I think the moment that I realised that the beard-and-brown-brogue-infested East London was no longer the hotbed of cooldom (yes, that is a word) I had always assumed it to be was when a friend told me he had been drinking in two well-known bars* in Hoxton and Shoreditch at 2am whilst the DJs played Atomic Kitten, All Saints, Whitney Houston and Lionel Ritchie. The young, and presumably inebriated, crowd apparently lapped it up (and rightly so, some might say) rather than gazing awkwardly at their shoes and wondering when the ambient electronica beats were going to kick in.
Although this refreshing lack of quality-filters was a pleasant surprise, it does rather raise the question, why shouldn’t people enjoy these old tunes if they want to?** Sure, it may mean some of us might choose to avoid such bars just as we might avoid employing Lucretia Borgia as a cocktail waitress at a wedding for all but our least favourite family members. But if even the most fashionable parts of London can blast out “Whole Again” without the police angrily storming the premises to put a stop to it all, then perhaps other similarly maligned genres may also be resurrected?
I am, if you read the title of this piece, referring to that other unloved seam of music, American Rock, Arena Rock, or if you like, AOR. Album Orientated Rock. You know, Boston, Foreigner, Toto and all the rest of that malarkey. The trouble is, this music remains as firmly in the “uncool” category as a Jimmy Savile tracksuit at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Fashion.
I think the reason for that lack of credibility is because it took itself too seriously to begin with. For example, in a “recent” re-run of Top of the Pops 1980 I was tickled to hear Peter Powell neatly segue from a disco song with the introduction “And now for something a little more serious. It’s Genesis with “Turn It On Again””. There are few things more likely to make the heart sink than music that describes itself as serious…
Album Orientated Rock has carried this gloomy cloud of seriousness for 35 years, albeit it seems that it’s only the bands and a few fans that deem it so. At least, perhaps, until now, if the bars of East London are to believed. What appeared as an rather important and po-faced fight against the evils of Disco (thanks goodness they won – I mean, no-one knows who Nile Rodgers or Giorgio Moroder are now, do they?) may now be revealed to be the crowd pleasing populist entertainment that it always really was. Which is good news, because if we look at it as some badly dressed Americans singing melodic and anthemic rock songs for cash rather than buying into some phoney death-to-false-music agenda, it all becomes easier to accept and listen to.
Let’s face it, Abba were enormously popular, but it took a long time for critics to accept that underneath were some remarkable songs. But AOR music hasn’t had that critical reappraisal. Which either means it’s more terrible than we ever imagined, or there’s musical snobbery in play. Take your pick. If Abba can be acknowledged by the critics as having some worth, then there’s hope for AOR.
None of which nonsense really matters unless we have some good tunes to listen to.
Note that, unless you are a fan, any eighties AOR does come with a health warning before it can be enjoyed. These are:
- Ignore the ridiculous hair.
- Ignore the “I’m-a-serious-musician” faces.
- Ignore the flapping flared trousers and too-tight t-shirts. No-one looked good in the seventies or eighties, least of all these guys. Or me for that matter.
- It can be, we have to admit, a little cheesey for some tastes and occasions.
- And try to ignore the production, which, with funky bass lines, synths and squeaky guitar solos couldn’t be more firmly carbon dated to the eighties if the album covers depicted Roland Rat unscrambling a Rubik’s Cube whilst eating a Pot Noodle.
But if we dig a little deeper we can find some forgotten songs and bands that are worth a reappraisal. And the most important find is of Scottish band Strangeways, who in 1987 made one of the finest AOR albums of all time.
“Native Sons” may not have shifted the pop world on its axis, and the band doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, but it’s still a nailed-on classic of the genre.
Strangeways were a Scottish band who released a debut album in the mid eighties which received critical acclaim, but little else. For the follow up, their producer Kevin Elson (a big-hitting producer of AOR bands including Journey and Europe) recruited an American singer called Terry Brock. Brock could sing beautifully, and not unlike Journey’s Steve Perry, and despite (or perhaps because of) the less-than-slick production (there’s something about British AOR which always sounds less expensive than the American version) the resulting album was given a rave 5K review by Kerrang! magazine which described it as “the greatest and most preciously perfect AOR album of all time”.
It wasn’t, but only because Journey’s Escape pipped it to the post a few years earlier. It was a decent second place however, and a listen now reveals that, whilst that production style is firmly rooted to the decade it was made in, the songs are really strong and it has a charm that rewards repeated listens.
“So Far Away” and “Goodnight LA” are both the equal (and actually better than) Foreigner’s classic ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is”. The rockier tunes, such as “Where Do We Go From Here” and “Stand Up And Shout” are as good as anything Survivor came up with. It is, in short, a mini classic. Shame it only sold fifty copies.
The band moved away a little from the Journey sound for third album “Walk In The Fire” and to my ears, lost what made “Native Sons” stand out from the crowd. Although the production was slicker, the album is less distinctive than its predecessor.
Brock left the band after the third album, and according to reports, auditioned for Deep Purple when Ian Gillan left (unsuccessfully – Gillan was replaced by Joe Lynn Turner).
Strangeways continued without him and released three more albums in the ’90s with the band’s chief songwriter and lead guitarist, Ian James Stewart taking over vocals.
In true rock n roll tradition Brock and Strangeways reunited five years ago and have released more music.
So leave your preconceptions behind. Let’s give this maligned genre another chance, without all the pseudo posturing, and while we’re about it we can listen to a terrific – and criminally overlooked – album.
Categories: Hard Rock