THE CROSS – Shove It

cross

In the late 90s and throughout the 00s, Brian May and Roger Taylor seemed intent on squeezing every penny possible out of the name Queen and its branding. Via various hits collections, a lightweight sing-along musical and the despicable Queen + Paul Rodgers album and shows (surely the most expensive tribute/cabaret band ever), the name Queen has been continually dragged through the mud. With the latter, it would have been far less objectionable if they’d opted for a new start and a new band name – although I suspect May Rodgers Taylor wouldn’t have read very well on an album sleeve. Who knows what Freddie would have thought? I suspect he would have loved the idea of the camp musical – he may have even considered doing something similar himself had things turned out differently, but as for the Queen + Paul Rodgers thing, it’s anyone’s guess.

Anyway, all that aside, the original Queen recorded some brilliant music during their near twenty year reign. They had their off days (step forward ‘Hot Space’), but then every great band does. At their seventies best they recorded some of the most wonderfully grandiose music and throughout the eighties, some of their pop tendencies were unsurpassed. Three of the four members even had success with extra-curricular activities – although, rather unsurprisingly, Roger Taylor’s work often gets overlooked.

After a couple of lightweight solo outings – 1981’s ‘Fun In Space’ and 1984’s ‘Strange Frontier’, Taylor formed a pop-rock band, The Cross, featuring Rog on vocals and guitar as opposed to the drums. They would eventually record three albums, although it’s only their first – ‘Shove It’ – which has ever had a proper UK release.

The album’s title track combines the one two hard rock punch of Queen’s ‘Tear It Up’ with the Fairlight keyboard heart of ‘Radio Ga Ga’. While it shows great promise for attention grabbing and is littered with samples of old Queen songs, it is let down by a chanty vocal, a la ‘Guns In The Sky’ by INXS (featured on their ‘Kick’ masterpiece, also released in 1987). For those of you who are either too young to remember or otherwise have somehow blocked it from your memories, this edgy, technologically savvy approach seemed very much the fashion in the late eighties. Similarly ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ almost descends into a slightly cod rap delivery in places. It saves face by employing a brilliant sharply played rhythm guitar but ultimately there’s a feeling that it tries a little too hard.

The album’s lead single ‘Cowboys and Indians’ employs the softer edge of Taylor’s vocal at times, which combined with a very simple but effective rhythm guitar and female backing vocals makes the end result rather pleasing. Chances are you’ll wish Spike Edney would take his synthesized brass noises and parp off somewhere else. Although given the technology of the time it was easier to use synthesized horns than to hire a real brass section, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Also, like so much other stuff from the period, the bass is very low in the mix (as it is throughout most of the album) and it leaves the listener wondering how many of the bass parts aren’t provided by a keyboard somewhere, despite a real bass player being on board (one Peter Noone – not to be confused with the bloke who fronted Herman’s Hermits).

‘Stand Up For Love’ also shows a much better side of The Cross. While the electronic edges are still in place, Roger’s voice is given more clout by the use of female backing vocals in a soul/pop style and an appearance from some real horns. It aims for a punchy soul vibe, but still winds up sounding like 80s rock/pop due to the production sound and general approach. After one listen to the intro of ‘Love On a Tightrope’, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s going to turn into ‘Radio Ga Ga’ at any given moment; it employs a similar Fairlight keyboard muscle – even going as far as using the same sounds in places (I’m sure with a very knowing wink from Roger). Another edgy, very 1987 guitar part is used here but used too sparingly; nearly all the good elements in this song are drowned by Spike Edney’s heavy handed synths. By the time it gets to a verse featuring lyrics from ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ you know it’s barrel scraping time…

It shouldn’t work, but the spiky approach of ‘Rough Justice’ is fairly enjoyable – albeit in an eighties way. Roger and lead guitarist Clayton Moss lay down some sharp edges, while Peter Noone’s bass occasionally breaks into a funk slap between the simple rhythms (and it’s nice to actually be able to pick out something which sounds like a real bass here). Another stand out, ‘Contact’ employs a brilliant rhythm based guitar riff and a very mechanical approach all round, and from a songwriting perspective it’s strong also. There’s a clear definition between the verse and a well used pre-chorus; while for the chorus itself, the techy edge gives way to a gentler style of pop, not a million miles away from something Bowie could have offered during his overtly commercial 1983-87 period. The hard sax solo is something the track could have easily done without, though.

