Sunday, May 24, 2015

Forgotten Bands Of The 80s-Prism

In today's music world, Prism would not exist.  They made six albums for Ariola/Capitol in the late 70s and early 80s but since they were marginal sellers in the states (they sold much better in Canada) Capitol kept them on the roster up till their 1984 flop Beat Street.  But their type of power pop rock and roll never seem to strike a chord with Americans.

Like most folks I didn't pay much attention to them outside of springing up for the 1981 Small Change album and getting it for the song Don't Let Him Know which made it to number 39 on the charts  But in some ways I ended up getting the second edition of Prism, the Henry Small years.  But if anything Prism is basically famous for two reasons.  One, it was a project of Bruce Fairbairn who played horns in a earlier band but at this point trying to get his foot in the door of production.  While Prism wasn't the next big thing, Fairbairn would eventually graduate to other production jobs (Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi). He would pass away in 1999.  The other big factor was Jim Vallance, a prolific songwriter of his own and who would figure greatly on the early albums and even playing drums and singing under the alias of Rodney Higgs.  Vallance would hook up with a unknown Bryan Adams on writing songs and both would benefit much more in the 80s when Adams broke loose with Cuts Like A Knife and the overplayed Summer of 69.

While the first Prism album, while good, shows a band trying to fit in with the times.  I actually liked the space rock Spaceship Superstar and Take Me To The Kaplin, both written by Higgs aka Vallance, and can tolerate I Ain't Looking Anymore and Open Soul Surgery a couple of BTO (without Randy Bachman, see their Street Action and Rock And Roll Nights for further reference) but the ballads tend to drag the record down a bit.  While Vallance does sing on a couple numbers, the rest are sung by underrated vocals Ron Tabak.  The album does borrow a bit from other bands as well, Chilliwack and even a bit of Geddy Lee too.  A ho hum debut, with potential.

A change of bass players brings in Allen Harlow, who continues to lead the new version of Prism to this day, if they're still playing and See Forever Eyes improves on the debut.  Rocket Morton replaces Vallance on drums.  Although creative differences did split up Vallance and Lindsay Mitchell, the fact of the matter was that Vallance's songs were more radio friendly, even more so with Bryan Adams co writing but the four albums that did follow have good to great moments with them.  At times they would revisit their space rock roots with See Forever Eyes, an album that still having growing pains of sorts but is a bit more consistent than the debut.  Armageddon begins the Mitchell songwriting dominance, Vallance isn't entirely gone, he writes and arranges two of the songs off that album You Walked Away Again and Take It Or Leave It and the title track is an attempt at prog rock, otherwise it's the Canadian pop rock that Prism is beginning to be famous for.  And the album might be my favorite of them all.  Young And Restless the 1980 album, Vallance is gone, Mitchell writes most of the songs along with Al Harlow.  Party Line and Satellite are absolute winners here and Tabak's vocals give it enough to rise Prism above Chilliwack or the second edition of BTO.  By then, a whole array of changes would happen.  Tabak either got kicked out or he left on his own and John Hall left too. Bruce Fairbairn would not return either.

With Fairbairn gone, they chose John Carter to produce Small Change, to which was a play on words with the addition of Henry Small, a violinist singer songwriter in another band that made a one off album for Columbia in the late 70s (Small Wonder). Small Change was a attempt to go mainstream rock, with the Vallance/Adams penned Don't Let Him Know, which basically is their only top forty hit in the states. A lesser followup  Turn On Your Radar popped up in the lower top 100. Ironically, Lindsay Mitchell only contributed one new original, a cowrite with Small on Hole In Paradise.  This change of direction of sound didn't appeal much even to the Canadian faithful and soon afterward Michell, Harlow and Norton left the band, leaving Henry Small as the sole member of the band.  With no original members and since Small Change sold just enough to commend a followup, the final album Beat Street came out. While the original review was scathing a second listen turned out to be that Beat Street did pale in comparison with the rest of the Prism catalog and perhaps Henry Small was looking for that followup hit to Don't Let Him Know.  It would have been better to call this a Henry Small and Friends album rather than Prism; Small cowrote most of the songs with Richie Zito (hack producer that gave Cheap Trick a big hit with The Flame a few years later) and Davitt Sergerson.  Beat Street does try to beat Loverboy at their own game, with dated songs and dated electronic drums.  A couple songs do stand out, Is He Better Than Me is a Loverboy soundalike, I Don't Want to Want You Anymore recalls Foreigner and State Of The Heart echoes Prism of the past. But with no original members left, Beat Street lacks a heart of its own, it plays to the radio sounds of 1984 and the above named bands with Honeymoon Suite as well.  It just doesn't sound like the Prism that we used to know.

And with that Prism called it a day.  There was talk of a 1984 reunion band of sorts but Ron Tabak's bizarre death ended that for a few years, until 1987 when a single Good To Be Back came out.  A 1993 album Jericho came out with the lineup of Allen Harlow, Lindsay Mitchell, Darcy Deutsch, Jim Vallance and Rocket Norton and even had Rick Springfield contributing vocals and songs but I have not heard that one.  Perhaps the best overview of Prism lies in the 1996 Best Of that Renaissance issued with help from Capitol/EMI and has all the hits and album cuts that made Prism what they are.  A lighter poppier version of Chilliwack and I heard them being compared to the German rockers Lake and Illinois's Starcastle but the only relation to the latter would be the Real To Reel album.  It was a stepping stone for Jim Vallance and Bruce Fairbairn on their way to their own rock and roll stardom but for the rest of the guys, they were basically unknown even to this very day.    Outside of Don't Let Him Know, satellite radio never plays them, and Corporate radio here even less.  But once in a while I'll find one of their albums at Goodwill and smile from time to time.  The Best Of is the perfect overview.  And it contains enough songs from Beat Street to recommend it most.

Which is no songs off Beat Street.

Prism (Ariola America 1977)  B-
See Forever Eyes (Ariola America 1978) B
Armageddon (Capitol 1979) B+
Young And Restless (Capitol 1980) B+
Small Change (Capitol 1981) B
Beat Street (Capitol 1983) C
Best Of Prism (EMI Capitol 1996) A-

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