About Sky

The Albums
The Singles
The Band
The Gigs
The Story of Sky

This is an article by Bill McAllister used as liner notes to a Sky compilation album. Probably the best summary of what the band was about.
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Fronted by Australia-born classical guitarist John Williams, Sky was an instrumental group that elevated the mixing of classical, jazz and rock influences into the kind of music that sounded familiar but challenging.  From their formation in 1979 they made an immediate impact on audiences all over the world. They had the dynamics to play large venues without appearing dwarfed and small halls without sacrificing the flamboyant element of their expertise.

Williams had joined forces with classically-based percussionist Tristan Fry, former Curved Air keyboards player Francis Monkman, bassist Herbie Flowers and rock guitarist Kevin Peek. Taken from their Sky 2 album, Toccata (an extravagant arrangement of Bach) gave them a hit single in 1980 and an even wider audience, and it was clear that although Williams was the driving force behind the band's being, the other members had a big say, with Peek, Flowers and Monkman composing material to develop their sound.

After the release of their sixth album, Cadmium, in 1983, Williams left the group to pursue alternative musical avenues, but the other members carried on until 1987 - recording two further albums - but admitted that the battle's loss in that year. It appeared that Williams had grown tired of the demands of constant touring by 1983, while audiences had grown tired of turning up by 1987.

Those halcyon years, however, proved that a band without a vocalist could generate a fanatical following. Ironically, the release of Sky 5 live in 1983 - recorded in Williams's native Melbourne as part of yet another sell-out world tour - proved their crowning moment and also the seed to their demise. Sky had found an alchemic solution to bringing together the art of melding different musical cultures and making it gold every time, but Cadmium's squarer pop stance perhaps signaled too much of a dilution.

On the Best OF Sky there is exactly that - the best. Brimful with technique - an attribute often decried by their critics, who claimed the group were introverted perfectionists hell-bent on self-serving workouts rather than playing for their audiences - they also display admirable taste in both the material they choose by other writers and the flourish of their own compositions. A sensational reading of the gorgeous Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer Skylark, with Williams fingertip-sensitive to the point of absolute empathy, sits easily with a delicate interpretation of Satie's haunting Gymnopedie No.1. Both tracks feel just as right as more upbeat numbers, like the Flowers/Monkman Westway or Darry Way's (who was the violinist with Monkman in Curved Air) Vivaldi.

The weight of probability is that Sky was a one-off combination which can never be repeated. Without ever becoming dependent on the cult of personality (Sky posters with toothpaste smiles and fashion victim clothes styles never existed) they imposed their collective musical personality on a worldwide audience in a way only few ever achieve. It was the strength of their vision and fearlessness in how they would present their music which garnered them that huge audience. The music press, always vexed by having to acknowledge that not every band need be rent-a-quote dummies, only nodded approval, and grudgingly at that, on few occasions. It was the general public in countless countries across five continents who didn't give a hoot and simply, when it came to Sky, heard what they liked and liked what they heard.

Listen to the interaction between Williams and Peek throughout the album. Neither is afraid of the other, rather they play like members of the same family, each giving the other the appropriate space and support when needed. Likewise, Fry's underlying percussive strength is constantly allotted an appropriate role, whether driving the outfit forward or injecting subtle nuances at vital moments. Monkman's experience with a rock band - Curved Air, who could also boast Police drummer Stewart Copeland as a member - serves him well when asked to fill out the soundspace with the elements of a technology-led brave new future, yet he never succumbs to the temptation to let the machine be his master. Herbie Flowers - an estimable member of Blue Mink - had been one of the session stalwarts of the British music industry, a faultless bass player and with Sky, a write of no mean ability. His co-composition with Peek, Chiropodie No. 1, is a stately affair and an ingenious riposte to the Satie reading.

This is music of stature and dignity, neither overburdened with pretension nor dragged down by novelty. It is also thoroughly enjoyable, it's the aural equivalent of your comfortable piece of clothing because it's comforting, and it's also questioning, teasing. It is, in fact, just what it says it is - the best of Sky.

Text copyright Bill McAllister © 1994

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