When thinking about 80s AOR, there are a few bands that immediately spring to mind: Journey, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, and Survivor. Legends all, but rock’s most radio-friendly subgenre spawned a truckload of other great bands, and during the 80s, this most American sound even influenced a few British musicians. FM remain one of the best known and most successful exponents of the UK contingent; much has been said about Magnum’s most commercial period from 1986-90, and at the end of the decade, Little Angels scored chart success by taking an AOR core and injecting it with a couple of rockier influences. For all the hitmakers, there are several great bands that aren’t mentioned anywhere near as much. And the greatest of those? That, without doubt, would be Scotland’s Strangeways.
Formed by brothers David and Ian Stewart, Strangeways released three very strong AOR/melodic rock albums during the 80s, one of which could easily rival Foreigner’s finest efforts.
This retrospective box set release brings those recordings together, along with 1994’s even more overlooked ‘And The Horse’, and in doing so, provides a brilliant crash course in Strangeways’ early history.
The inclusion of an expanded edition of their second album ‘Native Sons’ (originally released on RCA Records in 1987) provides every reason to pick up this box set. Back in the 80s, the album didn’t achieve any great commercial success, despite very positive reviews. Over the years it’s been slowly recognised as a genre classic and, decades after that very first spin, it still sounds fantastic. It could be argued that ‘Native Sons’ is a near perfect melodic rock album.
The opening bars of ‘Dance With Somebody’ set up a huge 80s sound with immediate effect when a loud snare cracks against a sawing guitar noise. Bringing in the main riff, there’s a great toughness as if Ian Stewart is about to break into Foreigner’s ‘Reaction To Action’, a move that cranks the tension further, before vocalist Terry Brock springs into life. One part Steve Perry, one part Fergie Fredriksen, yet retaining his own character, Brock asserts himself as a vocal powerhouse by the end of the first chorus, and with his high tones pierced by interjected gang vocals, the contrast of melody and toughness is just perfect. By the track’s end, with Ian dropping a dirty solo over Dave Moore’s busy keys, this is everything great melodic rock should be…and more. Even if you’ve somehow never heard Strangeways before but love retro melodic rock, this is the kind of track that’ll make you a fan within four minutes.
Rather than settle into an immediate comfort zone, Strangeways then contrast their rocky side with a much smoother workout where ‘Only A Fool’ sounds a lot like a Journey album cut from the ‘Raised On Radio’ period. The musical backdrop is dominated by synths and fluid bass sounds, but this most shiny of arrangements lends a great base for Ian to add further shimmering guitar lines, and for Brock to show how he could be an easy match for Survivor’s Jimi Jamison. Steering everything to an even poppier place, the keys add a bouncy counter melody at the point where a guitar solo would’ve been expected, but in just a few bars, this harder interlude lifts everything admirably, having the knock on effect of making the smoothness of the final verse and chorus seem more powerful. ‘So Far Away’ slides even further into AOR balladry, but naturally, this allows Terry Brock plenty of opportunity to show off his range. The quieter parts of the track sound a little synthetic when heard retrospectively, but the way the soft verse blooms into a huge Survivor-esque chorus presents near perfection, with tinkling keys adding a great counter melody to the kind of guitar riff most associated with tracks called ‘Don’t Walk Away’. By the end of the second chorus, genre fans will likely be in their element, but things improve yet again, when an extended coda ushers in a huge, vibrato fuelled lead guitar and some massive whoahs.
Those hoping for something a little rockier get their wish when ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ tips the hat to the tougher moments from Journey’s ‘Frontiers’ album. It puts drummer Jim Drummond time in the driving seat as he pushes forth with a solid rhythm, adding busy fills between the chunkier guitar riffs. Even with he and Ian Stewart attempting to rock out, it’s still very hard to draw your attention away from Brock, though; on this track, he unleashes his inner Steve Perry greatly, and like a forerunner to AOR’s most noted Perry imposter Hugo, he fills plenty of space with soulful, longer notes that create the perfect contrast to the chopping riffs. Factoring in an absolutely fantastic guitar solo, it’s easily a real highlight on an album already brimming with top drawer material.
