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Monday, 15 February 2016

Starlight Express album comparisons

So this one is a bit 'off-topic' for me. Time for a guilty secret, I have been a long-standing fan of the Lloyd Webber musical Starlight Express. As a kid I learnt to skate and took contemporary dance lessons as it was my dream to perform in the show. Things change and times move on but the musical remains dear to my heart.

It's a bit of a ritual of mine every Christmas to pick up a new cast recording. There are more Starlight cast recordings about than you'd expect, some great others very, very bad! This year I thought I'd finally got all of them when I added the fairly hard-to-come by Australian/Japanese recording to the collection. It seemed fitting what with going out to Australia on honeymoon and all. BUT there's news that the Bochum recorded a new album in 2013 to mark the 25th anniversary of the show in Germany and it has just been released, it's a little out of my price range for the moment but maybe next year I will add it and my collection will finally be complete.

Now considering there are so many albums about there is very little comparison available online. This is a show that has changed dramatically over the years since it was written for a young audience and producers have tried to make it remain 'current', with variable success. It's also been performed in nine different countries with sixteen professional productions , the longest being the Bochum running into its 28th year, that makes for a lot of different casts! Pearl's Domain, an excellent fan site which has been running for many, many years, has a good overview of the major recordings but is a bit behind current editions now and missing some of the smaller 'unofficial' recordings so I've decided to offer my own comparison between the available cast recordings, here goes!

The first, the original. This double album has almost the whole show as it first played at the Apollo Victoria in 1984 and was recorded live in the theatre. It's missing two races and a lot of the joining dialogue/music but a newcomer to the show can follow the plot listening to it, let's face it it's not Shakespeare! This recording 'feels' the most like the London show, it captures well that sense of cavernous space packed with industrial structures twisting around the audience as the David Hersey smoke curtain floods the auditorium with pulsing neon. It's largely bassy synthesizer which needs to be turned up really loud on decent speakers to fully appreciate the 80s vibe, but it also seems pretty sluggish tempo for a show about racing and the numbers don't flow very well together. There are some very strong vocals in this cast, particularly Poppa and CB. This album was remastered and re-released in 2005, but so far as I can hear on my sound system there's not much difference.

This was the first album I bought, just after seeing Starlight for the first time. I listened to it non-stop for months and then got to see the show for a second time. My recollection is that I came out of the theatre thinking what a woefully inadequate recording this was. It's a studio recording, so it has a very processed, clean feel whereas the West End show kept the grittier industrial feel of the 1984 recording. That being said, this isn't a bad recording, it's a lot more 'poppy' with more elaborate vocal arrangements and less artificial-sounding synths than the OCR and certainly picks up the pace.
'New' Starlight deserves a bit of clarification. When Starlight opened in Las Vegas it was playing at a casino and the managers didn't want punters away from the tables for too long, so the show was reduced to a one-act version, eliminating a couple of characters and restructuring the races from three, three-train races to two, four-train races. The London production was then adjusted along these lines, eliminating CB and Belle as well as a few of the numbers. This wasn't a bad move, as it remedied the 'sluggish' feel of the earlier production (at least as far as the recording bares testimony anyway) although I personally feel the loss of CB was a shame and I prefer the versions which retained the 'Red Caboose'. There are several positive additions to the songs on this album, including the appropriately named 'Crazy', 'Make Up My Heart', the Starlight Megamix and Don Black's beautiful duet 'Next Time You Fall in Love'. To get an idea what the London production was really like you need to mix this album into the OCR since much of the original show remained in place but isn't featured on this recording.

The Japanese/Australian tour must have been quite something to see as it was designed to tour stadiums and the set was enormous. The production doubled a few of the characters, presumably so that the audience around the outside of the 'pitch' didn't feel they were missing half the action. This can be quite a hard recording to get hold of, which makes the expectations on it quite high so it's worth saying that musically this is probably the most bland. The instrumentation and vocals sound very basic, lacking some of the life and interesting 'twiddly-bits' that the German recordings are particularly good at. It's a shame, because from the footage of training for the tour and snippets of in-show performance this was a very impressive production. This recording is notable for a few reasons though. Firstly it contains an English-language version of Engine of Love which (as Liebesexpress) is a staple of the German production but not a part of the London show, although it featured in the Broadway version and occurs on the New York concept album. Secondly the title song of the musical follows the "When the night is darkest" format with a verse tune borrowed from 'Only you/Only He' rather than the "When your goodnights" format of the London production. The German recordings also have the other format but it's unusual to hear it in English.

This was a real surprise. Having had the 1989 and 991 German recordings for a long time I was used to a particular sound from the Bochum production, a sound which is certainly not what's on the Original German Cast recording! This highlights album has a funky 80s disco sound, whereas the later recordings have a rock/pop leaning, and the arrangements are very unusual and original. 'Rolling Stock' has a lot less grind and a lot more energy and 'AC/DC' sounds like a Depeche Mode track! It's certainly cheesy but I'd go so far as to say this is probably my favourite recording, it's just so much fun! For extra-retro-ness I have this recording on LP as well as CD, although the vinyl is missing --- and 'Ein Rock and Roll Zuviel'. Besides the inidividuality of the arrangements there are a couple of oddities on this recording. There's no 'Pumping Iron' or race track (shame, it would have been great to hear how they sounded) and 'Ne Lok Mit Locomotion' is in the second half of the album before 'G.E.K.U.P.P.E.L.T.' rather than at the beginning. Whether that was a decision for the sake of the album or that was where it first appeared in the German show I have no idea. I haven't a clue whether the show in Bochum ever sounded like this, but I'd like to think it did!

