Monday’s Music Moves Me – Artist Spotlight: FIREFALL

Firefall is a rock band that formed in Boulder, Colorado in 1974. It was founded by Rick Roberts, who had been in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Jock Bartley, who had been Tommy Bolin’s replacement in Zephyr.

How it all began: In 1973 Rick Roberts and Jock Bartley first crossed paths when Bartley was on tour with Gram Parsons as a member of his backing band The Fallen Angels. Both The Fallen Angels and Roberts were performing in New York City at the same venue on consecutive nights. After the two were reunited back in their native Colorado, Roberts was impressed by Bartley’s guitar work and the duo soon began practicing together. Encouraged to form a band, they contacted bassist-singer Mark Andes (a former member of the bands Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne, who had temporarily retired to the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado), and Washington D.C. singer-songwriter-guitarist Larry Burnett, whom Rick had met in his travels earlier that same year, and coaxed them into joining their band, which they christened Firefall in 1974. For the drum chair the group auditioned several local musicians but eventually decided, after a phone call from him, to add Roberts’ former band mate from Flying Burrito Brothers, Michael Clarke, who was most famous for his time spent in the ’60s folk-rock band The Byrds. Clarke, who was living in Washington, having recently returned from residing in Hawaii, agreed to come aboard.

The band tightened up their act performing in clubs in Colorado for over a year, mainly in Boulder and Aspen. In early 1975 the band recorded a demo tape consisting of three songs produced by Chris Hillman. They then began taking it around to major labels, finally getting signed with Atlantic Records.

The band’s biggest hit single, “You Are the Woman”, peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard charts in 1976. Other hits included “Just Remember I Love You” (#11 in 1977), “Strange Way” (#11 in 1978), “Cinderella” (#34 in 1977), “Headed for a Fall” (#35 in 1980), and “Staying with It” (#37 in 1981) with female vocalist Lisa Nemzo.

 

FUN FACT: How the name originated: Roberts took the name from the Yosemite Firefall (1872 to 1968), a summertime tradition of dumping a cascade of flaming embers off Glacier Point in California’s Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite Firefall – a long-exposure taken from the Ahwahnee Meadow

The mid-70s brought the band breakthroughs and successes. Their first album, the self-titled Firefall, was recorded in one month and released in April 1976. It went on to became Atlantic Records quickest album to reach gold status. The group’s first single, “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’,” stopped just short of the Top 40. In the following months, the band toured with artists such as Leon and Mary Russell, the Doobie Brothers, Tom Waits, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Roy Buchanan, Electric Light Orchestra and The Band and were put on the bottom of a bill that featured Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Asleep at the Wheel.

The group in 1977

The band’s next single, “You Are the Woman”, made the Top 10 and the band began touring with Fleetwood Mac, who were at the beginning of their commercial peak. Their next single, “Cinderella”, though it reached the Top 40 and was played extensively on FM radio, did not fare as well on AM radio because of its controversial lyrics which caused feminist groups to pressure the stations to avoid playing it. However, this did not have a lasting effect on the band’s sales.

Their next album, Luna Sea (pun: “lunacy”), was released in July 1977. It peaked at No. 27 on the charts and went gold less than two months after release. The single from the album, “Just Remember I Love You” hit No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

It was around this period that tensions were beginning to rise within the group, stemming from non-stop touring and management problems as well as alcohol and drug abuse. In recent interviews, both Rick and Larry have indicated that the group at this time was divided between the heavy substance users (Rick, Larry and Michael Clarke) and the other three (Bartley, Andes and Muse), who were a bit more in control of themselves. At this time the group was also incredibly popular and playing to sold-out crowds with Fleetwood Mac as part of their Rumours tour. But this only delayed their disintegration for a short time.

After a series of management changes and in-fighting among the band members, a new production team (Ron and Howard Albert) was brought in and they released a third album, Elan, in October 1978. It was a massive success and became their first album to reach platinum status. The hit single “Strange Way” continued the band’s commercial hot streak.

The Decline: After two years of non-stop recording and touring, the band was burned out and their financial situation was unstable.

