Issue 2015-016: Sky Special

Sky - Sky / Sky 2

Sky - Sky
Country of Origin: UK/Australia
Format: CD / DVD
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue #: ECLEC 22470
Year of Release: 1979/2014
Time: Sky: 68:39
Info: Sky
Track List:
Westway (3:40), Carillon (3:29), Danza (2:58), Gymnopedie No.1 (3:41), Cannonball (3:42), Where Opposites Meet (19:26), Dies Irae (7:34), March to the Scaffold (original single version) (4:44), Where Opposites Meet (Parts 1-5) (live) (19:25)
Sky - Sky 2
Country of Origin: UK/Australia
Format: CD / DVD
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue #: ECLEC 22471
Year of Release: 1980/2014
Time: Sky2: 80:31
Info: Sky
Track List:
Hotta (7:48), Dance Of The Little Fairies (3:32), Sahara (6:56), Medley (FIFO, Adagio, Sherzo, Watching the Aeroplanes) (17:14), Tuba Smarties (3:23), Ballet Volta (2:49), Gavotte And Variations (5:16), Andante (3:00), Tristan's Magic Garden (4:12), El Cielo (4:24), Vivaldi (4:04), Scipio (Parts I & II) (12:10), Toccata (4:43)
I had both these LPs when they first came out in 1979 and 1980, and later bought them on CD. But now have what I believe to be the definitive versions of Sky and Sky2. Yet again, Esoteric Recordings and Cherry Red Records have surpassed themselves. Both of these "new" versions have a second DVD disc with extensively researched footage of interviews, a daytime TV slot, an appearance on The Val Doonican Show (Val will probably only be known to British readers, and it is probably best kept that way), full concerts, an Old Grey Whistle Test film (they are on a specially-built stage on an airport runway!), and even on Top of the Pops performing their top five hit, a version of Bach's Toccata.

"Whoa there! What is he talking about," shouted the crowd in unison.

Ah yes, I got totally carried away in the excitement of the moment. These albums are old friends to me, but to the uninitiated, Sky was an instrumental, classical crossover rock band consisting of five famous individuals: the noted classical guitarist John Williams, the Australian electric and acoustic guitarist Kevin Peek, Curved Air's original keyboardist Francis Monkman, orchestral percussionist Tristan Fry and veteran bass player Herbie "I have done a lot more than that bass line from Walk on the Wild Side" Flowers. The all-instrumental music is a combination of classically-orientated acoustic guitar, a subtle, lead six-string, harpsichord and Oberheim synth, all driven by a powerful rock drum sound and a wonderful plectrum-plucked Fender bass.

The eponymous debut was an impressive achievement and came somewhat out of the blue in the midst of New Wave, and was lead-off by the single Canonball, which showed Williams' crossover potential. From the synth bass / bass guitar intro of the infectious opener Westway through to the closing 20-minute track, Where Opposites Meet, the first album slightly betters the second for me. Every track is a winner, with other highlights being Carillon and the aforementioned Canonball.

Sky 2 was a massive commercial success (a number one and the fastest to go platinum in that year) which spawned a top five single. The style and musical approach was maintained from the first album, but the double album format allowed freedom for little eccentricities to creep in. These included Herbie's live track Tuba Smarties (played on, unsurprisingly, the Tuba) and the incredibly well recorded Tristan's Magic Garden with its percussion-shop takeover vibe. FIFO (first in, first out - about computer processing) is this album's rock opus and features Francis Monkman, adding what he called "the grunge element". His lead work was always an important part of Curved Air.

Both albums have John Williams "solo" slots. Erik Satie's Gymopedie No.1 works well on guitar rather than the more normal piano, while neither Ballet Volta, nor Andante are anything to be sniffed at. In many ways Williams was the "star" of the group but the rest of Sky were no slouches. Francis Monkman's solo harpsichord piece, Gavotte And Variations, is a prime example of the talents possessed by the other members. What was a surprise, was that such tracks featured on a number one double album, only a few years after the punk explosion. We will never see the like of it again, certainly not music being embraced by such a large proportion and cross-section of the general public. When did it all go so wrong?

Anyway I mustn't grumble, as we all know there is much fine music around. It just doesn't bother the charts very often. There's another element to seeing the live material amid all of the video footage, and that's how smiley and happy they all seem. Happiness abounds in a sea of virtuoso musicianship, long fingernails and Herbie Flowers' jumpers. Besides Toccata being in the original D minor, Sky were really a major key combo, and it made me smile just watching them beaming at each other. It annoys me to see music played with all the enthusiasm of a Goth going to a swimming gala. To see such exuberance here is just life affirming. Yep, the DVD extras really show how times have changed and I am now officially an old fart.

For the remastered sound, the packaging, the audio and DVD extras, not to mention the actual music, I'm awarding a resounding top mark for both.
Andrew Halley: 10 out of 10

Sky - Sky 3 / Sky 4: Forthcoming

Sky - Sky 3
Country of Origin: UK/Australia
Format: CD / DVD
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue #: ECLEC 22475
Year of Release: 1981/2014
Time: 45:12
Info: Sky
Track List:
The Grace (0:30), Chiropodie No.1 (4:22), Westwind (6:22), Sarabande (3:03), Connecting Rooms (7:10), Moonroof (4:03), Sister Rose (4:31), Hello (4:12), Dance of the Big Fairies (3:30), Meheeco (6:35), Keep Me Safe and Keep Me Warm, Shelter Me From Darkness (0:54)
Sky - Sky 4: Forthcoming
Country of Origin: UK/Australia
Format: CD / DVD
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue #: ECLEC 224476
Year of Release: 1982/2014
Time: 39:52
Info: Sky
Track List:
Masquerade (3:20), Ride of the Valkyries (5:07), March to the Scaffold (5:00), To Yelasto Pedi - Theme from "Z" (4:00), Waltz No.2 from Valses Nobles & Sentimentales (2:35), Fantasy (3:14), My Giselle (4:36), Xango (5:07), Fantasia (3:43), Skylark (3:10)
Possibly Sky raised initial interest because of the tantalising prospect of renowned classical guitar player John Williams playing in a rock band, and that Francis Monkman, the keyboard player, was a founding member of prog stalwarts Curved Air. Certainly, it was the latter for me.

