Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? (1978)
Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?/The Closer You Get/Because Of You/Dancing With Charlie/Bows And Bangles/Fool (If You Think It's Over)/Three Angels/Just One Of Those Days/Standing In Your Doorway/Fires Of Spring
This was a strange album. It was the previously unknown Chris Rea's debut and was released into the cultural upheaval of punk and new wave. Musically, it really had no place and neither did Rea's decidedly non-punk/new wave/post punk appearance. He poses on the cover in a multi-coloured scarf looking very boy next door and unthreatening. He was neither a punk nor a Costello/Dury-style anti-hero. The music was actually quite an appealing mix of Jackson Browne/Eagles American-influenced rock with a vague country/West Coast air to it. As you can see - totally at odds with anything coming out of the UK at the time. Unsurprisingly the album and its big hit single, Fool (If You Think It's Over) were far more successful in the US than the UK. An album like this would have meant nothing in the UK in April 1978.
Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? is a very Eagles-esque track, with hints of John Mellencamp in its riffiness. Incidentally, "Benny Santini" was one of the names Rea's record company wanted him to change his name to. Full of excellent driving, roadhouse guitar and wailing saxophone, it is an excellent track. A Stonesy riff introduces the mid-pace rock of The Closer You Get. This is all very rock in its feel, not much of the blues that Rea would dip into on so much in his later career. The eventually to be trademark slide guitar makes its first appearance on this track, though, to great effect. Because Of You is a gentle, summery pop ballad, highlighted again by the fact that Rea could clearly play a mean guitar.
Dancing With Charlie has more killer guitar and more Eagles vibe, with a bit of Doobie Brothers thrown in. It sounds very much like a song referencing increasing cocaine habits, particularly among the rich and famous, but whether "Charlie" was used as a term in 1978, I am not sure. Bows And Bangles has Rea sound very much like Don Henley on its US style vocal. Listening to this you would think Rea was American, not from Middlesbrough.
Fool (If You Think It' Over) is now one of Rea's best known songs. He has since re-recorded it and it has better sound than the somewhat light, tinny one that it as here. It still has an infectious, easy-listening appeal, however, even in this incarnation. Rea's voice sounds more British on this one. It was covered successfully by Elkie Brooks.
Three Angels is a rousing, riffy rocker with some great guitar and a solid bass line underpinning it. Just One Of Those Days is very country rock with that Don Henley voice back again. Standing In Your Doorway is a hidden gem of a melodic West Coast meets Tex-Mex song. It has the first strains of the material Rea would visit on his Blue Guitars project, particularly in his Texas Blues section it. It features a Tex-Mex-style accordion. Fires Of Spring is an appealing, solid rocker to end on. It really reminds of something but I can't put my finger on it.
I didn't have any time for anything like this in 1978, but in retrospect, it is a pretty good first offering. The sound on it is unremastered, however, and is a bit indistinct, but it is still listenable.
Twisted Wheel/The Things Lovers Should Do/Dance! (Don't Think)/Raincoat And A Rose/Cenotaph/Letter From Amsterdam/Deltics/Diamonds/She Gave It Away/Don't Want Your Best Friend/No Qualifications/Seabird
This was another culturally irrelevant, "as if punk never happened" out of time release from Chris Rea. An Elton John influence pervades the album and, although pleasant enough, suffers from a muffled, unclear, unremastered sound (you really have to turn it up to get any oomph). It made little impact, and the cover was awful. Just what are you wearing, Chris?
As Twisted Wheel's piano intro kicks in, and the Rea's vocal, you would be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Elton John. Everything about it screams Elton, particularly Part Time Love. The album was produced by Gus Dudgeon who worked with Elton John in the seventies, so this influence is hardly surprising. By the way, is Rea referring to Manchester's legendary Northern Soul night club in the tile? Probably. The Things That Lovers Should Do has some of that laid-back bluesy feel and guitar that Rea would come to specialise in. It has hints of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel in it, particularly in its Spectoresque Say Goodbye To Hollywood drumbeat in places. Dance! (Don't Think) is another Elton-ish stomper with some vibrant backing vocals, Electric Light Orchestra strings and impressive, fuzzy guitar.
