In the late 60’s singer-songwriter Graham Bonnet scored a UK #5 single with cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘Only One Woman’ as part of pop duo Marbles, after which his career took somewhat of a downturn. After two more flop singles with Marbles, he made the move into recording advertising jingles, before releasing a couple more unsuccessful singles in the early 70s. After an appearance in the 1975 UK comedy film ‘Three For All’ – starring his then partner Adrienne Posta – Bonnet signed a deal with the small Ring-O record label, with whom he released two full length albums, ‘Graham Bonnet’ (1977) and ‘No Bad Habits’ (1978).
The first of those albums (and arguably the better of a hit and miss pair), begins with a cover of Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. As Bonnet starts to sing in a fairly high register with an acoustic backing, at first, it sounds like a really misjudged attempt at a classic. However, once you’ve tuned into Bonnet’s vocal style and the rest of the band have chimed in, it has some appeal. The drums are a little lightweight, but there are a couple of other elements which make up for that. Whitesnake man Mickey Moody is on hand with a few decent slide guitar lines and the use of a talkbox – at this point in time very popular thanks to Peter Frampton. By the time the band hit their stride, it has a fairly enjoyable Faces-esque quality. It kind of goes without saying that it lacks the class of the original or the sassiness of The Byrds’ 1969 rendition, but there are far worse Dylan covers out there. [Released as a single, it became a #5 hit in Australia].
Following that comes something truly nasty. The world really never needed to hear Bonnet wailing his way through Carole King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’. As a questioning song sang from the female perspective, it loses all of its brilliance once it changes gender. Factor in a gaggle of female backing vocals who sound like they are adding their harmonies to a 1970s variety performance on TV, and the whole thing becomes a cloying cheese-fest which not even Mickey Moody and Pip Williams’ guitar playing is able to save. The slightly hard rock air of ‘Wino Song’ (the album’s only Bonnet-penned number) offers something better. The twin guitars of Williams and Moody have a bar-room chug, underpinned by a mid-paced stomp from Mike Giles on the drums. While the production isn’t super, it’s a pleasure to hear Bonnet’s more natural rock sounding vocal. While he’d still struggle to take on the best, his pub-singer style has a certain charm. In an attempt to stop the track being too ordinary, Tony Hymas (prior to becoming a member of Jeff Beck’s regular band) adds a few keyboard lines, ranging from ugly 70s synths to a quirky instrumental break in an accordion style.
A take on the Hall & Oates number ‘Goodnight and Goodmorning’ [sic] is musically very smooth. Bonnet’s band take on the AM radio style and deliver it extremely well. The acoustic guitars lay a solid foundation, overlaid by Hymas’s synths. Naturally, Bonnet’s slightly ragged delivery isn’t a match for Daryl and John alone, so there’s a choir of male and female voices on hand to flesh things out. In places, they sound slightly treated and unnatural, but that adds to the unashamed seventies-ness of the whole affair. Presumably, the final arrangement was left in the hands of producer Pip Williams; the addition of a mandolin solo adds a degree of sophistication, but it’s the string arrangement dominating the second half which makes it really work. The violins are fine enough, but the low notes from the jagged sounding cellos are superb.
The Ron Davies penned ‘It Ain’t Easy’ – familiar to all from an earlier Bowie recording – also fares quite well. Bonnet’s band of AM radio rock-poppers obviously don’t give it the huge send off as per the Spiders From Mars, but between an assured lead vocal, some enormous backing vocals and a tight band who obviously seem keen to make it their own, it comes across more like the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ and stands up against the odds. Dropping back into the world of singer-songwriter pop, ‘Danny’ works an almost soft rock ‘n’ roll style that would certainly have been hit fodder in the hands of Mud and Showaddywaddy a couple of years earlier. It certainly has maximum cheese factor, but the nicely arranged horns, steady rhythm and an assured lead are all great…providing you like the style. If you’ve somehow backtracked here from Bonnet’s 80s work, it might cause a quizzical eyebrow or curled lip. Along with ‘Sunday 16’ – a soft, piano led reggae pop workout – it probably should be filed under “of its time”.
Very much making the album feel like it’ll never reach full potential, Ledbelly’s blues standard ‘Rock Island Line’ takes the shape of a faintly embarrassing stompy hoedown and is designed with the skip button in mind and a cover Al Green’s ‘Tired of Being Alone’ is uninteresting bordering on forgettable, but luckily the album has a final ace up its sleeve… The closing number ‘Soul Seeker’ once again allows Bonnet to tap into his harder rock style, his natural timbre sounding like it was meant to compliment the retro rock music on show here. The choir of male voices rounding out the chorus manage to be effective despite their simplicity, but its Williams and Moody’s guitar riffs which offer the numbers best moments. They have more than a hint of the earliest Whitesnake recordings – complete with solid sounding slide work. While there’s no denying that Graham Bonnet’s debut album is a patchy affair, at least it ends on a definite high note. [Maybe this track was responsible Ritchie Blackmore’s choosing Bonnet to replace Ronnie James Dio in Rainbow in 1979? Very little recorded by Bonnet on his two solo releases prior to his appointment in Rainbow even comes close to suggesting he would be a front-runner for that job…]
Overall, it could only ever be described as a patchy effort, but the best parts of Bonnet’s solo debut definitely have their own charm. If you’re a long standing fan, it’s worth hearing for the Dylan cover, ‘Wino Song’ and the Bowie related moment. Back in 1977, it never actually got a full UK release; it only saw the light of day in Australia and Japan, but in some ways, that was enough: like the single release, ‘Graham Bonnet’ sold well in Australia eventually achieving gold status.
