… the old classic Nature Boy, a song whose other-worldly, slightly surreal melody has always made it sound like a song simply waiting for Annie’s voice to join it ...
In 1977, while Renaissance were taking a short hiatus in order for John Tout to recover from illness, Annie Haslam decide to take advantage of a couple of months’ free time to record her first solo album. This was quite an easy decision as her partner at the time Roy Wood happened, of course, to be a multi-instrumentalist songwriter and producer who was only too pleased to collaborate on the project. He ended up writing three of the eight songs, playing the majority of the instruments, lending vocals to the recordings, producing the album and, last but not least, painting the gatefold cover picture! Presumably he had a broom handy to sweep the studio as the old saying goes! In fact, such was his contribution that it seems a remarkable lack of ego on his part not to claim a co-credit, but the album nevertheless came out credited to Annie alone, and of course her astonishingly clear and vibrant vocals are the star throughout.
The material comprises two songs written by her Renaissance colleague Jon Camp (Inside My Life and the excellent opener If I Were Made Of Music), three covers and the aforementioned three Wood originals which really form the backbone of the album. Firstly there is the single I Never Believed In Love, which they hoped could replicate Elton John and Kiki Dee’s success with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, but sadly bombed. Secondly, closing the first side, is the African-inspired Hunioco, which was really ahead of its time in the way it predated the 1980s World Music boom. Indeed, I cannot be the only one to have to check the songwriting credits, so authentic does it sound. The backing vocals are in fact not in any particular language, but rather in an African-sounding ‘language’ made up by Wood – according to Annie they had to have it checked to ensure they weren’t inadvertently singing anything which was offensive in a language they didn’t know. It’s safe to say that this track, had it been put out by Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon some years later, would have become much more well known.
Finally of the Wood compositions comes what is possibly the highlight of the album, in the form of the bizarrely wonderful Rockalise! Opening the second side of the original vinyl, it begins with Annie singing a soaring, wordless melody which sounds hand-picked from her Renaissance ‘day job’, before a couple of minutes into the track a full ‘band’ (actually a host of multi-racked Woods!) burst in and proceed to barrel along in a good-time rock and roll fashion which somehow completely counterpoints the Haslam vocal. It’s like Renaissance colliding with Wizzard and it should be a car crash, but it is somehow hugely, irresistibly enjoyable.
Of the three covers, two are successful. The closing track Going Home is of course the words put to the music of Dvorak’s New World Symphony – as the booklet reminds us, as used in the famous early ’70s Hovis bread advertisement in the UK. It could descend into schlock, but Annie’s sensitive vocal performance together with the superb arrangement make it effective in an entirely non-bread-nostalgic way! The only mis-step here is the Rodgers & Hammerstein ballad If I Loved You from Carousel, which meanders along in sub-1940s-Disney mode with a heavy handed arrangement doing it no favours. Annie sings it well, but sounds as if she herself is fighting something of a losing battle. Much better is the old classic Nature Boy, a song whose other-worldly, slightly surreal melody has always made it sound like a song simply waiting for Annie’s voice to join it, and so it proves. The arrangement is a little more jazzy than some others, but it works.
Of course, with the Punk Revolution in full swing in 1977, there was no way this album was going to avoid the fate of a boulder into the Atlantic, and so it proved, as it barely peeped over the parapet at a high of Number 167. Now though, the world is almost certainly far more receptive to this ambitious and enjoyable melting pot of material. It’s not Renaissance, of course it isn’t – and neither does it sound anything like a Roy Wood solo album, but it is a fascinating artifact for any lover of either of these musical talents, and if you happen to be a fan of both you will be in Hog Heaven, as they say.
Take a trip through the looking glass and check this one out. By my ears and whiskers, you’re late – but you haven’t yet missed the Tea Party!