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Valentine’s Rejects: Ultimate Power Ballads

Tags: song love rock

14 for the week after the 14th belated Valentine’s ballads for the lovelorn, too busy, perpetually single or just plain uninterested.

As you Rock and rollers may have noticed, last week heralded THAT time of year again. The time when the marketing corporations of the Western world seem hell-bent on shoving the pile of utter nonsense known as “Valentine’s Day” down our throats: an occasion designed primarily to chisel fast bucks out of those who happen to be in relationships, whilst simultaneously showing blatant disregard for those who aren’t. Not to mention making little acknowledgement of the millions of us (ie most of the staff of this magazine) who have far more important things to do…

One might even contend that one of the great staples of the rock album- the Love Song, slowie or “power ballad”- was designed with such cynical intent. Maybe as far back as 1958, when the genre’s first true all-round genius, Buddy Holly (wanna argue? You’ll fucking lose!!) cut the pioneering ‘True Love Ways’, our cards were already marked. However, that shouldn’t reflect badly on the numerous greats committed to vinyl, cassette and CD in the 60 years since- nor, for that matter, on this list of lesser-known classics, all of which deserve wider recognition.

So here- a whole week late, and dedicated especially to anyone who was too busy working, being perennially single or not really giving a shit to notice- are fourteen all-too-infrequently-cited slabs of post-Valentine ventricle verse, their myriad moods ranging from joyous to desperate. Refreshingly, the likes of “Don’t Stop Believin” “Keep On Loving You” and most of all “Sweet Child O’fucking Mine” are NOT included…

  1. Wolfsbane- Tears From A Fool (from Live Fast Die Fast: Wicked Tales Of Birds, Booze And Bad Language, 1989)

Before his (unjustly underrated) five-year spell with Maiden, and his reinvention as the shaven-headed, mutton-chopped warrior God of Brummie cyber-Metaaaaal, Blaze Bayley trawled the world’s fleapits fronting the eight-legged party rock beast known as Wolfsbane. Occasionally, when his own band isn’t touring, he still does. And though their endless Den Dennis-style protestations about being a “Heavy Metal Band” always detracted (or at least so I and several others felt) from their true nature, their majestic Halen-infused pop-rock tunery (“I like It Hot” “Ezy”) has endured- as has their not-inconsiderable skill in the art of ballad construction. Which leads us neatly to this little gem…

Beginning on gently brushed acoustic, it isn’t long before Steve Danger’s tasteful drumming and Bayley’s Roth-like lead vocal join the fray, the latter’s morose reflections of lost romance (“it all comes down to love, and I’m only good for loving you”) serving as prelude before the angrier wail of the chorus (“I thought I held the rainbow’s end, broken rainbows never mend…”) shocks the listener into sudden attention. Granted, it’s only balladic for the first half, the second riding on waves of propulsive riffage and boisterous reiteration- but its honest depiction of the broken-hearted Metalhead, aimlessly wandering the streets post chuck-out time (“baby, I can’t sleep at night, I get into fights”) is undeniably touching. Especially if, like many of us, you’ve been there…

  1. Blue Oyster Cult- I Love The Night (from Spectres, 1977)

Anyone who knows the BOC beyond the overplayed “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, not to mention the initially funny but now wearisome “more cowbell” cobblers with which it’s latterly become associated, will be fully aware of their schizophrenic musical genius. On the one hand, they’re the ultimate leather-clad, drug-taking, beer-swilling motorcycle gang of US metal, responsible for ear-battering anthems like “ME 262” “Godzilla” “ETI” and “Lips In The Hills”: on the other, they’re studious architects of subtlety and poise, the brainiac architects behind several of the genre’s most thought-provoking pop nuggets and love songs. For example, this much-neglected cut- describing in salient detail guitarist Buck Dharma’s desire not for an actual woman, but a vampire.

