Warner Music’s Rhino imprint has just re-issued five of Chris Reas most successful albums as lavish 2CD sets, with the original albums joined by a full bonus disc of B-sides, Live recordings and outtakes from the same period; Shamrock Diaries (1985), On The Beach (1986), Dancing With Strangers (1987), The Road To Hell (1989) and Auberge (1991).
Over the next few weeks, amazinglyfewdiscothequesprovidejukeboxes will cover each of these in detail, and look back at this part of his career.
When a beloved artist really hits the big time, and starts selling by the truckload, some fans like to take a perverse delight in pointedly claiming to prefer the early stuff. The albums they made before they “sold out”, when they (the artist, not the fan) were hungry and youthful and weren’t prepared to prostrate themselves at the feet of the music industry.
The Road To Hell happens to be my least-favourite Chris Rea album from his imperial phase, celebrated in this superb Deluxe Edition series covering 1985-1991, but not because it went quadruple-Platinum, or reached No.1, or briefly made the man almost as ubiquitous as Dire Straits earlier in the decade.
By 1989, his music had become one of my regular go-to options, but I can still remember the disappointment I felt at this latest album as the closing bars of its final song faded out. On the personal album chart that I was still just about managing to compile, The Road To Hell could only debut at #4, and that decision would have been taken several days before the week’s new issue of Record Mirror arrived in the post, announcing its entry at #1 on the actual Gallup Top 75.
Perhaps I had been expecting too much; the quality of each successive album from Wired To The Moon through to Dancing With Strangers had consistently improved, reaching a kind of perfection with 1988’s New Light Through Old Windows. The project was, as its title suggests, a selection of material from his catalogue given an overhaul in the studio, with production and performance levels to match the experience and confidence his belated stardom had provided.
New Light Through Old Windows was also his first release for WEA, the British arm of Warner Brothers Records, so to begin the partnership with an accomplished set of re-recorded classics negated any nervy stand-offs between artist and label when presented with a brand-new collection of songs.
The sole new track on New Light… was an uptempo rocker called Working On It that rattled along with all the swagger shown on updates of older nuggets like I Can Hear Your Heartbeat and Steel River. It even got a 12″ remix when issued as a single in early 1989. Like the finest new tracks on a Greatest Hits, it encapsulated everything that was good about the artist, and didn’t suffer from comparison with the already-familiar stuff. Chris Rea was well and truly on a roll.
What happened next wasn’t what I was expecting at all.
It probably wasn’t what WEA were expecting either. Yet that’s the one constant with Chris Rea, and something which has guided him through his career; he doesn’t stand still creatively, even though there are musical and lyrical themes which he returns to repeatedly over the years. Relationships, parenthood, social issues, changes in his commercial fortunes or his health…all of it directly goes into the work he creates, and the direction he takes for the next stop along the journey.
Which is how he, and we, ended up on The Road To Hell.
As mentioned in the review for Dancing With Strangers, the phrase first popped up on a track called I Can’t Dance To That, and in typical Rea fashion it must have stayed with him, the germ of an idea ready to return to at a later time. Although the very literal fashion in which he did so was still a shock.
Stuck in rush-hour traffic on various Motorways in the South of England while commuting, he came up with the idea of a protagonist seeing a ghostly vision of their mother in the steamed-up windscreen. This apparition, disgusted by the scene of gridlocked motorists, proclaims the route to be a road to hell itself, a manifestation of the shallow values of what were then termed the “upwardly mobile” and “aspirational” classes.
This particular Road To Hell was not paved with good intentions, and Rea used the concept to express his very personal ire at a range of targets, turning it into a metaphor for all the ills of late 80s society in Britain. It was dark stuff, and somewhat appropriately, his image underwent a transformation.
While it might not have had quite the same seismic cultural impact as Madonna ditching the peroxide for Like A Prayer, the sight of a slicked-back, dark-haired Chris Rea with full beard and ‘tache only added to the sense that this latest album was a departure from the past.
