KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Thirty Year Thursday – STEVE WINWOOD “BACK IN THE HIGH LIFE”

[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]

Artist: STEVE WINWOOD
Album: BACK IN THE HIGH LIFE

Steve Winwood - Back In The High LifeThe summer of 1986 was soundtracked by several key albums for me, with two of them seeming to go hand-in-hand: Peter Gabriel’s So (which I wrote about last week) and Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life. At the time I found a lot of similarities between them, including the vocal performances, incredible musicianship and their sonic landscapes, both of which featured some typical ‘80s sounds without being over-the-top like so many albums of that era. With fresh ears thirty years later I don’t hear as many commonalities, as Winwood’s record is packed with radio-friendly songs while Gabriel’s was an art-rock album that happened to have a couple of huge hit singles. This is not meant to disparage Winwood since Back In The High Life is close to a masterpiece, taking everything that was great about his two previous solo albums (catchy melodies and that glorious, soulful voice) and beefing up the sound with killer instrumental work and guest vocalists like Chaka Khan (on the #1 single “Higher Love”), James Taylor (on “Back In The High Life Again”) and James Ingram & Dan Hartman (on the Top 10 hit “The Finer Things”). The aforementioned tracks received plenty of airplay throughout ’86 and into ’87, as did “Freedom Overspill,” “Split Decision” and “Take It As It Comes.” The wistful album closer “My Love’s Leavin’” has long been a personal favorite. If I have any criticism of Back In The High Life it’s the running times of the songs, with nothing shorter than 5 minutes and a few approaching 6 minutes. I’m a big fan of Winwood’s work with Traffic and Blind Faith, both of which featured lengthy tracks, but some of these songs would have been just as strong at 4 minutes or less. As I said, this is a minor complaint, and I think it still sounds great 30 years later. There are many reasons it received all those Grammy nominations (and won three of them). If you haven’t played it in a while, give it a spin and you’ll be back in the high life too.

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35 comments on “Thirty Year Thursday – STEVE WINWOOD “BACK IN THE HIGH LIFE”

  1. Enjoyable piece, Rich, and very apt to compare and contrast ‘High Life’ with ‘So’ – I remember my dad made exactly the same comparison back in ’86 and came out in favour of Winwood! The production and playing on ‘High Life’ are great but for me the material on side two is nowhere near the quality of side one – a bit too much filler to make it a wholly enjoyable listen for me.

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    • Thanks for the feedback, Matt. Pleased to know I’m not the only one who made a connection between this album and “So.” While I agree that the second side isn’t quite as strong as the first, overall it holds up extremely well and the album closer remains one of my favorite Winwood songs.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. 80smetalman
    March 3, 2016

    Proof I am mellowing with age. Thirty years ago, I pooh-poohed this album because it wasn’t heavy enough. But the two songs I listened to here are quite good.

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    • As long as you don’t mind the mellowing process, it can open up a whole world of music you previously “pooh-poohed.” I know a lot of fans jumped ship on his next album (“Roll With It”) when one of the songs was featured in a beer commercial. I haven’t played that one in years so I wonder how it’s held up. I was pleased that “Back In The High Life” still sounded good.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. deKE
    March 3, 2016

    These Throwbacks are a awesome read Rich! Great job! Winwood was everywhere back in 88 with this album and the singles were always on the radio. Even though I never bought this album I wouldn’t turn the station when these songs came on. There nice little pop ditties delivered with a superb vocal!
    Keep them coming!

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    • Thanks, Derek. Glad you like the songs you know from this album even if you never owned it. Just to clarify, this was released in ’86 (hence its inclusion in Thirty Year Thursday). By ’88 the almost-as-successful Roll With It, but he lost a lot of artistic credibility when one of those songs was used in a beer commercial. Remember when licensing your songs for advertising was considered a bad move? Now it’s what every band hopes to achieve.

      Like

  4. Vinyl Connection
    March 4, 2016

    Succinct and clear as per usual, Rich. Having begun a chronological trawl through the various Winwood outings, I haven’t yet reached Back In The High Life again. I suspect, given my admiration for the first three solo albums, I’ll find it pleasant but rather more commercial than I favour. That said, I agree that the connection with Gabriel – two former front men of distinction, making a play for the mainstream – is quite defensible and I’m more than comfortable with the ‘art rock’ / FM rock observation in your piece. Nice one.