During a tour of Japan in August 1979, Michael Clarke, due to his excessive drinking, missed gigs or showed up in no condition to play. The band resorted to hiring a German drummer, Dan Holsten, whose playing technique was similar to Clarke’s, to sit in. Holsten, who even looked a lot like Clarke, had played in several other bands in the Colorado area and caught the eye of Jock and Larry one night at a Colorado Springs bar. He became known as a ‘reliable’ back-up drummer for tours and some studio work.

Despite this, Atlantic Records still expected a new album. The band recorded the album sporadically over a year. The Albert brothers were again brought in to produce the album. But the band once again required a second effort, which was produced by Kyle Lehning. The result, titled Undertow, was released in March 1980. This would be the last album with Firefall’s original lineup. Upon completion of the album, Clarke and Mark Andes both left the band. (Clarke later died of alcoholism at his Treasure Island home in Florida in December 1993).

Andes and Clarke were replaced by Kenny Loggins’ former rhythm section, consisting of bassist George Hawkins and drummer Tris Imboden. With the two new players, the band recorded Clouds Across the Sun, which was released in December 1980 and spawned the early 1981 hit “Staying With It”, which was done as a duet with singer Lisa Nemzo. Clouds saw Jock emerging more as a writer and singer and had the band moving towards a harder “New wave music” direction on some of the tracks.

Hawkins resigned from the group in late 1980 to join up with Mick Fleetwood’s Zoo, a side project the Fleetwood Mac drummer was recording in Africa. After Andes returned to guest for the group’s February 1981 appearance on American Bandstand, Kim Stone came in to take over bass. Everything seemed to be on track until Larry Burnett suddenly disappeared from the group, after playing a show at Miami Baseball Stadium with Heart, Blue Öyster Cult, Motörhead and Freewheel on April 19, 1981, to return to his hometown of Washington D.C. to enter a rehab (Burnett eventually kicked a serious drug habit and after working in radio in the late 80s/early 90s, began pursuing a solo career in 2004).

The group continued on to play their next show in Las Vegas without him. But after playing a concert with the band in Lahaina, Hawaii with Pure Prairie League in August of that same year, Rick Roberts announced that he also was leaving for a solo career. With the band lacking personnel and increasing in financial debt, Atlantic dropped Firefall from their roster in 1981 and released Best of Firefall at the close of that year.

A Renewal: Unhappy with the way things had turned out, Jock Bartley decided to put together a new Firefall lineup in the spring of 1982. You can read all about it on Wikipedia. Currently touring with three original members (Jock Bartley, David Muse, Mark Andes), longtime drummer Sandy Ficca and talented newcomer Gary Jones, Firefall continues to make great music for a loyal following, adding new fans at each show. You can find out more about the revival of Firefall at their site.

I am most familiar with Firefall’s early years, back in the 70s. Interestingly, in the latter years of the 80s decade I worked with one of the original members of Firefall, Larry Burnett.

Larry Burnett

Larry Burnett with WCXR (Washington, DC, late 80s/early 90s). Photo courtesy of the website of former WCXR Music Director Paul Altobell (www.paul-altobelli.com)

He was a radio personality at Washington DC’s Classic Rock station WCXR 105.9, where I was an advertising sales account executive. I worked there from 1988 through 1991. At the time, Larry was the evening on-air personality from 7pm-midnight on weekdays and he also produced and hosted a weekly specialty show called “The Blues Room” on Sunday nights.

WCXR Washington's Classic Rock Station 105.9

After his WCXR career, leaving in the early 90s, Larry continued on as a solo singer/songwriter/guitarist. I believe he now lives in Virginia but he spent some years in Colorado and he was recently inducted into the Colorado Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You can check out Larry’s music at his website.

Here is my Firefall playlist, in order of my favorite Firefall songs. The first ten are the ones that I listened to a lot back in the day. The rest of the playlist is some other Firefall songs that I’m just coming to appreciate, many of which were written by Larry Burnett (and he served as lead vocals on many of his songs too). “Strange Way” is on the playlist twice: in the beginning as my second favorite Firefall song (with high quality sound) and then at the end as the last song with a live studio video because it’s one of the only live videos with the original members — and because I get to see my old pal Larry Burnett playing (he’s the one on the right with the long hair and sunglasses).

