May 13 – Curnin’s Band Would Soon Be A Fixx-ture On American Radio

Yesterday we mentioned that there seem to be quite a few British acts that enjoyed more success on this side of the Atlantic than at home. Today we look at the debut of one of those acts, The Fixx. Their Shuttered Room album made its first appearance this day 40 years back at home; in North America it arrived later in 1982.

The Fixx had formed in London as The Portaits three years earlier and had put out a couple of indie singles as such. By the beginning of ’82, they’d signed to MCA and changed names (originally to The Fix, but then to the double-x after the company worried the name could be too druggy-sounding) and got their first album ready, with help of well-known producer Rupert Hine. Singer Cy Curnin was the primary writer, but most versions of the release credit the other four members as well.

The Fixx had a then-contemporary “new romantic” look and a somewhat typical sound of London in the early-’80s… synthesizer pop with bits of edgy guitar, in their case by Jamie West Oram, added in. Allmusic described the album as “generic new wave,” though they credit Hine for turning it into “engaging synth pop.” Cryptic Rock compared the album in places to Duran Duran, Alphaville and Japan and sum it up as “elements of a typical post-punk, new wave (album) – upbeat tempo, angular rhythm guitar, ubiquitous synthesizer melodies, driving basslines and frenetic lead vocals.”

The album had 10 songs on it, though the European version was different than the American one. Both had the same eight songs but the original one had the added songs “Sinking Island” and “Time in a Glass” whereas they were absent on the later American release, replaced by “I Found You” and “the Strain,” a previous single b-side. Completists can take comfort, several CD versions include all of them.

The album didn’t exactly take the music world by storm, hitting #52 in Canada and #54 in their own UK. Curiously, that would end up being their best showing at home, but over here they’d score big the following year with Reach the Beach, platinum in both the U.S. and Canada. This one introduced them to North American new wave and rock fans though. “Red Skies” did OK on rock and college stations and “Stand or Fall” kicked off a run of seven-straight top 20 Mainstream Rock hits for them in the U.S. and made it into the overall Canadian top 40. both singles were , “singled” out as the most noteworthy on the album by allmusic. Cryptic Rock added in “Cameras in Paris” as a highlight but agreed with the common perception that while the bulk of the remainder of the album was quite decent, most of it wasn’t overly memorable.

The Fixx split for some time but have been mostly an ongoing effort since, with their 11th studio album, Every Five Seconds, expected out next month. The quintet consists of four of the original members; only bass has been a bit of a changeable position, with them utilizing a number of different players through the years including Chris Tait of Canada’s Chalk Circle in the ’90s.

May 8 – Second Generation Cali-pop Gold

You never go too far wrong with some lovely ladies harmonizing nicely on simple love songs. Nor do you usually go too far wrong having all the right connections in music. Wilson Phillips learned that with their stroke of genius – or beginner’s luck – almost three decades back. they put out their self-titled debut album this day in 1990.

If ever there was a group which was well-groomed to become makers of melodic pop, Wilson Phillips would be it. The female trio consisted of Carnie and Wendy Wilson, daughters of Beach Boy Brian, and Chyna Phillips, daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, two groups that more or less defined California soft rock in the ’60s. At the time this record came out, the three were each 21 or 22 years old and had grown up together, hanging out, singing, and being inspired by all the famous musical talent around their houses when young. It took very little time for them to get a contract (with SBK Records, at the time a new spinoff owned by Columbia) when they announced they were writing some pop tunes and wanted to record; it took them even less time to be featured in Time and Vanity Fair, both of which ran articles about them before the record was released.

SBK went all out for the record, not too surprisingly. they used several of SoCal’s best studios to record it They brought in top-flight producer Glen Ballard (who a few years later would go on to team up with Alanis Morissette on Jagged Little Pill) and some fine session musicians including Joe Walsh on guitars. The effort and expense paid off.

