Arrival – Friends: Complete Recordings
Released 21 January 2022
The complete recorded works of harmony vocal group Arrival from the years 1969 to 1973, including their two self-titled albums and a disc of BBC Sessions. Among the 43 tracks are the band’s two 1970 UK hit singles Friends and I Will Survive. The great Dusty Springfield was a big fan. Ian Canty checks his watch to see if he’s on time…
Arrival’s roots stretched back to the tail end of the beat boom in Liverpool, which was ignited by The Beatles’ breakthrough from the city’s Cavern Club to global fame. Although Merseybeat was pretty much last year’s thing by 1964, the city was still turning out bands at quite a rate. One of them was The Excelles, a five piece vocal group led by Frank Collins which included his twin sister Maureen, Paddy McHugh, Vicki Bird and Carroll Carter. The band had a pronounced taste of US soul which set them apart from the crowd and they slowly built a live reputation locally that attracted the attention of the aforementioned Cavern.
The management of the club quickly realised The Excelles’ potential and signed them up. Even so, as the years passed they struggled to make any real headway. After an appearance at the famous Star Club in Hamburg didn’t prove to be quite the same career launching pad that it had been for others, they returned home in disarray. Maureen Collins and Vicki Bird left the band, with Dyan Birch recruited as a replacement. This quartet made the decision that if they were to make a go of things, they had to move to London. On a visit to the capital in order to attend a concert by Aretha Franklin, Frank and Paddy had the good fortune of bumping into Tony Hall, a DJ and record company PR who had recently formed his own company Tony Hall Enterprises. Having already identified him as a person they thought could help their career, they could not believe their luck and handed Hall a demo tape which he promised to listen to.
Hall was mightily impressed by The Excelles’ tape and contacted them back in Liverpool. He insisted the band must move to London as soon as humanly possible, so they quickly dumped their day jobs and and made for The Smoke. Not long afterwards, The Excelles name was junked in favour of Dyan’s suggestion of a new handle, Arrival, which she stumbled upon returning from a flight abroad. For his part Hall drafted in a three-piece backing unit for the band comprising bass player Don Hume, Lloyd Courtney on drums and keyboardist Tony O’Malley and also got them a recording contract with Threshold, part of his previous employers Decca Records’ organisation.
In November 1969, the first Arrival disc was made available to the general public, a version of the Terry Reid song Friends backed with group original Don’t Turn His Love Away. Despite initially making very slow progress because the BBC thought the lyric at one point said pot instead of port and ran away with the idea it was a drug song, it eventually nestled in the UK Top Ten. Dyna Birch took the lead on the song and delivers an assured performance full of style. With this success Arrival embarked on a round of promotion as well as working on their first album.
The self-titled debut Arrival long-player takes up most of disc one of Friends. From what is heard here we can detect that they weren’t as close to easy listening as many of their vocal group rivals. There is a relatively harder edge, putting the band more firmly in the pop territory rather than MOR. Frank Collins writes most of the self-penned material on the platter, with seven of the numbers coming from him. They also cover The Doors’ Light My Fire and Prove It, a song recorded previously by Aretha Franklin.
The LP gets underway with a flying aircraft sample, which goes into Frank Collins’ very bright song Live. Tony O’Malley’s keyboards are the crucial element here, with some neat bass work too helping to give a zesty and dynamic first impression of Arrival. Then comes Light My Fire, which is a good version even if the source material is a bit over-familiar. The flute flitting in and out and soul vocalising make it novel though. Dyan Birch stars on Friends itself, putting in a sparkling show on a track where a rolling piano motif leads the way. It’s a classy piece of harmony pop that totally deserved its chart success.
Arrival do an admirable job on Prove It and this is followed by the very speedy gospel sound of See The Lord. The dramatic and fast-moving Sit Down And Float uses brass nicely and the organ swirls are again a delight here. Don’t Turn His Love Away, the hit single’s flipside, is very agreeable and the instrumental trio get in on the writing act with La Virra. This is followed by the touching folk-pop of Dyan Birch’s wistful Not Right Now, before Hard Road ends Arrival’s debut LP with a sharp bluesy and orchestral stomp.
Overall this album is a breeze. It even received the stamp approval from the great Dusty Springfield, someone who knew more than a thing or two about excellent song delivery, via a supportive note on the rear of the sleeve. Finally, just an observation that has been made before about the LP’s sleeve photo: the band, helicopter and the word Arrival also figured on the cover of Abba’s fourth collection. Coincidence? Perhaps.
The bonus tracks on this disc begin with the I Will Survive/See The Lord single, another hit for the band that reached number 16 in the UK during the summer of 1970. It’s a really bracing rush of music that uses elegant strings and vocals adeptly. It is followed by the quirky pop-rock Jun (So In Love), which was the A-side of a Japanese single by the band. There is some lovely keyboard work utilised here on a bit of an obscure gem. Finally, we have three tracks that first featured on 2012’s RPM previous compilation The Complete Recordings Of Arrival. It turns out the title wasn’t accurate, as this Friends set enlarges upon it. Anyway, Be You is a soulful plea of tolerance over a strutting rhythm and Leonard Cohen’s Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye gets tenderly covered. Finally Lay Down gives the band a chance to display their voice chops in full force.
