The album that this article is about was almost never released. So little interest did the record company have in the artist, that they never gave him any money to record the album professionally. Instead, he recorded that album himself, with little in the way of overdubbing. To save money, he used drum machines on the album, totally changing his sound. When the record company received the demo version of the album, they released it. It went on to sell half a million copies, and sold well in Ireland and mainland Europe. Chris Rea is the artist, and the album is Water Sign, which was released in 1983.

Chris Rea was born Christopher Anton Rea, in Middlesborough, England in March 1951. He was a late developer when it came to music, only buying his first guitar when he was twenty-two. His musical influences were Ry Cooder and Joe Walsh. In 1973, he joined Middlesborough group Magdalene, replacing David Coverdale. Later, Rea former Beautiful Losers, but left the group when he secured a solo recording contract with Magnet Records.

Having signed with Magnet Records, he released his debut single in 1974. His debut album Whatever Happened To Benny Santini, was released in 1978. The album title referred to the name Benny Santini, that the record company wanted Rea to record under. On that album, was Fool (If You Think It’s Over). This was his biggest hit in the US, reaching number twelve in the Billboard Hot 100. The song was nominated for a Song of the Year Grammy, but lost out to Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are. Rea’s debut album was not a commercial success, maybe his next album would be?

1979 saw the release of Deltics. Again, the album was produced by Gus Dudgeon, Elton John’s producer. Rea and Dudgeon had a difficult relationship, Rea later saying, he felt Dudgeon had “smoothed out” the blues influence in his music. Like his debut album, Deltics failed to trouble the album charts.

Rea’s third album Tennis was released in 1980. This album failed to provide even a hit single, like the two previous albums. By now, Rea’s career was following a familiar pattern. Release an album, it fails to chart, and fails to provide any hit singles. This in turn, meant an unhappy record company. By now Magnet Records, were losing faith and patience with Rea. So much so, that by his next album was not given a title, and just titled Chris Rea. Released in 1982, the album failed to chart or provide any hits. 

This takes us to Water Sign, the album this article is about. Having sold well, around mainland Europe and in Ireland, this provided Rea with some breathing space in his career. It also saw Rea concentrating on touring Europe and building up a fanbase. Still, UK audiences shunned Rea’s music. 

1984 saw Rea release Wired To the Moon. This was not as good an album as Water Sign, and did nothing to convince UK audiences of the merit’s of his music. This was to change in 1985. Shamrock Diaries was a much better album, and gave Rea a top twenty album in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. This album Josephine, Stainsby Girls and Steel River. Steel River was a song that I used to enjoy, however, that song has been spoiled for me, after Rea allowed a Conservative candidate for Middlesborough to use the song in the 2010 general election campaign. 

1986 saw the release of On the Beach. This was one of his best albums, and saw his fanbase in the UK hugely increase. At last the commercial success he had sought since his debut album in 1978. On the Beach sold well, and so did the follow-up album Dancing With Strangers released in 1987. Dancing With Strangers was a weaker album, lacking the quality of his three previous albums. However, it sold well, and Rea toured the world on the back of it, playing much bigger venues than before.

His next release was New Light Through Old Windows released in 1988. On this album Rea reworked previous songs and included two new songs. One of the new songs, Working On It, reached number seventy-three in the US Billboard Hot 100. The next studio album from Rea was The Road To Hell released in 1989. This album was a huge hit for Rea, reaching number one in the UK album charts. Many people consider this the high point in Rea’s career. However, they may be confusing commercial success with quality.

Rea followed up The Road To Hell with Auberge in 1990. Like its predecessor, Auberge reached number one in the UK album charts. The title track also reached number sixteen in the UK singles charts. Auberge is a very different album from the overblown The Road To Hell. Apart from the dreadful Red Shoes, Auberge is an album of good songs, that have good lyrics and sung well by Rea. To me, this was Rea’s last good album.

Two years later in 1992, Rea released God’s Great Banana Skin. The album reached number four in the UK album charts, and featured a harder, rockier sound, much like The Road To Hell. This album is a musical dichotomy, as six of the songs are good quality, whist the other five are disappointing, and some merely filler. God’s Great Banana Skin, to me, was the first indication that Rea’s career was stalling. 