Wilson Phillips was a breezy, pleasant collection of 10 love and love-lost songs that would’ve felt at home on their parents’ records. At least their parents’ B-sides. It dominated adult contemporary and pop radio for close to a year, hitting #2 in the U.S. and topping Canadian charts, going 5X platinum or better in both. It achieved that by being a steady seller for a year, based on five singles, the first two of which (“Hold On” and “Release Me” ) both went gold at home. The latter hit #1 in both the U.S. and Canada, while “Hold On”, co-written by Ballard, was not only a #1 single, it ended up being the biggest-selling single of ’90.

Although the public liked it, reviews were middling. The Village Voice for instance, gave it just a “C”. Later, allmusic would post a confusing review of it. they graded it 4-stars – very good for anyone. However, the written review slammed it, saying it was “about as lightweight and sophomoric as it gets” and suggesting even Debbie Gibson or tiffany had musical “bite” compared to this.

Their 1992 follow-up, Shadows and Light , still sold to platinum levels but totalled only about a quarter of the debut’s 10 million copies and it yielded only one, somewhat forgettable top 20 single. Chyna Phillips, who pointedly let Rolling Stone know in a 1990 story about them that she didn’t appreciate their parents’ bands being referenced, decided to go solo, breaking up the group after only 3 years. Her solo record flopped, as did (more surprisingly) a ’97 album entitled The Wilsons that the other two girls did with their dad, Brian Wilson. As a result (perhaps) they reunited in 2001 for a Beach Boys tribute concert in New York and they’ve worked, and recorded together off-and-on since. They have yet to come close to the gigantic success of the opening shot however. But “Hold On”… maybe they still will!

May 6 – People Got To Know Browne & Hook 50 Years Ago

It was a big day for artists just beginning to make themselves known in 1972.

About five years after they got started (and also five years after singer Ray Sawyer lost an eye in an accident, resulting in his trademark eyepatch), Dr. Hook – then known as Doctor Hook & The Medicine Show – hit the U.S. top 40 for the first time with one of their biggest hits, “Sylvia’s Mother.” The sad, country-tinged single came off their self-titled debut LP. It was written for them by Shel Silverstein, a successful comic book creator who moonlighted as a songwriter. Besides this one, he also wrote their later hit “The Cover of The Rolling Stone”, “The Unicorn” for the Irish Rovers and even Johnny Cash’s smash “A Boy Named Sue.” Silverstein said this one came easily to him… it was autobiographical, about a failed romance he had with a girl named Silvia who moved to Mexico. The girl, Sylvia Pandolfi apparently did marry the other guy “down Galveston way” – Mexico actually! – who was, a bullfighter and painter. Years later Dutch TV tracked her down, working in a museum in Mexico City, and her mother, still up in Illinois and recalling Shel. “I changed the name not to protect the innocent,” he says, “but because (Pandolfi) didn’t fit.” Dr. Hook propelled the oddball song up to #5 at home, #2 in Canada and the UK and all the way to #1 in Australia. It remained one of their most popular tunes for years, and Sawyer is probably lucky he didn’t lose another eye as a result. Seems when he sang the line “forty cents more for the next three minutes” people had a habit of throwing coins at him, “Which could hurt!”. They’d go on to have five more top 10 hits in the States..

The same day, Jackson Browne hit a peak of #8 with his first single, “Doctor My Eyes.” Jackson had been a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in the ’60s and written songs for them, Joan Baez and others; Rolling Stone had even featured him as a “new face to watch” on the strength of his writing. But by 1971 he wanted to record as well; manager David Geffen had trouble finding him a good contract so ended up starting Asylum Records (in conjunction with Atlantic who would distribute the copies) just to get a Browne record out. Soon after, Jackson was in the top 10 and the label would also have Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and most importantly, the Eagles. Speaking of them, another song co-written by Jackson would  hit the U.S. top 10 soon after “Doctor My Eyes”  – “Take it Easy”, by them. Jackson took the late Glenn Frey’s place with the Eagles in the 2016 Grammy Awards show to perform it. Not that he needs to rely on those friends for success however; his debut album was the first of seven-straight to go platinum in the U.S. and he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 (along with Bob Seger, today’s birthday boy.)