    Those interested in Winwood’s earlier history might enjoy this:
    https://vinylconnection.com.au/2016/03/04/smiling-phases/

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    • Loved your post on the first phase of Winwood’s discography, Bruce. I hope some of my readers will click through to check it out. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you give Back In The High Life a listen. Sure, it has all the commercial sheen you would expect from a mid-’80s album, but if you strip away some of the production choices, the songs are consistently strong and his voice is as good as ever.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vinyl Connection
        March 6, 2016

        I’m looking forward to spinning more Steve, Rich. As you say – it’s the voice that binds it together and soars. Cheers.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Heavy Metal Overload
    March 4, 2016

    I just commented on Bruce’s post that I’ll be taking notes for future Winwood investigation. So I’ll be keeping this in mind. If it’s comparable to So then that sounds good to me! Enjoying this series Rich!

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    • Bruce’s post is fantastic and a great introduction for anyone exploring Winwood’s catalog for the first time. Back In The High Life is excellent and shouldn’t be overlooked, but I think it’s good to be aware of his work with Spencer Davis, Traffic, Blind Faith and his earlier solo work before checking it out.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying this series. It’s been fun for me, and it’s kept me writing on a weekly basis even though my schedule has been packed and I don’t have the free time I usually need to devote to my blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jeff Kempin
    March 4, 2016

    Bought this when it came out and still own it on vinyl. A great album, made all the more catchier and full sounding because he used other musicians instead of playing all the parts himself. Winwood is a monster talent and this album is his commercial peak, but also hits a lot of very high creative notes too. Another great pick, Rich. So far I’ve owned (or still own) every album in this series except the Queen one.

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    • Thanks for the feedback, Jeff. I agree that it was nice to hear other musicians flesh out Winwood’s songs for a change, and it’s probably the main reason this album was a bigger success than his two previous solo albums.

      I’m happy to hear you own all but one of the albums I’ve featured in this series so far. Hopefully that will continue to be the case as I move through the list of my favorite albums from ’86.

      Like

  7. J.
    March 6, 2016

    I’ve been meaning to check out more of Winwood’s albums for a while now. I only own Arc Of A Diver (a gift from a friend of mine a while back), but there’s a whole load of stuff to catch-up with and that can be quite daunting! This sounds like a good place to jump back in!

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    • I think Arc Of A Diver was my initiation into the world of Steve Winwood (other than the few Traffic and Blind Faith songs that were played on the radio when I was a pre-teen), and I still have a special connection to that record. If you like his voice & songwriting, I recommend checking out his earlier, pre-solo work first. Bruce at Vinyl Connection just wrote a great post on his early years (check one of the previous comments here for a link to that post), so that should point you in the right direction. Of course, if Back In The High Life is your next Winwood album, you should find a lot to like. Thanks for checking in, J.

      Like

  8. segwaynz
    March 11, 2016

    Listeners might like to cast their ears to the late, sometimes-great, Warren Zevon’s cover of Back In The High Life (to be found on one of his later albums, ‘Life Will Kill Ya’). A quiet reading, rather than a “Werewolves of London” style rocker, to my ears it is one of the highlights of that album. I saw Steve Windwood live in Auckland about 2 years ago (double-billed with Steely Dan), and his voice remains in astounding form.

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    • Hi there, segwaynz. I assume you’re writing from New Zealand. I hope all is well on your side of the world. Thanks for reminding me about that Zevon version of “Back In The High Life Again.” Life Will Kill Ya is probably my favorite latter-day Zevon album but I haven’t played it in several years. Here it is for anyone who’s interested:

      I’ve never seen Winwood in concert. I think he was part of the ARMS Benefit Concerts in the UK back in ’83 but by the time I saw the show at Madison Square Garden he wasn’t there. That’s as close as I’ve come. Glad he still sounds great, although I’m not surprised. I think he’ll still have that voice when he’s 90.

      Like

      • segwaynz
        March 18, 2016

        Hi Neil, yes I am from New Zealand…..a long way from just about everywhere! Your post to a Big Country Facebook Group about your recent review of The Crossing led me to your blog. I’m glad I’ve found it. Big Country are doing their first-ever concert in NZ in June, and I am really looking forward to it. I see you’re revisiting a lot of 1983-era albums at the moment, just wondering if you intend to re-listen to Mike Oldfield’s ‘Crises’ from that year?

        Like

      • Hi Phillip. I really appreciate you checking out my blog after seeing my post in the Big Country FB group. I’m glad you’ll finally get to see BC in your homeland. I’ve only seen some low-quality videos of the current lineup on YouTube, but having seen the reunited, Mike Peters-fronted lineup a few years ago in Edinburgh I don’t doubt that they will be great (especially the master, Mark Brzezicki, behind the drumkit).

