ANDREW GOLD – Lonely Boy: The Asylum Years Anthology

Andrew Gold had a prolific career, but to many people he will be best remembered for three songs.  The schmaltzy MOR pop of ‘Never Let Her Slip Away’ gave Gold a massive hit in 1978; his ‘Thank You For Being A Friend’ eventually became an evergreen number thanks to being re-recorded as the theme for hit US comedy The Golden Girls and 1977’s ‘Lonely Boy’ became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  A genuine pop classic, that song’s multi-layered kitchen sink arrangement ensures it sounds as good now as it ever did – a rival to the complex pop of 10cc and a track that gave Jellyfish every reason to exist.  It’s a four minute joy: a world of stabbed pianos and a story-telling verse leads into a massive chorus full of whoahs, which in turn gives out some great staccato guitar work and ultimately one of the greatest guitar solos you’ll ever hear.  If that sounds overly indulgent, it surely is – but it’s also power pop perfection.

‘Lonely Boy’ takes pride of place within this box set – presented in no fewer than four versions – but  that’s only a small part of the picture.  This anthology provides the ideal opportunity to explore Gold’s four albums for the legendary Asylum label, along with a host of extras within one lovingly curated package.

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1975’s ‘Andrew Gold’ sets a strong template with its opener ‘That’s Why I Love You’, a blend of James Taylor and Buckingham/Nicks that sounds tailor made for the AM radio stations of the day. With its easy pacing lifted by John McVie styled bass work and multi-layered harmonies, that would be enough to secure a fine slice of adult pop, but Gold’s brilliant magpie tendencies also find a George Harrison-esque guitar solo tops everything so perfectly.  Those unfamiliar with the bulk of Gold’s work will quickly discover when listening to this debut that his talents for borrowing influences and arranging them to perfection were on a par with his song-writing chops and as the album moves through buoyant country-pop (‘Heartaches & Heartaches’), joyous brass-led pop that sounds like Lee Loughrane and the Chicago horn section muscled in on an Eagles recording session (the utterly wonderful ‘A Note From You’) and orchestrated pop almost worthy of Elton circa 1970 (‘Ten Years Behind Me’), there’s much to love.  Those, along with the jangly pop qualities of ‘Resting In Your Arms’ (sounding not too dissimilar from the Sandford Townsend Band’s ‘Smoke From A Distant Fire’) and the MOR piano balladry of ‘Endless Flight’ give about as good an overview of Gold’s varied talents and influences as you’ll find.  …Or at least in a world before ‘Lonely Boy’ existed.  Overall, ‘Andrew Gold’ is a terrific debut – a record that no 70s pop fan should be without.

Having set such a high benchmark with the 1975 album, 1976’s ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’ doesn’t always fare quite as well. This becomes most obvious through the inclusion of three cover tunes which, obviously, is two too many.  On the occasions that this second record doesn’t quite work (as with an unnecessary version of ‘Do Wah Diddy’ and an especially lightweight rendition of Buddy Holly’s ‘Learning The Game’), the album makes up for any missteps by featuring the aforementioned ‘Lonely Boy’ – the kind of pop masterpiece that just keeps giving.

Side one of the original LP is actually sequenced rather poorly, in that it features three ballads in quick succession, only broken up by the unwelcome Manfred Mann tune. It starts and ends brilliantly, though, with a couple of genuine bangers. The opening track ‘Hope You Feel Good’ shows Gold absolutely nailing a Billy Joel meets Beatles pastiche on a production that carries all the warmth of the previous record.  It wears its 70s colours incredibly obviously, but does so with an indelible charm. With a world of pop harmonies backing a strident lead vocal and a heavily struck piano, it sounds great. Even if you’ve heard it a hundred times, it loses none of its spark.  Similarly, the jaunty ‘Must Be Crazy’ flaunts a strident piano melody against a great bassline and with echoes of 10cc meeting a perfect Transatlantic MOR sound throughout, Gold absolutely flies.  The summer hit that never was, this makes the creation of such adult pop seem like the easiest thing in the world.  Somewhere between, you’ll find the lovely ‘Angel Woman’, a string-led interlude that manages to capture Gold’s charm as a balladeer more effectively than some of his full blown musical love letters.

The album’s second side often feels dominated by the enduring ‘Lonely Boy’ – given the job of leading the parade – but those willing to spend the time digging a little deeper will find more to love. In fact, Gold’s obvious own writing talent comes through far more strongly on a run of songs that are almost on a par with the previous album. Looking at the cover tune first, Gold’s reworking of Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ ‘Stay’ comes with a bouncy, calypso mood and the focus is very much on fun, before a mid section descends into all manner of obtrusive tinkles. Even though the sun-kissed sounds veer a little too close to a Jimmy Buffett cheese-fest, it’s certainly ‘What’s Wrong…’s best non-original offering.