Raincoat And A Rose is a pleasing slow number, while Cenotaph/Letter From Amsterdam is an instrumental interlude that merges into an Elton John meets Roger Daltrey solid, riffy rocker. Deltics is a brassy grinding rocker based around train travel (Deltics were a type of train engine). A bit of bluesy guitar creeps in, for the first time. Diamonds is very much of its era, late seventies, Elton John-style orchestrated pop/rock.
She Gave It Away is another one very much ploughing the same furrow, as indeed does Don't Want Your Best Friend. No Qualifications slows down the pace on a saxophone-enhanced song about educational achievement, or lack of it. You could have predicted that the final number, Seabird would be a tender, acoustic ballad. It is a nice one, though.
So this was Chris Rea's "Elton John" album, conspicuous for its lack of blues influence and precious little of the great slide guitar he became famous for. It is certainly not a bad album but it is not essential in any way. It had no part to play in 1979's musical legacy, really.
Tennis/Sweet Kiss/Since I Don't See You Anymore/Dancing Girls/No Work Today/Every Time I See You Smile/For Ever And Ever/Good News/Friends Across The Water/Distant Summers/Only With You/Stick It
This was Chris Rea's third album and he was beginning to experiment with longer songs and find a bit of his identity, after the West Coast style rock of his debut and the very Elton John-influenced follow up. It was all still very removed from any of the contemporary musical trends of the time, however, and consequently did not do very well. Once again, though, it has not been remastered and suffers from poor sound.
Tennis suffers from some awful sound and never quite gets out of its funk/rock rut, really. It has a bit of a feel of Ace's How Long about it, though. I am not quite sure of the relevance of the "do you like tennis" Yes I do" chorus. In fact the whole song is weird, lyrically. Better is the deep, bluesy Sweet Kiss with its solid brass parts and swampy bassline. That recognisable Rea slide guitar enhances the rack considerably. Since I Don't See You Anymore has a slightly Mexican/Texas vibe to it, and a bit of a Mavericks feel. Dancing Girls is similarly melodic and poppy.
No Work Today is a jaunty little instrumental. The Elton John influence had not gone forever, though, and reappears on the soulful piano-driven ballad Every Time I See You Smile. The track ends with some excellent guitar and backing vocals interplay. Actually, the punchy For Ever And Ever has a horn-driven upbeat Elton John feel to it as well. Good News is a soulful, gospelly groove with a slightly Southern bluesy beat to it.
Friends Across The Water is a light, summery, semi-reggae instrumental followed by a plaintive ballad in Distant Summers. Only With You sees Rea adopting that gruff voiced vocal merged with a melodic tune that would serve him so well in subsequent years. Here, he is doing it for pretty much the first time. Stick It is another Elton John-style track, like something from the Caribou era, so maybe that had not completely left Rea's music for good just yet. He was getting to the point where he was beginning, slowly, to carve out his own identity. He was not quite there yet, however.
Chris Rea (1982)
Loving You/If You Choose To Go/Guitar Street/Do You Still Dream?/Every Beat Of My Heart/Goodbye Little Columbus/One Sweet And Tender Touch/Do It For Your Love/Just Want To Be With You/Runaway/When You Know That Love Died
This was Chris Rea’s fourth album. In the late seventies/early eighties his albums, and indeed Rea himself, were strange things. They were totally out of sync with any other music at the time, really. Think about early 1982-new romanticism, post punk, eighties pop were all around. Rea’s brand of pop/rock had been through a US and then an Elton John phase, and this one was a bit US-influenced but in a smooth, soulful sort of AOR way. All of these styles just didn’t really mean much to the UK scene in 1982. Elton John was old hat, yet to be reborn as a national treasure, and US music was more likely to be of the REO Speedwagon type or Fleetwood Mac (admittedly half British but you know what I mean). Rea’s wine bar style, laid-back, melodic easy going rock and his somewhat ordinary, unprepossessing image just wasn’t really registering yet. It would, within a few years, but not yet. So, this album went right under the radar, which was a shame, as it is really good. It is immaculately played, with a soully appeal lacking in his previous offerings and it contains a collection of impressive songs .