Put your headphones on and Crank this playlist up! If you’re not already a Firefall fan before hearing this, you will be after:

 

Some tidbits on a few of my favorite Firefall songs:

Cinderella – My favorite Firefall song by Larry Burnett is “Cinderella.” He actually wrote that song when he was 16 years old! Most of what Larry wrote on the first couple of Firefall albums were written when he was between 16 and 19. Larry wrote this song about a girl who wants the fairytale ending, but when she gets pregnant, her boyfriend kicks her out to raise their son on her own.

This wasn’t, however, based on personal experience. Burnett was 16 years old when he wrote this song and says, “I certainly didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend who was pregnant [while] I was working my butt off trying to support us. None of that was going on. But it was certainly happening around me in other people’s lives.”

It took Larry about 15 minutes to write this song. He says it happened so quick he almost never saw it coming. “It was already there, and I was just sort of this vessel. And *poof* I went, whoa, that was interesting. It was a nice moment.”

Musically this song is fantastic. The beginning blows my mind. The flute and the harmonica grab me every time…then the vocals pull me in and together with the music it all blends into this really kickass song.

Strange Way – My next favorite is “Strange Way.” Firefall scored another hit, this time a downbeat one. The singer is seeing a woman who sounds as if she’s wallowing in self-pity over things that have gone wrong for her, and he’s telling her that she’s bringing him down and that he doesn’t want to deal with it anymore. This was written by Firefall singer/guitarist Rick Roberts. (He and fellow singer/guitarist Larry Burnett wrote most of Firefall‘s songs).

You Are the Woman – This was both Firefall‘s breakout hit and it’s most popular single, peaking at #9 on the US Billboard Charts. In it, a man sings that he’s found the ideal woman, and he loves her not for external qualities, but how much she loves him in return. It was written by Rick Roberts.

Jock Bartley of Firefall accounts for the popularity of “You Are the Woman”:

“Every female between the ages of 18 and 24 wanted to be the woman portrayed in the song, and that caused their boyfriends and spouses to call radio stations and subsequently flood the airwaves with dedications of the song and the sentiment. The message was simple and sincere, and the song was easy to sing. It was like our fans let us be a singing version of the Hallmark card that said what they weren’t quite sure what to express.”

Bartley, the founding member of Firefall who has remained with the group to the present (and as of 2015, Muse and founding bassist Mark Andes have rejoined), also states:

“Everybody knows ‘You Are the Woman’. It ended up kind of being a hindrance because people would only hear ‘You Are the Woman’ and would think, oh, that light Rock band from Colorado. We’re actually a pretty smokin’ Rock band that really has fun onstage and cooks and jams and plays ‘You Are the Woman’ also.”

Just Remember I Love You – In this song, the singer tries to offer encouragement to someone who sounds chronically depressed and hopeless, perhaps suicidal. People who are going through their worst times ever have been known to identify with the lyrics. This was written by Firefall singer Rick Roberts.

Sharpshootin’ at the Senator – written by Larry Burnett. “Sharpshootin’ at the Senator” is exactly what it sounds like: It’s a song about assassinating senators. Firefall founding member Larry Burnett explains:

“It’s sort of me trying to observe something I actually hadn’t ever really seen, which was the mind of a guy who would assassinate a political figure. And it’s really heavy, hard rock cool, so it’s a cool song. We used to play it in person and people would go nuts. We loved playing it. It was intense.

It’s about how a guy could become so unhappy with things. You know, people blame stuff on all kinds of other stuff, they don’t take much responsibility. And it’s convenient to blame things on the government. And their attitude is, ‘My personal problems are because Senator Somebody isn’t representing me right, so my family’s suffering.’ That’s where that came from, it was an imagination. It was imagining somebody that unhappy and willing to kill a political figure.”

