What do you do when you make a great album, but it doesn’t sell as well as it deserves? A familiar problem from Mott days. After lacklustre sales for All American Alien Boy, Ian Hunter decided, encouraged by his record company Columbia, to form a new band and make a more energetic rock album.
The band that came together was Peter Oxendale on keyboards, Rob Rawlinson on bass, Dennis Elliott on drums (he also played on Hunter’s first solo album), and ex-Bowie sidekick Earl Slick on guitar. Roy Thomas Baker was producer, well known for his work with Queen, and played percussion.
It seemed somehow appropriate that Hunter should team up with another former David Bowie bandmate following his success with Mick Ronson.
On 3 February 1977 the band were recording in Canada, west of Montreal, when there was a disaster. A fire destroyed the house they were staying in and while they escaped there were injuries from smoke inhalation and to Baker’s hand after jumping from a third storey window.
The name of the band and the album was Overnight Angels, a reference to the incident according to the band’s biographer Campbell Devine, presumably on the basis that they nearly became “angels” overnight. The song of the same name though has only a very tangential relationship with the episode.
Hunter says “I did the songs in the wrong key, I sang them too high so it doesn’t sound like me. I think this is the worst album I’ve ever done and it’s the only LP in my whole career that I really regret.”
Hunter also feels that the mixing and mastering was wrong, optimized for AM radio by Baker when it should have been a big powerful sound.
The rough mixes were incredible. It really sounded amazing, but Roy had a way at that time of really squeezing the mixes for radio, which is what most good producers do. I was in total disagreement with this, because the thing sounded so panoramic, so huge. I didn’t want it squeezing. I had glandular fever at the time and didn’t fight. Right up until the final mixes it sounded incredible."
The idea that if not for the mix/mastering the record would have been fantastic is rather at odds with Hunter’s other comments about singing in the wrong key, struggling to write the lyrics etc.
But it would be great to hear a remix done how he wanted. Sadly unlikely.
Is it that bad? As someone who loved Alien Boy, it does seem to me a step backwards, a retreat from the more mature and reflective songs on the earlier album and a less interesting band.
It has its moments though. The band is very capable and there are plenty of examples of Hunter’s gift for melody and catchy lyrics.
The best track is The Ballad of Little Star, a powerful ballad about a native American hooker which references the tragic effects of how “our fathers civilised” her race.
Golden Opportunity – a rocker to open with, not terrible but a bit of a thrash
Shallow Crystals – a ballad whose subject is obscure. Hunter says, “it may simply have been a selection of words that were attracted to each other.” It’s one of the better tracks though with a nice solo from Slick.
Overnight Angels – a decent rocker though insubstantial. The verse sections are good but the chorus “can you hear us, can you hear us, we’re talking ‘bout the overnight angels” is lame.
Broadway – one senses this could be really good, piano intro and a return to the subject of trying to make it in showbiz. “The hook is awful” though, says Hunter, and I have to say I agree.
Justice of the Peace – a bouncy number and an unlikely tale about a shotgun wedding
(Miss) Silver Dime – I don’t mind this one, a portrait of another “Alice”, maybe a groupie, suggestive lyrics, still thoroughly disposable though.
Wild ‘N Free – a forgettable rocker
The Ballad of Little Star – best song on the album, see above
To Love a Woman – reminds me of Night on the Town-era Rod Stewart, an OK Hunter ballad but nothing special.
The band also recorded a single, England Rocks, which did not sell but became significant in its guise as Cleveland Rocks on the next album. England Rocks is a bonus track on the Overnight Angels CD. Arguably better than any of the other tracks.
Incidentally, my “Rewind” CD sounds dreadful, especially on tracks like Broadway.
Sharp-eyed readers will note that the back sleeve of Overnight Angels shows photos of Peter Oxendale, Earl Slick, Curly Smith and Rob Rawlinson. Odd, because drummer Curly Smith is not on the album (as far as I know). However, the sleeve says "Curly Smith is now the drummer with the Overnight Angels", referencing the fact that Smith replaced Dennis Elliott for the tour which followed the album’s release.
On the sleeve Ian Hunter also notes that the band "narrowly escaped when a fire reduced the house we were sleeping in to a crater" and thanks various parties for their "immediate and most valuable help".
Ironically given the desire to make a more commercial record, the album sold even worse than Alien Boy and failed to chart. It was not even released in the USA for somewhat obscure reasons. The moral is that musicians should follow their muse and not try to do what they think their public wants.
Maybe it is just as well. If Overnight Angels had not flopped, perhaps the band would have stayed together and we would have missed out on Hunter’s next collaboration, which worked out rather better.
Cover picture is by David Oxtoby, portrait artist of Oxtoby’s Rockers fame.
Earl Slick on Overnight Angels:
That was a great album and a great experience, but from a guitar standpoint the track Wild And Free really stands out. It was really cool because it was an uptempo kind of punky rocker thing, and once again, it was the sort of solo I would have done on a Bowie record. “Overnight Angels was recorded not long after Station To Station, actually, so I was in the same mode, and I even used the same Strat that I used on Stay. It was recorded up in Canada at a place north of Montreal called Le Studio – and the place burned down while we were recording! It’s a really aggressive guitar part on that track, and it’s one of my favorite cuts off that album. Ian was in a great place, and we really had a great time making that record, except for the fire. The guitar burned up, too.
He says "great" four times in this quote