Propping up the solid melodic rock, ‘Shake The Seven’ presents some fine atmospherics at the outset (occasionally hinting at a couple of the band’s later endeavours), before settling into another Foreigner-esque tune with an upfront bass striking against shimmering guitar. It sounds a bit more like a slow burner, but then Brock steers a punchy hook to greatness with help from some parping keys, before a terrific guitar solo mixes some superb string bending moments with a brief uncharacteristic shred, thus giving everything some very welcome extra crunch. Everything shifts into full on hard rock mode for ‘Stand Up & Shout’ when dirty rhythm guitar sounds are joined by massive slap bass and Giuffria inspired pomp keys. On first listen, it sounds more disposable, and certainly isn’t as smart as some of the album’s slicker numbers. In paving the way for the later ‘Walk In The Fire’ album, though, it’s quite important, and for those who came for purer sounding AOR, ‘Face To Face’ fleshes out the album with another very Journey-esque piece where everything slots together perfectly. The lead guitars are very emotive throughout, and seemingly in an effort to outdo them, Brock finds his inner Steve Perry once more, whilst bell-like keys beaver beneath. For the style, it’s pretty much perfect.
Beating all of those tracks for sheer quality, the big ballad ‘Goodnight L.A.’ still stands as one of Strangeways’ most enduring tunes. As soon as it opens with smooth keyboard washes an a pulsing bass sound that’s almost synth-like, it’s impossible not to imagine that in another world it would have graced a film soundtrack. If it had been recorded by Peter Cetera, it would have been a sure fire certainty. As the melody grows via a couple of melodic power chords and reaches for a huge chorus wail, it’s a perfect example of pure AOR; a five minute nugget of smooth perfection where Brock’s full vocal range gets a free rein, and a couple of vibrato-ed lead guitar fills add to a majestic grandiosity that has 1987 stamped through the centre.
‘Native Sons’ would be a very tough act to follow, but Strangeways gave the daunting task their very best shot with ‘Walk In The Fire’ two years later. All of the hallmarks of the Strangeways sound remained, but their sound had toughened just a little. This would give the best tracks a great punch, even if it resulted in the album lacking the strong balladry of its predecessor. The opening track ‘Where Are They Now’ isn’t shy in presenting a much harsher drum sound and dirtier guitar, but between the rockier elements, a ringing guitar calls back to the best Strangeways AOR tunes and a multi-layered vocal on the chorus celebrates the style with an unashamed hugeness. Perhaps the biggest shift, though, comes from Brock himself. Most of his earlier Steve Perry-isms are gone; in their place, a gruffer rock voice, yet still one that suits the material in hand. With its sparse verse where a hard snare dominates and a moody guitar riff cutting through a confident vocal, ‘Danger In Your Eyes’ works a sound very similar to Lou Gramm and Viv Campbell’s short lived Shadow King – proving that Strangeways were more than capable of taking their very 80s sound into a new decade. It might be straight up, chunky rock on the surface, but a few listens uncovers some great playing, from an oddly disjointed guitar solo adding to the all round edge, and some fine blues rock inspired soloing at the fade.
Elsewhere, the excellent ‘Living In The Danger Zone’ shows an even greater desire to be the next Foreigner with its mid tempo, pulsing bass and stomping rhythm. There’s a slight prog flourish along the way due to Ian finding a brilliant guitar tone that very much channels David Gilmour circa 1987, which more than lifts the arrangement way beyond the second division rock it could’ve been. The title track bolsters a solid album even further with an arrangement that occasionally threatens to break into one of the Simple Minds stadium rockers circa 1989, but also flaunts a massive drum sound that’s an obvious lift from 80s Pink Floyd material like ‘Learning To Fly’, which would influence the band’s future endeavours. Chorus-wise, everything slides into more traditional Strangeways fare with a massive hook that allows Brock full rein with some huge vocal pipes. ‘Into The Night’, by contrast, feels very much like a throwback to earlier Strangeways with a clean, 80s guitar sound, the return of the funky bass sounds that cut through a couple of the ‘Native Sons’ tracks and a huge chorus that’s pure AOR gold with its heavily filtered, Cannata-esque backing vocals. Fans will own at least a dozen similar sounding tunes from the band, but this is proof that when this sort of thing is done so perfectly, it never gets old. For those seeking even more of that “pure” Strangeways sound, ‘Every Time You Cry’ taps into an older Foreigner influence and couples that with the kind of chorus John Waite would have made a hit in 1984, and ‘Love Lies Dying’ could easily be a ‘Native Sons’ outtake, complete with Brock finding more of his older, smoother voice, and Ian delighting in soaring guitar lines throughout. It’s all massively cheesy, but in terms of late 80s AOR, so perfect.