Cheesy cliched Goth nonsense, the sole preserve of the intellectually bereft? Not in 1977 it wasn’t- and what detractors should remember before turning up their snooty proboscii is that this preceded Buffy, Angel, Twilight or any of that kinda jive by twenty years. With the exception of Alice Cooper (we’ll get to him shortly) not that many bands were singing about shagging the undead back then, and if they were, it definitely wasn’t in such wistful terms as this. “No mortal was meant to know such wonders”, croons the axeman in awe of his supernatural paramour, “one look in the mirror told me so. Come midnight I know I’m gonna see her again…” And it’s not just the lyric- were it an instrumental, its icy, misty aura would still chill the bones and break the heart all at once. The very skills, in fact, which only the “oyster boys”- the walking embodiment of an American independent horror/scifi flick set to music- ever truly possessed.

  1. Robin Zander- Time Will Let You Know (from Robin Zander, 1993: also available live on Cheap Trick: Silver, 1999)

Illinois powerpop overlords Cheap Trick have recorded a fair share of classic tearjerkers in the last 40 years, such as the tres-Lennonesque “World’s Greatest Lover” and perhaps the ultimate Midwestern provincial breakup anthem, “Ghost Town”. However, for sheer, unadulterated lighters-in-the-air slushiness, coupled with a sense of forlorn resignation, one need look no further than this obscurity from frontman Zander’s solo release. And, should you want to take it to an even higher level, check out the version on the band’s 25th anniversary CD/DVD, featuring guest vocals from his then-teenage daughter Holland.

Admittedly, given that this is a song by a member of Cheap Trick, there is a darker, more unrequited element lurking ‘neath the schmaltz (“We’re so afraid of everyone, afraid of the sun…” “You see your folks and all your friends, ain’t it funny how the story ends?”) but that only makes it all the more perfect- particularly if you’re the kind of person who finds the idea of clinging to one solitary person for your entire adult life, no matter how idyllic it may sound in theory, rather puzzling in practice. And, naturally, the fact that many fans missed the point entirely and saw it as merely another soppy AOR power ballad scored Mr Z yet another brownie point in the subversion stakes. Unless it’s really meant to be as soft as it sounds- but of course, even if it was, he’d still never tell us…

  1. Marillion- Fantastic Place (from Marbles, 2004)

The relevance of the love song to yer average prog outfit is often difficult to quantify. Firstly, a lot of them don’t write that many (their preferred subject matter ranging instead from warriors, myths and spaceships to serial killers, architecture and radical politics) and secondly, the varying tempos, time-changes and lack of ”riffage” inherent in the genre mean there won’t usually be that much hard rock per album for a ballad to contrast with. Indeed, in the case of a band like, say, Renaissance, every song- even the uptempo ones- will be technically “soft”. Nonetheless, when Marillion – either with Fish or Steve Hogarth – have given it their best shot, the results have usually been fairly astounding.

Admittedly, this track, from their best latterday album, isn’t particularly musically innovative: indeed, as its opening wash of crystal synthesizers and reflective vocal shifts into mid-tempo, melodically pretty chug territory (marked by chiming guitar from Steve Rothery and rim-shots from Ian Mosley) it sounds as if it could easily be a lost Blue Nile out-take. But that’s the entire deception- and just one of many reasons why Marillion are brilliant. Only they could couple such a soothing introduction with a lyric like “you can screw a man down until he takes to drinking”, then let forth a pained scream for release from the illusory safety of self-imposed exile (“say you’ll understand me, and I will leave myself completely”) that’s guaranteed to overpower even the sternest resistance. And, even after a climactic guitar solo, they still don’t let it lie, the floppy-fringed Yorkshireman by now yelling “I’ll tell you all I never told you, the boy I never showed you…you’ll either kill me or you’ll save me” while his colleagues spiral behind him to a whirring crescendo. Steve mate, if she doesn’t respond to that, then trust me, she’s not worth it.

  1. Air Supply- Making Love Out Of Nothing At All (from Greatest Hits, 1983)

A bit of a cheat this, given that most residents of the US, mainland Europe or the band’s Australian homeland will almost definitely know it. In fact, you may well have even bought it. Yet here in rainy Blighty, this absolute belter– one of two on this list penned by the great Jim Steinman- didn’t really receive much attention save for a few perfunctory spins on Radio 2. A great tragedy, as it’s fucking superb: the living definition of a power ballad from the group whose songs probably graced more Valentines’ discos (aka “a load of balls”) than anyone else’s. Sure, like a lot of Jimbo’s best compositions (“Total Eclipse Of The Heart” “Objects In The Rear View Mirror” “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”) it lasts about three times longer on the album than on the single- but that’s no bad thing in itself, and though its Gothique/Rocky Horror atmos still hovers slightly to the left of the duo’s usual yacht-rock oeuvre, both members stamp their identity on it in no uncertain terms.

