Writing On The Wall – The Ultimate Edition
Like, wouldn’t it be embarrassing if a ’serious’ music reviewer took a pure pop act like Bucks Fizz seriously and simultaneously let slip a secret fascination with BF and blonde songstress Cheryl Baker ? Eh ? Won’t happen on my watch…
Polydor are treating Bucks Fizz followers to a rerelease of the quartet’s 1986 album ‘Writing On The Wall’. It is probably the group at the height of their powers of song interpretation. They had enjoyed chart success of course but had what you might call a rocky road as regards relationships within the group itself, not quite in the later Fleetwood Mac league but enough to produce outright or barely concealed friction often enough to spoil the ensemble’s progress sometimes at key times.
Bucks Fizz toured with THEIR OWN SNOW MACHINE
On this set, we find Mike Nolan, Bobby G, Cheryl Baker and Shelley Preston as co-female vocalist. Now Ms Baker had not got on with Jay Aston the previous fellow chanteuse. Ever the pro, Cheryl had made the best of the era but it might be fair to say that when making this set, the group was in overall better shape relationshipwise than it had been for a while.
The production for these cuts is pretty standard mid-80s pop. Hence there are at times over-busy synthesizers, clattery drums, too many twinkly things going on in the treble range and some frankly horrible reverb settings on the bursts of guitar (not the players’ fault, of course, it were The Fashion). To their eternal credit the tried and tested warm vocal blend of the singers overcomes the trendy trappings and usually but not always overcomes any shortcomings in the material. Take the steady-tempo’d and bittersweet lyrically song ‘Love In A World Gone Mad’. It sounds as though it was composed to equal or cap the dreaded ABBA whose chart success before and at this time had pretty much set the bar for vocal ensembles. But whilst to my ears the Swedish foursome far too often sounded like singing robots, Bucks Fizz sound SO much better and albeit gong for crisp delivery here, soulful. The intro’s chorused guitar and gated reverb snare sound OKish but the verse is tenderly phrased and when the four sing out together the chorus it’s cathartic and strong. The rubbish synth brass can’t get close to a real grainy horn section ( how good would these singers have sounded with the Kool & The Gang brass and horns guys ?). This cut is certainly one of the highlights of this disc and can only be described as Quality Pop, made against a sea of 8Os tripe when more time was spent on makeup than tuneup by many other acts. Following track ‘The Company You Keep’ has a lovely harmonica intro and a male lead vocal. The girls sound like sexy vocal icing when they chime in. The bass on this is sublime, by the way.
Cheryl Baker has twin daughters
Whilst album lead cut ‘New Beginning’ has started the record with a cod-African and massive vocal intro then clattering drums over interesting chords it sounds a bit cold compared to the other selections on the set. The ladies sing in perfect synch with quick asides. It’s ascending chord progression really does grow on you. The song got them back in the Top Ten in May 1986. Unfortunately their stomp through Steve Stills’ curious song ‘Love The One You’re With’ – is it suggesting promiscuity or just a wishy washy nod to ‘free love’ whatever that was ? – is as subtle as a rain of petrol bombs. Sung really well but smashed into the wall by duff production features. No need to go Manhattan Transfer for this song, but it’s on this reading as if Frankie Goes To Hollywood were about to burst in to the studio. The thing about Bucks Fizz is that they were all fine singers – again in my humble opinion far better and edgier than ABBA. ‘Don’t Turn Back’ turns up the sexual heat and has a Tina Turner feel though there is no aping of her singing delivery. Great bridge and chorus here and neat damped guitar clipping away, female pop singing doesn’t come classier than featured here. The (real) trumpet only adds sass.
Bear in mind that this is a group coming back from a terrible tour bus crash late in 1984 that left handsome singer Mike Nolan badly injured and facing a long road to recovery. This meant that late 1984 single ‘I Hear Talk” was not promoted and reached just a lowly chart position. Of no consquence compared with a touch-and-go situation for a band member, of course and Nolan battled back to health over a long period. Bobby G took lead vocal with Baker supplying the middle eight. It was written by Andy Hill and Peter Sinfield and has had a new lease of live in a recent new arrangement by Baker’s partner, adding a jazz tinge.
“Soul Motion’ has Motown-updated tempo and may have been put together as a whomping opener for live shows. It’s great beaty cut and yet again the singers sound so punchy when they come in together. A brassy production whacks along and a great guitar break with a key change works well. Hard to resist and sadly the Lixxie Potts and Katy Perrys of today have nothing to touch this among their phoney ‘party’ efforts. ‘Give A Little Love’ is set to pop-reggae motion – a style throughly debased since by the likes of the dreadful Lily Allen. Not Bucks Fizz at their best, but we’re not expecting a ‘Kashmir’ from them after all. Pleasant enough, I guess. ‘In Your Eyes’ does sound like a song to take on ABBA, so strident is the pacing and tapping keys but the BF girls make it a hornier creation altogether as they coo over the stabbing rhythm. Yet again, the listener yearns for a proper brass arrangement, though the sax inserts work. Ghastly drum sound on this one.
A more reflective mood is struck by the compressed-Strat intro’d ‘I Need Your Love’. Too formulaic a composition to really dig deep this makes for a worthy album cut and that must be Bobby Gee on the vocal lead ?
The eleven cuts on Disc One are lifted to fifteen by alternate and extended versions eg of ‘New Beginning’.
Shelley Preston looks a little like Olivia Newton-John
On to the second disc and this has extra songs and also various other versions of the songs on Disc One plus some live show extracts wherein The Fizzers tackle a Motown medley and then – I kid you not – a Rolling Stones mini-set comprising ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Let’s Spend’, ‘Jumping’ and ‘Brown Sugar’, good numbers to use in a live show for audience reaction, of course.
Of the extra songs, ‘Big Deal’ is generic 80s fare and features Bobby Gee, who wrote it but it sounds in the shadow of Bjorn and Benny rather than really original ; the Marley-tempo’d ‘I Want To Stay’ has a slightly unsettling synth solo, what a weird tone ! ; ‘Paper Hearts’ written by Steve Glenn and Mike Burns is a winsome ballad and sung by Shelley in an emphatic but held-back style. It sounds like it belongs in a musical. Female lead reflective time. How good do the girls sound when they sing together on this ? Too Drury Lane for this writer but very pro. Our Cheryl attacks ‘Easy Trouble’ which has Germanic Moroder atmosphere and sounds inspired – yet another rich and tuneful chorus and yet another plastic drum track stifling the song or trying to.
”I Hear Talk’ is one of Cheryl Baker’s favourite Bucks Fizz recordings
The group look good on the contemporary photos in the packaging booklet. Production-line pop perhaps, but classy singers who get some soul to the fore whenever the over-busy production allows even half a chance.
Pete Sargeant www.fairhearing.co.uk