Lost Album of the Week: Tranquility 'Tranquility'

On January 27, 2016

 

by Ryan Reed

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In 1981, Australian singer Olivia Newton-John released her ninth LP, Physical, which became a brief sensation thanks to the slick title-track –a harmless dance anthem with a workout-themed music video featuring awkward flexing, cringe-worthy headbands, and Newton-John pumping up fat dudes to get in shape. The song went platinum, earned a Grammy nomination and burned that synth-backed hook into the pop culture consciousness. In retrospect, the success of "Physical" isn't unusual – its facile pleasures typify that neon era. But there's a strange detail hidden in the liner notes: "Physical" was co-written by British musician Terry Shaddick, a relatively unknown songwriter whose finest work – with psychedelic folk-rock outfit Tranquility – is his most obscure, relegated to random blog post remembrances and dollar-bin vinyl discoveries.

Shaddick founded Tranquility in 1971 with former Donovan manager Ashley Kozak and recruited a hodgepodge of early Seventies prog/psych journeymen for his backing band. Driven by Shaddick's expansive songwriting – a potpourri of influences, including Crobsy, Stills & Young, the Beatles, and early Genesis – the group signed with CBS Records imprint Epic and hit London's Olympic Sound Studios to record their self-titled debut LP.

The fluid line-up included bassist Kevin McCarthy (formerly of Cressida), keyboardist Tony Lukyn, and lead guitarist Berkeley Wright, along with bassist Jim Leverton and drummer Eric Dillion, both formerly of Noel Redding's short-lived psychedelic act Fat Mattress. (The cast revolved so frequently that Tranquility's first three LP editions featured different back covers and membership credits.) The most famous contributor didn't even play an instrument: Engineer Keith Harwood went on to mix three Led Zeppelin albums (Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, and Presence) and engineer the Rolling Stones (It's Only Rock 'n' Roll and Black and Blue) and David Bowie (Diamond Dogs).

You can learn much about Tranquility just by scanning its earthy, post-flower-power artwork – just as I did, when I randomly yanked the LP out of the "T" section as a record store in Asheville, North Carolina during a vacation music hunt. "This is so dated, but in the most perfect way possible," I thought, my brain squirming with excitement as I gazed upon its idyllic hillside scene: the band name emblazoned on a rainbow hovering over a river, a pinkish sky, a mother (wearing all white) and baby resting under a shade tree, a pair of hound dogs stretched out in the green grass. "Wait, is that a hippie version of Virgin Mary and newborn Jesus? Is this the 'Lady of the Lake' referenced in the tracklist?"

Anything was possible in 1972 rock. And the music reflects the creative freedom of that era, when psychedelia, folk and prog co-existed on the Billboard charts. Shaddick's songs combine those elements seamlessly, though at times overtly – like with the lush, chordal CSNY vocal harmonies that appear on almost every track. But Tranquility rise above their easy reference points by combining them in unique ways.

"Try Again" rides a breeze somewhere between Gram Parson's country-rock texture and CSNY's signature phrasings, building to a hypnotic electric guitar solo that recalls both It's a Beautiful Day and The White Album. Shaddick's unobtrusive lyrics ("Should we meet on the road up ahead / and laugh bout the times we spent together?") function only to support the melody, but the atmosphere is the entire point. Dreamy guitar epic "Where You Are (Where I Belong)" fires at a cross-section of mid-Sixties American psych-pop and early folk-prog – layering harmonized electric guitars, Fender Rhodes grooves, propulsive rhythm section shifts, and massive vocal harmonies into a dynamic band showcase.

The album's second side is more deliberately quirky, veering from funky rock tunes ("Walk Along the Road") to jaunty, Kinks-styled pop ("Black Currant Betty," with its music hall piano) to Beatles-esque piano balladry ("Thank You," the lone moment on Tranquility that passes by homage into pastiche). Closer "Saying Goodbye" ends the LP with a stirring statement of purpose, revving up from subdued guitar harmonics to a hard-rock chorus.

Despite the obvious appeal, hardly any information about Tranquility (or Tranquility) exists on the Internet, with the bulk of info stemming from a biography at the Vanity Fare website. Before the LP's release, the band opened two British dates for the Byrds before launching their own American tour – but with Tranquility's fan base growing at each gig, the label apparently rush-released their debut to satisfy that demand.

The band managed to record one more album, 1972's Silver, which expanded upon their debut with a heavier approach and higher production values. According to the Vanity Fare site, Epic had bigger expectations for the LP, booking them as tour-openers for acts like "Yes, The Eagles, David Bowie, J Geils Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Black Oak Arkansas, and Edgar Winter." After various single releases failed to spark public attention, the band's Epic contract lapsed; and after a last-gasp single on Island Records, Shaddick and company retreated into obscurity. Various members found second life in session work – including bassist Jim Leverton, now a longtime member of Canterbury prog act Caravan.

Meanwhile, after a large hiatus from the public eye, Shaddick moved in a startling new direction as a songwriter. The success of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical," co-written by long-time collaborator Steve Kipner, propelled him into the mainstream pop realm, where he penned songs for America, Diana Ross and Sister Sledge, among others.

How he ended up evolving from psych-folk to lightweight R&B-pop is anyone's guess, but Shaddick's later discography doesn't tarnish his early work. Vinyl treasure hunters have re-discovered Tranquility in the Internet age: The album is available in digital form, and Rock & Groove Records issued a CD edition in 2004, though the few copies available on Amazon are priced roughly one arm and one leg. If you have the patience, it's best to track down this hidden gem the old-fashioned way: flipping through the record bins, hands covered in dust, rescuing these sadly unheralded tunes from vinyl purgatory.

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