Editor’s Note: What does this all have to do with the obscure, progressive rock band Pheonix and their connections to the Kinks, MTV popsters Charlie, and New Wave of British Heavy Metal stalwarts Saxon? Indulge me and keep on reading. Russ Ballard is more influential than you realize . . . beyond the smash hits he wrote for America, Ace Frehley, Kiss, Rainbow, Three Dog Night, and Uriah Heep.
Yeah, it’s no secret I’m a huge Russ Ballard fan.
In the “alternate universe” of the musical-fantasy, Yesterday, a failed singer/songwriter gets a bump on the head and wakes up in a world where the Fab Four never existed; he subsequently becomes an overnight sensation with the greatest hit-making album in the world — based on the Lennon-McCartney catalog (Who?).
In this writer’s ‘Yesterday’: R.D Francis becomes an overnight sensation with the greatest hit-making album in the history of recorded music — based on the songwriting catalog of Russ Ballard. . . .
Sadly, the screenplay based on my Russ Ballard-fantasy was rejected by all the major Hollywood studios. Even the dinky indie studios rejected me; the ones that pay struggling actors and screenwriters with an “IMDB credit” and “copy of the DVD.” (Even the studios who offer you a producer’s credit and an acting role . . . if you pony up several thousand dollars to make the movie.)
My fellow aspiring actors and struggling screenwriters know about those “deals”: the DVD never arrives and you have to send the self-professed auteur a self-address-stamped-envelope to receive your “pay” — and they misspell your name on the IMDB page. So goes our trip down the boulevard of broken dreams.
“Who?” smirked the high-seated, cigar-chopping movie executive to the sniveling screenwriter cowering in a low-slung chair before the golden throne of fate.
“Russ Ballard, ah-em. He wrote songs for Kiss — .”
“Russ Ballard? Never heard of him.”
“Well, uh . . . what about Billy Steinberg, he wrote songs for Pat Benatar and Heart— .”
“Mr. Weinstein, you’re 4 PM massage is here,” crackled the receptionist’s voice over the intercom.
(Sorry, Mr. Weinstein. Just a little creative license-joke? Okay?)
“That’s not funny, kid. You’re finished,” scowled Mr. Weinstein.
And . . . creative license revoked. Goodbye, screenwriting career.
So, since you will never see my biographical movie or hear my album, ‘Yesterday,’ it’s back to keyboard-jockeying once again. Yes, my fair-weathered readers, it is time for another ethereal journey into the phantasmic wormhole with another rock star you never knew or forgot (at least in the U.S., anyway). No, not me — it’s Russ Ballard.
“Hey, wait a minute, R.D. I thought Russ Ballard never existed and you wrote all those hit songs.”
Oh, yeah . . . I did . . .
The record breaking, most successful hit-producing album in the world . . . with every song a hit, your’s truly, R.D Francis, wrote it!
. . . And it was a whirlwind.
Jimmy Fallon, James Corden, The View, Live with Kelly and Ryan. The girls! The parties! A world tour as a headliner my first time out on the road! I’m best friends with Danny “Hey, Baby Doll” Collins, who looks exactly like Al Pacino (from the opposite end of the wormhole, you know, where Al Pacino is “Al Pacino,” and he’s an actor).
I became the only artist to have four hits simultaneously in the U.S. Top Ten. I charted more singles from a debut album and charted more #1 hits in multiple countries than any other artist — even the Beatles!
I charted on Adult Contemporary radio with “You Can Do Magic.” I ruled the metal charts with “Riding with the Angels.” When my drummer, Ian McLatchen-McManus Davis Mitchell III, on loan from Spinal Tap, went up in flames, Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters sat behind the kit to finish the tour. Dave told the Rolling Stone that I was “more prolific than Kurt Cobain.” When AC/DC was in a jam, I filled in for Brain Johnson and helped Angus and the boys finish their world tour.
In this brave new rock world: Weezer doesn’t exist. Rivers Cuomo and Patrick Wilson have an alt-rock band, Sixty Wrong Sausages. Sure, they had a very cool “SWS” logo, but their hit, “Freddie Garrity,” was stupid, as was its video that parodied TV’s Leave It to Beaver.
In this continuum variant-mishap: Van Halen doesn’t exist. The producer of Van Halen’s landmark debut, Ted Templeman, was successful in having David Lee Roth fired from the band and replaced by ex-Montrose lead vocalist Sammy Hagar.
The infamous “VH” wings-logo doesn’t exist: Van Hagar’s logo is a “VH” inside a white circle — emulating an old-style Formula 1 racing car — emblazoned on the side of Sammy’s red Trans Am. I ended up marrying one of the models covered in soap suds washing that red Trans AM on the album’s rear cover — Sir Denis Eaton-Hogg’s niece, Icelandic superstar model Erika von Bjőrn.
