Sunday, March 4, 2018

Esperanto - 1973 - Esperanto Rock Orchestra

Esperanto Rock Orchestra

01. On Down The Road 5:00
02. Never Again 5:40
03. Perhaps One Day 4:35
04. Statue Of Liberty 5:00
05. Gypsy 6:35
06. City 4:06
07. Roses 5:10
08. Move Away 3:39

Bass, Flute – Gino Malisan
Cello, Piano – Timothy Kraemer
Drums – Tony Malisan
Guitar, Piano – Brian Holloway
Keyboards – Bruno Libert
Viola, Saxophone – Tony Harris
Violin [1st] – Raymond Vincent
Violin [2nd] – Godfrey Salmon
Vocals – Janice Slater
Vocals, Acoustic Guitar – Bridget Lokelani Dudoit
Vocals, Flute – Joy Yates
Vocals, Guitar – Glenn Shorrock

Esperanto is a language invented in 1887 by Zamenhof, who combined bits of various Romance language to make what he hoped would become a vehicle of universal communication. The Belgo-English band of the same name at the beginning of the 70s had a short but intense career and produced an extremely varied musical repertoire thanks to the many different nationalities, origins and outlooks of its members.

It all started at the end of ’71 when the Belgian violinist Raymond Vincent, leader of the Wallace Collection wanted to embark on a more adventurous musical endeavour (in spite of his surprising predilection for hard rock) after his band had broken up. After playing for a short period with Daniel (Dany) Lademacher and Roger Wollaert (who had left Kleptomania), then with Dirk Bogaert (of Waterloo), he got in touch with Bruno Libert who was completing his musicology studies and playing piano every night in Brussel’s theatres that were putting on “off Broadway” musicals, which were quite fashionable at the time. Raymond told Bruno about his new project and showed him some musical ideas. He also played him a promotional album, Metronomics, that he had written for an advertising campaign. The two musicians agreed to launch the project and started to look for other musicians. They discovered the Malisan brothers, two Italo-Belgians of the Mons area: Gino, bass player and Tony, drummer. They started to rehearse in the back room of a small cafe, wrote a series of new numbers and recorded a first demotape at “Cathy” studio in the Brabant Wallon region, owned at the time by Marc Aryan (Belgian singer successful at the beginning of the 70s).

The four musicians took their demo to England, where they met David Mackay who had produced the Wallace Collection and The New Seekers and later produced part of Esperanto’s first album. David was interested by the project and agreed to recruit more musicians in order to strengthen the line-up which was quite limited on the first demo (violin, piano and Hammond organ, bass and drums). Soon, he contacted Glenn Shorrock, an Australian singer who was living in London at the time and had left his group, the Twilights (note1). David also played a series of records from his collection to the musicians to try to find female singers. Raymond and Bruno were immediately convinced that Cliff Richard’s trio of backing singers would fit the bill. David set up an appointment with Joy Yates, Janice Slater and Bridget Dudoit (who had released a record under the name of Bones) and easily convinced them to join the group as they were quite enthusiastic. The band was also looking for a guitarist and  more string players in order to form a quartet. David Mackay found Brian Holloway, an Australian guitar player. As he regularly conducted recording sessions in London studios, it was also easy for David to assemble a modern–sounding string section, unlike Belgian strings which tended to sound more classical. A second violin (Godfrey Salmon), a viola (Tony Harris) and a cello (Timothy Kraemer) joined Esperanto and the first line-up was ready.

The producer rented a farm for several weeks in Cornwall and the twelve musicians, some of whom barely knew each other, or having just met, began to rehearse. The results were excellent. The group then moved to a farm in Houyet, in Belgium, to further work on the repertoire. They went back to London, and David Mackay took everybody to Morgan studios to record the first album. Several new pieces were written, among which “Black Widow” and “Publicity”, which would be released as a single but was not included on the first album. After the recording, the producer went in search of a contract. Polydor was quite enthusiastic about the music but, because of a small disagreement on contract details, the negotiations failed and the contract was never signed. In fact Polydor did invest in another group which had quite a career: Slade. Finally, after months of prospection and a meeting with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, a contract was finally signed for three albums with A&M. The first album “Esperanto Rock Orchestra” was released in 1973.

