“I learnt such a lot from Roy Wood… when we did Northern Lights I said, ‘Why don’t we double track my voice?’ That’s all it took - but we didn’t know it would be a hit”: How Renaissance made it to Top Of The Pops and The Kenny Everett Video Show

(Image credit: Getty Images)

For 1978 album A Song For All Seasons, Renaissance ditched the big concepts and gave their symphonic sound a bolder edge. The result yielded their only UK Top 10 single, Northern Lights. In 2023, tying in with a vinyl reissue, vocalist Annie Haslam revisited her audition, a stage invasion and the only way the band will record new music.

The late 1970s were a challenging time for prog in the UK, but Renaissance tackled the punk tsunami that was engulfing the country by releasing what’s since become their most successful work. A Song For All Seasons spawned their only UK Top 10 single, and, for many fans, marked the end of their classic era.

Moving away from 1975’s full-blown concept album, Scheherazade And Other Stories, and the folk vibe of their original line-up, the band’s eighth studio album was packed with symphonic drama and driven by Annie Haslam’s stunning vocals. Today, Haslam is the only active member from that line-up, and yet her journey into progressive music began by accident.

“I wanted to be a dress designer,” she explains on a call from her home in Pennsylvania, USA. “I was an apprentice at a Savile Row tailor and the recession came and they had to let me go. Then I went to this other place. They gave me a book to do some drawings in and come up with ideas, they had me there for a week and I did loads of designs.

“And then they took that book into their office for two hours and fired me. It broke my heart. I called my mum and dad. They said, ‘Right, you’re coming with us to Canada to see your brother.’ It was then that I started singing, because my brother Michael was a singer, and he was managed by Brian Epstein.”

Encouraged by her then-boyfriend, Haslam started entering talent competitions “in the East End of London where the Kray brothers used to hang out. I kept winning.” This led her to seek out a professional singing coach. Eventually she landed a job at The Showboat in the Strand, a cabaret dinner theatre, playing in a band called The Gentle People.

“Six months I was there,” recalls Annie, “and then the guitarist in the band, David Gardner, said, ‘Annie, I’ve just found this advert in the Melody Maker. I think you’re wasted here. I think you should go for this audition.’” The audition was for the position of backup singer for Renaissance.

“I was praying that they were going to ask me to sing Island [from the group’s self-titled debut album],” recalls Annie, “which they did. [Ex-Yardbirds and founding members] Keith Relf was there and Jim McCarty, Michael Dunford [guitars] and John Tout [keyboards]. They were so warm and friendly. They called me up New Year’s Day, 1971, and said, ‘You’ve got the job.’”

A Song For All Seasons was the sixth Renaissance album to feature Haslam and by then the band’s line-up – which now included bassist Jon Camp and drummer Terence Sullivan alongside Haslam, Dunford and Tout – was stable. David Hentschel was chosen to produce. By this time, he was an established force, having worked extensively with Genesis and Elton John, among others. 

I didn’t really get very much praise from the band, not that I was looking for praise. But our sound guy said, ‘Annie, do you realise how different your voice is?’ And that’s when I realised

“We liked what he did with Genesis,” explains Haslam, “so we asked him to work with us. He was a very hard worker, a perfectionist. We had to be on our toes and do our best. Well, we always did, in that respect. You know, we weren’t there for a joyride. We were serious about the music, and the music was more serious, so we had to put everything into it.”

Another first for the band was the inclusion of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. “Harry Rabinowitz [whose credits include scores for Chariots Of Fire and The Remains Of The Day] was the conductor,” says Haslam. “Louis Clark [longtime collaborator with ELO] did the arrangements. Years later I did a solo album with the RPO [1985’s Still Life] and Clark did all the arrangements on that, too.”

Seasoned Renaissance collaborator Betty Thatcher once again supplied lyrics. “She was writing from the beginning of my time [Thatcher wrote most of the lyrics for Prologue],” confirms Haslam. “Michael Dunford and the others would lay down the basis of a song and send it to Betty and then the lyrics came back. The whole thing was really perfection.”

By 1978, Haslam had grown in confidence and self-appreciation of the uniqueness of her incredible vocal range. “In the beginning I was still not quite believing that what I was doing was different. I didn’t really get very much praise from the band, not that I was looking for praise. But we had a sound guy called Mickey Stewart and he said, ‘Annie, do you realise how different your voice is? It’s got different tones to it.’ And that’s when I realised that it was different.”

