Retro Review: Renaissance (the band)

Among the trends in rock music that came to the fore in the 1970s was the sub-category most often labeled as “progressive rock” or “art rock” (I’ll let the aficionados split hairs among themselves regarding labels and definitions). Bands such as Yes, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and several others often went for a bigger, more cinematic, even symphonic feel with their music, resulting in songs with extended instrumental passages that would run much longer than those commonly found in more “mainstream” rock, often with full orchestral accompaniment (and the use of instruments such as harpsichords, mandolins, and harps, that had rarely been incorporated into rock music).

But no band delved as deeply into that blend of rock and classical as the aptly-named Renaissance. Once they hit their stride in the mid-’70s, infusing their sound with references to music from centuries gone by, they produced several stunning albums.

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The very first time I heard Renaissance was in 1980 or ’81, while I was attending the University of Maryland. One day, I visited the music store in the student union building, and, as I approached the store located at the end of a long corridor, I heard music emanating from within that made me pick up my pace almost to a full gallop. I hurried in, fascinated by the music being played on the store’s stereo. It struck me as nothing short of amazing — certainly nothing I had heard before: a full-sized symphony orchestra backing a rock band, and a female singer whose stunning, angelic voice made my jaw drop. Not only that, but this was a live album, which I discovered was titled Renaissance Live at Carnegie Hall, released in 1976. I had become mesmerized. Luckily, the store had a few music reference guides scattered around, to help customers look up information and reviews of various artists and albums. So, I managed to learn just a few tidbits of information about Renaissance, and discovered that the singer with the incredible voice was named Annie Haslam — and my new musical journey began.

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The original band was actually a step-child of the legendary blues/rock band The Yardbirds, whose members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, having left the group in 1968, sought to create a different kind of sound, combining folk and classical elements, with a new band they called Renaissance. Various members came and went between 1969 and 1971. The first of the “modern day” Renaissance albums, Prologue, was released in 1972. It was also the first to feature Annie Haslam and her five-octave vocal range, as lead singer (she had received vocal training from opera singer and vocal coach Sybil Knight). The line-up which would prove to be the most successful, both creatively and commercially — Annie, Michael Dunford (guitar), Jon Camp (bass), John Tout (keyboards), and Terence Sullivan (drums) — fell into place with the 1973 album The Ashes Are Burning. That album features one of their most popular numbers, “Carpet of the Sun.”

For the next five albums, Renaissance thrived, creating and playing what Annie prefers to label “classical rock,” in which the quintet often benefitted from the addition of an orchestra to provide the soaring sonic textures for so many of their compositions. A great number of their songs run a good ten minutes or longer, making them almost mini-symphonies, with Annie’s extraordinary vocal skills — her range, crystal clear enunciation, and expressiveness — leading the way.

Most of the songs throughout this period were co-written by Dunford, who would usually compose a melody and then send it to poet Betty Thatcher, who would write the lyrics. Thatcher had begun writing for the original incarnation of the band, having been friends with Keith Relf and his sister Jane, the original lead singer. Most of Thatcher’s lyrics, while abundant with words of peace, love, harmony, nature, and other ‘70s-era “hippie” themes, could also lean toward more obscure and cryptic ramblings (example: “To feel your touch across my mind, fills me only full of desire for my being.” Huh?) Some of her lyrics could also turn quite dark as well, but, not to put too fine a point on it, I’d be happy to hear Annie Haslam sing the phone book.

Renaissance enjoyed an intensely loyal following, especially in the U.S., possibly even stronger than that in their native U.K., despite having had few FM radio hits. The albums recorded during their peak years began with Turn of the Cards, followed by Scheherazade and Other Stories, Novella, and A Song For All Seasons.

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Turn of the Cards opens with a classical-style piano intro, then jumps to a galloping rhythm for “Running Hard,” as Annie leads the way, aided by backing vocals by the band, to an energetic orchestral arrangement. The softer “Think of You” follows, offering a simpler arrangement, giving Annie’s vocals (and her unparalleled vibrato skills) a chance to really shine. Other numbers on the album, including “Black Flame” and “Mother Russia,” show the band at its most earnest and dramatic (but not exactly ideal background music for a summer picnic).

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What the Beatles’ Revolver is to Sgt. Pepper, Turn of the Cards is to Scheherazade and Other Stories, widely regarded as the band’s masterpiece (also recorded at Abbey Road Studios). The album opens with the classic “A Trip to the Fair,” an eerie recounting of a nightmarish visit to a fair, said to be based on Annie’s first date with one-time boyfriend Ron Wood. The middle instrumental section takes a surprisingly jazzy turn, before the piece leads to its somewhat ominous, but thrilling, musical crescendo.

What we older LP lovers used to refer to as “side 2” of the album consists entirely of the band’s musical telling of the classic 1001 Arabian Nights story, with the band backed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The individually-written compositions, leading into each other to tell the complete story, blend to form a group effort, with results are full of imagery that convey how the young girl sentenced to death at dawn, after an evening with the evil Sultan, mesmerizes him with stories that keep him enthralled until after dawn, by which time he has fallen in love with her, and asks her to be his wife. Listening to this epic comes as close to watching a film in your mind’s eye as you’re ever likely to experience. It is a musical achievement of epic proportions.

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“A Song for All Seasons” — as Jon Camp once said, perhaps their best album, but worst cover.

A Song For All Seasons, released in 1978, very nearly reaches the heights of Scheherazade, and many fans consider it the band’s best album, with strong, pulsing compositions again enhanced by exciting orchestral arrangements, in addition to “smaller” songs with memorable melodies and, from time to time, the treat of hearing Annie’s unique voice multi-tracked— including one of their biggest hits, “Northern Lights.”

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A change in record labels necessitated some downsizing of the band’s production values. Orchestras had to be replaced with synthesizers and more prominent electric guitars, but the trademark sound, led by Annie’s singing, remained essentially the same. Azure d’Or, released in 1979, continued the trend of the previous albums, again including several showcases for Annie’s remarkable vocal gifts. After the album’s release and subsequent tour, Tout and Sullivan left the band (to be replaced with others who were never considered “official” members of the group), marking the end of the golden era.

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The arrival of disco, punk, and New Wave, along with the declining popularity of progressive rock in the late 1970s and early ’80s, nudged the pared-down Renaissance to seek a more commercial, contemporary sound, resulting in the albums Camera Camera in 1981, and Timeline in ’83 (Timeline got poor reviews from critics and fans, but I’ve always preferred it to Camera Camera).

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Annie’s 1989 self-titled solo album.

Annie also released a number of solo albums, and the original band occasionally reunited for new projects and tours, with mixed results (there’s much more to the story, perhaps better left for another posting in the near future). Betty Thatcher, Michael Dunford, and John Tout have since passed away, but Annie, now in her early seventies, is still performing with a new version of Renaissance today.

So, if you find yourself in the mood to take a trip back to the “prog rock” era, why not follow a direct route leading to one amazing singer and her exceptionally talented and vastly underrated band — and let me know your impressions.

Until next time…

Written by

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

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