FM – Tough It Out Live

As one of Britain’s best loved AOR bands, FM have always had a strong live presence. Whether headlining their own show, or playing halfway down the bill at a classic rock festival, fans are almost guaranteed a great performance. Part of the greatness comes from Steve Overland still being in possession of a great voice, but their back catalogue is also incredibly strong. Unlike some classic rock acts who clearly go through the motions on record and have their best days behind them, FM’s 2020 release ‘Synchronized’ was one of their best to date. Almost thirty five years after the release of their debut, they still sounded like a band with lots to give.

Having already celebrated the 30th anniversary of their excellent ‘Indiscreet’ debut in 2016 with an enjoyable re-recording of the whole album (a listen that, while not necessarily better, certainly sounded fuller and seemed to benefit from a maturer sound at times), it seemed only fair that the equally strong ‘Tough It Out’ (originally released in 1989) was afforded a similar celebration. To mark the occasion, the band set out on a massive tour where the whole album was given a live airing. Various recordings were made for posterity, Coming just two years after FM’s ‘Italian Job’ double live set, it may seem a little soon for another dose of live material, but ‘Tough It Out Live’ actually provides a very different listening experience. It could be argued that the recording quality is slightly better, but more importantly, the setlist is vastly different to your average FM show. The full album approach finds Steve, Merv and company dusting off a few things that had rarely greeted an audience before the 2019 tour. In a couple of instances, you’ll even hear songs played live for the first time!

As you might expect, old staples like ‘Someday’ and ‘Don’t Stop’ are treated with a suitable reverence, but the excitement comes, naturally, through the main set’s lesser heard gems. ‘The Dream That Died’ – a track played a handful of times in the 80s, but not heard live again until 2018 – features some beautiful soaring melodies from guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick, and despite his chosen melody coming dangerously close to Steve Perry’s ‘Foolish Heart’, it’s one of those times when you really get the feeling that his playing is constantly sympathetic to Overland’s voice. Shifting into a pure AOR chorus, the use of harmonies is far too low in the mix – one of this recording’s only drawbacks – but the opportunity to hear the song transformed from its bright sounding 80s origins to a hard, but melodic piece is not to be missed. The Eric Martin penned ‘Everytime I Think Of You’ gives the set an early highlight when it pushes Merv Goldsworthy’s bass high in the mix, contrasting it with some shamelessly 80s, bell-like keyboard sounds. Against a guitar that’s much fuller than its studio counterpart, Overland puts in some hard yards from a vocal perspective, straddling the soulful and forceful, but that’s all quickly outshone by a great twin lead harmony to finish.

Ex-keyboard player Didge Digital makes a guest appearance on a solid performance of ‘Burning My Heart Down’ where Overland really gets to deliver a fantastic belting vocal, and although Didge’s presence provides a stronger link with the past, the live sound seems anything but dated. For FM’s bigger fans – and especially those who missed the tour for whatever reason – the end of the first set will be invaluable. Brilliant performances of ‘Can You Hear Me Calling?’ and ‘Feels Like Love’ (both making their long overdue live debut on this tour) show how ‘Tough It Out’ is every bit the equal of ‘Indiscreet’ in terms of pure AOR and chorus heavy qualities. At this late stage, the slight sound gremlins have been fixed and the backing vocal “whoahs” on ‘Can You Hear Me Calling?’ sound especially huge, while the underrated ‘Feels Like Love’ sounds really impressive with a heavier guitar sound in tow. Adopting a dirtier groove, Kirkpatrick’s playing is an interesting contrast to the busy, bright sounding keys offering an interesting counterpoint beneath the main riff. Hitting a huge chorus, Overland sounds very natural and considering this has been far from a set fixture over the years – it’s another excellent performance.

With FM digging deeply through their history, the second half of the show features a great selection of tunes. Representing 2015’s ‘Heroes & Villains’, a chunky rendition of ‘Digging Up The Dirt’ allows Jim to wield a swaggering riff at maximum volume, while the spacious nature of the verse allows Steve a great opportunity to stretch his voice (sounding much better here than during the Italian show, it has to be said). Sliding into the punchy ‘Tough Love’, the band chug through a fantastic performance where their brand of AOR sounds closely resembles a mid 80s Bad Company. The seasoned rockers apply as much muscle to their performance as possible, before the more melodic ‘Hollow’ changes the mood again with a selection of clean guitars and the kind of chorus that pulls everything much closer to the ‘Tough It Out’ sound, making it a very natural choice for this set.

Following a trilogy of really impressive tunes, the band takes the crowd right back to the early years via the perfect AOR sheen of ‘Dangerous’ which, at the show in question, shows of a barrage of slick backing vocals, shiny keys and some brilliant lead bass fills from Merv, before the stripped down ‘Hard Day In Hell’ makes a great feature of Overland’s voice and ‘Wildside’ – although showing FM on autopilot musically – sounds like the kind of mid tempo rocker that would’ve fired up a decent crowd. Pulling into the end of the second set, there’s no sign of anything flagging, and ‘Only The Strong Survive’ allows for a little crowd participation and ‘I Ain’t The One’ (from 2010’s ‘Metropolis’) acts as a decent reminder of how FM had clung firmly onto a brilliant 80s keyboard sound long after their peers had tried to shake things up. If anything, this shows how FM’s insistence on sticking to what they know often resulted in superior material, even if their sales figures had somewhat fallen. The only weak point of this live set comes with the closing number. With so much of their own fantastic material to choose from, ending with a cover of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ seems like a bit of a cop-out, even if it is one of the best remembered tracks on their 1991 LP ‘Takin’ It To The Streets’. Nevertheless, the crowd seem to love it – it’s certainly a case of something that sounded more exciting on the night.

Full album shows are something of a mixed blessing. On one hand, they deny gig goers the thrill of a setlist surprise or two, but on the other, they allow bands to revisit back catalogue gems that may not have been played in front of an audience in decades – or sometimes, ever. By balancing the formality of an end to end ‘Tough It Out’ with a dozen much deeper cuts, this is a set that gives fans the best of both worlds. While it could never recapture the thrill of being their in person, as far as live albums go, it’s great – a real fan pleaser. …And if you are a fan, you’ll certainly need this in your collection, even if you own ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘Back In The Saddle – Live’ already.

Read a review of FM’s ‘Heroes & Villains’ here.
Read a review of FM’s ‘Synchronized’ here.
Read a review of Lonerider’s ‘Attitude’ (featuring Steve Overland) here.

March 2021