Sky were a British/Australian instrumental group which specialised in fusing a variety of musical styles including light rock, progressive rock, classical and jazz. The group's best known members were classical guitarist John Williams, bass player Herbie Flowers (a former member of Blue Mink and T. Rex) and Francis Monkman, a founder member of progressive rock band Curved Air.
History[edit source | edit]Edit
Formation[edit source | edit]Edit
In 1971, world-famous classical guitarist John Williams released Changes, his first recording of non-classical music (and the first on which he played electric guitar). Among the musicians working on the album were Herbie Flowers and Tristan Fry, an established session drummer who was also the timpanist for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The three musicians became friends, kept in touch and continued working together on various projects. Fry, Flowers, and Francis Monkman were performers on Williams' 1978 album Travelling, another cross-genre recording which was a substantial commercial success.
The success of Travelling inspired Williams and Flowers to set up their own long-term cross-genre band. Fry and Monkman were swiftly recruited, and the first Sky lineup was completed with the addition of Australian session guitaristKevin Peek. Peek was equally adept at classical guitar and pop/rock styles, having built up a reputation both as a chamber musician and as a long-standing member of Cliff Richard's band (as well as for Manfred Mann, Lulu, Tom Jones, Jeff Wayne and Shirley Bassey). The band began writing and recording instrumental music drawing on their collective experience of classical, light pop, progressive rock, light entertainment and jazz. After a protracted search for a record company, Sky signed with the small European label Ariola Records.
First two albums; Sky and Sky 2: 1978-1980[edit source | edit]Edit
Sky's self-titled debut album (released in 1979) was highly successful in Britain and Australia, quickly reaching gold record status and eventually topping out as a platinum record. Although the band was run democratically, and all members contributed music and/or arrangements, the presence of John Williams in the lineup was regarded as the band's biggest selling point (and was emphasised in publicity). Williams' concurrent solo instrumental hit - "Cavatina - Theme from The Deer Hunter" - also helped to raise the band's profile. However, this was counterbalanced by some negative reviews from critics accustomed to Williams' classical performances, who remained unimpressed by his new direction with Sky. The band toured the UK in summer and autumn 1979, particular triumphs being sold-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and the Dominion Theatre in London (the latter a five-night sellout).
In 1980, Sky recorded and released their second album, Sky 2 - a double album which built upon its predecessor's success (becoming the tenth highest selling album in Britain that year). The album included Monkman's side-long rock suite "FIFO" (a piece inspired by computer processing) and four classical pieces including three established chamber music pieces (played entirely straight) and the band's souped-up electric treatment of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor". The latter was released as a single (under the name "Toccata") and reached number 5 in the national pop charts, giving the band the opportunity of performing on Top Of The Pops.
In 1980, the BBC produced the television series Great Railway Journeys of the World which included an episode set in Australia. The music for this programme was by Sky, featuring tracks from the first two albums.
First lineup change and Sky 3: 1980-1981[edit source | edit]Edit
Following further tours of Australia and the UK, Francis Monkman left the band in 1980 to concentrate on his own projects (having scored success with his soundtrack to the film The Long Good Friday). The split was entirely amicable and the band had no doubts about carrying on despite the fact that Monkman had been Sky's most prominent original composer and arranger. The keyboard player's role was filled by Steve Gray, another established session musician and a former member of Back Door and Wasp. Gray was also able to take the band towards a more jazz-influenced sound (drawing on his further experience as a piano player with Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand, Lalo Schifrin, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr and John Barry).
Gray joined the band in time for their first European tour, followed by another UK tour and (on 24 February 1981) the "Sky at Westminster Abbey" concert. This had been conceived by the British producer Martin Lewis and was the first-ever rock concert held at the abbey. It was videotaped for a BBC TV special and subsequently released on home video and laserdisc. The concert was a benefit for the human rights organisation Amnesty International and commemorated the organisation's 20th anniversary. The landmark event resulted in Sky receiving considerable positive media coverage. The Westminster Abbey concert was also the launch event for the band's third album, Sky 3, a generally brighter and breezier album than its predecessors. The band toured Australia, Europe and the UK in support of the release.
Sky 4 Forthcoming and Sky Five Live: 1982-83[edit source | edit]Edit
The fourth Sky album - Sky 4 Forthcoming - was released in March 1982. This was Sky's first album to feature no original material. It consisted predominantly of arrangements of classical compositions and was marketed under the slogan "Genius Past, Genius Forthcoming". Once again, the band toured the UK and Australia to promote the album (and followed this up with trips to Europe and Japan). The Australian autumn tour featured the debut of plenty of new material, much of which was included on a live double album, Sky Five Live, released in January 1983.