From his quavering opening gambit of “I know just how to whisper, and I know just how to cry, I know where to find the answers and I know just how to lie” to his eventual confession that “I’m never gonna make it without you, do you really wanna see me crawl” vocalist Russell Hitchcock definitely sounds like he’s articulating his own feelings rather than those of an outside writer- and by the time he asserts that he can “make all the stadiums rock” you’re practically cheering him and guitarist Graham Russell on, wishing you were in the stadium with them. Structurally and dynamically, it still bears all the classic Steinman trademarks- high pitched choral harmonies, rumbling timpani, neo-classical chords- but it’s still Bondi Beach rather than Staten Island you’re meandering under the moon of, pining for one more chance from the architect of your pulmonary arhythmia. And does she forgive her errant crooner? Is everything resolved? You’ll have to watch the ludicrous video- one of the daftest even by AOR standards, complete with spoken word bust-up scenes ‘twixt its male and female protagonists- to find out.

  1. Alice Cooper- Millie And Billie (from From The Inside, 1978)

When assessing Thee Coop’s contribution to the rock ballad, you’re rather spoilt for choice: what with every album from 1975’s Welcome To My Nightmare onwards boasting at least one heartbreaker apiece (76’s underrated Goes To Hell actually features five, ‘91’s Hey Stoopid four) his contribution to the form is both immense and undeniable. Yet despite his softer side, his intrinsic shock-horror-rock persona has always held sway- which is why, though one could just as easily have picked any number of tearjerkers (“I Never Cry” “I’m Going Home” “You And Me” “How You Gonna See Me Now” “Hell Is Living Without You” “Might As Well Be On Mars” “Die For You” et al) from his vast catalogue, we’ve plumped for this grisly tale, describing a now-incarcerated pair of murderous adulterers who kept the woman’s husband “all chopped up and sealed tight in baggies” because “love makes you do funny things” More worryingly, it’s a true story…

Or so Mr Furnier would have us believe, anyway: allegedly, all the songs on FTI are based either on experiences he underwent (“The Quiet Room” “Inmates”) or real people he met (“Jacknife Johnny” “For Veronica’s Sake” “Nurse Rosetta”) during his first period of voluntary committal for alcoholic rehab. If this is true, then that’s undoubtedly what makes their lyrics (co-authored by Bernie Taupin) twice as affecting as the Hammer/Universal-derived subject matter in which he’d previously dabbled, and the “criminally insane” lovers of the song’s title the most darkly sympathetic of all his characters: in terms of musical interpretation, its deceptively soft, orchestrated setting, topped with a deliberately sickly-sweet Porter’n’Dolly-style vocal duet between Cooper and the young Marcella Detroit (aka Marcy Levy) only serves to accentuate its sense of deranged evil. In short, the kind of love song every Valentine cynic should both admire and aspire to.

  1. Aerosmith- You See Me Crying (from Toys In The Attic, 1975)

Forget the syrupy, Desmond Child/Diane Warren-penned ballads of the Smiff’s 1987-2000 renaissance, or even their admirable rendition of the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” – all true Aeroficionados know this is the one. Lilting, drifting, drenched in the kind of over-emotional strings (courtesy of jazz vibist Mike Maineri) that 20 years earlier would have graced a dozen “beautiful music” stations, and featuring a strung-out Steve Tyler repeatedly enquiring “honey what you done to your heeaaaaaaddddd”, it’s pretty much the epitome of the intelligent rock ballad before the corporations got their hands on it. Unfortunately, however, its complex nature means it’s only ever been played live during one tour (2009) and, with the band only seeming to exist in their spare time these days anyway, who knows when it may surface again.

