CCM Classic Blog

In 1983, The Band "Northbound" Did Something Very Special; by Philip Mayabb

Each week on Vinyl Revival, we try to play music that listeners will enjoy hearing, and with these blogs, I like to give readers an inside look into the albums that we feature...it's almost like telling stories about the music, if you will.  Well this week, I have a story to tell you about one of the most underrated bands and albums of the 1980s, and their name is NorthBound.  Unless you paid really close attention to CCM radio in 1983, there's a chance that you have never even heard of this band.  Some casual fans with really good memories might remember this quartet from Portland for a hit they had called Dancin' In The Aisles, but my job this week is not only to play their one and only LP (more on that shortly), but give you some insight into some of the business that is Contemporary Christian music.  

Although they released one of my favorite albums of all time, NorthBound was not given the opportunity that most artists were given back then, and the people who suffered the most as a result were the fans, many of whom have either forgotten this wonderful band, or don't even know they exist.  My mission this week is to introduce you to four gentlemen from the Pacific northwest, and their outstanding debut album that we are featuring on Vinyl Revival.

Ron Gollner (keyboards, vocals), Bob Book (guitars, vocals), Tim Camp (bass), and Dave Workman (drums, vocals - not the same drummer who played for Prodigal) were the four men who comprised NorthBound when they recorded their debut album, however, the band's story actually began almost a decade earlier.  Unlike the lineup that made Portland, Oregon their home, the original lineup got its start many miles down the west coast in Santa Rosa, California. After kicking around the area, they relocated to Los Angeles in 1977, when Ron Gollner joined, not as a keyboardist, but rather on bass.  The band was unable to gain traction in the City Of Angels, but they did make one very important musical connection, when Buddy King from Pure Joy Productions heard them perform at Calvary Chapel, and he expressed an interest in signing the band. There was a problem to overcome first, because some of the members of the band were not completely committed to taking their success to the next level.  So in 1980, the core of the band left L.A. and moved to Portland to regroup, and work toward signing a recording contract.  They made a brief return to their former hometown not long after relocating, but this time, they were in the studio with Jimmy Buffett's longtime producer and musical director Mike Utley.  At first, they recorded some demos with Utley, but later returned to record a full album with him at the helm.  Utley recruited friends of his, who played in some of the best known hitmaking bands of the day, such as Ambrosia, and others, to record the musical tracks for NorthBound's debut album.  Ron Gollner recent told me that even though the album sounded fantastic, they had a problem...the songs on the album sounded nothing like NorthBound. It was essentially their voices surrounded by studio musicians, and not the band itself.

After having to ultimately scrap everything they had recorded, the band decided to go back to the drawing board.  Determined to make an album that represented what they were all about, the guys turned to Buddy King, who recommended an up and coming engineer he knew to produced a second debut attempt.  The engineer's name was Bill Bottrell, who most music fans know as an award winning producer of artists such as Madonna and Sheryl Crow.  Now Bottrell had already listened to the band once before, and told them that were not quite good enough to go professional.  He suggested that they go back to work perfecting their writing and performing skills, which they did.  By May of 1982, Bottrell was starting to build a reputation for his skills in the recording booth, and so the guys decided to try convincing  him to produce them once more.  This time, Bottrell agreed to take on the task of producing the improved band.  Once they got into the studio, the guys found out rather quickly that they were dealing with a true professional.  During one of the first sessions as Dave Workman was setting up his drumkit, Bottrell's voice came over the monitors in the studio, and he informed Workman that the lug nut in the 2:00 position on his snare drum needed to be tightened slightly. At first, Dave resisted the producer's instruction, but when all was said and done, he found out that Bottrell was right, and when he tightened the lug, they got the sound out of the snare that they were looking for.  That was when the members of NorthBound discovered that they had found a producer who had what they were looking for, as far as helping them record a solid first album.

