Cult Heroes No. 35: Robin George
Robin George is one of those figures in rock history who can claim to have worked with some of the biggest names around. But when it came to his own career, it was a case of right man, wrong place. Or was it wrong man, right place? Whatever, all’s explained below. All the previous Cult Heroes are here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
You might recall Robin George – The Axe Of Tomorrow. Well that was the catchy line we used on Kerrang! back in 1983, when the man graced the cover of issue 51. There he was, waving around his guitar, standing on a gloriously muddy hill, backlit as a true warrior of rock. Except that it all came across more as an Acton Man than any Action Man. Somehow, Robin contrived to look more like someone who was used to serving fries at McDonald’s and trying to act out his rock star fantasies than a formidable talent who could take on the world. And yet…
And yet, there was something about Robin back then. So much so that Bronze Records, to whom he was signed within a couple of years of the Kerrang! cover exposure, believed they had the new Trevor Rabin ready to shake up rock music and leak platinum success all over the place. And his debut album, Dangerous Music (eventually released in 1985), suggested that might well have been the case – if only the label hadn’t folded. Ah well, those are the breaks.
By the time Dangerous Music came out, Midlander Robin was something of a veteran. He’d worked with former Uriah Heep vocalist David Byron in the David Byron Band (Robin was guitarist and producer). He’d produced Diamond Head (the Sweet & Innocent single in 1981), Quartz (self-titled album, 1983) and the mighty Wrathchild (their classic 1984 album Stakk Attakk bears his audio stamp). And, perhaps most infamously, he was the man at the controls for Witchfinder General’s 1983 Friends Of Hell album. Who knew at the time that this album would be perhaps the most influential and important he’d ever work on? It’s become iconic for doom and extreme metal fans everywhere. But that was a record where allegedly more money was lavished by the label (Heavy Metal Records) on the Penthouse Pet style cover than on studio time!
Robin had also released a 12” EP titled History in 1983 through Arista. Although this didn’t quite make the expected big impact, nonetheless it did have the song Go Down Fighting, which would later be covered by Ted Nugent (on his 1984 album Penetrator). However, the path to glory appeared straight and direct for Robin with Dangerous Music. Especially as the first single, Heartline, was one of the catchiest songs of the time. Still is, in fact. Honestly, it now seems impossible for anyone to have failed in making this at least a Top Ten hit. But Bronze achieved such a failure. The song went into the UK charts in April 1985 at number 81, hovered around the lower reaches for a few weeks, peaked at number 68, and then disappeared. Well done on that one, Bronze. Anchors away….not!
Mind you, the cause wasn’t helped by an insipid video, the concept for which tried to tart Robin up as some sort of simpering medieval warlord. Harrison Ford with a pout. Wrong move. This is where you get to understand why Robin didn’t become a star, and the rock world realized they were actually being beguiled by marketing campaigns.
Yes, Robin is a good songwriter, a more than competent guitarist with a decent voice, and understands production. His value and stature were such that he persuaded a whole raft of top names – Phil Lynott, Pino Palladino, Dave Holland, Chris Thompson, Mark Stanway – to guest on his album. But what he didn’t have was charisma. It wasn’t lack of image, so much as the feeling that when you met Robin, or watched him, he was stoically wooden. Nice guy, definitely. But where was the passion, where was the shining light that seems to pour out of true rock stars? They don’t so much enter a room so much as flood it. With Robin, it was more a case of a gentle trickle.
Given this problem, he was ideal as a sidekick, as he’d been with Magnum on their Eleventh Hour tour in 1983. But what he couldn’t do was front his own band. So when former Magnum drummer Kex Gorin, future Ozzy bassist Phil Soussan and keyboard player Alan Nelson joined him in a band under the name of Dangerous Music, the subsequent tour (opening for Uli Jon Roth – there was a mismatch of styles) wasn’t exactly a triumph. Robin just looked so uncomfortable up there in the spotlight, with nowhere to hide.
