Friday, June 12, 2020

Open/Close: Opening Out

Renaissance: Opening Out

It’s been a while since I’ve reached into my prog-rock bag, so let’s talk about Renaissance. I’m guessing that most of you, when and if you think of Renaissance, you think of the classically-influenced band fronted by singer Annie Haslam, the incredible singer with the amazing five-octave range. And if you are a slightly bigger fan, you might recognize some of the other members of the band’s “classic” lineup, bassist Jon Camp, guitarist Michael Dunford, keyboard player Jon Tout, and drummer Terry Sullivan. That’s the band that I was aware of and saw live in the late 1970s. But not a single one of those musicians were part of the band when it started.  And after this “classic” period, the band again went through a revolving door of musicians--for a while there were even competing bands touring as Renaissance. A full discussion of that gets tedious (and for some, it might have already), but I will hit a few high points before getting to the song at issue.

Renaissance was formed in 1969 when the Yardbirds were in the process of morphing into Led Zeppelin. Two of the departing Yardbirds, Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, eventually formed a band that included, among others, Keith’s sister Jane Relf, a singer, but after an album and a tour, this band exploded while working on their second album (Illusion, initially released only in Germany), leaving only pianist John Hawken and Jane Relf. One of the additional musicians that joined at this point was Dunford. After a few more spins of the revolving door, Haslam and Tout joined, and Dunford moved to a behind the scenes role.

The band’s manager, Miles Copeland, III (yeah, the same one who later managed The Police and started famed new wave label I.R.S. Records), refocused the band on Haslam’s soaring voice and Tout’s keyboards, and after cycling through bass players (including John Wetton), they brought in Camp. It took a while to land on drummer Sullivan, and various guitarists came and went before Dunford returned to play guitar. This lineup, essentially, recorded the band’s most famous albums which included some brilliant music, but also some that suffered from the excesses of the genre, from 1972’s Prologue through 1979’s Azure d’Or. But 1979 was a bad time for classically influenced, complex rock, and the band hemorrhaged members before trying to pivot towards more new-wave/pop sounds, releasing two mostly forgotten albums on Copeland’s I.R.S. Records before disbanding.

In the mid-90s, both Dunford and Haslam toured with separate “Renaissance” bands, subsequent reformations with various core members and new additions went nowhere, and the deaths of lyricist Betty Thatcher, Dunford, and Tout in the late 2000s prevented any further reunions. A version of Renaissance, fronted by Haslam, but with none of the members of the classic lineup, toured recently (until you couldn’t anymore), and has released some albums, but again, not to much notice.

Oh-and just to confuse things further, back in the 70s, after the death of Keith Relf, Jim McCarty reformed his version of the band, naming it Illusion, and released two albums, the second of which was called Illusion, so that both that band and the original Renaissance have second albums with the same name. And the McCarty led-group released an album in 2001 as “Renaissance-Illusion.”

Our featured song is “Opening Out,” from 1978’s A Song For All Seasons, which was produced by David Hentschel, who had come off a run of producing a series of Genesis albums that gradually transitioned towards more straightforward pop and better commercial success. A Song For All Seasons, too, had generally shorter songs than before, but still mostly contained the sort of prog rock that Renaissance was known for, although it did spawn a hit single in the UK, “Northern Lights.” “Opening Out,” which was the b-side to that single, features Haslam’s voice, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and some nice, yearning lyrics, but seems to fade out a little too soon.

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