It’s magic! ‘PiLoT – The Albums’ reviewed

❉ Heard it all before? The slick ’70s outfit’s EMI/Arista output gets the box set treatment. 

Rhetorical question, which 1970s band connects Kate Bush, 10cc and the Alan Parsons Project? I say rhetorical because if I wasn’t referring to the Scottish band led by David Paton with Billy Lyall and Stuart Tosh (the first initials from their last names formed the band’s name PiLoT) whose four original albums from the 1970s get the slipcase boxed set treatment from Cherry Red, then it wouldn’t be particularly relevant.

Comprising the EMI albums From the Album of the Same Name (1974), Second Flight (1975), Morin Heights (1976) and their sole Arista album Two’s A Crowd (1977) plus all the relevant singles and B-sides, this tidy collection, with reminiscences from David Paton and the albums housed in replica album sleeves and nicely remastered from the source material is the first time these albums have been released together in one set, and the first time Two’s A Crowd makes it official release on a UK CD.

Formed in Edinburgh by David Paton (lead vocals, bass), Billy Lyall (keyboards, flute, vocals) and Stuart Tosh (drums, percussion, vocals) ,they were one of three new bands signed to the new EMI Records label (the new flagship label launched by the musical behemoth due to a brand reorganisation in the early 1970s), the other two being Queen and Cockney Rebel.

Being signed in such illustrious company showed the quality of the songs written by Paton & Lyall, and of course being part of EMI meant working at Abbey Road, and with one of the labels in-house producers, a chap by the name of Alan Parsons.

The strength of the material on the debut album was obvious when Magic (a well-known radio staple to this day) hit number 1 in the UK – a fact that, according to the sleeve notes, slightly irked the theatrical lead singer of label mates Queen. Sadly the album didn’t chart, luckily this was back in the day when record labels played the long game and nurtured and developed bands. For the album, fellow Scot Ian Bairnson provided additional guitars on both Magic and High in the Sky to help flesh out the sound, and on the strength of his solo on Magic led Paton to ask him to join the band.

With a knack for a catchy tune and some great lyrics, From The Album Of The Same Name (a cracking album title!) the opening blast of Just a Smile followed by Magic with that really catchy chorus and a real summertime vibe is a brilliant way to open up an album.

There’s some real musical skill on here, and the combination of Paton’s bass work, Lyall’s keyboards and Tosh’s drumming shows how tight a musical unit they were, and with some superb production work by Alan Parsons you get some quality soft rock songs like the McCartney-esque Girl Next Door.

You get the wonderful driving rock of Sooner or Later, the Beatlesque vibe to Over the Moon with its very ‘70s synth solo, the hard rock edge of Never Give Up, and the epic closing Sky Blue with its lush orchestration, all of which certainly demonstrates the versatility of the Lyall/Paton songwriting partnership.

With the additional bonus tracks being Just Let Me Be (the B-Side to Magic) and both sides of the single Pamela (recorded as Scotch Mist) which are musical curios more than anything, this debut album sets the template for the Pilot sound and is something that they built on for their next album.

1975’s Second Flight (their only charting LP) features the massive hit January (which, ironically. hit number 1 in the UK on 1 February 1975) and sees the evolution of the band’s sound and performance. The confidence of having worked in the studio with Alan Parsons was starting to show on here, and whilst on the debut the songs were jointly credited Lyall/Paton, here the individual writers took credit. With an even spread of Lyall’s more sophisticated songs balanced out by Paton’s poppier sound, a balance is nicely maintained throughout the album, and with Ian Bairnson formally a member he also contributes songwriting with both Paton and Lyall.

The dynamic and contradiction of Paton’s poppier work from the opener You’re My No.1 (which Paton believes should have been the follow-up to January) is nicely metered by the rock work of Ian Bairnson, as on the rocking Call Me Round (the actual follow-up to January, which didn’t even breach the top 30) which is as fine a piece of mid ‘70s mainstream rock as anything else.

Then you have the Lyall/Bairnson co-write 55 Degrees North 3 Degrees West, which is a powerful funky instrumental driven by Tosh and Paton allowing Bairnson and Lyall to trade riffs and solos throughout, providing a real counterpoint to the trio of songs that opened the album.

Bairnson is again allowed to unleash his soloing on Lyall’s Do Me Good, and of course the silky sweet sound of January (it seems a tad incongruous playing it in the middle of August!) proving they were no mere one hit wonders.

Meanwhile the closing duo of Passion Piece and Dear Artist are two incredibly mature and sophisticated pieces of songwriting from Lyall, and end the album, which is a much more mature and complete work than their debut, on a real high.

However, after the album was released Lyall decided to leave Pilot and go solo, as he felt his material wasn’t being chosen as single material.He later performed with The Alan Parsons Project on their debut album Tales of Mystery and Imagination, alongside his Pilot bandmates, before dying of AIDS at only 36.

Between Second Flight and Morin Heights, the band were chosen to play on the aforementioned Alan Parsons Project, and Paton and Bairnson would go onto be mainstays of the Project, with Paton leaving after 1987’s Sterotonomy to join Elton John’s touring band whilst Bairnson performed on all the APP albums.