Loving You is pretty typical of the album’s material - full of that easy going vibe, soulful vocals and a bassy beat straight out of Ace, from the mid seventies. That How Long bassline is even more pronounced on the lovely tones of If You Choose To Go. This is actually really good stuff, but it is easy to see how it just didn’t cut the mustard back in early 1982. Give it a few years.
The mood changes as Rea shows he can rock out on the slide guitar-driven riffy power of Guitar Street. Then it is back to the gentle strains of Do You Still Dream?, a very Rea-esque number of the sort that would characterise his subsequent work. Every Beat Of My Heart is a smoochy, romantic number that, if only this album had been heard by more people, would have made it on to many “first dance” requests at weddings.
Goodbye Little Columbus eventually breaks out into a very catchy mid-pace rock number. If Billy Joel had put this out, it no doubt would have been a huge hit. One Sweet And Tender Touch is a soul-style ballad. It features a nice saxophone solo. Do It For Your Love is a very eighties, Fleetwood Mac-ish song. Just Want To Be With You is one of my favourites. The melody and delivery has a bit of a Springsteen feel to it. If you thought that Elton John influence had been left behind on the yellow brick road, think again, it is there on the appealing Runaway. Rea often ends his albums on a moving, evocative ballad, and he does here on When You Know That Love Died. It is enhanced by a superb slide guitar solo.
This was Rea’s best album thus far, although his previous ones were all ok, he was carving out his own identity more on this one. It just needed a few years to be part of the milieu.
Water Sign (1983)
Nothing's Happening By The Sea/Deep Water/Candles/Love's Strange Ways/Texas/Let It Loose/I Can Hear Your Heart Beat/Midnight Blue/Hey You/Out Of The Darkness
This was the album that started to get Chris Rea a little bit better known than he had been. The eighties were in full swing and he would find his easy listening rock sound gaining more and more fans as the decade progressed. He was more than just dinner-party music for the mid-twenties/early thirties, but it was that group which gave him his initial popularity.
Nothing's Happening By The Sea is a meditative opener, inspired, I am sure, by Van Morrison's Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart album from the same year. This was the sort of laid-back, walking pace, contemplative song that would come to characterise Rea's work throughout the eighties and nineties. It was the eighties, of course, so we could expect a synth-driven, new romantic-style number and duly got it in Deep Water. Candles is another track augmented by some contemporary keyboard sounds, although Rea's distinctive, smoky voice is far removed from the haughty tones of the new romantics. Rea's guitar near the end is very Dire Straits-ish.
Love's Strange Ways is a beautiful, late-night bluesy ballad enhanced by some killer Spanish-style guitar. Texas is not the song that appeared on the later Road To Hell album in 1989. It is a nice song with Rea now really developing his bluesy but romantic method of deliver. Let It Loose rocks solidly, and I Can Hear Your Heart Beat proved to be one of Rea's first songs that would go on to become well-known. It features a very Talking Heads-esque guitar riff.
Midnight Blue is a sumptuous, soulful ballad, with Rea showing just what a knack he was developing for writing a quality, moving slowie. An excellent song, best on the album. That trademark slide guitar makes its first real appearance half way through too. Hey You has a very eighties, summery vibe but it is again lifted by Rea's superb voice. Out Of The Darkness starts off like The Human League, with Rea going all Phil Oakey on the introductory vocal. Some solid rock riffs differentiate it from anything new romantic, though, as did the saxophone solo.
Chris Rea's albums had, up until this point, been very impressive, but somehow culturally out of kilter with the zeitgeist. Not any more, this was a very good eighties album and fitted right in with the "wine bar" sound that was beginning to proliferate. It was more than just background bar music, though, this was a good offering that still sounds good today.