Review by Andy Hawes for MPM
AOR fans and collectors – This one is for you!
Back in 1985, American Rock band Starship finally abandoned the somewhat progressive and hippy stylings of the original Jefferson Airplane and went full-on corporate AOR with the album Knee Deep In The Hoopla, a move which, although it eventually led to Grace Slick leaving the band, gave them a new era of success that possibly eclipsed their original run of success from the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Part of this was the success of the quite superb single ‘Tomorrow Doesn’t Matter Tonight’ which was co-written by emerging songwriter Robin Randall, daughter and songwriting partner of lyricist Judithe Randall.
Over the remainder of the 1980s, into the 1990s and beyond, Judithe and Robin Randall, alongside a range of other songwriters, created a vast catalogue of songs that were demoed by some of the best session vocalists of the time (some of whom went on to great success with bands).
Some were pitched to other bands/artists and some appeared on TV show Baywatch but many were lost to history as the musical climate shifted in the early 1990s.
Fast forward to 2021 and Andrew McNeice of www.melodicrock.com and Melodic Rock Records has worked with Robin Randall to bring together the very best of the Randalls’ catalogue (Judithe Randall sadly passed away in 2002) into the 8 CD limited edition box set Hollyridgeland, named after the house in Los Angeles where the Randalls lived and threw quite legendary music scene parties back in the day.
The 8 CD box set is a costly limited edition affair but word has it that McNeice intends to release the tracks digitally in 2022 which will be great as not all of us enjoy our music on CD any more.
This box set, released under the Melodic Rock Classics label, has quite clearly been a massive labour of love for all concerned and represents a quite staggering legacy of AOR and Pop songwriting. Given that the majority of the tracks on this set are demos (some of which are over 30 years old), the sound quality and mastering are really quite stunning. However, what stands out from listening to this (and it is a mammoth undertaking to listen throughout all 8 CDs) is the quality and consistency in the songwriting – both lyrically and musically – across all the discs.
Judithe Randall was a very accomplished lyricist, with a real knack for developing simple but effective imagery. The tracks are most often love songs, but she manages to take her lyrics somewhat beyond the lowest common denominator so prevalent in 80s corporate Rock lyricism.
The production value of the box set is extremely high with very extensive liner notes and lovely packaging. In addition, purchasers also received digital copies of all tracks, plus even more exclusive bonus tracks digitally, a quite common feature of McNeice’s sales and marketing – he loves to provide the fans with the best deal possible and, even though this set is costly, it is still good value for the money. So, let’s have a look at each of the CDs in a little detail to see what we are getting.
CD1 – Say It Like You Mean It Featuring The Vocals of Marcie Free
The first CD features the amazing vocal talents of Marcie (formerly Mark) Free, vocalist with King Kobra, Signal and Unruly Child. Free is unquestionably one of the greatest AOR singers of all time and her performance on these tracks is, as always, totally fabulous. Free’s voice is really something else, going from a delicate whisper to full-throated roar, and with a range that astounds the listener. Hearing her hit those high notes can send shivers down the spine, such is the power, the strength of delivery and the tone that she achieves.
Overall, there are some really lovely songs on this disc. Standout tracks include ‘Darker Shades of Love’ which has a chorus to absolutely die for, ‘When The Heartache Hits You’ which is almost West-Coast in its sound and style, ‘Love Speaks Louder Than Words’ and ‘Hard Heart To Break’ (originally on the 1993 classic Long Way From Love album, of which more on CD2). The rest of the tracks are all very good too.
One could argue that there are a few too many slow tracks, but for an AOR completist and for any fan of any of Marcie Free’s projects over the years, this CD is an extremely compelling listen. Free’s voice is staggeringly good and the songwriting is of a very high standard throughout. It certainly sets the bar high enough for the rest of the box set and even better is yet to come!
