as if he is actually shaking off fearful ghosts:

And we steal the world and live to survive
Shake out the ghosts and turn around
In spite of me, shake up the ghosts inside of me

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Now full time drummer Mel Gaynor smacks his snare with what seems like Herculean might – and when he runs the toms from top to bottom its like the roar of approaching thunder.  This coupled with Derek’s monster bass leads, establish the bottom end of the sound, and part of said wall, through which it often seems the bits of piano, synth and guitar emerge, shine, then fade back into the mix. Jim’s vocals work in and around the music structured more often than not in a scat-like rather than verse-chorus-verse form, something that made this band unique among peers. All of these elements combine to create the brilliant things found herein.

There is a re-mastered version of this landmark album in a box set format. It includes the original album re-mastered in stereo and various surround sound mixes by prog wizard Steve Wilson, an audio recording of a live concert from the era, a few videos, live performances from the BBC and various TV shows, a beautiful re-print of the concert program for the tour, and a complete background on the album, with track by track liner notes.

Part of the set presents a live concert from early in the tour, recorded at Barrowland Glasgow on February 28, 1984.  It’s an excellent document that captures the band on their home turf and in their prime.  Called the “Tour du monde”, the tour to support Sparkle… included a seven-night residency at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was the last tour of that period booked primarily in the smaller theaters.  I caught it at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on a night that cemented their vaulted place in my heart. The recording herein is a potent reminder of the band’s live prowess at this time. After this tour, the next album Once Upon A Timetook the band to stadiums where much of the subtlety found here was lost for a time.

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To fully appreciate the allure of this band, they must be seen in concert, and there are several worthy performances captured to cement their place in history. On this set there are three videos, followed by television appearances of the same tracks – “Waterfront,” “Speed You Love To Me,” and “Up On The Catwalk.”  The latter two live videos, though truncated by credits, are taken from a performance on the Oxford Road Show at the end of January 1984, just before the album was released.  Of all the television and live concert appearances of the band at the time, this is one of the greatest – as the two tracks are played faithfully to studio versions, allowing us to be witness to just how their sound was achieved, certainly answering the question, “just what is Charlie playing!”

Only carp about the DVD is that it should have included the film taken at Westfalenhalle, Dortmund on 24 June 1984.  This is excellent footage of the band still available on Youtube that would have rounded out the box set: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkanFaSJXIU&feature=youtu.be

Because Sparkle in the Rain sits in their catalog between the romantic New Gold Dream, and the subsequent more commercial smash Once Upon A Time, it might escape the attention it deserves. In fact, booklet liner notes suggest the album promised that greater things were to come from the band. Perhaps these comments make the best argument for a re-evaluation of this work, and the box set treatment with engineering from Steve Wilson. Before deciding for yourself, check out this set in all of its grandeur.

(photos by the incomparable Armando Gallo)

 

 

 

Yes, No or Maybe?

YesAsiaPalmer2019_ad2I’ve been a Yes fan and patron going back to my teenage years, and I’ve seen them more than any other band since. My first chance to see the group was during 1977’s Going for the Onetour at the fabulous Forum in Inglewood, California. It began a lifelong patronage.

The Revolving Door: Before and since that first experience, the lineup of musicians who play as part of Yes has been ever changing. Jon Anderson (original vocalist), Steve Howe (guitars), Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye (keyboards) have come and gone more than once. Guitarist Steve Howe joined after original member Pete Banks left, and Trevor Rabin replaced him in the 80s. Drummer Alan White joined after original maestro Bill Bruford left just before the Close to the Edgetour. In 1980 Jon left for what turned out to be one record, and Trevor Horn sang vocals while Geoff Downes, his partner in the Buggles played keys. Personnel changes only accelerated after that, from 1980 up through today.