April 30 – Beck Perfected Being A Winner By…Being A ‘Loser’?

Ever feel like you can’t win for losing? Well, today we look at the oddball story of a song and singer that seemingly that couldn’t lose for winning. “Loser” by Beck hit a peak of #10 in the U.S. this day in 1994.

The song certainly sounded like very little else on radio then, fitting because Beck was rather unlike many of the artists he shared the airwaves with. At the time, he was 23, and back in his beloved L.A., after a stint of living in New York. He’d spent some time with relatives in Europe as a kid, but always gravitated back to the Pacific coast. His mother was a friend of Andy Warhol’s, so needless to say, a bit of an odd, avant garde type. Beck dropped out of school after grade eight, but used a fake ID to attend some music and literature classes at a California college. When he was 16, he got himself a guitar and taught himself to play, taking to the streets to busk. He was a big fan of folk music and hip-hop, and tried to combine the two. “I knew my folk music would take off if I put hip-hop beats behind it,” he later said.

He tried that out in cafes in New York and L.A., singing somewhat stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Or at times “I’d just make up these ridiculous songs just to see if people were listening. ‘Loser’ was an extension of that.” (A previous indie single he put out was called “MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack” so one might think he took advantage of that strategy of checking to see if anyone was listening frequently.)

It caught the ear of a local producer, who put the song out as a 12” vinyl single on his own Bong Load label. They made 500 of them. Then Beck began to win, with “Loser.” Two local college radio stations liked it and played it, which in turn drew attention from alt rock powerhouse KROQ in town. As Pitchfork put it, “it arrived without context or marketing” in the city. But with one of the nation’s top stations backing it, major labels got curious and soon Geffen – Nirvana’s label – signed Beck and got him working on his first album, Mellow Gold. “Loser” was the first track for it.

Beck played guitars and bass on it, and synths on some tracks for the album, but he got some major help from Carl Stephenson, the producer. Stephenson played sitar on the song, but more importantly put the dance beat to it and found all the little samples, like George Bush saying “I’m a driver, I’m a winner.” Stephenson would later say he rather disliked the song and regretted putting something so negative out there.

Many felt differently though. Rolling Stone called it “ultra-catchy” and were one of several publications that worked some sort of Bob Dylan comparison in with its review. They also correctly seemed to predict it would take off since “slacker victims often trumpet their dropout status with dilapidated jeans, greasy hair and a sarcastic, defeatist posture.” Everything needed to make Beck their “unwitting icon” as Record Collector‘s Bruno MacDonald suggests.

By the time Mellow Gold came out, “Loser” had already spent five weeks at #1 on the Alternative Rock chart, and from there, mainstream success followed, hitting the top 10 at home as well as in Canada and New Zealand and #15 in the UK. With it ending up a (mellow?) gold single, it remains Beck’s biggest-seller to date. Many would say that was quite a good “winner” of a debut. 

April 28 – When The Windy City Began To Blow Its Own Horn(s)

A big band, in every sense of the phrase, had its “Beginnings” on this day in 1969. Chicago‘s debut album, which was using the band’s original name “Chicago Transit Authority” hit the shelves 53 years ago.

Chicago (or CTA) had formed two years prior in the Windy City and much like Blood, Sweat and Tears, incorporated a liberal use of horns in their jazz-rock music. They signed to Columbia Records, home to BS&T, thanks largely to their producer James Guercio, who had also done the work with the other band. He lobbied hard for Chicago, and eventually Clive Davis agreed saying later it was an obvious fit for the label who enjoyed the “blending elements of jazz, pop and rock (which was) ground-breaking.” Others suggest he hesitated, thinking them too similar to his other horn band. Either way, they went with Columbia and had a rocky relationship with Davis who liked their music but not their demands for things like double-albums and posters included inside the LP.

