Levi Strauss, "the jeans maker whose ads with psychedelic and sexual overtones were the commercial embodient of the youthful culture of the 1960's," according to The New York Times, "has made a subtle change in its pitch. The company now promotes sportswear with a fuller cut, for that 1965 college boy who can no longer squeeze into his size 30 Levis."
While FM radio prospers, the article continues, its advertisers are no longer confined to phonograph records and acne-care cream, but hawk condominiums and suburban homes as well. The tide is turning."Who knows," bassist Jon Camp proposed in a February interview, "we might (even) get an upsurge in classical music interest. That would be good."
Camp speaks for Renaissance, one of the finest bands in contemporary music, rising perhaps in the aftermath of the counterculture's excesses. The pendulum that wrought the loud, dissident sounds of the sixties has begun to swing back, and sways with the rhapsody of Renaissance.
"We are a rock group," Jon said," there's no getting away from it. We have all the trappings of a rock group: sound system, lights, and all the rest of it - the technicalities. But there's an important difference, he feels, between Renaissance and the milieu, most evident on their new album Novella. "It's very much an orchestral kind of setup. I think that's how we approach Renaissance musically."
The distinction becomes increasingly evident to an entertainment industry that is finding its audience growing even smaller. "I don't like hard rock," Annie Haslam, the band's lead vocalist, admitted. "I'm not particulary fond of it," Jon agreed. "I don't like many groups, actually; I like Chicago, Barbara Streisand," Annie continued, also naming Johnny Mathis.
It's no longer a matter of generating a new sensation that will titillate the mass of teens. The record business is now big business and must direct its product at the general masses if it is to thrive. And so, John Denver and Olivia Newton-John outdraw Kiss and Aerosmith.
Consider this: the median age of Americans is rising. Currently at 28.9, it may well be more than eight years higher in the year 2030. The Gerber Products Company, for example, with baby food sales declining, is preparing for the eldery. Sire Records has decided to offer us Renaissance.
The group as it stands today came together seven years ago. Late in the last decade, Haslam and keyboard player John Tout found themselves the remaining members of a Keith Relf (of Yardbirds fame) experiment and reformed the band. After recording Prologue, their first release as a new unit, guitarist Robert Hendry quit and was replaced by Michael Dunford, who brought the acoustic element to the Renaissance sound.
"I've been very lucky," Haslam reflected. "But mind you,we had to starve in the early days. It was very bad." The group underwent ten different personnel changes at one time.
"But with Ashes Are Burning," Jon stated, "we found our identity as a group. We were previously just battling away on the fringe. I mean, on the first album Prologue, we were forced to record on a very limited funds. If you had stuck some applause in-between the tracks, it would of been just like a live album. We had only actually done, with that lineup, 15-16 gigs."
The process of evolution continues. "Every time we do an album, our music changes," Annie offered. "That's when we'd become seriously worried," interjected Jon, "if it became static. There'd be absolutely no point in us continuing.
"I suppose there was a big jump from Ashes Are Burning to Turn of the Cards as there is from Scheherazade to Novella," he said. "We're obviously much more proficient now than we were then. There's just a general maturity on the latest album that hasn't been present on the other ones. I just feel that the whole thing works better."
So the river of change flows, but the bedrock remains. A press release claims the quintet draws its inspiration from composers like Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Debussy and Rachmaninoff. But, while Renaissance's music is often complemented with orchestration (their Live album was recorded with such backing at Carnegie Hall), the sound is basically a synthesis of vocals, keyboards, bass, acoustic guitar and drums (Terence Sullivan). Haslam's voice and Tout's keyboards in fact, have been called the bands's two lead instruments.
Haslam took lessons from operatic instructor Sybil Knight shortly before joining the group. Her voice, spanning several octaves, has been almost perfectly honed. But she didn't initally plan to display her talent professionally. "I was scared," Annie said. "I didn't really know that I would be able to sing in front of people. I knew I could sing, but it was only in the back of my mind, like in most girls' dreams."
"I wanted to be a dress designer originally, and did it for a couple of years. But I had a lot of designs stolen, and the company that stole them from me gave me the sack the next day. I just gave up after that, and went to work as a telephonist-receptionist in a flour mill."
Haslam laughed at the thought, but said she appreciated the opportunity. "In the country, it was great! The people were fabulous and that was when I started singing. I started going in for talent competitions." Pushed by a former boyfriend, she rose quickly. After a few months in a cabaret, she answered Renaissance's ad for a female vocalist.
Renaissance is one of only a handful of bands so balanced. Each member performs a vital function. Camp explains the working of the inner mechanism: "We tend to be farily divided into sections, really. Michael and myself work very tightly together. There's no sort of set roles, or you do this and you do that."
"I would say that John's (Tout) expertise is in the arranging side of things. He doesn't write much music, but we bring him ideas and he puts on the glossing, which because of his classical training, is much easier for him to do. It's very difficult to arrange a Renaissance song on guitar. It's a lot easier to do on piano."
Almost a sixth member of the group is Betty Thatcher, the Cornwall poetess and lyricist. Her words express a certain humanism, which John describes as "reclusive, almost. They're not drawn from the normal sort of thing, that people write about in a rock band - if that's what you want to call us. It's straightforward boy-girl relationship kind of thing."
For example, "Can You Hear Me?" which opens Novella, tells a story, according to Annie, "about the city and people ... any city." "It's about people hiding behind their social facades, I think," added Jon, "if you really dig into the lyrics, people are never actually saying what they mean, never meaning what they say." "The Captive Heart" and "Touching Once (Is So Hard To Keep)," also from the new release and both penned by Camp, do speak of love but in a more abstract fashion."Up until this album," Jon said, "Betty's always done the lyrics. I couldn't actually have done the lyrics. What she's written has always been correct for the group. It fits very well with what we've tried to do musically."
Today Camp's contribution includes writing words and music, and arranging and singing harmonies. But he finds his greatest strength in playing bass. "Because we haven't got an electric guitar in the band a lot of weight it would have taken up tends to fall on me. I think it's more the style of bass playing that I've adopted," which sometimes serves as the lead.
And yet, Jon surmised, "everyone plays such an integral part in the group, much more on the new album. I think this is probably, in arangement and tonality, the most classically-oriented album that we've done. We've found that we've had to use more and more orchestral things, especially in the percussion department, to make the songs as we want them to."
Unlike other bands, however, Renaissance tries not to cop the masters' riffs. They're set, as Annie defined it, "on writing our own classical music." "Writing in that style," Jon corrected with a smile. "You can only write classical music after you've been dead 200 years."
"The thing is, it's not a conscious effort for us to expand. It just naturally comes because we're together more and we're getting more proficent at our individual roles. This new album, on the one hand, is far more electric than previous ones. On the other hand, it's so much like "The Captive Heart" and various parts of "The Sisters,",where there's only piano, bass and guitar. We'll continue to expand in either direction and somewhere in the middle people will always say That's Renaissance."
Renaissance is a group of many accomplishments. But they do have an ultimate goal so they profess when pressed. "Commercially and artistically," Jon stated, "I want us to be the best live band in the world. That's my thing." Annie agreed. "We seem to do quite well on stage."