BA Robertson - "R&BA"

BA Robertson: “Initial Success”, “Bully For You”, “R&BA” expanded editions

Here in the second decade of the 21st century, it’s getting harder and harder to find once-successful artists whose work has never been released on CD. Here’s one though: apart from a self-released live CD in 2004 and a budget compilation the following year, BA Robertson’s trio of early ’80s albums has remained out of print since 1982. Now Cherry Red has brought them back, with remastered sound and bolstered by a bewildering array of bonus tracks chosen by the man himself.

Robertson’s days as a top ten hitmaker account for only a tiny period of his long career. He released his first album as far back as 1973 when he was briefly labelmates with Big Star, and enjoyed some success as a songwriter, co-writing six tracks for Cliff Richard’s 1979 album Rock ‘n’ Roll Juvenile. By the time that album had been released, Robertson had already scored his first and biggest hit in his own right, reaching #2 in September 1979 with Bang Bang. This success was consolidated with further hits Knocked it Off (#8), Kool in the Kaftan (#17) and To Be Or Not To Be (#9). All four hits feature on Robertson’s 1980 album Initial Success, alongside a version of Fallin in Luv, one of the songs co-written for Cliff’s album (three other Cliff songs, Sci Fi and a live medley of Language of Love / Hot Shot, were recorded by Robertson as B-sides and appear among the nine bonus tracks on this new CD). Initial Success is the most enjoyable of the three albums, the hits bolstered by power-pop anthems such as Man or a Mouse? and She’s a Beezer, although Robertson’s clever wordplay does occasionally lead him to blunder into smug self-indulgence: the likes of Eat Your Heart Out Sandy Nelson and The B Side could be musical interludes from an early Saturday evening BBC One light entertainment show, while the conceit of album closer Here I Sit is that BA’s band have walked out and left him to finish the album on his own. Combined with bonus tracks such as a version of Bang Bang performed by the knowingly terrible Portsmouth Sinfonia, what could have been a great album has to fight to avoid being dragged into the novelty record mire, and just about wins.

8/10

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By the time Bully For You was released a year later, Robertson was a ubiquitous figure: he continued to write hits for Cliff including Carrie and Wired For Sound, composed and performed the theme for BBC Two drama series Maggie and even co-hosted Top of the Pops. Despite – or perhaps because of – his increased media presence, Robertson’s chart career came to a crashing halt, with none of the singles from this album troubling the top 100. The album’s opening track should have been a hit, and may well have been if BA had stuck with its original title Sad Song instead of perversely changing it to Saint-Saëns but by this time, as he admits in the CD’s booklet, “I was a very big pain in the ass.” The album continues where the previous one left off, with a run of solid pop tunes continually derailed by knowing pastiches of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll (the title track), disco noir (In the Bar at the Munich Hilton) and tales of planes disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle (Flight 19). Again there are bonus tracks mopping up single B-sides, live recordings, a highly dubious Stars on 45-style medley of hits which must have taken ages to put together but sounds like it was done in five minutes, and a demo of Hello Hello, Robertson’s theme for the final series of BBC One’s Saturday morning show Swap Shop.

7/10

With all that going on, it’s surprising Robertson found time to record another album, but 1982’s R&BA pulls in a number of favours: Sir Cliff provides backing vocals on Son of a Gunn, co-written by BA with Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt, and Maggie Bell duets on Hold Me (a top twenty hit in the autumn of 1981). Even the legendary Memphis Horns are roped in to add substance to an album which dispenses with Robertson’s usual knowing pastiches in favour of “proper music”. As the title suggests, it’s largely R&B (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) on offer here; the music is exemplary but has the unfortunate effect of showing up the limitations of Robertson’s singing voice. The album failed to chart but, as the media’s go-to Scotsman, he was commissioned to write Scotland’s song for the 1982 World Cup; We Have a Dream became a top five hit and features among R&BA‘s bonus tracks in the form of a solo live recording from a rare Robertson live performance at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival. The additional tracks also include the usual round-up of B-sides, a demo of the theme for BBC One’s 1982 Swap Shop replacement Saturday Superstore, and – of all things – a German version of Bang Bang, humorously retitled Bäng Bäng. BA Robertson went on to do some questionable things – a spell as a TV host, a brief acting career, writing The Living Years – but ignore those and enjoy these three albums instead.

7/10