Chicago Transit Authority (later nicknamed “Chicago I”) was audacious as a debut. It was indeed a double-LP, with nearly 78 minutes of music over 12 songs, only two of which were under 4” in length. The final track, “Liberation” ran over 14 minutes. While the band boasted several singers, several writers and an unusual (for rock) trio of horn players – Walter Parazaider, James Pankow (who also handled the cowbell) and Lee Loughlane – at this point in time, Robert Lamm, the keyboardist, was clearly in charge. He wrote most of the tracks and sang lead on over half of the songs including the appropriate for a debut “Beginnings.” Peter Cetera, later to take a more prominent role, shared vocal duties on “Questions 67 & 68” and did a bit of the writing.

Remarkably the seven-man outfit recorded the entire body of work in five days in New York City, with the final mixing taking another five. The six-minute plus “Free Form Guitar”, guitarist Terry Kath’s homage to his friend Jimi Hendirx, was recorded all in one take. The album however, sounded anything but raw or unplanned.

While it contains a trio of songs now considered not only among the band’s best but among Oldies Radio’s mainstays, it wasn’t an overnight success. The first single, “Questions 67 & 68” barely charted at first, and “Beginnings” didn’t at all. And the album languished in the low parts of the Billboard charts. However, their fanbase grew and the release of their second album made them popular, at which point this record rose up the charts, eventually to #17 in the U.S. and #10 in Canada. It stayed on the charts for 171 weeks, setting a record for longevity in 1974 (although at the time there was another album on there which would eclipse that soon – Dark side of The Moon.) After being sued by the commuter transportation company and having to lose the “transit authority” off their name, and having success with Chicago II, Columbia wisely re-released singles off the debut in 1971… to much better reception. “Beginnings” would rise to #7 and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” did as well, and hit #2 in Canada in 1971. The album eventually earned them a double-platinum award and a nomination for the Best New Group at the Grammys. They lost that one to Crosby, Stills & Nash… as did Led Zeppelin.

Allmusic rate the record as a 4-star effort, saying “few debut albums can boast as consistently solid an effort.” Classic Rock Reviews agrees, saying that they “fused brass, jazz, soul and blues-based rock & roll, and with three lead vocalists and composers, the group’s sound was as diverse as their influences” and thinking that on some of the songs, especially “Does Anybody…”, the entire group brought along their “A-game.”

Apparently we agreed, as the record began a streak of 12-straight albums from them which hit the American top 20.

April 17 – ‘He Broke Up The Beatles For This?’

The Beatles were done by this day in 1970…but it was when it became pretty obvious to the public. That because Paul McCartney put out his first solo album, simply entitled McCartney.

Now, in reality, the Beatles had done their finale, on the Apple building roof and had already agreed to part ways. But it wasn’t yet known to the public, and there was still one more Beatles album to come out – Let It Be. And other Beatles had stepped out on their own already – Ringo Starr had released his debut three weeks earlier and John Lennon had done some experimental things with Yoko like The Wedding Album, and had formed the Plastic Ono Band which put out their Live Peace In Toronto about five months prior. But these were assumed to be mere side-projects by most. When Paul put one out with only a wee bit of help from wife Linda, people seemed to clue in to the fact that the greatest band of the ’60s were not going to be around in the ’70s.

Paul put out the album (the first of 26 he’s done since the Fab Four) on their Apple label, which made keeping it secret from the others all the more difficult. He began recording it in his home late in ’69, suspended the project for the “Get Back” sessions (documented in the recent hit documentary) then finished it off at Abbey Road right afterwards… at times working in one studio while Phil Spector finished up Let it Be in a neighboring room! When the other Beatles found out, it didn’t sit well with them. They went to Apple to try and get them to roll back Paul’s record release, so it wouldn’t conflict with Let it Be, which was due in only a couple of weeks, and the compilation album Hey Jude which had only just come out. Paul refused, even when Ringo went to his house in person to ask. He admits to throwing Ringo out. Starr said Paul “went crazy” and yelled “I’ll finish you now!” on his way out. He threw gas on the fire when he told interviewers he didn’t miss Ringo’s drumming at all and he didn’t “envisage a time” when he and John would ever write together again.

