GRAHAM BONNET – Back Row In The Stalls

For most people, Graham Bonnet will be best known for his brief stint as Rainbow vocalist between 1979 and 1980. Although he didn’t get to spend long as Ritchie Blackmore’s singer of choice, his talents drove two of the band’s biggest singles – ‘All Night Long’ (a UK #5 hit) and the brilliant radio staple ‘Since You Been Gone’ (UK #6) – and he also performed with Rainbow when they headlined the first Monsters of Rock Festival in August 1980. You could definitely make a case for him being the band’s best-known voice.

Bonnet’s career as a professional singer started over a decade earlier and he achieved a brief spell of fame as one half of pop duo The Marbles, whose ‘Only One Woman’ (an oft-overlooked UK top 5 hit from 1968) showcased a voice that would later become an instantly recognisable talent. Following The Marbles’ early demise, Graham embarked on a solo career, but as careers go, it was rather slow to get off the ground. In 1974, he recorded material for what was to be his first solo album, but the recordings were shelved at the last moment. These were subsequently believed lost until they turned up on a cassette four decades later. Most of these songs were issued digitally as ‘Private-i (The Archives, Vol. 1)’ in 2015, but given the age of the average Bonnet buff, a bunch of digital files would never suffice. Thankfully, the bulk of the material – plus bonus tracks – appeared on CD the following year. With its original title reinstated, Graham’s debut LP finally became a reality.

The first thing to note about ‘Back Row…’ is that it’s a far cry from the hard rock work that made Bonnet famous in the 80s. Its ten songs cast the jobbing vocalist as a bona fide 70s pop star and the material – although often good – is varied, and occasionally lapses into novelty. That’s not to say those who have spent years being entertained by ‘Night Games’, bits of the Alcatrazz catalogue and bellowing their lungs to ‘Since You Been Gone’ when it pops up on the radio won’t find something of interest. After all, the voice is still there, it’s just that the material is, shall we say, of its time.

At the album’s most confident, ‘Here Comes The Rain’ – given the job of kick-starting the record – blends a jangling 60s pop sound with a slightly 70s glam pop edge. Brilliant slide guitars used during the intro add a great musical depth and their George Harrison-esque presence presumably are used to echo ‘Here Comes The Sun’ in a rather cheeky way. From therein, the great guitar parts subside to make room for a Phil Spector-esque wall of sound, where crashing drums, a stabbed piano and strings are applied to a huge arrangement. Faced with such an intensive musical backing, Bonnet reaches for the louder end of his voice; although he would arguably record more melodic vocals elsewhere during these sessions, this particular recording stands as a brilliant showcase for a natural sound, ranging from rock-edged but soulful, to a full scale bellow. For those keen to dip into Graham’s career as a 70s pop singer, this, along with ‘Goodnight & Goodmorning’ and ‘Sunday 16’ (both from 1977’s ‘Graham Bonnet’ LP) will provide an excellent snapshot.

Also great, ‘Ghost Writer In My Eye’ packs several musical moods into a busy four minutes. It opens with a trebly guitar riff that’s a deliberate homage to The Beatles circa ’65, before shifting into a pop rock stomper where Bonnet’s assembled session band sound equipped to take on the Elton John Band from ‘’73. Bonnet clearly relishes every moment he gets to belt out his voice against the barrage of rock. With this interspersed with a tango interlude, that would enough for most performers, but this goes one step further by dropping back into a couple of passages that sound even more like an undiscovered Elton classic, with some great piano and bass work in full flow. This is unmissable, as is ‘Ade’s Song’ (written for his then wife Adrienne Posta). During this especially understated pop ballad, Bonnet (almost unrecognisable when singing in a quiet, higher register) proclaims love in the manner of a man who seems almost shy. Musically, this is lovely: yes, it taps into more 70s MOR, but the blend of electric piano and strings is perfect for the job in hand and it’s a real pleasure to hear Bonnet losing himself in something so unexpected. Fleshing out the essential tracks, ‘What’s This ’Ere Then’ is, perhaps, the album’s most distinctive three minute nugget. Starting slowly with an accordion backing Bonnet in quizzical voice, it firmly suggests novelty. You might think this would be an instant skipper, but with the arrival of the full band and a bit of tempo, it blooms into a brilliant piece of quirky 70s pop. Across the next couple of minutes, Graham’s voice settles into an assured performance. By the end and with everyone having reached full crescendo, there’s still more gold to be discovered via a jaunty tune bolstered by really catchy wordless vocals and a wah-wahed guitar, all of which suggests one of Pilot’s kitchen sink affairs. What began as a potential mild irritant eventually grows into one of ‘Back Row’s most distinctive and accomplished songs.

