4 out of 5 Stars!
Recently, after engaging in several conversations regarding how true talent, even brilliance in music, often goes both unrecognized and unrewarded, I got to thinking about the music industry as a whole, which has always been one baffling beast. It continually fascinates me how some out-of-the-gate and “just okay” rock groups or solo artists become instantaneous household names, showered in both plaudits and financial rewards based solely on either a single tune (a one-hit-wonder) or a handful of “so-so” songs, (often composed by outside songwriters, I might add), whereas an endless stream of highly gifted and deserving acts, religiously touring and performing all-original, hit-worthy material, continually languish in the shadows, struggling to break into the big-time after years and years of reliably generating top-quality work. Well, in truth, the absurdity of this unjustness doesn’t so much fascinate me as it simply pisses me off.
One such act that immediately sprang to mind during these conversations was the Michael Stanley Band, the city of Cleveland’s “best kept secret” (or, rather, a secret to most of the world outside of Ohio and several surrounding Midwestern states). How this band never broke big in America, let alone elsewhere, is still a mystery to me. MSB seemed to have everything going for it—instrumental prowess, songwriting chops, a distinctive sound, well-produced albums, a loyal fan base in Ohio where the band regularly sold out arenas and stadiums, and a major record label with oodles of moolah for which to promote their artists.
Anyway, when the band got snatched up by EMI America and released its fifth album, Heartland, in 1980 and finally started receiving regular airplay, thanks to the catchy hit single “He Can’t Love You,” I thought perhaps MSB had finally caught a break, that it would soon get major recognition throughout not only the U.S.A., but the world. Other tracks such as “Lover,” “Say Goodbye,” “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Voodoo,” “I’ll Never Need Anyone More (Than I Need You Tonight),” and “Hearts of Fire”—well, heck, pretty much every one of the eleven songs on this platter—proved quite memorable, and with the band including two chief songwriters (guitarist Michael Stanley and keyboardist Kevin Raleigh), there seemed no end to the creativity and sing-along choruses. Moreover, both songwriters had recognizable voices (the gruffer, deeper-voiced Stanley and the clean, soaring Raleigh), and their timbres blended together as tastefully as Kahlúa and cream, which gave the band an even wider commercial appeal. The fact that several tunes also featured a wailing sax (artfully supplied by the late Clarence Clemons—the band would recruit a full-time sax player shortly after this album was released) lent MSB a bit of a Springsteen vibe and should have also helped to propel the band to the top of the rock ‘n’ roll heap.
But after Heartland, despite the giant stride forward, nothing much happened for the group. Certainly, MSB continued delivering above-average material (with the albums North Coast, MSB, and You Can’t Fight Fashion being released in the subsequent three years following Heartland), yet the band simply could not catch that ever-illusive break. As stated earlier, the reasons why remain a mystery, but I chalk it up to lack of radio play and the overall apathy of the record company executives who neglected to provide the necessary promotion and finances. Regardless, this cluster of four albums—from 1980’s Heartland to 1983’s You Can’t Fight Fashion—remain special to me and I still listen to each of them on a regular basis.