I wanna run, I wanna shout, I wanna make thunder
Wanna know what kind of spell I’ve fallen under
Show me, show me
I wanna live, I wanna breathe, I wanna love hard,
Wanna give my life to you
Lose me in you
It takes genuine abandon to compose lyrics like this. In the pantheon of passionate musicians unafraid of bearing all, Michael Been ranked among the best.
His name may ring a bell. It may not. My hope is it prompts some Google searches after readers scope this column. We lost this mountain of a songwriter more than six years ago, and with it any potential hope of his band, the Call, releasing new music. They did, however, successfully pull a reverse Led Zeppelin by teaming up with Been’s son Robert Levon (of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club fame) on bass and vocals for a pair of California tribute shows recorded for a live album.
In my mind, the Call (a California band by way of Oklahoma) is one of the greatest American groups to exist since the Band came out of Big Pink with its classic tunes nearly 50 years ago. This band is America through and through. And not in a hokey, countrified, “courtesy of the red, white and blue” way either. Instead, their songs reflect the nation’s hope, ideals, optimism and hurt, all topped with a nice heaping portion of salvation.
Garth Hudson played on their records (yes, that’s him on keyboards in the band’s “The Walls Came Down” music video); Al Gore used their track “Let The Day Begin” as a presidential campaign song. These facts alone emphasize why these “Modern Romans” remain viable today.
This year and next marks the 30th anniversaries of the group’s seminal Reconciled and Into the Woods albums, respectively – the crowning achievements of the Call’s discography. To mark the occasions, I wanted to go beyond just saying how terrific they were. I wanted insights from the men who made them. Scott Musick, Call drummer and co-founder, and guitarist Tom Ferrier graciously accepted my request, opening up in emails to me about this career-shifting period for the group, which had already released three albums by 1986
“Some of my favorite Call songs are on Reconciled,” Musick mused. “We were excited to record Reconciled for Elektra (Records) at the Power Station in New York … but really disappointed that we were on the morning shift. Getting to the studio in the a.m. went against rock ‘n’ roll nature and ours as well.”
“We played the songs in a rehearsal hall before going to the studio. Michael had a certain part he wanted from someone every now and then, but mostly he would sing and play a song and we would join in with the parts that came to us at the time,” he added. “We usually ended up recording the song with those same parts. That was the only way for it to feel natural.”
“Michael was always writing and re-writing all through the recording,” Ferrier said.
I had previously read that Reconciled is considered one of the greatest Christian albums of all time. While I’m embarrassed to say I never made the connection previously (there isn’t one mention of “Jesus” anywhere on the album), it certainly explains why Been sings and writes like he’s filled with a divine spirit. I put forth the question to both Musick and Ferrier – from a lyrical perspective, does this album stem from a Christian influence?
“Definitely,” Musick responded. “Most Call songs are spiritually based in their content. That was our reason to play music – you know, ‘the Call.’”
“The Christian influence is part of it,” Ferrier added. “But I feel we were going for a broader spiritual message – one that was left up to the listener to interpret.”
Reconciled kicks off with the hard-driving “Everywhere I Go” featuring the distinctive background vocals
of Peter Gabriel and Simple Minds frontman, Jim Kerr. Gabriel had an affinity for the band from the get-go, inviting them to be a tour opener in the years before So made him a superstar.
“It was great having Peter Gabriel and Jim Kerr sing with us. We knew them both fairly well by then,” Musick told me. “We had toured twice in the U.S. with Simple Minds and went on a fantastic European tour with Peter after opening for him in the states. Peter Gabriel and all of Simple Minds are wonderful, generous people, so they were happy to help out and join in.”
Asked to describe the feeling of having Gabriel and Kerr in studio singing with the band, Ferrier replied with these two words: “MAGICAL FUN!”
“Everywhere I Go” segways into Been’s hope-fueled anthem “I Still Believe (The Great Design),” his fretless bass keeping the primary beat of the Call’s music. His instrument all but dominates the core of “The Morning” (lyrics of which are included at the beginning of this column) and “Oklahoma,” one of the band’s most popular tunes about a nightmarish encounter involving a natural disaster in the heartland.
The burning question – if the song was based on real-life experience. From Musick: “The song “Oklahoma” referred to a general feeling of a hot Oklahoma night. Need more drama? Throw in a tornado.”
Adds Ferrier, “Maybe [it’s] a metaphor for emotional upheaval.”
These and the album’s other tracks (“Blood Red (America),” “With or Without Reason,” “Sanctuary,” “Tore the Old Place Down” and “Even Now”) resulted in a needed breakthrough for the band.
“When Reconciled was released, we worked it to the hilt. If it would start to get airplay in a certain region, we went there and played all over the place,” Musick said. “We toured for nine months for that record and it definitely increased our audience – that record stayed on the Billboard charts for months.”
Yet the trick with any successful album is facing the dilemma of following it up with something equally brilliant. In the band’s case, they succeeded by unveiling a more mature, wholly human effort, Into the Woods. Featuring one of the best opening songs to ever grace an album (the tormented “I Don’t Wanna” – how did Peter Gabriel overlook this one for his Scratch My Back covers album?), the work showcases Been both as prophet and disciple (just crank up “In the River,” “The Woods” and “Day or Night” for proof).
Into the Woods also has more edge to it, complemented by somber synthesizer. From Ferrier, “Elektra Records wanted us to make Reconciled #2, and that’s not the way writers think. We had seen the dark side, and were gonna sing about it!”
As harbingers of change and emotional reconciliation, the Call is all at once reactionary and nurturing. Give a listen to these two albums and you’ll come to see why Been’s legacy should now nestle somewhere in the realm of musical sainthood.
As Ferrier told me, “I hope (these albums) showed our range as musicians and that they helped a few people navigate their way through this life.”
No argument from me.
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