The middle tier of material is an interesting mixed bag of pop, to say the least. ‘Saturday’s Over’ shamelessly recycles old doo-wop and Spector inspired sounds – a staple of Bonnet’s work, even right up to 1981’s ‘Night Games’ LP and it’s cover of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ – and the title track pays tribute to the 1920’s with a heavily orchestrated tune that sounds as if it were culled from an old musical. From a technical perspective, it’s hard to find fault here: the multi-layered arrangements tap into a distinctive and fairly authentic sound and the love Bonnet has for each of the styles comes through at every turn, while ‘Mamma Mine’ presents a great glam rock swagger, as if Bonnet were attempting to muscle in on Wizzard territory. A mid-tempo stomp instantly sets up a track with a big presence, while the use of strings echoes Roy Wood’s earlier experiments as a founder member of ELO. A weird echo placed on the vocal gives it an otherworldly edge, but Bonnet’s use of volume and his general confidence steers the number to potential greatness. As far as old 70s rockers go, it’s fine enough (solidly played, well arranged); it’s just not in the same league as the brilliant ‘Ghost Writer In My Eye’.

These joined by three tunes that sustain at least some interest for couple of listens, but are ultimately headed for the skip button. ‘Private Eye’ is a busy knockabout tune blending country, bluegrass and pop elements, serving up something you’d expect from Leo Sayer on the Royal Variety Performance. The fiddles are distinctive; Graham’s voice has plenty of the necessary gusto and the whole thing is superbly buoyant. It’s just that, obviously, unless 70s light entertainment nostalgia is your bag, it’s unlikely to occupy much of your precious listening time. The album’s genuine dud, ‘She May Not Be Much To Look At’, is a nasty reggae pastiche (all the go in the 60s and 70s) that sounds like a Paul Nicholas reject and possibly forced onto Bonnet by DJM Records after Elton had recorded the similarly excruciating ‘Jamaica Jerk Off’. It sounds exactly as you’d expect, unfortunately: a lumpy reggae/calypso rhythm, affected vocal to suit and a dodgy steel band battle it out for worst offender…until they’re all outdone by a keyboard refrain playing circus music. This truly is the acme of bad taste. At the end of the original album, ‘Relaxae’ takes the piano and strings of the better songs and uses them for evil. Throughout the track, Graham wails and croons like a lounge singer, while a full compliment of brass aids in setting this scene. Lyrics concerning being a lounge singer and “getting that sound” with dodgy couplets like “heard a good noise / that’s the string boys” really don’t help its cause. On the plus side, a busy interlude where (future Eurovision performer) Mike Moran plays jazz piano and Bonnet introduces the band as if he were at an old time supper club suggests we shouldn’t take this quite so seriously…and to be fair, it’s nowhere near as bad as the reggae evil, but very little could be!

The weaker tracks on (what should have been) the original LP are more than made up for by some of the bonus materials on the Cherry Red CD from 2016. ‘Whisper In The Night’ (a non-album single from 1972) calls back to The Marbles with Bonnet in full balladeer mode. A soft piano and strings provide a timeless sound while Graham sings softly. Although this veers a little too close to MOR territory, his performance is flawless. Bringing in the drums and allowing a bit more of an overwrought quality, the vocalist is in his element, unleashing a voice that’s easily recognisable as the one that would later make his fortunes. The best thing about this track, though, is an odd instrumental interlude: all balladeer tendencies are swept aside while the band indulges in lop-sided arty pop, falling somewhere between Pilot and ELO. It sounds like music created for something else, yet at the same time, it lends this number an interesting change in tempo and adds great interest. Its b-side is a different matter. Much closer to a couple of the more frivolous moments on the following year’s album, ‘Rare Specimen’ sounds as if it were recorded for a musical. Lolloping violin sounds dominate throughout, while Bonnet adopts a theatrical and shouty voice. With this rumpty tumpty tune fleshed out with gang vocals better suited to a drunken singalong, this joins those other tracks you might only play once or twice, but luckily it’s quickly forgotten with the arrival of ‘Trying To Say Goodbye’. Another unsuccessful 7” (released a year on from ‘Whisper In The Night’), it’s another mature sounding track that makes great use of orchestration and although the grand, swelling strings and oboe are a far cry from the rock sounds Bonnet would eventually make his own, his voice is a natural fit here. Those who’ve revisited lots of old episodes of Top of The Pops from the mid-70s will surely find the style familiar…and be equally as bemused as to why Bonnet had no success with this song at the time, especially when his string-laden MOR songs are arguably better than several that actually hit the UK charts… Also very good, its b-side, ‘Castles In The Air’, kicks off with a really grandiose string intro, but quickly drops into a simpler melody driven by hard piano chords. It seems a little unsure of itself until reaching a harmony filled chorus that straddles light entertainment pop and a theatrical edge of Bowie circa ‘72. A push and pull between loud and quiet helps maintain interest throughout and even though an opportunity is missed for a moody guitar solo, it feels relatively complete. Offering a much bigger hook, in many ways, it’s actually better than the A-side.

