Who exactly were After the Fire ?

At the end of the 1970s, when punk morphed into New Wave and both had given accepted musical categories a good shaking / loosening up, some more 'unaligned' groups seized the moment and staggered out, blinking: Japan, Talk Talk, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire. None of these groups shared attitudes or sounds, least of all the avowedly Christian After the Fire, formerly a progressive trio who had gone to the lengths of financing their own debut LP, Signs of Change, in 1978.

They did have one thing in common, though: they all got signed up by major labels and suddenly began releasing singles which edged closer and closer to the charts (yes, even Cabaret Voltaire - 'The Crackdown'). Around the country, After the Fire had paid their dues, relying on a sketchy Christian subculture of artists and musicians who booked Student Union gigs, ran small-time arts magazines and let them sleep on their floors. In 1979, however, the gears suddenly ratcheted up: in place of just a ferocious live reputation came rumours of a CBS contract. The reissue of this material, originally three albums,
Laser Love, 80-F and Batteries Not Included, by Edsel, brings a chance for reassessment. A dynamic live band, After the Fire struggled to capture their spark in the studio and eventually disbanded in early 1983. Some fine music awaits rediscovery, however; here's a brief overview.

'One Rule for You' was their debut single and at first it seemed rather pedestrian and 'safe': a mid-tempo song with 'thoughtful', open-ended lyrics, responding to criticism of the band's avowed Christian faith. A record company choice? The B-side, 'Joy', was much more characteristic: a full-throttle instrumental, often a stand-out in the live set. It didn't trouble the charts greatly, but it received airplay and wasn't bad for a first release; the second single, 'Laser Love' appeared in August 1979 and was
much more like it. Harmonies, genuine hooks and, we were told, to be the title track of the album. Andy Piercy sang well, with Springsteen-like conviction, it received a lot of airplay, Peter Banks' keyboards were well to the fore and guitarist John Russell and drummer Ivor Twydell (as he then styled himself) filled out the sound. It met a similar fate to the first single.

The album appeared in September 1979 and the names of several different producers did not suggest a coherent product. In retrospect, it contained some of their strongest songs. The Christian press were supportive, but a third single, 'Life in the City', appeared as a pointless, plodding remix. Once again the B-sides of the 12” single told another story: three live tracks, 'Listen to Me', 'Laser Love' and 'Like the Power of a Jet', a glimpse of their dynamic sets.

At this point, staunch supporters worried: the LP finished with a powerful, life-affirming track called 'Check it Out', but who was ever going to hear it ?

The endless gigging continued...

80-f, the second album, lurched out in October 1980 with a dreadful, sub-ELO wall of sound concocted by producer Mack, who had worked with Jeff Lyne and co. The ensuing singles seemed characterless and it transpired that line-up changes and a rejected version of this LP had probably sapped the band's strength - well, that's what it sounded like. The Christian press, meanwhile, had begun tipping a hot young quartet from Dublin, who are still occasionally making CDs today.

For After the Fire, however, nothing seemed to do the trick. Singles crept out in lieu of a third album, only to wither and die. They had a sound, keyboard-led, and Andy Piercy was developing into a convincing vocalist, influenced by the likes of Springsteen and Graham Parker. This was typified in songs like 'Listen to Me', 'Frozen Rivers', Take Me Higher' - but singles (and accompanying videos) suggested a stylistically compromised band, listening too much to record company 'experience'. The final album,
Batteries Not Included, finds them lurch back to something like form with a dynamic new drummer, Pete King (formerly of The Flies) and, at the eleventh hour, a genuine hit single (in Europe), 'Der Kommissar'. But here's the ironic twist: it isn't one of their songs, just a cover version of something patched together by the European songwriter Falco. If you're wondering what he sounds like, his other hit was called 'Rock Me Amadeus': go ahead and seek it out - I guarantee you'll only play it once !

After the Fire limped on into 1983 but eventually called it a day, leading to legal problems for singer Andy Piercy, who retained the name. Here are all their CBS recordings, re-released by Edsel: should you listen to them? Patchy they may be, and a bit of digital tweaking wouldn't have gone amiss, but they were a proper band, and developed into a real attraction on the live circuit, even if that elusive hit single didn't come until it was too late. I will listen nostalgically, if only to remember gigs at Birmingham, April 1978, Greenbelt, August 1979 and Worcester, October 1978. The big question is: what if? They had a steady songwriting partnership in singer/bass guitarist Andy Piercy and keyboardist Pete Banks - what if just
one of those early singles had made it onto 'Top of the Pops'? My guess is that the story might have turned out very differently: perhaps After the Fire would need no such explanation as this.

     © M. C. Caseley 2005

An ATF Top 10

1) 'Joy'
Live gigs would find ATF taking the stage to the 'Thunderbirds' theme: then they would launch into this furious instrumental from the Laser Love album. Live, it was more dynamic and faster, but the studio version's not bad.

2) 'Laser Love'
It should have been a hit. A genuine hit; not a Top 10 hit, but a hit…

3) 'A Little Sun, A Little Rain'
Never officially released, but a much-loved item from the 1978-79 live set - demo on the limited edition advance-order Bonus CD which was available from the ATF website.

4) 'Take Me Higher'
Another highlight of the live sets circa. '79 - a couple of good live versions exist.

5) 'Love Will Always Make You Cry'
Now this, one of the singles from 80-f, still sounds really good: the long demo version (6:01) on the Bonus CD almost outdoes the official cut.

6) 'It's High Fashion'
Live, this track from '80-f' sounded like a single possibility. The studio version isn't quite there, but a good song.

7) 'Why Can't We Be Friends?'
A nod to the official ATF fan club ('Friends'). Along with (5), one of the strongest tracks from the patchy, underwhelming 80-f album.

8) 'Frozen Rivers'
During ATF's CBS period, there were some disastrous single choices - 'Wild West Show', 'Rich Boys' - but this, from the third album Batteries Not Included, was a strong one. A fine song, if somewhat over-produced, with a strong Andy Piercy vocal.

9) 'Nobody Else But You'
Recycled as a B-side twice, but preferable to either of the A-sides ('Dancing in the Shadows' and 'Der Kommissar'); ignore the horribly dated drum sound.

10) 'Life in the City' (original LP version)
ATF's lyrics were often humane and positive, reflecting their Christianity: highly unfashionable, but one of the reasons their concerts were joyful occasions. If you ever attended one, you'll remember this fondly.