Unforeseen sales in Australia (helped no end by a number one single) proved enough for the independent Ring-O Records to keep Bonnet on their books. Although ‘Graham Bonnet’ had been a largely patchy affair, compared to 1978’s ‘No Bad Habits’, it was a relative masterpiece.
Since Bonnet had struck gold with his version of ‘It’s All Over Baby Blue’ a year previously, there seemed little point in messing with a winning formula, and so his second album, too, began with a Bob Dylan cover. This time, it was the turn of ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ to receive Bonnet’s soft rock treatment. If ‘Baby Blue’ could be described as somewhat of an acquired taste with regard to Bonnet’s vision of a Dylan classic, if anything, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ fares even less well. A pumping bass and jangly guitars help to provide the basis of one of the worst renditions of the song ever. With a hefty dose of cod funk and occasional hints of hoe-down, it sounds like any number of seventies pop bands having an excruciatingly bad day. This alone would be bad enough, but it’s then embellished with synth drums (then at the height of fashion) and Bonnet over-singing everything really, really badly. This second attempt proves that when it comes to re-working the songs of Bob Dylan in a timeless and enjoyable manner, Graham Bonnet’s attempts languish somewhere near the bottom of the pile.
Unbelievable as it may seem, this is swiftly followed by something much worse. ‘Won’t You Join Me’ fuses (very) soft rock with a militaristic marching beat. The opening drum sounds could easily be that of a marching band, while the addition of extra instruments adds nothing of any real interest. The guitars are limp, the keyboards ugly and Bonnet sounds truly awful. It’s like a bad piss-take of some light entertainers performing a musical skit on The Children’s Royal Variety Performance. It’s a track that once you’ve heard it, you’re likely to skip it on all subsequent listens; but better still – don’t listen to it at all. The big power ballad, ‘Is There a Way To Sing The Blues’, proves a vast musical improvement, particularly so in the piano department where Lance Dixon has a fair amount of presence. That piano is joined by a solid bass and occasional country-tinged steel guitar to create something which, although very of its time, isn’t anywhere near as nasty it could have turned out. Even Bonnet has a couple of moments where he stops over-singing just long enough to sound like an accomplished rock vocalist.
Just as it seems the album is beginning to find its feet, Bonnet wheels out another cover; one which could have yielded another embarrassing result. How he decided that ‘Can’t Complain’ (previously recorded by John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett) would be suitable for his style is anyone’s guess, yet somehow, he attacks the song with a vigour which sort of works for him. Bonnet shouts his way through the chorus in a manner which certainly makes an impression (good or bad depends entirely on the listener) while Pip Williams’s acoustic and electric guitars drive the short number along fairly merrily. What could have been an unmitigated disaster only ends up sounding like a pub band trying a little too hard. It’s hardly enough to suggest that it’s one of the album’s best numbers, of course, but for all its faults, it’s still a hundred times better than either ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ or ‘Won’t You Join Me’ – the latter, possibly, being one of the worst things recorded by anyone, ever.
Showing a lot of musical talent, a cover of Robin Gibb’s ‘Warm Ride’ – a tune originally scheduled for inclusion on the world conquering misogynist disco flick ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – rolls along with some tight funk, with the synthy sounding bassline very much powering everything. Although an obvious by-product of 1978, it’s hard to find fault with the result and even without the Bee Gees natural flair for a sassy harmony, Bonnet’s slightly gravelly delivery acts as a superb contrast with the smooth music. A smooth pop ballad ‘Is There A Way To Sing The Blues’ is an obvious throwback to the previous album sessions, casting Bonnet as 70s pop idol. While the resulting tune might have been more suited to David Cassidy and decades on sounds too saccharine for words, as far as AM radio pop goes, it’s fine…and reaching the bigger notes during the climax, Bonnet at least sounds comfortable.
Closing the first side – presumably at the suggestion Pip Williams – comes a reasonably rousing cover of Status Quo’s ‘(I’m) Giving Up My Worryin’’, which was also recorded by The Quo themselves during the same year. Bonnet suits Quo’s no frills style and his band of session guys also sound rather more at home on such material. On this album’s only truly memorable cut, Francis Rossi’s knack for writing an instantly likable chorus shines here, subsequently putting the other nine numbers to shame. Since Quo producer Pip Williams is all over this record, maybe Mr Bonnet ought to have asked Rossi to write (or at least donate) a couple more tunes… There’s no question about it, it would have helped no end.