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I’ve continued to see the band many times since original singer Jon Anderson’s second departure in 2008, due to health issues. When Anderson left for that second time, the band first recruited singer Benoit David, then current singer Jon Davison, who is skilled at covering Anderson’s vocal parts. In 2015 we mourned the passing of Chris Squire, the exceptional bass player and vocalist for Yes and it’s most consistent member. When Squire first announced that his illness would preclude his involvement in the remainder of 2015’s Yes tour, he also indicated his support for collaborator Billy Sherwood, who stepped into the role with grace and reverence, bringing his own skills and style to the stage. Alan White’s recent surgery sidelined him, and ex-Hurricane/Conspiracy/Asia drummer Jay Schellen replaces White for most of the show. Last year, and two years prior, we were able to catch three other core members of Yes billed as ARW – Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman for several solid performances that found Jon’s voice completely recovered from prior illness. Whew, so many Yes’s so little time!

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Which Yes is Yes?Unfortunately, rabid fans carp about “which Yes is Yes” constantly on social media, acting as if they hold the title of band manager, planner, and critic. A common post is “no Yes without Jon” as fans then argue about whether the “official” Yes led by Steve Howe (and Chris Squire before his passing) have any right to play the songs without Jon Anderson. Some of the critics attended the limited ARW tours over the last few years and when they decry the official act, call it a “tribute” or “cover” band. Taste is subjective, but the criticism of particular members gets harsh.

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The Important Point:In reality, there’s been something to admire in every Yes tour since the band’s inception and always there have been transcendent moments, no matter what combination of musicians are on stage. Fundamentally, the compositions are amazing and the performances are inspiring as Yes builds their long songs to astral crescendos of power and emotion. They are truly an amazing band, packed with virtuoso musicians whatever the collective, and they are the musicians I’ve seen play live more than any other. This fan catches as many Yes (official), ARW, and Wakeman or Anderson solo tours as possible. Soon, with the passing of time, there will be no more original members of Yes, unfortunately and the baton will be “officially” handed over to tribute bands. If I’m still on this mortal coil I will be there still as this music is meant to be heard in a live setting, and it’s magical when done right.

Case in Point:This year the band booked a summer tour of America, the Royal Affair tour with openers Asia, John Lodge (of the Moody Blues) and Carl Palmer (of ELP) opening.

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YesAsiaPalmer2019_KR_Asia1The show at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga was fantastic. Carl Palmer led his small band through several highlights from the ELP catalog with Arthur Brown covering lead vocals and delivering us his 1960’s hit “Fire” as well. I have to admit we skipped the set from The Moody Blues’ John Lodge’s to go talk to Roger Dean who was showing his work, but he was very well received. We were back inside for Asia, who nailed a rousing set of their best tracks, along with “Lucky Man” from ELP. Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal expertly covered the lead vocal duties formerly helmed by the late John Wetton, and played guitar through the first part of the set, after which Steve Howe did a walk on for the older songs.

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Once Yes took the stage, they performed rousing renditions of songs like “Tempus Fugit” and “Siberian Khatru” at the proper pace and with accuracy. The centerpiece moment this time was a piece of music they hadn’t played for decades, side one of Relayer (1975) — “The Gates of Delirium” and “Soon.” This is over 20 minutes of the most challenging progressive rock the band ever wrote, with one-time keyboard player Patrick Moraz. While it cleared a few rows of attendees out of the venue, we were transfixed. Howe sliced thru the staccato guitar riffs that lead into and reach crescendo during “the battle” section of “Gates…” as the long song tells the tale of the development, pursuit, and aftermath of war. Downes hit his leads, Davison nailed the highest notes, and Sherwood gently colored “Soon’s” soft tones with care that would have made Squire proud. If the group as rumored will be back to do the whole album with Moraz guesting, it will be spectacular.

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Every band that night had experienced the loss of former colleagues who have passed on. We lost Asia’s John Wetton, and Keith Emerson and Greg Lake from ELP just over the last few years. Songs were highlighted during those sets as being played for these fallen musical heroes, to somber effect, and some celebration of lives well lived and music shared.

All in all a great show – one that left an exclamation mark on the statement that anyone interested in seeing members of Yes ply their most amazing trade live, should be going out to support them. In addition, Rick Wakeman just played Journey to the Center of the Earthon two nights in London for what he says is the last time. He is doing a solo tour of the states this fall, as is Jon Anderson. So hey, we get to see almost every key member who’ve been in Yes over these many years, just on different nights – go for the one!

