Album Review: Thunder – Back Street Symphony (1990)


Guitarist Luke Morley, singer Danny Bowes and drummer Gary ‘Harry’ James emerged from the wreckage of Terraplane in 1989 and after enlisting bassist Mark Luckhurst and keyboard and some time guitarist Ben Matthews emerged as Thunder. Thus creating one of the most amazing transformations and re-inventions the rock world had seen in a while. Terraplane, after a reasonably successful start had become pretty much also rans of the struggling late eighties rock scene as the bands main protaganists pulled in one direction and their record company kept pushing them in another. To be fair to them their two albums are both pretty enjoyable affairs but there really was no sign in 1989 that what was virtually the same band would move from also rans to becoming the new darlings of the rock scene within twelve months.

After performing an audition for EMI Thunder were given a deal and sent of to the studio to record what many still think is their best album “Back Street Symphony”. The album gets under way with ‘She’s So Fine’ which was actually one of the first two tracks to be recorded. It sets the scene straight away for what you can expect from the rest of the album. Heavily influenced by Whitesnake, Bad Company and Led Zeppelin in the structural formation of the songs and with a singer in Bowes whose vocal style clearly owes a lot to those three bands frontmen David Coverdale, Paul Rodgers and Robert Plant yet still managing to keep his own identity they could be described as classic rock long before that term was in common use. The opener throws in influences of all three of those bands with its riffing guitar, using the vocal through a seperate channel to the riff, its nice tempo change and an interesting solo at end. ‘Dirty Love’ however nods strongly in the direction of David Coverdale lyrically and “Slide It In” era Whitesnake musically but it is still probably the best track on album with its great singalong chorus. It quickly became a  live favourite and is still a regular on rock radio stations and in rock clubs nationwide to this very day. The pace slows a little for ‘Don’t Wait For Me’, a track which highlights Bowes vocal ability with its gentler approach. Again there is nothing particularly unique about it either musically or lyrically. All of the lovelorn rock singer cliches are in there in the lyrics, the louder parts as the song progresses and the classic slower guitar solo. The thing is they do it that well that you don’t mind. It was a tried and trusted formula for the classic bands and Thunder as the new boys showed that they could do it just as well. The Zeppelin and Plant influences are pretty obvious especially around the four minute mark. Even the classic high tempo ending is there although it is one of those songs that should have an end and not fade for me. Stripped back riffing kicks of ‘Higher Ground’ before it gets the latter day Bad Company treatment. Once again pace and tempo changes stop the track from becoming monotonous and as with most of the tracks on offer here it is Bowes that carries the melody and song rather than the music. If you take the vocals off many of these songs, especially the faster ones, they are total unrecognisable. Morley also plays one of his better solos towards the end of the song. ‘Until My Dying Day’ slows things again and is the big arena anthem type offering. Structurally it is straight out of the Whitesnake songbook. Think ‘Ain’t Gonna Cry No More’, ‘Till The Day I Die’ ‘Here I Go Again’ and ‘Love Aint No Stranger’ and you wont be far off as it builds from an acoustic intro into a full blown rock track. Again though despite the fact that it is a tried and tested formula you can’t knock it because they execute it so well. In fact you would have to say that at the time Thunder were in the strange position of actually doing Whitesnake and Bad Company better than the then current line ups of those bands were as Bad Company had lost Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale had already started his affair with the banshee wail.

‘Back Street Symphony’ was actually the first Thunder track I ever heard whilst visiting a rock club in Coventry. Subsequently I ended up sitting in someones house at three in the morning listening to the album in its entirety ….. on vinyl too as I recall. Mixing the best of Bad Company, Whitesnake and even AC/DC into one fast hard hitting punchy song it had me converted to a Thunder fan on first listen. It was simple but effective and probably should have opened side one rather than side two. The versatility is in evidence again with another slower ballad like track in ‘Love Walked In’. Again the formula is predictable but effective. The guitar sound gives it a more Zeppelin feel to start with this time but the periodic expolsions into heaviness lead to inevitable Whitesnake comparisons. Those two opening tracks on the second half of the album both made it into the top thirty of the UK chart when released as singles. Things take a surprising turn with the lyrically humourous ‘An Englishman On Holiday’ which points a tongue in cheek finger at the English football hooligan mentality of some on cheap package holidays. It is another hard riffing song which is carried by Bowes excellent vocal and some boogie woogie piano. The blueprint for this one was almost certainly ‘Whats Going On Here’ from the Deep Purple album “Burn”. It was always a live favourite in the UK but I’m not quite sure how well it was recieved in Germany or Spain though ! Reports that the England team planned to record it as a World Cup song were a little wide of the mark, a bit like Chris Waddle’s penalty. For ‘Girls Going Out Of Her Head’ we are back to a more straightforward rock sound and Morley plays some nice guitar, despite that it is still probably the weakest track on offer here. The Spencer Davis cover ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ is a hard hitting straight up rock version which came into its own more in live performances but is still worth its place on the album. It gives Ben Matthews the chance to display his keyboard talents and its clear the band are enjoying playing it. Whether it was an album closer is open to debate though and I’d probably have flipped it with ‘Don’t Wait For Me’ which has more of an album ending feel to me.

1990 was reasonably early days in the life of CD and it was common place for record companies to add bonus tracks to the CD version. Therefore purchasers of the original CD version had an extra track tagged on the end in the shape of ‘Distant Thunder’. A pretty standard rock track vinyl buyers weren’t missing much and despite some decent guitar work it had a distinctly b-side feel to it.

Thunder exploded into the big league of British rock on the back of this fine album and a show stealing performance at the Monsters Of Rock Festival at Donington that summer. Where, despite being bottom of the bill and having to start their set before half of the crowd had been allowed in, they blew every other band off the stage. Ironically one of those bands were headliners Whitesnake who had by then almost abandoned the sound that had inspired Thunder in the first place. For many, like me, who attended that day Thunder were the salvation of the day and were heralded as the great new hope to carry rock music into the nineties. For others like my friend Lianne they were just a little too like other bands to be thought of as great, and in truth that may have ultimately been their downfall. But at the time when rock music was not at its strongest, Deep Purple were in the doldrums according to many, Led Zeppelin were long gone and the crowns of Whitesnake and Bad Company had slipped considerably they were a breath of fresh air and a reminder of what once was and what could be again ……. and for that …. us lovers of what is now called classic rock should always be thankful.

© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM July 2011.

About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
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