By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
WRITER’S NOTE: On May 6th, 2020, singer Brian Howe died as the result of a heart attack. I woke up that morning to discover the news and it hit me like a gut punch. I just loved his voice and the job he did fronting Bad Company between 1986 – 1994. While the band has virtually wiped out Howe’s time with them from their official history, the four studio albums he recorded with them are among the finest melodic rock albums one could hope to hear.
Howe was a pretty darn good songwriter, managing to come up with any number of hard driving rock numbers, the heart-rending ballad and every song style in between. Hell, the guy even co-wrote the lyrics for the song “I’ll Get Even” on Megadeth’s Cryptic Writings album!
The 2010 solo album Circus Bar is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard and it was among my favorites of the year upon its release. You can check out what I wrote about that album HERE.
The death of Brian Howe is a huge loss to his family and friends. The loss to those of us who are fans of his music is markedly different of course, but no less a profound sadness. I can only hope that anyone who hasn’t heard his work before now will soon discover that Howe’s voice was one of the great highlights of rock and roll.
BAD COMPANY – HOLY WATER (1990)
Depending on who you ask, opinions vary about the best of the four studio albums that Bad Company recorded with Brian Howe as the group’s lead singer. A lot of people will say it is Dangerous Age and it would be hard to argue with that choice. It’s a great album and I love it a lot myself.
But if I’m the one making the call, I have to go with Holy Water. The album was the most successful release in terms of sales (it went platinum) during the Howe era and I pretty much consider it their masterwork for this part of their history.
There are thirteen songs on the album and there isn’t a bad one in the lot. As I was listening to the album ahead of writing this piece, I even got to get a new perspective on a trio of the “album track” songs. They didn’t get the airplay as a single release but I got to enjoy them anew as songs that give the album the depth of quality it has.
The first side of the album wastes no time in kicking off things in a rocking fashion with the title track. It bursts out of your speakers and really grabs your attention. It’s the kind of declarative statement that makes you sit up and take notice. As I was researching some information about the album online, I saw that when the “Holy Water” song was released as a single, it became the #1 rock track for a couple of weeks. I’ve listened to this album a lot since it was released but as I listened to the track again, I could definitely recall how I felt when I would hear it playing on the radio as I would listen to 94 HJY out of Providence, Rhode Island.
That song was followed up by “Walk Through Fire” which became a Top 40 single for the band. It’s another pure rocker that gets the blood flowing through your veins. The band had a huge hit with the power ballad “If You Needed Somebody”, which made it into the Top 20. While it does have what would be considered the standard requirements for a song of its nature, I can listen to that track over and over and not get bored with it.
While the remaining three songs on the first side of the album weren’t released as singles, they still give you plenty of bang for your buck. “Stranger Stranger” has an amazing riff that runs through the song. The song rocks but with a slyly seductive groove to it.
The Mick Ralphs-written song “Lay Your Love On Me” closes out the first side with a driving tempo. However, the most surprising discovery for me was actually rediscovering the song “Fearless”. It’s a blast of pure hard rock rhythm that is so surprisingly effective that I found myself singing along to the lyrics.
There’s been a lot of talk over the years about what led to the split and acrimony between Brian Howe and both Simon Kirke and Mick Ralphs. A lot of that talk centers around the songwriting for the band. However, I don’t see how the credits for this album could be such a breaking point for the band. Brian Howe co-wrote seven of the Holy Water‘s thirteen songs. Meanwhile, Simon Kirke wrote one song on his own and co-wrote another. Mick Ralphs had “Lay Your Love On Me” on his own and co-wrote three other songs.
But regardless of who wrote what, I have never been able to understand why the band grew apart. I mean, the album is full of great material. Yes, it is a dramatically different sound than the classic rock origins of the band. But as a confirmed fan of the more melodic rock stylings, this album is one of the highlights of that genre.
If you can’t take my word for, then just flip the album over to side two and check out songs like “With You In A Heartbeat”, “I Don’t Care” and “Never Too Late”. While the album is chock full of great straight up rockers, it closes on a decidedly more mellow note. Simon Kirke sings lead and plays the acoustic guitar on “100 Miles”. It’s a decidedly upbeat song and it kind of gives you a preview of the direction of his songwriting would go on the solo albums he did in 2011 (Filling The Void) and 2017 (All Because of You).
Much like “Fearless”, the songs “Dead of the Night” and “I Can’t Live Without You” became moments of re-discovery for me as I listened to the album. They are both hard rocking numbers with explosively melodic choruses heightened by a big backing vocal sound. Once again, I found myself singing along to these tracks.
I’m a fan of storytelling, whether it be in a book or through song. And the opening song on side two feeds my love of story. “Boys Cry Tough” was a monstrously successful song on the rock charts (it went to #3) even without being released as an official single. The story of Bobby and Mary has a clearly defined narrative. As a listener, you become involved in the storyline. It’s a prime example of how to tell a story through song and when you add in the fantastic music that backs up Brian Howe’s superb vocal performance on the song, you have the showcase track of Holy Water.
While it may have taken the death of Brian Howe to get me to write about this album for The Cassette Chronicles, what matters most is that I get to share my love of the album with people. This year marks the 30th anniversary of it’s release and for my money the Holy Water album is one of the finest albums I have in my collection.
NOTES OF INTEREST: Terry Thomas produced Holy Water but he was deeply involved in all aspects of the recording as well. He co-wrote eleven of the songs and played guitar and keyboards (the cassette liner notes list it as Hammond organ) and added backing vocals as well. He and Brian Howe had worked together on Howe’s 1997 solo album Tangled In Blue and he was also the producer for the Bad Company albums Dangerous Age and Here Comes Trouble.
Brian Howe re-recorded the song “Holy Water” for his Circus Bar album but gave it a significant re-do for an entirely different spin on the track. I love the original song as I said, but if you hear the new version he did, you’ll be shocked to discover how powerful it is.
I have only seen Bad Company in concert once but it was with Brian Howe on vocals. It was during the tour for the Dangerous Age album. I can still remember the T-shirt I bought when I saw them play the Orpheum Theatre in Boston. They had Winger as their opening act.