(A shout out to Kim – Most fabulous photos above © kimreedphotos.com)

Beck on Point

Beck Colors Album CoverWe’ve seen indie artist Beck several times over the last couple decades and the shows have been a bit uneven; usually presenting a mixed bag of songs that emphasize whatever is most top of mind for this diverse artist, and often with Beck himself seeming a bit disconnected from the proceedings. Not so on this fantastic night July 14th2019 at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Beck was in absolute top form, commanding attention as “front man” and master of ceremonies. Beck sang, played his guitars, and danced – yes danced, skillfully and infectiously for the rapturous crowd.

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The core of the set on this night put emphasis on Beck’s upbeat, groovy tunes, including “Girl,” “Mixed Bizness” and “Up All Night.” The latter was one of three songs plucked from 2017’s Colors, a very up-tempo record for Beck, often calling to mind 70s disco music, and it set the celebratory tone for the whole show. A glance through the set list, with albums and dates credited, shows a balanced pick of tracks from “Loser” 1993 to the new single from this year, “Saw Lightning.”  With just this one new song to promote (the next album Hyperspaceis not yet released) this show, though a bit short at 75 minutes, ended up as a sort of mini greatest hits compilation, with 14 of his own songs, and a handful of covers, ranging from the touching The Korgis cover “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” to the Rolling Stones “Miss You,” and Chic’s disco hit “Good Times.” Several of the covers fell at the end of the set; just after Cage The Elephant’s lead singer Matt Schultz joined Beck on stage for their collaboration “Night Running.” Having not been wowed by Cage’s set, or Schultz, these fans found solace in the fact that Beck absolutely nailed just over a dozen of his greatest songs.

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The production was stellar. It included rear projections, and a dazzling, colorful light show, which made ample use of geometric shapes, lasers and rich vibrant tones. One of the clever rear projections included live shots of the musicians from directly above their heads, projected just behind each, and was artfully done. Sound was fantastic – balanced, not over loaded with bass as can happen with this era of music.

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The bands Cage the Elephant, Spoon, and Starcrawler opened for Beck. For these fans, only Spoon was of interest, and they delivered, squinting in the hot sun through a short set that emphasized lead singer/guitarist Britt Daniel’s vocal prowess and riff-driven songs, following a release this year of their greatest hits.

Beck began his career with a long search for something that would set him on a proper course, and lift him from a poverty with which he had learned to cope, playing folk songs on the street for cash. It was clear on this night that Beck is still on that restless journey, one that he has paused along the way, to pay particular attention to various forms of rock, folk, pop and even disco music. We felt lucky to be part of this very upbeat detour, part of the “good times!”

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p.s. it’s worth noting that Beck also recently appeared in a very good documentary film, Echo in the Canyon, which featured Jakob Dylan leading a cast of guest musicians through the L.A. Laurel Canyon songbook from the mid sixties when bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mama’s and the Poppas, The Beach Boys, and CSN brought folk rock to the masses. Beck performs on several songs in a tribute concert that includes Dylan as bandleader, joined by Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Nora Jones and others. It’s a heartfelt tribute to these bands, and an excellent film in general for any fan of rock and folk music.

Voices of the ’80s

RF_BackstageThe rock music world changed drastically with the explosive introduction of punk music in 1977. Punk was a raw form of popular rock; one that, for a short time, abandoned studied virtuosity in favor of pure aggressive energy, four chords, sneers and volume. For classic and progressive rock bands of the 1970’s, the punk movement threatened to end their time in the spotlight. More importantly, it was the lightening rod to which a great number of new bands drew close, splintering and absorbing the energy into a multitude of unique genre acts.