All of this didn’t sit very well with a number of people – others in the Beatles realm, critics and fans alike. The album itself didn’t help. The overall reaction tended towards “he broke up the Beatles for this?”. That because the record was distinctly low-fi, and had a rather unfinished demo quality to it. Paul played all the instruments on it, in general singing and playing acoustic guitar, recording it on a basic four-track recorder and then later played other instruments like his usual bass, plus drums, some piano and even “wine glasses” and dubbing them in, as well as a few backing vocals from Linda. Speaking of her, her photos on the album cover and inside liner notes (including a famous picture of Paul holding their newborn Mary on the back cover) were one of the few things widely lauded about it.

There were 13 songs, running about 34 minutes, including a few instrumentals, like “Kreene Akrore”, an interesting four minutes of building percussion inspired by a TV show he had seen about natives of the Amazonian rainforest. “Glasses”, as one might expect, featured him playing wine glasses. The album kicked off with “The Lovely Linda”, a ditty that ran under a minute and was designed just to be a sound check for him. The one standout and comparatively finished song on it was “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which kept a low-profile then but became a hit for him when he released a live version with Wings in 1976.

At the time it arrived, few cared much for it. As Beatles biographer Nicholas Schaffer said, “many…found the whole confused, tasteless.” The Guardian more clearly stated he sounded like “a man preoccupied with himself…he seems to believe that anything that comes into his head is worth having. And he’s wrong.” Rolling Stone found it “distinctly second-rate” although it did like “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Only the NME liked it, thinking it “sheer brilliance” which “exudes warmth and happiness.” Later reviews became a bit more fond of it. Rolling Stone would this century give it a middling 2.5-stars, allmusic, 4-stars. An undercurrent of feelings that it seemed “unfinished” – songs with potential but left half-baked – ran through most. Songs with titles like “Singalong Junk” didn’t help to change that idea.

Despite not having a hit single, the album did well. It actually spent three weeks at #1 in the U.S. (before being replaced by, what else, Let it Be) and also was a #1 in Canada, and reached #2 at home for him, as well as #3 in Australia and #13 as far away as Japan.

McCartney has reverted to the one-man band approach a couple more times, with McCartney II and just last year, McCartney III.

April 14 – The ‘Gnome’nclature Of Kicking Off A Big Career

What a difference a few – or 16- years makes! Today it’s all about The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, Starman…aka David Bowie.

On this day in 1983, he put out his smash Let’s Dance, the biggest-selling record of his career. But…it was on this day back in 1967 Bowie put out his first album. That might seem appropriate given his talent and stature in rock history and given that year’s prominence in developing the sound with the likes of Sgt. Pepper… and the emergence of The Doors. Only Bowie’s entry to the scene wasn’t quite that celebrated. In fact, it’s probably fair to say it was pretty bad! Just prior to the album release, his single, “The Laughing Gnome” came out. You’re forgiven if you’re not that familiar with it. It isn’t up there with “Fame” or “A Space Oddity” when it comes to recurrent radio play!

The song was a very odd, “whimsical” tune about, well, a jolly gnome. Bowie sang the regular parts , with reference to “his tiny hands on his tummy” and so forth, as well as the gnome bits. The latter were accomplished by speeding up his voice until it was chipmunk-like, assuring listeners he was the laughing gnome, “Ho ho ho, hee hee hee.” The song would have been buried in the annals of forgettable music had Bowie not gone on to bigger and better. When his star was on the rise, his label re-released it as a single in 1973 in Europe (when “A Space Oddity” , also a re-release, was riding high over here) and remarkably, it got to #6 in the UK! A copy of that 1973 release, by the way, might fetch you something like $20 online but if you have a copy of the original Deram Records , 7” single from 1967, you might ask yourself why? Nonetheless, your surprising taste in music over 50 years back could pay off as apparently there are people who will buy it for around $300, the going rate.