For completeness’s sake, the A & B sides of a 1973 single by Adrienne Posta are included among the bonus materials, since both tracks were written for her by Bonnet himself. Although erring on the side of novelty, the bouncy music hall pop of ‘Dog Song’ is a perfect fit for the performer’s higher registers, while a prominent clarinet and group vocals accentuate its eccentricities. It might sound out of place on this collection if not for Graham’s own ‘Private Eye’ much earlier. Keeping with the tradition of superior flip sides, ‘Express Yourself’ is a much better vehicle for Posta’s curly voice. Lower registers are far more sympathetic to the jaunty strings (and easier on the ears). In fact, the whole thing sounds as if it were designed for the end credits of a comedy movie… In an ideal world, it could have joined Kiki Dee’s ‘Take A Look At Me’ and George Harrison’s ‘Dream Away’ in the pantheon of uplifting silver screen ditties. Predictably, Adrienne’s single was not a chart success. [Since this has been included for completeness, it’s a pity that Graham’s own ‘Let Me Off This Time’ is notable by its absence. Issued on the digital ‘Private-i’ archives collection, it’s the only track from that set that wasn’t later migrated for the ‘Back Row’ CD.]

Making their welcome CD debut on the expanded ‘Back Row’, the three tracks recorded for the soundtrack of 1975 comedy film Three For All (and featuring Graham’s lead vocals) are great. Each one captures the era’s bubblegum pop style perfectly. ‘Don’t Drink The Water’ is a harmony drenched banger that sounds like a super-charged Rubettes; ‘Dreams (Out In The Forest)’ is a decent Phil Spector pastiche that allows Bonnet to exploit his full range and volume and ‘We’re Free’ is a carefree tribute to genuine 60s bubblegum, complete with annoyingly infectious “ba-ba-oo-mow-mow” refrain. At least two of these are an essential addition to this disc. If you’re a Bonnet fan and you’ve never seen Three For All, you really should. In lots of ways, it’s a terrible film unless you enjoy a typical 1970s farce, but it has the bonus of Bonnet in his first screen role as the singer with fictitious pop band Billy Beethoven, some decent screen time for Adrienne Posta, Robert Lindsay and his then wife Cheryl Hall, plus some good music. If you don’t like the plot, you can still have endless fun spotting a host of famous (and not so famous) faces: among others, there’s the ever reliable John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jacques, Liz Frazer, George Baker, Ian Lavender, Edward Woodward, the sadly missed Richard Beckinsale, future Marillion producer Chris Neil and Pogo Patterson from Grange Hill as the boy who “wants a wee wee!”. It’s the perfect Sunday afternoon distraction.

Obviously, ‘Back Row In The Stalls’ (and its assorted bonus cuts) will not be an instant favourite for anyone demanding “Graham Bonnet Rock Vocalist”, but for those willing to spend time and have patience, it’s an interesting journey through different aspects of 70s pop, and for the rock-pop connoisseur with broader tastes, it’s an album that is always fun to dip in and out of. It’s hard to say whether it would have been a hit had it been released at the time, but for the bigger Graham Bonnet fans, it’s definitely a case of “better late than never”, even if the material is somewhat hit and miss.

[The original 2016 CD of ‘Back Row In The Stalls’ went out of print a couple of years after its first issue, but the album and all of its bonus tracks were subsequently made available as part of the excellent budget priced box set ‘Graham Bonnet: Solo Albums 1974-1992’ in 2020. That box set’s reissue version of ‘Back Row’ also included an unreleased alternate version of ‘She May Not Be Much To Look At’ and ‘Message To Trevor’ – an old answering machine message, provided without context. ‘Let Me Off This Time’ was still AWOL.]

Read a review of Rainbow’s ‘Down To Earth’ here.
Read a review of Graham Bonnet Band’s ‘Meanwhile…Back In The Garage’ here.

September/October 2020