Cadmium and departure of John Williams: 1983-1984[edit source | edit]Edit
Sky released their sixth album Cadmium in December 1983. The album contents were a mixture of Sky traditions and new elements - it contained a classical-rock arrangement of Prokofiev's "Sleigh Ride" (from the "Lieutenant Kijé Suite"), alongside seven original compositions and the first examples of commissioned compositions from contemporary writers from outside the band (in this case, Kevin Peek's old friend and fellow Cliff Richard collaborator Alan Tarney, who provided two original tunes). Two concerts at the Theatre Royal, London were filmed and broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1983, with songwriter and singer-songwriter Patrick Ros as special guest. Ros provided three seasonal compositions of his own on which he was backed by the band.
In February 1984, John Williams parted company with Sky, returning to a full-time classical career. Williams had previously hinted that his work with Sky had been intended as a five-year stint. His departure damaged Sky's profile, as he had remained the band's biggest star and live draw despite their efforts to present themselves as a partnership of equals.
Sky "plus guests" and The Great Balloon Race: 1984[edit source | edit]Edit
Sky opted not to recruit a permanent replacement for Williams. Instead, the band remained as a quartet, working with a succession of guest musicians. The first of these was former Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman, who joined the band on their Australian tour of early 1984. Guests for the 1984 summer tour of the UK were woodwind player Ron Aspery (Steve Gray's former mentor in Back Door and the Middlesbrough Municipal Junior Orchestra) and session guitarist Lee Fothergill. 1984 also saw the release of a stopgap "greatest hits" compilation called Masterpieces, released on mass-media label Telstar (and featuring a previously-unreleased live version of the Beatles song "Fool On The Hill", performed as a classical guitar duet by Williams and Peek).
In September 1984, Sky began recording their seventh album - The Great Balloon Race - in Kevin Peek's Tracks Studio in Western Australia. This album was the first Sky album to feature entirely original material without any classical content (although two pieces, "Allegro" and "Caldando" were strongly classically-inspired). Guest included Ron Aspery, Lee Fothergill, pan-pipe player Adrian Brett and former Jeff Beck Band keyboard player Tony Hymas (who contributed the unusual semi-spoken album opener "Desperate For Your Love").
The band were dropped by Ariola Records while The Great Balloon Race was being mixed. The album was eventually released on Epic Records (who were also the label releasing John Williams' albums). Despite some favourable reviews, the album sales were significantly lower than on previous occasions. Sky toured the UK, this time with Rolling Stones keyboard player Nicky Hopkins and multi-instrumentalist Paul Hart (a former composer for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra who'd also played bass guitar for John Dankworth and both violin and piano for Cleo Laine). The band found themselves playing to smaller audiences than on previous tours.
Mozart album: 1987[edit source | edit]Edit
Sky returned in late 1987 with the Mozart album, which united the band with the orchestra of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The project was initiated by Tristan Fry (due to his parallel work with both band and orchestra) and was inspired by the bicentenary of Mozart's death. The album contained full orchestral performances of Mozart's work with Sky incorporated into the arrangements (most of which were written by Steve Gray). The band and orchestra (with Paul Hart returning as guest musician) promoted the album with a one-off concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 November 1987. The Mozart project was roundly panned and dismissed by the press (although the album was ultimately Sky's most successful album in the United States) and the band took another two years off before returning again.
Final years: 1990-1995[edit source | edit]Edit
A second compilation album - Classic Sky - was released in 1990. The band played a one-off concert at the London Palladium in the same year (the first to feature Paul Hart as a full band member) and recorded a TV concert in early 1991. New compositions by Peek, Gray and Hart were premiered but apparently never recorded in the studio. The concert was released on DVD and later on CD as Live In Nottingham.
In 1991, Kevin Peek became the next member of the band to depart. A full-time resident of Australia since 1982 and busy with multiple recording projects at Tracks Studio (all of which inhibited his practical ability to spend time in the UK working with Sky), he no longer believed that he had enough time to commit to the band. Peek was replaced by classical/cross-discipline guitarist Richard Durrant (an associate of Herbie Flowers), who joined the band in 1992. The band relaunched themselves with a comeback concert in September 1992 at the Barbican, London.
Sky toured the UK again during spring 1993, playing notably smaller venues than they had in the 1980s. The last performance by Sky was at an RAF tribute concert in May 1995. Although Sky never formally disbanded, the band has not returned to active recording and performance.
Post-Sky work by various members[edit source | edit]Edit
Individual work[edit source | edit]Edit
Herbie Flowers continues to work as a high-profile session musician and has collaborated with Jools Holland, Clannad, Mike Hatchard and Paul McCartney. He has also branched out as a light entertainment raconteur.
Tristan Fry still works with the Orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, as well as the Tristan Fry Percussion Ensemble.
Since leaving Sky in 1980, Francis Monkman has divided his time between experimental rock music and classical music recordings of solo keyboard work (generally harpsichord or church organ).
Following his own departure from Sky in 1984, John Williams has continued his career as one of the world's leading classical guitarists.
After leaving Sky in 1991, Kevin Peek continued to work as a musician and producer in Australia, despite financial misfortunes (since his departure from the band he has suffered two bankruptcies, the first of which resulted in a three-year prison sentence). In 2010 he was linked to a 'Ponzi' style investment scheme. In November 2011 he was bailed on 227 charges of gaining benefit by fraud with the trial date which was scheduled for 27 January 2012. He died in Perth, Western Australia, on February 11, 2013 from a melanoma.
Following Sky's retirement in 1995, Steve Gray continued his career as a respected composer (which he had been carrying out in parallel to his work with Sky). His compositions include two operas, a requiem mass for jazz big band and choir, a guitar concerto and a piano concerto written for French jazz pianist Martial Solal. He also provided a full orchestration of the works of Brian Eno (in collaboration with the original composer). From 1991, he worked closely with the North German Radio (NDR) Big Band in Hamburg (at the invitation of singer and composer Norma Winstone) and from 1998 he worked as guest professor of composition and arrangement in the Hanns Eisler jazz department of Berlin Hochschule für Musik. Steve Gray died on 20 September 2008.
Paul Hart went on to a career in film, television and commercial music and has written concert music for the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and The King’s Singers. His Concerto for Classical Guitar and Jazz Orchestra was revived for performance in 2008 by the Towson University Jazz Orchestra and guitarist Michael Decker.
Richard Durrant has continued to develop his career as a classical guitarist, as well as composing film and television music and working as a record producer (notably for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain). He is the founder of the acoustic record label LongMan Records.
Duos and other collaborations[edit source | edit]Edit
Reissues[edit source | edit]Edit
In 1993, the band's first five albums were released on CD.
In 2001, the band began a reissue programme of their back catalogue on Sanctuary Records.
In 2005, Quantum Leap released the Sky Live in Bremen DVD, a live recording of the band's first (unofficial) concert.
Personnel[edit source | edit]Edit
- Herbie Flowers - bass guitar, double-bass, tuba (1978–1995)
- Tristan Fry - drums, percussion, trumpet (1978–1995)
- Kevin Peek - guitars (1978–1991; died 2013)
- John Williams - guitars (1978–1984)
- Francis Monkman - harpsichord, synthesisers, organ, guitars (1978–1980)
- Steve Gray - keyboards, saxophone (1980–1995; died 2008)
- Paul Hart - keyboards, guitars, mandolin, cello (1984–1995)
- Richard Durrant - guitars (1992–1995)
Albums[edit source | edit]Edit
Studio albums[edit source | edit]Edit
|1982||Sky 4 Forthcoming||
|1985||The Great Balloon Race||
Live albums[edit source | edit]Edit
|1983||Sky Five Live||
|2001||Live In Nottingham|
Non-album singles[edit source | edit]Edit
|Released||A Side||B Side|
"March To The Scaffold"
|1984||"Fool On The Hill"||
"Dies Irae" was included on the Music Club Edition of the Sky album. "March To The Scaffold" is an earlier recording than the version which appeared on Sky 4 Forthcoming.
Video releases[edit source | edit]Edit
- Sky In Bremen - Credited as 1980 but recorded in 1979, released 2005 (Quantum)(DVD)
- Sky At Westminster Abbey - 1982 - BBC Video (BBCV 3017) (VHS, in mono) / (BBCV 3017L) (Laserdisc, in stereo)
- Live In Nottingham - Recorded 1991, released 2001 (Classic Rock Legends)(DVD)