Roger Chapman – Turn It Up Loud: The Recordings 1981-1985: Boxset Review

The Family man’s solo adventures continue: Installment 2 in the Cherry Red/Esoteric Roger Chapman reissue programme

Release Date:  28th October 2022

Label: Esoteric Records

Formats: 5CD boxset

It seems like yesterday, but it was, in fact, back in April, when Moth To A Flame, Esoteric’s first re-evaluation of Roger Chapman’s solo back catalogue hit the racks.  That set focused upon the erstwhile Family man’s first three solo adventures: Chappo (1979), Live in Hamburg (1979) and Mail Order Magic (1980) and packaged them alongside an eclectic mix of live recordings, studio out-takes and demos.  Well – Esoteric have decided that now is the time to continue with the Roger Chapman story and Turn It Up Loud collates the next phase of Roger’s career; Hyenas Only Laugh For Fun (1981), the double live album He Was… She Was… You Was… We Was (1982), Mango Crazy (1983) and The Shadow Knows (1984).  This time, the remastered albums are complemented by a collection of live tracks culled from Roger’s 1985 Live In Berlin EP as well as a couple of singles and, as we’ve now all come to expect, the whole shebang is lovingly packaged in the signature Cherry Red clamshell box and is accompanied by a wonderfully informative glossy booklet which, like its Moth To A Flame predecessor, includes an all-you-need-to-know essay by music journalist and author Mike Barnes.

By 1981, Roger’s Family past was well and truly behind him.  His star had faded somewhat in his UK homeland but, sur le continent and, particularly in Germany, he had established himself as a bona-fide rock star and, with his band, The Shortlist, was attracting ever-increasing interest in both his studio output and his live appearances (Roger has always attributed his continuing success in Germany to the willingness of German radio stations to include challenging and creative music on their playlists, rather than seeking the safe-but-boring safe ground of the pop charts.)

Disc One of this collection features a remaster of the Hyenas Only Laugh For Fun album.  Chronologically, Hyenas… followed the fine but problematic Mail Order Magic, and it’s an altogether more solid piece of work than its predecessor.  Roger’s band – including Tim Hinkley on keyboards, Nick Pentelow on saxes and ex-Family members John Wetton (bass) and Poli Palmer (synths) – was pretty well consolidated and Terry Barham and Paul Smykle, drafted in to look after the production duties, did a great job.  Hyenas… is packed with fine tunes too; I’ve never really been a lover of the title track, but Killing Time, Hearts On The Floor and, particularly, the choppy The Long Goodbye and the lyric-laden Blood and Sand are all up there with the best of Chappo’s many great songs.

Hyenas… performed well in its target German market (it was voted ‘Album of the Year’ by German pundits) but undeservedly sank without much of a trace in the UK, partly as a result of distribution problems but mainly due to the apathy that had crept into British minds in relation to many of the fine musicians who were around before the new wave broke – Roger Chapman amongst them.  Roger summarized this erosion to his status and credibility, saying “…I just kind of accepted it.  Family had gone – and Streetwalkers – but they kind of liked my first solo album, Chappo, over here.  I got some good reviews and I was doing some good gigs for the first year or so.  But then, all of a sudden, you get small-minded reviews, like: ‘What are you still doing here?  There’s a lot of other people recording; why are you still wasting our time?’  And my music and the way we played had a lot of respect in Europe.  But – they thought they could take you to pieces, then just walk away and leave it like that and it hurt.  Yeah – I did get the arse.  I thought, ‘Well – f*ck you.’  And, unfortunately, I cut my own throat because by stopping coming over to the UK I did start to vanish.” 

From the viewpoint of 2022, it now seems incredible that we, in the UK, allowed all that to happen.  As Hyenas… demonstrates, Roger was producing top-class music (as, indeed, he continues to do right up to this present day) and our failure to accommodate his talents was certainly our loss.  At least we do now recognize Roger Chapman as the national treasure he surely is.  But I digress…

There is a school of opinion, and I count myself within it, that believes that Roger Chapman is at his absolute best when performs live.  Indeed, that’s an assertion with which Roger himself agrees: “[Live work and studio work] are two completely different things for me.  When you’re on stage, it’s all excitement and playing and getting the groove and making it happen.  It’s a lot of fun.  In the studio, unless the band is playing live, there’s no real excitement.  It’s a bit colder and I always had quite a bit of trouble trying to do both, you know?  I couldn’t be the same person in the studio as I was on stage.”  And, recorded during Roger’s Chappo Live tour of Germany during November and December 1981, the live He Was… She Was… You Was… We Was… album demonstrates the sheer power of the live Roger Chapman to a ‘T.’

