The early musical output of popular artists is the stuff of semi-legend and fan obsession — Aretha Franklin’s Columbia recordings, Little Richard the blues singer, Madonna’s New York demos, and … Cyndi Lauper, retro chick?
BLUE ANGEL GETS ITS WINGS
Formed in 1977, Blue Angel featured John Turi on keyboards and saxophone, Arthur Neilson on guitar, Lee Brovitz on bass guitar, Johnny Morelli on drums and a certain Cynthia Ann Lauper throwing down major lead vocals. Bringing a full-on retro-rockabilly/girl-group vibe, Blue Angel were wrapped in a rapturous love for well-crafted early ’60s pop and rock. Groups with a similar aesthetic, such as some early B-52′s, also come to mind. Blue Angel, however, were much more easily appreciated than many other groups of their kind — making it all the more baffling that they were not nearly as successful as their counterparts. Where were the pop, new wave, and rock fans of the time who were screaming for something new and fresh?
Cyndi and bandmate John Turi wrote much of the group’s material. True to their roots, they also covered pop standards both on record and during their local New York club concerts. Cyndi and company would regularly deliver raw, rocking renditions of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” Little Richard’s “Keep On Knocking,” and the Connie Francis confection “Lipstick on Your Collar.” It was a testament to their emerging talent that they could equal and sometimes surpass the fun of the originals. They were wildly popular in the clubs, where they even had one of their local concerts broadcast on the radio. It was looking like nothing but blue skies for Blue Angel.
BLUE ANGEL TAKES FLIGHT
In 1980, Blue Angel went the major-label route with their self-titled debut for Polydor.
Consisting of many of their well-honed live tracks, the album was neato keen with a retro sheen. From the kickoff, the band is jumping and jiving in fine form while Cyndi announces herself as a new vocal force to be reckoned with. Their deep-rooted love for Brill Building brilliance is at the forefront of every cut. The pep rally has clearly begun, full of soda-pop fizz and bubblegum dreams with the hot pink Ms. Lauper as the head cheerleader doing vocal cartwheels. Knowing this was their big shot, the band pays homage to the organ-guitar-drums- and-bass-driven songs that they grew up loving. A right-on rhythm section is punctuated by John Turi doubling on sax just in the nick of time. Wailing above it all is Blue Angel’s resident rafter shaker.
“Maybe He’ll Know”
The album begins in killer form with what is arguably the group’s best-known song. Cyndi’s got an ache engraved in her like stone, blissfully pining for the love she’s almost certain will set her free and give her what she needs. The rest of the band races to keep up with her increasingly frenzied plea.
“Maybe He’ll Know” should have had the easiest time making them mainstream mainstays — but it didn’t. However, it continued to prove so popular among fans that it was overhauled and re-recorded for Cyndi’s 1986 solo album True Colors. It was also later included in the early-’80s-themed film 200 Cigarettes.
“I Had a Love” (download)
A lifetime in a moment. One of the original singles, “I Had a Love” is a sweet, simple song of yearning for a love that ended too soon. Producer Roy Halee does a nice job adapting Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” to fit the song’s girl-group vibe, although few actual girl groups from the ’60s could match the emotional intensity that surges through this one. Lovelorn prom queen Cyndi gives the lyrics an aching, almost unbearable reading.
“I’m Gonna Be Strong”
This cover song is a retake of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann’s 1965 classic, made famous by Gene Pitney. Now legendary among fans, it was the group’s most successful single but still only managed to reach #37 during its original release — in the Netherlands.
Cyndi’s vocal performance is nothing short of thrilling in its defiant declaration that her lover is free to leave her. Oh, but after he kisses her goodbye, you’ll break down and cry right along with her. The enduring popularity of “I’m Gonna Be Strong” resulted in it being rerecorded for Cyndi’s 1995 compilation Twelve Deadly Cyns … and Then Some. If any song shows off her unmatched vocal firepower, it’s this one.
Easily the most haunting song on the album is this aching lament. Bittersweet lyrics bring to life the memories of a love lost late in life. A man recalls meeting a girl by chance and spending the rest of his life with her — until she’s taken away from him. Cyndi’s vocals are at first wistful and then build to an impassioned crescendo that lingers long after the music fades. Did I mention those lyrics?
He’s rocking on a porch you used to know
Here where he swore his love was true
He sips his drink and dreams the days of old
That’s when he fell, fell for you.
The Blue Angel album received polite applause from critics but was largely ignored in America. Similar to Cyndi’s later solo career, Blue Angel sold many more records in other parts of the world. Undaunted, the band began a second album that was never released and they were subsequently dropped by Polydor. The band persevered and continued to perform live until 1982, when they gave their final concert at Studio 54. After the band parted ways with their manager, he filed an $80,000 lawsuit against them that forced Cyndi into bankruptcy. Money changes everything, indeed.
BLUE SKIES AGAIN
Blue Angel represents the years before Cyndi Lauper would become the pop iconoclast/new wave goddess that she is now universally regarded as. That she would inadvertantly ignite her own sort of musical revolution in the ’80s is apparent even on these early gems, however. Ms. Lauper seemingly emerged from Nowheresville to claim her rightful place in music history. The unfortunate fate of her first group was, thankfully, only a temporary bump in her yellow brick road.
Blue Angel are yet another unique act that U.S. music fans fell asleep on. Were they ahead of their time? It would be several years before acts such as the Stray Cats would break through with their own brand of retro rock. The lone album Blue Angel released is a true lost treasure for pop, rock, and new wave fans.
But the music lives on … and the beat’s a sweet, soft refrain.
Blue Angel can be purchased in limited quantities at Hip-O Select.