Welcome to the Popdose Guide to The Call, a semi-forgotten group that had a couple of hits in the ’80s, but has seen its catalog fall out of print and into obscurity over the last ten years or so. It’s a shame, if you ask me. Of all the bands making earnest, sweeping Heartland Rock during the decade (see: U2; Alarm, The; BoDeans, The), The Call were among the most talented and consistent. Though songwriter Michael Been flirted with overt Christianity in his lyrics and themes, his faith was often so tortured that even the most devout atheist would find it hard to listen without feeling a little of that old-time religion. In other words: While freshly scrubbed, L.L. Bean-wearing chumps like Michael W. Smith â€” or the always-vile dc Talk â€” were busy bringing Jesus to the mall, Michael Been and The Call were digging bare-handed through the bloodstained soil of Gethsemane.
In discussing the band’s religious leanings, I realize I run the risk of scaring a few readers away from the music. For what it’s worth, I tend to find “Christian rock” mostly neither Christian nor rock — but I think what the open-minded listener has to appreciate about The Call is the music’s passion, regardless of its source. Been often sings â€” and the band often plays â€” like it’s pulling barbed wire through its vital organs. I’m not talking Slayeresque rage here, but commitment. Perhaps you’ll listen and hear what I mean. In any event, in most cases, the band’s religion is in the background, or not part of the picture at all, so I’m probably overstating that component of the music.
For everything before 1986, we have to go to the 1991 compilation The Walls Came Down: The Best of the Mercury Years, because the albums they recorded for the label between 1982-1984 are out of print (and, as far as I can tell, have never been released on CD anywhere in the world). This is largely the sound of a band that has yet to find its true identity, although it should be said that even The Call’s earliest recordings are, to a large extent, surer-footed than you’d have any right to expect. This is due partly to the influence of veterans like producer Hugh Padgham (The Police) and keyboard player Garth Hudson (The Band). Here we find the band’s first biggish hit, “The Walls Came Down.”
Next stop: 1986’s Reconciled, which contains the hits “Everywhere I Go” and “I Still Believe.” At this point, The Call was threatening to become a regular fixture on the charts, what with high-profile friendships with luminaries like Robbie Robertson and Jim Kerr (both of whom guest on Reconciled), not to mention the kings themselves, U2. But something funny happened on the way to fame & fortune â€” The Call, for whatever reason, missed the brass ring. For the first (but not the last) time in its career, the band found itself inexplicably at sea after a buildup of intense momentum generated by a seemingly unstoppable single.
By the time of 1987’s Into the Woods, the critical hosannas were coming fast and furious for the band â€” the album made year-end best-of lists for a handful of critics â€” while its commercial prospects were sinking like a stone. To be fair, in terms of Top 40 radio, Woods is a tough sell: from the thunderous, tear-stained howl of “I Don’t Wanna” to the smolderingly nasty “In the River,” this is a bleak, thorny set. And so it was that, high praise from the press notwithstanding, The Call found itself without a label for the second time.
The Call responded to their latest setback by recording what is perhaps the band’s most overtly commercial set, Let the Day Begin. The title track is one of the most perfect AOR anthems of the ’80s, and it became apparent soon after its release that MCA, the band’s new label, would have to really try and fuck things up to ruin what was sure to be a monster hit. They then proceeded, naturally, to do just that. MCA’s failure to do anything with this album remains one of the clearest examples of why artists and industry vets for years referred to the label as the “Music Cemetery of America.”
Having found themselves unable to secure chart success through concessions to their sound, The Call retrenched in 1990 and recorded what remains their finest album. Recorded live in the studio, with a bare minimum of modern gadgetry, Red Moon is a thing of delicate, tragic beauty, full of songs that rasp, sigh, and moan. Crafted with skill, assembled with care, drenched with love, the album hadn’t the slightest prayer of making a dent on the charts, but the band made a go of it anyway. Bono shows up to lend backing vocals to the set’s only single, “What’s Happened to You,” which MCA half-heartedly serviced to radio after Red Moon‘s release. While touring to promote the album, the band was informed that they were once more without a label. This time, they weren’t so quick to regroup â€” it would be the better part of a decade before they came together again.
The Best of The Call (1997)
purchase this album (Amazon)
In 1996, Warner Bros. â€” ironically, one of the only major labels the band hadn’t recorded for â€” released The Best of The Call, which featured all the old favorites and a handful of intriguing new songs. Two of them, “Us” and “To Feel This Way,” were alternate recordings of songs from Michael Been’s 1994 solo album, On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough. Like Red Moon, Been’s solo output didn’t have a snowball’s chance on the charts; largely recorded with the rhythm section from Gang of Four, it was an angular, often brutal collection of songs that had all of The Call’s emotional torment but little of their melodic impact. Compounding the album’s difficulties was the fact that it was released by Qwest Records, the Warners imprint run by Quincy Jones. Even when Qwest’s artists had anything to do with music Jones knew something about â€” i.e. jazz and R&B â€” they sold minimally. It was a poorly run label. Breakthrough was a middling album, at best. The re- recordings from Best rescue two of the album’s better songs from oblivion, and one new song, “All You Hold On To,” offered a tantalizing glimpse of the band’s future.
The following year, The Call returned with To Heaven and Back, which â€” though overall a basically strong set â€” represented a noticeable comedown from Red Moon and Let the Day Begin. With the possible exception of “World On Fire,” which had been a Been solo recording on the soundtrack to the Willem Dafoe movie Light Sleeper, these recordings don’t have the raw power of the band’s best music, which is a real shame, because they haven’t released anything since. When niche bands like Pere Ubu and The Fall can continue releasing albums on a semi-regular basis, you’d think a marginally more mainstream band like The Call would be able to find a way to keep on going. A small group of devoted fans continues to hold out hope that Heaven isn’t the swan song it appears to be.
And then there’s the live album, Under the Red Moon, recorded during the 1990 tour and released ten years later. It’s a decent album, worth owning for fans and collectors, but ultimately not much more than a footnote in The Call’s catalog. Here are a pair of cuts, both performances of songs from Reconciled.
That’s all for now. As always, these files will be up until next Tuesday, when we’ll be looking at another artist, or genre, or something. Enjoy!