Al Harlow admits to getting quite emotional when he read a glowing recent concert review of his Prism band penned by Music Express scribe Keith McTaggart who enthused about the band’s recent gig at Calgary’s Deerfoot Casino.
“The old Prism band never got reviews that positive,” noted Harlow on the phone from Vancouver. “We were never taken seriously by the critics.” Reality is that Prism currently works as a major concert act because Harlow is the token survivor of that early classic lineup which evoked the warmth and camaraderie of a chemical toxic soup!
Today, supported by drummer Gary Grace, keyboardist Marc Gladstone and bassist Tad Goddard, Harlow projects a new look Prism. He sings all the vocals (including all the classic tracks like `Armageddon’, `Spaceship Superstar’ and `Young And Restless’), plays lead guitar and is the dynamic frontman , projecting a level of energy is former band could only dream of exuding. He’s even injected a few new songs from the band’s most recent “Big Black Sky” release, recorded in 2008.
[quote]”The truth is that Mitchell was loathed within the band – and he didn`t think much of his band mates either.”[/quote]“We do about 35-40 live dates a year,” enthused Harlow. “Our travel is fairly restricted but in 2011 we probably did more dates in Ontario and the Maritimes that we did out West. So far it’s mainly casino dates and during the summer, festivals. It’s been a bit slow lately but I was at the 60th birthday party for our agent (and current Headpins’ drummer) Bernie Aubin and he told me the phones had been ringing. Which means we are probably good for August,” laughs Harlow.
To say Harlow is ecstatic about his current Prism lineup would be an understatement. “I look at this lineup now and it’s the best band I’ve ever been in , no egos , no animosity. But today is 2013 and I’m wondering, where were you guys thirty years ago?”
More accurately, 37 years ago former Sunshyne horn player Bruce Fairbarn had this brainstorm. Why not combine surviving members of his jazz-rock band with another defunct blues rock band titled Seeds Of Time and create a superstar band. With this in mind he recruited Sunshyne drummer Jim Vallance, Seeds Of Time guitarist Lindsay Mitchell and hauled in this blonde-haired kid called Ron Tabak.
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Problem was, Fairbairn was undecided whether his new band should be a jazz-band with a horn section or an r&b rock band. Early permutations had the band playing as a seven-piece outfit with a horn section, introducing this extended lineup in Seattle in May 1977, opening for Heart and Foreigner. Yet by the time the newly-named Prism had recorded their self-titled debut album for GRT Records later that year, the lineup had been reduced to a rock outfit comprising of Tabak, Mitchell, keyboardist John Hall, bassist Tom Lavin and drummer Vallance (who called himself Rodney Higgs).
With Vallance composing seven of the album`s nine tracks (Mitchell and Lavin kicked in one each) and with Fairbairn pulling out of the band to instead produce the record, Prism got off to a lively start, securing strong airplay for `Spaceship Superstar`and `Take Me To The Kaptin` and utilizing the CRTC`s new Canadian content radio rules to tour constantly in support of the record.
Yet almost instantly, that toxic chemical soup began to bubble. Vallance decided he didn`t like touring so he relinquished his drummer`s stool to former Seeds Of Time player Rocket Norton and bassist Tom Levin pulled the plug to join brother Jack in forming the more horns-based Powder Blues Band. This allowed another Seeds Of Time member , Allen Harlow to fill Levin`s bass spot. Even worse, Vallance got into a conflict with Mitchell over the direction the demo tapes were taking for the band`s follow-up effort, “ See Forever Eyes“ and Vallance decided to pull out of being the band`s dominant songwriter. Fortunately, Harlow jumped in to contribute `Flyin` and `Take Me Away`, two hit singles and See Forever Eyes actually became the band`s second platinum album.
That soup seemed to be simmering when Vallance came back into the creative fold in 1979, bringing in his new writing partner, a then unknown kid called Bryan Adams to write and co-write three songs for Àrmaggedon“, which fueled by Lindsay Mitchell`s title track, became their biggest selling record to date.