Therefore, Sky 3 changed the dynamic somewhat, as Monkman had parachuted out and new man Steve Gray was given his wings. A relatively unknown force but Gray had been a successful session musician for the likes of Quincy Jones and John Barry. So in came, ostensibly, a certain jazz vibe to the band.

Still playing those wonderful Oberheim synths, there is more bending of notes, which after the lovely little acoustic guitar intro of The Grace, is very prevalent on the next group track, Chiropodie 1.

The style continues throughout the album. There is more electric rhythm playing from Kevin Peek and less harpsichord obsession, that "middle ground" being largely taken over by the classical picking. Tristan Fry's drumming is as impressive and heavy as ever, being notched up a tad in the loudness stakes too.

I'd say that Sky 3 is a bit like a "cup of tea in the afternoon" Return to Forever. It is very British and despite Herbie Flowers' insistence that he is a jazzer at heart, his bass performance cements the grooves in a solid 70s rock manner.

Penultimate track Meheeco now breaks that rule with a very Stanley Clarke(ish) upright bass intro which is in a sort of 7/8 time (a missing quaver every 2nd bar) with Mexican strumming throughout.

Moonroof reminds me of an Allman Brothers west coast, open-top drive whilst Dance of the Big Fairies is another Tuba showcase to smash plates to in a Greek restaurant.

Steve Gray says hello to his new band members with the delightful Hello and Sarabande is "Handel'd" to aplomb, hinting at what they might do on their next album.

Sky 4 continued with the same line-up but was actually to be John Williams' last album with the band. Perhaps the decision to have as every track, an interpretation of a favourite classical piece was too much for his critics? There is a hint of politics as well. The track To Yelasto Pedi was composed by Mikis Theodorkis for the 1969 anti-government film "Z".

Regime protestations and full-on versions of original masters? Is this a more serious grown up album? Not at all, it's (of course) full to the brim of the usual great playing and enjoyable "tunes". In fact it's probably the most proggy album of the four, despite there being nothing longer than five minutes.

Bombastic-heavy composer Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is ripe for rock interpretation and it works a treat here. Berlioz's March to Scaffold is a Tristan Fry compilation of snares, tympani, and Hammer Horror, concluding with a guillotine clump.

There is abundant light and shade on this album. Waltz no.2 "Valses Nobles et Sentiments" by Ravel is a lovely soft lullaby of a track, My Giselle is a rocking Peek original, and Xango gives the listener a taste of Fry's perfectly formed Marimba. The usual high standards of production are evident throughout, with the wide screen imagery of Fantasia pricking up my ears. Repeat listening and comparisons to my earlier CD versions, reveal an entire layer of missing frequencies which I had hitherto put down to senility. There is also some great remastering from the Esoteric Boffins in their underground laboratories.

Both these two reissues continue with a second DVD disc, the first being a rare copy of them playing in Westminster Abbey from a charity concert in aid of Amnesty International (a charity that is as much needed now as it was in 1981 when this event happened. This concert was available on VHS (in mono) and later Laser Disc but has been lost for years. No other rock band has ever been allowed to darken (or indeed light-up) the Abbey's hallowed rafters.

"Westminster Abbey? better get someone who's used to wearing a decent suit and polished shoes to direct it" (maybe!). So it's a bit of a slap-dash affair with each member failing in their bids to become announcers. One can just see the church collection tray piled high with ear plugs at the end, with the congregation in need of a jolly stiff sherry .. hehe!

It's all great fun though, with (yet again) Herbie Flowers dressed like a member of The Jam, parping majestically on a fairy-light lit Tuba, being the stand out performance.

The DVD extra on the
Sky 4 reissue is from a live performance of a programme called Night Music for BBC2. Better recorded, with some great solo spots from all members, including a twin classical guitar instrumental of The Beatles' Fool on the Hill , piano and Marimba stuff, and a live go at 3's meheeco.

Sky 3 was and is a favourite for me, as in 1981 I'd just bought a new record player with a Nad amp and Heybrook speaker combo and was delighted with the way the drums banged in. Sky 4 was a mid-price CD years after it came out, but for some reason wasn't really listened to. This new pressing has sorted that out, and it's bang up there with the others.

The DVD's aren't as "essential" as in
Sky and Sky 2_, being more of a curio, but that doesn't dilute the music.

All four of these albums come from an era when Sky might have been heard through car windows or in clothes shops, in other words liked by a lot more people than if they were released today. Nothing's changed for me though. It might be called lift music by some but like an endangered species, these reissues represent a "last chance to see" before we drown under a sea of computer generated R&B, X factored and turn-around-chair C-list auto-tuned pap. Purchase all before 'Sky' is only known as a monthly subscription for the curved dish nailed to your house.
Andrew Halley: 9 out of 10