January 22 – Sting Sailed Into Introspective Waters

As he entered his third decade in entertainment, Sting was growing up. Whether or not that was a good thing is much debated, but the evolution was clearly heard on his third solo album, Soul Cages, which came out this day in 1991. It was an album dedicated to, and much inspired by his dad, who’d passed away a couple of years before.

Getting near 40 years old, mourning his dad and looking back, Sting said “I lived next to a shipyard when I was young. It was a very powerful image of this huge ship towering above the house… tapping into that was just a godsend. I began with that and the album just flowed.” Add to that the fact that his father apparently had loved the sea and wished he’d become a sailor when young, and you have the basis for a somewhat downbeat album with references aplenty to boats and the sea: “Island of Souls,” the “Wild Wild Sea” and references to burying “the old man at sea” in the lead single, “All This Time.”

Super-producer Hugh Padgham had worked on the Police’s biggest hit, Synchronicity…and hated the job. He’d spoken often about how immature and argumentative the band had been and how a good chunk of his work was ensuring they didn’t go after one another physically rather than concentrating on the making of the record, which remarkably turned out great anyway. That said, it is a bit surprising Sting picked him to produce this one, and Hugh agreed. It was a good choice, and one would think, a calmer recording environment this time around. The resultant nine song, 48-minute album (three songs run over six and a half minutes) was put together using musicians Sting chose to help him – Sting himself played bass, as you would expect, but also mandolins and synclavier, an early version of synthesizers – including Branford Marsalis on sax, Cuban percussionist Bill Summers and French-African drummer Manu Katche, reflective of Sting’s growing interest in World Music at the time.

While “All this Time”, the public’s first taste of the new record, sounded energetic and almost jaunty despite reflective, solemn lyrics, much of the rest of the album was much more sombre. Which led to mixed reviews. Entertainment Weekly graded it “C”; Robert Christgau simply labeled it a “bomb”. The L.A. Times understood the lyrical content and mentioned that it was surprising to deal “so blatantly with familial loss” and noting “taking his cues from Job and Solomon, the singer takes on God more than once…berating the priests who came to bless his dying father,” which they concluded meant “he’s as provocative as poor Madonna wishes she could be.” All in all, they consider it a “lovely downer of an album.” Allmusic essentially concurred years later on, giving it 4-stars, calling it “leisurely” and “luxurious” and declaring “All This Time” and “Mad About You” “masterpieces” but finding the rest of the record lacking their interest.

All This Time” did seem the record’s big saving grace. It snagged Sting the Grammy for Best Rock Song and was a #5 hit in the U.S. – his best since “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” – and is to date his only “alternative rock” chart-topper. “Soul Cages” and “Mad About You” both had modest success as singles. The album itself went to #1 in the UK and Canada, and #2 in the States, and got him platinum awards from the U.S., Canada, France and Germany.

His love of ships and the sea stayed with him; years later he wrote the musical The Last Ship, loosely based on the shipyards he grew up near.

January 22 – Talent Flooded Welsh Stage For Good Cause

Twenty years earlier, African famine had caused a number of international music stars to come together on stage, in 2005 a tsunami caused another tidal wave of talent to try to assist. On this day that year, the biggest charity fundraiser concert since Live Aid took place in the unlikely locale of Cardiff, Wales. It was the first and biggest of several Tsunami Relief concerts staged in different countries to raise funds for victims of the terrible tsunami that had killed some 220 000 people and swept away entire towns about four weeks earlier. That tsunami, caused by the third-strongest earthquake ever measured offshore Indonesia, had ravaged that land and done considerable damage to other Indian Ocean-bordering locations like Thailand and India.

People worldwide were quick to reach for their wallets to help out, and the concept of a fund-raising concert came together quickly… in fact, it was less than four weeks between when the water caused the Indian Ocean destruction and when a Welsh classical singer took the stage and sang “Amazing Grace” in front of over 66 000 fans to open the show. It took place in the Millennium Stadium (now known as the Principality Stadium), home to the Welsh national rugby team. Apparently that’s quite popular there as the stadium can hold up to 74 000 despite serving a city with a population of only about 340 000!