Those must-have albums are bookended here with two more discs containing some very enjoyable material. Although it isn’t quite on a par vocally, the musical aspects of the self titled debut (Bonaire Records, 1984) are pretty much all in place. If approaching this as a stand alone purchase, it’d always seem a little inferior to the albums that followed, but presented alongside the genuine classics in a set such as this, the album gets more of a chance to shine. The opening track, ‘The Kid Needs Love’, in particular, isn’t shy in telegraphing the great band Strangeways would soon become with a full compliment of ringing guitars, harmonies and the kind of massive chorus hook Survivor would’ve taken in their stride, and with ‘Hold Back Your Love’ tempering these familiar traits with the kind of hooks that Stan Bush & Barrage where delivering at a similar time, it certainly gets off to a very strong start. Although Tony Liddell isn’t in the same league as Brock from a vocal stance, it’s immediately obvious that he’s a great performer, and his clean style is a good fit for the material in hand.
As it progresses, the debut tends to sound a little safe, but in tunes like ‘Heartbreak Zone’ and ‘More Than Promises’, the quality of the lead guitar work and world of fluid and sometimes funky bass work keeps everything buoyant enough, regardless of a now slightly dated sound. It’s worth adding to your collection/pulling from your CD shelf once in a while purely on the strength of the first two tracks, and the slightly poppier ‘Close To The Edge’ which boosts the bass and keys to create a very smooth 80s pop/rock sound which the band would later shape into a couple of genuine masterpieces. Another highlight comes from ‘Breakin’ Down Barriers’ where the band trot through another arrangement tailor made for Lou Gramm, lifting a smooth blend of guitars and keys with some superb call and response vocals along the way, before eventually peaking with a superb guitar solo that’s almost over before its begun.
‘Strangeways’ might not have quite the same chops as the later albums when it comes to vocals, but it’s certainly solid enough from a musical perspective and still capable of providing a welcome forty five minute distraction for many a melodic rock fan. The record’s long time champions will be interested to note the source used for the mastering ensures it sounds better than ever. Everything now feels slightly warmer than the Hangdog CD release from the 90s, and (obviously) sounds about a million times better than the trebly needle drop used for the Majestic Rock CD release from 2006.
1994’s ‘And The Horse’, meanwhile, drops a lot of the bigger AOR traits for a quieter, more meandering, prog rock inspired sound that often showcases the lead guitar work in a very different way. With Ian also taking on lead vocals the material has a very organic feel, and although he could never be considered on a par with his predecessors, there’s still plenty about his vocal presence that sounds great. ‘Precious Time’ breaks everything in gently with a mid-tempo melodic rocker where the chunky guitars are heard front and centre, and a semi-bluesy arrangement is hugely sympathetic to the new vocal style. As the tune slowly gains momentum, and the marriage of guitar and retro keys continues to grow, it’s clear that Strangeways would have a future without Brock or Liddell.
Things then take an interesting twist, when ‘Man’s Maker’ combines light prog rock with a slight reggae influence, allowing the guitars to take on a very characteristic sound where muted notes continually draw in the listener’s ear. With the easy groove peppered with a few licks that would suit Mark Knopfler, Strangeways begin to forge a musical path that waves goodbye to their 80s pomp, whilst retaining a melodic rock heart that still sounds remarkably full.
