We spoke with Bobby Barth about the new and final album from his band Axe and look back at the pre-Axe group Babyface, some early Axe recordings, touch on his time with Blackfoot, and hear how Axe surprised Sharon Osbourne on tour with Ozzy.
By Warren Kurtz
New album available through Deko Music in the U.S. and Escape Music in Europe.
GOLDMINE: In December 1976, when adult contemporary radio stations were playing a mix of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “After the Lovin’,” Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers,” and Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England,” which I enjoyed listening to late at night, your pre-Axe group was in that format’s Top 30 with “Never in My Life” under the name Babyface, a gentle song on par with “A Little Bit More” by Dr. Hook from that year.
BOBBY BARTH: It reached No. 17 on Cashbox but the reason why it was a hit had to do with the length of the song. It was under two minutes. It was used as a catch up song to get to the top of the hour on the adult contemporary radio stations. We left the studio and were on the road. The producer removed the guitars and all the cool stuff we put on the recording and put the string section from the Minnesota Orchestra on it, along with the harp player and other musicians, basically replacing our stuff with the Minnesota Orchestra and then sped it up three percent, so the song was artifically a hit. It got so much airplay that people would come out to see us. Babyface was the forerunner to Axe with some of the same people. We were dressed in cruddy old blue jeans and t-shirts and people would come out to see us dressed in suits and dinner attire. There were girls with dinner dresses and party dresses looking at us strangely. We knew at that point that the band name Babyface had to disappear if we wanted a career our way. So we ended Babyface, took six months off, and started Axe. We all came to Gainesville to put the band together at a neutral place in Florida, and like you, I live in Florida too, here with Rocky the cat.
GM:I remember hearing Axe’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party in the Streets,” from the third Axe album, Offering, on the radio in Dallas in 1982. Two years later, when we were living in Richmond, I heard Bon Jovi’s Top 40 single debut “Runaway,” I immediately thought of your song.
BB: I don’t know if anyone would admit it, but Axe influenced a few of those bands coming out of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I’ve paid back the favor. I’ve stolen many a guitar lick. I got to meet Mountain’s guitarist Leslie West and told him our song “Forever” was stolen from him. I did put in the line, “The mountains may rise,” as a tribute to him. We borrow from each other. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party in the Streets” just captured the current trend at the time.
GM:It was so catchy. Then from the next album, Nemesis, you sang that, “You may not remember my name but I think you’ll remember tonight,” on Axe’s final charting single, “I Think You’ll Remember Tonight.”
BB: A lot of the songs that I write are based on certain things that happen or I observe happening. In those days, writing was a job, an obsession, and it was everything. Touring was the fun part of the job but when we were asked to do an album every twelve to sixteen months, you had to be writing songs every day.
GM:It’s flip side, “Let the Music Come Back,” begins with, “I remember when the music stopped,” like a disaster has happened and then letting the music come back becomes an anthem for a return to good times.
BB: It had been written as though there had been some terrible war. In the early ‘80s I had gone to New York because MTV wanted to meet with me. MTV was new. They were trying to find their legs and we were a relatively new band and trying to find ours. They said, “You guys look so tough. Couldn’t you soften up your look a little bit? We like Duran Duran. Couldn’t you be more like Duran Duran?” I am sitting there with a bunch of guys who ride Harleys and play rock and roll and I just said, “No, we couldn’t.” I probably signed the death warrant of the band. I knew that rock and roll was in terrible shape. We were still touring, there were still venues, but you could see it coming to and end and that’s the reason why I wrote that song.
Flip side: Let the Music Come Back
A side: I Think You’ll Remember Tonight
Top 100 debut: October 22, 1983
Peak position: No. 94
GM:In terms of lightening up, at least your sound, I will squeeze in one more early song. “Masquerade” is a beautiful finale on the Nemesis album.
BB: I wrote it at home and it was recorded while everybody was at dinner. Two of us stayed back at the studio. We looped a high hat. Michael Osborne was with me from the band. I played the chords, we sang it together, and the song was pretty much done by the time the rest of the band got back from dinner.
GM:Let’s discuss another finale, the last song on the new album, Final Offering, called “Years Slip Away,” which is gentle with an acoustic guitar.