CD2 – Long Way From Love (Reimagined)
Now we’re talking! This second CD is an alternate version of Marcie Free’s brilliant 1993 album Long Way From Love. This album was originally released on AOR specialist label Now & Then Records and is rightly recognised as an absolute classic of the AOR genre despite the fact that all the tracks are, in effect, demos. Here, the tracks are presented with alternate versions, mostly the same instrumental backing but with different singers, although a few tracks are alternate recordings from the era by bands/artists to whom the songs were pitched.
Long Way From Love is an absolutely phenomenal AOR album anyway and hearing alternate vocalists sing these tracks is a genuine delight. Diana Dewitt absolutely slays every track she touches on this CD – she sang backup vocals on the original album and was part of the touring band that came to the UK for two legendary shows in 1993 (I was lucky enough to be at one of them!) Her version of the utterly classic ‘The Last Time’ even threatens to outshine Marcie Free’s original version.
In addition, James Christian (House of Lords) adds his very considerable vocal talents to ‘Slow Down The Night’, showing exactly why Gregg Giuffria snapped him up for House of Lords in the late 1980s.
Kristina Nichols (The Storm), Scandinavian songstress Aina and Steve Zell (who appeared on the Baywatch soundtrack) also provide very powerful tracks to this superb CD. However it is the bands Airkraft and After Hours who provide perhaps the most polished tracks here.
Airkraft provide ‘Someday You’ll Come Running To Me’ (also notably recorded by British AORsters FM on their classic 1989 album Tough It Out) which was on their 1990 album Into The Red. While I personally prefer FM’s version, this one is absolutely superb, with a handful of subtle production and arrangement changes to make it just that little bit different.
Similarly, British AOR band After Hours (who released one album, Take Off on FM Revolver Records back in 1988) tackle the stunning ‘State of Love’ and turn it into a piece of multi-layered over-the-top AOR brilliance. On this track, vocalist John Francis, who had come across a bit like a Steve Perry clone on the Take Off album, really finds his own identity with a vocal performance of stunning intensity and power. After Hours also tackle their own version of probably the best track on the album, the wonderful ‘The Last Time’ and absolutely slay that as well! It’s a crime that After Hours didn’t get the chance to release a second album back in the day – on the strength of these two tracks, they deserved far more success than they achieved.
Overall, the tracks from the original Long Way From Love album really benefit from these re-imaginings and the bonus tracks (that appeared in their original format on a re-release of the original CD back in 1998) add an extra layer of excellence to what is an utterly classic set of songs. If nothing else, download or stream this CD when the tracks are made available digitally in 2022, as it is without question THE highlight of this entire box set and remains an almost perfect example of how to write and perform a classic AOR album.
CD3 – Eyes Of Night Featuring The Vocals of James Christian
The third CD (Eyes of Night) features the brilliant James Christian from House of Lords. Christian is another vocalist of astonishing talent with a unique vocal tone all of his own and it is great to hear his wonderful voice on this set of songs. You’ll find further alternate versions of ‘The Last Time’ and ‘State of Love’ on this CD also and it’s interesting to hear them again with Christian’s vocals on them as he does put his own stamp on them.
The CD opens with ‘Where Are You Now’ which originally appeared on the album Night Street by Australian AOR/Melodic Rockers in 1991. Good as that original version undoubtedly is, this version by James Christian blows it out of the water. It is an absolutely stunning piece of AOR.
Christian is best known for fronting House of Lords, whose sound has always been at the harder end of the AOR spectrum – more Melodic Hard Rock than AOR really, so it is a real pleasure to hear him tackle proper soft-rock AOR like ‘Breaking Through The Silence’. Like Marcie Free, Christian has a huge vocal range and it is used to great effect on these songs. He tackles the Venus and Mars track ‘Leave Well Enough Alone’ which had a female lead vocal in that other version. Here, on the original demo of the song, the male vocal works superbly such is the quality of Christian’s vocal.
The opening three tracks on this CD set the tone for the rest of it; extremely well-written and performed AOR with oodles of melody and the requisite chunky guitars, wailing solos and parping keyboards. It’s all very 1980s and very, very good!