Rather amusingly, despite its undisputed status as a fan favourite, the one person who did at one point entirely forget the song’s existence entirely was Tyler himself, during a period of extreme drug-induced memory loss: allegedly, as he and guitarist Joe Perry listened to it being aired on an AM rock station sometime around 1984, he promptly remarked “that’s a good song, we should cover it” before being informed by his understandably annoyed bandmate that “we recorded it, fuckhead, it’s us” Oh dearie me. Personally, I’d like to think that no matter how much China white I’d shoved up my veins, if I’d ever yelled the words “I’ll never ever let you down, ‘cos my love is like a merry-go-round” in a vocal register so high it sounded like my balls were caught in a man-trap, I’d remember: then again, seeing as I’ve never (perhaps thankfully) done either of those things, maybe I wouldn’t.

  1. Genesis- Afterglow (from Wind And Wuthering, 1977)

Get out yer mansize- it’s Prog’s Saddest Song. Sorry Steve Wilson, but “Stop Swimming” doesn’t even come close: I’m not exactly sure what was going through Tony Banks’ mind when he wrote it, but if that’s how he actually felt in 1977, I feel sorry for him. Another one of those songs that simply drifts and glides, aided in no small part by the drone of a faraway harmonium, this deceptively innocuous tune from the tail-end of the band’s second Collins-era album could be describing a number of things (losing a lover, losing a best friend, the death of a partner, maybe even the death of a parent) but either way, the effect is crushing. “For now, now I’ve lost everything”, intones the Philster, “I give to you my soul. The meaning of all that I believed before escapes me in this world of none, nothing, no more”. The nascent punks of ’77, spitting their first angry globules of gob, may have ridiculed Genesis like nobody’s business, but this, sonny Jim, was fucking nihilism…

Sadly though, I get the feeling that the true inspiration was none of the above: indeed, it allegedly took the Guildford mellotron master not much more than 5 minutes (the duration of the song itself) to write, and even more damningly, he later admitted to having blatantly teefed the melody line from “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas!” Yet, while that song will almost certainly never have me bursting into tears in front of my mates, this one will: much like Don McLean’s “Vincent” (don’t ask) it’s one I have extreme difficulty listening to in mixed company. Maybe it is that endless keyboard chord, slowly meandering like the directionless protagonist who “would search everywhere just to hear your call” and “walk upon stranger roads than this one in a world I used to know before” Maybe it’s Collins’ vocal, delivered with genuine passion back when he still had some. Or, maybe, it’s the distinct possibility that it might well be the most despondent lyric ever written. Either way, at some point this year, Steve Hackett will be performing it live in a theatre near you: in case I end up stood anywhere within your immediate vicinity, bring a sou’wester.

  1. Roger Daltrey – I Was Born To Sing Your Song (from Ride A Rock Horse, 1972)

Out of all the true pioneering rock frontmen, “The Dalt”- the man whose voice comes equipped with its own inbuilt tear ducts- has always been the most naturally skilled at navigating the jagged-yet-tender terrain of The Big Ballad. And, throughout the 1970s, he and the ‘Orrible ‘Oo let forth with a litany of Townshend-penned masterpieces (“The Song Is Over” “Is it In My Head” “How Many Friends” “Love Is Coming Down”) that further reinstated this fact. Yet it was actually his first solo album, entirely comprised of songs by Leo Sayer, that really cemented his reputation in the field- not least of all because out of a total eleven tracks, it featured no less than SEVEN spine-chilling slowies.

Since then, each subsequent solo release has been blessed with more deliberations (usually contributed by the likes of Russ Ballard, Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams) on the pain of lurve, but nevertheless, I’d still nominate this closing number from his second offering as the outright Valentine victor: it might not quite match the melancholic majesty of anything from that debut, but it’s still an amazingly defiant approach to the standard love song. OK, it’s also a slightly worrying one (“I’m walking right behind you now”- er, I think they have laws about that sort of thing, Rog) and features at least two hollow boasts (“I was made to write your book”- leave off, you didn’t even write the lyrics!!) that don’t quite bear scrutiny, but it’s big, brash, boisterous, ends on the kind of resonant descending chord sequence he does better than anyone else, and is precisely the kind of statement your loved one would want you to make after a particularly shit week. Trust me, I speak from experience!!!

