Robin George seemingly burst onto the music scene with the single ‘Heartline’. Or more appropriately for the times, when its video featured on Channel 4’s The Tube in those wild, halcyon days before MTV came our way. Looking back over the footage now on the omnipresent YouTube, he was a good-looking lad and it would probably have charted higher had it ditched the Robin of Sherwood pantaloon-action scenes and opted for more generic Spandau Ballet come Howard Jones moody street walking scenes. Yeah, despite the fact it rocked.
That it only reached 68 on the pop charts came as something of a surprise, as it certainly got played a lot. Despite which, the singer/guitarist has made numerous records under his own name since, while developing a career in the studio working with artists as diverse as Robert Plant, Glenn Hughes and Phil Lynott. My own introduction to the man came by way of The Byron Band (fronted by Uriah Heep’s original vocalist, David Byron) someone made me a home tape of. That came out on vinyl in 1978, and the tracks featured on this 2 CD collection stem from the year following up to 1981, when he would have been in his early to mid-twenties.
The music on offer is diverse. Much of it is melodic rock, some of which hardline fans can no doubt tell you which album finished versions appeared on. Elsewhere there are tracks that reflect some of the pop chart influences he’s likely to have grown up listening to on the radio, a few where he was probably chasing the mainstream sound of the time. They are all highly polished works, but very much still demos in many cases, and would, or could have been, altered further for actual finished recordings.
My personal curiosity was perked by learning Ace In My Hand was – if not including tracks for an unreleased Trapeze album – at least part formed a branch on the Wolverhampton rockers’ family tree. Featured are bass player Pete Wright, keyboard player Terry Rowley, singer/guitarist Pete Goalby and drummers Dave Holland and Steve Bray.
Which particular tracks they play on, however, is an arduous guessing game, as the booklet sleeve notes doesn’t list them – rather they feature an interview with George conducted by [journalist] Malcolm Dome, back in 2014, and Dome didn’t get chance to update them prior to his passing in 2021. I get the impression they were originally featured on a previous collection, titled History. It should have been edited for this edition, as four paragraphs are devoted to a fun-enough story about Magnum keyboard player Mark Stanway driving down to Worcester’s Old Smithy studio with Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott as passenger and him ending up playing bass, but the track discussed ‘Showdown’, isn’t actually featured on this collection.
Stanway presumably does on other tracks, as also does saxophonist Mel Collins, of King Crimson fame and who’d similarly also been in The Byron Band, a young Pino Palladino before his own rise to fame began with Paul Young & The Royal Family (Meaning you’re listening for fretless vs Fender basses to differentiate between him Wright), and veteran pop singer Daniel Boone (who I gather was another Midlands lad, if not a Brummie) possibly adding backing and keyboards (though he started on guitar) as well as co-writing, the latter role also applying to Goalby, all other compositions credited to George “& Co”, intimating some songs may have been borne of jams but history can no longer recall exactly which.
Now, one final niggle before we move onto the good stuff… Both Dome’s feature and reported variations on press releases imply Robin George was to be part of a new look Trapeze. The parties involved certainly give strong indications of this, but there’s a glaring error – there’s no mention of founding member, band leader and guitarist Mel Galley. That Holland was involved heavily in the earlier recordings is apparent, anecdotes in the interview confirm that, and that other members played, because they were all local lads, and no doubt mates, all makes sense. However, with both Galley and Goalby on vocals and guitars up to the band’s last official recordings, there would have been no place for a third such member. Despite which, in another permutation of the band it could well have worked.
Whether the tracks featured are in chronological order is also anyone’s guess, but it feels about right, listening to how the production works. Title track ‘Ace In My Hand’ leads the way, and if you imagine Fleetwood Mac’s Lyndsey Buckingham taking a trip down AOR’s freeway, you’re not going too far wrong. ‘Castles In The Sky’ maybe a shock, but I really like it – it’s got a soul meets reggae vibe where the guitars play in between the cracks, but slow and slinky, kind of like Be Bop Deluxe and Steely Dan did with hits back in the ‘70s, while George sings in a curious but effective falsetto, with some fluid lead guitar getting inlaid along the way.
‘Chance Of A Lifetime’ recently saw life on co-writer Goalby’s Easy With The Heartaches album (see review here), though it’s George on vocals here, on a number that fits the John Parr/Bryan Adams mould. Boon co-write ‘Everybody Loves A Winner’ comes next, and with thumping bass and widdling synths it’s practically a rewrite of Yes’ ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ with an FM met A-ha attitude.
With treated megaphone vocals and a somewhat epic opening the way guitars crash out this and that way with tempos changing ‘Get On Your Knees And Pray’ calls to mind The Byron Band/Uriah Heep. There’s also something a latter-day Lizzy bite to it via wailing bluesy soloing, but it forgoes the lyrical double entendre expected. Keyboards intrigue, guitars strike out, and a mid-paced AOR stomp sets the mood for ‘Go Down Fighting’, a bass popping out beyond the obvious for this subgenre every now and then. The stacked chorus vocals scream Def Leppard and Queen, the lead guitar pitched somewhere between Gary Moore and Brian May a bit – while never quite making the grandiose the art rock touches are pleasing.
