Michael Been: Frontman of the acclaimed Eighties alternative rock band The Call
Wednesday 25 August 2010
The lead singer, bassist and primary songwriter of the critically-acclaimed Eighties alternative rock band The Call, Michael Been stood out as one of the few American musicians to attract a dedicated following at a time when groups from the British Isles dominated the airwaves. Been's powerful baritone and his passionate belief in the redemptive power of rock shone through on the anthemic singles "The Walls Came Down", "I Still Believe (Great Design)" and "Let The Day Begin", and he was recognised as a kindred spirit by Peter Gabriel, U2's Bono and the Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr, who guested on The Call's various albums and asked them to open for his band. In 1987, another admirer, the film director Martin Scorsese, cast Been as the Apostle John in his epic The Last Temptation of Christ. "It was one of the greatest times of my life," said the singer. "He felt there was a similarity in what the band was singing about and the purpose of his movies."
Yet, while The Call became firm college and "modern rock" radio favourites in the US, they never quite escaped their cult status. This might have had something to do with Been's everyman physique and his socially conscious lyrics, as well as his reluctance to compromise, but was most likely due to his refusal to appeal to the lowest common denominator. "Rock'n'roll is a vehicle to express the emotions you are not allowed to use in everyday life," he said. "We shouldn't waste rock and roll. Rock should be looking at some of the big questions. At its best, it's an art form that inspires, sometimes teaches, sometimes threatens. Its only crime is when it bores."
Born in 1950, Been spent his childhood in Oklahoma City. At the age of seven he won a talent contest at a local fair and began performing on local television and radio as "Little Elvis"."I grew up on rock and roll," he recalled. "I saw Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show and I was never the same. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. I started playing guitar as soon as I was old enough. When I was a kid, music just seemed to take up so much of my day voluntarily. That's how I wanted to spend my time."
In the mid-1960s the Been family moved to Chicago, where he attended high school and the University of Illinois, and experimented with comedy, beating his friend John Belushi to second place in the Illinois state competition. In Chicago, he saw the blues greats Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, and started a group called Aorta, which was strongly influenced by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and The Band, whose members Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson would later record with The Call.
Between 1969 and 1971 Been was in Lovecraft, a spin-off of the psychedelic group HP Lovecraft, and, after relocating to California in 1972, he joined Fine Wine, which featured two former members of another legendary psychedelic outfit, Moby Grape. However, he really made his mark in 1979 when he started Moving Pictures, soon renamed The Call, with a fellow Oklahoman, drummer Scott Musick, and two Santa Cruz locals, guitarist Tom Ferrier and bassist Greg Freeman. "It all fell together so naturally," he said. "We played together so effortlessly and trusted each other."
In 1980 they travelled to the UK to record demos and saw Joy Division and the Gang Of Four. "The British weren't so concerned with technique and orthodox standards, they just played like their lives depended on it," Been said. "In fact, everyone thought we were an English band." In 1982, they signed to Mercury and recorded their eponymous debut in Britain with noted producer Hugh Padgham. Through him, they met Gabriel, who called them "the future of American music."
The Call made a big impression with their 1983 follow-up, the hard-hitting Modern Romans. Been recalled: "There was a great deal happening politically – Grenada, the Lebanon – the US government saying the Russians are evil. That kind of thinking inspired me to write the last lines of 'The Walls Came Down'. The album reflected the times."
Unfortunately, a dispute between the group, their management and Mercury affected the release of Scene Beyond Dreams in 1984 and left them in limbo until they signed to Elektra two years later. Keyboard-player Jim Goodwin replaced Freeman, while Been switched from guitar to an Ampeg fretless bass, and they made Reconciled at the Power Station studio in New York. Gabriel and Kerr sang background vocals on "Everywhere I Go", the album's strong opener, and both that track and "I Still Believe" gained considerable airplay, though they lost momentum with the more introspective Into The Woods in 1987 before moving to the MCA label. The following year, The Call achieved their highest chart placings with the big-sounding Let The Day Begin album, which featured the actor Harry Dean Stanton, whom Been had met while making The Last Temptation of Christ, on harmonica.
Despite peaking at 51 in the US and 42 in Britain, "Let The Day Begin" has become something of a rock classic. Al Gore used it as his campaign song in the 2000 US Presidential Election, and Simple Minds included it on Searching For The Lost Boys, the bonus album of covers packaged with the Deluxe edition of Graffiti Soul, their 2009 Top Ten album.
Kerr recalled: "I had the pleasure and honour to spend a fair amount of time with Michael Been while touring America. It really was an honour. Simple Minds may have been the headliners, but there was no doubt that is was us who looked up to our opening act The Call. All of which stood to reason. We may have just topped the Billboard charts, but we all knew it was Michael who was the 'real deal' in comparison to ourselves who, at that time, had buckets of chutzpah, well enough to disguise the fact that, by and large we were still well wet behind the ears. By that time, Michael had already lived 'an artist's life' and travelled far and wide, both in body and mind, from the dusty backroads of Oklahoma.
"A preacher and a teacher, Michael was always much more than your usual 'ten-a-penny' careerist '80s rock star. As driven as he was with his beliefs, he was far from sanctimonious and always a hoot to be around. He had a similar soul that one perceives in true American greats such as Robbie Robertson, but he also had the wickedly spirited comedy of John Belushi draped all around him. Both Charlie [Burchill, the Simple Minds guitarist] and myself adored Michael."
Following 1990's Red Moon, which had Bono on the gospel-tinged "What's Happened To You", The Call disbanded, though they returned with one more studio album in 1997. Been composed and recorded the music for Light Sleeper, the 1992 offbeat drama starring Willem Dafoe and Susan Sarandon and directed by Paul Schrader, and also collaborated with Rosie Vela and Bruce Cockburn. In 1994, Been released a solo album, On The Edge Of A Nervous Breakthrough.
Over the last decade, he devoted most of his time and energy to mentoring Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the indie rock trio formed in San Francisco by his son, Robert Levon Been, and Peter Hayes. He engineered and co-produced several of their albums and is listed as sole producer of their most recent recording, Beat The Devil's Tattoo. He was working as BRMC's sound engineer when he suffered a heart attack backstage at the Pukkelpop festival in Belgium.
Michael Been, singer, songwriter, guitarist, bassist, sound engineer, record producer: born Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 17 March 1950; married (one son); died Hasselt, Belgium 19 August 2010.
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