Russ Ballard - 'Russ Ballard' / 'Winning' / 'At The Third Stroke' Hot

Added by Central Electronic Brain     January 29, 2014    
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An opportunity to take a good look at the craft of one of British rock's foremost songwriters.

Russ Ballard is perhaps destined to be known more for covers of his songs, or Argent hits, than material released in his own name. Indeed, it's a fair bet that some rock fans will know and like Russ Ballard tracks without even knowing that he wrote them.

This particular BGO release collects together Ballard's first three solo albums on two discs. Disc 1 contains 1974s 'Russ Ballard' and the 1976 album 'Winning'. Disc 2 contains the 1978 album 'At The Third Stroke'. As a rule, I have a standing objection to reissues that squeeze albums together on the same disc. However, for those who've not yet checked out Ballard's solo career, here's an opportunity to pick up his first three albums for a budget price. This re-issued set comes complete with a well-written and sympathetic essay from John Tobler, which draws largely on Wikipedia and Ballard's website for its factual content, and a rather pointless slip case.

So, what of the music? 'Russ Ballard' is described by the man himself as "a collection of simple songs and very different from anything I'd recorded with Argent", and I don't think I can improve on that. In terms of sound and style, it's very much of its time. 'I Don't Believe In Miracles' – a hit for The Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone – is probably the album's best known track, though you can hear the hit potential in the ballads 'You Can Count On Me' and 'Venus (Shine Your Light)'. Lyrically, there's some nice wordplay throughout, and you sense you're in the hands of a songwriter who knows his craft. As an album, 'Russ Ballard' is a pleasant distraction which lacks, perhaps, a bit of bite and cohesion. It seems it wasn't a commercial success.

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'Winning' fails to offer an improvement in terms of bite and cohesion, but it does contain no less than five tracks that were later recorded by others. These include 'Since You Been Gone', which was covered most famously and successfully by Rainbow (though was also a minor US hit for both Head East in 1978 and Cherrie and Marie Currie in 1979) and 'Winning' itself, which Santana took into the US top 20 in 1981. Rockers may wish to note that the Rainbow reboot of 'Since You Been Gone' is far superior to the version presented here, not least because it's mercifully free of the irritating drum fill that mars Ballard's original. In addition, 'Born On Halloween' was covered by Suzanne, 'Just a Dream Away' was recorded by Roger Daltrey on his 'McVicar' soundtrack in 1980, and 'Are You Cuckoo?', which if I'm pushed is probably my favourite track from 'Winning', was covered by the Bay City Rollers.

'At The Third Stroke' has a bit more to it. With a smooth Keith Olsen production, and four of the guys from Toto among the guest musicians, it feels more like an "album" than just a collection of songs. Opening track 'Dancer' is heavier and rockier than the tracks on its predecessors. 'Helpless' has a strong AOR vibe which calls to mind Foreigner's 'Waiting for a Girl Like You'; 'Cast the Spirit' hosts the album's most memorable riff, and there's a very grand opening to 'I'm a Scorpio' that wouldn't be out of place on a Michael Schenker album (just add an 'n'). The lead guitar playing is tasteful throughout – though it's not clear what is attributable to Ballard himself and what is work of Fred Tackett. The funky disco rhythms of 'Look At Her Dance' and the cool sax of 'What Does it Take' add some variety, ensuring that 'At The Third Stroke' is more than just a straightforward rock album.

For the uninitiated, this reissue provides an opportunity to take a good look at the craft of one of British rock's foremost songwriters. There are those who believe that Ballard didn't get into his stride as a solo artist until later in his career. If you like what's here, you'll doubtless want to explore further. But it has to be said that this reissue falls short of the kind of 'deluxe' packaging that would make it a 'must have' for Ballard fans already familiar with the material.

Michael Anthony

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