Rick Springfield’s Beginnings: Younger Than Tomorrow, Wise As Yesterday

Published on April 23rd, 2012 in: Current Faves, Music, Music Reviews, Reviews |

By Cait Brennan

springfield beginnings

I can’t prove this, but I suspect Rick Springfield‘s career began with the discovery of a magic lamp. A magic lamp with a particularly devious Jinn contained therein. Since he was a teenager, Springfield has been on the receiving end of some of the luckiest breaks a young rocker could’ve wished for in his wildest dreams. Yet too many of them went inexplicably off the rails despite his formidable talents. Such was his major-label debut, the indispensable, shoulda-been-a-smash Beginnings, released in 1972 on Capitol and recently reissued by a great new label called Real Gone Music. It’s one of 1972’s best albums, and one of the best you’ll hear in 2012, too.

Springfield’s confoundingly wonderful career began in 1969, when the 20-year-old got his first big break as vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist in the Australian band Zoot. They were a bit of a sensation in their home country, with solid, crunchy rock hits and a, um, somewhat unique marketing angle: At every appearance, Zoot wore matching pink satin suits. Arrived in a matching pink car. Posed with a dyed-pink doggie. Etc.

In the gimmick-mad early ’70s, the attention getter made the band famous, at the expense of their rock credibility, self esteem, and personal safety (anecdotal accounts say the band was regularly subjected to homophobic harassment and abuse). They eventually burned the suits, Springfield wrote a suitably rockin’ song about the experience, and after a solid hit cover version of “Eleanor Rigby,” the band broke up. Liberated from the band experience, Springfield went solo and before you could say “Waltzing Matilda,” he had an irresistibly catchy Australian Top 10 hit, “Speak To The Sky.”

Buoyed by success, Springfield bolted for American shores and the inevitable fame he deserved. Springfield’s management team, Robie Porter and Steve Binder, parlayed the promising young Aussie’s down-under fame into a record deal at Capitol with the almost preposterously-named label exec Artie Mogull. But before the ink was dry, Mogull bolted Capitol for MCA, and the new regime offered to pay Springfield double to just go away without recording a single note. The savvy Binder passed on the easy money and convinced Capitol execs that they wanted to be in the Rick Springfield business. From the quality of the songs on Beginnings it’s easy to see why.

Beginnings was recorded at Trident Studios in London in February of 1972, around the same exact time Bowie was at Trident recording The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and Elton John was there recording Madman Across The Water. (In fact, Trident’s Robin Geoffrey Cable engineered both Beginnings and Madman.) Beginnings captures some of the magic of its studio mates and proves that Springfield was ready for the big time long before Working Class Dog came out in 1980.

In his daring, intimate, lyrical, storytelling and his passionate performance, it’s clear Springfield knew this was his big break and he went for it heart and soul. Not only did he write all the songs on Beginnings, he did all the guitar work himself, along with banjo, piano, organ, and even the harpsichord. The result is a strong, melodic, heartfelt, artistic effort that recalls Bowie’s Hunky Dory in its deft arrangements and masterful songwriting synthesis of eclectic, weird, and wonderful influences.

Symbolically or literally, his parents have figured large in Springfield’s work. His heartfelt tribute to his father, “April 24, 1981” was one of the finest moments of his ’80s RCA career. Beginnings opens with “Mother Can You Carry Me,” with a heartsick young man calling out for maternal spiritual guidance in times of trouble. It’s the first song on the first Rick Springfield record and it’s already great, as great as any of his later work. Porter and Binder may have been intent on selling Springfield as the next David Cassidy, but this song’s emotional complexity and sophisticated arrangement (not to mention Springfield’s vulnerable, nuanced vocal) vault Beginnings out of Partridge Family territory from the first note.

The Top 20 US hit “Speak To The Sky” is a flat out great record. A slight revision of the original Australian single, “Speak” covers thematic territory similar to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” but is a hell of a lot more fun, with banjo strums, tambourine, and—is that a tuba? The single sold in droves and landed Rick on K-Tel’s Believe In Music compilation, no less.

Rick has always liked a good story song, and Beginnings has a few. “What Would The Children Think” dismantles a troubled marriage in baroque pop style, with Springfield’s admiration for Paul McCartney on display. “The Unhappy Ending” delivers on its title with a suitably overwrought tale of star-crossed love and suicide. Great string arrangements, harmonies, and that spooky early-’70s murder-ballad vibe (see also: “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” & “DOA”) makes this one a must. “Hooky Jo” is—let’s face it, “Hooky Jo” is silly. It’s a sort of Civil War love song with whistling, banjo, more whistling, a gratuitous key change ,and either a Moog or a tuba or a Moog set on “tuba.” There’s a barking dog too, which one presumes is the “Amazing Wonder Dog” credited on the sleeve. Only the protagonist of “The Unhappy Ending” could resist smiling at “Hooky Jo.” Pretty sure Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods cribbed part of this for “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” but I leave that to your detection.

