Here at the FORGOTTEN ARTISTS feature page we continue to remind readers of some of the great bands that may have slipped from memory or who we think deserve a return to the spotlight for a walk down memory lane. This time around I’m re-visiting one of my favourite bands of the 198o’s, The Rainmakers.
The Rainmakers were a country rock and roll band, that was built around their enigmatic main writer, Bob Walkenhorst.
Starting out in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1983, the band originally played in local bars under the imaginative title of ‘Steve, Bob and Rich’ and comprised Walkenhorst on vocals and drums, plus Steve Phillips, Guitar and vocals and Rich Ruth, bass and vocals. Building a strong local following for their good time ethic and witty original songs they released one local album, ‘Balls’, under this name before adding drummer Pat Tomek and freeing Walkenhorst up to front the band. They changed the band name to The Rainmakers and signed to Polygram, releasing their self-titled debut album in 1986 to considerable critical acclaim. Newsday hailed them as “America’s Next Great Band” and the album was dubbed “the most auspicious album debut of the year” by Newsweek, reaching the lower regions on the Top 100 of the Billboard Album charts but generating a Top 20 single in the UK with the track ‘Let My People Go-Go’. In fact, the band quickly developed a strong following in parts of Europe, proving to be particularly popular in the Nordic countries.
They followed up their debut album a year later with ‘Tornado’, but this album just failed to enter the Billboard Top 100 and their third album, 1989’s ‘The Good News and The Bad News’, failed to make any impact at home, though still enjoyed some success in Europe. There was one more album from this line-up, a live album ‘Oslo-Wichita Live’ in 1990 but this was only released in the Scandinavian market. At this point, they decided to put the band on hold but returned to the studio in 1994 to record their next album, ‘Flirting With the Universe’ – an album that achieved gold record status in Norway but did little to trouble the markets anywhere else. The band had always had a good reputation as a live act but they were now finding that their main audiences were in the Scandinavian region, particularly Norway, but their families and ambitions lay back in the U.S and this put increasing pressure on the band – they were in big demand for live work in Europe and were a favourite of the festival circuit, but it created a lot of upheaval in their lives. There was one more album at this time, ‘Skin’ (1996), recorded with new bass player Michael Bliss. Again, this was only released in the Scandinavian market and, following this album, the band called it a day two years later and went about their own projects.
One possible reason that has been cited for the failure of their albums to sell well in the U.S. market is the very thing that brought them to popularity in the first place. Walkenhorst’s songs, while clever and often wryly witty, also walk a fine line on what some would consider appropriate subject matter, particularly when it comes to religion. ‘Let My People Go-Go’ is based around the old spiritual song ‘Go Down Moses’ but, while the original is a plea for freedom and release from slavery, Walkenhorst’s version comes across as more of an invitation to party. In the similarly religiously-themed ‘Wages of Sin’ the lack of reverence is even more apparent – “The wages of sin, the reward of fear/ Is worrying and fretting every second of the year/ If Heaven is guilt, no sex and no show/ Then I’m not sure if I really want to go”. For all the acclaim that his songs got from the critics and from other artists – author Stephen King became such a fan he even quoted Walkenhorst’s lyrics in his novels ‘The Tommyknockers’ and ‘Gerald’s Game’ – there was plenty of Middle America that, perhaps, wouldn’t buy the albums because of a perception that the band were irreverent and dismissive of aspects of the American way of life. Of course, those same perceptions were likely to endear them to a European audience.
The story, happily, doesn’t end with the break up of the band in 1998. Support for the band in Europe, particularly Scandinavia, has never gone away and, while they couldn’t sell records in large numbers in the U.S their reputation as a live act meant that they were always going to be in demand on the circuit. The individual members had never stopped making music and, in 2011, The Rainmakers decided to reform. The band initially came back together to celebrate 25 years since the release of their debut album and they marked this with a new album release, ’25 On’. Rich Ruth came back into the band, replacing Bliss, but original guitarist Steve Phillips was now working with his own band, The Elders, and declined the invitation to re-join, being replaced by Jeff Porter. Since then the band has continued to work live and in the studio and has toured in both the U.S and Europe. There have been two more studio albums, ‘Monster Movie’ (2014) and ‘Cover Band’ (2015) and the band has been inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame.
It’s on the live circuit that The Rainmakers have really made their mark and, since they reformed, they’ve kept a well-filled diary of tours and festival appearances – so they’ll have been hard hit by this year’s cancellation of so many live events. It’s to be hoped that, once this pandemic has passed and we return to some semblance of normality, there’ll be more chances to hear this great band again. In the meantime, here are some reminders of just how good they can be.