David Lee Roth sold a lot of albums with his next band: Diamond Dave. Erika and I vacation with Dave and his wife every year. Our best friends: David Coverdale and Tawny Kitaen. The oft told tale about my old band, Wyatt, Brian Adams, and the Moose in the hotel room, is true. When that grasshopper got stuck up my nose, Nikki Sixx, who wisely stuck to snorting ants, rushed me to the hospital.
Oh, and SWS had a pair of alt-radio hits with their quirky covers of Wyatt’s big hit, “Hold Your Head Up,” and “Hash Pipe” from our final album.
However . . . before my hit solo album, ‘Yesterday,’ I was in this little ‘ol band, Wyatt, that did a couple of albums. You bought Leather Assassins and Red, White ‘n Screwed, right? You might remember our big FM radio hit, “Hold Your Head Up,” and our tours with Van Hagar (Who?), AC/DC, and Whitesnake (yep, we hung out with Tawny Kitaen*). And that embarrassing onstage melee we had with Guns N’ Roses; regardless of what the press says, Axl didn’t start it — I did. I kicked his punk ass back to the Sunset.
Then, it all came to a screeching halt.
Jimmy Fallon ambushed me during my third appearance on The Tonight Show. He brought out these two chaps from England who claimed they were responsible for all the songs from Wyatt, and ‘Yesterday,’ my solo album. Some guys named Russ Ballard and Rod Argent. . . .
. . . Well, back to the wormhole and through that space-time continuum rip to my crappy, boring life. You play a good game, Mr. Ballard. Until we meet again. You can have your life back . . . for now. See you at the next vortex, Chewie.
The Reality of the Real Russ Ballard
Born on October 31, 1947, in Waltham Cross, England, Ballard joined his first professional band, Buster Meikle & the Day Breakers, in 1961 with his older brother, Roy, and drummer Bob Henrit. Together, Ballard and Henrit joined Adam Faith’s backing band, the Roulettes. The band appeared a record-breaking nine times between 1964 and 1965 on the legendary U.K. television series, Ready, Steady, Go!
After the world famous, hit making Zombies took a pick axe to the brain for the last time in the late ’60s (“She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season”), keyboardist Rod Argent formed his namesake band, a harder-rocking affair, Argent; he drafted Russ and Bob from the Roulettes into the group, along with his cousin, bassist Jim Rodford (ex-Mike Cotton Sound). Argent, Ballard, and Rodford shared lead vocals.
During the Russ Ballard years, Argent produced five popular, U.S. progressive FM radio favorites with their 1970 debut, Ring of Hands (1971), All Together Now (1972), In Deep (1973), and Nexus (1974). While “Liar” and “God Gave Rock ’n’ Roll to You” became progressive FM album cuts, Argent scored only one U.S. Top 40 and Classic Rock radio staple (now criminally absent from the airwaves), “Hold Your Head Up,” written by Rod and sung by Ballard, which made it to the Top Five in 1972.
While Russ Ballard recorded as a solo artist with his old band’s label, Epic, Jim Rodford (bass) and Roger Henrit (drums), along with Ballard’s replacement, John Verity (guitar/bass), rose again on Columbia Records with Phoenix; they issued two albums: Phoenix (1976) and In Full View (1979).
Phoenix with “Easy” from 1976. Sound and feels a little bit like early ’70s Rush, right?
Verity and Henrit were then drafted as the rhythm section for the European-respected, British pop-rock outfit Charlie on their 1981 RCA Records release, Good Morning America. Henrit remained with the band for their follow up, Here Comes Trouble (1982) and their U.S. radio and MTV breakthrough, Charlie, which featured their U.S. Top 200 hit, “It’s Inevitable.” Verity also became a sought-out producer; he worked on the debut album for the pioneering New Wave of British Heavy Metal band, Saxon. (Yeees! SAXON! SAXON!)
Charlie’s lone U.S. hit single and beloved 1982 MTV-era hit, “It’s Inevitable.”
Saxon’s self-titled debut with their European hits “Stallions of the Highway” and “Backs to the Wall,” produced by John Verity.
Verity and Henrit worked together again in the Kinks during Ray Davies’s well-deserved “American” career resurgence with the hits “A Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy,” “Low Budget,” “(I Wish I Could Fly Like (Superman)”, “Paranoia,” “Around the Dial,” and “Come Dancing.” (Hit remakes of the Kinks ’60s hits “You Really Got Me,” “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” “Stop Your Sobbing,” and “All Day and All the Night,” by Van Halen, the Pretenders, and New Wave of British Heavy Metalers, Praying Mantis (know your Iron Maiden sidebars), respectively, sparked Ray Davies’s resurrection.)
