On this day 32 years ago, 26th October 1987, Island Records released Chronicles by Steve Winwood, the successor to Back In The High Life and the last of his albums for the label…
STEVE WINWOOD “Chronicles” (Island, 1987)
- Wake Me Up On Judgement Day
- While You See A Chance
- Vacant Chair
- Help Me Angel [Remix]
- My Love’s Leavin’
- Valerie [Remix]
- Arc Of A Diver
- Higher Love
- Spanish Dancer
- Talking Back To The Night [Remix]
Fresh from the US chart-topping, MTV-friendly sophisticated adult pop/soul of Back In The High Life, Steve Winwood found himself at the vanguard of forty-something male artists enjoying career highs in the wake of Live Aid; Robert Palmer, Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton….peers from the late 1960s and early 1970s now floating around in designer suits with younger ladies in slick pop videos, and on stylish record sleeves.
Back In The High Life was both a commercial and artistic triumph, raising his profile amongst the younger listening generation (such as yours truly) and reminding the older folks who were around for Traffic and The Spencer Davis Group that “Little Stevie Winwood” still possessed one of the great voices of the age.
There were several singles taken from the album, but only Higher Love made any impact in Britain; and even then, it peaked at #13. In America, Higher Love topped the Billboard Hot 100, while Freedom Overspill, The Finer Things and the title song went Top 20.
The Finer Things was still charting well into 1987 (I remember seeing the cassingle in HMV Oxford Street that summer), and the steady stream of singles – whether they did particularly well or not in the UK – kept the album in and around the charts.
In the meantime, Winwood had become Virgin America’s flagship signing, reputedly for a very large sum of money. The first fruits of that partnership would appear in 1988, but there was to be one last release on Island Records.
The natural thing, in these situations, is a Greatest Hits set to fulfill the contractual obligations, and – especially given Back In The High Life‘s success – cash in a bit more on the inroads the previous album had perhaps made on the mainstream. CD as a format, and as market in itself, was also beginning to reach critical mass, and availability of the shiny discs in stores had become much more widespread – and affordable – than just 18 months earlier.
Enter Chronicles, which wasn’t really a Greatest Hits collection as, frankly, Steve Winwood hadn’t had very many bona fide hits. While You See A Chance had been big in America during 1981, and of course there was Higher Love, but from a UK perspective that was as far as it went.
Chronicles was trailed by a new version of 1982’s near-miss Valerie, spruced up to sound utterly contemporary for 1987…crisp drums, fat synths, gleaming all over. It went Top 20 in the UK, perfectly setting up the whole campaign.
So far, so smooth. Like jazz on a summer’s day, perhaps. Valerie gave the project another actual hit to Winwood’s name, but the rest of the selections are a curious mix of (admittedly stunning) album cuts and two more 1987 remixes of tracks from his 1982 album Talking Back To The Night. So, Chronicles is more of a Best Of – possibly hand picked by Winwood himself, given the choices made – but with another twist, courtesy of the inclusion of the updated mixes.
It’s a sublime if uneven listen from start to finish. There’s an almost admirable perversity to Back In The High Life and its quartet of US hits being represented by Wake Me Up On Judgement Day and the gorgeous slinky melancholy of My Love’s Leavin’. No sign of Freedom Overspill or The Finer Things. Higher Love is here, and Valerie, but not until the second half of the CD.
Chronicles feels as though it’s been sequenced as a proper album, but the fluctuations in mastering and sound quality don’t always help. Stylistically, the likes of Vacant Chair (from 1977’s self-titled solo debut) are a world away from the late-80s sheen of Help Me Angel and Talking Back To The Night‘s 1987 makeovers.
Likewise, as sublime as 1980’s Arc Of The Diver and Spanish Dancer are, their rather primitive studio textures sit uneasily next to all the post-1986 gloss. Sticking to a chronological approach could have avoided this, but I assume Island and/or Winwood had their reasons.
Sales were inevitably disappointing, with a #12 peak in Britain and a meagre high of #26 Stateside. Here, it was in direct competition with major retrospectives from UB40, The Pretenders and Paul McCartney. The lack of a follow-up to Valerie ’87 also meant that the release was all but forgotten by the New Year.
Nevertheless, it was and still is one of my absolute favourite CDs.
[…] revisits another Best Of from the late 1980s that, just like Steve Winwood’s “Chronicles”, wasn’t actually a straightforward compilation at […]