Once The Future Of American Music…

August 21, 2010

In late ’83. MTV wouldn’t be available to us for another six months or so, but we did have Night Flight on USA Network, which aired music videos on late Friday and Saturday nights and into the next morning.

Actually, our family didn’t have cable, but my buddy Beej had Night Flight and I had Beej’s second-hand accounts of the bands he had seen and heard, bands which usually didn’t get played on radio.

(at least not on the radio available to us)

One which I remember him mentioning was a video for a song called The Walls Came Down by a band named The Call.

I don’t think I would actually hear the song for several more years.

But I knew the name and I would hear plenty of The Call three years later when the quartet released Reconciled in early 1986. The rock stations to which I was listening gave a lot of airplay to that album’s I Still Believe (Great Design) and Everywhere I Go.

The Call seemed to be on the verge of stardom. Their sound was widescreen and the themes were big. The Call’s lyrics had definite spiritual and political overtones delivered with a bit of fire and brimstone courtesy of lead singer Michael Been’s husky vocals.

More than a few folks connected the dots across the Atlantic to Ireland and U2 who were a year away from their breakthrough with The Joshua Tree.

Peter Gabriel had supposedly referred to The Call as “the future of American music” in the early ’80s when he chose them to open for him.

It didn’t quite happen.

During the autumn of my freshman year of college, The Call released Into The Woods, a challenging record that wasn’t as immediate to me as Reconciled had been.

The only time I heard a song from Into The Woods on the radio was when a DJ friend of mine aired the odd track – usually the moody, gospel-tinged In The River – on his weekly campus radio show.

The Call almost broke in 1989 when the anthemic title track from Let The Day Begin almost reached the Top 40 in the States, but a year later the band would go on a decade-plus hiatus following the release of Red Moon.

I owned everything from Reconciled to Red Moon and thought that The Call should have had more widespread success.

It didn’t seem as though I was alone.

The Band’s Garth Hudson played keyboards on the group’s first three albums and his former bandmate Robbie Robertson guested on guitar on another.

Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, Bono, T-Bone Burnett, and even actor/musician Harry Dean Stanton appeared on records by The Call.

I haven’t listened to some of those songs in twenty years, but reading of Michael Been’s sudden death in the news Friday morning prompted me to revisit most of them.

Touted by many as one of the more underrated bands of their era, The Call certainly deserved a wider audience. Here are a quintet of songs from The Call…

The Call – The Walls Came Down
from Modern Romans

The song that first garnered The Call widespread attention and a minor hit single thanks to a video that popped up on various outlets, the punchy The Walls Came Down alluded to the biblical as well as then-current events. It was a fusion of images and ideas that would be a trademark of the band.

Thirty years later, only the names have changed.

The Call – I Still Believe (Great Design)
from Reconciled

Anyone who was going to the movies in the late ’80s likely is familiar with I Still Believe through its use in the movie The Lost Boys. In the movie (and accompanying soundtrack), the song is performed by the muscled, shirtless saxophonist Tim Capello, who was – at that time – a member of Tina Turner’s band.

For The Call, the resilient song with its determined, chugging melody got a lot of radio play for the band.

The Call – The Morning
from Reconciled

Reconciled was not only The Call’s most commercially successful release, it also might have been the group’s finest moment musically. Maybe it’s the knowledge that Been and drummer Scott Musick were from Oklahoma, but I always pictured the band playing in a raw, windswept, Dust Bowl setting with everything in sepia tones (particularly on Reconciled).

Leading off Reconciled was the thumping The Morning which recalls Simple Minds’ Waterfront whose lead singer Jim Kerr provided backing vocals – along with Peter Gabriel – on the album’s Everywhere I Go. On The Morning, Robbie Robertson provided guitar.

The Call – Let The Day Begin
from Let The Day Begin

More than a few politicians – most notably Al Gore in his 2000 presidential bid – have appropriated the dramatic Let The Day Begin as a campaign theme. It’s understandable as the dynamic track is an infectious and rousing call to action.

The song was a rock radio staple during the summer of 1989, but it might have been a missed opportunity. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I was told that the song’s success took their record label by surprise and – as the song was clicking with listeners – there wasn’t enough product in stores to meet demand which stalled momentum.

The Call – What’s Happened To You?
from Red Moon

The ’90s began with U2 as one of the biggest bands in the world and The Call, who had drawn comparisons to the Irish band, confined to a cult following. The two acts intersected when Bono guested on vocals for What’s Happened To You?

Though less raucous and more rustic than previous albums, Red Moon was no less impassioned. The self-assured What’s Happened To You? bristles with a joyous sense of self-discovery and personal growth.

Red Moon would serve as a close on The Call who wouldn’t record together for another decade and, then, only issue one more album of new material. Michael Been – who had portrayed the apostle John in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ – would do a bit more acting and pursue a solo career that found no more success than The Call had.

Nonetheless, the group left behind a rich catalog that, unfortunately, many listeners will only be discovering in the wake of Been’s death.