Third album Morin Heights, produced by Roy Thomas Baker and recorded in Canada’s Morin Heights studios with session keyboard player Peter Oxendale, was released in 1976, and was the band’s last album for EMI.

The lack of Lyall brought Ian Bairnson to the fore as a contributor, and the album focuses far more on Bairnson’s guitar work, such as his strong solos on the Paton/Lyall co-write Maniac (Come Back), as Patons’ honest lyrics reflect on his relationship to Lyall’s lifestyle. With Bairnson’s opener Hold On the guitars are more prominent in the mix, and don’t take a back seat to Lyall’s keyboard work unlike on previous albums.

Despite the different producer and his attempt to beef up the Pilot sound, and a slightly harsher production technique, the core sound is still Pilot, and with Canada, Too Many Hopes and Steps, the sound is still there, and with the focus switched to Bairnson’s guitar work, this beefier sound doesn’t detract from the material, and makes this a strong end to their EMI era. Despite the non-album single Lady Luck (included here) and album track Canada both failing to chart, the album itself is a really strong collection of songs that holds up to this day.

Also included as bonus tracks are the A & B-side of the 1976 William Lyall single Us/Maniac – the latter track highlights the difference between his and Pilot’s version whilst Us has a string-driven accompaniment and harmonies that evoke the spirit of ELO. The final two bonus tracks, which wrap up the EMI era, are both sides of the 1980 David Paton single No Ties No Strings/Stop And Let Go, which carry on the Pilot sound and are a couple of great tracks.

Following the release of Morin Heights, Pilot went on an extended hiatus to let an old management contract expire, with Tosh joining 10cc as replacement for Kevin Godley.

In 1977, after having worked closely with Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons, the remaining duo of Paton and Bairnson were persuaded to make another Pilot album, so with the backing of Arista boss Clive Davis, the album Two’s A Crowd was produced by Alan Parsons, recorded at Abbey Road with Steve Swindells joining them on keyboard.

Opening track and lead single Get Up And Go (a motivational piece from Paton to himself to encourage him to stop procrastinating and write a song) is classic Pilot, from the studio sound to the harmonies and solo from Bairnson. Unfortunately this was 1977 when Disco, Punk and New Wave were taking the attention away from the mid-‘70s bands, and so due to the prevailing musical headwinds of the time there was no obvious market for Pilot and the single didn’t receive any real promotion from the label, despite Davis’ enthusiasm.

Consequently, in the words of Paton the album ‘escaped rather than being released’ and from the sleeve notes you can read how happy it is for it to be getting a proper reissue here.

The album itself is classic Pilot, with the piano-driven Creeping Round At Midnight (written by Ian Bairnson) and there’s a real groove on There’s A Place with its funky piano and guitar solo, while Billy Lyall is included in sprit if not in presence on tracks like the autobiographical The Library Door (which tells the story of the band’s beginning) and Mr Do or Die, which summed his attitude to life up in one track.

With Alan Parsons having built up an excellent relationship with Paton and Bairnson, the production is relaxed enough to let the songs and their musicianship shine through. In fact the musicianship on this album is superb with the two guest drummers Henry Spinetti and Trevor Simpson slotting in seamlessly throughout the album. Nicely uncluttered and with a crisp sound, this is a really easy album to listen to, as the songs grow on you each time.

The closing trio are as strong a set of songs Pilot ever committed to disc, with Paton’s scathing Evil Eye having an APP feel to it musically, as he rips his former management to shreds, and there is some languid guitar work from Bairnson throughout.

Mr Do or Die, with its percussion driven funk and some superb bass riffage from Paton, is a real toe tapper. Boasting some lovely guitar and piano interplay, all underpinned by that driving bass of Paton and Spinetti’s powerful drumming, this is the sound of a band having fun in the studio.

The finale, Bairnson’s epic Big Screen Kill rounds the album off in style, with its big orchestral finish and rumination on violence in movies (“The song is about the way Hollywood started churning out loads of crappy violent, shoot ’em up, disaster movies. No imagination, but lots of explosions!” – Ian Bairnson). Bairnson and Paton re-recorded versions of tracks on this album back in 2002, having been unable to get the license to give it the reissue it deserved. However it is now here with its brethren, completing the original part of the Pilot story.

Continuing with their work in the Alan Parsons Project, both Paton and Bairnson played on several Kate Bush albums whilst David Paton went on to tour with Camel, Elton John and Fish throughout his career. Bairnson also performed with Bucks Fizz and co-wrote their top 20 singles If You Can’t Stand The Heat and Run For Your Life whilst maintaining a session career performing with artists such as Joe Cocker and Neil Diamond.

Despite having had such successful careers, the two returned to Pilot back in 2002 and their latest release, APP tribute album A Pilot Project, was released back in 2014.

However, these four albums are the ones that springboarded them to success, and it’s great to be able to have them all in one place, and dive in to hear some quality musicians performing great songs.

An excellent collection for anyone who is a fan of 1970s rock.

❉ Pilot: The Albums (7T’s Records/Cherry Red QGLAMBOX177) was released 21 August 28, 2020 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £19.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

 James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.

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