[quote]“So I`m out there at my condo by Kitsilano beach in 1987 and I`m listening to all our hits playing on Mustang and Camaro radios and I`m thinking to myself, `what is wrong with this picture“[/quote]Unfortunately, the success of this release did not stop internal wrangling at their label Ariola, and from GRT going bankrupt and manager Bruce Allen, entered into some serious negotiations to secure a major label deal with Capitol Records for their 1980 release “Young And Restless“. Yet the internal conflicts within the band were building and when Y&R failed to live up to expectations, Allen made the decision to fire lead vocalist Tabak and replace him with former Scrubbaloe Caine frontman Henry Small.
In retrospect, Harlow, wonders why all the soap-opera dramas within the band became such public knowledge. “I don`t think we had more flare-up’s than any other band – yet stuff kept leaking out,“ mused Harlow. It might have been Bruce (Allen) or Lindsay (Mitchell) trying to unsettle us. One thing I can say is that Lindsay Mitchell wasn`t a team player. It was like he was embarrassed to play in the band. “We`d get off the plane from some big American tour and he`d run down to Rohan`s on 4th Avenue, jump on stage and try to validate himself by playing the blues. `The truth is that Mitchell was loathed within the band – and he didn`t think much of his band mates either.
“I was psychologically bullied by that guy for 39 years,“ explained Harlow of his relationship with Mitchell. “There was a big brother – little brother dynamic between us and I was the obedient little brother. I felt like a co-dependant in a bad marriage“.
`Lindsay didn`t bother Rocket (Norton) because Rocket could debate him under the table to the point of shedding blood, “ explained Harlow. “But Lindsay and John (Hall) got along like oil and water – they just didn`t get along. John was a sensitive, creative person. At Lindsay’s provocation, John would punch the wall. Once I tried the grand gesture of trying to get Lindsay and John into the same studio to try and be creative. With all that creativity in the room, we could have recorded three albums. Yet that experiment lasted about five minutes.`
Yet the most victimized target of Mitchell`s was lead vocalist Ron Tabak. “That guy was such a sweetheart – but he was so green! Here was this big kid from Surrey B.C with the blonde hair and the one leather glove. What a diamond in the rough! But he received some sadistic treatment. He was never part of the creative process and both Bruce and Lindsay had no time for him.“
The disappointment of Young And Restless sealed Tabak’s fate. “Capitol USA took the band`s contract away from Capitol Canada, sent staff producer Carter to replace departing Bruce Fairbairn, and with Lindsay convincing Bruce Allen, the house cleaning included replacing Ron.”.
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This decision came down following a Christmas concert at Toronto`s Danforth Theatre in 1980, Allen telling yours truly after the show at the Chelsea Inn that he had decided to fire Ron Tabak from the band.
`What a stupid mistake to make, let`s get rid of `the Voice’, echoed Harlow, still bitter at what went down. “We were on stage with Ron at the Danforth and both John (Hall) and I knew something was going down – we were both fighting back tears. We knew this would be his last performance.“
“Lindsay and Bruce spearheaded that move, ‘continued Harlow. “The band didn`t matter. It was all about the contract. Henry was recommended as an amazingly good singer based in LA. That was true but bonding as a band requires more chemistry than having chops. So Henry stepped of the plane in Vancouver, assigned to us by our management. None of us had met him before, he simply announced he`s our new singer.“
But Small proved to be more than that. He took complete creative control over the entire band. Hall immediately left but Mitchell, Norton and Harlow stuck it out until after the release of “Small Change ‘later in 1981. Despite some positive U.S reaction to the album`s debut single `Don`t Let Him Know`, Canadian fans weren`t buying it. They showed their displease by turning on the band`s live performances. At a return gig at the Danforth, fans were treated to a sparkling debut live performance by Klaatu. Yet when Prism went on stage to headline, their former loyal fans turned ugly – showing the ultimate displeasure by walking out before the band`s encore.
By 1983, Small was left to try to pass off “Beat Street “as a Prism record even though all the original members had quit the band. However, this wasn’t the end of Prism just yet.
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Harlow now adds,“to be fair, 20 years later everyone has mellowed and a friendship developed between Henry and I. Henry apologized for his bluster back then. He knew he was good, knew we were in trouble and that we had a world-wide deal. `I was played the cards dealt me` as he put it.