As with most CDs in this set, the sound quality varies a little from one track to the next (some of them are clearly very much ‘demo’ quality) but don’t let that put you off. Fans of James Christian should download or stream this CD as soon as it’s available digitally in 2022 as it is another highlight of this whole box set and is absolutely superb!
CD4 – Hard Heart To Break Featuring The Vocals of Diana DeWitt
The fourth CD features the awesome talents of Diana Dewitt, who was a session singer in the 1980s/1990s (she sings backup vocals on many tracks elsewhere in the box set). She also released two albums with Robin Randall in the band Venus and Mars in the mid-late 1990s and has some rather good solo material available on digital platforms from more recently. DeWitt has a staggeringly good voice (she is one of this reviewer’s favourite female rock vocalists of all time) and she puts it to great use on all of the tracks on this CD. There are clear similarities to Heart’s Ann Wilson in DeWitt’s delivery so that gives you some idea of the quality we’re talking here, although she is by no means a clone and definitely has her own identity throughout.
There are versions of ‘Hard Heart To Break’ and ‘Slow Down The Night’ from Long Way From Love which are as stunning as you’d expect and sound brilliant with the female vocal. There is also ‘Bless a Brand New Angel’ which appeared on Baywatch as well as several tracks later included on the two Venus and Mars albums.
Standout tracks on this CD include the two Long Way From Love tracks, ‘Bless a Brand New Angel’ (which is a quite beautiful ballad), ‘Leave Well Enough Alone’, which appeared on New Moon Rising by Venus and Mars in 1998 and a great version of Starship’s ‘Tomorrow Doesn’t Matter Tonight’ which has a very different production to the 1985 hit.
A couple of the tracks on this CD are alternate versions of tracks from CD1 and CD2 and, as with all of these duplicates, hearing them with different singers does actually work and it’s hard to decide which version is preferable. This CD does also contain a few tracks that stray further from the typical AOR path than any other tracks so far. ‘Isobel’ is one, with folky guitars, piano and recorder and a folk-styled lyric. ‘Venus and Mars’ and ‘Bless A Brand New Angel’ are beautiful ballads with fairly stripped back arrangements and production. There is also a track called ‘Dirty Dancing’ which was originally pitched for the classic movie of the same name, biu didn’t make the cut. This is a soulful piano and saxophone-led piece of Pop-Rock and DeWitt absolutely slays the vocal.
Overall, this CD might not quite match the utter brilliance of CD2 and CD3 but it’s not a million miles away and, like CD2, the sound quality is more consistent across the tracks than either CD 1 or CD3 and the simple and inescapable fact here is that Diana DeWitt could sing the phone book and make it sound great and whatever the song demands, she delivers big time.
CD5 – Look Me Up When You’re Falling Down: Vocals From The Men
The fifth CD is a collection of songs sung by a range of male vocalists including Robert Tepper (most famous for ‘No Easy Way Out’ from Rocky 4), Curt Cuomo, Tony Sciuto, Kelly Keagy of Night Ranger, plus several other lesser-known vocalists. Robert Tepper kicks things off with the absolutely stunning AOR of ‘Look Me Up When You’re Falling Down’. This is one of those tracks that has that very typical 80s AOR chord progression in the chorus (if you’re an AOR fan, you’ll know the one I mean!) yet it still sounds fresh and the chorus melody burrows into your brain and won’t let go. Tepper also treats us to an all acoustic version of the James Christian track ‘Mother Night’ from Christian’s 1994 solo album Rude Awakening. Curt Cuomo provides a superb version of the brilliant ‘Darker Shades of Love’ which has already appeared elsewhere in the set.
The sound quality is quite variable on this CD, as once again, it’s obvious that the tracks are mostly old demo recordings. In common with the whole package, they have been cleaned up amazing well, though. Probably the best sounding tracks are by Edge of the Blade with a quite superb track called ‘Life is for Living’ which is kick-ass AOR of the very highest order, and After Hours who provide a killer version of ‘Never Be A Next Time’ which is another of the tracks that originally appeared on Marcie Free’s Long Way From Love. This version has more guitar layers and vocalist John Francis once again slays the challenging range in the lead vocal.