Suddenly, it seemed that popular music could take nearly any form, go in any direction. A college degree in music theory was not needed. Alongside the punk upstarts, the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, X, The Clash and The Dead Kennedys, there emerged many acts that were difficult to categorize. In the states, the CBGB club crowd included The Talking Heads and Blondie, joined elsewhere by bands like Devo, Oingo Boingo, and the new southern sound out of Georgia from REM and The B-52’s.  Australia/New Zealand produced a few bands, most notably Split Enz, who along with their states-side CBGB peers, paved the way for the kind of quirky music that came out of this era. In England, a major wave of trendy bands, covering both the lighter and darker side of music emerged at light speed. Suddenly, Ska music, originally from Jamaica, sprang forth from bands like The Specials, Madness, and The English Beat. Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow adapted tribal beats and chants as the basis of their unique sound. Gothic music, driven by Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and a handful of darker, brooding bands emerged from the darkness. Synth pop and new wave music brought new forms of dance music to the fore, most often draped in layers of synthesizer leads, and the then new sound of drum machines. It seemed all barriers were broken.

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What was so different for those of us who transitioned from classic rock to these new bands, was that many, whether punk, ska, new wave, or gothic were not so much bands you listened to but bands you danced to. Many of these groups became the “new disco” – the groups whose music filled clubs and concert halls. In general these bands called you to the floor, with relentless beats, metronomic precision, deep bass tones, and all manner of vocalists who performed the work and connected to fans. And in each market, somewhere on the radio dial, there emerged stations willing to play this new music, to make it their preferred content, constantly introducing audiences to new bands, a flood of which appeared from 1977 to 1985.

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Since the advent of the pop music form, there has always been “one hit wonders” – singers or bands that had brief success in their own time. The 1980’s had a fair share of these acts, which came and went quickly, whose sound was so unique, fitting into the trend of the year, fading shortly after. For a short time this led to the increasing popularity of singles – the ability to obtain a few songs from an artist on a 45rpm vinyl single, or for some, a single cassette tape. While bands like U2, The Pretenders, Simple Minds and Madonna built lifelong careers, many others faded, some of course undeservedly, others predictable.

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Recently, I’ve noticed a number of travelling 1980’s “showcase” concerts, shows which are somewhat akin to small festivals, that present a number of what are today lesser known 80’s acts alongside one or two who held it all together and who are able to continue today to headline shows, even if in smaller theaters and clubs. One of these traveling circuses is Retro Futura, and this was this show I was drawn to in New York this last July.

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I was there principally to see Annabella Lwin, the lead singer from Bow Wow Wow, a surf-punk-meets-tribal-beats group that lived for a short time in the early 80’s. Bow Wow Wow released two albums before the boys in the band fired Annabella, their lead singer, a disaster of epic proportions for fans of the act. Amazingly, considering the level of talent in the original band, Annabella was at the bottom of the roster at this show. She was only allotted time to do three songs, after which she bolted to catch a plane. Still this was the best part of the lineup for me, made greater after I was able to get backstage to meet Ms. Lwin to express my appreciation to this artist, one of my favorite 80’s personalities. Bow Wow Wow will be prominently featured in my upcoming book, Dancing in Fog City (1977-1989).

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The remaining acts on the roster included Limal (Christopher Hamill) from Kajagoogoo, Tony Lewis, the singer/bassist from The Outfield, four-fifths or the original band Modern English, Belinda Carlisle from the Go-Go’s and headliners ABC. Kajagoogoo was allotted time for four songs, none of which stirred this patron, including the too-coy “Too Shy Shy.” Follow up Outfield singer Tony Lewis strained to hit his notes. Modern English were quite acceptable, and at times a bit fun, as personalities shown through and musicianship was a notch above. This was the one band that featured predominantly original members.

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The best part of the show, long after my favorite Annabella left the stage, was to be sets by Belinda Carlisle and ABC. Belinda was radiant, at 60 years old, still looking fab, and hitting all her marks and high notes with seeming ease. She rolled out a string of her own hits alongside expected highlights from the Go-Go’s first few albums, a small collection that has sustained members of this group, particularly Belinda through to today. ABC was the surprising set for me, as their whole presentation was befitting the headlining spot. Adorned in sharp suits and upbeat attitudes, the band began with “Millionaire,” the first of a number of hits most fans clearly remembered from the day, played with aplomb by the talented hired-hands led by charismatic singer Martin Fry.

