When was the last time you heard of a band that after its very first live appearance was offered a recording contract - - and turned it down?
When was the last time you heard of a band scrapping an entire album because it didn't meet it's high standards?
When was the last time you heard of a band signed on to a major label who then recorded a demo of wholly new songs at its own expense?
The answer is now...and the band is Vitamin Z.
For these two lads from Sheffield, England, Geoff Barradale (lead vocals) and Nick Lockwood (guitar), uncompromising integrity is at the heart of their music.
"Music is our freedom, our inspiration, our goal, our everything," explains the passionate Barradale. "We wanted a record we could believe in, one that was honest and genuine and human. And after a horrid four years during which everything bad that could happen to us - short of a plane crash - happened to us, we finally have the record we want. With no compromises."
Sharp Stone Rain, Vitamin Z's second album (both on Geffen Records), justifies the band's unswerving persistence of vision. From it's first single, "Can't Live Without You," to a reprise of its initial American success, "Burning Flame," to the intense "Burn For You," Vitamin Z proves to be a master of the electric soul ballad, the rock 'n' roll torch song. Barradale's honey-poured-over gravel voice and Lockwood's compelling music create an unmistakably distinctive sound, one matched by Barradale's deceptively simple yet intriguing lyrics.
A recurring symbolism using earth, air, fire, and water links together the songs on the album - these soaring affirmations of undying love - in a very natural, vital way.
"I'm very spontaneous. I feel there's a direct joining of emotions to natural elements. For example, we didn't have the words yet to 'Can't Live Without You' and I was just warming up with a mike, just singing, thinking about what it feels like to be hurt and I sang, 'like a blazing sea you burn for me.' That line was the first that came into my head. It was natural, not pen and paper and all worked out. That's what our music is like. It comes from the soul."
The curious album title, for instance, can be found in a lyric in "Save Me."
"it's about the IRA raid at Enniskillen," says Barradale about the November 9, 1987 bombing of a Northen Ireland church that killed 11 people. "It moved me, revolted me so much. All I could see was the flying church glass being blown outwards onto the people, the coloured glass - the 'sharp stone rain.' "
Vitamin Z's music is also decidedly optimistic. Barradale points to another song on Sharp Stone Rain , the rockin' "Run For You": "It's about a blind man and a crippled boy. But even they can achieve anything they want, if only the blind man will push the crippled boy's wheelchair and the boy will show the man the way to go. We need to accept responsibility for ourselves and care for other people if we want to make this a better world."
Vitamon Z's outlook, however, is not viewed through rose-colored glasses. Quite oppositely, it comes from having taken a close, harsh look at grim reality. Both Lockwood and Barradale grew up in Sheffield. A depressed, northern, industrial wasteland that once gave birth to the blue-eyed soul of Joe Cocker and in the early Eighties was a hotbed of musical activity, spawning such groups as The Human League, ABC, and Cabaret Voltaire.
"Yes. I'm incredibly optimistic," Barradale admits, "but that's because I come from a broken home and had a lot of disappointments. I've been tested so much in life, since I was a little boy, that I had to be optimistic to survive."
From a lower middle-class society, his parents divorced when he was 10 years old. His twin brother stayed with his father, and he with his mother.
"I learned independence early. I've been on my own since I was 16, working mixing concrete at a construction site. That's where I learned about life, about hard work, about when to shut up and learn, and when to speak up. I moved from bedsit to bedsit and dreamed all the time. I knew I had the talent but I didn't know where it lied."
One night he went to a concert by a band doing soul covers. The singer was Paul Young. "He was smiling from ear to ear. I wondered how anyone could enjoy something that much. I knew that's what I wanted to do."
The next day, he phoned ex-schoolmate Lockwood. "We weren't friendly at school. He was into Genesis and Led Zeppelin, the heavy side, and I was a soul boy. I lived Motown. But he was the only guy I knew who could play an instrument."
The son of an enterprising father who in middle-age returned to school and became a teacher, and a mother who came from a family of miners and was a nurse, Lockwood too was a dreamer. Originally he wanted to be an actor. But when he was 13 he found himself instead as a roadie for a friend's band. One day, the bas player left and he asked to have a go at taking his place. After buying a bass for a meager five pounds, he did.