Overall, this is rather like CD1 in that it is a very cool collection of songs, with some that are absolutely essential AOR listening and a few that are a little more forgettable.
CD6 – If You Dare To Dream: The Ladies Rock!
The Sixth CDfeatures a range of female vocalists including Aina (who released the quite brilliant Living In A Boys’ World in 1988), Windy Wagner (who was singer for many of the songs in the TV show Glee), studio singer Renee Martin and Kristina Nichols (The Storm). Aina tackles the first few songs, including a quite superb alternate version of James Christian’s ‘Mother Night’ which opens the CD. Aina’s contributions to this CD also include the delightful pure Pop of ‘Comedy of Time’ and a very cool alternate version of ‘Never Could Call It Love’ which has already appeared within the box set.
Windy Wagner then gives us two tracks. She has a very lovely and very pure voice but it is somewhat lacking in identity. The tracks are very twee soft Pop/Rock; nice enough, but they’re probably not tracks you’ll return to very often.
Ronee Martin’s contributes three tracks, one of which is a duet. She has a quite beautiful voice, full of power and character. ‘(Between The) Rainbow And The Rain’ is a delightful 1980’s style Soul-Pop duet – the sort of thing that you’d expect on any 80s B-movie soundtrack. She continues in the same vein with her remaining tracks. The songs are certainly stronger than the Windy Wagner ones and they sound a million dollars, but there’s not much here for a Rock fan to get excited about.
The ‘Rock’ finally returns with Kristina Nichols’ contributions. These tracks don’t have the polished sound of the previous tracks on this CD, but they will probably have more interest for the die-hard AOR fans out there. There’s a distinct Vixen feel about ‘Love Has No Mercy’ (which is no bad thing) and ‘Know You In The Dark’ (previously seen in original demo format on CD3) is a fabulous piece of Witness-styled AOR. These really are two absolutely cracking tracks – 1980s style AOR of the very highest calibre.
The remaining three tracks are a mixed bag, with Mara Getz’s version of ‘Eyes of Night’ (previously heard on CD3) being the pick of the bunch.
Overall, this CD is rather like CD1 and CD5 in that it has some songs that are absolutely superb and a few that are a little less memorable, especially if you’re looking for songs that rock out a little.
CD7 – Breaking Through The Silence Featuring The Vocals Of Steve Zell
The seventh CD features vocalist Steve Zell. Where singers like Steve Perry, Lou Gramm, Marcie Free and James Christian (amongst others) are almost instantly recognisable due to their own unique tone, Steve Zell is a little more ‘faceless’ as he sounds not unlike many other similar vocalists out there peddling AOR/Melodic Rock back in the day (there is a definite similarity to Marcie Free in his tone). However, what makes Steve Zell special is that he seems to have an almost infinite range and he does a superb job on all of the tracks on this CD.
‘Breaking Through The Silence’ is a superb piece of AOR that wouldn’t have been out of place on Long Way From Love. We’ve heard this before on CD3 but this is my preferred version–it has Diana DeWitt on backing vocals which really elevates the awesome chorus to new heights. ‘The Last Time’ is one of the best songs in this entire collection. It has appeared in several of the other CDs and of course, was on the original Long Way From Love CD. Here, it is a stripped down piano/vocal version and is really cool! It just shows that a great song is a great song no matter how you strip it down or produce it up. ‘If I could Touch You One More Time’ was apparently on Baywatch and sounds like it – it’s a big soppy ballad that would have been perfect in an emotional love scene in the series. Zell has the perfect voice for this kind of thing, purring the lyrics out with considerable style!
‘Making Love By The Letter’ sounds a little like a Huey Lewis & The News outtake. It’s a very cool track and Zell makes it his own with an authoritative vocal. ‘Coin City Landerette’ is a lovely piece of West-Coast AOR that also benefits from Diana DeWitt’s stunning backing vocals and a silky mid-paced groove.
