Soft Rock?


I don’t know whether it is the onset of autumn with its chilly changes and vibrant colours, but I find myself turning to slightly melancholic songs of romantic longing and love lost and found. Over the last couple of days I have been listening to Stephen Bishop and Christopher Cross – two prime exponents of the style of music called ‘soft rock’ (for the pedants out there I suppose Mr. Cross belongs in the category of ‘yacht rock’ but the less sad about that the better!!). These albums are full of songs written with the heart firmly on the sleeve and when I was but a callow teenager they spoke volumes to me. I suppose it is the fate of people of my generation to find their own romantic longings reflected in popular music – perhaps it has always been the case because as someone once wrote “sad songs say so much”.

But, wait a minute, Stephen Bishop is a fine songwriter whose work has featured in many different formats and, like Mr. Cross is still a working musician – which in the current climate must be worth something! Stephen’s first two albums for ABC in this country (‘Careless’ and ‘Bish’) were firm favourites of mine once upon a time – sure there were lots of love songs but there was also ‘Little Italy’, ‘Save It For a Rainy Day’, and my favourite Bish song ‘Vagabond From Heaven’ with its sweeping orchestral chart arranged by Gene Page, and its choir ‘The Whistling Bishettes’ featuring Carrie Fisher among others. There were also the guest players like Michael McDonald (who seemed to be singing on almost every album made about that time!!), Eric Clapton, Chaka Khan and Art Garfunkel. Songwriting craft like this is just too good to be passed off as whatever critics pass it off as and the same goes for Christopher Cross.

Again, his first records (‘Christopher Cross’ and ‘Another Page’) were favourites of mine – again they were filled with session musicians of the calibre of Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather but the songs remain strong and Mr. Cross’ ability as a guitarist (which once led to him been invited to join Steely Dan no less) shines through – listening to these records again I am impressed by the quality of his solos on songs like ‘Words of Wisdom’, ‘Poor Shirley’, ‘Swing Street’ and of course his big hit ‘Ride Like The Wind’. Although I am a great admirer of Messrs. Carlton and Lukather I always felt it was a shame that Cross’s solo ability wasn’t featured more often. Like Stephen Bishop, Cross’s lyrical canvas is a rich and romantic one but it is also full of craft and attention. I would like to think that the quality of these songs mean that they will endure when the latest auto tuned hit machine has ended up in whatever digital equivalent of the bargain bin there is.

One postscript; on YouTube there is a concert clip of Christopher Cross performing ‘Ride Like the Wind’ with Michael MacDonald – the real revelation for me is Cross’s blistering guitar solo – take a look and be amazed!!

(Due to the depredations of time and house moves my original albums by these gentlemen have gone, but there are two excellent compilations of their work which are worth listening to. ‘An Introduction to Stephen Bishop’ was issued in 1997 by Universal and ‘Cross Words – The Best of Christopher Cross’ came from Demon Music/ Music Club Deluxe in 2011).

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