40 Years Ago: Renaissance Get Symphonic With ‘Scheherazade and Other Stories’
Symphonic prog act Renaissance were finally a cohesive band by 1975, having recorded two straight albums with a consistent line-up. And with the sixth LP, Scheherazade and Other Stories, the quintet proved its staying power – collaborating as a unit on its most ambitious song cycle to date.
Acoustic guitarist Michael Dunford, previously a sideline composer during the band's transitional period, had dominated Renaissance's writing credits (with lyricist Betty Thatcher) on recent LPs. But Scheherazade marked the emergence of keyboardist John Tout and bassist Jon Camp – two crucial players in the album's blend of melody and bombast.
Working with co-producer David Hitchcock (Genesis, Camel, Caravan), Renaissance began work at the venerable Abbey Road Studios in May, with Dunford drawing inspiration from the Persian tale of Scheherazade, in which a woman concocts an endless story to avoid being killed by a ruthless king. This idea funneled into the side-two-spanning, 25-minute "Song of Scheherazade," which incorporated the London Symphony Orchestra.
"I think that when it was conceived originally, Michael was looking ahead in hopes that one day it could possibly be something bigger, like a musical, which he did actually work on for quite a few years to try and get that off the ground," singer Annie Haslam said in an interview with Songfacts.
"But I remember when we were working on it, and I went in for an ear operation right at the end of it," she continued. "It was really a weird time. It was very intense. We had the orchestra come in. It was very exciting. I think we did some of that recording at Abbey Road, but I know we did some of it at De Lane Lea Studios, as well. But that was quite incredible to work on...I didn't really have any part in the process of that but was awestruck by the whole thing. And it was quite incredible when we did it at Carnegie Hall. I'll never forget that."
The quasi-title-track certainly holds up as a progressive epic – a rare rock dalliance with orchestra that doesn't wind up a snooze. But Renaissance's elegant songcraft was better displayed on the succinct first side, filled with three melodic concert staples.
"My first date was with Roy, Dick Plant, who was our studio engineer, and his wife," Haslam explained in an interview with DPRP. "We went to Trader Vic’s at the Hilton, in London. Park Lane, actually. We were drinking out of these giant glass bowls, a drink known as a Scorpion. It was like a fishbowl filled with white rum and gardenias floating on the top. I think I drank two, so I was a little legless. Then we ate the gardenias and we were all having a fantastic time. Then someone said, “Why don’t we go to Hampstead Heath? There’s a fair going on.” It must have been around Easter 1975. Then we got to the fair at around 12:00. We’d been in Trader Vic’s until they closed. Eventually, we got to the fair, but there was nobody there.
"I called Betty from the studio the next day since she’d asked me to let her know what happened," she continued. "So I told her, 'We went to the fair and there was nobody there.' Then she wrote 'Trip to the Fair.'"
"Ocean Gypsy" is the signature Renaissance ballad, propelled by the melodramatic harmonies of Haslam and Camp. And "The Vultures Fly High," a surging attack on their critics, is probably the closest the band came to "rocking" in the traditional sense, building from tense keyboard flourishes to a triumphant chorus.
Haslam considers Scheherazade the apex of the band's progressive period – the culmination of their collective vision.
"I think it just evolved," Haslam told DPRP. "That was the beauty of the band, everything just seemed to naturally progress. We were left to our own devices, no one telling us we needed to be more commercial. We were allowed to be who we were and retain our progressive identity."
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