“1000 Years” is a powerhouse love ballad, and “I Didn’t Mean To Love You” has Rick’s love growing by inches. The girl in question is only 17, but as the Stray Cats demonstrated, you could get away with that all the way into the ’80s before it became dodgy. Any legal questions are quickly dispelled by a hot soul vocal performance and typically great Springfield guitar work.

The last two songs are a study in contrasts. “Why” is a particularly moving song about . . . well, I could guess, but you be the judge what it’s about: “I don’t know how to tell you who I am/Try to justify, you’d still deny I’m a man . . . I never understood it, so I don’t expect you to, but I can’t change now, love, just for you.” “Why did she love me, lord did I let her down/Why is it so hard to be yourself?” It’s one of the best songs Springfield’s ever written, it’s still incredibly relevant, and like the rest of Beginnings it deserves to be heard.

Finally, “The Ballad of Annie Goodbody” is about a hot, female rock and roll singer who brings the house down (and brings the album to a close). It’s a little silly, and a bit insubstantial compared to the great songs on the rest of the record, but it’s still fun.

Having delivered a career-launching debut to Capitol, Springfield should have been in the catbird seat. But, in what has to be one of the weirder pop music implosions in music history, legend has it that somehow a rumor got started that Capitol was paying “busloads” of teenagers to buy Springfield’s albums—as if Beginnings wasn’t good enough on its own merits, and that the label had to bribe an army of glassy-eyed teen ciphers to buy the thing. Incensed by the rumor, some belligerent Capitol exec allegedly dared radio to stop playing the album and stores to stop carrying it if they truly believed anything illegal was going on. Radio and retail promptly obliged, and despite one of the best debut solo albums of the era, Springfield was done at Capitol. Beginnings died the death of a thousand cutouts.

After the Capitol debacle, Springfield began a long journey in the artistic wilderness. Like his American counterpart John Mellencamp, who started off mismanaged as eyeliner-clad prettyboy “Johnny Cougar” with Tony DeFries’ MainMan management (notable other client: David Bowie) before emerging as a rough-hewn star in the ’80s, Springfield spent the rest of the 1970s bouncing from label to label and concept to concept, trying to forge his own identity with the worst kind of help from every management Svengali in town.

New label Columbia literally turned him into a cartoon on the cover of his great second album, Comic Book Heroes; Filmation and ABC television took it a step further with a Saturday morning cartoon series, Mission: Magic (a spinoff of The Brady Kids, no less). The Springfield album (which was unreleased), Wait For Night, and the Sound City Sessions (sort of bizarrely remade/released as Beautiful Feelings in 1984) all followed, with great songwriting, great vocals, and guitars falling on mostly deaf ears. He even died at the hand of the Cylons in the Battlestar Galactica movie (he was Apollo’s viper-pilot baby brother!) before the one-two punch of Working Class Dog and his breakthrough performance as Dr. Noah Drake on ABC’s General Hospital finally—finally!—made him the international star that Beginnings promised.

Ten years after his debut, Rick Springfield was an “overnight sensation”—a movie star, even. But the great thing, the really great thing about Beginnings is it’s all there from day one. Everything that’s great about Working Class Dog and Living In Oz and Rock Of Life and Karma and all his best-known work—his guitar chops and endless rock hooks, his ability to tell a tale, his sex appeal, his vulnerability, his gritty yet tender voice—it’s all right there on his debut. Maybe the times weren’t ready for him, maybe he had his own difficult path to walk, but Beginnings stands on its own as a great album worthy of rediscovery. Keep ’em coming, Real Gone Music.

Beginnings was reissued by Real Gone Music on February 27 and is available to order from their website.

4 Responses to “Rick Springfield’s Beginnings: Younger Than Tomorrow, Wise As Yesterday”

  1. Marc Nathan:
    April 24th, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Awesome article Cait, but Wait For Night was absolutely released on CHELSEA RECORDS… I’m PRETTY sure I still have it… I know I had it.

  2. Cait Brennan:
    April 24th, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Marc! Thanks! I actually made a punctuation/italic error there, what I meant to say was that there was an unreleased album entitled “Springfield” that was recorded prior to “Wait For Night”…I’ve got “Wait For Night” too, somewhere in this place (near one of the TVs, I’m sure…)

  3. Popshifter:
    April 24th, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Damn those italics! I think it’s all fixed now.


  4. Janis:
    February 18th, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I want to thank you very much for your fantastic review of “Beginnings”. I actually did buy the single back then and promptly proceeded to buy “Beginnings”. I was only 16 at the time, but, as a true music lover myself, recognized that Rick Springfield was way more than a ‘pretty face’. I am so glad to have found somone who agrees with me. I am also glad to find someone who knows that his first American hit was not “Jessie’s Girl”. Thank you again.

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