The show began around 2 PM local time and when all was said and done, some 21 acts took the stage, with video messages from members of the Royal Family, British PM Tony Blair, and Bono added in. Musical acts spanned the genres and generations and included some local rock bands and rappers but to most of us, the most noteworthy were Keane, then up-and-coming Snow Patrol, Jools Holland, locals the Manic Street Preachers (who ironically enough had done a song called “Tsunami” in the ’90s) and the headliner, Eric Clapton. Clapton finished the show with help from Holland, and did a six-song set of old blues numbers including Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Spades”, Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive” and the finale of “Shake Rattle and Roll.” Although the crowd was appreciative of the legendary guitarist, the biggest cheers apparently went to the home town Manic Street Preachers, who did five songs culminating in their then new single, “A Design for Life” which hit #2 in the UK.

The Welsh benefit was broadcast live on BBC radio and streamed on their website with highlights shown on TV that night. It raised about 1.25 million pounds (about $3 million in today’s terms) for the relief effort.

A month later, on Feb. 18, a similar show was held in Anaheim, California, with the organizers, Linkin Park, as well as No Doubt, Ozzy Osbourne and the Black-eyed Peas. Tony Kanal of No Doubt said of it, “a disaster of this magnitude, that effects so many people, forces yourself to ask ‘what can I do to help?’ (we decided to) do what we do best to make the most impact in both dollars and awareness.” No Doubt he was right about that.

January 21 – OLP Not So ‘Clumsy’ Scoring A Hit

After Kurt Cobain’s death seemed to take grunge with it to the grave, a number of acts flourished that drank from the grunge cup but also fed on classic rock and upbeat retro-pop. Collective Soul, Live, even Nirvana-spinoff the Foo Fighters, for instance. North of the border the trend was vital as well, and none did it better than Our Lady Peace. They hit their pinnacle a quarter century back, with the release of Clumsy this day in 1997.

Our Lady Peace had begun in Toronto in 1992, essentially the vision of singer/writer Raine Maida. They had massive success at home with their debut, Naveed, which while not a smash in the U.S. at least got them noticed there. Following up was a bit of an effort for them, especially when they toured close to non-stop for a couple of years. Their producer, Arnold Lanni finally took the situation into his own hands and took the band with him to a remote cottage in Ontario in the winter of ’96, where they had no distractions other than a few games of pick-up hockey on the frozen lake. They quickly put together about 20 demo tracks, and were able to record them fairly quickly upon return to Toronto. Maida said he had the idea of a “carnival atmosphere” for the music, reflected perhaps in the record cover. The first song they did for the record was called “Trapeze”, which was also apparently a working title for the album. Curiously, it got ditched. But many good ones remained, which produced the 11-song album, plus their cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” which was done for the The Craft movie soundtrack.

The song titles suggest more grunge, less carnival. Take “Car Crash”, “Let You Down” and the single “Superman’s Dead” for instance. No wonder allmusic characterize their music as “bittersweet” “brooding” and “reflective”! Reflective probably is more accurate than many noticed; Maida and his wife Chantal Kreviazuk (a popular musician herself) are both very politically-active and have undertaken many charity missions to the Third World. “Superman’s Dead”, it turns out has less to do with the comic book superhero than it does with the decline of popular media. “I grew up with the old Superman, the black-and-white one,” Maida said. “It’s evolved into Beavis and Butthead…(kids) images are defined by television. It’s kind of sad.”

Reaction to the album was anything but sad however, especially at home. In a rare case of convergence, their hometown hard rock station, Q107 and alternative rock one, CFNY stations both listed it as the #1 record of the year. As allmusic noted later, it was likely their best work and it helped them “beat the sophomore slump.” “What makes Our Lady Peace a powerful act is their desire to keep it real on their own turf.”

In Canada, the title track was a #1 hit and “Superman’s Dead,” “4AM” and “Automatic Flowers” all hit the top 30, helping the album debut at #1 and stay high on the charts for most of the year. Eventually it went diamond, and it still ranks as the eighth biggest-selling Canadian album at home. In the U.S., a little bad luck turned good for them. The small label that had been their home in the States decided it wanted to go all-rap, and managed to drop them from their contract. Although that delayed its release there, in time, Columbia (which put them out in Canada) decided it might as well promote and distribute them in the U.S. as well. “Clumsy” made it to #5 on Billboard‘s Alternative Rock chart, and “Superman’s Dead” #11 on the same. Although it peaked at a dismal #76 there, it’s enduring popularity made it eventually hit the platinum plateau by 2004. Worldwide, it’s moved around five million copies. If Raine and his band were trying to make a hit, their effort was far from “clumsy”, it turns out.

