music morsels The Band Mates Network October 2007

CROSSROADS - Firefall vocalist/guitarist/founder Jock Bartley
by Mark E. Waterbury

Jock Bartley
photo courtesy of:

Even if you form a band comprised of players who have some recognition in the music scene, that does not mean that everything is going to be handed to you. You still need the work, drive, and passion to get your own music and name out there, and musc continue that same work ethic to create longevity for you career. Considering the lineage of the founding members of country rock stalwarts Firefall, the word “supergroup” could come to mind. Super or not, Firefall had to get out there and let people know that they existed. The formula must have worked because today, after over three decades of existence, there are still entertaining their long-time fans while introducing their music to new fans.

Over a three year span in the early 70’s and through various circumstances, the state of Colorado drew five talented musicians and songwriters together. From a colorful background that included stints with Spirit, Gram Parsons, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Zephyr, Emmy Lou Harris, and Stephen Stills among others, the fivesome set about writing their own material, christening the band Firefall. “The interesting thing was back when Rick Roberts and I met, and then Mark Andes fell into the picture, we thought, wow!” recalls Jock Bartley. “The pedigree of the band already with just the three of us felt like it would be something special. When Larry Burnett and Michael Clarke entered the picture, from the first day of rehearsal, we had something like thirty songs to choose from. Many of us had toured nationally and had been on gold records before, so from the beginning, we had our sights set pretty high. We felt we had the songs and the chemistry to back that up.” Even with all the names involved, Firefall still started out the old-fashioned way; by playing a multitude of shows in their local and regional market. Soon, their country rock hybrid with sweet vocal harmonies began to catch on, and the club owners and bookers began to see that this band had something special happening. “We decided we needed to take as much time as possible to learn these songs and become a great, functioning live unit,” Jock remembers. “When you have so many songs to chose from, you don’t know for sure what kind of band you are and what kind of songs you play or what will go over well because it is brand new. We spent six to eight months perfecting our live performances and writing new songs.”

Firefall recorded a demo tape, which included the songs “Cinderella” and “Mexico” and was produced by Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers fame. The combination of working with Chris Hillman and the band members' own lineage did assist in enticing the labels to take notice of the demo. “At this time, Colorado was still sort of a backwater place. Yes you had a few stars who were from that area, but it was no mecca of rock and roll. Warner Brothers actually found us and managed to put some money behind the demo, and it actually surprised us when they rejected the demo after we finished it. Undaunted, we decided to just have our manager shop it around further.” Firefall performed in New York City under rather strange but fortuitous circumstances. Chris Hillman was scheduled to play a show at the venerable club The Other End with a band that included three Firefall members. Hillman took ill, so the band flew the other Firefall members to the Big Apple to do the show as Firefall instead. That show was attended by several A&R reps from Atlantic Records. Since the Reps were already impressed with their previous demo, the live performance was all the prodding Atlantic needed to come calling with a record deal. Now signed, the band hit the studio and recorded their self-titled album at the famous Criteria Studios in Miami, adding keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist David Muse to the lineup. “The album with the writing and recording of the songs is what you have control of as a band,” Jock notes. “As a band, you have to be as good as you can and just try to be original. All the rest of it you really have no control of it. What kind of push you get from the label, how radio reacts to it, none of that is really in your control. We did get kind of lucky out of the box with the radio play we received for several  songs off the first album.”

The debut album produced several hits on both Top 40 and AOR stations, including the signature song “You Are The Woman.” Firefall hit the road and joined tours with Leon Russell, the Doobie Brothers, The Band and Fleetwood Mac. The second album “Luna Sea” was also a major success, producing another soon to be classic hit “Just Remember I Love You.” Another tour followed, including an extensive stint with Fleetwood Mac on their highly successful “Rumors Tour.” Even though the band was now enjoying star status, some of the pratfalls that often run hand-in-hand with success in music began to pop up. Personnel and management problems had begun to become an annoyance, but not a hindrance as they continued to tour and record. The pressures of touring and recording finally began to take its toll on the band members after the successful third release “Elan” Then, following the fourth album “Undertow,” Mark Andes and Michael Clarke left the band, and the fifth recording “Clouds Across the Sun” heralded the departure of all the remaining original members except Jock Bartley. “We had this sort of superstardom and high rate of success. Not too many people toured with Fleetwood Mac on the ‘Rumors’ tour and play in front of a hundred thousand people a day; that is rarefied air. We knew how lucky we were to be there. There was a dip in the action when the landscape of the musical field that we were playing on pretty much dramatically changed underneath us. There were always high and low moments, and it all boiled down to how good the songs and material originally were. I remembered how great those early songs were and figured that they would stand up to the test of time.”