His biographer David Buckley thought it was a “supremely catchy children’s song” but most agreed with the NME which called it the most embarrassing bit of his career.” We expect Bowie agreed with that assessment; when he had a fan vote in 1990 to see what song they wanted added to his “Sound + Vision” concerts, this song was leading. So he scrapped the vote. Seems Bowie got the last laugh, not the gnome

April 7 – Prince Entered The Pop Palace

From humble beginnings… one of pop/rock’s brightest stars began to shine 44 years ago today. Few would have guessed at that time what a big star Prince was going to go on to become, based on his debut album, For You. It came out this day in 1978 to little acclaim or fanfare, but began his nearly two-decade collaboration with Warner Brothers music and his superstardom only cut short by his death in 2016.

The Minnesota native was born to musical parents and could aptly be said to have been a musical prodigy. He was already playing piano and composing his own music at age 7 and by 17 had the record contract with Warner (he was 19 when it came out.) In that light, and with the benefit of hindsight, we see what an important debut it was, but at the time… not so much. The album was a rather typical release of non-descript disco in an age when the success of that sound was killing it off by over-exposure. What was impressive, for those who noticed, was that this was as truly a “solo” project as you’ll find (with the exception of Dave Grohl’s first Foo Fighters album and occasional records by John Fogerty or Paul McCartney.) Prince wrote all but one of the nine songs himself (the other he co-wrote with a Minnesota record producer), sang lead and backing vocals and most impressively, played all 27 instruments! Guitars- Prince. Piano- Prince. Bass- Prince. Synthesizer – Prince. Drums…you get the idea. Even the “horn section” was Prince, by way of a Moog synthesizer! He then largely produced the record himself to boot.

Being technically talented doesn’t always equate to either success or great creativity though. The album failed to dent the top 100 anywhere, and was the only Prince studio album until well into the ’90s not to at least go gold in the US. (It actually topped out at #138 on Billboard after his death!). The first single, the characteristically racy “Soft and Wet” was a minor hit on the R&B charts but he’d have to wait another year and album to have any crossover success, with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” off his second album, in 1979. Other songs on For You had sounds and titles that blended in with a lot of the other dance music of the time – “Baby,” “My Love Is Forever”, “I’m Yours”. No “Purple Rain”s or “When Doves Cry”s here, but one has to remember this was a teenager’s first kick at the can.

Not surprisingly, finding reviews of the record upon its release is hard – he was, after all, an unknown teen. Not the type of LP that would be likely to win precious print space in large daily newspapers or monthly music magazines. Retrospectively, the assessment seems consistent – a decently made album that gave glimpses of his incredible voice and talent, but offered little real memorable music. Entertainment Weekly generously graded it “B-” in 1990, calling it “professional if derivative” while allmusic later scored it as only 2-stars, lowest of his ’70s & ’80s catalog. Looking back, perhaps the remarkable thing about it (besides its one-man band approach) was how far he would come musically in less than half a decade that followed.

April 5 – The Kegger That Reverberated For 30 Years

It was a party for the ages on this night in 1980 in Georgia. But I doubt many realized it at the time – they were too busy getting drunk and just having a good time!

Some hit bands are put together by committees (think the Monkees); others are built to be super-groups from the best of other bands (Asia, Led Zeppelin). Many get there by a group of people determined to be stars who studiously practice and write together for years (maybe Toto, for instance). Then there’s R.E.M.

The most successful American alt rock band, and the pride of Athens, Georgia came together by accident on this day 42 years ago. The four knew each other somewhat; Michael Stipe hung out at Peter Buck’s workplace (Wuxtry Records); Mike Mills and Bill Berry were friends at the University of Georgia there. Presumably they all knew one another and had some level of common musical interest and as we now know, some musical talent. However, they really didn’t come together with an aim to change the face of the musical landscape. They just decided to jam together a little to add some background noise to a friend’s party!