The sessions were hard work. Ron Gollner recently recalled a session in which they needed to record a keyboard/guitar duet for a song called Livin' In The Light, in which both instruments played the exact same notes. He said that producer Bottrell had them record it over, and over, until it eventually took 8 hours to record just a few seconds of audio.  Though it probably seemed a bit extreme at the time, the band members were committed to getting it right, which is exactly what they did.  They even received a visitor one day while recording at the famed Sound Castle Studio in L.A., when Rita Coolidge, who was recording some new material in an adjacent studio, dropped in for a few minutes to listen to what the band was recording.  Upon being introduced to the members, she informed them that she liked what she was hearing, and wished them the best.

Buddy King's production company Pure Joy had signed an exclusive contract with the biggest label in the Contemporary Christian industry, Myrrh Records, meaning they would release NorthBound's debut LP.  While that may sound like good news, it actually turned out to be a nightmare for the band.  Their album was released in 1983 as promised, but somewhere along the way, the A&R (Artist and Repertoire) department at Word Records began dropping the ball. The first single from the album, Dancin' In The Aisles, hit the top 5 on Billboard's Christian Chart, but from there, things started going south in a hurry.  The promotion of NorthBound's music began to slow to a trickle, although there were actually some mainstream stations on the east coast that played the single Life Without Your Love.  That was a good thing, because the band was not being actively promoted on Christian radio, which led to other issues.  Buddy King, who had championed NorthBound for years, began having it out with the promotional department at Word,  which certainly did not help the band with the top brass.

The infighting between their management and label did not stop NorthBound from doing their thing however, and the band hit the road supporting their debut LP.  They relished the challenge of working to crowds that could sometimes be rather hostile, making them work that much harder  to earn the respect of the people they would play for. During the tour, the band started prepping material for their sophomore release, and had an entire second album worth of material ready to go, when disaster struck.  Word Incorporated had hired a new head of A&R, and had given him one mandate...to clean house, which is exactly what happened.  In one day, more than 25 artists from various production companies were released from their contracts with Word's various labels, and sadly, NorthBound was one of them.  Despite recording a fantastic first album, the band had fallen victim to the politics of the music business, and without a recording contract, the four members decided to pack it up, and go home.  This is a band that could have, and should have, made it big in the mid 80s, however the rug was pulled out from under them, which is a real shame.  

NorthBound is one of my favorite Christian albums of all time, because it is a style that is severely underserved in CCM, that style being Westcoast Pop.  It is no surprise to me that the album's leadoff track, Dancin' In The Aisles was a top five hit...it's because it is a doggone good song.  Try to imagine the Doobie Brothers (with Michael McDonald) doing Christian music, and you've got an idea of what the track sounds like.  I can listen to this album (which I do, quite often), and I am instantly reminded of my first trip to the west coast.  The entire album has that laid back, west coast feel to it, and there is not a bad song on the record anywhere.  Four singles were released to radio, although as I stated earlier, not many Christian music fans got to hear the last three.  After Dancin' In The Aisles was a solid radio hit, the songs Maybe Tonight, Livin' In The Light, and Life Without Your Love were the other three songs to be singled.  One song that I drop the needle on quite often is Evening Song, which just screams Westcoast pop from start to finish.  You've Got Me Singin' has a cool little 50s rockabilly vibe to it, with both Gollner and Bob Book churning out some great lead vocals on the song.  When I Look In Your Eyes gives a classic 80s musical sound, with more great vocals filling out the track.  The album's final song, Easy Street is a great ballad sang perfectly by Ron Gollner.

One last sidenote...during my conversation with keyboardist Gollner, he informed me that the four members who played on the only NorthBound LP in existence had recently reconvened, and decided that they are going to attempt to record what would have been the band's second album, with the same songs that had been penned 35 years ago. The tentative title of the project is "NorthBound The Lost Tracks", and they are shooting for a release date of early 2019.  I am hoping and praying that the guys are able to finish this project, because I cannot wait to hear some new music from one of the best bands that far too few fans know about.

TRACKLIST:

1. Dancin' In The Aisles

2. Maybe Tonight

3. Livin' In The Light

4. What Do You Do

5. Evening Song

6. Life Without Your Love

7. You Got Me Singin'

8. When I Look In Your Eyes

9. Easy Street



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