❉ It is tempting to consign Sky to that enduring but beige ‘easy listening’ category, but to leave it at that would be overly simplistic. There is much in here to beguile and intrigue.
Spring 2018 saw the re-release of a unique, and possibly unparalleled musical collaboration. Sky: The Studio Albums (1979-1987) is the work of a group of highly accomplished and gifted musicians collaborating together in the group known as Sky. The aim of this group was to gather musicians from different musical backgrounds to experiment with a genuine fusion of classical, rock, progressive-rock and jazz oeuvres. The seven discs cover all of the studio albums of Sky and, packaged in a satisfyingly compact box-set is, at first sight, a completist’s dream. Yet the box set (released by Esoteric Recordings) does not contain Sky’s vaunted live material. There is, however, an awful lot of material in this box set. The question is, who should buy such a thing?
At the heart of Sky, is Anglo-Australian guitar virtuoso, John Williams. Although classically focused by instinct and training, he was no stranger to experimenting with pop-fusion. Changes (1971) saw him collaborate with future Sky members Herbie Flowers and Tristan Fry and marks a clear musical trajectory that would ultimately lead to Sky. A labyrinthine series of collaborative ventures saw the precociously talented Francis Monkman join Williams, Fry and Flowers on another of William’s cross-over projects, the 1978 album Travelling. It was the success of this album which led Williams, Fry and Flowers to establish a more formal, democratic collective under which a true fusion of their musical styles could develop. With the addition of Monkman and the protean Australian guitarist, Kevin Peek in 1979, the first iteration of Sky was born.
It is the first two albums of this set that represent the essence of Sky’s musical ambitions. Although Williams was the box-office draw, it was Francis Monkman’s compositional and creative drive which provided the focal point for the collective. The whole of side two of the eponymous debut album contained a Monkman composition which genuinely saw the fusion of each of the collaborative elements, in a way that arguably Sky would never manage to capture again. Although peaking at a modest No. 9 in the album charts of 1979, the album would have sufficient longevity to become platinum selling.
It was, however, with the release of the double-album, Sky 2 which saw the virtuoso musicians double-down on their commercial success, providing accessible yet experimental music at the boundary of prog-rock and classical. Again, Monkman provides a side-long composition but with the extended room to breathe afforded by a double album, the playfulness of Flowers, the skill of Peek and the virtuosity of Fry and Williams all shine through. In May 1980, Sky 2 reached Number 1 in the UK album charts and would go on to emulate its predecessor in reaching platinum. Sky 2 even succeeded in spawning a single, Toccata, which would reach No 5 in the UK charts.
The departure of Monkman after the first two albums was both amicable, yet inevitable. His restless musical curiosity would never have been content to remain within any musical construct for too long. His replacement was Steve Grey accomplished session keyboard player and a musician who had worked with Mancini and Quincy Jones. Where as Monkman pursued experimental and psychedelic forms, Grey introduced a languid, jazz direction to the collective. Sky 3, released in 1981, like its predecessors, enjoyed significant commercial success (peaking at Number 3 in the album charts).
Still recognisably Sky, the fourth album, Forthcoming, provided further classical crossover and contained no original compositions. The focus of the band had shifted from genuine fusion to providing accessible cross-over classical music for modern tastes and the music of Sky became lighter, less portentous and less experimental. The final two studio albums, The Great Balloon Race and Mozart are also represented in the box set, but by this time, John Williams had left the band and the fade from the band’s original experimental days is more pronounced than ever. The end came, like the beginning, with the tenuous threads of the band dissolving. The death of Grey and Peek and the reticence of Monkman means that this box set is likely to be the totality of Sky’s musical journey.
This box set provides a comprehensive body of work, yet despite having all this source material, trying to analyse the contribution of Sky remains an unsatisfactory exercise. Usually one can detect a distinct trajectory for a band. With Sky, the direction is more elusive. They arrived into the collective as highly accomplished performers, having undergone distinct individual musical journeys prior to joining. It is tempting to consign Sky to that enduring but beige ‘easy listening’ category. Indeed, an enduring criticism of Sky is that the albums are nothing but technical exercises in musicianship.
But to leave it at that would be overly simplistic. There is much in here to beguile and intrigue. The first two albums are genuinely experimental and all of the studio albums have moments of unexpected intensity and depth. The music of Sky is not a creature of its time and there are none of the usual cultural or societal touchstones that one might expect in a work such as this. Sky’s progressive/classical/jazz fusion has an ageless quality that stands up to contemporary scrutiny. So, to return to the question at hand: who should buy this box set? Perhaps only the completist will yearn for every studio album, but anyone who is musically curious should at least try and dip their toe into the waters of Sky.
❉ ‘Sky – The Studio Albums1979-1987’ an eight-disc box set was released on 30 March 2018, RRP £24.99. Click here for more information or to buy.