1993 saw the release of the disappointing Expresso Logic. It still reached the top ten in the UK album charts and provided him with a top forty single with Julia. Rea became ill with pancreatitis, and was only given a fifty percent chance of surviving. Apart from soundtrack album La Passione in 1996, Rea’s next studio album was The Blue Cafe, which gave him his final top ten album. That the album made the top ten is quite an achievement, as it was not heavily promoted, and contained no singles. King of the Beach was released in 2000, and was well received, and made the top thirty in the UK album charts.

After his life threatening illness, Rea promised himself that if he recovered, he would return to his blues roots. Since his recovery, he has released a number of albums and box sets, all reflecting his interest in the blues and other forms of music. In 2002 he released Dancing Down the Stony Road, a double album of gospel blues, which was also released as an abridged single album. 

2003 saw Rea set up the JazzeeBee record label. This he explained would free him from the pressures and expectations put on artists by record companies. Since then he has released Blue Street (Five Guitars) and Hofner Blue Notes in July 2003, The Blue Jukebox in March 2004 and Blue Guitars in October 2005. After the release of Blue Guitars, he announced that he would make no further solo albums, and instead, record under the name The Memphis Fireflies and would record with some of his favorite artists.

In 2007, he announced that he would tour again, and release a new album of thirty-eight tracks on three CDs. This would be The Return of the Fabulous Hofner Blue Notes in February 2008. His last release was Still So Far To Go: The Best of Chris Rea released in 2009. This album would enter the top ten in the UK album charts. 

That is the story of Chris Rea’s career, a recording career that started in 1974, and saw Rea release numerous studio albums and compilation albums. During his career, although many of these albums have disappointed, he has released some memorable albums. In my opinion, Water Sign was the first memorable album that he released. I will now tell you why, Water Sign is such a good album.

Water Sign opens with Nothing’s Happening By the Sea. This is a lovely gentle song, one that Rea sings really well. The sound is minimalist, Rea plays all the instruments, except the beautiful harmonica solo, played by Claude Nobbs. Nothing’s Happening By the Sea begins with waves gently crashing against the beach, then an acoustic guitar and drum machine meander gently, until Rea sings. When he sings, his throaty, raspy voice highlights the beauty of the lyrics. A great song to begin Water Sign.

Deep Water relies heavily on drum machines and keyboards, both of which now sound slightly dated. However, that is a minor quibble, as the song was recorded in 1983, when drum machines and synthesizers were in their infancy. The song has a much bigger sound than than Nothing’s Happening By the Sea.  Again, the track starts quietly, then quickly builds up. Keyboards, drum machine and guitars all play a big part in this track. Rea’s vocal is louder, the sound bigger and fuller. The keyboard provides a constant backdrop through the track, and the saxophone playing superb. This is a quality track, even with the slightly dated sound.

The tempo drops with Candles, and like Nothing’s Happening By the Sea, the introduction is a long instrumental. When you read to the lyrics, they are moody and atmospheric, but the way Rea sings them, this isn’t the case. He sings the song slowly at first, then the song quickens, however, this doesn’t lessen the impact of the atmospheric lyrics. Listen to the song, and you imagine a dark and gloomy place, enveloped in fog. That is the impression the song gives. Rea has the ability to paint a picture with his lyrics, one that you can almost see. Candles continues the quality of the previous songs.

Probably the best song on Water Sign is Love’s Strange Ways. This is a beautiful song, one of Rea’s best songs ever. It features lovely lyrics, which Rea sings with feeling and passion. Throughout the track Rea plays an acoustic guitar, this really adds to the impact of the song, and highlights the track’s beauty. Again, the arrangement is minimalist just guitar and drum machine essentially. This does not detract from the song, if anything, it allows the vocal, and therefore the lyrics to shine. 

If Love’s Strange Ways was the best song on the album, Texas runs it a close second. Texas is another slow song, but not with such a minimalist arrangement. The track starts slowly with keyboard and vocal. There is space in the song, that allows the song to breath, and highlights the lyrics. Rea sings about his hopes and dreams, that one day, he will meeting that special woman. Like many of the songs on the album, they feature some intelligent and thoughtful lyrics. Rea’s style of vocal brings them to life. This is the case here. His vocal delivery is slow and clear, leaving space to add impact to the lovely lyrics.