  1. Ian Hunter- Irene Wilde (from All American Alien Boy, 1976)

Fahkin ‘ell, where do you begin with Ian ‘Untah? From Mott The Hoople’s 1969 debut through to an astounding solo career both with and without the late Mick Ronson, he’s always known how to jerk tears and break hearts- yet unlike many of his contemporaries, he’s NEVER been concerned with filling albums with set quotas of “rockers” or “softies”. And why should he be? Born in 1939, he comes from a different mindset entirely, something which, once you examine his unique approach to the ballad form (“When My Mind’s Gone” “Trudi’s Song” “Livin’ In A Heart” “Little Star” “The Outsider”) becomes all the more evident. Steeped as much in olde English music hall and vaudeville as American rock’n’roll or rhythm’n’blues, there are no ‘istrionics in ‘is interpretations.

If I were to single out one for inclusion here, however, it would have to be this- the eternally poignant tale of unrequited love on the streets of darkest Shrewsbury between the teenage Hunter and the titular female who repeatedly scorned his primal romantic stirrings. Or, as he puts it, “a Barker street bus station non-affair” – although personally, if I’d been rejected more than three times by the same person, I’d soon get bored and move on. Of course, Our Ian eventually does, explaining that had the truculent Ms Wilde accepted his advances, he’d still be stuck in boring old Shropshire now- but though he emerges victorious, and thanks her for inspiring him to “be somebody someday”, one still can’t help feeling sorry for all the other people in similar situations who didn’t have his luck or his immense talent. And, while Barker Street bus station may now be gone, there’s probably still someone stood in a similar location as I type, waiting to catch sight of their own personal Irene (or Ian) and having a thoroughly miserable time. A reminder that sometimes, it’s not all wine and roses…

  1. Rolling Stones – Memory Motel (from Black And Blue, 1976)

Much like ‘Unter an’ the Coop, the Staaahnes are a ridiculously difficult proposition when attempting to pick one tune for Valentine’s week. For a start, they’ve been knocking out superlative slowies (“Moonlight Mile” “Shine A Light” “Let It Loose” “Angie” “Winter” “If You Really Want To Be My Friend” “Fool To Cry” “No Use In Crying” “Slipping Away” “Out Of Tears” “Already Over Me” “How Can I Stop” “Streets Of Love”) for roughly 47 years: additionally, the majority of their mid-to-uptempo numbers are equally concerned with matters of the heart (albeit via the groin) meaning the unlucky journo saddled with such a task will almost definitely have their work cut out for them. Undeterred, however, I persevered, until eventually the answer stared me hard in the face….

Because “Memory Motel”, you see, is an entirely different kind of love song. Not only is it concerned with consigning someone firmly to its writers’ past (“you’re just a memory….of a love that used to mean so much to me-e-eeh”) but it’s also far less than complimentary (“her eyes were hazel and her nose was slightly curved”) and, by the time our protagonist reaches the end of his extensive journey through “ten thousand miles” and “fifteen states” it’s pretty dismissive (“every woman seemed to fade out of my mind”) of not only the song’s subject but an entire gender!! Oh the joys of being the Jagster back in the decadent 70s. It’s not all defamatory though: Keef soon stands up for the unfortunate female with the defence that “she’s got a mind of her own and she use it mighty fine”, while musically, the entire shebang is captured in arguably (“Time Waits For No One” and “Coming Down Again” aside) the band’s most idyllically sun-drenched mood ever, featuring lazy “sha la la” harmonies, steel guitar AND Fender Rhodes aplenty. What more do you need?

  1. The Tubes- Don’t Want To Wait Anymore (from The Completion Backward Principle, 1981)

The unclassifiable Tubes- alongside Alice Cooper, Phoenix, AZ’s greatest gift to rock’n’roll- have always confounded expectations. How else would you describe a band whose singer appears onstage variously as a drag queen, bondage sub, quizmaster and a giant television, and whose songs often feature the word “punk” without sonically resembling punk rock in the slightest? There literally is no word for what they do- and this unashamedly emotional, lighters-in-the-air ballad, blessed with lyrics that in anyone else’s hands would be cheese incarnate (“we could be the last two on earth to start a new world, just you and me girl…I’ll show you how it’s done, I’ll rock you to the stars”) is a perfect example of that.

