DESMOND CHILD & ROUGE – S/T: A Hitmaker’s Broadway/Springsteen-ian Back Pages

You might not know him by name but you’ve most likely heard the work of songwriter Desmond Child.  Starting with Kiss’s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” in 1979, Child has lent his songwriting magic dust to hits by Bon Jovi (“Livin’ On A Prayer”), Joan Jett (“I Hate Myself For Loving You”), Ricky Martin (“Livin’ La Vida Loca”) and countless others.  You might not always like what he’s dished out but he’s had enough success to become part of the American popular-culture soundtrack.

And like many future platinum songsmiths, Child’s hit-writing career was preceded by an unheralded career as a performer.  His vehicle was Desmond Child & Rouge, a quartet (Child plus three leather-lunged femmes) that recorded two albums at the end of the 1970’s before drifting apart.  A listen to either will reveal why they didn’t take off commerically – basically, they were too eclectic for pop-chart success – but both albums are fascinating listening, particularly for those who enjoy the more adventurous extremes of AOR music.

The sound of Desmond Child & Rouge is as difficult to describe as it is to categorize but here is an attempt:  the group takes old-fashioned, hook-conscious pop songwriting and applies it to a sound that blends hard rock, Latin rhythms, hints of disco and a larger-than-life sense of Broadway theatricality.  This musical gumbo is topped off with intricate four-part vocal harmonies married to lusty, gritty lyrics that explore urban life in a melodramatic style that recalls Bruce Springsteen circa Born To Run.

The album divides its time nicely between uptempo fare and ballads but everything has a twisty-turny arrangement: delicate piano-led verses erupt into bursts of tribal drums when the chorus arrives, heavy rhythm guitars creep into ballads, congas duel with conventional rock drumming, etc.  “Westside Pow Wow” and “City In Heat” sound like vignettes from an Andrew Lloyd Webber redux of West Side Story and Kiss fans will want to take note of “The Fight,” a hyper-dramatic boxing opus co-penned by Paul Stanley (it sounds like a Rocky theme as envisioned by Jim Steinman).

The highlight in the ballad area is “Lazy Love,” an ode to bedroom fireworks that subverts its soft-rock ballad style via the convincingly oversexed mood created by its lyrics and the lascivious vocals of Maria Vidal.  Straddling the uptempo and ballad camps is the album’s minor hit, “Our Love Is Insane.”  This moody tune outlines a tale of all-consuming passion that is lit up by a pulsating disco groove and a plush string arrangement that nicely offsets the feverish vocal harmonies.  Like the rest of the album, it overflows with a passion that is played to the hilt.

The one downside of this debut is Richard Landis’s overtly slick production, which tends to pull the punches thrown by the vocals and arrangements (the group later said that Landis remixed it without their consent).  That said, the eclectic and impassioned sounds shine through his Linda Ronstadt-style “lite” soundscape and the results are never dull.

More importantly, Desmond Child & Rouge offers an introductory glimpse of Child’s abilities and pet songwriting obsessions.  It’s easy to see the roots of future success here and this bit of musical anthopology offers some hot-blooded fun in the bargain.

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