January 21 – Imagine If She Also Hadn’t Read Pride & Prejudice

One of the most intriguing, compelling literary debuts inspired one of the most intriguing, compelling musical debuts on this day in 1978. Kate Bush glided onto the scene with the ethereal “Wuthering Heights”. The song was loosely based on the Emily Bronte novel of the same name from the mid-19th Century.

Young Kate was a musical talent from a young age. She was writing and singing by 11, and by 13 had cut a demo tape. Somehow David Gilmour got to hear it and took her under his wing, eventually getting her into George Martin’s Air Studio to work on her first album, The Kick Inside, (which came out about a month after this single.) They brought in some high quality talent as well. On this track for instance, there’s Stuart Elliott drumming – he was from Cockney Rebel and did session work for Paul McCartney and the Alan Parsons Project – and Ian Bairnson, also of the Alan Parsons Project was on guitar. Kate played the piano and of course, delivered the haunting vocals.

Bush wrote the epic in “a few hours” after seeing a British TV version of the novel. “I knew there was a Heathcliff and Cathy and that she died and came back . It fascinated me.” she was further intrigued when she realized she shared a birthday with the novelist. She says her rivoting vocals on the song, quite a bit higher-pitched than many of her later hits, was because Cathy, who’s perspective she wrote it from, “is a ghost, so I gave her a high-pitched wailing voice.”

Classic literature has seldom had such a good ally in pop culture. The public loved the new voice and in many cases, went back to the library to take a second look at the book too. As critic Bruno Macdonald of Record Collector noted, the song was “as startling as punk” albeit in an entirely different way. Oddly he added, in time Bush and the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon became friends!

While we were slow to the party over here in North America, the song kicked in a big way in Europe. It spent four weeks at #1 in the UK, and also topped charts in Ireland and New Zealand (where it went platinum) among other places. It also helped her debut album go to #3 at home, and sell platinum there, in Australia and eventually Canada. Although she’s made it back into the British top 20 with 16 more singles since, including “Wuthering Heights” follow-up, “The Man With The Child In His Eyes,” it remains her only #1 song.  Pitchfork recently ranked it as the fifth best song of the 1970s. i suppose we should remember that next time we’re grumbling about our lazy teenagers lying about watching movies all night long!

January 20 – Marvin Was The Main Man At Motown

Marvin Gaye proved that just being the boss doesn’t automatically make you right on this day in 1971. That was when he released – much to the consternation of Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr.’s consternation – the great single “What’s Going On?” A few months later, he’d release the highly-successful album of the same name.

Gordy didn’t like the song, and especially didn’t like Gaye doing it. Which, coincidentally it wasn’t really supposed to be at first. The song was brought to life by Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops, when he saw police violently quell an anti-war demonstration in California. He asked his bandmates and friends “what’s going on?” and pondering the validity of the Vietnam War as well as the response to protest. He and Motown staff writer Al Cleveland wrote the song…more or less. Benson wanted his band to record it, but the other Tops would have no part of it, telling him they didn’t do “protest songs.” He argued “no man, it’s a love song about love and understanding.” Presumably it’s rather a  “glass half empty, glass half full” sort of situation – are lyrics like “war is not the answer” and “we’ve got to find a way to get some love in here today” protesting the world around them or optimistic statements? Benson thought the latter, but they didn’t buy in, so in turn he offered it to Marvin. Gaye rewrote some lyrics and changed the pacing a little. In his words, “we measured him for the suit, then he tailored the hell out of it!”

