Widowmaker – Running Free: The Jet Recordings 1976-1977
Released 25th August 2017
Compilation rounding up all the recordings of the mid-70s super-group Widowmaker, featuring their self titled debut album and follow-up Too Late To Cry, plus an unreleased bonus track….LTM’s Ian Canty hears a band struggling to make best use of their many talents…………
On the face of it Widowmaker looked uniquely placed to prosper on the 70s Rock scene. Founded in 1975 by guitarist Luther Grosvenor (otherwise known Ariel Bender), who had just left Mott the Hoople to be replaced in the band’s death throes by none other than the peerless Mick Ronson and Huw Lloyd-Langton, late of Hawkwind, they looked set for success from the get-go. Pulling in ex-Love Affair Mod legend Steve Ellis on full-bodied vocals, bass player Bob Daisley late of Chicken Shack and former Lindesfarne drummer Paul Nicholls, the band could lay claim to the titled of “supergroup” due to all participants glorious back pages. However nothing stands still forever, as we shall see.
For the time being all in the Widowmaker garden seemed rosy. With the managerial backing of heavyweight (in both senses of the word) Don Arden and a deal with his Jet Records label, all the signs seemed good and they commenced recording at ELP’s lush Manticore studio. The On The Road single emerged in February of 1976 and gave a good idea of what they band were all about: solid but flashy Hard Rock in the mode of Silverhead and the Sharks, combined with more than a dollop of the good-time bravado of the Faces. This single missed out on the charts, but undeterred they ploughed with promoting their debut LP. For its recording Ellis had pulled in an old mate from his solo years in keyboardist Zoot Money to fill the sound out and some uncredited all-star backing vocalists (Julie Driscoll and the aforementioned Roger Chapman amongst others) were on hand too.
It wasn’t surprising that Widowmaker the album provided Street Rock thrills garnished with Ellis’ soulful voice. Combined with Grosvenor’s ability to season the rocking approach with some Power Pop smarts, it appeared that large scale success wasn’t totally beyond their grasp. They could pull off the type of end-of-gig elation number Mott excelled in with Pin A Rose On Me and the double negative-toting Ain’t Telling You Nothing sees Ellis emulate his hero Steve Marriott with good results. Pride of place goes to Shine A Light On Me with its Gospel female vocals, Soul organ and shuffling drums taking them away from formula Hard Rock into something more interesting altogether.
Though an enjoyable enough mid-70s Rock LP there was a general feeling in the music press that Widowmaker on this showing were a bit less than the sum of their talents. Maybe this a little unfair and the constant recalling of their glittering pasts probably didn’t help the band at all. There was also the burgeoning Punk scene to think about too. Though they later found themselves playing alongside the Boomtown Rats, Widowmaker didn’t have the Pub Rock cred to be able to crossover into New Wave and whilst the established Hard Rock names retained their fanbase, being a new act they found it was doubly hard to forge a path. Caught between a few stools.
The first Widowmaker album did chart briefly in the US – the States being probably their best hope as the New Wave had yet to gain a sizable foothold in American. The kind of goodtime Bluesy Rock & Roll the band specialised in still shifted units there and it is easy to imagine Pin A Rose On Me or When I Met You blaring out of FM radio. Though a tour with Jet label-mates ELO was reasonably successful there was trouble on the horizon. Ellis returned to the UK afterwards to find Arden had not sorted out a money issue as he had promised, leaving the singer penniless. He immediately quit and a vital part of the band’s appeal was lost. John Butler came in which briefly gave the band new life, but the familiar story of money problems with Arden meant Widowmaker was soon on its last legs. Their second album Too Late To Cry was their final hurrah.
Even though the band felt Butler a better fit than Ellis he didn’t quite have the same presence and the band was considerably less “super” for Steve’s absence. Though to be fair Butler had a decent enough voice, similar to his predecessor but more like Rod Stewart.
Though there are some sparks of life on the whole Too Late To Cry doesn’t stand out enough from the crowd. Sometimes it does sound like a band going through the motions – particularly on 12 Bar Blues excursions Pushin’ And Pullin’ and Sky Blues. After a spritely start on side one the LP falls away towards its end. Mean What You Say is a highpoint, their patented “stop/start” riffing allied to a wonderful Power Pop hook and Here Comes The Queen is a charming effort somewhat akin to Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. After the sparky Sign The Papers its all downhill and by the time we get to the sluggish Sky Blues its hard not to draw the conclusion Widowmaker had run out of ideas. A sad way to finish when things promised so much. I don’t know the provenance of rollicking bonus track Talk To Me but it makes for a far better set closer, ending this collection at least on a positive note.
Running Free: The Jet Recordings 1976-77 does a good job of bringing together all this short-lived outfit ever set down on tape and at times they do threaten to realise their considerable potential. It never quite came to fruition but perhaps the hopes were set too high in the first place. Though obviously fans of Mott and Love Affair may wish to check this out in a “what they did next” sort of way, Hard Rock aficionados will find plenty to dig over the course of the 2 CDs. Widowmaker didn’t make the splash they might have hoped for but they certainly knew how to Rock & Roll, which was exactly what they set out to do.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here