However, unlike Davies, Russ Ballard was unable to forge a front-and-center career as a solo artist on U.S. shores; instead, his songs created a rapid succession of U.S. — and worldwide — Top Ten and Top Forty chart hits for other artists:
“Cookoo” — Bay City Rollers
“Free Me” — Roger Daltry
“God Gave Rock ’n’ Roll to You” — Kiss
“I Surrender” — Rainbow
“I Know There’s Something Going On” — Frieda (Fältskog; of Abba)
“Liar” — Three Dog Night
“New York Groove” — Ace Frehley of Kiss
“On the Rebound” — Uriah Heep
“Riding with the Angels” — Samson (w/Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden)
“Since You’ve Been Gone” — Rainbow & Head East
“Some Kinda Hurricane” — Peter Criss of Kiss
“So You Win Again” — Hot Chocolate
“Voices” — Russ Ballard
“When I’m With You” — Sheriff
“Winning” — Santana
“You Can Do Magic” — America
Thanks to MTV’s support on the video frontier, U.S. radio stations were encouraged to chart Ballard as a solo artist with “Voices” from his eponymous 1984 effort and the title cut from the The Fire Still Burns, which became his best known U.S. solo hits (Russ is known for a lot more throughout Europe and Asia).
In addition to “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins and Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues” on episodes of the hit U.S. television series Miami Vice, “Voices” was also featured in an episode: “Calderone’s Return: Part 2 — Calderone’s Demise,” which aired on October 26, 1984.
The London-based soft-rock outfit America, whose radio chart career with a succession of early-to-mid ’70s gold and platinum U.S. Top Ten hits (“Horse with No Name,” “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Lonely People,” and “Sister Golden Hair Surprise”) had tanked by the late ‘70s, experienced a career resurgence in the early ’80s with Russ Ballard’s “You Can Do Magic,” which put the band back into the Top Ten around the world.
This “Russ Ballard” playlist (over on my personal You Tube page) features the solo versions of his most popular tunes, along with a few artists who covered his material — when versions by Russ cannot be located. Some of the songs appear on the following albums:
1976 — Winning (Epic)
Features “Winning,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and “Cuckoo.”
1978 — At the Third Stoke
1980 — Barnet Dogs
Features on the “On the Rebound” and “Ride with the Angels.”
1981 — Into the Fire
1984 — Russ Ballard (EMI)
1985 — The Fire Still Burns
Features “The Fire Still Burns.”
For Russ Ballard’s complete catalog, visit with him on Discogs.
Russ Ballard’s most recent worldwide hit came courtesy of the 1998 rock ’n’ roll dramedy, Still Crazy. The soundtrack and film spotlights his song, “What Might Have Been,” sung by British actor Jimmy Nail, the “bassist” for the movie’s faux-British rock band, Strange Fruit. Russ wrote the lyrics, while his collaborator on the song, Chris Difford of Squeeze, wrote the music.
The bottom line: Russ Ballard is one hell of a songwriter and vocalist. In this writer’s reality, Russ’s albums shelve-proud alongside the multi-platinum, hit-driven catalogs of Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen, and the not so hit-driven ’70s catalogs of Moon Martin and Warren Zevon — and some guy named Michael Bolotin (read about him on Medium).
Richard Curtis previously wrote another great, rock ’n’ roll film, The Boat That Rocked, aka Pirate Radio in the U.S. (2019), a comedy about Britain’s late ’60s pirate radio scene. When Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis are on the marquee, you don’t overthink the movie, you hold onto your popcorn bucket and go for the ride.
So, save me the aisle seat . . . and don’t sue me, Mr. Curtis, for having some fun with this “review” of your film to honor one of my all time favorites in Russ Ballard.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.
Poster Image Left: Yesterday poster courtesy of Etalon Films/Working Title Films/Universal Studios, via IMDB.com. Image Right: Graphic by R.D Francis. Russ Ballard’s Voices courtesy of Discogs. Typeface: “Anton” and “Dustismo” courtesy of Picfont.com.
- Sidewalk Star courtesy of redkit.net image generator.
- Cassette Album: Courtesy of Bru-nO/4717 images at Pixabay.com/Facebook. “Polymer Records/Spinal Tap Sticker” by teepublic/Lightning Design. J-Card image scan & graphic design by R.D Francis.
- Wyatt Album Image Left: Graphic by R.D Francis. Peter Fonda/Easy Rider screen cap by R.D Francis. Chopper: unknown, from the R.D Francis image archives (Google Images can’t located it). “Flying W logos” designed by and courtesy of Weezer drummer, Patrick Wilson. Image Right: Record graphic By R.D Francis. Yellow 45-rpm Image: R.D Francis.
- Wormhole: Capped from Giphy.com/Matthew Butler.
- Russ Ballard Banner: Montage by R.D Francis. Images courtesy of Discogs.
- The Brain Meme: Night of the Living Dead screen cap by R.D Francis. Meme generator by imgflip.com.