Right Or Wrong will be a must for fans of both White Spirit and Brian Howe. This album is a fine testament to one of the most under-rated bands of the NWOBHM and leaves one wondering what might have been if the band had had a little more stability and luck.
It is sometimes difficult to remember what a tremendous relief the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was to those of us who’d been weaned on the original wave of heavy rock and seen it brutally blown away by the advent of punk. True, heavy rock never totally disappeared, but there was a feeling of disorientation as it was at best side-lined, and in the case of anything vaguely progressive, totally belittled. Was the party over? Well, thankfully, not. New bands picked up the legacy, dropping some of the blues roots and adding some of the directness and speed of punk, and this bottom-up movement flourished into what Geoff Barton famously coined as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) in the May 1979 issue of Sounds.
Many of the NWOBHM bands went on to global success: Iron Maiden and Saxon to name just two. Many others thrived, sometimes all too briefly as was the case with White Spirit. A rapid-fire look at their history reads like this: they came out of Hartlepool; they built up a strong following on the back of their Deep Purple inspired classic heavy rock and some brilliant live performances to boot (this author can certainly testify to that having seen them more than once in those heady days); they got a recording contract with MCA, releasing a superb eponymously titled album; and then they split. The one fact that guarantees the group a footnote in the annals of rock history is that their guitarist was a very young Janick Gers, just starting out on the path that would lead him to Iron Maiden. Back in 1980, White Spirit were stepping up from the pub circuit to concert hall performances as the support act to bigger bands, including Ian Gillan. Things were looking up, but Gillan liked what he saw so much that he promptly recruited Gers. It is somewhat ironic that White Spirit – who were clearly inspired by Deep Purple – should receive such a mortal blow from a member of Deep Purple.
Unbeknown to all but the most ardent White Spirit fans, that wasn’t quite the end of the road. Influential keyboard player Mal Pearson was still there, and Gers was replaced by Mick Tucker (who later went on to join Tank along with White Spirit’s drummer Graeme Crallan). Also, a new unknown singer was drafted in by the name of Brian Howe. Yes, that’s the Brian Howe of Ted Nugent and Bad Company fame, who sadly passed away in 2020. In retrospect, White Spirit look a bit like the musical equivalent of Barcelona’s Cantera (their renowned football academy) – taking on unknown talents and churning out future stars! This new White Spirit line-up entered the studio to work on their second album with then Gillan keyboardist, Colin Towns at the production helm. Material was put down, but the album was never completed, the members went their separate ways, and the tapes eventually lost. The only legacy that seemed to have survived from that period was a single Watch Out which finally saw the light of day on a re-issue of the debut album on the Castle label in 2005.
Fast forward four decades and whilst preparing to relocate to France, Mal Pearson found a dusty old bedside cabinet in storage. Inside were four sets of tapes and, lo and behold, one of them was labelled ‘Chiswick Studios – White Spirit’. Attempts to recover the material were mostly successful but not to a quality that would permit their release. So, Tucker and Pearson decided to rework and rerecord their own guitar and keyboard parts, and Neil Murray (Whitesnake) and Russell Gilbrook (Uriah Heep) were drafted in to play the rhythm section. Some but not all of Brian Howe’s original performances were salvaged, so guest singers were called upon to fill the gaps: Jeff Scott Soto (Journey, Yngwie Malmsteen) and Lee Small (Lionheart, Sweet) both take two tracks. And to wrap it all up with a tribute to Brian Howe, Holy Water (the Bad Company song) was recorded with FM’s Steve Overland taking the lead vocal duties.
The title track gets the album underway and it’s a perfect choice because it opens with one of those restrained but tight and effective guitar riffs that the band built its reputation on. Pearson’s Lord-inspired Hammond comes in to flesh out the sound, and just when you settle back thinking ‘Ah, this is White Spirit’, in comes Jeff Scott Soto with his American drawl to break the spell. To be fair on Soto he is a fine and powerful singer, and his voice is probably the closest in tone to the original singer Bruce Ruff amongst the singers appearing here. But, for those familiar with Ruff, the American voice will be as jarring as a Yes fan hearing Jon Bon Jovi singing Close To The Edge!
The other Soto contribution is on Better Watch Out, a track driven by another typical White Spirit riff, although both the riff and the chorus seem to reflect the more commercial work that Blackmore did with Rainbow around the same period (All Night Long comes to mind). In many ways, these are the two most typical White Spirit tracks, and it just seems odd to me that the choice fell to an American vocalist. Steve Overland could have done a fine job on these two tracks, just as he demonstrates he’s up to matching the Howe legacy on Holy Water.
Lee Small’s two contributions are a bit of a mixed bag musically. The Dice Rolls On has a nice guitar hook but is a little disjointed with a strangely stuttering verse and some over-heavy drumming. It’s got the smooth ‘80s soft rock production of bands like Toto or Europe. Don’t Say No has a similar ‘80s feel too and is a fairly routine number that I suspect would more likely have appeared as the B-side of a single than on the planned sophomore album release.
For many, most interest will lie in the half-dozen tracks graced by Howe’s original vocal performance. The recording quality is surprisingly good even if his voice is low in the mix, presumably deliberately so to hide some of the imperfections carried over in the restoration. You can tell already though that here is a singer with a great voice and he represented a step up from Bruce Ruff. Several of the songs have a strong ‘80s American feel in the vein of Foreigner or REO Speedwagon. Lady Of The Night, a neatly constructed and quite commercial track is an example of the sort of power ballad that Foreigner used to churn out by the dozen. There’s not much of the metal edge you would expect from White Spirit though, even if it remains one of the best songs on the album. Gotta’ Get Out is another highlight with the atmospheric keyboard opening bringing immediately to mind their epic Fool For The Gods from the group’s debut album. The main song rocks along infectiously too and Tucker’s guitar work is excellent, both in the bluesy intro and the guitar solo which is the closest he gets to sounding like Gers.
To get from the damaged tapes to this release has been a massive undertaking by Pearson and Tucker and they deserve huge credit for bringing this material back to light. There’s some fine songs too but, as a long-time fan of the band, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that the album is neither fish nor fowl. It’s easier to hear a musical link to say Foreigner than it is to White Spirit’s debut album. There seems to be too broad a musical palette on show, and in my own musings on the topic I concluded that this could be because (a) some ideas were actually written by the Mark 1 iteration of the band while others came from the new line-up and had a different style, or (b) the original recordings were all close to the spirit (excuse the pun!) of White Spirit’s debut album but the reconstruction of the songs was inevitably influenced by and interpreted through the lens of a further 40 years of rock history. It’s perhaps a pity that they didn’t include some snippets of the original recordings which might have helped us judge that ourselves.
Despite these reservations, Right Or Wrong will be a must for fans of both White Spirit and Brian Howe. This album is a fine testament to one of the most under-rated bands of the NWOBHM and leaves one wondering what might have been if the band had had a little more stability and luck.