Atlantic Records refused to put this song on a record, and Burnett had thought that was due to the touchy subject matter. It wasn’t until years later he discovered the real reason:

“During our recording session I had taken a trip north, visited my mom, brought some of the basic tracks along from the session to play for her and family who live around here. She heard the song, she got very worried. She didn’t say anything to me about it, but she heard the song, and she went, ‘Ooo. I don’t know about that.’ She was worried about the impact that a song like that would have on the world and on people, and then how that would reflect on me. I don’t think it was dangerous. It was powerful, but not dangerous. I could have been wrong. So here’s what my mother does: She – unbeknownst to me – writes a letter to Ahmet Ertegun, the Chairman of the Board of Atlantic Records, and he gets it. And she identifies herself, ‘I am Larry Burnett’s mother.’ It was like a 4-page letter that she went on and on and on about how he might not want this attached to him and his record company. And she made some really good points, actually. So Ahmet and the people at Atlantic are thinking that’s a pretty cool song. Bunch of guys, they don’t care. But he gets this letter from my mom, he reads it, and he decides at that moment after reading my mom’s letter to pull the song from the album. And I find this out 2 years later from our then-manager, who’s a friend of mine named Jack Boyle, and he had a copy of the letter. He says, ‘Larry, come here. Remember all that grief that Atlantic was giving us about a couple of songs? I want you to read something.’ And then I read it and I went, ‘Whoa,’ and I read the signature at the bottom, and I went, ‘Ooohh, this is my mother.’ He says, ‘Yeah, you know where I got that?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Ahmet gave that to me.’ He says, ‘This is why we didn’t put that thing on the record.’ I was really surprised to find out that suddenly it’s a bonus track on this CD.”

Even Steven – This is the final track on Firefall’s Luna Sea album. It was the first collaborative effort between Firefall founding members Larry Burnett and Rick Roberts. Collaborative songwriting does not come easily to Burnett, and he prefers to stay away from it. So he was less than thrilled when Roberts came to him one night and suggested they collaborate. He tells this story:

“For years I write my songs, and Ricky writes his songs. Then we as a band get together, we do them, and never the twain met. And then one night in Florida, Ricky says, ‘You know, we really ought to try to write something together.’ And I immediately kind of went Oh God, I knew this was coming. And the only reason the ‘Oh God’ response was there was because I know how Ricky writes songs – at the time, anyway. He gets a big bag of cocaine and gets real high, and then he gets papers and pencil and starts writing down rhyming words on the right-hand side of the page. And then tries to attach sentences to each rhyming word. And then he pushes everything around and tries to have it make sense, because, as you might imagine, it’s not going to make sense right away, considering his approach to songwriting. So anyway, he said, ‘Okay, you and I should try writing…’ boom – here’s this big bag of coke. And I’m going, No, Ricky, I don’t do this to make me perform better. I’m not that stupid. I get high, but not because it makes me better at anything. So we struggled. Boy, we wrote for a long time. And for me it was an enormous struggle. For him it was just what he does, it was no big deal. And he kind of kept the thing going. So that’s how we came up with this song, ‘Even Steven.’ And there again, even the title – the 2 words in the title – rhyme. And if you read the lyrics it’s, in my humble opinion – or not so humble, very often – it’s just a silly, dumb song. And so, when we were done with this, and we’re singing it and kind of burning it into our brains so we remember it, and I’m going, ‘This ain’t cool at all. I do not want to be associated with this song ever.’ It’s a lame, stupid song. At any rate, there it is, my name on it, it’s on the record, you know. It went nowhere, really, as a song.”

 

“You may or may not be pleased to know I haven’t done any dope, or drank in 23 years. But that’s what ‘Even Steven’ was all about. That’s what fueled it, just because Ricky felt obligated for us to collaborate.”

 

The “Steven” in this song is “nobody,” says Burnett, and he’s neither particularly proud of the way the song came about, nor the end result. “We grabbed a household phrase, ‘even Steven,’ and then we thought, Oh, Steven, we have a guy here. Let’s use ‘even Steven’ – this silly cliché – and create a character, and just keep snorting coke until we have this character.”

“It was kind of horrible,” he adds, laughing.

 

Here is the full Interview with Larry Burnett that I found online (some of which is quoted above). Interesting stuff from a guy I used to know…

Hope you all enjoyed my spotlight on Firefall. Were you familiar with the band before now? If so, what are your favorite Firefall songs?

 

Monday’s Music Moves Me (4M) is a blog hop hosted by X-Mas Dolly, and co-hosted by JAmerican Spice, Stacy Uncorked and Curious as a Cathy.  Be sure to stop by the hosts and visit the other participants.