Released as a double album in October 1982, it was, in fact, Roger’s second live album in just three years – 1979’s Live in Hamburg was the other – perhaps illustrating as clearly as possible Roger’s self-belief in his powers as a live performer.  This time around, the album occupies the lion’s share of Discs Two and Three of the boxset.  The band’s lineup is stellar indeed – Poli Palmer on vibes and synth, the magnificent Geoff Whitehorn on guitar, Nick Pentelow on sax, Leonard “Stretch” Stretching on drums, Steve Simpson on guitar, mandolin, violin and viola, Tim Hinkley on keyboards and no less a personage than King Crimson/Bad Company refugee Boz Burrell on bass.  And, by heck, do they cook…

The material chosen for the live set is a mix of tracks from the contemporaneous Hyenas… album, a selection of songs from earlier in Roger’s solo career and an inspired pick of stunning cover versions.  So, alongside cuts like Blood and Sand, Hyenas Only Laugh For Fun, Prisoner and Common Touch from Hyenas… we’re also able to enjoy exhilarating versions of Chappo classics like Higher Ground, Unknown Soldier, Night Down (No.2: A la ZZ) and ( a personal favourite of mine) Ducking Down, PLUS sublime takes on blues standards such as Slim Harpo’s King Bee and Muddy’s The Same Thing and, best of all, an amazing medley of Hendrix’s Stone Free and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.

By 1983, Roger’s profile in the UK was beginning to rise again, thanks mainly to the guest vocal he delivered on the hit Mike Oldfield single, Shadow On The Wall and expectations for Mango Crazy, the next Chapman album were high, both in Europe and in the UK.  It is, indeed, another excellent album (Disc Four in this collection) although Roger remains critical of the production standard achieved by Geoff Whitehorn and himself: “…I’d already told the management two albums before that I didn’t want to produce as I wasn’t very good at production.  But the idea was to let me and Geoff come in and I assume, in retrospect, they did that because they didn’t want to pay anybody else when they could get away with not paying me and Geoff.  It’s kind of amateurish and I let it happen.  I just listened to others when I should have followed my own head and I didn’t.  It took me a couple a couple of albums to get back to doing it properly.” 

Well – they do say that we’re always most critical of our own efforts and that minor flaws, invisible to outside observers can often be massively exaggerated by their creator.  And, to be honest, I believe that’s what Roger is doing here.  Mango Crazy is an excellent album, full of genuine highlights.  Toys: Do You? Is Chapman at his funky, sleazy best, The Latin rhythms of Los Dos Bailadores are delightful and Turn It Up Loud harks right back to the classic Chappo in his Burlesque and In My Own Time pomp.

Boz Burrell had hung around for Mango Crazy and his solid bass playing is a real feature of the album.  Poli Palmer and Tim Hinkley, both stalwart presences in Roger’s band for a number of previous years had, however, decided to move on, and they were replaced by Ronnie Leahy – formerly of Stone The Crows – and ex-Cockney Rebel and Kate Bush accompanist Duncan Mackay.  By the time of 1984’s The Shadow Knows album, however, it was all change once again.  Geoff Whitehorn and Nick Pentelow remained, but Tony Stevens stepped in to replace Boz, Brian Johnston assumed keyboard duties and the drum stool was shared between Sam (Mango) Kelly and John Lingwood.

Of all the albums included in the Turn It Up Loud boxset, The Shadow Knows is probably the collection with the most typically “eighties” sound.  Keyboards, slapped bass and electronic percussion are a dominant feature – not normally to my taste, but The Shadow Knows is not without its endearing moments, notably the poppy How How How and the soulful I Think of You Now.  The Shadow Knows forms the first half of Disc Five to this set, with the second half mainly occupied by the four tracks of the Live in Berlin EP.  Originally released in early 1985, the EP is yet further proof, should we require it, of the sheer power of a Roger Chapman live performance.  The version of Shadow on the Wall knocks the Mike Oldfield single into a cocked hat and the eleven-and-then-some minutes of Mango Crazy are a sheer delight, with Geoff Whitehorn showing us just what he’s capable of when he’s let loose.

Turn It Up Loud is an excellent compilation indeed.  It’s a comprehensive re-evaluation of an often-overlooked period in the career of one of our most original and durable performers.  Roger Chapman is not now, nor never has he been, a musician with universal appeal but, to the converted, his work is invaluable.  These albums, and particularly the live He Was… She Was… You Was… We Was… and the tracks from the Live in Berlin EP show him at his best.

Watch Roger and his band perform Prisoner, the opening track to his 1981 Album, Hyenas Only Laugh For Fun, here:

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