Under Jock’s leadership, Firefall continued to record and tour with various lineups, including a brief return of Rick Roberts in the late 80’s. Although they did not quite reach the star status of their early years, they still enjoyed steady success, mostly due to tenacious touring. “It really helps to get out on the road, and a band that does not go out and play alot can hurt their chances of longevity,” Jock notes. “We know how fickle radio play is, and how long term support from radio plays out since radio is more likely to jump on the current thing.” In the early 90’s, Jock was joined by guitarist/vocalist Steven Weinmeister, drummer Sandy Ficca, bassist Bill Hopkins, and keyboard, sax and flute player Bob Fisher. This version of the band stayed intact, and is still touring today, performing in front of their loyal fans as well as introducing a new generation of fans to Firefall’s music. “It is amazing to play a set of songs, where people keep going, wow, they recorded that one, too?” Jock muses. “Many times I have been doing meet and greets after a show and we get these twenty year olds coming up to us, kids who weren’t even born when we got started. Their parents were playing our music, and I think the kids started becoming disillusioned about the music that was out on the radio because so much of it has gone downhill in terms of songwriting or lyrics that had meaning. I think that not just the older fans, but these young newer fans have brought along a classic rock resurgence.”

So when you are a classic rock band who is enjoying success due to this resurgence, what do you do next? If you are Jock Bartley and Steven Weinmeister, you pay tribute to perhaps the most legendary classic rock band of all time; the Beatles. The two have performed a number of times as Firefall Acoustic, and in 2007 through an unforeseen set of circumstances decided to record a Beatles tribute album. A radio station in their hometown of Denver has a top rated show called Breakfast with the Beatles on Sunday mornings. The DJ asked Jock and Steven if they were interested in singing a couple Beatles song on the air. The response was overwhelming, and following subsequent appearances on the program, people started calling the station and wondering when Firefall was going to release their Beatles tribute album. “It really happened organically, which is cool because we are fanatic Beatles fans,” Jock recalls.  “I used to be of the opinion that doing Beatles covers was almost sacrilege, because so many of the covers made were pure crap. But the versions that we were doing were so positive, and even though we feel that you can’t improve on a Beatles song anyway, that we just did the songs in a very loving way and in a different spirit of acoustic guitars. The response was great which made us come to the conclusion that maybe we should make a record.” So after a few months in the studio, Firefall Acoustic emerged with “Colorado to Liverpool.” So far, the response to the record has been as enthusiastic as what they felt after the original appearances on Breakfast with the Beatles. “We really had no end game in mind when we started this, and no goals of money or trying to capitalize on the Beatles resurgence, or even trying to use it as a platform for a further resurgence of Firefall. It was just sort of a natural, respectful and fun project, and we were both totally jazzed with how the record turned out and the response we have received.”

At the moment, Firefall is still touring, both as a full band, and with Jock and Steven’s acoustic forays. Jock has come to the realization that other than their classic hits, rock radio is not prone to playing new songs by a band like Firefall. “With the current state of radio, I have resigned myself to the fact that we may never have another hit record. So I have made a conscious effort to elevate the position we are at now with the public perception of Firefall, which started with my solo effort earlier this year. That was the first step in revitalizing Firefall, and the second ended up being the Beatles tribute. We would also like to get some of the original band members back together to tie the originals and the current members together.” There are plans in the works for a live Firefall CD and DVD next year, which may be followed up by a new studio recording as well. Right now touring and performing is how Firefall keeps their name out there, and even though he may not be enjoying the huge success he did in the 70’s with the band, Jock is very happy with how his life in Firefall is going.  “I can’t deny that is wasn’t the top of the world to tour with Fleetwood Mac or Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Doobie Brothers in their heyday at those big stadium shows. Although that was the pinnacle of Firefall’s and my career, we still have so much fun right now playing live. The fans come out and it feels great that people are out there in the crowd waiting to hear their favorite Firefall song. We played a show in St. Louis recently with Pure Prairie League and Atlanta Rhythm Section where the line for the meet-and-greet lasted almost two hours. So I would guess we still have it, and when people tell you these personal stories about what your music means to them, that is very fulfilling. I am rather humble about it, realizing how fortunate I have been to be in a band with that kind of recognition level. It is so difficult to make any headway in the music industry at all, so I know how lucky I have been.”

Jock Bartley’s advice for musicians:  “The music business is a total piranha tank. There are some managers, lawyers and others who just want to separate you from your money, so you have to be careful about who you work with. It is really ruthless out there, and young musicians are really naive when it comes to business. Also, groups try to think too much about what is selling right now or what’s the fad or trend or what may this record company executive that we want to pitch to like. That is all, in my mind, crapola, because first, most record company guys don’t know what is good or bad. They want what sells, and most of the time, they are looking for a clone of what is on the charts. It is virtually impossible to get airplay for a new band these days. You may have one slot on a radio station for an indie band to get into, and literally tens of thousands of people vying for that slot. Also, the words “Artist Development” are nonexistent with labels today. So bands need to be honest, make songs that they like, have fun, and don’t think that every song you write needs to be a hit song. You just need to formulate and hone your own sound, and be true to what you really want to do, because those business trends are not going to change overnight.”
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