Tuesday 7th November 2023
The Beaverwood, Chislehurst, Kent
The over used word "legendary" applies in Russ Ballard’s case, as one of the very best and most prolific songwriters for a wide range of Pop and Rock artists, not to mention a distinguished and long career as singer and guitarist both with Argent and in his own right.
"Hello are you feeling good?!" exclaimed Russ on his return to another pretty full and expectant marquee, who were equally ready. Ballard was revisiting this venue for the first time since February 2022 when the WRC last saw him I gather. I personally last saw him when the original Argent line-up reunited to play at the High Voltage Festival at Victoria Park in London in 2010! Those were the days my friends! Now his trim and youthful figure belies his just turned 78 years so never was the old cliché about an ageing portrait in the attic more appropriate. Legendary songwriter he may be, this was very much an evening to show off his own back catalogue and my God what a collection it is!
Russ was joined on stage as usual these days by Roly Jones (guitar), Marc Rapson (keyboards), PJ Phillips (bass) and newish drummer John Miller and they opened with a medley of an old Argent favourite 'It's Only Money (Parts 1 & 2)' from the 1973 album 'In Deep' which kicked things off very nicely (see our accompanying sound check video above)!
Russ then told the story over 'New York Groove', which is one of the most successful songs he has written. He wrote the bones of the song on a plane while flying to New York City to finish work on a Roger Daltrey second solo album 'Ride A Rock Horse'. On return to the UK the song was offered to and recorded by Glam rock band Hello in 1975 and was later covered by Ace Frehley (Kiss) for his 1978 solo album. Frehley's version is also very well known, especially in the USA, where it still gets played at major sporting events in the city - like at Giants Stadium. Russ then launched into the song with that classic Glam Rock stomp making me want to punch the air most of the time!
North London's finest was now literally 'Playing With Fire', taken from his 1984 self-titled album, a new arrangement, aided by a smouldering keys solo from Rapson, before a sumptuous guitar and organ intro led us to 'Dream On', aptly taken from Russ's 1985 album, 'The Fire Still Burns'.
Back to 1984 next for the fast dark rotary chords of 'In The Night', which was also not only covered by Ace Frehley as 'Into The Night', but was also featured in Miami Vice, no less. We then went all back to the future, with the rocky 'Time Machine', from his latest 2020 album ‘It’s Good To Be Here', which was testament to the fact that Russ's new stuff more than stands up to the old.
Nevertheless by this stage people were itching for some more instantly familiar material and so with convenient timing Argent's greatest ever hit ‘Hold Your Head Up’ obliged, Russ playing his Stratocaster with swiss cheese-like holes and Marc Rapson doing a fine job of emulating the pomp of that unmistakable Rod Argent keyboard solo. Brilliant.
The irony of the title track from the 1985 album, 'The Fire Still Burns', a political message, written at the time about worldwide conflict, was not lost on the audience at this point given current goings on in and around Gaza and of course Ukraine, but despite its distinctive tolling bell opening, both Rapson's piano work and Ballard's Gary Moore-ish Bluesy intro/outro took our minds off the madness that is going on elsewhere. Russ spent some time discussing with the crowd why can't everyone just get along?.One day perhaps mate....
Next up was the old Argent classic ‘Liar’, taken from Argent's 1970 eponymous and very much underrated debut LP, which was a hit for US rockers Three Dog Night. This was given fresh life with an atmospheric arrangement notably from John’s kick drum and Marc’s keyboards and another awesome solo from Ballard. For me personally, this was one of the highlights of the night without any shadow of a doubt.
Then it was back to 1984 for 'A Woman Like You' and then the twin guitar lead in on 'Rene Didn't Do It' immediately rekindled fond memories of 1980's 'Barnet Dogs', Russ said he always imagined that song to be like an episode of Hawaii Five-0 … really! Onto 1985 and 'Your Time Is Gonna Come' from 'The Fire Still Burns' kept the pace chugging along.
No better time then for an Irish jig/Scottish reel intro from Russ, as the band then launched into 'Since You Been Gone', from his 1976 album 'Winning'. While Ballard’s version has its very own Pop-Rock panache and gathers an equal amount of adroitness from the keyboards and the guitar hooks ,this also had the Rainbow trimmings as well, which naturally got a huge reaction from the audience as it should do!!
The fabulous vibe of 'Voices' followed, with its pounding drums, more great keyboard wizardry from Marc and vaguely funky overtones that culminated in another sing-along. This was not only another from his self-titled album, but was yet another soundtrack to Miami Vice of course. There was also time on the evening for two more from his self-titled album, 'I Can't Hear You No More' and 'Two Silhouettes'.
The inevitable encore was ‘God Gave Rock n Roll to You’ (from Argent's 1973 album 'In Deep') with all of the instruments combining superbly on what was perhaps one of the first Rock anthems, with Russ explaining how it was turned into a global mega-hit by US Hard Rock band Kiss who covered the song in 1991 with barely modified verse lyrics (a verse and a half according to Russ!) as 'God Gave Rock 'n' Roll to You II’. Russ had a ball conducting a lusty sing-along midway through as well! And with that line “If you’re young and you’ll never be old, music can make your dreams unfold”, I am sure he still believes that and so do I!! After all, music is supposed to be fun isn’t it?
A sunglasses-carrying member of the Roy Orbison/Ian Hunter shades club, Russ Ballard is undoubtedly a crack songwriter and I love the fact that he wears his fame lightly so all the stories about them did not come over as remotely boastful. Indeed, it's a fair bet that some Rock fans will know and like Russ Ballard tracks without even knowing that he wrote them. And as a seasoned gig goer it is harder for me to be surprised these days but, I was stunned quite how good this show was. It was indeed "Good to be There", but a songwriter of such a calibre will never truly disappear, and his evergreen songs will play on forever.
1. It's Only Money Parts 1 & 2 (Argent medley)
2. New York Groove
3. Playing With Fire
4. Dream On
5. In the Night
6. Time Machine
7. Hold Your Head Up (Argent song)
8. The Fire Still Burns
9. Liar (Argent song)
10. A Woman Like You
11. Rene Didn't Do It
12. Your Time Is Gonna Come
13. Since You Been Gone
15. Two Silhouettes
16. I Can't Hear You No More
17. God Gave Rock and Roll to You (Argent song)
Photos: Simon Green