Help It Along

Original album remaster released by EMI in March 2007. Liner notes, recording data and discography (with Peter Lewry).

Help it Along

Fifteen years after Cliff Richard had begun his album career with a live record, taped in front of an invited audience of 200 at Abbey Road studios, the same approach was adopted for this, his 33rd album, HELP IT ALONG. The only difference between then and now was that Cliff’s debut album, recorded in 1959, had a repertoire of rock‘n’roll favourites, while this one concentrated on a collection of gospel music.

If anyone was questioning Cliff’s decision to devote an entire album to gospel, they should not have been that surprised. It wasn’t the first time. He had first recorded gospel in the late 1960s after his producer Norrie Paramor suggested he might like to do a gospel album. After all, Elvis Presley had recorded gospel material and it hadn’t adversely affected his career. Cliff, who had recently become a committed Christian, reacted to the suggestion favourably and in February 1967 he went into Abbey Road studios to begin recording GOOD NEWS, a collection of spirituals, hymns and gospel songs, while the Beatles recorded their Magical Mystery Tour EP in the studio next door.

When the critics heard of the project, there were of course the predictable objections and claims that Cliff and Paramor had lost their direction completely. Although most acknowledged that Paramor, who had overseen Cliff’s recording career brilliantly from teenage rock‘n’roll star to show-business legend, there were still those who questioned whether Paramor had lost his touch with a market that was being flooded with new musical influences and new technology, such as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Who, apart from Elvis, could possibly have any kind of success with a gospel album in the pop market – and especially in the mid to late 1960s. It was, after all, the decade of free thinking, free love and free drugs, when it seemed the entire world felt the need to go to San Francisco and put flowers in its hair.

If you consider that in the year before Cliff’s GOOD NEWS was released, the Top 30 was cluttered with songs that are now regarded as classics, perhaps the critics had a point. But perhaps it was precisely because Cliff wasn’t carried along on the wave of the mid ‘60s musical creativity that so many wondered why he was putting out an entire album of religious cuts. Perhaps it was because Elvis had gone to #1 with Crying in the Chapel, the lead single off his HOW GREAT THOU ART album that encouraged Cliff to follow suit, but it is more likely that his Christian conversion in 1965 was the main influence.

Despite what the critics may have felt, and almost proving that it didn’t really matter what they thought, the general public and fans were quite capable of making up their own minds. GOOD NEWS still reached the Top 40 album chart in November 1967. Even though Presley’s album had greater success in the charts in the same year, Cliff’s was still regarded a hit.

So it’s strange that when, five years later, in 1972, Cliff released his first religious single, it was to become his worst-selling record to date and didn’t even make the Top 30. There was no apparent reason why Jesus should have failed, unless the subject matter was felt to be too overtly religious.

Cliff was now undertaking regular gospel tours and selling out every date. Not to be disheartened with the single’s failure, and with a desire to proclaim his Christian faith, he decided to thumb his nose at his critics by devoting a live album to inspirational music. And how better than to revert to the live-in-the-studio format of his debut LP, and produce an album that sounded good rather than just being another 100 per cent faithful document of a concert performance.

Although Norrie Paramor had retired in 1972, there was no shortage of producers to choose from, and the cream of the crop was Dave Mackay. He was a former house producer for EMI Australia who had come to London to work with The New Seekers, and knew that Cliff’s recording career needed turning around. He talked to Cliff about contemporary music and played him some gospel material that Cliff found interesting. He also told Cliff about Larry Norman, a Californian who was writing what the media called ‘Jesus Rock’, a new type of Christian music that owed more to Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones than it did to the sort of gospel music Elvis used to record.

Mackay came into Cliff’s career at its most crucial juncture. With fewer and fewer hits, Cliff was obviously worried about becoming another Tommy Steele or Frankie Vaughan, who would always sell out a show but who no longer belonged on the top table. It wasn’t only Cliff who had lost his way. Rock music was suffering fatigue after the great party of the ’60s. The Beatles, who had led so many of the changes, had broken up acrimoniously. Both Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison of The Doors were now dead. And even though Elvis had returned to live concerts, his tours and his live albums had become as predictable as his movies and their soundtracks.

The British charts, which had such a short time before been full of classics, were now laden with acts such as Chicory Tip, Donny Osmond, Lieutenant Pigeon and Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs. Acts which had survived the ‘60s were no longer sure where they belonged. There wasn’t a movement to be part of, and none of them were willing to compete with the likes of Slade, Mud and Sweet by becoming glam rockers. That seemed like a retrograde step.

Seeing the changes that were needed, Mackay inherited the responsibility of producing the soundtrack to Cliff’s TAKE ME HIGH and this album HELP IT ALONG. And though it wasn’t a hit and didn’t chart, it is interesting to note that the musicians were more or less the same who would play on I’M NEARLY FAMOUS, the album that almost two years later would herald Cliff’s comeback and become known as his renaissance album. Every artist has one: Elvis had FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS, Olivia Newton-John had PHYSICAL and Michael Jackson, THRILLER…