For many people — maybe most people — Tim Curry’s singing career begins and ends with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s understandable. Rocky Horror was, after all, more than just a hit movie; it was a full-on cultural phenomenon. The character of Dr. Frank-N-Furter was the sort of indelibly iconic role that comes along once in an actor’s career. And Curry’s unforgettable performance was so outrageous it was impossible to top. After you’ve belted out Sweet Transvestite in a bustier, fishnets with garters, giant platforms and full-on makeup, what do you do for an encore?
Well, Curry did plenty more acting on the stage, screen and tube. When it comes to music, though, the pickings are far slimmer. Between 1978 and 1981, the talented Englishman released three criminally underappreciated albums. First came 1978’s Read My Lips, a serious, intimate and ambitiously eclectic affair that pulled a hard 180° from his Rocky Horror persona. Flitting from pop and rock to reggae and torch songs and even Civil War balladry, it showcased Curry’s magnificent pipes with stylish covers of Rough Trade’s Birds Of A Feather, Joni Mitchell’s All I Want and producer Bob Ezrin’s beautifully bleak Sloe Gin, next to updates of Irving Berlin, Burt Bacharach and The Beatles. Along with Ezrin, the album — recorded partly in Toronto — featured an all-star band including Dick Wagner, Nils Lofgren, Alan Schwartzberg and Michael Kamen, plus a cameo by Canada’s own Regimental Pipers and Drums of the Forty-Eighth Highlanders. Amazingly, this did not propel it to the top of the pop charts.
Curry fared better with the following year’s Fearless, thanks chiefly to a more focused lineup of hard-hitting original rock and a campier vibe more in line with his image. You may have heard his Top 100 single I Do The Rock, featuring cheeky lyrics and tongue-twisting spoken-word verses that anticipated rap. (I know Courtney Love has heard it; when I interviewed her several years back, we spent a few minutes bonding over our shared love of the song and Curry in general.) Fearless should have been the album that turned him into a pop star, but punchy followup single Paradise Garage — a sardonic ode to Manhattan club life — failed to duplicate the success of I Do The Rock and that was that. Strike 2.
His third and final swing was 1981’s Simplicity, which played it fittingly straight with covers of The Zombies’ She’s Not There, Squeeze’s Take Me, I’m Yours, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer In The City, Martha And The Vandellas’ Dancing In The Streets and even Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put A Spell On You. Despite the bullet-proof roster, another crack band (this time featuring guitarist Earl Slick) and full-blown production from Kamen, it fared no better. Why? Who knows? Maybe his booming voice and theatricality just didn’t translate to pop fans. Maybe it was some combo of bad breaks and bad decisions. Or maybe he just couldn’t escape the sequined shadow of Frank-N-Furter. Whatever the reason, Curry hasn’t released an album since, which is a damn shame, far as I’m concerned.
If I had ever interviewed him, I would have asked why he threw in the towel. But the closest I came to meeting him was in 1995, when I went on the press junket for the film Congo. It featured Curry as moustache-twirling villain Herkermer Homolka, a Romanian explorer in search of a mythical lost city (or something like that; it’s been a long time). I was hoping he would show up to do interviews for the film, but no dice. He was later nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor, which might help put the whole experience into context. Or maybe he was just busy. Either way, I was disappointed.
Equally disappointing: I never got to see him live. And I’m pretty sure I never will, since he’s in his 70s now and confined to a motorized chair after a stroke a few years back. But at least there’s good news on that front: I just came across a recently uploaded 1979 appearance from the German TV series Musik Laden. It’s a full hour-long set from the Fearless tour, featuring many of the musicians who played on the album, plus Bob Kulick on guitar (at least I think it’s Kulick; there are no musician credits). The performance is solid and energized, and includes most of his hits and highlights. The audience, however, seems bewildered by Curry and his antics, practically ignoring him at times. Then again, why should they be different from the rest of the world?
Anyway, bottom line: If you only know Tim Curry from his Rocky Horror days, do yourself a favour and check out the gig below. (UPDATE: The original uncut video was taken down, but the performance of I Do The Rock is still around.) Or take a spin through Fearless (below that) and enjoy a lost gem from the ’70s. Hey, there’s more than one way to do the time warp.
And it goes like this …