Regarding the three remaining originals, every one is a cracker.  The semi-acoustic ‘Firefly’ never feels a million miles away from something Jackson Browne might have delivered in an understated mood; the rolling rock of ‘Go Home Again’ splices Fleetwood Mac rhythms with uplifting Eagles harmonies and ends up sounding like a dead ringer for Browne in full-on ‘Doctor My Eyes’ mode and ‘One of Them Is Me’ provides a perfect electric piano ballad that allows Gold’s vocals to soar to MOR glory. A cut above the other ballads on the record, it makes a fantastic use of harmonies and horns. Although it isn’t quite the same stylistically, the recording has the kind of all round warmth that Chris Rea would apply to his debut album just a couple of years later.  It doesn’t ever make up for ‘Do Wah Diddy’, but even the most talented musicians can’t work miracles.

From a hit and miss start, ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture’ eventually grows into the kind of record that makes a pleasing companion to ‘Andrew Gold’, even with its obvious flaws, but it’s quickly knocked sideways by 1978’s ‘All This And Heaven Too’, another album that offers forty minutes worth of mellow pop goodness. Perhaps more so than any other, it’s the album which seems to resonate the strongest in the twenty first century; it’s influence can be found in the works of all manner of power pop bands and singer-songwriters.  The pure pop of ‘How Can This Be Love’ (a tune absolutely loaded with piano and massive hooks) provided the blueprint for a lot of David Myhr‘s finest tunes. Even the relative simplicity of ‘Never Let Her Slip Away’ provides the mechanical heart and electric piano drive of Mick Terry’s ‘Tinseltown’, and certainly not subconsciously.  There are future echoes of this album all over recordings by Farrar, Astral Drive and the mighty State Cows, and yet it never appears on any lists of the decade’s most influential recordings.   Nestled between two of the most famous songs, ‘Always For You’ is a genuine highlight.  The archetypal aching ballad, it takes Gold’s tried and tested style and throws in so many strings, it’s impossible not to feel moved by its grandiosity.

Obviously, all of this finds Gold within the comfort zone established on ‘Andrew Gold’ three years previously, but ‘…Heaven Too’ never suffers for exploiting an over familiar approach.  It’s also happy to branch out a little on occasion, too, as demonstrated by the fab ‘Genevieve’, a slice of pure 80s yacht rock, delivered long before Christopher Cross would come and steal some of Andrew’s thunder.  Yes, it’s semi-busy arrangement might seem like muzak to some, but there’s a perfection in its construction. It also that shows that Andrew was paying attention to recordings by The Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise and applying their slightly busier moods to his own finely honed pop.  It’s definitely one of those tracks that makes the album an essential listen, along with the famous ‘Thank You Fore Being A Friend’ and the ambling electric piano moods of ‘Looking Out For My Love’, which could be a deep cut from 10cc.  If, somehow, you’ve never heard this album before, it’s certainly time to put that right.

Playing second fiddle to Christopher Cross’s million selling debut, 1980’s ‘Whirlwind’ doesn’t tread the expected MOR pop road, but finds Gold moving towards a slightly rockier sound.  The album doesn’t boast any timeless hits or even sound at all like the three previous albums, but there’s a real pleasure in hearing an artist who’s unafraid of moving with the times.  Perhaps the most “of its era” but also curiously one of the stand out tunes, ‘Nine To Five’ melds the new wave/rock sounds of the early 80s to the reggae rhythms beloved of The Police, while capitalising on a strong chorus and ending up sounding like something Gold could’ve written for Rick Springfield. Also very strong, ‘Stranded On The Edge’ shows how Andrew was more than capable of keeping up with fashion on a number that sounds like it’s been pulled straight from Shoes’ ‘Present Tense’ LP. Almost on a par with those, ‘Gambler’ sounds like a cross between The Babys and a Westcoast band’s stab at something in the Rolling Stones mould. …and if there’s something lurking within that also appears to shadow the young John Mellencamp, it’s got nothing on ‘Kiss This One Goodbye’ which sounds almost exactly like a tune from John’s ‘Nothing Matters…’ era with its punchy drum sound and big chorus vocals.  Despite taking a rockier stance on these songs, Gold’s voice remains distinctive and his performances carry the kind of confidence you’d expect from such a fine musician.

