Blue Peter's promising push
By Michael Hollett
May 26-June 1, 1983
Blue Peter burst on the Toronto music scene back in 1978 with a confident swagger and unique sound that wouldn't be denied. But it was, and now, five years later, Blue Peter has learned to function as a band whose potential has yet to be matched by their success.
Because of the initial publicity the band attracted, hopes were high and a lot was looked for from a band whose members were all in their teens. As a result, the band has done much of its development under the steely-eyed stare of an expectant public. And to some, this has meant Blue Peter has been viewed as a band that's stalling instead of merely going through the growing pains that others have experienced in the privacy or their rec rooms or half empty bars.
When Joni Mitchell shows up at one of your club gigs and goes on record as a fan - as she did at Larry's in 1980 -pretty good just isn't good enough. This scrutiny has forced the band members to develop a distance from which to define their own musical and career goals. And it's been a process that's resulted in regular personal shifts, more than one change of managers and even a split with their record company.
But the band's sound has always indicated that sooner or later, Blue Peter would be able to put it all together. They have that spark in their style and a unique sound, not fully developed, that sets them apart from the morass of dance band duds.
With the release this week of their fourth vinyl offering, an album called Falling, Blue Peter is serving notice that they have their musical and career ideas firmly in hand and are embarking on a significant new stage in their development.
Falling has a mature, distinct sound that reflects the seasoned advice of imported producer Steve Nye (known for his engineering and production work with Roxy Music, Japan, Stevie Wonder and many others). Coupled with Nye's input, Blue Peter have added keyboard player Jason Sniderman and drummer Owen Tennyson and the result is an album that delivers clear musical concepts propelled by strong lead vocals, solid songwriting and clean arrangements.
It's a sound that's slick and flirts with commerciality without succumbing. Falling is filled with bounce and ballads. Functioning as the musical focal point for Blue Peter now, as in the past, is talented a singer Paul Humphrey.
He's got a powerful voice with plenty of range and style to which people are quick to attribute influences. It's a crooning style with hints of Frank Sinatra, David Bowie and Bryan Ferry in it. Humphrey uses his voice like a talented old veteran and his pipes are the wheels that make Blue Peter move. He also ha sweat ABC would affectionalty call "the look". He has sharp features and straight hair that's permanently askew, making him look like Lawrence Harvey. It's the rock dude look that includes baggy suits and padded shoulders.
Performing live, in front of a roomful of industry types last week, Humphrey functions as a metaphor for the band itself.At first he bounds on stage and grabs the room in his hands, smiling slyly in control like a rock 'n roll Valentino. With a snap of a finger the band is turned on and the room fills with a sound fuller than past Peter projects. With the band playing as a skillful unit, Humphrey works the sound, restraining its simmering strength, pinching his vocals and then letting it all gush out.
They sound good and Humphrey knows it, but the industry crowd is unmoved, flat. Somewhere in the middle of the evening Humphrey starts to falter, barely noticeably, but somehow the confidence starts to ebb and that 'I know I'm good' quality that's necessary to carry his music starts to wane. Like a four prop place, down one engine, Humphrey carries the band gamely through the set in front of a still unmoved crowd. Then, as they prepare to wind up with Don't Walk Past, the hot single from the new album, Humphrey brings it all home, moving the band boldly through a song he knows is good, even if the audience doesn't. And then they slip, almost quietly, off stage, knowing they've given a show better than the one the crowd seems to have seen but no doubt nagged a little by the thought that just maybe the crowd was right and they were wrong.
Over the years Humphrey and guitarist/songwriter Chris Wardman - the only remaining Peter originals - have gotten good at defining their view of what they want to do and when they want to do it. Like a bright light on a muggy night; Humphrey et al have drawn advice like mosquitos on how and what moves to make. Self-preservation has dictated that the band must define their own yardsticks or burn out trying to please the hoards of advisors.
Asked if he's been patient over the last five years, Humphrey says "just confident I guess. I always feel that we are improving so it never seems like any great rush to make a big bang. The longer it takes, the better we are."
Humphrey notes, sounding like a veteran performer, "I've never felt the need to make it overnight, that type of thing would be great but it never seemed that important. Developing musically and developing what Blue Peter is has been the priority."
And that type of thinking has caused the band to back off when bug things seemed imminent, not from a pragmatic desire to be in control of all the strings as their career unfolds.
So when their first album, Radio Silence, enjoyed enough success to heat up expectations and male a followup LP seem a priority, Blue Peter walked away from their record company.
"The time we spent without a record company and a manager was time that allowed us to function without other influences - it just makes you a lot stronger and you end up with a mnore clear sense of direction," says Humphrey.
Ready Records' Andy Crosbie, who helped sign the band back in '78 and again this time around, says "the year without a label cost them time" but adds, "These guys haven't changed a lot but the industry and the public have, they're ready for them now."
The record company obviously believes this because they're putting a lot of energy and cash into the band. Ready helped the band put together a video for Don't Walk Past and it's a treat. Blue Peter avoids the pretty, dance band rut of packing their video with heavily made-up women being threatened by a bunch of good looking guys. MTV plans to start airing it soon.
Crosbie notes that at the time of the split, the band probably felt "they were growing faster than the label, which was kind of true.
"Blue Peter need the opportunity to work with a good budget and a guy like Steve Nye and, ironically, when they were ready to record again, we were in a position to offer it."
Humphrey credits Nye for many of the band's strengths on Falling and explains much of the success of the producer's approach.
"He directs you subtly, never telling you what to do. the control Nye exhibits is more ion bringing out the bast in the performers than dictating the sound."
It's clear that Nye helped the band control their studio enthusiasm. Like many new bands in the studio, Blue Peter's earlier work tended to sound overproduced, you had to cut through the sound to get to the talent.
"Steve made us realize we should keep the sound clean." Humphrey notes, "He played a definite role in out maturation and made us develop higher respect for the sound of the parts of a song. He made us realize , for example, that an individual keyboard part, if done properly, can carry the whole thing. You don't need to keep putting on more layers and other instruments."
With a good studio experience behind them, Humphrey reflects on the band's year on their own and their experiences recording and marketing a single, as well as producing the Up To You EP, which Ready later marketed for them.
"The experience of making Chinese Graffiti and the EP was good but I'm glad we don't have to do it all the time. It's exciting doing it on your own but with Ready we get the artistic freedom we want so we don't need to do it again.
"After you get your EP recorded, a band wants to be out gigging or working on their sound. Instead, you have to worry about all the things record companies worry about. Instead of taking year and learning how to do those things ourselves, we're happy to have people working with us who we can trust and who are good at it." says Humphrey.
Blue Peter will be showing off their new sound this Friday night at B.J.Cuddles and, in front of a roomful of music fans instead of industry snores, the room should be very, very hot.