There are songs that sound like movies/There are themes that fill the screen/There are lines I say that sound as if they’re written/There are looks I wear the theatre should have seen…
With those words, Rupert Holmes welcomed listeners into his singular musical world – one in which the only limits were those of the singer-songwriter’s boundless imagination. In other words, there were no limits to Holmes’ finely crafted, elaborately realized pop dramas. His 1974 Epic Records debut, Widescreen, was filled with those songs that sound like movies, and now it’s about to be reissued as part of a box set appropriately entitled Songs That Sound Like Movies: The Complete Epic Recordings. This 3-CD collection, out today from Cherry Red Records, presents the first three albums created by the nonpareil musical storyteller and his collaborator and sonic wizard, producer-engineer Jeffrey Lesser, all of which pushed the boundaries of what was expected from pop music. The reissue of these long out-of-print treasures might be cause enough to celebrate, but to sweeten the deal, the label has added a number of rare and previously unreleased bonus tracks. If you only know Rupert Holmes from “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” you’re in for a particular treat.
The Epic Records release of Widescreen attracted instant industry attention, quite simply because it didn’t resemble any other album, past or present. It presented songs with sound effects, dialogue and various-sized bands and orchestrations, creating what Holmes deemed film-rock. (Note that multi-instrumentalist Holmes played piano, electric piano, synthesizer, organ, saxophone, clarinet, and chimes on the LP!) No stranger to cinema, Barbra Streisand would record “Widescreen” and the album’s “Letters That Cross in the Mail,” among other Holmes compositions, on her 1975 LP, Lazy Afternoon, co-produced by Lesser and Holmes. “Letters” is one fine example of the songwriter’s wistful brand of drama, though perhaps the best is “Terminal.” This was the achingly sad story song that secured Holmes a three-LP contract with Epic, a yearning slice-of-life that honestly and devastatingly hit home for many listeners. Widescreen‘s eclectic nature may have kept it from scoring commercially; other tracks include the evocative big band tribute (with a haunting twist) “Second Saxophone” and the pop single “Talk.” Widescreen‘s showpiece is a 10-minute radio play, “Psycho Drama,” that closed out the original album, while “Phantom of the Opera” beat Andrew Lloyd Webber to the punch by over a decade and foreshadowed Holmes’ Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
This quite-unlike-any-other album is joined by a host of bonuses including the single edit of “Terminal,” “Philly” (the hard-hitting flipside of “Talk,” inspired by the soulful flavor of the City of Brotherly Love), and never-before-released live versions of “Terminal,” “Widescreen,” and “Phantom of the Opera” from New York’s Bottom Line on April 23, 1978. On these live tracks captured before a clearly appreciative audience, Holmes the raconteur comes to the fore as he offers background and joking commentary about his compositions. “Terminal” and “Phantom” both are infused with raw emotion and immediacy, while “Widescreen” takes on a wholly new feel due to the intimate setting – a testament to the strength of both the song itself and Holmes’ funky, effective onstage arrangement which strips back the lavish production of the studio version.
Holmes followed up Widescreen with a self-titled LP that utilized a band rather than an orchestra, and was somewhat more mainstream in its sound. Yet the artist still was true to himself in composing the musical vignettes on Rupert Holmes, again produced by Lesser. “Studio Musician” was a powerful Wall of Sound explosion that would be reverentially covered by Barry Manilow on his chart-topping Barry Manilow Live album, equal parts heartbreaking and clever in both music and lyrics. “I Don’t Want to Hold Your Hand” was such a pitch-perfect, deadpan Beatles send-up that George Martin reportedly told Holmes it was superior to the original song. “Everything Gets Better When You’re Drunk” sounds like a toe-tapping ode to the perennial pleasures of booze, but has a dark undercurrent of irony. The most fascinating song on Rupert Holmes, though, may be its least commercial. “Brass Knuckles” was longtime mystery buff Holmes’ own detective noir story as told in under four minutes of song. Its songwriter remains proud of this one-of-a-kind composition’s lyrics having been published in numerous crime anthologies and even reviewed in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine!
Rupert Holmes adds another brace of tasty, previously unreleased bonuses: a live rehearsal of “You Burned Yourself Out” from Brooklyn circa 1975, a Philadelphia performance of the rocking “Queen Bee” (written for Barbra Streisand’s A Star is Born) from April 15, 1978, and best of all, “Studio Musician” live from The Bottom Line. Holmes’ introduction to the latter boasts an unforgettable, humorous story about Manilow, who was in the audience that night. Four additional bonus tracks are reprised from Hip-o Select’s essential 2005 box set, Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook: Holmes’ own recordings of songs he wrote for A Star is Born: “Queen Bee,” “Love Out of Time,” “The One of Us,” and “Lullaby for Myself.” While only the first of this quartet made the movie, Streisand beautifully recorded the latter on her Streisand Superman album.