Let It Loose sounds like a slice of Euro-pop from 1983. It is very much a song of its time. However, it is still a decent song, albeit a dated song. The reason I say this is the synth and drum sounds. There is almost a brashness about this track, it’s loud and very in your face. Rea’s vocal is strong and loud, sitting at the front of the mix. I have always felt that Let It Loose lacks the quality of the other tracks on the album, and that the style is very different to many of Water Sign’s tracks.

One of the singles released from Water Sign was I Can Your Heart Beat. This is a quicker track, one that has a lot in common Let It Loose. Although not the Euro-pop of Let It Loose, it has the same tempo. It is however, a better song, it has matured better. The track begins with drum machine, booming, dominating the mix, then guitars kick in, playing a catchy riff that repeats constantly, then Rea’s vocal enters. His vocal at the start, seems too far back in the mix, but, despite that, his performance is good. The guitar solo on the track, is excellent, and overall this is a good track.

Many years ago, not long after this album was released, I saw Chris Rea in concert, and one of the best songs he performed was Midnight Blue. He explained that the song was about buying a new suit. If you listen to the lyrics, that becomes apparent. This song, I have always believed, was one of Water Sign’s highlights. The lyrics have a strong narrative, Rea sings them well, and the arrangement perfect. Midnight Blue starts with a guitar strummed quietly, and Rea singing in front of it, singing those wonderful lyrics. As the song progresses, the sound builds, getting bigger and louder. Like I Can Your Heart Beat, the track features some wonderful guitar playing by Rea. This is a great song, easily one of the albums best.

The penultimate song on the album is Hey You. When the song starts you hear synthesizers and drum machine that have a slightly dated sound. This doesn’t matter though, as once the song gets going, there is enough quality to excuse this. Hey You sees Rea produce one of his best vocal performances on the album, and the sound is much fuller than on other tracks. Like on most tracks on this album, Rea plays all the instruments himself. 

Water Sign closes with Out of the Darkness. The track starts with drum machine, synthesizer and saxophone which produce almost a Euro-pop sound. Once Rea sings the vocal, the track is transformed, he rescues the track, with good lyrics and a good vocal performance. What lets the track down is the underlying beat, it sounds dated and hasn’t aged well. Only the guitar playing, saxophone and vocal managed to make this a decent track. Had it been rerecorded later in his career, this could have been transformed into a much better track.

Having spent some time listening to Chris Rea’s music I came away thinking that his career was disappointing. He really did not produce many truly outstanding albums. Granted, that on each of his album, there are some good songs, however, there always seems to be songs that disappoint, sometimes more disappointing ones than good ones. His first three albums showed some promise, and that was fulfilled with Water Sign. Later, Shamrock Diaries, On the Beach and Auberge were all good albums. The Road To Hell was a decent album, if somewhat pompous and overblown. However, the remainder of his output has been patchy. It saddens me that his career did not live up to the promise shown in some of his earlier work. Personally, I lost interest in his music after Auberge. That was his last good album. All of his albums post Auberge, were a disappointment. It got that a new release failed to excite, and when you heard the album, you were never pleasantly surprised. For many years, I have not listened to Rea’s music much, the albums lie not listened to, unloved even. Listening to his albums was a chore really, only made enjoyable by a few albums. 

Having said all that, Water Sign, is a vastly underrated album, one most people will never have heard. It is worth getting hold of a copy, as it shows a very different side of Chris Rea, one that may even surprise some people. If you do buy this album, I am sure you will enjoy it, I enjoyed listening to this album again. It is the best of his first five albums. Should you wish to buy other albums to accompany Water Sign, I would recommend Shamrock Diaries, On the Beach and Auberge. Regarding The Road To Hell, make your own mind about it, although I can appreciate its quality, I have always felt it is slightly overblown and pompous. However, whichever of these albums you buy I hope you enjoy them, and the wonderful music on them. Standout Tracks: Nothing’s Happening By the Sea, Love’s Strange Ways, Texas and Midnight Blue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: