By Richie Unterberger

Renaissance had direct links to one of the great rock bands of the 1960s, the Yardbirds, in founder-members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty. It was apparent from the outset, though, that Renaissance would not have nearly as direct musical links to the Yardbirds' blues-psychedelic-pop-experimental-hard-rock as other alumni-spearheaded projects like the Jeff Beck Group, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. Even before the Yardbirds split in 1968, Relf and McCarty had been getting further into classical music and Simon and Garfunkel-style folk-rock.

    Their first group after the demise of the Yardbirds was not Renaissance but the little-known Together, comprised solely of the Relf-McCarty duo. Just one 1968 single, the fragile folk-pop "Henry's Coming Home"/"Love Mum And Dad," was issued, co-produced by ex-Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. An outtake with Keith Relf's younger sister Jane contributing background vocals, "Together Now," surfaced on the 1992 Yardbirds compilation Little Games Sessions & More.

    "Jim and I were the instigators of the Yardbirds in '64," Keith Relf told Record Mirror in 1969. "We got to a point when Gregorian chants were coming from the Yardbirds and we found then that we were going at a tangent from the group, away from the bluesy sound. Jimmy and I write a lot together and we felt that something could happen like us writing together and producing records. We thought we would form a duo and were going to call ourselves Together. It would have been impractical though. Simon and Garfunkel are gods, but what can a drummer and lead singer do?"

    The two Relfs and McCarty would be the nucleus of Renaissance, a most improbable aggregation that guaranteed the band wouldn't sound much like the Yardbirds at all. For one thing, Keith Relf, the Yardbirds' lead vocalist, had played (with rare exceptions) nothing but the harmonica with his old band. With Renaissance, he would remain the principal lead vocalist, but would also be the group's guitarist. Jane Relf had never even sung professionally before, her interaction with the music business limited to helping run the Yardbirds' fan club for a while.

    Yardbirds connections were also partly responsible for filling out Renaissance's personnel. Ex-Yardbirds bassist Chris Dreja was planning to form a country band including John Hawken, formerly keyboardist of the Nashville Teens (whose sole big American hit was "Tobacco Road"), and steel guitarist B.J. Cole. Hawken and Cole were invited to jam with the other musicians in the nascent Renaissance, who now also included bassist Louis Cennamo (who had played on much of James Taylor's Apple album). "Everyone jelled except Brian Cole, whose slide guitar didn't really fit in," McCarty told Michael Ober in the interview anthology Then Play On. "He was overplaying it and it didn't really work out. We played rock stuff at the jam and a few things that we had written, including 'Island,' which we had already done a demo. While we were playing 'Island,' John all of a sudden played some classical stuff on the piano and it sounded good. It was exciting."

    Hawken would be the instrumentalist most responsible for the classical flavor of the debut album (also produced by Paul Samwell-Smith), not only on piano, but also on harpsichord. McCarty and Relf wrote all but one of the five extended tracks, the other, "The Wanderer," bearing the McCarty-Hawken credit. Twisting classical melodies and impressionistic lyrics were the core of Renaissance, with barely a trace of the Yardbirds' blues roots remaining. In the most upbeat sections of the eleven-minute opener, "Kings and Queens," they didn't sound far from Traffic. In the more avant-garde stuttering, doomstruck passages, particularly in the similarly lengthy closer "Bullet," they could be like King Crimson at their bleakest.

    Mostly, however, they just sounded like Renaissance, with involved, winding melodies, distant Aeolian background harmonies, experimental touches like howling wind effects, and more accomplished classical keyboards than almost anyone had ever used in a rock framework.  Jane Relf's presence is subdued and vestigial on the record, but her stratospherically high lead vocals grace the album's most beatifically tuneful song, "Island," as well as the haunting "Wanderer."

    "We were looking for a female voice to create the gentle sound we want," elaborated her brother in Record Mirror. "And we thought it best to have somebody we know and get along with, and Jane always took an interest in what I was doing. We're now feeling that we're getting away from what's been done already. We don't actually play songs. It's more movements without names, which have a dynamic low building up, then going into a lull. It's a sound thing as opposed to a melodic thing, very Beethovenish.

    "Some people have even seen Greco-Afghanistani influences in the new band's music. It has also been described as 'head night-club music' if you can have such a thing. We attach great importance to basic melody. If it's not too soppy a thing Renaissance are trying to make beautiful sounds--it's a gentle reverse not a revolution. That's why we're known as Renaissance. This was always part of the Yardbirds. As well as the heavy stuff--we were always a guitarist's group--there were things like 'Still I'm Sad' and that's the other side that's in Renaissance.

    "Maybe if we'd got another band together quickly, like Zeppelin, we'd have been the same as before. But we've taken some time to rethink our musical ideas. The mood seems to be changing from the blues. I think our new music is the valid new music." Added McCarty: "The thing about Renaissance is that we've changed from physical to mental music. Zeppelin are still physical but that wouldn't be us anymore."

    Renaissance created only a mild stir, reaching #60 in the British charts. The original quintet did manage to tour the US once, but soon began to unravel in a bewilderingly complex series of events that remains difficult to untangle thirty years later. McCarty and Relf left the band, although they intended to remain involved as writers and producers. Cennamo left to join Colosseum, leaving Hawken and Jane Relf as the only remaining original members by the time Renaissance toured Europe in the fall of 1970. A second album, Illusion (released only in Germany at the time), was cobbled together that year with shifting personnel. Jane left after the European tour, and Hawken soon followed suit, joining Spooky Tooth.

    By 1971, unbelievably, Renaissance, though still an active band, contained no original members. With new singer Annie Haslam, and the phasing out of Keith Relf and McCarty's input into any aspect of the band's music, they eventually become a top progressive rock concert draw and staple of FM radio. Only in their rock-classical-folk blend did they retain any connection to the Renaissance that made Renaissance, which became a coveted collector's item, and is now restored to worldwide availability on this CD reissue by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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