Coming into the lineup, it was hard not to tag this tour as a collection of also-rans from the 80s. Indeed, every act other than Modern English was really the lead singer from their bands, each having had one or two albums back in the day, peppered with a few singles, and little follow up solo success. Yet, it was heartwarming to hear their voices again, stepping back in time to witness this singles crowd, harkening back to dancing days now so long ago.

The Fixx is In

The Fixx are one of the most unique bands to emerge during the 1980’s. They did not seem to fit the typical mold of their time, despite lots of great synth, tasty, treated guitar focused on chords rather than solos, and a talented vocalist with a range less commonly found in traditional “rock” music. Today they would be classified more as “rock” or “alternative” music than “new wave” yet back in the day they ultimately they did fit in with their peers and they absolutely excelled at their craft.

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Fixx_2018_RTB_CoverReach The Beach, released in 1983 was this band’s second album, and remains their most popular. It sported hits “One Thing Leads To Another” (their highest charting US Single at number 4) and “Saved By Zero,” accompanied by several other standout tracks and deep cuts that demonstrate the quiet determination of the band as stellar songsmiths and solid musicians. Personnel on this album included Cy Curnin (vocals), Rupert Greenall (keyboards), Jamie West-Oram (guitar), Adam Woods (drums) and a couple of bass players, Alfie Agius and Dan Brown, the latter of whom became the band’s official bassist for the tour and subsequent albums. The album was produced by the talented Rupert Hine. This is a very “listenable” album which flows nicely from track to track, stropping at some of their best ideas and greatest musical passages.

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The intellectual lyrics of this band, delivered by lead vocalist Cy Curnin are a major part of what makes Reach The Beach, and the rest of their music so special and enduring. Cy is a deep thinker who will pose a question and hang on that question, each word counting towards the idea, often suggesting an answer. The lyrics are seldom overtly political yet there are messages, they are not preachy, but there are spiritual lessons within. Songs like “Are We Ourselves” and “Less Cities, More Moving People” always cause me to ponder meaning, messages, and my own reaction to them. Cy delivers all this in concert with occasional asides highlighting his current thinking – all questions that deserve to be asked and answered.

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I first saw this band in 1983 at one of the last “Day On The Green” festivals in Oakland California. Famed producer and production company Bill Graham Presents staged these all-day festivals, and they were impressive lineups featuring multiple bands, who were well chosen to show off both headliners and supporting acts. On this summer day in 1983, headliners The Police was on their final tour, supporting their swan song “Synchronicity.” Behind them was The Fixx, taking that vaulted “2ndact” spot on the strength of their then new release Reach The Beach. Preceding The Fixx were a varied collection of new wave acts, The Thompson Twins, Oingo Boingo and Madness. The Fixx stood out that day, among these contemporaries, as a group of serious, adult musicians, primed for mainstream success yet seemingly comfortable at that vaulted #2 spot on the bill.

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Last week, 35 years after that Day on the Green, the band played at The Independent club in San Francisco, on their Reach The Beach anniversary tour. They played the whole album, but in reverse order, which worked very nicely given the original record kicked off with four exceptional tracks in a row, making the reverse sequencing close the first half of the show with those highlights. The band continued with a collection of hits and deep cuts, including some newer work, as this enduring act continues to record and tour today, with the same lineup from 1983. It was an exceptional show that demonstrated to one and all the talents of the band. Quite a night, and highly recommended should The Fixx come your way.

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The Bow Wow Wow Crush

I have to admit something here – I had a massive crush on Bow Wow Wow’s lead singer, Annabella Lwin, in 1982. And, I was not alone in this. Way back then when this band came to my attention, I learned of the very young Anglo-Burmese singer and her surf-punk-meets Burundi-beat band. I thought it was her band and I thought she was intoxicating. As I discovered our age difference – she was a youthful teenager and me in my 20’s, my short lived crush turned into a life long appreciation of this unique artist, a fondness for her, the best female 80’s performer I’ve ever seen. Period.

