Album review: STRANGEWAYS – Complete Recordings Volume 1, 1985-1994

Cherry Red/HNE [Release date: 27.05.22]

The clamour for reissues of the first 3 Strangeways albums rose to fever pitch in the late 90s, as AOR made an attempt to get back on its feet. All 3 had been received with universal acclaim by the UK Music Press on their original release in the mid 80s.

On being interviewed for Hard RoxX (RIP) print mag in 1998, Ian Stewart told me he was unable to establish who owned the rights. The band had signed to the UK’s up and coming Bonaire label, who had released the albums, and then disappeared.

And so the band took the plunge and claimed ownership themselves, reissuing the albums on their own Hangdog Records label, in 1997.

Every day, he said, they expected a “lawyer’s letter” to come shuffling through the letter box, threatening legal action. But none did.

On the debut, the band was Ian Stewart and his brother David, plus Jim Drummond and singer, Tony Liddell. Liddell was ousted in favour of US vocalist, Terry Brock for the subsequent releases.

This month, Cherry Red Records have reissued those 3 albums – Strangeways, Native Sons, Walk Into The Fire, plus And The Horse – and released them as a sturdy, Clydebuilt Boxset.

Bonaire had brought in Kevin (Journey/ Mr Big/ Europe) Elson to produce the 1985 debut – Strangways. It struck a lot of chords in the music press who lauded it bigtime, without it gaining any traction in over the counter sales.

Roxy Music/Slade Producer John Punter was recruited for the follow up, Native Sons (1987). Terry Brock replaced Liddell. Brock’s smoother US tones were considered more “commercially suited” to the music and the market.

There are few AOR/Melodic Rock albums like this one where we can seriously say every track’s a gem – polished, sparkling AOR – with as much depth as you could expect in the 80s. “Without doubt the best AOR album of the last six years”, according to Kerrang. Anywhere you stick a pin in the tracklist you come up with your new favourite. ‘Only A Fool’, ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ and ‘Goodnight LA’ is where many got stuck.

Ian Stewart told me he learned a lot from Elson and Punter, enough to decide he could produce that “big, polished, melodic rock sound” in the studio himself. And he did so categorically on 1989′s Walk Into The Fire, wisely continuing with engineer John Lee and mixing maestro, Mike Shipley.

Arguably, there’s a thin line between the two releases. This third album had a decent quota of great AOR songs, ‘Every Time You Cry’ and ‘Where Are The Now’ are as good as anything being knocked out by Foreigner or Journey at the time. Maybe it just wasn’t quite as consistent.

Walk Into The Fire was the third time they did what they intended to do musically. But instead of becoming million selling artists, ultimately they had to settle for legendary status.

By 1994, Brock was gone. The band released And The Horse, with Ian Stewart on vocals, and again producing. The amusingly philosophical title strongly suggests the band were writing and recording on their own terms now.

It didn’t have the scope or the scale of its predecessors, employing more of a kitchen sink production ethos, and Stewart substituted a bluesier, more progressive sound. He is not a stadium rock vocalist. He keeps a tight rein on the vocal melodies, and his voice has soul and conviction.

The arrangements are looser, more expressive, dreamier, Floydian even. The songs, especially the introspective ‘Some Of Us Lie’, and ‘Precious Time’ hears Stewart still demonstrating his musical artistry, just in a new way.

There is a veritable plethora of bonus tracks (18 in all) across the collection. Out takes, live tracks, single edits, remixes, tracks that just missed the cut and so on. By the time you’ve finished listening to all 59 tracks spread over the 4 CDs, you’ll be the world’s leading expert on Strangeways. *****

Review by Brian McGowan

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