Elsewhere, there’s a sadness in the riffs of the title track that channels the ghosts of Lynyrd Skynyrd, something that becomes more obvious once an upfront guitar solo fleshes out the coda reinforcing the roots rock feel; ‘Brand New Face’ entertains with some particularly chunky pop-rock and ‘Leave Her Alone’ experiments with blues influences, foreshadowing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rise to fame.  Each sounds natural, even if there’s something about them that occasionally feels like Gold has written the songs with other artists in mind. For anyone expecting more tunes like ‘Thank You For Being a Friend’, ‘Whirlwind’ can be more than surprising, but it has one genuine comfort blanket in ‘Make Up Your Mind’, a rich slow burner of a tune that’s big on harmony vocals and even bigger on stabbing piano sounds.  The return to the piano makes it very much a throwback to the previous albums and for some listeners will be far and away ‘Whirlwind’s saving grace, but each one of its songs makes a  strong contribution to a most underrated disc.

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Disc five of this anthology brings together various demos and outtakes. Although all of these can be found scattered across previous editions of the four parent albums, there’s something to be said for hearing them all together, presented as a coherent collection of works in progress.  Two early versions of ‘Gambler’ provide very little variation on the final album track, at least on the surface, but closer inspection reveals that Gold arrived at his final choice by being a perfectionist: the second take features a more prominent bass and slightly differing vocal meter, while an early take of ‘Lonely Boy’ (recorded during the ‘Andrew Gold’ sessions in ’76) showcases a song that most would consider complete. It differs from the famous 1977 version by including a subtle keyboard sound lurking beneath the piano and not featuring as many bell and tambourine embellishments.  Subtle differences, but surely fascinating to those who love the original track.

This collection of leftovers is at its most essential when exploring those musical avenues that didn’t get pursued; collecting the unfinished cast-offs.  The best of these, ‘Feel It’ is a brilliant piano jam that almost sounds like it pre-figures Ben Folds (albeit when he’s playing chirpy tunes for animated films), while the swaggering ‘Broken Pinball Machine’ sounds like it could have been truly special in finished form. As it stands, it shows Gold channelling Dr. John, complete with a semi-affected vocal and some wonderfully strident piano work.

Despite lots to enjoy, it’s with this leftovers disc that the only drawback with this box set becomes evident:  there are a couple of previously released extras that fans might expect be here, but are actually missing.  The absence of ‘To Be Someone’ and ‘Sometime When A Man’s On His Own’ (from the previous expanded version of ‘Andrew Gold’) are certainly lamentable.  Also missing is Andrew’s version of The Beatles’ ‘Dr. Robert’ recorded live at The Roxy (from the earlier expanded ‘All This and Heaven Too’), but thankfully, the whole of the Roxy gig can now be found on a standalone CD release.

Making up for any omissions is disc’s worth of previously unreleased live material, and this anthology brings together selections from two shows in brilliant quality.  Seven previously unavailable tracks from Los Angeles in ’77 give a much greater insight to the show previously teased with the live ‘I Hope You Feel Good’ from the earlier expanded ‘What’s Wrong…?’.  All eight performances are great, but the highlights are definitely a grand rendition of ‘Endless Flight’ with prominent steel guitar and a jaunty ‘Lonely Boy’ which shows how Andrew and his live band could take a really complex tune and replicate the bulk of it with ease.  Joining the LA tracks are ten performances from a London show recorded for the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test.  These have a slightly flatter sound, but that brings a more audible bass.  The country stylings of ‘Heartaches In Heartaches’ makes a great opener, sounding more like Jackson Browne than ever; a solo ‘Angel Woman’ seems even more fragile than it’s recorded counterpart (something reinforced by a lack of crowd noise) and the almost equally sedate ‘One of Them Is Me’ presents the work of a consummate MOR legend.  Predictably, it’s ‘Lonely Boy’ that steals the show, though, and as before, Andrew and his band really give their all, peaking with a really aggressive lead guitar sound.  [The ten song OGWT live set is also included on a bonus DVD, along with two other studio performances from a second appearance and six original promo clips for the singles released between 1978-1980.  Although it’s probably fair to say that none of this is visually extravagant, it’s great that fans can now have at least some kind of official visual document of AG’s most popular period.]

This is a fine box set – a welcome reminder of a talent taken too soon and of a man who’s brilliance went much deeper than the obvious hits. The live disc and accompanying DVD give the bigger fan reason enough to check it out, while for anyone who’s not heard much beyond ‘Never Let Her Slip Away’, ‘Thank You For Being A Friend’ and ‘Lonely Boy’, the four main albums are a treasure trove of pop waiting to be opened. ‘Do Wah Diddy’ aside,  ‘Lonely Boy – The Asylum Anthology’ is highly recommended listening for anyone interested in 70s pop.

May/June 2020

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