Indeed he did. As the Detroit Free Press noted, he was by then tired of singing love songs, and the “death of singing partner Tammi Terrell had shaken him up, letters from his brother in Vietnam concerned him.” He had an idea of a very easy-sounding song that would have dramatic punch. He got that recording in Detroit, with some of the regular “Funk Brothers” musicians like guitarist Robert White and bassist James Jamerson as well as a few of his own musician friends. Then he even invited a couple of Detroit Lions football players and some rank-and-file Motown staff into the studio to sing some backing vocals and chat (the talking in the background that makes the song so unusual sounding) and doubtless partake of a little of the ganja that Gaye had in good supply to help keep things “mellow.”

Gordy didn’t like the idea of Gaye doing a protest song, but when he heard the finished product… he disliked it even more. He called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Initially he refused to release it, let alone as a lead-off single from a forthcoming album. However, Gaye stood his ground and more or less threatened to go on strike against Motown until it came out. The label owner decided discretion was the better part of valour as next to Diana Ross, Gaye was probably his biggest single star at that time. The rest is history.

The single sold better than 200 000 copies in its first week, and by year’s-end had become Motown’s biggest-selling single at that point. It got to #2 in the U.S. (he’d had a #1 before with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” but this one outsold that) and was his seventh #1 R&B hit. It’s popularity then did seem restricted to the Red, White and Blue however; it failed to crack the top 60 in the UK, Canada or Australia. (As an aside, that is an odd statistic because a check of that singles chart for Toronto, Canada’s biggest market, showed it made it to #10 there in May.) However, through the years it became acclaimed internationally.

Rolling Stone have consistently listed it among the top 10 greatest songs of all-time, ranking it #6 in their most recent stab at that list. VH1 considered it the 14th greatest song ever, and in Motown itself, the Free Press readers voted it as the second “greatest Detroit song of all-time”, behind only Aretha’s “Respect.” They label the song “timeless and timely”and praise Gaye who “wasn’t shoving anything into listeners faces (but) he was leading them by the hand.”

Most reports suggest Berry Gordy never did warm up much to the record. But we bet he did warm to the influx of money to his company’s coffers from it.

January 20 – Stewart’s Groovy Kind Of Career

Happy birthday, Eric Stewart! The multi-talented Brit musician turns 76 today… let’s hope he remembers to tell his wife Gloria, that he loves her. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Stewart’s name is far from well-known, but a good deal of the music he’s worked on is – most notably the band 10CC.

Stewart was born in Lancashire, and few details of his upbringing are on record, but we do know he joined The Mindbenders by 1965. They were one of the rising tide of bands in the British invasion, and soon after he joined them they scored a #2 hit on both sides of the Atlantic with a song he sang for them: “A Groovy Kind Of Love” . Of course, Phil Collins had a major hit with it about twenty years later, introducing it to whole new generation of fans. Although he didn’t stick with them for too long, The Mindbenders did two important things for him. It made him money, and it introduced him to Graham Gouldman who was also in the band.

After leaving the band by 1969, Stewart said he was “infected with ideas of becoming a recording engineer and building a studio where I could develop my own ideas.” He and Graham bought into a studio near Manchester, which they renamed “Strawberry Studios” as an homage to The Beatles (and “Strawberry Fields Forever”.) They soon had Kevin Godley and Lol Creme joining them to work on recordings there. By the time they recorded and did much of the music for Neil Sedaka’s 1972’s Solitaire, they had the idea that they could make their own music. Shortly after, 10CC came about.

With that background, there’s little surprise 10CC were known for meticulously-produced records. While popular here in North America, they were more popular and sooner at home in the UK, where they trotted out five-straight top 10 albums in the ’70s and scored 11 top 10 singles, including a trio of #1s. For the first four or five years, there seemed to be two duos within the larger group- Godley and Creme ; Stewart and Gouldman. In 1976, the former left leaving the latter pair to steer the band through the late-’70s and ’80s. “I was sorry to see them go,” Stewart says “but it became clear things went much smoother” afterwards.

Of the two “duos” within 10CC, Stewart’s was the more commercially accepted. Stewart sang lead on most of their big singles including “Art for Art’s Sake” and “I’m Not In Love” and he co-wrote almost all of their hits, including “Things We Do For Love” and “I’m Not In Love” (both #1 hits in Canada).

