Strange that I might say that, of all the sad stories in the world of pop music, Chris Rea’s strikes me as being one. He had quite a lot of success in the UK, but less here in America. That’s not to say he didn’t have hits. His first, most recognizable track was the Yacht Rock classic “Fool (If You Think It’s Over)” from the oddly titled record Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? It was produced by Gus Dudgeon who helmed many of Elton John’s best records. Rea would have more songs enter the American consciousness, but mostly via Muzak where his carefully, perhaps too carefully, appropriated sense of pop, blues, and jazz was tailor-made for music not meant to ruffle feathers (the reason why Muzak was invented).
So you know the tracks “Julia,” “On The Beach,” and “Looking For The Summer” but may not be able to pinpoint why, where you heard them, or how precisely you feel about them. You’ve also heard Rea’s weathered yet accurate voice before: that gruff timbre that still holds the notes without bluffing through. There is talent to be reckoned with there, even if there is a heavier burden laid on competency over passion. His songs tend to know what they’re doing, too much for their own good.
The other aspect of Rea’s misfortune is that he always seemed to arrive a little too early or too late, but never land “on the one,” metaphorically speaking. He cast his lot with a more blues-based approach before Eric Clapton lapsed back into it and didn’t get all that far with the approach. He leaned into that jazzy side but without enough force to make a proper dent — and this was during the rise of Kenny G, so that alone has got to sting. He tried electronica on The Road To Hell 2 and got about as much respect for it as Clapton and Simon Climie did with their TDF project (meaning none at all).
Chris Rea was a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, that’s all; but if you stopped looking for someone else’s fingerprints in his music, you’d often be surprised. I’m particularly enamored by the songs “Julia” from Espresso Logic and “Bombollini” from Wired To The Moon. But most of all, I am taken by his darker entry The Road To Hell, which arrived in the late 1980s. Ostensibly, The Road To Hell is a concept album placing the ills of modern life into a blues-rock setting as illustrated by the first two tracks (“The Road To Hell Parts 1 and 2”), the first being a supernatural lament touching upon giving up individuality to succeed, or to merely survive, as witnessed by the ‘ghost mother’ who warms, “You have strayed upon the motorway to Hell.” The subsequent section details what that is: the voracious appetite of modernity that manifests itself as ecological poison, credit card slavery, and the degradation of human relationships.
The next track, “You Must Be Evil,” is a direct screed against television violence especially during times where the viewership skews young. In England, controversies peaked at times over daytime/early evening programming when acts of sudden violence seemed to appear from nowhere. Ordinarily a suggestive show, there had been an outcry against the latter years of Tom Baker’s run as Dr. Who where national morality groups were up in arms over shootings, stabbings, and drownings depicted on the show. In the U.S. it was not much better as cartoons that were more commercials for toys than much else regularly fired guns and blew up planes. This doesn’t even begin to speak of the actual weekday news programs that showed real acts of aggression before the viewership. The crux of the song is Rea’s visceral response to television’s callous lack of restraint — “You made my baby daughter cry; what’s wrong with you? You must be evil…”
The themes in these tracks reappear in “Looking For A Rainbow” and “That’s What They Always Say,” and the album concludes with the beautiful yet heavy-handed (in my opinion, rightly heavy-handed) “Tell Me There’s A Heaven,” which is about faith in crisis, the desire to believe in the things that saw us through as humans and as spiritual beings, even when the evidence constantly asserts otherwise. It is a call, again from the voice of a child, to believe in what becomes harder and harder to justify; a desire for someone somewhere to reassure us we have not become solely the product of sexual accidents, another animal in the foodchain, that faith is still worth clinging to. It is a sentiment shared by Rea the father who seemingly pleads, “Don’t tell her, tell me.”
It would be wrong to say this is a perfect album. It isn’t, and that mostly is because of Rea’s consistently measured approach. There are times when you want him to rise up like a hellfire preacher to batter down the societal decay with streams of righteous rage, but are met with something much more polite and uncharacteristic of the material itself. At times you want him to keep on with a guitar run, and let it be said here that Rea is a great guitar player. He has the chops to give stalwarts like Mark Knopfler a serious challenge, but he seldom does. Again it falls to measured steps and an unease to render the passion that was evident in the concept.
And speaking of the concept, from out of nowhere there are two songs, “Texas” and “Daytona” that just do not fit in at all. On any other Chris Rea album they would have worked perfectly well, but the contrast on this record was whiplash-inducing. So how does all this mark Chris Rea as a sad story in the pop music chronology? The answer is that, for the first time, I think he was right on target with his time. Rather than being too soon or too late, he had produced an honest-to-God protest record in the age that demanded a protest record. And even with his hesitance to attack his subjects in a full-blooded way, The Road To Hell is Rea’s most consistently rewarding disc. Even with the pathos slathered on it, it is impossible for me not to be moved by “Tell Me There’s A Heaven.” Who among us who still has a semblance of faith hasn’t quoted Frederick Buechner: ”If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.” The slide section at the end of “The Road To Hell Part 2” confirms Rea’s skills on guitar, and if you take the record for what it is, and not what you were hoping it could be, it stands up rather well, especially nearly 24 years on. Having seen daytime television go from bad to superbad; the toxic results of years of disregard to sustainability emerging as wicked, wild weather unseen in our personally recorded times; and a league of people who have taken the goodness of faith and a belief in a peaceful afterlife and turned it into a cudgel to beat anyone not like them, Rea’s album has that awful power of reminding us after the fact, “Look, I told you.”
That is what makes Rea such a sad story in my mind. At the moment everything was converging for him to tell the message he was so appointed to give, few listened. Oh, he had some supporters. I recall on numerous occasions David Letterman would quote the signature phrase from the record on his show, specifically when the gears of the program were showing more than he would have chosen: “This ain’t no technological breakdown. Oh no, this is the road to Hell.” The songs got some spins on the radio, but mostly at night when adventurous DJs and college radio types would dare.
Rea still makes music but it tends to stay confined to the UK. His biggest impact in America remains those Yacht Rock tunes that, while pleasant, pretty, and inoffensive, continue on that department store Muzak loop like a soundtrack to retail purgatory. The Road To Hell was an indicator that he deserves something better than that.