A nightmare scenario for WEA; the artist they’d signed in 1987 – the blonde guy with the laid-back love songs and hearty rockers – comes up with a dark concept piece about how evil the world is. The opening track is 10 minutes long, and takes half of that time to emerge from a sound collage of radio bulletins and car wipers set to foreboding blues guitar. The next song calls out the media for pushing stories about violence and crime while the children are barely home from school.
No wonder their first instinct was to reject the whole thing as being unworkable and commercial suicide. Of course, 1.2 million copies later, it’s easy to mock the record label suits who know sod-all about real artistry, but as highly as I rate Chris Rea and the majority of his work, WEA did have a teensy-weensy point. It was a big gamble. Even the man himself understood the risk, restricting the weighty subject matter and concept-album premise to Side 1 (“I said to them, don’t worry….it’s okay, Side 2 are all the singles!” he told Radio 1’s Classic Album series in the early 1990s).
Ironically, as he also confided in the same interview, the album would have been more effective if the second half hadn’t consisted of fairly rote love songs (Just Wanna Be With You, Warm And Tender Love) and mediocre fillers (by Rea’s high standards) such as That’s What They Always Say. Trying to deliberately write hit singles was never his forte.
The Road To Hell‘s failure to really convince, therefore, isn’t the fault of the opening suite of four songs. Granted the title track takes an age to get going, but it’s deservedly viewed as a classic of its kind. I doubt anyone truly anticipated its Top 10 placing when released as the first single, or reckoned on it being a future staple of all driving/car compilation CDs, but not everything goes to plan. Clearly, the public were approving of this new, darker model.
You Must Be Evil is to the point, and doesn’t pull its punches, but his sincerity and genuine anger leave it in credit. The almost mantra-like Looking For A Rainbow serves as an excellent finale to the first side, with its play on Maggie’s Farm and the central part the rainbow imagery has within the album’s artwork.
Between these two is Texas (not to be confused with an earlier Texas on the Water Sign LP), a gorgeous slice of easy AOR with a loping syncopated beat that evolves into a bluesy shuffle towards its conclusion. The theme of escape from a stressful reality to somewhere sunny and warm is an obvious precursor to Auberge, but we are getting ahead of ourselves again (damn Chris Rea and his recurring motifs!). Then again, it transpires that the two albums were created almost simultaneously – Auberge serving as a back-up plan if WEA’s worst fears were realised – so a degree of bleed-through in the nature of some songs was inevitable.
Texas was one of four singles lifted from The Road To Hell, but only two of them made the Top 40. That’s What They Always Say was remixed and hastily issued just before Christmas, a daft move that backfired with a #83 peak. The campaign regained momentum with Tell Me There’s A Heaven, the album’s big closing number, reaching #24.
Now personally I don’t care much for it, though its sentiment is impossible not to admire. Once again inspired by events in his own life (his then-6-year old daughter Josie’s traumatised reaction to footage of a man burning to death on the early evening news), it’s a piece of music that just isn’t to my taste. On the album, it makes total sense, and is a pertinent end to a record that was made because the artist felt they had something they needed to say, rather than trying to repeat a formula or play it safe.
Given the fact he was making two albums pretty much concurrently, the lack of supplementary material from the era isn’t such a surprise. There were just two new B-sides – both featured on this Deluxe re-issue – so the majority of the bonus disc consists of Live recordings (themselves used as 12″ b-sides or for the Texas E.P.) and the remaining New Light Through Old Windows tracks that aren’t on the other titles in this series. Working On It finds a home here, and the superb 12″ mix by Michael Brauer is also included.
The overall effect of this bonus CD, however, is one of completism rather than revealing any fresh insight or extra hidden depths to the sessions which produced The Road To Hell. There are no works-in-progress, demos or unreleased snapshots from the studio. Yet it does neatly tie up all the loose ends from 1988 and 1989, a period which saw both the man and his music take on a changed appearance.
It may not be a personal favourite, like Dancing With Strangers or On The Beach, and it may lack the timeless songcraft of Shamrock Diaries, but don’t let any of that put you off.
After all, over 1.2 million people can’t be wrong.
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