The latter, their signature tune, was inspired by Eric’s wife. “My wife, Gloria and I were having breakfast at home…she said, ‘Why don’t you say you love me as much anymore?’ .We had been married nine years at the time. I said, ‘If I say that every day, the words will lose their meaning, won’t they?’ She said ‘No they won’t.’ … I went off to the living room where I had a grand piano and my acoustic guitar and began writing a song about saying ‘I love you’ without actually saying it.” As of last year at least, Eric and Gloria were still happily wed, 50-plus years in.

While 10CC slowed down in the ’80s (Eric eventually ran into issues with Graham and quit for good in 1995), he made friends with Paul McCartney. Apparently at the suggestion of super-producer George Martin (who felt Paul needed “new blood”), he joined the Beatle in 1982 to do guitar work and backing vocals on his Tug of War album and then collaborated on the next three albums of his. that culminated in 1986’s Press to Play. Stewart co-wrote six of the songs with Paul, did guitars and keyboards and helped out in the studio process. Unfortunately, the album was not one of the high points in Paul’s career, lacking a hit single and going gold only in the UK. the pair didn’t work together much after and since then, but for minor contributions on albums by Alan Parsons and Abba’s Agnetha, Stewart seems to have largely left the business.

January 19 – Battling Leads Meant Trouble In ‘Paradise’

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times in 1981. That is, for Styx. They put out their tenth studio album (and sixth on a major label, A&M) this day 41 years back, Paradise Theatre. And, if you think that spelling’s incorrect, reach for another copy… oddly, it’s been spelled both “Theatre” and “Theater” on different releases through the years. Either way, it was as the Daily Vault point out, their “highwater mark”, commercially and perhaps artistically.

Many bands seem to get going when two friends with similar talents but slightly different tastes begin meshing. The Beatles with Lennon & McCartney. Canada’s Blue Rodeo with Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. With Styx, by a few years in, it was clear the quintet was largely run by guitarist Tommy Shaw and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung, both of whom shared most of the writing and singing duties. For some time this worked well, with the band turning out a version of prog rock with just enough mainstream pop as to be radio-friendly in North America. However, by the end of the ’70s, that was turning sour. They had a massive hit with the soft rock ballad “Babe”, and it was clear the two men were pulling in different directions. Shaw was something of a conventional rock’n’roller; DeYoung was looking more to top 40 pop and perhaps “big themes.” As allmusic put it, my the time this album was being made it had turned into a “bitter co-existence.” It may be a stretch to assume, but it would appear it was four against one, but the one (DeYoung) had the stronger hand and the backing of the record-buying masses. So with this one, both contributed songs but the album itself was DeYoung’s idea, and he wrote more of the tracks.

The album was a loose concept one, based on a slightly fictional take on the real Paradise Theatre in their hometown of Chicago. It was an architectural gem on Crawford Avenue, a grandiose movie hall that sat over 3000. Unfortunately, it had bad acoustics and wasn’t often full. It was knocked down when Styx were still children, in 1958, and replaced by a supermarket. DeYoung had the idea of a story of the grand theatre and its decline being a metaphor for American urban life itself. It opens with “AD 1928”, a suitably theatrical, piano-driven intro which segues into the straight-ahead rock of “Rockin’ the Paradise.” Much of the record continues thusly, a mix of balladry drawing from the basic refrain of “AD 1928” and rock tracks from Shaw and James Young.

Rolling Stone, never big fans of the band, gave it 2.5-stars. However, many reviews have been much kinder. Allmusic give it 4-stars, calling “The Best of Times” “one of the more improbable top 10 hits of the decade” and “Too Much Time on My Hands” “among Shaw’s finest singles.” The Daily Vault grade it “A” (although a reader’s poll scores it a much more dour “C-”) suggesting “Styx was never this good before, Styx was never this good again” and suggesting the “highlight though is ‘Snowblind.’”

Their fans liked it just fine regardless. The two singles mentioned by allmusic were indeed both hits, “The Best of Times” getting to #3 domestically and becoming their second #1 in Canada; “Too Much Time on My Hands” was a #9 hit in the U.S. and by reaching #2 on the rock charts, their highest-charting song there. “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned” gave them a third top 20 hit off it to the north in Canada and another song on radio at home. That pushed the album to #1, their first chart-topper in the U.S., and in Canada as well, and at #8 in the UK, it was their biggest there. In fact, although it was the fourth-straight of theirs to hit triple-platinum in the States, overall it is their biggest-selling album.