It seemed inevitable this project would die. A shame, because when you listen back to the Dangerous Music album (and it’s just been reissued by Angel Air) it has a lot of strong songs – from Heartline to the title track and Shoot On Sight to No News Is Good News. The production now sounds of its time (in other words, horrible), but the music has style and class.
So, Robin again took up the role for which he was born, being a crucial part of someone else’s project, in this case recording big 1985 hit Nineteen with Paul Hardcastle and Phil Lynott. He was also part of the band when it was performed live on TV, on what was to be Lynott’s last TV appearance before he died. If memory serves, wasn’t this band actually billed as Thin Lizzy? Brian Downey was certainly on drums. Who knows? Perhaps Robin might have been part of the reunited Lizzy had Lynott lived.
But what happened next was perhaps the biggest mistake in his career – he teamed up with Sean Harris, the former Diamond Head vocalist. It was Pete Winkelman, (now owner of the MK Dons football club, but then very much a musical entrepreneur and a friend of both parties) who came up with the idea of teaming these two. And the hype and hypocrisy that flowed over the next few years was so massive if it had turned to water we’d have experience the biggest flood since Noah took to the high seas. Eventually, with Geffen Records believing they had an act who were gonna be bigger than Whitesnake, Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses combined, the band’s debut album came out in 1990 under the band name of Notorious. It was called Radio Silence, and that’s exactly what happened. The silence from everywhere about this misbegotten record was such that, eventually, Geffen canned it in America, and this never even got into the shops in the UK. As for touring…well, let’s put it this way, the band became known in some circles as No Tour For Us. The whole thing collapsed, and even the recent reissue of the album by Angel Air only reinforces what a terrible idea this was.
The combination of George and Harris simply never clicked, and if you knew anything about these two, then it was never gonna happen.
Since then, Robin hasn’t been lacking for work. He’s written and recorded with Robert Plant, Glenn Hughes and Marshall Law. He’s toured in a band with bassist/vocalist John Wetton, drummer Carl Palmer, guitarist Phil Manzanera and keyboard player Don Airey (shame that line-up didn’t stay together long enough to do an album). Had his own band called Life, and teamed up with bassist Pete Way and drummer Chris Slade in Damage Control. Oh, and also started a project called LovePower. The idea here is that musicians give their services for free, in aid of various charities. A laudable objective.
So, there you have it. A very brief summary of Robin George’s life and times. It might seem like I’ve actually been very harsh on him, and unnecessarily cynical about a lot that he’s done. In reality, the man is a talent who’s so often allowed himself to be misdirected (albeit by people who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing for him). But he has been involved with some more than decent bands and albums. And there’s no doubting that he gave the likes of Wrathchild and Witchfinder General an extra dimension in the studio.
In some respects, Robin George’s career is unfulfilled, because he never did become that rock star many believed to be his destiny. But, there again, I suspect he might be quietly relieved about that. And Heartline is out there, ready for someone to cover it. The song’s a guaranteed hit, even now. Plus, he’s always in demand as a musician, songwriting partner and producer, because he’s good at what he does.
And, if nothing else, he’s always got that Kerrang! cover – and that alone is some form of cachet.
To find out more, go to http://www.robingeorge.com/
Tags: Aerosmith, Alan Nelson, Brian Downey, Carl Palmer, Chris Slade, Chris Thompson, Damage Control, Dave Holland, David Byron, David Byron Band, Diamond Head, Don Airey, Glenn Hughes, Guns N' Roses, John Wetton, Kex Gorin, Magnum, Mark Stanway, Marshall Law, Notorious, ozzy Osbourne, Paul Hardcastle, Pete Way, Phil Lynott, Phil Manzanera, Phil Soussan, Pino Palladino, Quartz, Robert Plant, Robin George, Ted Nugent, Thin Lizzy, Uli Jon Roth, Uriah Heep, Whitesnake, Witchfinder General, Wrathchild