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If you were alive in the day, and of age, you would recall the biggest hit this band had, a cover of the song “I Want Candy,” with it’s accompanying video showing Annabella and band Mathew Ashman (guitars), Leigh Gorman (bass), and David Barbarossa (Barbe) (drums) on the beach dancing, playing and mugging for the cameras. There was a feckless joy about this ragtag group, and some seriously bad-ass musicianship and singing. Ashman was a powerhouse on guitars – one of the best users of the tremolo arm, the Chuck Berry pluck, the Dick Dale surfer slide – his work graced every one of the band’s songs, impossible to ignore. The rhythm section, featuring Gorman on bass was unbelievably adept at using bass for melody, but also for percussion and aggressive energy in support of his drummer. The drummer Dave “Barbe” is simply unmatched in the rock world. He has an uncanny ability to calmly lay down a jungle beat, even on a small kit, one that kept perfect time, but also swung a bit, one that drilled it’s way into your hips and kept you moving.

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Annabella is playing as Bow Wow Wow in Long Island July 13, 2018!

All this stellar musicianship, the swing, the tribal beats, kept Annabella moving, as she became the hands-down best dancer in the business, one possessing the sweetest voice, an instrument that could go hard and high if she wanted, but was best in her light and airy range. Just another moment on Annabella’s dancing and it’s supremacy – she could swivel her hips, pogo up into the air, and most importantly, she perfected a sort of tribal dance, or native dance that was almost like watching an American Indian woman around our collective fire. I believe it was simply her own invention, and it was how she moved, but it was spectacular to have such a dancer front the type of music Bow Wow Wow played, a music that could whip a crowd into a frenzy of raw, “off the rails” celebration.

My own appreciation aside, Bow Wow Wow did not achieve the level of widespread success I would have expected in their short time together, though before the plug was pulled by the boys in the band, they were building an impressive following, and the music was quickly maturing after cutting ties with manager Malcolm McLaren. The story has been told many times but let’s recap- Malcolm McLaren is either a genius or a louse AdamAnt2017_KOTWF_72dpidepending on your perspective. While running a sex shop filled with fetish clothing, Malcolm became a society guy and tastemaker. His level of involvement in each band differed but he is credited with being an influencer, supporter or manager of Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow, and the Sex Pistols to name a few.  Malcolm was told that a 13 year old girl, singing her heart out in a local dry cleaners, was worth meeting, so he did, and he ended up recruiting her to front his 3 piece band of guys who he had influenced to separate from Adam Ant prior to his own breakthrough recording, Kings of the Wild Frontier.

Annabella joined the band and became the lead singer of Bow Wow Wow. Malcolm stirred the pot, and after many singles and an initial album, the exhaustingly titled, See Jungle, See Jungle, Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over Go Ape Crazy, the band left his management, released a second, superior album When the Going Gets Tough… The Tough Get Going, after which they gigged, mugged for the television cameras, and then disbanded.

When the Going…was a revelation. Having established their sound, one that was alternately raw “Chihuahua” and refined, “Fools Rush In” during the first year or so, and releasing many singles and a debut album, the band did something amazing. They sat down, wrote, and recorded what for this patron is one of the greatest albums of all time. Cracking opener Aphrodisiac” mines the same turf as the prior year’s somewhat naughty and breathless “Sexy Eiffel Towers,” but now it seems Annabella’s in charge of the narrative, “Take an Aphrodisiac, don’t do nothing just relax have a heart heart heart heart heart attack, take an aph-ro—-disiac.” A trifle yes, but listen to Annabella with Dave, Matt, Leigh make it something so much more.

