Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Life Beyond The Top 40

Ambrosia vs. Pablo Cruise.  

Who was who and which hit belonged to which band?  It’s easy to be confused. This then, makes the case for telling them apart, and attempts to declare a victor in the age old conflict between Ambrosia and Pablo Cruise.  

Both bands were active from the early to mid 70’s to early 80’s and battled it out on the charts on several occasions.  

Both were southern California rock bands, and although their influences varied, they both had their greatest chart successes with self-penned, very middle of the road/album oriented rock (MOR AOR), state of the art-radio friendly songwriting and production approach.

Both had strong lead singers who were largely anonymous.  While Ambrosia’s David Pack had some small measure on name recognition, that might have been more attributed to his frequent studio credits and a big label push behind a largely ignored solo album.  Who was the lead singer of Pablo Cruise?  And both bands had instrumentalist, who, although very competent players, never ascended to stardom.  (The same could be said for Orleans, Firefall, America, Player, ARS and Toto too)

Pablo Cruise edges out Ambrosia when it comes to number of Top 40 hits, even including some iffy chart successes on both sides.  However Pablo Cruise charted three Top 10 hits “Whatcha Gonna Do?,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and “Don’t Want to Live Without it” and “Cool Love” peaked just outside the top ten , Ambrosia charted 2 Top 5 hits (“How Much I Feel” and “Biggest Part of Me” and had a near 10 ten hit (“You’re the Only Woman”) as well.  Both bands are still fixtures on retrospective radio and all their hits are still surprisingly listenable.

Pablo Cruise Hits:
A Place in the Sun
Whatcha Gonna Do?
Don’t Want to Live Without It
Love Will Find a Way
Cool Love
I Want You Tonight
I Go To Rio
Ambrosia Hits:
Holdin’ On to Yesterday
Nice, Nice, Very Nice
How Much I Feel
Biggest Part of Me
You’re the Only Woman (You and I)

Both acts were primarily known for their hit singles, but Pablo Cruise released 7 albums and Ambrosia released 5 over the course of their careers (not including label cash grab greatest hits and Christmas bonus live albums).  Pablo Cruises albums were somewhat hit or miss affairs, especially in the hit single years, with plenty of (generic almost unlistenable) filler and several of their albums (“Pablo Cruise,” “Lifeline” and not producing any hits at all.  Ambrosia albums were much more consistent and until the end (“Road Island”) sported at least a (minor) hit single or a memorable album track off each album.

Ambrosia had a more interesting career arc, starting out as a progressive pop band for their first two albums, transforming into a mainstream pop juggernaut for their next two albums before finishing up with a straight ahead rock album.  The songwriting was structurally and melodically complex, they worked with a variety of styles and their lyrics were ambitious, at least for the first two albums.  Even when the band made a bit for mass acceptance and write love songs, they never mired down in happy three chord chorus structures, writing about regrets, compromises and loss in minor chords and varied time signatures.  Ambrosia had the chops and studio credits, playing on too many albums to credit (early Alan Parson Projects amongst their studio work).  The Bruce Hornsby connection is fascinating and Ambrosia bassist/singer Joe Puerta ended up being a part of the Range.  The band benefited from their studio connections as well, calling in favors far and wide for their albums as well (It only seemed like Michael McDonald sang back up on all of their hits). 
Pablo Cruise pretty much went into hit making formula from the start, only waiting for their songwriting chops to sufficiently develop.  Once that happened, and the radio market becoming more inviting to faceless corporate rock, listeners caught onto Pablo Cruises undemanding uncomplicated pop pretty quickly.  Which is not to say they didn’t become very good at what they did, producing some very ear worm worthy hits during their nice run of hits in the late 70’s.  They might not have been adventurous, but they knew their audience and they exploited it very successfully. 

Album Covers
This is hardly a fair criteria, but damn if both bands didn’t have great album design teams over the years.  The first Ambrosia album cover is pretty lame, and the second isn’t much better, but “Life Beyond LA,” is a pretty cool album photo that is better at conveying the theme of the alienation of the LA lifestyle than than the music on the album does.  And although “One Eighty” continues the band members self-absorption with placing themselves on their album covers (for all the fame it ever granted them individually) it’s a really great image with “Ambrosia” in the upper left corner and “One Eighty” in the right corner.  Although it sunk without a trace, the drawing and typeface from “Road Island” (influenced by Robert Crumb?) is visually striking. 
I’d similarly throw out the first two Pablo Cruise albums as well, with a generic jungle photo on the self titled debut, followed by a rather boring shot of the shirtless band on the cover of “Lifeline,” but by “A Place in the Sun,” much like the music, Pablo Cruise had found a visual style that they went back to for subsequent releases during their hit run.  “World’s Away” and “Reflector” typified the laid back, casual sound the band was pushing, lots of sun, palm trees, and water.  Even “Part of the Game” with it’s ping pong battling turtles, managed to fit in a palm tree and water onto a card table.  The red hands of “Out of Our Hands” was perhaps a little too literal, but by then the hits had dried up so maybe there wasn’t anything to nourish the palm trees.

Tale of the Tape
Pablo Cruise was undeniably more fun to catch on AM radio and had more hits with their bright sunny blast of pure pop pleasure.  Ambrosia’s more complicated adult themes were filled with memorable hooks and sounded great on the radio too, and they produced more consistent and ambitious albums.  It’s a close call, but Pablo Cruise just had a very more undeniably popular chart hits, and those album covers during their run of hits might just be the tie breaker that gives them the title. 
Winner: Pablo Cruise.

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