Contacts were then established with tour managers and Esperanto began a series of concerts, first in England, as supporting act for Sha na na (also with A&M at the time), playing gigs at the Roudhouse, the Shaw Theatre, the Rainbow, the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, but also in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, etc. The tour was difficult to handle for the band, as the public of Sha na na was not really that of Esperanto and, in spite of an acerbic article published in the famous “Melody Maker”, which called them “pseudo-hippies”, it went on in Europe, this time with the Strawbs The band also made a series of live recordings for the RAI in Rome, Naples and Turin which were broadcast on the Italian television. Esperanto did however not know the sales figures of their album and had to rely on the reactions of the public to evaluate their success.

Even those unfamiliar with Esperanto Rock Orchestra will likely find something strangely familiar with their sound, although exactly what that is may be difficult to pinpoint. Hard to believe one of the main singers on this debut record (Glenn Shorrock) would soon be crooning out soft-rock hits for Little River Band ("Well I was born in the sign of water, and it's there that I feel my best; the albatross and the whales they are my brothers...").
The rest of the multinational lineup were relative unknowns, although cellist Timothy Kraemer had managed to land an appearance with the monster assemblage known as Centipede during their epic 1970-71 recording sessions for 'Septober Energy'. And several of the female backing singers had also backed Al Stewart; two of them would score a minor UK hit in 1974 by covering an old Phil Spector tune under the name of The Hooter Sisters.

Esperanto drew their name from their varied nationalities, ranging from England to the U.S. to Italy to New Zealand and Australia, although the band itself was formed by a Belgian and was briefly based out of that country before traveling to England in search of a record deal. This, their debut album, featured a large cast including at least three different lead singers, although the lineup would prove to be fluid both during the recording sessions and throughout the band's brief career.

The influences of the Broadway, pop, folk and classical music backgrounds of the various members are all apparent in the lush and varied production of this album. Attempting to genre label would be a futile exercise and also a mistake with this music, as it ranges quite fluidly across so many spectrums of classical and contemporary disciplines.

The opening "On Down the Road" is a fairly straightforward light rock number with Shorrock's distinctive voice reinforcing the commercial feel to the tune, but with violins, cello and piano that are not all that different than what ELO would probably have sounded like without Jeff Lynne. Undoubtedly this was intended to be the launching single for the album.

The band begins to branch out almost immediately though, following the opener up with the Janice Slater-fronted, slightly R&B-tinged "Never Again" before returning to the strong string accompaniment with another Shorrock tune in "Perhaps One Day". This one seems to have progressive rock ambitions, but doesn't quite pull it off and ends up sounding like a pop-rock tune with a heavily fussed-over instrumental arrangement.

Shorrock adds a slightly sappy 'go USA' tribute with the self-penned "Statue of Liberty" that really doesn't seem to belong here ("hey you, get out the way - anything can happen in the USA!"); but the band acquits themselves quite well by following that with a trio of loping, comfortable-like-your-favorite-shirt numbers in "Gypsy", "Roses" and "City", the latter two of which move away from the orchestral string arrangements in favor of a more R&B sound with prominent three-part female vocals, featured lead electric guitar and plenty of dance- inducing percussion that comes off as sort of a white 5th Dimension (maybe a little bit like Silver Convention without the disco beat).

Given the folk and soft-rock influences of several members (not to mention the presence of an acoustic guitar player, cellist, violist and both 1st and 2nd part violinists), it was inevitable the band would include a slow acoustic number as well, which they saved for the end of the original vinyl on "Move Away".

CD reissues of this album include three bonus tracks. "Getting Along" is a funky dance number, while "Waiting Till the Day" is pure soft-rock with some proggy accoutrements and more extended organ breaks than appeared anywhere on the original record. I'm not quite sure but I believe the one of vocalists here is Keith Christmas, who appeared on some of the demo tracks the band brought to England and who would become the band's lead vocalist for their second release 'Danse Macabre'. Shorrock remains the lead singer here as well though. And "Emma" is another slow tune with a twangy guitar riff and vocals that remind me quite a bit of the bands America and Home circa around the same time period.

The large lineup, classical-music-meets-Broadway sound of the band could be compared to a blend of bands like Carnegie, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the 5th Dimension. I'm not sure this really qualifies as true progressive music, but it is a good introduction to some of the more complex and ambitious work the band would employ on their next two releases. A decent record to have in your collection; not a masterpiece but worth picking up especially if you are a fan of strings with your rock music. Three stars and recommended to fans of representative eclectic progressive rock from the mid-seventies.

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