Which made it, according to allmusic, “their temporary saving grace and ultimate doom.” The rift between the two leaders deepened after it, and the more bizarre concept album that followed, Kilroy Was Here, saw sales decline and resulted in the band splitting up for several years. When they rebanded in 1990, Shaw refused to rejoin them, although he eventually did and DeYoung was replaced by Larry Gowan.

January 19 – People Didn’t Have To Pretend; They Liked Hynde’s Band

A great way to kick off a new decade is with a fresh new sound, and a pan-Atlantic band did just that for us 42 years ago. The Pretenders self-titled debut album came out this day in 1980 on this side of the pond, a couple of weeks after it had appeared on British shelves.

The Pretenders were a trio of English guys – guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Peter Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers – with a feisty American gal singing, and playing some guitar herself, Chrissie Hynde. She’d moved from Ohio to London in the ’70s to take part in the punk scene and write about music for the NME. The band had formed in 1978 and quickly took to the post-punk “power pop” sound that was sweeping the nation with the likes of Joe Jackson, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, who actually produced their first single, “Stop Your Sobbing.” Although it is on the debut album, it was actually put out as a 7” about a year earlier and made it to #34 in their homeland, the first of a dozen top 40s they’d score there. Lowe however, didn’t think that much of them and didn’t want to return to do their album, so they turned their sights upward and brought in Chris Thomas instead to produce. It worked! And why not – Thomas had gotten his start in music helping George Martin in the studio with The Beatles and then had gone on to produce records for the likes of Procul Harum, Roxy Music and, oddly, the Sex Pistols.

The 12 songs on The Pretenders bristle with energy and as often as not, anger more reminiscent of the Pistols than the Beatles. Hynde wrote the majority of them, though Honeyman-Scott helped out extensively on the signature tune, “Brass in Pocket”. The hit that many women took as an anthem of empowerment was the one song Chrissie didn’t like on it, and she was mortified that Sire Records chose it as the single to introduce them to North America. “I was embarrassed by it,” she later admitted, “I hated it so much that if I was in Woolworths and they started playing it, I’d have to run out.” She perhaps would’ve preferred the much-commented on “Tattooed Love Boys” with its lines like “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for” as the lead single.

The public seemed to agree with Sire though. “Brass in Pocket” became their biggest hit, being a #1 in the UK and #2 in New Zealand as well as being a top 10 hit in Canada (surprisingly, it only peaked at #14 in the U.S. despite now being a staple of oldies radio.) The album itself debuted at #1 in Britain and sat there for four weeks; it’s their only chart-topper there.

Reviews were good when it came out, and remain strong. Village Voice gave it an “A-” and Rolling Stone initially gave it a 5-star rating and would later rank it both in the top 20 of the decade and the top 200 albums of all-time, calling it “one of those rare albums on which every move turns out to be the right one.” Allmusic approve as well saying the band “straddled punk’s rawness and the ear candy of new wave.”

Although the follow-up wasn’t as strong and soon after both Honeyman-Scott and Farndon would succumb permanently to drug addictions, the Pretenders proved they were anything but “pretenders” and have soldiered on with 10 more studio albums to this point, the latest being 2020’s Hate For Sale

January 18 – Adams Sounded Sharp

Today marks the day we began to hear of Bryan Adams, much to his relief we guess. That because his third album came out this day in 1983, which was Cuts Like A Knife…an album he reportedly wanted to call “Bryan Adams Hasn’t Heard Of You, Either!”. Not only did it start him on his way to international superstardom, it was, as journalist Bev Paterson put it, where he “found and established his own recognizable style and identity…fasten(ing) pop elements to a hard-rocking essence.”

Adams was by that time, somewhat known in his native Canada. He’d had one top 30 hit a couple of years earlier with “Fits Ya Good” and his previous album had scratched the top 50. This one ratcheted up his profile – and sales – considerably. He had a hand in writing all ten tracks, most with his musical partner Jim Vallance, although “Don’t Leave Me Lonely” was written with Eric Carr of Kiss. That band had dibs on the song but ended up not using it for their album, so Adams did it himself. Most of the album was recorded in Adams’ hometown of Vancouver, with Bob Clearmountain helping him produce. Among the guest musicians were Foreigner’s Lou Gramm who added backing vocals to over half of the songs.

