If you were alive and capable of listening to a rock station in 1980, I can guarantee you you’ve heard almost half this album. If that year had an overplayed feel-good motivational song that crowded the airwaves, it had to be “While You See A Chance”. And that airplay overkill wasn’t without reason – it’s actually a good song that exemplifies the sound of this album: solid old-school rock musicianship with a bit of new technology to play with.
Steve Winwood had turned out one previous solo album, a self-titled LP in 1977, in his attempt to distance himself from his legacy as the Spencer Davis Group’s “little Stevie Winwood.” Winwood had also been one-third of Traffic (along with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker), and it was that group to which his debut bore the most similarity. With Arc Of A Diver, Winwood boldly charted a clear path away from the “classic rock” sound with which he had become so closely identified – and to which, in time, he would return.
The synthesizer sound which is so predominant on Arc Of A Diver is the then-new (but later almost ubiquitous) Yamaha DX-7. Winwood made the DX-7 sound his sound with his mastery of that keyboard’s pitch-bend wheel, which lent so much unique character to “While You See A Chance”‘s intro, “Arc Of A Diver”, and his biggest hit single of the early 80s, 1982’s “Valerie”. Growing up playing piano and electronic keyboards, I ached to find that sound. When I finally got a fairly high-end consumer-grade Yamaha keyboard in high school, I made it my mission to bend the pitch-bending ability to my will – all because I wanted to sound just like Winwood did in 1980. Apparently some other people did too – Winwood was called on as a session player to lend that unique sound to artists such as George Harrison.
It’s not all electronic wizardry, though. Real live piano, guitar, bass and drums provide a solid backbone for a synth sound that Winwood knew would be different an alien to the audience, and with that real live rock as a foundation, Arc Of A Diver is safely prevented from falling into experimental new-wave territory. What’s staggering, especially in hindsight given the still-evolving state of recording technology at the time, is how many of those instruments Winwood played himself.
The title track itself is a wondrous mix of soulful, bluesy rock and unusual lyrics. “Since I don’t know your secret code, I’ll need my love to translate,” Winwood sings in the chorus. Tell us about it, Steve.
“Night Train” is a bit of an overblown attempt at a longform song which is nonetheless very enjoyable with its driving beat. (The song’s sheer length, topping out at just under eight minutes, made it a godsend to many a disc jockey who needed to visit the men’s room for a bit. Trust me, I know. I’ve hit the “start” button before and sprinted down the hall as the opening chords rang out.)
One song I’ve always felt is underrated is the relaxing “Spanish Dancer”, both for its music and its lyrics. It’s a bit repetitive, but that lends it a bit of a mesmerizing quality which is probably what kept radio from discovering it.
I was disappointed when, after the much more middle-of-the-road, mainstream rock effort that was 1986’s Back In The High Life, Winwood abandoned his DX-7 and went for a more traditional sound with Roll With It. On the one hand, we’d grown accustomed to Winwood’s signature 80s sound and there was a danger it was making all of his songs sound the same. But on the other hand, it’s a sound I quite liked – and no one has taken up the challenge of keeping it alive. I miss it. And I guess that’s why I’m so fond of Arc Of A Diver.
- While You See A Chance (5:13)
- Arc Of A Diver (5:29)
- Second-Hand Woman (3:34)
- Slowdown Sundown (5:34)
- Spanish Dancer (5:59)
- Night Train (7:51)
- Dust (6:22)
Released by: Island
Release date: 1980
Total running time: 40:02