Later, as a 17 year-old, he began a four-year stint with a progressive rock band, playing the gritty pub circuit. Unfortunately, the band was then sent on the slicker cabaret rounds.
"It was a letdown," Lockwood recalls. "We had to play covers, Top 20. It nearly killed me, it was so depressing, so utterly uncreative. So I packed it in. I sold my guitar and got a job as a chemist in a steel works. But I couldn't get the music out of my blood and I was thinking about getting back into it when Geoff called."
Within a week, he had bought a guitar and other equipment and the two were jamming together at his house. There were more differences between the two acquaintances than simply musical tastes. There was also politics (Barradale leans left, Lockwood is a self-confessed capitalist), and even their hometown (Barradale still lives there, Lockwood's moved to London).
"Sheffield has a small-town mentality," says Lockwood. "I felt stifled there. Here in London, you can be who you want to be. It's a very creative place. Here I can look out-of-place but people don't mind."
Over the years, the outgoing, gregarious Barradale and the cool, secure Lockwood ("I'm very English emotionally") have developed a unique working relationship.
"It's like having a brother," Lockwood says. "You can't choose who it is but when you've been together for a long time, you know each other's differences, laugh about them, and then get on with it."
They got on with it when a few months after first coming together, in 1982, Vitamin Z filled in as an opening act at a local concert hall when another band dropped out at the last minute.
Says Barradale, "It was the first time we had played in public, the first time I had been on stage singing. When we walked off, someone came up to us and said, 'Hello, I'm from CBS Records. I'd like you to come down to London.' " The band said "no."
"We weren't ready," Lockwood explains. "But strangely the refusal actually helped. The man went back to the record company with a story about this band that said 'no.' Word got around and soon there were companies coming around all the time. For a year we were wined and dined and lived like lords. It was bloody marvelous."
Meanwhile, they worked on their music. By September of that year, they were ready. A much-anticipated showcase took place with representatives of every major record company in attendance. Amidst much publicity, Vitamin Z signed with Phonogram internationally and Geffen Records for North America.
Lockwood remembers that "when I was growing up. People would say 'You can't spend all your life dreaming. Wise up.' Well, I never did. And almost all my dreams have come true."
With the guidance of Geffen A&R executive John Kalodner, the band's debut album Rites Of Passage, was released in 1985, It's most prominent single, the inspirational "Burning Flame," did well on the U.S. dance charts and the band toured England with Tears For Fears. Vitamin Z also made news when its video for the song "Circus Ring" filmed in Istanbul, making them the first Western Europeans to be allowed to film in Turkey since Midnight Express prompted government officials there to close the border to foreign film units.
A year or so further on and the follow-up album was ready to go. "But we sat down and listened to it and it didn't do anything," recalls Barradale. "If it didn't move us, it wasn't going to move anybody else. The songs were good, but the treatment was wrong, contrived, plastic. We see ourselves as far more edgy, spiky. It was the wrong marriage with a producer."
While they awaited the results of a lawsuit that would hopefully allow them to re-work the songs, they wrote a number of new ones. They liked what they were hearing so much that they paid for another demo out of their own pockets. "We knew," says Barradale, "that this was our moment. We had to take it." By the time the legal matters were settled , they were already in the studio working on Sharp Stone Rain, beginning with producer Pete Smith (Sting, The Adventures) but ended up co-producing tracks.
Also seizing the moment, Lockwood decided to move from bass and keyboards to guitar. "In a songwriting sense, it's more creative being able to write on the guitar. Besides, playing bass live was frustrating. I'm naturally a bit of a showman and I wanted to be upfront, to relate to the audience."
Vitamin Z is very much devoted to becoming a live band and is anxious to tour with its six-person ensemble.
"The only true moment ever is on stage," says Barradale. "We want to provoke emotions in people and get their emotional feedback. There is nothing without that. It gets right to the name of the band: Vitamin Z, two elements, energy and mystery. We don't give them everything - we don't want to explain every song - but we give them our souls."
When was the last time you heard of a band offering so much as that?