Although there’s potentially one more reasonable number to be heard in the album closer ‘Cold Lady’, the second half of the album proves to be just as lacking in quality and consistency as the first, opening with a pair of songs written by John Kongos. ‘Pyramid’ is a fey slice of seventies pop which sounds like a David Essex reject. The multi-layered vocal is well arranged and the slide guitars and plinky guitar solo lend a certain seventies appeal, but overall, it’s bereft of any real substance. ‘Only You Can Lift Me’ fares much better, despite its core tune being dangerously close to cod-reggae. On what is one of the album’s better offerings (though that’s hardly difficult), Bonnet is in fine voice throughout – and it’s one of the few times on the album he manages to restrain his voice to fit the arrangement. Despite best efforts, Bonnet is wholly outshone by a simple, slightly reverbed lead guitar, once again played by producer Pip Williams. That guitar provides just enough entertainment to sustain the four and a half minutes, provided you can make it past the Hammond organ pumping out a reggae beat and some unashamedly easy-listening female backing harmonies.
After that, Bonnet yelps and growls his way through ‘Stand Still Stella’, a two minute rock ‘n’ roll ditty which is best avoided. There’s a reasonable sax solo midway, but it doesn’t balance out the other awfulness. Overall, for something so short, it feels as if it drags on forever. When you’ve convinced yourselves it couldn’t get any worse, the band whips out ‘High School Angel’, a Bonnet-penned fifties pastiche in the style of ‘Earth Angel’ and ‘Tears On My Pillow’. Since it’s an ode to wanting a high-school girl, it’s already cringe-worthy in the extreme, but perhaps worse, it includes the lines “You’re a woman not a child, no uniform can hide”, “You are the light and I am the power” and the deeply unpleasant pay-off line “You need a man, not a boy”. Not even old-school musical slants and another half-decent sax solo can save this from being questionable.
Bonnet finishes this collection of largely unnecessary musical misfits with ‘Cold Lady’, a good old boogie rocker with a slightly Status Quo air. A track written by Williams, presumably some of The Quo’s influence rubbed off during his time producing albums for the seminal English rockers. Naturally, it’s no match for Francis Rossi’s earlier composition, but it’s a suitably upbeat way to end things, just managing to remove the foul, foul aftertaste of ‘Stand Still Stella’ and ‘High School Angel’. It may be better, but it’s not essential listening by any stretch of the imagination.
‘No Bad Habits’ plummets to new depths as far as “a difficult album” is concerned. The Quo and Bee Gees covers are true standouts and a couple of other tracks resemble reasonable pop fare, but it’s an album that’s truly for fans only. Looking back, it’s easy to spot why it was coupled with ‘Graham Bonnet’ and released at mid price – between the two albums, there’s something approaching a half-decent LP.
A lack of domestic release meant that ‘No Bad Habits’ failed to make any impact in the UK, but scored Bonnet another big hit in Australia, presumably based on lots of goodwill after the debut release. Although well received in the southern hemisphere, Bonnet’s career wasn’t really on fire elsewhere by the end of 1978, but things were about to change – and in a very big way. In 1979, he replaced Ronnie James Dio in the very popular rock band Rainbow.
How Ritchie Blackmore decided on Bonnet as a replacement for one of rock’s finest talents based on a couple of pop-driven LPs is somewhat of a mystery. However, despite not initially looking (or even always sounding) the part, Graham Bonnet fronted Rainbow for that year’s ‘Down To Earth’ album, which spawned two of the band’s biggest hits. That album remains Bonnet’s crowning glory; a release which deservedly propelled the once work-a-day vocalist to international stardom and scored a headline appearance at the first Monsters of Rock festival. From then on, regardless of the relative paucity of enjoyable material on his first two solo releases, Graham Bonnet’s place in the rock history books was more than secure…
[Fans will be pleased to note that unlike the 2009 Japanese editions from Voiceprint, the albums are not sourced from a needle drop. Both ‘Graham Bonnet’ and ‘No Bad Habits’ are sourced from a proper master and sound great – particularly the self-titled record – making this the definitive reissue of Bonnet’s 1977/8 records. The selection of b-sides and other bonus tracks are of more variable audio quality, but obviously are added due to some historical interest.]
July 2011/December 2018
[A 2016 reissue from Cherry Red Records/Hear No Evil pairs the album with it’s weaker follow up ‘No Bad Habits and adds a selection of period rarities. Fans will be pleased to note that unlike the 2009 Japanese edition from Voiceprint, the recordings from the original album are not sourced from a needle drop. Obviously the archive nature of the bonus tracks leans towards a more variable quality, but mostly the 2CD sounds great, making it the definitive reissue of Bonnet’s 1977/8 records.]
July 2011/December 2018