Retro Review: Renaissance (the band)

Among the trends in rock music that came to the fore in the 1970s was the sub-category most often labeled “progressive rock” or “art rock.” Bands such as Yes, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and several others, went for a bigger, more cinematic feel with their music, leading to songs with extended instrumental passages that would run much longer than those found on typical 45s, often with a full orchestral accompaniment, and using instruments such as harpsichords, mandolins, and harps that had rarely been incorporated into rock music.

But no band went as full-force with the sound as Renaissance. Once they hit their stride in the mid-1970s, they produced several stunning albums.

The very first time I heard Renaissance was in 1980 or ’81, while I was attending the University of Maryland. One day, I visited the music store in the student union building, and, as I approached the store at the end of a long corridor, I heard music emanating from within that made me pick up the pace, almost to a full gallop.                  I hurried in, entranced by the music being played on the store’s stereo. It struck me as nothing short of amazing. I heard a full-sized symphony orchestra backing a rock band, which in turn was playing behind a female singer with an angelic voice that made my jaw drop. Not only that, but it was a live album, which I discovered was called “Renaissance Live at Carnegie Hall,” released in 1976.  I was instantly mesmerized. Luckily, the store had a few music guides scattered around, to help customers look up artists and albums. So, I managed to learn my first few tidbits of information about Renaissance, and discovered that the woman with the angelic voice was named Annie Haslam, and my new musical journey began.

The “classic” Renaissance line-up.

The original band was actually a step-child of the blues/rock band the Yardbirds.  Band members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, having left that group in 1968, sought to create a different sound, combining folk and classical elements, with a new band they called Renaissance. Various members came and went between 1969 and 1971. The first of the “modern day” Renaissance albums, Prologue, was released in 1972. It was the first to feature Annie Haslam, and her five-octave range, as lead singer (she had received vocal training from opera singer and vocal coach Sybil Knight). The line-up which would prove to be most successful, both creatively and commercially, included  Haslam, Michael Dunford (guitar), Jon Camp (bass), John Tout (keyboards), and Terence Sullivan (drums), finally fell into place with the 1973 album The Ashes

Annie Haslam.

Are Burning. That album featured one of their most popular numbers, Carpet of the Sun (see video below). For the next five albums, Annie and her bandmates thrived creating and playing what she prefers to label “classical rock,” in which the quintet often employed an orchestra to provide the soaring sonic textures to so many of their compositions. Many of their songs run a good ten minutes or longer, making them almost mini-symphonies.

Most of the songs throughout this period were co-written by Dunford, who would usually compose a melody and send it to poet Betty Thatcher, who would write lyrics. She had begun writing for the original incarnation of the band, having been friends with Keith Relf and his sister Jane, the original lead singer. Most of Thatcher’s lyrics, while abundant with words of peace, love, harmony, nature, and other ’70s-era “hippie” themes, could also lean towards obscure and cryptic ramblings (example: “To feel your touch across my mind, fills me only full of desire for my being.” Huh?). Some of her lyrics could also turn quite dark, too. But, not to put too fine a point on it, I’d be happy to hear Annie Haslam sing the phone book.

Renaissance enjoyed an intensely loyal following, especially in the U.S., possibly even stronger than that in their native UK, despite few FM radio hits. The albums recorded during their peak years in the mid-’70s began with Turn of the Cards, Scheherazade and Other Stories, Novella, and A Song For All Seasons.

Turn of the Cards opens with a classical piano intro, then jumps to a galloping start with “Running Hard,” as Annie leads the way, aided by backing vocals by the band, and an energetic orchestral accompaniment. The softer “Think of You” follows, offering a simpler arrangement, giving her vocals (featuring her unparalleled vibrato skills) a chance to really shine. Other numbers on the album, including “Black Flame” and Mother Russia” show the band at its most earnest and dramatic–but they’re not exactly ideal as background music for a summer picnic.

As the Beatles’ Revolver is to Sgt. Pepper, Turn of the Cards is to Scheherazade and Other Stories, widely regarded as the band’s masterpiece (and, coincidentally, recorded at Abbey Road Studios). The album begins with the classic “A Trip to the Fair,” an eerie recounting of a nightmarish visit to a fair, said to be based on Annie’s first date with former boyfriend Ron Wood. The middle instrumental section takes a jazzy turn, with piano and xylophone trading solos, before the piece leads to its rather ominous, but thrilling, musical crescendo.

What we older LP lovers used to be refer to as “side 2” of the album consists entirely of the band’s musical telling of the classic 1001 Arabian Nights story, with the band backed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The individual compositions, leading into each other to tell the complete story, were a group effort, and the results are full of imagery that, even in the instrumental passages, convey how the young girl, sentenced to death at dawn after an evening with the evil Sultan, unexpectedly mesmerizes him with stories that keep him listening until after dawn, by which time he has fallen in love with her and asks her to be his wife. Listening to this epic comes as close to watching a film in your mind’s eye as you’re ever likely to experience. It is a musical achievement of epic proportions.

“A Song for All Seasons” – as Jon Camp once said, perhaps their best album, but worst cover.

A Song For All Seasons, released in 1978, very nearly reaches the heights of Scheherazade, and many consider it the band’s best, with strong, pulsing numbers again enhanced by exciting orchestral arrangements, as well as “smaller” songs with memorable melodies, including one of their biggest hits, “Northern Lights” (see video below).

 

 

A change in record labels necessitated some downsizing of the group’s  production values. Orchestras needed to be replaced with synthesizers and more prominent electric guitars, but the trademark sound remained essentially the same.  Azure d’Or, released in 1979, continues the trend of the previous albums, again including several showcases for Annie’s remarkable vocal gifts. After its release and tour, Tout and Sullivan left the band (to be replaced with others who were never “official” members of the group) marking the end of their golden era. The arrival of

disco, punk, and New Wave, plus the declining popularity of progressive rock, nudged the pared-down Renaissance to seek a more commercial sound with Camera, Camera in 1981, and Timeline in ’83 (Timeline got poor reviews from critics and fans, but I’ve always preferred it to Camera Camera).

Annie also released a number of solo albums, and the original band occasionally reunited for new projects and tours, with mixed results. There’s much more to the story, perhaps better left for another time.  Betty Thatcher, Michael Dunford and John Tout have since passed away, but Annie, now in her early seventies, is still performing with a new version of Renaissance today.

So, if you’re in the mood to take a trip back to the “prog rock” era, featuring one amazing singer and her exceptionally talented band, please do, and let me know your impressions.

Until next time…