Even more atmospheric, ‘Through The Wire’ goes full on 80s Pink Floyd with a slow burning, quiet musical backdrop and a very narrative lead guitar, and the lengthy ‘Some of Us Lie’ goes even deeper into an AOR/prog hybrid sound where Ian really gets to indulge in some great lead work. Both tracks definitely show the new Strangeways approaching a more mature sound with a casual confidence. Taking their new found sense of quiet and experimenting with something a little smoother, ‘On’ mixes acoustic guitars with soaring leads and gently approached rhythms on a piece that straddles pop, prog and singer songwriter fare. Taut harmonies reign, and a soft, ambient guitar solo really taps into Strangeways’ laid back approach, and in a dramatic twist, ‘Head On’ even experiments with lounge jazz within an ambient-ish framework. You could say a lot of things about ‘And The Horse’, but you certainly couldn’t accuse the album of being pedestrian or going through the motions.
If there’s anything unmissable on this album, though, it’s ‘The Great Awakening’, where Ian employs his delay pedal and underscores a meandering, atmospheric workout with riffs that sound like a distant cousin to Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall, Part 1’ meeting with Porcupine Tree’s ‘Voyage 34’. As loaded with obvious influences as it is, there’s a real joy in hearing this line-up of Strangeways stretching out. The proggier tracks are definitely ‘And The Horse’s strong suit, but for the old AOR lovers, ‘Out of The Blue’ is likely to be the album’s highlight, presenting a quiet ballad-centric arrangement that’s not shy when it comes to hazy, layered atmospherics, taking the feel of ‘Goodnight L.A.’ into light prog territory. Ian’s guitar playing is especially on point here, reminding everyone that “old” Strangeways still lurks beneath the surface of the re-invented band.
Hearing ‘And The Horse’ years after release is a revelation. The moodier arrangements and prominent guitar solos are constantly entertaining, and straddling both AOR and prog camps, it really shows off some fine, mature musicianship throughout. It’s never an uplifting album, but it’s certainly something you can lose yourself in. It isn’t typical Strangeways, nor a classic record in the true sense, but a strong case could be made for it being the band’s most timeless work.
In addition to four great albums, this box set offers a little extra value by adding a couple of live tracks, including a storming medley of ‘Stand Up & Shout’ and ‘Breakin’ Down The Barriers’, alongside a couple of single edits of ‘Native Sons’ tracks. In terms of bonuses, though, it’s the four demos for a ‘Walk In The Fire’ follow up that supply the real gems. Although the sound quality is a little iffy, the opportunity to hear works in progress with vocalist Charles Bowyer is great, even though the tracks suggest a little too much focus upon trying to recapture the ‘Native Sons’ magic. Nevertheless, the soaring lead guitars and classic AOR vocals present throughout ‘Jackie’s Gone’ show the makings of something that could’ve been taken to heart by the AOR die-hards, and the jangling sounds of ‘Big Tom’ could’ve easily matched Simple Minds in their full pomp. ‘Liberty’ rarely rises beyond Strangeways by numbers, but even in demo form, a tough, ringing guitar and massive chorus still sound like prime melodic rock in the hands of great musicians, even if a couple of the lyrics err on the side of clichéd. For the more casual listener, ‘The Last Chance’ would probably stand out the most, since its tried and tested approach appears to have been modelled on at least three AOR power ballads from 80s film soundtracks. Understandably, though, this is the sort of thing a late 80s Strangeways could’ve trotted out in their sleep, so maybe the band were right to step away and have a rethink…
Fans will undoubtedly have the lion’s share of the contents here, dating right back to the original vinyl editions for the first three albums, but if this affordable release draws in a few people who somehow missed the band back in their prime, then it’s all for the good. If you’ve somehow never heard of Strangeways before and have a much loved copy of Journey’s ‘Greatest Hits’ or Foreigner’s ‘Agent Provocateur’ lurking in your collection, then you shouldn’t hesitate in picking this up. In bringing together four enjoyable albums (including two Strangeways essentials) at an impulse purchase price, ‘Complete Recordings Volume 1: 1985-1994’ is a fantastic set – an unmissable collection that’s the ultimate crash course in one of melodic rock’s most overlooked acts.
Buy the box set here: STRANGEWAYS – Complete Recordings Volume 1