The singer-songwriter was summoned by the Epic brass after Rupert Holmes didn’t attain the level of commercial success its material deserved. “Just give me singles,” they reportedly told him. So, he gave them Singles. He consciously wrote the album with the Top 40 in mind, and if the songs lacked some of the specificity of his work on the previous two LPs, they were no less clever and memorable as he bounced from style to style. The perkily insistent query “Who, What, When, Where, Why” would become one of his most-recorded songs, with Dionne Warwick, The Tymes and Manhattan Transfer all having a crack at it. “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” was intended to be a Four Seasons tribute, and if that doesn’t quite come across except in the streetwise lyrics, it’s still pure Holmes-style seventies pop/rock with its driving chorus (“I don’t want to get over you/Don’t want to no happy endin’/I feel better pretendin’ we ain’t through”) and airy, reflective verses. Mac Davis, no slouch in the songwriting department himself, would cover the song in 1978. The ravishing ballad “The Last of the Romantics” could well describe the artist. Closest to his Widescreen sound, it would be covered by Epic labelmate Engelbert Humperdinck. “You Make Me Real” was Philly soul-inspired, with the soaring feel associated with Thom Bell’s finest work. The romantic “Touch and Go” is similarly filled with heart, not to mention adroit wordplay in the use of its title phrase. There’s even a dash of outsized glam rock (“Aw Shucks”) from the musical chameleon, a spot-on doo-wop pastiche (“For Beginners Only”), and even lightly country-flecked soft rock (“Singles”) for good measure. One bonus track has been added to Singles. The dramatic, pulsating outtake “Magic Trick” first surfaced on Hip-o Select’s 2005 box set, Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook, and is happily reprised here.
After the period chronicled on this set, Holmes went on to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” “Him,” Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals, acclaimed mystery novels, and much more. This collection represents the ground floor of that remarkable career. Cherry Red’s compact, slipcased 3-CD set has been newly remastered by Simon Murphy from Holmes’ own master tapes wherever possible, and sound is uniformly excellent on the albums. The live performances from the Bottom Line aren’t from a studio-quality source, but the importance of the recordings, and the vivid performances they so happily preserve, far outweighs any sonic deficiencies. These are the very first live recordings of the artist to have ever been issued.
Each disc is housed in a mini-LP replica sleeve. Crucially, the set has been authorized and curated by Rupert, who sat down for a new interview with author Charles Donovan in the liner notes. Donovan’s essay is illuminating and chock full of wit, choice revelations, and insights from the singer-songwriter. The 20-page booklet also has an introduction by Holmes and numerous photos and rare memorabilia images.
Songs That Sound Like Movies: The Complete Epic Recordings is the ideal introduction to the Rupert Holmes songbook, as well as a treat for longtime fans to revisit. It’s out today in the U.K., and next Friday, March 2, in North America, from Cherry Red Records!
CD 1: Widescreen (Epic 32864, 1974) and bonus tracks
- Second Saxophone
- Phantom of the Opera
- Our National Pastime
- Letters That Cross in the Mail
- Soap Opera
- Psycho Drama
- Terminal (Single Edit) (Epic single 8-50161, 1975)
- Philly (Epic single 5-11014-B, 1974)
- Introduction: Terminal
- Terminal (Live at the Bottom Line, 4/23/78)
- Introduction: Widescreen
- Widescreen (Live at the Bottom Line, 4/23/78)
- Phantom of the Opera (Live at the Bottom Line, 4/23/78)
CD 2: Rupert Holmes (Epic 33443, 1975) and bonus tracks
- Too Scared to Sing
- Brass Knuckles
- You Burned Yourself Out
- Deco Lady
- I Don’t Want to Hold Your Hand
- Rifles and Rum
- Studio Musician
- Everything Gets Better When You’re Drunk
- The Man Behind the Woman
- The Place Where Failure Goes
- Queen Bee (previously issued on Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook, Hip-o Select B0004263-02, 2005)
- Love Out of Time (previously issued on Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook, Hip-o Select B0004263-02, 2005)
- The One of Us (previously issued on Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook, Hip-o Select B0004263-02, 2005)
- Lullaby for Myself (previously issued on Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook, Hip-o Select B0004263-02, 2005)
- You Burned Yourself Out (Rehearsal, Brooklyn, 1975)
- Queen Bee (Live at the Bijou Café, Philadelphia, 4/15/78)
- Introduction: Studio Musician
- Studio Musician (Live at the Bottom Line, 4/23/78)
CD 3: Singles (Epic 34288, 1976) and bonus track
- Who What When Where Why
- Weekend Lover
- I Don’t Want to Get Over You
- You Make Me Real
- Aw Shucks
- The Last of the Romantics
- For Beginners Only
- Touch and Go
- Magic Trick (Outtake) (previously issued on Cast of Characters: The Rupert Holmes Songbook, Hip-o Select B0004263-02, 2005)
All bonus tracks previously unreleased unless otherwise indicated.