A perfect example because more often than not, frontman Fee Waybill will perform it, straight-faced and irony-free in what ostensibly may seem the least befitting apparel possible. At Clapham Grand 2014 he was in a straitjacket, at Shepherds Bush 2005 a bare-buttocked cowboy oufit: at Hackney Ocean 2003 (following a previously unheard number entitled “Rock N Roll Hospital”, during which he both mounted and disembowelled a rubber doll) he crooned it in a Leningrad Cowboys syrup and white doctor’s coat drenched with fake blood and viscera, and yet it still felt believable, both as a sincere love song and a credible rock anthem. You know what he’s feeling, so much that when he yells “I’ve waited so long, I forgot what I waited for” you want to find “that special person”, and tell them precisely the same. And do you know the most amazing part? He didn’t even sing the smooth-as-silk studio version, that particular duty falling at the time to since-departed guitarist Bill Spooner. Suddenly, the band’s late ’90s album title Genius Of America seems incredibly modest…

  1. UFO- Try Me (from Lights Out, 1977)

“Tell me why, we’re never more than strangers”. You know you’re on a hiding to misery and dejection with Phil Mogg- and sure enough, this epic from (arguably) the best ever UFO album delivers more than its fair share of that. In many ways, he’s the ultimate anti-Valentine songwriter: every affair seems to either end up in disaster (“Born To Lose”) or with his missus buggering off whilst he’s on tour (“Love To Love”) and even the ones that aren’t directly concerned with relationships (“Looking Out For No 1”) still seem to result in him traipsing streets forlorn and dejected.

Yet, whilst any of those could have squeezed onto this list, “Try Me” has the edge simply because it’s so beautiful: whereas many hard rock acts still seemed outwardly concerned, even during their most tender moments, with sounding butch and macho, UFO were never afraid of frail, human fallibility- and this song’s every essence (Moggy’s cracked, yearning vocal, the wintry, leafy string section, that guitar solo from Schenker) exemplifies that. Once again, it’s a situation we all know too well: “You say it’s over, but for me it had just begun”. In fact, if you’re a West Ham fan like me (now there’s a heartbreaking scenario for you) you’ll be an expert.

  1. Meat Loaf- For Crying Out Loud (from Bat Out Of Hell, 1977)

It had to be, didn’t it: the second of the two Steinman-penned compositions on this list, and what a composition. Calling it a “song” doesn’t even remotely do it justice: it’s a nine-minute symphony, an ebbing, flowing, screeching, caterwauling confessional that represents the apex of everything the eccentric songwriter and his protégé ever achieved together. Sure, there was some good stuff on Dead Ringer and Bad Attitude: Bat 2 and Bat 3 also had their fleeting moments of genius (albeit mainly rehashed from Jim’s solo album and the criminally underrated Pandora’s Box record) but this is on a whole different level. And while it would be extremely churlish to even think of denying just how overplayed this album has been in the 40 years thus far of its existence, this song- the best thing on it- hardly ever gets mentioned these days. Time to rectify that, methinks…

Perhaps most amazingly, it doesn’t feature one solitary string of guitar: instead, piano, bass, drums and orchestra provide the perfect accompaniment to probably the single most outspoken declaration of love in a “hard rock” lyric. “I was cold and you were fire, and I never knew how the pyre could be burning on the edge of this ice field” emotes the one-time Mr Marvin Lee Aday, and you believe him explicitly– even more so when he asks, his self-respect replaced by self-deprecating humour, “oh can’t you see my faded Levis bursting apart”? Stanza upon stanza, each more pained and sincere than its predecessor, follows before the massive sonic eruption (“AND DON’T YOU HEAR ME CRYYY-IIINNNGGG!”) of the second chorus: finally, it fades into a redemptive, resigned, sanguine coda, leaving the listener bruised on the floor wondering what they just heard. Did that really just happen? Yes, it did- and for that alone, Meat, though your voice may sadly be long gone by now, we thank you. That said, if your partner sods off shortly after you’ve played it to them- especially if she’s an industrial goth- don’t say I didn’t warn you. Valentines schmalentines…

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