AnnabellaLwin_BWW_WhenCoverEarly in the album, the song that should have been promoted better and a hit, ‘Do You Wanna Hold Me?’ (answer is of course ‘yes’ said thousands of fans) is one of their best pop bits. But the example of things to come, or that should have come, are “Man Mountain” and “Love Me.” This pair of slower songs showed the band could calm down, could actually nail a ballad, and could stir the soul after a few dances and a break. “Man Mountain” written by Ashman, is a personal favorite, and became a number 1 hit in the former Yugoslavia!:

He’s my man, he’s my man mountain, he’s my lover and hero to me
He’s my man, he’s my man mountain, Lord, delivers his soul unto me, Lord
Delivers his soul onto me, Lord, delivers his soul unto me
He don’t eat, he don’t sleep, he don’t even wash his feet
He don’t eat, he don’t sleep, he don’t even wash his feet

He’s my man, he’s my man mountain, he’s my lover and hero to me
Oh I love him, my man mountain, Lord, delivers his soul unto me, Lord
Delivers his soul onto me, Lord, delivers his soul unto me

He don’t lie, and I don’t know why
He told me he loved me and that made me cry
He don’t lie, and I don’t know why
He told me he loved me and that made me cry

He’s my man, he’s my man mountain, he’s my lover and hero to me
Oh I love him, my man mountain, Lord, delivers his soul unto me, Lord
Delivers his soul onto me, Lord, delivers his soul unto me

Delivers his soul onto me, Lord, delivers his soul unto me

Note the uses of repetition, as parts of Annabella’s soft lead vocals are almost breathy chants, gently plaintive pearls of love – it’s a beautiful bit of writing and performance. Leigh makes perfect use of a fretless bass here, while Ashman pulls at the acoustic guitar strings beautifully. “Love Me” follows and somehow matches the last though it’s one that challenges Annabella’s upper range, and is adorned by echo-washed lead guitar that would show anyone in one track why Ashman is missed. Dave Barbe just inhabits these pieces – he is as talented on soft numbers as he is on louder more aggressive tracks. This exploration of the more feminine side of the band makes clear where Bow Wow Wow could have travelled, and how they could have snared a much larger audience.

Alas, that was not to be. The boys in the band were restless, and thought they could be a there piece band, without the pesky Lwin on the payroll. It was a disastrous choice, as they went on to obscurity with a band called Chiefs of Relief. Bow Wow Wow reunited many times with various members coming and going, and guitarist Ashman sadly died before the nineties came to a close.

A drummers break: Just to ensure respect for the incredible sound Barbe captured on drums, here is a bit on Burundi: The story of “Burundi Black” and the origin of the “Burundi Beat” and the associated controversy is told in the following excerpt from a 1981 New York Times article by Robert Palmer:

The original source of this tribal rhythm is a recording of 25 drummers, made in a village in the east African nation of Burundi by a team of French anthropologists. The recording was included in an album, Musique du Burundi, issued by the French Ocora label in 1968. It is impressively kinetic, but the rhythm patterns are not as complex as most African drumming; they are a relatively easy mark for pop pirates in search of plunder. During the early 1970s, a British pop musician named Mike Steiphenson grafted an arrangement for guitars and keyboards onto the original recording from Burundi, and the result was Burundi Black, an album that sold more than 125,000 copies and made the British best-seller charts… Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow, and several other bands have notched up an impressive string of British hits using the Burundi beat as a rhythmic foundation.

Lest anyone come to the conclusion that the band were “pop pirates” of any sort, all music has references and this is just one that Barbe used to incredible, exhausting effect on Bow Wow Wow records – his influences were diverse, and he molded them into something all his own, playing it all while occasionally, calmly chewing gum. There never has been and never will be again a drummer like Dave Barbe in my estimation.

I talked to Annabella Lwin and Dave Barbe about their short-lived band, the legacy and their thoughts now, so many years after the event. In the day they were confident, full of “piss and vinegar” as we say, ready to take on the world. Today they are, and probably were before, gentle, kind, humble people who are seemingly thankful for being remembered so fondly.  I asked them both similar questions in preparation for their next book Dancin’ In Fog City (1977-1989) in which Bow Wow Wow will feature, particularly their 1983 coda, “When The Going Gets Tough….”

These interviews will be part of next week’s post…stay tuned!