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.

Thursday, June 11, 2020


Late to the game as ever, here I am banging on about closing the honky-tonks, just as some sectors are begging for them to be opened up again, whether for the sake of the depleted hospitality industry or just from sheer thirst. But, wherever you are, OK, except Sweden, the bars and restaurants have been or were closed for a fair old while. Mainland Europe is now beginning to open 'em up again, but the merest hope we have here, in the U.K., is possibly of beer gardens by the end of the month, and with waitress service at that, something us bar standing brits abhor.


This song, an acknowledged classic of a country weepie, the alliance of tears to a jaunty beat, never fails to lift my heart. First penned back in the early 60s, by a Red Simpson, me neither, it became a 1964 country smash for Buck Owens and his Buckaroos. On researching, it seems ol' Red was a bit of name in the 50s, chiefly for songs about truck driving, a niche and specialist sub-genre that lives on to this day. (Well, sorta...) Based in Bakersfield, he seems interminably linked with the more famous Owens, originally taking Owen's place in a weekly session in Bakersfield, California. When he proved adept about writing songs about semi-trucks, he hooked up with Owens as his main co-writer, largely then neglecting his own performing career. The playing of Owens was integral to the Bakersfield scene and it's eponymous Bakersfield Sound, an altogether twangier version of Nashville's then somewhat syrupy drench of orchestral strings, with a greater reliance on electric guitar and pedal steel interplay, the bass and drums also writ large. And so with a far greater cross-over potential with the emerging rock music diaspora, resultant in the country-rock vibe that later begat americana.


Hardly surprising, then, that I first came across the song as I started to investigate the twangier side of the Byrds. Early 70s and entranced by that band, reading about their revolving door of players, I caught wind of of the Flying Burrito Brothers and of Gram Parsons. Thus, a month or so after buying 2-disc compendium History of the Byrds, I chanced upon Close-Up the Honky Tonks, another 2-disc compendium, this time of the Burritos. On getting it home, it was a whole more stark and severe an affair, with few of the radio friendly Byrdsian harmonies, and altogether more "and western" for my untutored ears. Side 3 contained the titular song, and was part of the body of songs that engaged me and some, sufficiently to then work harder on the first couple of sides. (Side 4 was just terrific, but that's another tale.)


The Byrds themselves, having anyway a somewhat incestuous relationship with the Burritos, later took it back into their own repertoire as well.


Fast forward a few years. Now a full card carrying country aficionado, a young buck named Dwight Yoakam was making a name for himself, and, finding his cut to my jib, I learnt that he was a huge fan of Buck Owens, to the extent that he made a full album's worth of songs either written, co-written or made famous by him, Dwight Sings Buck, in 2007. Of course the song was on it, the album itself significant enough the entice Owens back onto the stage and performing, just shy of his 60th birthday. Whist he died in 2006, Yoakam maintains a living epitome of his style and sound.


Listening to these, as well as to the myriad other you-tubed versions out there, I have to say it is the version by Gram's Flying Burrito Brothers that still lingers longest, with the perfect balance between delight and despair in his wracked vocals.

A truck load of Red in the link.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

War/Peace: Small collection of pensive songs with war in the title

purchase [Little Criminals - R Newman]
purchase [ Hearts and Bones - P Simon]

No, there was not even the slightest premonition that the departing theme was going to get any more real than a nod to Memorial Day (SMM tries to theme to calendar events such as Thanksgiving..) Really. That's not fake news.

The driving force behind the War/Peace theme was recognition of Memorial Day. If you follow SMM, you already know that the site tries to periodically link its theme to the calendar. This, of course, was 10 days ago.
As such, I don't feel a great need to apologize for fueling the current rage (if in fact we did, in our own limited way), but there seems to be a need to bring things around to a more mellow place with another post about War/Peace. I DID say that waging peace is almost equally as fraught with its own issues as waging war (see the furor over Lennon's sleep in for peace). I had no premonitions of the future as I chose to go with a "1968-themed" song about an ongoing war resulting from American political decisions 50 years ago. Yes, I referenced current political issues (bone spurs, senator's sons...), but they were wild shots, certainly not targeting a news item I had not yet heard about.
That said, maybe we can do our civic best to guide the conversation away from civil war (and bands with names like Guns 'n Roses, the Clash)