BB: I wrote that during the production of this record. You get to be a certain age and you wake up as an artist and realize that your major times are over. The song is about looking back on how you lived, where you lived, and saying you’re not really finished, but the business has changed and so has the world. That song means a lot to me. When I sing it, a lot of people get emotional about it, because it is a bit of a plea for a little more time but is also a goodbye tune.
GM:Speaking about a little more time, on “Fire and Stone” there is a little more time. The song seems to end, then there is this silent pause, and the song returns with a wonderful ending.
BB: Ha-ha. It’s an old song on the new album. I have been in love with that song since the late ‘80s, maybe even earlier than that. It is written by a friend of mine, Steve Johnstad, who came down here to Florida to write with me for the rest of Final Offering. There was a band for a minute called Mayday, out of New York in the ‘70s, and he was the front man and was also the front man for the band Driver with Tommy Aldridge, which was basically what became Whitesnake but with a different singer. Steve is an incredible writer. We had been writing together for years, doing demos. I said, “What about that old song of yours that I like?” He thought it was outdated. I suggested that we change it a bit. He told me to go ahead, so I did, and “Fire and Stone” is one of my favorite songs on the new album.
GM:“Who Will You Run To” reminds me of Journey and Survivors in the ‘80s.
BB: It was written back then, actually, when we were trying to reunite Axe back in the late ‘80s, but by that time that style of music was pretty much over. All of the old songs on the record, maybe there are four or five, have been rewritten or rearranged to make them more what we are about now.
GM:“Land of Our Fathers,” at least in name, reminds me of Blackfoot.
BB: Most people will think that the song has to do with the plight of Native Americans but it is political in nature, about a mighty group coming and destroying our way of life. It is like “Let the Music Come Back,” but updated with a more specific direction.
GM:“Road to Damascus” reminds me of a few different musical eras from Fastball with “Out of My Head,” and earlier with Mott the Hoople and The Allman Brothers Band. That is a really a wonderful sound.
BB: I’ve had a lot of people saying that it sounds like Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and I understand that because of the organ. It is a song that I wrote while I was on the road with Blackfoot, about being on the road.
GM:Speaking of being on the road, “Bad Romance,” is like KISS to me and I can envision them playing something like this in their concerts.
BB: It is a song about having a relationship where it is hard to find someone really compatible to you.
GM:Then you have a motivating title “Make a Dream (Last Forever).” The melody reminds me of Uriah Heep’s song “The Wizard” that Ken Hensley co-wrote.
BB: That is actually flattering. Ken is a good friend of mine. We lived together and shared hotel rooms together in the early Blackfoot days, when we were both in that band. I co-wrote this song with a friend of mine, Gregg Hurwitz. He was the keyboard player in our band when I was in California with UFO’s drummer Andy Parker, and Andy and I co-owned a recording studio. So this song began around ’86 or ’87 and I scrapped the lyrics and wrote new lyrics to the melody for this album. It is about one’s hopes for the world.
GM:I hope there will be some shows to support the new album. Axe certainly has shared the stage with a lot of great acts.
BB: I started on the road in ’68 and spent almost ten years in the clubs before I had a record out. Axe got along great and knew how to handle a crowd as all of us started our careers in the ‘60s. We had a great time touring with Motley Crue, ZZ Top twice, Judas Priest three or four times, and Ozzy Osbourne. I remember Sharon Osbourne trying to do some upfront consoling about us being the opening act for Ozzy. She said, “Now don’t be upset, but you will probably get booed off the stage, because everybody is here to see Ozzy. They’re really not here to see you.” We told her that we understand, that it was cool and we would take care of it. When she left the room I told the guys, “Play it like we are playing a bar with chicken wire in front of the stage and everybody fights. Don’t give them a chance.” So we ran every song into each other. The band never stopped. It never gave the crowd time to think about it. At the end we got an encore. She asked one of our managers, “How the hell did they do that?” It was just from experience in being in those types of places and situations. I do hope we can do a few shows to highlight Final Offering and in the meantime, Goldmine readers can check out our music online. Rocky the cat and I thank you.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.