So it was that on an unseasonably cold spring night, what would become R.E.M. and about 300 others, mainly from the UofG, jammed into an abandoned Episcopal church on Oconee Street in Athens to throw a party for Kathleen O’Brien, who was celebrating her birthday. O’Brien worked at the campus radio station which no doubt endeared her to the boys in R.E.M. A good time was had by all by the few accounts, and the quartet played a handful of rather unmemorable covers of artists from Jonathan Richman to the Sex Pistols to the Stones. They played a couple of originals, rough versions of tracks that could eventually make the Murmur album like “Perfect Circle“.

And that might have been the end of the story if not for some unknown person’s greed. Or thirst. In true college form, the party was a “kegger”, with beer aplenty. Someone actually stole several kegs from the party. Poor student O’Brien had put down a deposit on the metal kegs and was on the hook for quite a few dollars. The musicians felt bad for her, and arranged to play a local bar – Tyrone’s OC – on May 6 to raise funds to pay her beer losses. In the meantime, they practiced a bit and haphazardly settled on the name that would take them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame some 25 years later!

Tyrone’s bar burned down a couple of years later, but the music tourist can still see the steeple and part of the ruined church to this day.

While the band broke up after 31 years, various members have at times worked together since and they seem on amicable terms. Ironically, they saw a sudden resurgence in popularity of their ’80s single “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” in the early days of the pandemic  (it hit recharted on iTunes in early 2020). Mike Mills said of that, “we certainly never saw that coming with this song…you just never know how it’s going to work out.” Same goes for starting a new band, or any other venture, but in R.E.M.’s case, that kegger turned out pretty well!

March 26 – Tears For Fears Weren’t ‘Hurting’ For Fans

Suffering is supposed to be the raw stuff of art,” ’80s wunderkind author Jay McInerney once said. Today we celebrate a pair of his musical contemporaries who’d no doubt agree, Tears for Fears. The duo that went on to become one of Britain’s biggest acts of the decade had their first real taste of success on this day in 1983 when their debut album, The Hurting, made it to #1 on the UK charts.

While it might seem they were a veritable overnight success, that’s hardly the case. Their rise to fame took some time – and a lot of suffering. As much as the recording of the album was arduous, the years leading up to it that was the raw material was tougher. The Hurting was a concept album about childhood stress, psychological distress and resultant psycho-therapy. Not the love affairs and fast Chevys that populate so much of pop music.

Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who make up the band (technically keyboardist/engineer Ian Stanley and drummer Manny Elias were also part of the band but they were kept to decidedly supporting roles) had a lot of raw material to work with when they first met in the late 1970s in their hometown of Bath, England, a city which is also home to Peter Gabriel and Midge Ure among others. They joined a band called Neon with Pete Byrnes and Rob Fischer (the latter became Naked Eyes after Orzabal and Smith departed.) and then a short-lived group called Graduate. Graduate had little fan support at home but managed to have a chart-topping single – “Elvis Should Play Ska” – in Spain.

While Orzabal had surprisingly grown up loving country music and Smith had leaned more towards the heavy metal stylings of Blue Oyster Cult and Led Zep, they had both come to love Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and Gary Numan. They decided to form their own band to create that sort of sound. Their initial name, History of Headaches (Orzabal later said of that name, “It’s awful!”) quickly gave way to the one we are familiar with.

Their backgrounds played a big role in creating the rather bleak content of their early work. Both had grown up in “council estates”, the British version of public housing tenements and were fairly poor as children. Smith’s family might have been worse off financially. “It was a very poor, basic upbringing, but it taught you to be independent,” he told The Quietus in a substantial 2013 interview.

Orzabal’s upbringing was more unusual. His parents owned an “entertainment” company which was run out of their apartment after his Dad suffered a nervous breakdown when Roland was three. The entertainment was largely stripping. His mom had been an exotic dancer and went on to train young women for that, something he recalls his Dad quite enjoying! However, beyond the naked ladies, the company also employed a ventriloquist, who taught little Roland that skill, and several musicians. Guitarists would sometimes stop by and play, and the lad would sing along. “I thought, yup, that’s what I want to do.” Continue reading “March 26 – Tears For Fears Weren’t ‘Hurting’ For Fans”