Firefall recreates a rockin’ good time
BRECKENRIDGE – If you walked into any college dorm in 1976, chances are you’d hear Firefall’s self-titled debut album playing. The band helped birth the country-folk-rock sound of the 1970s with such smash hits as “You Are the Woman,” “Just Remember I Love You” and “Strange Way.”
The band exploded onto the fertile ’70s music scene when its first album went gold in three months, more quickly than any previous Atlantic Records album had to date – an amazing feat, considering Atlantic represented such artists as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin.
“We had our sights set on putting out albums and being big stars from the time we started,” Firefall co-founder Jock Bartley said. “It was just the right album at the right time.”
Most of the band members came from well-known groups. Drummer Michael Clarke (ex-Byrds), vocalist and guitarist Rick Roberts (ex-Flying Burrito Brothers) and bassist Mark Andes (ex-Spirit) joined Larry Burnett and Bartley to play gigs throughout Boulder and Aspen. The musicians didn’t have to scramble for a unique sound; the powerful, guitar-driven rock, pop and country style blended naturally with strong melodies and multi-vocal harmonies.
“From the first day of rehearsal (in 1974), we had 30 original songs. When we worked out Rick and Larry’s songs, it sounded like Firefall,” Bartley said. “We just sounded like we did.”
The Boulder-based band saturated national radio waves and sold millions of records, scoring gold with the first three albums and platinum with the third. After it toured with the Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, the Band and the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac signed Firefall as its opening act for its “Rumors” tour.
Then the bottom began to fall out.
“Back in the ’70s, very few bands had the word “moderation’ in their vocabulary,” Bartley said. “Various (Firefall) band members had drug and alcohol problems. We had a great ride for about four years, then the bottom started falling out. We didn’t realize it was falling out until it was half gone. Pretty much from the first couple of months, the seeds of our own demise were there, because we had some diametrically opposed personalities in the band. It’s like being married to four or five guys. (With) the stresses of trying to keep it together and the substance problems and the personalities … the whole thing got somewhat strained. … We had three guys with their feet on the ground and three guys that didn’t have their feet on the ground.”
In addition to personality conflicts, the band had financial problems.
“As a band, we were terrible business men,” he said. “We were so happy to get a record deal (we didn’t look at the details). The two main songwriters (Roberts and Burnett) made all the money – 10 to 20 times as much – and they weren’t keeping it together with their problems.”
The band members began amassing a huge debt, especially when they revamped their second album, which sold millions but racked up an additional $100,000 in debt. The band cycled through five managers in five years, one of whom sued Firefall, Inc.
Between the personality conflicts and financial strains, band members began to leave one by one, until Bartley was the sole survivor in 1981.
“The truth of the matter is, I was the only guy who didn’t quit,” he said. “I kept the title because I thought it was still viable. It was a really, really fun ride. At times, I can’t believe I’ve been in this band for 25 years.”
Bartley reformed Firefall when it broke up in 1981, and the new band released its seventh album, “Break of Dawn,” featuring Stephen Stills and David Sanborn in 1982. Firefall didn’t release a new album in the late ’80s or early ’90s because the musical landscape had transformed, favoring a techno sound over a folksy-rock sound.
Firefall released “Messenger” in 1994, expanding its distinctive sound with passionate lyrics, diverse melodies and sociopolitical messages. The songs dealt with issues of child abuse and the ecology and featured “When the River Rises,” an uplifting song dedicated to the 1993 Midwest flood victims, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting disaster relief.
Bartley, who lives in Westminster and is a spokesman for suicide prevention, has always believed in writing lyrics that have meaning.
“The reason I still do it with Firefall is because the songs are so strong, and they still stand up today, unlike a lot of classic rock bands who have one (hit). The second reason is because we have so much fun,” he said.
“The craft of songwriting really, really good songs has drastically gone downhill in the last 10 to 20 years,” he said. “What really is lacking in today’s music (for the most part) are lyrics that talk about anything. One of the reasons that we do so well when we tour is because a lot of those songs have been proven to be really good songs. Fans really hunger after that. I think that our material really fits into that longing of the public. You can just see it in the crowd’s faces. (They have that look that says,) “wow, I didn’t know they did that song, too.'”
Bartley shows no regret about going from performing in stadiums to playing in smaller, more intimate venues.
“I never thought I was a huge rock star before,” he said. “I thought I was a really good guitar player who got lucky and deserved this, but the real rock stars were Fleetwood Mac. I always was a realist. Once you get to be a star, there’s a shelf life for bands, not only for hits, but also for breaking up. I do feel like a survivor who’s A) alive. … (Stardom) is sometimes not as glamorous as people think.”
Bartley promised to play all the Firefall hits, along with a few surprises at Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. show at the Riverwalk Center.
“I feel that the band owes the crowd a lot, and when we play a lot of our big hits, we make them sound as much like the record as we can,” he said. “Having said that, we use some solos to explore musically, go someplace brand new, like in “Strange Way.’ That keeps it fun. (The audience will be) hearing the songs pretty much as they would expect them, except that we have more energy, and it’s more rockin’. It’s not going through the motions. There was a misconception about the band that still remains that we are a light rock band (because of the hit “You Are the Woman”). We play it as a rock song now. We really rock out. For the price that we sell ourselves, we’re one of the best (bands) going because we can fill an hour with hits.”
Tickets are $18 in advance, $22 the day of the show, and may be purchased at the Riverwalk Center box office or by calling (970) 547-3100.
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