Much has been made of the relative prominence of electric guitars on Seasons, with some suggesting it was a deliberate response to the changing times; but this is something that Haslam refutes: “The thing with the band is that I don’t think we ever did anything on purpose. It seemed to be a natural progression, until we got to the later albums like Camera Camera [1981] and Time-Line [1983] – because anybody could have sung those songs.

“So I don’t think it was a conscious effort. Like, ‘Oh, let’s do this, let’s have guitars.’ I think everything that we ever did from one album to another, except for those two, was a gradual evolution.”

A Song For All Seasons did, however, feature the enduringly popular Northern Lights, recorded as a response to label Warner Brothers’ desire for a marketable number. “Betty wrote that song about me and Roy Wood [who was Annie’s partner at the time],” she reveals. ”It’s not about the aurora borealis. It’s about the northern lights of England. We lived in Worcestershire, and it was about me being away.”

Wood’s influence can also be heard on the track. “I learnt such a lot from Roy,” she says, “he taught me how to double track my voice. And then when we did Northern Lights, we had the chorus and everything, but it was lacking something, because it was just one voice all the way through.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we double track my voice in the verses?’ And that’s all it took. It completely changed the song. As soon as we put both those voices on we knew it was going to be good, but we didn’t know it was going to be a hit.

“We were on tour in America and had just finished the soundcheck when our tour manager came in and told us that [Radio 1 DJ] Dave Lee Travis had us as his record of the week and we were going to be doing Top Of The Pops when we got back!”

Mikael Åkerfeld said he loved the album so much that whenever he sees it, he buys a copy to give to friends

Haslam has good memories of appearing on TOTP. “Oh my God, that was so much fun,” she enthuses. “[Classical soprano] Sarah Brightman was a dancer on the show. Obviously I didn’t know her then. These scantily-clad dancers came on and the guys were all ogling them. It was very exciting.

“I remember having to stand on this box that had a map of England on it, because otherwise I would have been too low for the cameras. And it was just magic. In those days Top Of The Pops was the one to watch. We did it three times. We did the Kenny Everett Video Show, too – that was very funny. He was a funny guy. I’m glad I met him. He was really sweet.”

Another cut from the album, Back Home Once Again, also garnered attention thanks to its role as theme song for the children’s TV series The Paper Lads. In the extensive liner notes for the album’s 2023 reissue, Haslam tells how the series’ producer, John Cooper – who loved the band’s music – specifically requested Renaissance to submit a piece for the show.

The album also has a rather unlikely modern fan, as the singer reveals: “[Opeth’s] Mikael Åkerfeld did a critique of A Song For All Seasons that somebody sent me. He was on YouTube. He said that he loved the album so much that whenever he sees it, he buys a copy to give to friends. Funnily enough, they were touring over here last April. I met up with him and had dinner with the guys. It was fantastic. Really, music has no boundaries.”

It’s clear that Haslam looks on A Song For All Seasons and the other Renaissance albums of that period with great fondness. When asked if the ongoing series of reissues has brought back memories, she’s effusive. “Oh, gosh, yeah. When I was asked to do the liner notes, I brought in Terry Sullivan to help me because people remember different things.

It’s been suggested that we write some new music. I said, ‘No, can’t do that.’ There are some songs that Micky Dunford never recorded

“Take the 50th anniversary DVD [Ashes Are Burning: An Anthology Live In Concert, 2021]. I went down to Cornwall to do the editing for that, and I stopped in to see an old friend. She said, ‘Do you remember when you jumped on the stage when you went to see The Rolling Stones? You climbed up on the stage and they had to come and drag you off.’ I can’t remember it at all! Isn’t that weird? Because it’s not me. That’s not something ever in a million years I would think I would ever do.”

As Renaissance head towards their 55th year, Haslam is clearly protective of their legacy. “It’s been suggested that we write some new music. I said, ‘No, can’t do that.’ There are some songs that [the late] Micky Dunford never recorded. I said, ‘If we ever do anything, we will record the music that Micky did and add words,’ because we started writing together over the last few years.”

As our interview draws to a close, Prog ponders the band’s continued popularity. “It’s just timeless music,” says the vocalist, “and especially in these times it’s very calming. There’s something special about it – I knew the music was different. I was very proud of it, but I never realised the extent that it affects people. I get letters from people saying, ‘It saved my life.’”

Chris Wheatley

Chris Wheatley is an author and writer based in Oxford, UK. You can find his writing in Prog magazine, Vintage Rock, Longreads, What Culture, Songlines, Loudwire, London Jazz News and many other websites and publications. He has too many records, too many guitars, and not enough cats.