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A Beginner’s Guide to the Call

In commercial terms, the California quartet known as the Call were barely a footnote; over the course of their 20-year recording career, they never had a Top 40 hit, earned no Gold or Platinum sales certifications, and rarely had their songs covered by other artists. But for a discerning group of listeners, their albums contained some of the most emotionally resonant rock of the ’80s — and on Sept. 2, the band’s legacy is honored with the live CD/DVD package, ‘A Tribute to Michael Been.’

Been, the band’s singer, bassist and chief songwriter, passed away suddenly on Aug. 19, 2010, the victim of a heart attack that felled him while he was working backstage as a sound engineer for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a band co-founded by his son, Robert Levon Been. At the time of his death, the Call had been inactive for years — their final studio album, ‘To Heaven and Back,’ was released in 1997 — but some fans still held out hope for new material. It was only Been’s passing that truly marked an end to the band, and it was only when Robert stepped in for his father on vocals and bass that they reunited for a series of shows in 2013.

The results, collected for the ‘Tribute’ package, serve as a poignant postscript to a too-brief career as well as a wide-open gateway to a largely unexplored back catalog. Here’s where to look after you make your way through the Call’s ‘A Tribute to Michael Been.’

The Mercury Years (1982-1984)
Been surfaced in several bands during the late ’60s and early ’70s, gigging in Chicago for a period of time before migrating to Santa Cruz, Calif. where he connected with bassist Greg Freeman, guitarist Tom Ferrier and drummer and fellow Oklahoma native Scott Musick in 1980.

“I was playing in bars and garages around Santa Cruz; I had just moved up there a couple of years before from L.A.,” Been told me in 1992. “The new wave scene was starting up down there, and I didn’t really like it. That whole skinny tie and sport coat thing, I didn’t care for it, and I wasn’t much aligned with the hardcore punk scene, either. You know, bands like Flipper. I liked it, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I moved up to northern California and somehow ended up in Santa Cruz. Just got the band together there.”

The group signed with Mercury Records for three albums in the early ’80s, starting with their self-titled debut in 1982, and achieved their greatest chart success for the label with the 1983 single ‘The Walls Came Down,’ an anti-war screed with a naggingly persistent riff and a beat you could dance to.

Listen to the Call, ‘When the Walls Came Down’

Unfortunately, as would prove to be the case throughout their career, a song that seemed like it might be the band’s ticket to the big time failed to create much lasting momentum. ‘Walls’ was a Top 20 Modern Rock hit but didn’t make any real impact on the Hot 100, and the album it was supposed to promote — 1983′s ‘Modern Romans’ — stalled at No. 84 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart. The group’s third Mercury effort, 1984′s ‘Scene Beyond Dreams,’ fared even worse, and by 1985, they were lost in label limbo.

(All three Mercury albums were out of print for years but have recently been given the digital reissue treatment; seek them out at your online music retailer of choice.)

The Elektra Years (1986-1987)
Even if the public at large wasn’t really paying attention to their first three records, the Call earned friends in high places through those albums: they secured an opening slot on Peter Gabriel‘s 1982 tour, enlisted former Band member Garth Hudson to sit in on some recordings, and started hobnobbing with ’80s rock luminaries like Simple Minds vocalist Jim Kerr. All of which is to say that when they entered the studio to record their fourth album, 1986′s ‘Reconciled,’ what they lacked in sales they were starting to make up in buzz.

Gabriel, Kerr and Hudson’s fellow ex-Band member Robbie Robertson all appeared on ‘Reconciled,’ which also marked the departure of Freeman and the arrival of keyboardist Jim Goodwin, whose synth stylings would significantly alter the balance of the band’s sound for the remainder of the decade. But where other bands of the era relied on digital noise to polish their work, the Call used it to strike a spark; as evidenced on the ‘Reconciled’ single ‘Everywhere I Go,’ the band’s best work of the era thrives on the tension between Goodwin’s icy keys and the rest of the group’s propulsive playing — particularly Been’s increasingly soulful howl.

Listen to the Call, ‘Everywhere I Go’

Unfortunately, ‘Reconciled’ wasn’t a major hit, and although the band took an audible step forward with their fifth LP, 1987′s ‘Into the Woods,’ it failed to move the needle in terms of sales; the album’s first single, ‘I Don’t Wanna,’ failed to chart at any format, in spite of a brain-burrowing synth refrain, roiling guitar work from Ferrier, and a soul-searing vocal performance from Been.

Listen to the Call, ‘I Don’t Wanna’

“When we came out, we didn’t fit the skinny tie image and we didn’t fit the punk image. And when things got bigger throughout the ‘80s, we just didn’t fit in in general commercially,” he recalled during our 1992 interview. “Looking around, it was bands like Duran Duran and Haircut 100, all this crap … and the record company, depending on who was big that year, they’d say ‘Why can’t you be more like these guys?’ We never related to that. We just kept doing whatever we did — whatever came out. We were never interested in fitting into a particular slot, so we just didn’t fit in well at all. I think that was the biggest problem.”