The remaining tracks on this CD are all well-written and extremely well-sung and cover a range of soft Rock styles, with West-Coast-esque AOR being a common theme. Mid-paced and ballad style tracks predominate, which, great though Zell is at singing them, does make it a bit of an easy-listening late night listen and as such, may be of less interest to Rock fans and, good though the ballads are, too many in a row can be a challenging listen.
CD8 – Falling To You: The Collaborations of Robin Randall & Bill LaFleur
The eighth and final CD features songwriting collaborations between Robin Randall and Bill Lafleur. The tracks on this CD are sung by a variety of singers, none of whom I have ever heard. Stylistically these tracks are very different from the classy AOR we’ve heard on the best of this set, but that’s because they have been written much more recently – none of these tracks predate the year 2000 – so a more contemporary style is in evidence. Once again, the quality of the songwriting is very high.
Opener ‘Falling To You’, along with ‘In An Instant’ (sung by Michelle Staffieri) are delightful pieces of light-weight, catchy Pop-Rock – AOR for the 21st century perhaps. However you categorise them though, these are very fine songs and deserve to be heard. ‘Did You Forget To Forget Me?’ (also sung by Staffieri) is more guitar-heavy and the vocal isn’t a million miles away from the sort of thing Avril Lavigne or Orianthi might do. It’s another very strong track. These are followed by Vanessa Bryan’s ‘Letting Go’ which isn’t a million miles away from the sort of thing that Anastacia was doing on her first two albums, being a lovely combination of Soul, Pop and Rock.
Sopa White provides three tracks of pleasant modern pop. They are good songs and she has a vocal style typical of many female artists today. The rest of the CD is in a similar vein with a variety of singers lending their talents to the songs. Truth to tell none of them have the voices to compare with contributions from Marcie Free, Diana DeWitt, James Christian, Aina or Kristina Nichols, but they are all very good songs. There’s little here to appeal to the average Rock fan though. The standout track from the rest of the CD is probably ‘Those Days In The 70s’ which is a delightful piece of work that has West-Coast influences and has a pretty timeless sound.
Final Thoughts and Summary
It is abundantly clear that the Hollyridgeland project has been a quite immense labour of love for all involved. The sheer amount of material available here is staggering and it is inevitable that with such a vast amount of songs, some will strike the listener as being better than others. However, the way that the tracks have been organised within the package is very well done. This reviewer will play CD2, CD3 and CD4 the most often, closely followed by CD1 and it is probably fair to say that these, along with CD7 and CD8, are the most consistent in terms of the quality of the material. Having said that, there are stunning songs on all of the CDs and if the package is made fully available digitally and/or on streaming services then potential listeners who don’t wish to fork out for the remaining copies of the CD box set will be able to select which tracks they download/stream or add to their playlists and there are many, many songs on here that deserve to be heard and enjoyed by many people.
If you are already a real connoisseur of 80s AOR, you’ll spend much of your time listening to this collection imagining what would have happened if some of the songs had been recorded with album budgets that giants of the genre such as Survivor, Heart, Starship, Journey, etc, enjoyed. Sadly, that never happened for almost all of these tracks, but nonetheless even in their demo format it’s so easy to recognise the songwriting and arrangement qualities inherent in the vast majority of the songs within the set.
Overall, Hollyridgeland is an amazing tribute to masters of the craft of Melodic Rock and Pop songwriting. Andrew McNeice and Melodic Rock Classics are to be highly commended for getting this astonishing body of work out here for the fans to hear. It’s an amazing achievement on all counts. Most visitors to this site will probably only really be interested in the classic AOR moments and these are predominantly to be found on CD2, CD3 and CD4, with occasional tracks on CD1, CD5, CD6 and CD7. If you are an AOR fan and have the chance to hear these AOR styled tracks, for goodness sake do so, as they are excellent examples of classic AOR songwriting from a bunch of writers with insane amounts of talent.
Limited numbers of the boxed set are still available from: http://melodicrockclassics.com