Common Thread: The Producers Come Out to Play (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

Common Thread is a regular feature on in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column. 

Run for Your Life, The Tarney/Spencer Band (1979, A&M)

The third and final album from this criminally-underrated rock/power-pop outfit – named by uDiscover as being one of the ten most underrated albums of all-time to not be available on Spotify – yielded a minor Hot 100 hit in “No Time to Lose,” which reached the Hot 100 a second time two years later after its video got wide airplay during the early days of MTV. It may have charted even higher the second time around with some added publicity or live promotion, but by that time, the band had long-split and Alan Tarney had begun a new full-time career as an in-demand songwriter/producer for other acts, writing the massive Cliff Richard hit “We Don’t Talk Anymore” and both writing and producing Richard’s hits “Dreaming” and “A Little in Love” (both of which featured Tarney’s old bandmate Trevor Spencer on drums), and producing Leo Sayer’s “More Than I Can Say” and “Living in a Fantasy” (the latter a Tarney co-write), Charlie Dore’s “Pilot of the Airwaves,” The Dream Academy’s “The Love Parade,” Squeeze’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” and, most famously of all, a-ha’s Number One smash “Take on Me.” [Tarney, in fact, would produce the Norwegian band’s first three albums, scoring a second – and too often forgotten – U.S. Top 40 hit with the band in the “Take on Me” follow-up “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.”]

The Age of Plastic, The Buggles (1979, Island)

This British new-wave duo, consisting of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, scored a minor Top 40 hit at the end of the ‘70s with this album’s single “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which would go on two years later to achieve iconic status after it became the first song to be broadcast on MTV. But it’s what the duo achieved after their hit that brought them the most success. At the height of the duo’s fame, they surprisingly put their own band on hold to replace Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman in the prog-rock band Yes, joining them for the extremely underrated 1980 album Drama. That lineup of Yes would quickly disintegrate, but Downes would subsequently join up with Yes guitarist Steve Howe to form the wildly successful supergroup Asia, while Horn would begin a fruitful career as an in-demand producer for the likes of ABC (helming their critically lauded debut The Lexicon of Love), Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Paul McCartney, and Seal. (It’s Horn, in fact, who produced the hits “Kiss from a Rose,” “Crazy,” and “Prayer for the Dying.”) Horn would also return to the Yes fold as their producer for the reunion albums 90125 (which sported the band’s first Number One hit, the much-sampled “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Horn’s high-water mark as a producer) and Big Generator.

John Farrar, John Farrar (1980, Columbia)

Recognize the face? You probably don’t. You may not even recognize the name. But, even though this well-crafted disc, his one and only album as a solo performer, sadly sold poorly and failed to make Farrar a star in his own right, you’ve almost certainly heard something he’s produced. The Australian native and alumnus of legendary British instrumental band The Shadows found regular work throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, either writing and/or producing the overwhelming majority of Olivia Newton-John’s hits, including “You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Magic,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “Suddenly,” “Make a Move on Me,” and “A Little More Love.” Talent must run in the family, because Farrar’s son Sam would go into music himself, first as the bassist for Phantom Planet and then as a co-writer and co-producer for Maroon 5, for whom he’s also served as a touring member.

Bad for Good, Jim Steinman (1981, Cleveland International/Epic)

There’s a reason this is the only solo album Jim Steinman (best known as the songwriter behind Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell) ever made  – it wasn’t even supposed to be his album in the first place. Initially entitled Renegade Angel, the album (originally packaged as an eight-track disc with a bonus 7-inch EP featuring two additional songs that have since been tacked onto the end of the album on CD reissues of the disc) was meant to be the follow-up to Bat Out of Hell, but Meat Loaf had lost his voice and Steinman, anxious to make these songs public, opted to complete the record on his own, wisely realizing his own vocal shortcomings and recruiting Rory Dodd and Karla DeVito to sing lead vocals on half of the tracks. In hindsight, the album – sporting much of the same supporting cast from Bat Out of Hell, including Todd Rundgren, Ellen Foley, Max Weinberg and the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan – would have been better had the project simply been delayed until Meat Loaf got his voice back, but as it stands, the disc isn’t without its highlights, namely the Top 40-charting Dodd-sung “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through.” Even at its worst moments (and it’s fair to say that Steinman has never completely lived this album down, not in the least due to the cut “Dance in My Pants”), it’s still an endlessly intriguing album. Steinman would go on to greater things, though, both writing and producing such major hits as Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All,” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Barry Manilow’s “Read ‘em and Weep,” and Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” and, of course, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II and its massive Number One single “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” [Though it doesn’t much sound like his usual work, Steinman would also co-produce Billy Squier’s Signs of Life and its hit single “Rock Me Tonite.”]

The Clarke/Duke Project, Stanley Clarke and George Duke (1981, Epic)

George Duke spent much of the ‘70s and early ‘80s as an in-demand sideman for the likes of such R&B giants as Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and Al Jarreau and even did a multi-year stint as keyboardist for one of the most musically challenging of all rock musicians, Frank Zappa, for much of the early ‘70s. But he also eventually launched a solo career on the side as a jazz artist, and in 1981, he’d team up with renowned jazz bassist Stanley Clarke to form a part-time duo that would last three albums, and their first jointly-billed outing together would bring Duke his first and only Top 40 crossover hit as a performer in the silky-smooth R&B ballad “Sweet Baby,” an enduring smooth-jazz-radio classic written and sung by Duke himself and unusually incorporating a sitar (played by Clarke) into its musical mix. Naturally, the two men also show off their well-admired musical chops on such cuts as the enticing album-opening instrumental “Wild Dog.” But it’s as a producer that Duke had his biggest success, and he’d go on after this album to become one of the more in-demand R&B producers of the ‘80s, producing Jeffrey Osborne’s first three solo albums (yielding such hits as “On the Wings of Love” and “Stay with Me Tonight”) and Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” just to name a few of his biggest chart successes. [He also produced A Taste of Honey’s 1981 Top Three hit “Sukiyaki.”]