A little over a year ago, I pulled a bright purple double-gate fold record out of a free bin at a media megastore that I frequent. That record was The Hit List: 22 of 1982’s Best Hits, a compilation album that had been released by K-TEL, an international “As Seen on TV” company. I recognized only a handful of the artists named on the back—Tommy Tutone, Aretha Franklin, The Police—but still had that sensation of “one man’s trash, another man’s treasure.” I knew already at that moment that I would be taking the album home, but for good measure I slid the LP’s out of their sleeves to find that they were in fantastic condition. This record appeared to have been hardly ever played before.
Turns out, that double LP that somebody threw unwanted into the free bin was an absolute gem. It featured hit songs I had been hearing all my life, though I had never actually known who performed them. It also introduced me to fantastic tracks that were completely new to me from the likes of .38 Special, Hall & Oates, Commodores, and The Gap Band. But most importantly, buried on Side D between Rick Springfield and Air Supply, was a grooving little number called “Man on Your Mind” by Little River Band.
In the days and weeks that followed, I played “Man on Your Mind” so often (and at such bold decibel levels) that when my wife would hear the opening 4/4 drumbeat boom through the living room speakers, she would sigh and say, half-jokingly, “This one again?”
Yes, that one again.
Something struck me as utterly cinematic and visual about “Man on Your Mind” from the first time that I heard it. It would have been right at home as the opening sequence song to a Scorsese crime film about mob guys in New York. It had a sound that seemed destined to be used in a movie while some badass in sunglasses and a sport coat was striding across the screen doing something simultaneously illegal and awesome. That huge, driving, straightforward beat; that smooth, sliding bassline; that slinky, carefree guitar riff that seemed to say, “Hey, I know I’m funky as hell, but I don’t make a big deal about it.”
So just who, I needed to know, was this group Little River Band, and why had I never heard of them before? The simple answer to “who” is that they were a bunch of white guys with poofy hair who made super suave soft rock in the seventies and eighties (...and nineties, and 2000’s, and to this day).
Little River Band originally called themselves Mississippi and were formed in Melbourne, Australia, in 1975 as a sort of supergroup featuring musicians who had had prior success in other Australian bands. They have been described by some as “harmony rock” and would not be out of place in the same stylistic camp as bands like Boston or Kansas. One of their goals upon formation was to get on American radio by writing songs with a strong vocal focus, featuring four or five part harmonies coupled with melodic, not-too-heavy guitar and catchy progressions. They went through over thirty personnel changes over the course of their 40+ year career, so I won’t dare try to string you along on a list of unfamiliar names, but suffice it to say that, generally speaking, the band’s most prominent work was written by either Graeham Goble or Glenn Shorrock with frequent contributions from Beeb Birtles and David Briggs.
Altogether, Little River Band has released seventeen studio albums (so far) and a handful of live records, so for sake of time and word count, I’ll focus here primarily on some selections from their first compilation album, simply titled Greatest Hits (1982). This was the first of the band’s standalone titles that I purchased and it provides a good representation of their early career.
Remember that (not-so-memorable) buddy-cop film The Other Guys (2010) with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg? There’s a scene where Ferrell’s character is listening to a CD in the car and Wahlberg ejects the disc and throws it out the window. The song they were listening to is “Reminiscing,” and it is later revealed that Ferrell’s character keeps six identical Little River Band CD’s in his disc changer at all times. “Reminiscing” is one of those songs that may immediately bring to mind the thought, “Where have I heard this before?” A lot of places, probably. It hit #3 on Billboard in 1978 and was LRB’s highest-charting song in the U.S., eventually being awarded the BMI Five Million-Air award for five million radio plays—the highest achievement ever for an Australian pop song. It has been licensed in too many movies and TV shows to mention here and covered by a number of prominent artists, k.d. lang and Barry Manilow among them. According to Albert Goldman’s biography The Lives of John Lennon, Lennon cited it as one of his favorite songs. It’s simply a great song with a pitch-perfect arrangement of instruments that inspires uncontrollable head-bobbing and air-drumming.
The aforementioned “Man on Your Mind” is featured among the twelve tracks on Greatest Hits, and notably, it and two other songs, “The Night Owls” and “Take It Easy on Me,” were produced by the late George Martin of Beatles notoriety (rest well, good sir, and thank you for all of your incredible contributions to music). Martin had worked with the group on their sixth studio album, Time Exposure (1981), on which all three of the songs mentioned above appeared. Clearly, he had an ear for what would lend well to radio.
“Lonesome Loser” kicks off Side B with a dazzling five-part harmony, one performance of many that proves LRB belongs right up there among the ranks of the great vocal bands such as Queen, the Beach Boys, and Eagles. This song was originally the first track on First Under the Wire (1978), their fifth record and only top ten album in the United States. There is something inexplicably inspiring about the melody that conjures images of victory, importance, and—if it’s not too much of a stretch—training sequences in sports films.
“Take It Easy on Me” was to be the second single from the Time Exposure album and became the source of some contention between two of the band’s members. When the band recorded the song with George Martin, both Glenn Shorrock and Wayne Nelson recorded their own separate lead vocal takes for the track to see which version was preferable. Martin’s choice was Nelson’s take because Shorrock already had his lead vocals featured on “The Night Owls,” which was to be the lead single from the album. Shorrock argued for his own take to be used and ultimately won out, because it is his voice that can be heard on the single (which reached #10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100) and on the album. The alternate take of the song featuring Nelson’s vocals was released eventually and can be found on the CD and digital versions of Greatest Hits, which was re-released with additional songs in 2000.
Greatest Hits closes with another track from First Under the Wire, a peaceful, feel-good ballad full of positive vibes called “Cool Change” that hit #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was released as a single from Capitol Records in 1980. In May 2001, the Australasian Performing Rights Association named it one of the APRA Top 30 Australian songs of all time. If that Hit List compilation record was a window, then Greatest Hits was a door that opened up to introduce me to a whole catalogue of music from a great Australian group that I had previously never known existed. I bought other records by Little River Band after falling in love with Greatest Hits and have not been disappointed; the rest of their library is full of too many great songs to reference here and is very worth delving into.
So, perhaps follow in my steps and start by checking out “Man on Your Mind.” If that song rings true on any level with you, then you’re in for a real treat.
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