An album close to my heart, Renaissance's Novella was released in the US in January of 1977, and the rest of the world in August of 1977. It is an album of beauty and power. Lush beyond measure. I asked Renaissance bassist / vocalist / composer Jon Camp to take us all through the album track by track. He graciously took on the task and here is what he had to say...
Track 1: Can You Hear Me? (Call Your Name)
JC: This track starts with a ‘backwards’ gong leading into John Tout’s echo laden piano intro. Then comes the massed ‘Renaissance’ choir and the orchestra launching in to the opening instrumental piece. I didn’t write this specifically for the song - it was an idea I had for use in a film possibly but as a piece it has strong movement and fitted in well with what we were trying to achieve with this song.
The lyrics - written by the sadly missed Betty Thatcher tell of the pressures of city life and how individuals go about their everyday business in a swarming metropolis but many of them are lonely, unfulfilled souls searching for someone and something.
As the intro finishes Mike Dunford’s acoustic guitar fades in with Terry Sullivan’s percussion followed by Annie’s lead vocal and a lovely counterpoint melody from John on the ARP Pro-Soloist. The second verse continues in a similar vein with the addition of myself playing a 12-string along side Mike to ‘thicken’ the sound, Terry playing a lovely light glockenspiel melody and John on the ARP again playing a haunting tune that emulates a flute to such a degree I defy anyone to tell it from the real thing! The chorus has Annie pleadingly asking ‘Can you hear me?’ - a real cry for recognition! The bass takes a lead roll here echoing the vocal line - very effective I think.
From here we segue into John on the grand piano with the full orchestra (always his favourite place to be!) laying the idea of rush and tear overshadowed by loneliness. Terry’s gong appears again with the guitars and bass giving an impression of a rare moment of peace - the lead bass line here making extensive use of a Morley volume pedal.
Our ‘choir’ and orchestra build up to a create a degree of menace before we enter another period of calm as Annie sings ‘Calling to the skies’ - I love the way she interprets the lyric here - a spine tingling performance. The bass has a ‘thunderous’ role to play here - using a Mutron and Phaser pedal it growls its way toward the harmonics played in unison with the vocal into the band in full cry with the orchestra as we pick up the tempo again to take us to the last verse with the addition musically of Terry’s tympani and John’s masterful grand piano - the whole resulting in a tremendous crescendo in the final chorus which slowly fades and with the ‘ghostly’ tolling of the tubular bells we edge our way into The Sisters...
Track 2: The Sisters
JC: Lyrically - again by Betty Thatcher - this song seeks to portray the selflessness of the nuns trying to provide for the community around them. I always imagined the setting for this to be Spain or Italy and I think it does an excellent job of implying the utter desolation of their lives held together only by their faith - you can almost see the dust rising from the ground as all try to scrape a meagre living!
John’s grand piano sets the scene with synthesized strings in the background. His playing here is truly inspirational-describing the feeling of the piece perfectly. Our ‘choir’ echoes this sadness before Annie soars above the male voices to deliver the first verse. John assembles an excellent ‘synth orchestra’ here - remarkedly accurate in it’s composition.
Verse two brings in Mike on classical guitar along with the rest of the band in a very subtle mood. Jon then joins Annie on vocals to lead us into a beautiful solo from John followed by a tour de force from Mike on the gut strung guitar. The last verse has string ‘stabs’ and piano with the Terry playing a military snare drum to create movement before we enter the final chorus with Jon and Annie duetting, John playing a brass patch on the synth and Mike’s guitar to the fore. The track ends as it begun with John’s haunting grand reprising the melody.
Track 3: Midas Man
JC: Betty Thatcher’s third and final lyrical contribution to the album shows greed, avarice and oppression at it’s worst played out through the tyrant that was King Midas.
The track opens with two acoustics playing in harmony (Jon & Mike) accompanied by strong backing vocals and John’s string parts. Annie sings the first verse very assertively and Jon joins her for the chorus. We used a lot of reverb on the instruments in this track to give it a big masterful feel-sometimes I think my love of Phil Spector’s production is evident here!
