Closet Classics – “Stealing Home”

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Product DetailsLet’s just start this with a little bit of background.  By the mid-70s Ian Matthews had been a member of Fairport Convention, had a UK number 1 with a Joni Mitchell cover and then disappeared from the UK mainstream scene.  The name, and the odd single, could still be heard occasionally in the background as punk and new wave barged and elbowed everything else out of the way but you had to be listening carefully.  So I listened carefully in 1979 and I heard “Gimme an Inch Girl”, an Ian Matthews cover of a Robert Palmer song which got a bit of radio play but did nothing chartwise.

During the summer of the following year I was visiting the first love of my life in that wicked London place and I had a bit of time to kill on the way home.  The first Virgin megastore had just opened at Marble Arch and that had to be worth a look; there were so many records I didn’t know where to start.

The only album I picked up that day was a cut-out import copy (on blue vinyl) of “Stealing Home” by Ian Matthews.  I recognised the single “Gimme an Inch Girl” and thought it was worth a couple of quid for that even if everything else was unlistenable, which was pretty unlikely.  I never thought for a second that it would be an album I would love instantly and forever; the first time I listened to “Stealing Home” from beginning to end was a musical epiphany.

The album was recorded in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire but was aimed squarely at the American market; you can hear it in the lyrics and the arrangements and you can see it in the sleeve design.  There wasn’t a chance that it would sell significant amounts in the UK in the aftermath of punk, but that was never the objective.  An album with great session players, tasteful (bordering on minimal) FM radio-friendly arrangements and lyrics dealing with American themes was never a commercial proposition in post-punk UK; throw in a singer with a plaintive high tenor voice and, in 1978, USA becomes the target market.

Ian Matthews didn’t really have a reputation as a great songwriter at the time, but he was already known as an interesting interpreter of other people’s songs.  He had already scored a UK No.1 in 1970 with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and had a stab at Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” which, unbelievably, made no impact on the charts.  Nothing I’d heard before prepared me for the beauty of “Stealing Home”.

The album opens with the 1 track I’d already heard, “Gimme an Inch Girl”, which sounded better on my hi-fi than on the radio (no FM in 1979), so I knew I was on to a winner straight away.  There isn’t a track on the album that I don’t love, even now.  I have to be honest and admit that I’m fairly partial to a melancholy song and this album is full of them.

I admit that I didn’t realise in 1979 that the theme running through the album was the failure of the American dream (and it should have been obvious because I loved “American Graffiti” and “The Last Picture Show”).  Ian Matthews picked out songs about the party set, car fanatics and sports groupies to form the backbone of this album.  It’s a melancholy album because it looks back at the unfulfilled promise of American lives in the same way that Bob Seger did with songs like “Hollywood Nights” and “Night Moves” and Jackson Browne did with “The Pretender”.

Don’t Hang Up your Dancing Shoes” is a Terry Boylan song about an attempt to persuade the Homecoming Queen to take one last chance a former beau and sets the tone for the rest of the album, musically and lyrically.  “King of the Night” is a poignant ballad written by Jeffrey Comanor (a cult figure at the time who also collaborated with Shel Silverstein on the Dr Hook song “Makin’ it Natural”), which focuses on the plight of the forgotten former street racer and is followed by Matthews’ funky version of the great John Martyn song “Man in the Station”.  Side 1 of the album (I bought it on vinyl, so I’m sticking with that format) ends with a fairly rare (at that time) Matthews composition, “Let There be Blues” which keeps the melancholy mood nicely on track.

And then I turned over to Side 2 for the real revelations.  The first track, “Carefully Taught”, is a perfect example of Matthews’ ability to completely remake an existing song.  The original is a workmanlike Rogers & Hammerstein song from “South Pacific” with very good intentions, played as a fast show song, which Matthews strips back to a half-tempo a cappella version while editing the lyrics to fit everything in to an extraordinary 60 second masterpiece; if you don’t appreciate this, you have no soul.  Listen to the original “Carefully Taught” and decide for yourself.

This is followed by a strong Matthews original, the title song, “Stealing Home”, another melancholy song which deals with a disintegrating relationship.  The most commercially successful song on the album, “Shake It”, is next, moving the tempo up a few notches while keeping up the theme of nostalgia for a happier era.  It’s one of Terry Boylan’s finest moments and was a deserved American chart success.

Next up is another of the album’s revelations and a great example of Matthews’ ability to fit songs to his own mould. “Yank and Mary(Smile)” is a medley which combines the verses from a Richard Stekol song about two ingénues moving to California with the chorus from the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile”.  It’s a perfect mix because the two songs blend seamlessly into a beautiful whole.

The two songs which round off the album, “Slip Away” and “Sail my Soul” , are both co-written with Bill Lamb.  The first is a mid-tempo song aimed at the same market as “Shake It” and the second is a soulful ballad with some lovely slide guitar which finishes off the album with a positive message that relationships can work sometimes.

If you love great songs, great singers and great arrangements, you should listen to this album.  It may be really unfashionable in the current musical climate but this is a beautiful album and it’s one of my closet classics.   If you want to find out more about Iain Matthews (as he’s known again now) have a look on his website.

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