In London it was a miserable Tuesday afternoon. But for Family, staying in Nashville, US of A, it was God knows what time or day.
How are you? “I’ve just woken up,” replied Townsend too obviously. “Oh, I’m pretty well. I’m looking forward to going home.” That was a natural reaction after a good few weeks hit-and-runnirig through American states as part of the Elton John tour.
It’s Family’s third State-side visit; the last being a couple of years ago. Besides rattling promoters then, that last trip managed to be the best kept secret of the year. But now, with a new label there (UA), and an album “Bandstand”, there’s been some publicity. Of course, playing as support to such a big man as Elton was a shrewd move – ensuring a brighter situation.
“We came over here,” recalls Townsend, who has difficulty remembering where they were to play next, “and I thought we’d be a complete non-entity. I didn’t think anybody would know us. Up and down the bigger cities though, a lot of people have heard us, and got our albums.
“After two and a half years it’s like a new audience,” he continues. “People who’ve never heard of us think of us as a new band. So I think it was the right time to come. We’re getting the airplay and we’re here to back it up as well.
“I mean, Bowie’s over here at the moment, and he’s coming over in a splurge of publicity and not doing many shows. What we preferred was to do it how we did in England. Which is a matter of coming over here, working our arses off, and trying to get off the ground that way.
Slade have just been over and they has the full publicity trip – the big press in New York and everything. And they don’t seem to have happened very big.
We come over here with practically nothing. But our record company is good, insofar as they make people aware of the album and where we’re playing.
“They’re not hyping us. In Los Angeles there are big billboards on the Strip, advertising bands, but the record company aren’t taking them, or any big ads in ‘Rolling Stone’ and all that. They’re just putting the album out, and getting it played.
“Incidentally, in Boston, ‘Anyway’, which isn’t released over here, is in the top three import albums now. And a lot of DJs are into the band, and a lot of Press people as well.”
Before Family left England, they’d said it was going to be a make-or-break tour. “Either we got through to them or we’d never come back again,” says Townsend. “Well be back now.”
An important market is gradually opening up. The American Press has variously described them as “a superb British act”, and “one of the best and most underrated English rock bands.”
But critical acclaim aside, Family also come through on an audience level, averaging 12,000 a night over 45 gigs. Even if they don’t convince every member of the audience of their musical capabilities, there’s a chance at least a couple of thousand will latch on.
Family even managed to crack the cool-calm of the notorious Memphis audience.
“And we went down really, really well,” enthused Townsend.
“There was someone shouting something at the front of the stage when we went on. Rog (Chapman) couldn’t hear what the guy was saying, and thought he was being harrassed. When he found out, the kid evidently shouting for ‘Strange Band’.”
But the audience they play to, claims Rob, are pulled in by Elton John and are quite unusual.
“Because,” he explains “he’s not underground and he’s not quite a David Cassidy. So he draws a middle-America; a kind of surburbia scene.
In the first week we played Philadelphia and it appeared to be a very young audience. And as the tour has moved out – to the mid-West and Los Angeles, it’s evened itself out a lot more. We’ve played a lot more colleges since then as well.”
No matter how odd it may seem on our shores that Family should tour with The White Honky, it has an effective advantage.
As Townsend states: We wanted to come over here and we wanted as many people as possible to see us. Like I say, we came over to work our asses off, and also to get through to a lot of people. We don’t want to come over for 10 weeks, then go back to England for one week, then come over for another 10 weeks. Which is what a lot of bands have to do: Savoy Brown can’t even get work in England, but they’re working all the time over here.
“We wanted to come over and try and get off the ground, and then probably come back in two or three months for a three or four week tour. Which is what a lot of people do. The Moody Blues have just been over and they did something like 15 shows in 15 nights.
“Which I’d like to do. But at the moment we’re doing 40-odd shows in something like 60 nights.”
Even over the long distance telephone cable Townsend’s delight at one aspect of their achievements was clearly apparent. Their single “Burlesque” moved slowly into the charts, whereas Elton “Honky Cat” -which was released about the same time – has not made it so far. Subsequently he’s rush-releasing another one.
At present it’s difficult to tell whether “Bandstand” will make a notch in the charts. But reorders suggest it’s doing fine. And at one stage it was the second-most-played on FM radio.
A consequence of the tour and playing 45 minute sets has, believes Townsend, brought a more professional approach to their music.
“The shows have turned out to be a lot slicker,” he elaborates. “We were laughing about it the other night, and saying at this rate we’re going to be real show-bizzy. While one guy is tuning up,” he quotes an example, “the rest of us are into the song.”