An early rendition of ‘Heartline’ is family-friendly in a good way; listening to the lyrics afresh their almost cheeky working-class lad approach could as easily have been sung by Joe Jackson or even The Sweet. It’s ‘80s pop rock with more stacked harmonies, Lizzy-like harmony guitars, some Police off-beat arpeggios, and more 90125 Yes in there. Loud and breezy bluesier licked hard rock ‘n roll follows with ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’, then quite heavenly acoustic guitars draw us in for ‘I Believed In You’ where a failed relationship is enunciated, heavier instrumentation soon joining in as it becomes a more earnest rock ballad, with some lovely musical playing by all concerned beyond the obvious, but then you could as easily declare that perhaps it get much trickier than the song needs. Acoustics return with ‘Johnny’, a picked folk number, edging into Eagles/Yes territory as a climactic solo enters. It’s on this track where his voice is most telling, almost an expressive whisper even when sung loud, it’s reminiscent of both Marc Bolan and Tommy Bolin.
Ending the first CD with charismatic strumming riffed acoustic opening is ‘Looks Better In Daylight’ – This, ventures far and wide, displaying influences from Heep and Queen to Sad Café and John Miles in a sometimes eerie and mostly appealing off-the-wall manner. As if that’s not enough, a laidback low funked bass leads the way for some yacht rock and hoary blues rock to play in equal measure through to the end.
As noted, it’s a toss of the coin whether or not these songs are presented in chronological order, but Disc 2 does appear to feature more elements akin to the ‘80s. The keyboard-led ‘Losing You’ is reminiscent of contemporary one-hit wonders Ph.D edging into what would be Mike & The Mechanics territory, as it tuns from ballad to broader song; this was a big shoulder-padded-jacket scenario-in-waiting to be a minor hit single. Subtle, then two minutes in the tempo shifts, a fretless bass clearing the way for an atmospheric guitar solo. ‘Lying On My Telephone’ follows nicely; contemplative, a break up song as signposted in the title, once more it calls out Howard Jones if not.
With ‘Machine’, George tries post-New Romantics/electronica for size – It doesn’t truly work, more Hot Gossip’s ‘Starship Trooper’ than it needs to be. Several tracks later, ‘She Plays Computer Games’ works much better, in a Gary Numan vein with treated voice, power chords and screwy noises all working to good effect.
Another Goalby co-write in ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ has George’s whispered vocals interpretating the song in somewhat shy delivery rather than Goalby’s more sympathetic third person narrative. ‘Never Too Late’ is melodic rock with fine Lizzy styled solo. More profound is ‘Private Lives’, a searing guitar piercing questioningly in intro, followed by another that double backs alarmed before it all struts forth with purposeful determination, in line with the investigative/snooping line the lyrics take. There’s an effective minor pomp rock aside, but it remains a catchy quite engrossing catchy number, fading out, as it does on a teasing guitar motif.
‘Run In The Dark’ is a balmy electric rock ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place on Welsh rock band Lone Star’s debut album, before halfway merging into an English take on something of Tommy Bolin’s Private Eyes album – with added gospel harmonies.
Echoing acoustic arpeggios and a lead guitar line melody that evolves into a Midwest arena rocking cruise rocker tips its hat to both Boston and The James Gang for ‘She Really Blew My Mind’, with Collins’ sax weaving its way through.
‘Streetwise’ is another Boone co-write, with a blues rock riff that has one eye on the charts with a stomping glam rocker that Mud could’ve put out. Shifting back to US influences the rather nifty ‘This Time’ is Eagles/James Gang funk rock. Then, the dramatic, lightly gothic power chords of ‘Too Late’ give way to a bass-loaded cod reggae with rockier moments; high pitched vocals, sax and guitar mixing well on this number. Then finally, ‘Tragedy’, co-penned with Boone one last time is one for the Swedes – a brassy keyboard melody pre-empts Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ by four years while also playing with Abba-esque melodies elsewhere.
This last number probably sums up the problem George may have suffered during his career. Creatively ahead of the game, inspired with many an idea (and possibly too many), but without the financial recording backing to boot him up the rock league just that bit higher.
Talent he’s got that in spades. As a singer I’ve referenced both Marc Bolan and Tommy Bolin, and while not strong enough to carry a major band, a distinctive and able one nonetheless. Guitar wise, he can shine, I wouldn’t be surprised if Elton John Band’s Davey Johnstone had been an early influence, likewise Gary Moore around the time these tracks were recorded (seeking innovative studio sound). The songs run the whole gamut, though nothing’s truly epic enough here to make you totally go “Wow!”, often too busy; being works-in-progress.
Collections such as these are fascinating curios, where we wonder how life might’ve turned out otherwise. Had Robin George spent a year assisting Roy Thomas Baker or Trevor Horn, I’ve no doubt we’d be now be talking about them as a natural successor to them in the producer’s chair. But for a phone call we might well have seen him in Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake or Def Leppard. As it is, the Wolverhampton singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer has forged his own path, and he’s now signed a record deal with Cherry Red for his officially released albums to see re-release following this collection.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- Ace In My Hand is released via Cherry Red Records on 23rd June 2023 (available here).
- Ace In My Hand
- Castles In The Sky
- Chance Of A Lifetime
- Everybody Loves A Winner
- Get On Your Knees And Pray
- Go Down Fighting
- Home Is Where The Heart Is
- I Believed In You
- Looks Better In Daylight
- Losing You
- Lying On My Telephone
- Mona Lisa Smile
- Never Too Late
- Private Lives
- Run In The Dark
- She Plays Computer Games
- She Really Blew My Mind
- This Time
- Too Late