The MCA Years (1989-1990)
Dropped by Elektra, the Call once again benefited from having friends in high places when MCA chief Irving Azoff took a liking to the band and wooed them onto the label’s roster. In late 1989 they returned with their sixth album, ‘Let the Day Begin,’ which distilled the group’s strengths while edging them closer than ever to the mainstream. A case in point is the record’s title track and first single, which brings the anthemic ’80s to a close with one of the decade’s greatest rock anthems — a song that manages to serve as a beneficent embrace from a higher power as well as a perfectly non-denominational rallying cry for any person, corporation, or political campaign that might take a liking to it.

Listen to the Call, ‘Let the Day Begin’

The ‘Let the Day Begin’ single went to No. 1 at Mainstream Rock stations but failed to crack the Top 40 — partly because of a manufacturing glitch that left record stores completely without product just as the song was starting to take off. Then, unfortunately, Azoff did take off, leaving the Call with a new label president who had no personal investment in the band — and who had no idea what to think when they turned in their follow-up effort, 1990′s ‘Red Moon.’

“[It] was kind of an experimental thing. You know, kind of acoustic-y, playing other kinds of instruments, and I think the record company felt that it was a slap in the face,” mused Been during our interview. “I understood their position. What they wanted to do was just scrap that album, because they thought it had no commercial potential whatsoever. And we said, ‘Well, you could be right’ … All I know is that before it came out, some of the guys at the label said they loved it. But other people, I guess higher up, didn’t want it to come out.”

While ‘Red Moon’ had at least a little commercial potential — Bono added backing vocals to the first single, ‘What’s Happened to You’ — it’s easy to see why MCA stumbled into panic when they heard the album, which boasts an earthy, ragged sound that has nothing to do with anything that was popular at the time (or possibly any time). On the other hand, it’s a truly beautiful collection of songs, and one that stands as the band’s arguable masterpiece as well as its major-label swan song.

Listen to the Call, ‘What’s Happened to You’

The Hiatus Years (1991-1997)
Following ‘Red Moon’ and their subsequent quick dismissal from MCA (via telegram, while they were overseas on tour), the Call vanished for most of the ’90s. “I just wasn’t interested in making another album and touring, making another album and touring … I didn’t want to look at it that way anymore,” Been explained during our interview. “Whatever records I make from now on, I want it to be because I’m incredibly happy with them, not because the record company told me ‘Be a little more like someone else.’”

True to his word, Been spent the balance of the decade sounding like himself. In 1992, he provided the soundtrack to Paul Schrader’s ‘Light Sleeper,’ contributing an assortment of songs that included ‘World on Fire,’ a grinding, guitar-fueled number that presaged the sound he’d adopt for his first solo effort, 1994′s ‘On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough.’

Listen to Michael Been, ‘World on Fire’

Released on Quincy Jones’ Qwest imprint in the spring of 1994, ‘Breakthrough’ found Been working with Ferrier and Musick as well as an expanded stable of cohorts that included former Prince engineer David Z. and the rhythm section from Gang of Four. The result was a dark, abrasive, guitar-heavy record that struggled to fit in even in the dark, abrasive, guitar-heavy landscape of early-to-mid-’90s rock radio. Perplexing to some Call fans and ignored by most everyone else, ‘On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough’ signaled the beginning and end of Michael Been’s solo career.

Listen to Michael Been, ‘To Feel This Way’

By 1990, the Call had recorded for Mercury, Elektra, and MCA, which made it a little odd that when ‘The Best of the Call’ surfaced in the summer of 1997, it was issued by Warner Bros.’ short-lived Resound imprint. Regardless of the corporate shenanigans responsible for the logo on the back, it’s a compact, reasonably solid overview of their output to that point, with the added bonus of some previously unreleased material that included the new track ‘All You Hold On To.’ A dark, stomping number that rides an ominous acoustic guitar riff, it seemed to indicate the band was still in ‘Red Moon’ mode, which turned out not to be the case at all.

Listen to the Call, ‘All You Hold On To’

The Final Years (1997-2000)
In the waning days of 1997, the group finally ended its long break between full-length records with ‘To Heaven and Back,’ an 11-track effort released on the independent Fingerprint Records imprint. Along with ‘World on Fire,’ the album included re-recorded versions of the new bonus cuts from ‘The Best of the Call,’ but if it wasn’t entirely comprised of fresh material, it was wholly the Call — urgent, strident, and soulful. The band embarked on a club tour to support the album, which had to be a little discouraging; 15 years after getting their start, they were back in the same venues they’d sweated to rise out of in the first place.

Listen to the Call, ‘Criminal’

Three years after ‘To Heaven and Back,’ another indie imprint issued ‘Live Under the Red Moon,’ a concert recording from the ‘Red Moon’ tour a decade before, and that was it for the Call. While seemingly every other broken-up and broken-down band from the ’80s managed to reunite in the 21st century, they remained inactive for one reason or another — and then Been’s death added a final sad chapter to a career that had already seen more than its share of frustration and heartbreak.

The fans never forgot, though, and when Robert Levon Been teamed up with the surviving members of the Call to play and record a run of crowdfunded tribute dates, they turned out in droves — both to the shows and online, where the band boasts a renewed online presence.

There’s no replacing Michael Been, and there’s no continuing the Call without him. But listening to his son front the band is as bittersweet as it is uncanny for longtime listeners — his voice, so like his father’s, embraces that familiar Call sound in a powerful testament to the deathless bonds of love, friendship, and family. ‘A Tribute to Michael Been’ lives up to its title, and then some.

Listen to the Call featuring Robert Levon Been, ‘You Run’

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