The big draw here is the early version of ‘Heaven For Everyone’. The Cross’s original single release featured Taylor on vocals, but for the album version, Freddie Mercury was bought in to perform the lead vocal. Listening to the album version from ‘Shove It’, it’s more than obvious that ‘Made In Heaven is a great song; however, the musical arrangement is in need of embellishment. The guitar work is fine and does the required job, but it’s lacking the grandiosity it deserves, while the drum sound sounds like a man bashing on a biscuit tin and the bass work is almost non existent, aside from occasional touches of not very well played fretless. As expected, Freddie’s vocal is totally professional and despite the music lacking in certain areas, he takes the job in hand and nails it. The version released by Queen in 1995 retains Freddie’s 1987 vocal, while Taylor, May and Deacon offer an arrangement far more suitable – far more Queen. The (unnecessary) spoken intro from The Cross’s recording is done away with and generally (as befits most great Queen arrangements) the music has a confidence – almost effortlessness – about it. Thanks to Queen’s 1995 re-creation, ‘Heaven For Everyone’ became known by all – not just the most die-hard of Queen fans. Although the Queen recording is arguably superior on every level, ‘Heaven For Everyone’ is still one of The Cross’s best songs.

‘Shove It’ is an album which could be best described using the well used phrase “of its time”. If approached as a totally eighties album, there’s not a lot wrong with most of it – and some of it is great at what it does. However, even at its mechanical best, you’ll find very little which comes close to the greatness of the Taylor penned ‘Radio Ga Ga’. Unless you’re a huge Queen fan with time on your hands, if you want no nonsense tunes driven by a Fairlight, it almost goes without saying you’re much better off sticking with your copy of ‘The Works’.

July 2010

IRON MAIDEN – Number Of The Beast

By the time Iron Maiden entered the studio to record their third album, they had no previously unused material in their archive. Bruce Dickinson (aka ex-Samson vocalist Bruce Bruce) had also become the band’s frontman, replacing Paul Di’Anno, who’d provided vocals on Maiden’s first two full-length releases. The band and producer Martin Birch (who’d produced their previous album, ‘Killers’) were effectively starting from scratch. What resulted is probably one of the finest heavy metal albums of all time. It’s certainly the album where Iron Maiden’s “classic” sound found its feet.

Telling a tale of Viking hordes, of plundering, rape and pillage, ‘Invaders’ opens the album with a real statement of intent. The band approach the number at full pace; Steve Harris employs an unmistakably aggressive bass style, while Clive Burr turns in one of his most powerful drum performances. Dickinson’s wailing vocal shows itself to be almost the polar opposite to Paul Di’Anno’s raw, punk-influenced vocal style – and he announces his presence rather unsubtly. A strong opening, certainly, but there’s far better to come… ‘Children of the Damned’ (inspired by the movie of the same name) is the album’s gentlest track. In some ways it feels like it appears slightly too early on the LP, but provides a brilliant contrast to the opening number. It highlights the softer end of Bruce’s vocal range, as well as proving how effortlessly he hits the long vibrato-edged notes. Adrian Smith guitar work appears in both its extremes, offering some gorgeous soaring guitar work during the song’s intro and a blistering guitar solo towards the end. A couple of other songs from the album have outshone this one in terms of longevity, but musically, ‘Children of the Damned’ shows a great maturity and is one of the album’s standouts.

Inspired by the cult 60s series starring Patrick McGoohan, ‘The Prisoner’ returns things to a fast pace. The track begins with the famous sample of McGoohan’s “I am not a number…I am a free man” and Burr’s pounding drums, before kicking into high gear. Steve Harris’s bass playing here is upfront and high in the mix, but surprisingly he never opts for his favourite galloping approach. The track also features fantastic guitar work from both Adrian Smith and Dave Murray. A co-write between Steve Harris and Adrian Smith, ‘The Prisoner’ has a more melodic chorus than a lot of other songs here. I presume that was Smith’s big contribution, as his writing has sometimes shown a slight AOR/melodic rock influence. A sequel to ‘Charlotte The Harlot’ from Iron Maiden’s self titled debut appears in the form of ’22 Acacia Avenue’. Supposedly based on someone the band knew, lyrically it provides a low point for ‘Number of the Beast’ with its tales of red-light wrong-doing. Musically, though, the band is in fine form, yet again. A slow lead guitar break midway acts as the song’s climax.

The two single releases culled from ‘The Number of the Beast’ (‘Run To The Hills’ and the title song) have remained solid fan favourites. While neither of the songs are as complicated as some of the material Maiden would go on to record, both tracks typify the band’s classic sound. The ‘Number of the Beast’ song is interesting, if only for the fact that it’s lyrically better than most things from this album (supposedly inspired by a nightmare Harris had), yet musically isn’t quite as good as some of the album’s other tracks. However, that doesn’t stop it being enjoyable and it remains one of Maiden’s best known songs. The anthemic nature of ‘Run To The Hills’ has allowed it to become one of the tracks most associated with the NWOBHM and become a staple for rock compilations. Musically, this employs a galloping bassline; something which recurs throughout various other Maiden tracks and a sound very easily identifiable with Harris. Both ‘Run To The Hills’ and ‘The Number of the Beast’ have been almost permanent fixtures in the band’s live set since 1982.

‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is more grandiose, hinting at a more complex musical approach. Lyrically, it tells the tale of a man waiting to die. He waits in his cell for someone to take him to his execution. Dickinson’s vocals are soft and slightly reflective at first, identifying with the dying man’s plight, before building to his trademark wail. The music builds in tandem, soft to begin with, then adding some excellent twin guitar leads. Most of the track focuses on a mid paced, classic heavy metal sound; it builds gradually, always making fantastic use of those twin harmonies on the guitars, until it reaches its peak, as the whole band play their hearts out – parts of the end section are as fast as anything ‘Number of the Beast’ has to offer. Clive Burr hammers out a relentless drum rhythm as Smith and Murray offer up a couple of top guitar solos; all the while, the whole thing is being anchored by Harris’s bass work, always solid and never showy.

‘The Number of the Beast’ offers only one obviously weak track: ‘Gangland’ (written by Smith and Burr) sounds throwaway compared to the rest of the album. Clive Burr’s drumming is solid and, as always, Bruce’s vocal is great, but the opening guitar riff sounds slightly jarring. That’s enough for the track to never really recover, but it’s also a bit weak lyrically.

‘Number of the Beast’ became a platinum seller, reaching number one on the UK album chart. It’s now rightly regarded as one of the great musical milestones of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

[The remastered CD features ‘Total Eclipse’ as a bonus track.]

February 2010

TOMMY TUTONE – Tommy Tutone

Originally formed as Tommy and the Tu-tones, but later settling on the shortened Tommy Tutone name, in the US, these guys are probably hailed as one of the great one hit wonders, their anthemic ‘8675309/Jenny’ (from their second record) remaining a popular chorus driven radio favourite. This self-titled debut (originally issued in 1980) on the whole seems to have aged quite well. Unlike some of the bigger power pop bands, like Flamin’ Groovies and Pezband, TT didn’t opt so much for the retro sound and 60s harmonies, appearing at the time to be more in line with their new-wave contemporaries, so that might be why it feels such a surprise to hear something which still has spark.

The lead track and single, ‘Angel Say No’ marries early Cars style rhythm guitar work with a nod to Phil Spector in the drum depot, a catchy enough chorus replete with typical power pop harmonies. At the time it was only a minor hit in the US. You can only wonder why, as it sounds pretty good these days (equal to, or if not better, than a lot of the stuff on the Rhino power pop comps, reviewed elsewhere on this site). Was it a lack of marketing that meant this slipped through the cracks, or was it a saturated market? After all, on the surface, Tutone offer very little that many other bands of a similar ilk were pumping out at the turn of the decade. ‘Cheap Date’ on the other hand, is far less obvious. The time signatures aren’t quite where they seem to be, the finger-clicks and other overdubs add nothing and leaves everything to the chorus, which features vocals which seem a little out. The cod-reggae leanings were very popular with post-punk and new wave bands at this time, but clearly they’re not something which feels natural here.

‘Girl In The Backseat’ is pretty solid. While not living up to the promise of ‘Angel Say No’, still offers a quirkiness somehow reminiscent of mid 70s Rick Derringer. While not quite first rate power pop, it has some pleasing guitar work and an unashamed over-egging in the backing vocal department, which proves, while they never had enough courage to go full-on pomp in an Earth Quake style, they were never quite as post-punk as bands like The Real Kids. ‘The Blame’ is a winner. Following on from the slightly poppier feel of ‘Angel Say No’, it’s Tommy Tutone at their best. Here, the balance between catchy song writing, simple musicianship and final arrangement is near perfect.‘Rachel’ is solid also – in the old teen tradition, songs about girls seem to score highly! A similar mix of vocals to the other good stuff here, it’s something these guys should have concentrated on and the handclap overdubs just set things off nicely. While on the whole there’s little else to add with regard to ‘Dancing Girl’, the guitar sound in the closing part is noteworthy in it’s new wave approach, not far removed from the style played by Andy Summers on The Police debut, ‘Outlandos D’Amour’. ‘Fat Chance’ dates the album a little, as they attempt the slightly more retro sounding power pop, but the 80s keys and production values make this feel a little fake. Whatever the Flamin’ Groovies special ingredient for making albums sound really 60s was, it’s missing here. Not that they’re musically that similar, but being reminded of doo-wop homage ‘In Your Letter’ by REO Speedwagon doesn’t help.  It’s probably their ‘well meaning and fun’ ideal which that’s off-putting!

There’s nothing memorable in the long term as ‘8675309/Jenny’ on this debut, but mostly it’s a solid listen, one which (as already stated) has weathered the passing years remarkably well. It’s currently available on CD with ‘Tutone 2’ as a 2-on-1 CD: With that in mind, if you only know ‘Jenny’, it might be time to check them out.

October 2007