Ambrosia: Life Beyond Ballads

LOS ANGELES — “About the time we were doing our first album we used to play a club up the street here on Lankershim that was a women’s gay bar,” recalls Ambrosia’s drummer Burleigh Drummond with a lascivious glint in his eye. “We were the house band, practically, for two years.”

“And,” says guitarist Dave Pack, “they had the greatest wet T-shirt contest you’ve ever seen. We were the only guys allowed in there, too.”

“I think that’s why we do ballads in our shows,” jokes bassist Joe Puerta, who’s enjoying this moment of admittedly sexist “guy talk” as much as anyone. “Women like them. You should see the beautiful girls in the audiences. And would you believe they’re still throwing underwear on stage out there? In Florida, the girls take off their tops and sit on their boyfriends’ shoulders to wave at the bands. He’s holding her up for three hours and she deserts him right after the show!”

Once the crudities of touring are dispensed with, the three main members of San Pedro’s finest progressive band are anxious to communicate their enthusiasm for their fourth and most mature LP to date, One Eighty. The title indicates several things — it was finished in January 1980 and is consequently their first ’80s release, and as Pack says, “It’s a 180° turn for us, in the right direction I hope. Each album has its own flavor; this one has a harder characteristic. We didn’t calculate the change. We’re doing rock and roll to get ourselves off more than anything.”

“This is definitely our hardest rock album,” agrees Puerta. “The energy in the recording has never been captured better for us. Our other albums were more esoteric, more listeners’ albums. This one reaches out to the listener more.”

Certainly One Eighty has an excellent chance of breaking this band big. There are similarities with Journey, Chicago, Van Halen, the Doobies and other contemporary blockbusters, but the same basic musical elements many find intolerable in those bands are transfered in the hands of the more imaginative Ambrosia musicians into something with more clout, a finer edge and more fluid inventiveness. With Ambrosia now a six-piece (original keyboard man Chris North has returned, synthesizer wizard David Cutler Lewis has gone from his guest shot on Life Beyond L.A. to full-fledged membership, and ex-Steely Dan backup singer Royce Jones has added his vocal strengths) they can do a live show that matches the depth and variety of their recordings. And One Eighty is a compendium of Ambrosia’s strengths, from Lewis’ astonishingly guitar-like synthesizer solos to the note-bending knack of main mover David Pack.

“We toured for five months after the last album and kept wishing we had some harder rock material to play live,” says Puerta. “As performers on stage we wanted to get away from the laboratory of the studio, where everything is carefully layered, to a higher energy level. If you’ve learned some new words you don’t want to restrict yourself to the same vocabulary. There’s an artistic, progressive side of us that comes out on every album, like ‘Kamikaze’ on the new one. And we also have David’s ballads and the rock material.”

After a typical start as a bar band cranking out letter-perfect takes of ‘Light My Fire’ at the Warehouse club in Anaheim and the San Pedro Free Clinic (where they are also remembered for their weird performance-art set one day), Ambrosia became a Pink Floyd-ish progressive pop outfit with an R&B base, and their debut LP for 20th Century Records astounded many with its pungent blend of classical control and pop sensibilities. ‘Holdin’ on to Yesterday’ and ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice’ (the latter a setting of Kurt Vonnegut lyrics) became FM staples, and their follow-up long player, Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled, produced by Alan Parsons, contained more of their synthesis of intellectual British art-rock and Southern Cal beach blanket bingo. The band also provided much of the music for Parsons’ own Tales of Mystery and Imagination, another landmark progressive disc, and even survived All This and World War II (they did ‘Magical Mystery Tour’) without looking silly.

Their first gold record and AM hit, ‘How Much I Feel’, a ballad recalling Pack and Puerta’s roots singing torch ballads in South Bay bars and Fort MacArthur, came after it was pulled from their first Warner Bros, album, Life Beyond L.A., which went on to become their best-selling disc. Immediately typecast as a ballad band by new fans, the group has continued to go their own way, even if Warners continues to choose Pack’s slow love songs (the latest is ‘Biggest Part of Me’) as the singles. Often people don’t connect ‘How Much I Feel’ with ‘Nice, Nice, Very Nice’, but when they do they’re impressed by the band’s versatility and longevity — this year marks their tenth anniversary together.

“Of all the things we do, people relate to the ballads best, perhaps,” admits Pack, whose falsetto wows those lustful females down in Florida. “But I don’t think we’ll ever resign ourselves to the label “ballad band.’ It’s not what we intended when we started out. The ballads balance a record, but they’re not the whole story. I would have liked to see ‘No Big Deal’ as the single — an unpretentious, rocking tune that shows our ’60s influences. It’s also got a nice chromatic following bridge I’m fond of.”

“The biggest achievement,” says Burleigh, “is to give the public something they haven’t heard before and have them accept it.”

“Yes,” agrees Pack. “We’re flattered that we have anything the public likes, but for us, we get off on ‘Kamikaze’ or ‘Rock ‘n’ a Hard Place’ more than anything, especially on stage. We’re chomping at the bit to get back on the road.”

“What I like about the road,” Burleigh squeezes in, “is the fact that no matter how much trouble you get into, the next day you’re in a different town.”

“The band is becoming more economical in our desire,” continues Pack. “We’re innovating through simplicity. There are no strings on One Eighty. Our records will no sound more like our concerts. Ambrosia will be a more live performance-based group. We’ve always admired great harmonizers, like the Everlys and Beatles. Now, with four voices on stage, we can reproduce our own vocal sound better.”

“Just because you’re more complex musically doesn’t mean you can’t wow an audience,” answers Puerto when asked if artiness interferes with stage power. “There’s no conflict. We have the material behind us to do one of the most incredible shows ever assembled, if we had the money for stage props and stuff. Ultimately, you’ve got to have the album — like Pink Floyd had with Dark Side of the Moon or Supertramp with Crime of the Century — that just kicks down the doors for you. We’ve always been just on the edge of really making it. One thing we do have, though, is perseverance.”

“Our first album was very special,” says Pack, “with people flying in from all over and a real spiritual warmth about the project. And we wanted the whole world for our palette. If we wanted a Javanese ensemble we got it. Whatever we do on disc we have to live with the rest of our lives. In some ways that attitude stands in the way of real bust-out stardom. You psych yourself out too much. But we can’t just make ‘I don’t give a shit’ rock and roll records. We’re dedicated to paying attention — we make those records count”.

© Mark LevitonBAM, 18 April 1980

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