The middle section of this piece is a particular favourite of mine - Terry uses the tubular bells to great effect, John plays some incredibly fast arpeggios on the grand and I put down two bass parts, one as an ‘anchor’ and the following John’s piano-my fingers hurt just thinking about it!
Verse three continues in this style and the last chorus is a rare Renaissance ‘kitchen sink’ moment - we wanted ‘big’ and I think that’s what we achieved. The song finishes with a fairly long fade keeping the guitars prominent.
Track 4: The Captive Heart
JC: This was a relatively simple track for us, but that is part of its beauty for me. I wrote the lyrics for this one afternoon when I was feeling particularly melancholy. It tells of trying to reclaim lost love and trust and to that end the futility of giving too much of yourself to another. I visualized it from the point of view of a pilot returning from the war and the difficulty he and his wife faced in trying to re-capture what they once shared.
John’s grand piano starts to take us on the journey-his playing brought the studio to a standstill - you could hear a pin drop - it was that emotional. Annie’s vocal is as perfect as it gets on this song-she captures it beautifully. I join her on vocals at various times throughout the piece to give the male / female viewpoint and it finishes with John’s immaculate piano - a true example of ‘less is more'.
Track 5: Touching Once (Is So Hard To Keep)
JC: This is my favourite track on the album with Can You Hear Me running a very close second - I always thought we were at our strongest on the longer, more ‘epic’ tracks. Lyrically I wrote this from the viewpoint of a war torn country where the uprising of like-minded souls are building a new society from the ravages of a tyrannical regime - very profound!
This piece opens with a big orchestral flourish that leads into John on the grand piano ( a Russian influence here ) and Annie’s solo vocal dominating the first verse. A counterpoint bass part from myself takes us to the chorus where we are joined by Terry and Mike as the orchestra returns. Annie and myself sing this part in unison and the bass plays a lead line that is later taken up by the string section and the flutes - Terry plays a very appropriate military-style snare drum here - it’s worth saying that he was a very accomplished percussionist as well as a wonderful drummer-together we never missed a beat!
Verse two echoes verse one with the addition of some pretty string parts before we make way for the ‘madrigal’ style harmony vocals leading into the ‘pizzicato’ bass line doubled by the string section. The harmony vocals here are in a very strange time signature which is completely against what we are playing instrumentally - very confusing for the brain! This section fades to Mike’s guitar and John on the ARP Pro-Soloist playing a very ‘eerie’ melody which creates a lot of tension.
The bass part here is very effect laden and ‘heavy’ in it’s sound and makes way for John’s masterful piano as we approach the long instrumental piece brought by an incredible drum fill by Terry which is actually two kits played separately and then mixed together! This section finds both band and orchestra in free form mode - quite different for us but to my mind it works very well. While we were recording the orchestra for this section I suggested we have a sax solo - so we asked if any of the brass players fancied trying it. I think his name was Rob but he gingerly said he’d have a go and produced this amazing solo straight off - one take - no edits! He got a standing ovation from all present!
Building to an almost unbearable climax with Terry playing some excellent drums and the bass playing two separate lines we create the image of a storm in full cry (I think!). The last chorus is played in half-time and is very dramatic as are Annie’s vocals - we finish with a return to the ‘madrigal’ vocal section again in an odd time signature while Annie holds one of her famous long notes until the piece finishes abruptly.
Some final thoughts from Jon Camp:
When I listened to this album prior to doing this track by track it made me feel very proud - I hope this doesn’t sound to egotistical but it brought back memories of all the work that went into both writing and recording it. This was a big and expensive project for us and it would not have been possible without the dedication and expertise of our engineer, Dick Plant and his second-in-command, Barry Kidd. Both had worked with us since Ashes are Burning and we became like family. Richard Hewson who did the orchestral arrangements deserves a special mention as he managed to give our sometimes ‘esoteric’ ideas form and beauty. I hope this track by track gives you the reader an insight into the workings of Renaissance and it only remains for me to thank John Wilcox for giving me the chance to share my thoughts with you.
Take Care - Jon Camp