Monday, February 8, 2021

Walls/Obstructions: The Walls Came Down

The Call: The Walls Came Down

If we were playing a game where I asked you to guess what band I was talking about, and the clues were: This band released their first album in the early 1980s. They wrote powerful rock anthems, with meaningful lyrics, sometimes with Christian themes, and performed them passionately and well, you very well might think I was talking about U2, which went on to become one of the biggest, most successful bands of all time. But of course, you saw the picture and read the title, so you know that I am talking about The Call, which, despite some success, did not go on to become one of the biggest, most successful bands of all time. 

OK, were they as good as U2? Not in my mind. But were they better than a lot of their contemporaries who went on to more fame and fortune? Definitely. 

The Call was formed in 1980 in Santa Cruz, and the leader and lead singer was Michael Been, who was born in Oklahoma, but moved to Chicago after high school. A performer from an early age, Been entered the Illinois state comedy competition (who knew that was a thing), coming in second, ahead of his friend John Belushi. 

After attending the University of Illinois in Chicago and playing in local bands, Been moved to the Los Angeles area in 1972, played in some bands, was a session musician, including on some Christian music albums, before relocating to Santa Cruz and, eventually forming The Call. Their first, self-titled, album was on a major label, was produced by Hugh Padgham, and had the Band’s Garth Hudson on a few tracks. I remember liking it a lot, and playing some tracks from it on WPRB. I wasn’t the only one. Peter Gabriel referred to the band as “the future of American music,” and recruited them to open for him. Gabriel later played on The Call’s third album, as did Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr and Robbie Robertson, and Bono appeared on their 1990 album Red Moon, as did T-Bone Burnett. Martin Scorsese cast Been in The Last Temptation of Christ, as the apostle John. Despite this appreciation, their success was limited and fleeting. 

The second album, Modern Romans, was released after I graduated from college, but I listened to it often, and loved our featured song, “The Walls Came Down.” A stridently anti-war song, it was inspired when Been saw the idealism of the '60s give way to more materialistic and militaristic mindsets of the Reagan years, including the Grenada and Lebanon conflicts. It uses the biblical imagery of Jericho’s walls coming down (without ever mentioning Jericho), and ends, though with the modern sentiment: 

I don't think there are any Russians
And there ain't no Yanks
Just corporate criminals
Playin' with tanks 

The band broke up after releasing Red Moon in 1990, and put out a reunion album in 1997, but that was it. Been played as a sideman for others, including Harry Dean Stanton, but for years acted as a sound engineer for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, which featured his son, singer and bassist Robert Levon Been. (I haven’t been able to determine whether he was named in honor of two members of The Band, but it certainly makes sense). Been died of a heart attack in 2010, backstage at a music festival in Belgium, where BRMC was appearing. 

So, why did The Call not reach even half of U2’s fame? Were they too strident and angry? Was front man Been’s lack of classical good looks part of the issue? Read some of the tributes to Been and The Call here, and you get a sense that they were one of those bands that should have been bigger, but just never got there, and no one can really explain why.