“So I`m out there at my condo by Kitsilano beach in 1987 and I`m listening to all our hits playing on Mustang and Camaro radios and I`m thinking to myself, `what is wrong with this picture“ mused Harlow. Meanwhile Mitchell was experiencing the same feelings. He stumbled upon a Vancouver cover band called Simon Kaos performing at the Capri Hotel in Kelowna, caught lead vocalist Darcy Deutsch performing `Spaceship Superstar ‘and convinced him to join a reformed Prism band along with band mate keyboardist Andy Lorimer .
Unfortunately, the tragic death of former frontman Ron Tabak on Christmas Eve 1984 had derailed plans to reform the band’s former platinum record-selling lineup. Harlow confirms conversations with Tabak were at an advanced stage to bring him back into the line-up when the two agreed to meet up at Harlow’s condo for Christmas.
“I picked up Ron at his brother’s house in Surrey, Ron was moving house but he had a two-week delay in moving so we had agreed he would stay at my place in Kitsilano over Christmas and New Year,” explained Harlow. “So we tossed his luggage into my two-seater British sports car and then Ron produced this bicycle and said he wanted to cycle the one hour trip to my condo. With slushy conditions on the ground, I strongly refuted the idea and I tied his bike to the back of my car. But 10 minutes later, in neighbouring New Westminster, he asked me to pull over. He said his fitness routine was best served by him cycling and he had to drop by a see a friend en route”
“He had a key to my condo so I pulled over, untied the bike and let him go,” noted Harlow. “It’s the last time I saw him alive. When he didn’t arrive that night I thought he was spending Christmas Eve elsewhere, but when he didn’t arrive the following night I was concerned. Then at approximately 7:30 a.m. following morning, his mother called. Just by the tone of her voice, I knew something was seriously wrong and I said it before she did, “Ron’s dead isn’t he?”
[quote]“People come to the gigs to see the band now – but there’s this dreamy look in their eyes when they hear the old songs – they’re in the back seat of their Chevy again.”[/quote]What Harlow didn’t know was that during that cycle to Kitsilano, Tabak had been clipped by a passing motorist, hit his head hard on the pavement and was rushed to hospital. An initial examination revealed no major damage and Tabak was released from hospital. However he became abusive and belligerent and was arrested by the police under the suspicion of being intoxicated. Tabak was later found unconscious in his prison cell, was rushed back to hospital where he died on the operating table. Doctors discovered a blood clot had formed on the right side of his brain.
Instead, Harlow found himself reuniting with the song-writing team of Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams to pen a new song, `Good To Be Back’ for a Capitol Records ‘Over Sixty Minutes Greatest Hits release in 1988. This prompted a reunion tour which hauled drummer Rocket Norton out of mothballs along with guitarist Lindsay Mitchell. This culminated in an another studio album, Jericho 1993, which featured further contributions from Vallance-Adams and even soap heart-throb Rick Springfield.
Unfortunately, the band failed to regenerate their former magic and slowly, band members started to drift off. First, Norton and then in 2005 Deutsch, Lorimer and Mitchell all quit, leaving Harlow as the lone survivor.
“I was left to continue the band” reflected Norton, “But at first the hard core fans resented me keeping it going it was like, I had scooped the name. But now people see me as the band archivist, I am the keeper of the flame.”
With Grace, Goddard and Gladstone cementing the band’s most solid lineup to date, Harlow is committed to keeping the band both active and creative. “We recorded a new album “Big Black Sky” in 2008 which had some reflections on our old sound but the reality is `do our fans want a new album of 11 Al Harlow songs and an R&B classic and have me pass it off as a Prism CD? In reality`, it`s an Al Harlow album. I`m as passionate about creating music as I ever was, but I separate the two now. Classic rock ands are in the nostalgia business. What we might do is re-record our standards as a live album – that would give us something for the merchandise table.”
“Nostalgia is a drug on par with heroin,” notes Harlow in discussing what makes him continue to push the band’s trademark. “People come to the gigs to see the band now – but there’s this dreamy look in their eyes when they hear the old songs – they’re in the back seat of their Chevy again.”
Photography by: Charles Hope