As Paterson noted, Adams established his own fairly recognizable, but not unique, style of mixing arena-ready rockers just smooth enough to fit AM rock stations with a few more melodic power ballads for good measure. By the time all was said and done, A&M had pulled seven singles off it, a trend that they followed on his next one, Reckless. Of them, three were big successes – the title track, “This Time” and “Straight From the Heart”, with Adams playing piano on it. Curiously, two of them did a bit better south of the border in the U.S. than at home. “Straight From the Heart” became his first American top 10 hit for instance, while stalling at #20 in Canada.

Reviews were… well, anyone’s guess it seems! Rolling Stone only graded it 2-stars, but that seems to have been erased from the online annals and other reviews are difficult to find for it. Even on allmusic, it’s somehow not there, a real rarity for an album that sold millions. But sell it did. Helped along by a major tour of North America (he played in front of 30 000 in Vancouver) and a spot opening for The Police in Australia and New Zealand, he became well-known and a big-seller. The album topped out at #8 in both the U.S. and Canada, and #21 in the UK, although there it took over a year longer to connect. It’s currently platinum in the States and triple that in Canada…but that was barely a hint of the success he’d come to see a couple of years later with Reckless, and then down the road with movie music.

January 18 – Bowie’s Star Shone Bright

On this day six years ago, the world was still mourning the unexpected death of the great David Bowie... and he was sitting on top of the British album charts.

Blackstar came out on Bowie’s 69th birthday, January 8, 2016, and preceded his death by a mere two days. No coincidence that; producer Tony Visconti ( a longtime friend of David’s and producer of many of his best albums, like Heroes and Scary Monsters) was with him as they recorded it in New York early in 2015 and says Bowie wanted it as a “parting gift” to his fans. By that time, the singer knew he had cancer and little time left but few others did. The backing band for instance, say he seemed healthy and worked a solid schedule every day, something one couldn’t always say about the 1970s version of the man!

At the time, Bowie was listening to a lot of electronica music as well as rap, and perhaps some jazz, which had been his favorite type of music when he was a youth. All those forms came into play on Blackstar. What didn’t was mainstream pop-rock. This was no “Let’s Dance…Again!” effort. Instead we got a mass of bleak lyrics and odd, varied sounds utilizing everything from harmonica to regular electric guitars to orchestral strings. If there was one “pop” inspiration involved it would almost assuredly be Radiohead, not Nile Rodgers or Iggy Pop. As The Independant would say, it was “as far as he’s strayed from pop” through his varied career of 50 years. The title track – all 10 minutes of it – and “Lazarus” , the singles from the album, both seem to deal with mortality and death. Many pointed to the line in “Lazarus” that went “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” as the definitive statement about him and about the album’s relevance.

Reviews were excellent, although a cynic might debate how wonderful they would have been if Bowie had succumbed to his cancer a month or two later. The release date meant most publications were reviewing it right beside the unhappy obituary for him. Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars, Spin 7/10. Entertainment Weekly graded it “A-”, saying it was expected in its unexpectedness since “the man who fell to Earth has made an entire career of defying terrestrial categories and classification”. Pitchfork figured he was “adding to the myth while the myth is his to hold.”

The public agreed and were eager to revel in their sorrow. It hit #1 in Canada, Australia and many other countries, including the U.S. That was a surprise because he’d never had a chart-topping album before in the States; even Let’s Dance only made #4. The first week Blackstar sales there of 181 000 were the best single week sales on record for The Thin White Duke.

But it was his Britain that took to it the most. It knocked Adele from her seven-week run at #1, and spent three weeks on top, before a greatest hits compilation of his edged it out at #1. One week in January, Bowie notched seven of the 40 biggest-selling albums in the UK, a feat only Elvis Presley had done before.

The album has resonance and was remembered come year-end. Newsweek, Mojo and Q each picked it as the “album of the year” . As well it earned five Grammys including Best Alternative Album and Best Rock Song for the title track, and the Brit Awards Album of The Year… something Bowie had never done while alive.

Long may you shine on, “Black star.”