Despite the British success of the LP and singles, all was not well in the Arrival camp. Dissatisfaction that they had no real chart action outside their home country brooded and they perhaps unwisely broke off with their mentor Tony Hall and instead joined Brian Langley’s managerial stable. As a result, their contract with Decca was also at an end and the band eventually signed up with CBS, who had no doubt the clout Arrival wanted in the US. Reading the sleeve notes it appears Arrival had rather grandiose ambitions towards America at the time and this seems to be the main reason behind this unsettled period. The band’s personnel changed too. Out went Carter, Hume and Courtney, leaving a four-piece Arrival to launch their CBS career with (Let My Life Be Your) Love Song single.
This 45 garnered praise in the music weeklies but sank without making any kind of mark on the charts in the UK or US. The eight months the band had been on ice between their last hit and I Will Survive may have counted against them. Nevertheless, they got on with recording their second self-titled collection with Mr Driver 67 himself, Paul Phillips. Apart from O’Malley, a whole new backing outfit was brought in. A fresh set of songs was prepared with Family Tree (We’re Gonna Shake It And Break It ‘Cause We’re Gonna Make It Alone), which had been in the band’s set since 1969, the only cover version on display. It was also the LP’s big single, but unfortunately flopped unceremoniously, in spite of another favourable reception from the press.
Disc two of this set opens with that 10 track LP. The laidback r&b/gospel flavour to Glory Be is an epic opener with the guitar playing for the first time a big role in the Arrival sound. So It Is Written is beautifully put together with a big production job, which provides just the showcase for Dyan to put in a gorgeous vocal performance. The Frank Collins tune Not Gonna Worry harks back to the band’s soul roots in exuberant fashion and after the pretty startling sound of You, Love And Me, the testifying Family Tree proves a decent track, if perhaps not a natural single.
The second side of the record begins with Part Of My Dream, a restrained, shimmering beauty in an acoustic folk-pop style. Not Preconceived, sung and written by Dyan Birch, provides a good sequel that is slightly more up-tempo but just as effective, with a dancing flute taking centre stage. After a country-toned Have A Drink On Your Father the long player ends with Tony O’Malley’s busy blues workout Understanding and the soul-powered Weary Soul, Weary Down. It’s a fine end to the second LP entitled Arrival, which on the whole is a good continuation of their development and still remains very listenable today.
Five bonus items conclude this disc, mopping up the single tracks from just before and after the album itself. Jim Webb’s (Let My Life Be Your) Love Story is similar in format to the previous two singles and was unlucky to miss out. Its flipside Out Of Desperation, with a gritty danceable shuffle to it, comes next.
For their penultimate 7-inch record, Arrival chose to cover the theme from the Charles Grodin film The Heartbreak Kid. While not a bad country-pop record with stirring, satisfyingly full singing, this version doesn’t to me sound quite strong enough to make a chart impact and so it proved, though the self-penned B-side Sweet Summer is delightful. A show-stopping and funky take of Stevie Wonder’s He’s Misstra Know-It-All was the last Arrival disc to see release in the 1970s, but it didn’t connect with record buyers in the UK or USA. After this final single went nowhere, they took time to regroup. Via some informal gigs on the King’s Road, Arrival slowly morphed into pub rock soul combo Kokomo.
What sets Friends really apart from RPM’s 2012 set is the disc of eleven BBC recordings which ends this collection. All set down for The Beeb amidst Arrival’s first flush of activity during 1969 and 1970, they were aired on Radio One shows by hipsters like Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young! But since then these tracks have languished in The Broadcasting House vaults. To begin with, Arrival here rely heavily on covers, with a cool reading of I Never Knew What You Were Up To, recorded by Dionne Warwick on her 1967 Alfie album, opening things up. Then there is a very good early attempt at future single Family Tree, before a simple and very effective take of the big hit Friends is unveiled.
World Of Darkness is imbued with a good rhythm and energy. It was originally recorded by David Ruffin of The Temptations and is the final tune on this section of Friends that wasn’t recorded by Arrival elsewhere. Assured versions of Don’t Turn His Love Away and a blazing Hard Road show the band bursting with life, their voices meshing perfectly. Second single I Will Survive and a pristine Not Right Now end what is a very enjoyable disc. It makes one thing clear – Arrival didn’t need a mass of production tricks, they sound great on these BBC cuts that were probably banged out double quick in between a flurry of live dates and promotional activities.
Arrival were feted by the music press and saw both their first two singles hit the business end of the charts. All seemed rosy enough, but the downtime incurred whilst they moved from Decca to CBS seems crucial in their being unable to follow up on their early successes. Coming away from Tony Hall, who obviously cared deeply about their work, to a management firm where they were just another act may well have also had an adverse effect. But there is quality all the way through this 3CD set, with two good LPs, some attractive singles and great BBC material, all of which captures the band’s sunny appeal lucidly. They made a kind of music that you don’t often find these days – music that is minty fresh, happy and warm – a sound that can put a spring in one’s step, even today.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here