        I’m actually writing about albums from 1986 in this series. I’ve only recently started checking out Mike Oldfield’s discography, so it’ll be a while before I write about him.

        I did write about The Crossing in the first part of my “Great Out Of The Gate” series. You can read that here:
        https://kamertunesblog.wordpress.com/2015/04/17/great-out-of-the-gate-my-favorite-debut-albums-part-1/

        Also, my name is Rich, not Neil. Perhaps you confused me with your countryman, Neil Finn? 😀

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      • segwaynz
        March 18, 2016

        Correction, it was The Seer, not The Crossing.

        Like

  9. yeahanotherblogger
    March 16, 2016

    Winwood is a pretty amazing guy. His career has had its high-profile and medium-profile segments, but he has been actively on the scene for over 50 years.

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    • I wholeheartedly agree, Neil. Winwood is a musical treasure and it’s amazing how long he’s been doing it. From what I’ve heard, his voice is still great. Not bad for a guy approaching his 68th birthday.

      Like

  10. Pingback: ARCING UP | VINYL CONNECTION

  11. Bennett Freed
    April 14, 2016

    Wonderful article on an amazing artist. I had the pleasure to co-manage Steve during that time in his life. He hadn’t made an album in several years at that point and I had the pleasure of flying out to his home in the midlands of England to discuss working together and hearing demos of what eventually became “Back In The Highlife.” I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a more down to earth musician in all my years in the business. A wonderful guy and an extraordinary talent. He’s also about to go on tour this summer with Steely Dan. All The Best…Bennett Freed

    Like

    • Thanks for the feedback, Bennett. It’s a pleasure to hear from a Winwood “insider,” and I’m happy to hear that he’s as nice & genuine as he seems to be. I never had the pleasure of seeing him perform. The closest I came was the ARMS Benefit Concert at Madison Square Garden in 1983. Winwood was part of the UK shows but wasn’t able to join them in the U.S. I don’t think the Winwood/Dan tour is coming to my area but if they add a date here I’ll definitely check them out (as I’m a huge Dan fan as well).

      Again, I really appreciate you stopping by & sharing your history with the mighty Steve Winwood.

      Best…
      Rich

      Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        April 14, 2016

        I saw him once at Cropredy. Yes, a very good musician. He is primarily known as a Hammond-organ player, but his guitar playing is in the same league. (OK, there are more good guitarists than good Hammond players, so this, in a case of Alex-Lifeson syndrome, is under-appreciated.) He did a tour with Clapton, where he had no problem holding his own—on guitar.

        Does anyone else play more than one instrument at such a high level? Ian Anderson (flute and guitar). Anyone else in rock music? (There is an extraordinary violinist named Julia Fischer, who was IIRC the youngest professor ever in Germany, who is one of the best violinists in the world (the instrument which she teaches and mainly performs with), but occasionally she gives concerts where she is the solo pianist.)

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      • I think there are plenty of musicians who are proficient at more than one instrument. Neal Morse is an excellent keyboard player (and songwriter/singer) but I’ve also seen him shred on guitar and bash away impressively on the drums. Power pop semi-legend Richard X. Heyman, who I was friendly with in the ’90s, is kind of amazing on every instrument. John Paul Jones is a genius on any instrument with strings (at least the ones I’ve seen him play) and he’s “pretty good” on the keys as well. Anyway, that’s just off the top of my head. I agree with your assessment of Winwood’s instrumental abilities, and he is certainly an underrated guitarist.

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      • Hi Phillip, I think there are two others that would have to be in contention in terms of guitar/keyboard playing: Lewis Taylor and Prince. They’re both ridiculously good players of both instruments.

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      • Excellent examples, Matt. I’ve never been a Prince fan but I’ve always appreciated his amazing musicianship. It seems like he would excel at any instrument he touches. I have a few Lewis Taylor albums and they’re fantastic. A very talented man.

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      • Ta Rich, I think Prince showed off his keyboard skills a lot more in concert rather than on record, especially between ’86 and ’88. Some killer piano and Hammond playing. Glad you like Lewis – those first two albums are really outstanding.

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      • Doesn’t Prince play the majority of instruments on many of his albums? That always impresses me even if I’m not a fan of the artist.

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      • Yes, he played pretty much everything on the ’80s albums. ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Around The World In A Day’ were exceptions, three or four tracks on those are ‘band’ performances.

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      • You mean Prince cheated and used other musicians on some of his records? What a hack. Haha.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, the lazy git!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Thirty Year Thursday – ERIC CLAPTON “AUGUST” | KamerTunesBlog

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