Available only from Starlight Hall Bochum, or at least until being replaced by the 25th Anniversary version, this is the only album which contains the entire show from start to finish with no omissions. It is also one of my favourite of the recordings. The orchestration is very guitar-driven, which as a Rocker makes it very appealing to me, and being recorded live it preserves the atmosphere of the German production. It's not current to the show, having been recorded 26 years ago, but it definitely captures the feel of the show from when I saw it in 2006 even though 'Du Allein' had then been replaced with 'Allein im licht der Sterne'- it was then reinstated as 'Nur Mit Ihm' (Allein in licht der Sterne appears on a special 5-track EP 'New Songs' which I've not been able to find at a reasonable price).

This is a bit of an oddity. I'm not sure why or how this highlights album got recorded, maybe they felt the 1988 recording needed updating since the show no longer sounded anything like it? It's a studio recording, so it doesn't have quite the raw edge that the live recording does, but there's a lot going on in it in terms of arrangement and the rockier numbers (Rolling Stock, AC/DC, Pumping Iron) definitely pack punch.

OK, I don't have this one yet. Not sure what to expect. It will be interesting to see whether this was recorded before the introduction of 'Fur Immer', the new love duet penned by Lloyd Webber's son (which I'm afraid I consider to be absolute inane drivel and a poor replacement for 'Next Time You Fall in Love'). Apparently we can also expect that the form of Starlight Express has shifted to the original English version and 'He'll Whistle At Me' and 'Call Me Rusty' have replaced Liebesexpress.

Although this purports to be the Broadway recording it seems to be actually an attempt to make the numbers stand as pop songs in their own right, so although it preserves roughly the right order there's no emphasis on telling the story. The selling point of this album for me was 'The Race is on' by synthesizer legend Harold Faltermeyer... sadly it proved to be incredibly bland. I guess there's nothing terrible about the recording, if you're looking for twee 80s pop, but all the worst cheesiness of the show is brought out and the arrangements just seem incredibly bland. There ought to be a few things of interest on here, for instance a female-sung version of 'AC/DC', another example of the "When the night is darkest" version of Starlight Express as was used on Broadway (but sung by El Debarge) and 'Engine of Love' but they just aren't well executed. At least it's an album you can pick up cheaply if you want it.

From the bad to the downright terrible, but at least this doesn't pretend to be official. Just don't buy this! I listened to it twice (a second time just to check) and then got rid of it. I don't know who was responsible for this recording but if you want to hear what a bad Am-Dram production of the show by people whose usual fare would be 'Hello Dolly' or 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' would sound like then this is probably as close as you're going to get. The singing is weak and the bad synth instrumentation sounds like it might have been put together on garageband.

If there are two signs a recording of a musical is going to be bad they are these: The cover bears no resemblance to any logo ever used for the show and the tracks appear out of their running order. This album falls into both categories, although on first glance it seems possible that the cover fits with the 'Third Dimension' tour imagery and there are two tracks (Steel Rail and Choo Choo Lullaby) which sound like they ought to belong to that tour. A closer look at the back cover reveals the disclaimer "not from the musical" (so what are they doing on here?). Actually, this isn't bad. The instrumentation, as you might expect, is largely garage-band style synth but the vocals are quite good and the overall sound is very similar to the New Starlight Express recording. That does beg the question "why bother?" since there's nothing very original on here and I wouldn't recommend this one instead of the official recording. Steel Rail isn't a terrible track and you could imagine it being in the show, but Choo Choo Lullaby is as awful as it sounds like it's going to be. Oh, and Light at the End of the Tunnel, despite being listed on the tracklist, doesn't appear on this album. Not that this is a big problem in my estimation, if anything is overdue replacing it's the finale number!

Here's an album cover that DEFINITELY isn't from one of the productions! Surprisingly though this is also not a terrible recording. If you can get past the creepy opening tracks (the guy voicing Control is clearly not a child and sounds more like he's conversion with his wife in a dodgy way rather than his mother! But maybe he's just a big kid...) and the terrible opening to the Starlight Sequence it's actually quite a listenable-to recording. The Race Is On (a version of Faltermeyer's track) I think is actually better than the one on the Broadway concept album. What's really interesting is that lyrically this is a completely different show to the English recordings. In fact, this is a version of the US concept album but seems to be less concerned with making each song a pop number, keeping them sounding showtuney- although the song order is still completely random. It's conceivable, therefore, that this is as close to the show as it appeared on Broadway as it's possible to get.

This recording boasts tracks from Stephanie Lawrence (the original Pearl) and Carl Wayne but if I were you I'd steer as clear as possible from it. It sounds like bland, insipid pop and really has little to recommend it. I'd even rate it lower than the previous two amateur recordings.

So there ya go. That's my take on the available Starlight Albums in the unlikely event that anyone is interested! :)


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