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‘Tennis’: How Chris Rea’s Third Album Served Up A Winner
In Depth

‘Tennis’: How Chris Rea’s Third Album Served Up A Winner

Free from commercial pressures, Chris Rea’s third album, ‘Tennis’, saw him settle some scores and play the game on his own terms.

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As someone who has never been quiet about having a difficult relationship with the music industry, Chris Rea has made a career out of following his own path as a musician. In fact, it could well be argued that his third album, Tennis, released in March 1980, was the first of many shifts in sound and style that allowed the Middlesbrough-born singer-songwriter to explore his creative freedom and develop a more mature sound.

Listen to ‘Tennis’ here.

Despite its relative lack of commercial success compared to his later works, Tennis was highly acclaimed by critics upon its release and has since developed a cult following among fans. Imbuing the authenticity of rhythm’n’blues music with blues-based slide guitar, it’s clear from the offset that Rea was striking out in a new direction – one that would ultimately become an important part of his legacy. Here is the story of how Tennis gave Rea a sporting chance in the 80s…

The backstory: “He’d been told to turn me into the next Elton John, which couldn’t be further away from what I was”

Having worked with Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon on his previous albums, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? and Deltics, Chris Rea couldn’t escape the feeling that his success had come at a cost. Despite being nominated for a Grammy Award for his 1978 single Fool (If You Think It’s Over), Rea wasn’t happy with being pigeonholed into the 70s singer-songwriter bracket, and he felt uneasy with how he was being moulded by music industry bigwigs. “I was told by a huge producer, and he’d been told by the record company to turn me into the next Elton John, which couldn’t be further away from what I was,” Rea told Songfacts.

For what would become his third album, Tennis, Rea insisted upon having a free hand in pursuing his own destiny, fervently expressing his need to call the shots. Remarkably, he was granted permission to self-produce the record, guaranteeing him a large degree of creative liberty. As he began to write songs for the album, Rea developed a fascination with sport and drew parallels between the physical and mental aspects of playing tennis and the creative process of making music.

Feeling like an unappreciated athlete constrained by the rules of the music industry “game”, Rea humorously opted to use tennis as a metaphor for his own struggles as an artist. Releasing Tennis’ title track as the album’s lead single in March 1980, Rea wryly captured the mindset of an idle telly-watcher feeling disillusioned with the demands of working life, delivering his lyrics over a pulsing bassline: “I don’t want to go to work today/Want to stay at home and watch that girl play/Do you like tennis?/Yes I do.”

Like many of the best Chris Rea songs, however, there’s a lot more going on in Tennis than it may appear on first listen. The song’s lyrics contain a reference to the media furore around a female tennis player who the tabloids lambasted for scratching her bum (“There’s a girl from the Midwest, with a pretty face/Scratched where it itched, they said it was a disgrace”). The lines in the second verse which picture refugees dying at sea and a woman getting raped are intended to be an attack on the gutter press for favouring frivolity over real news. Though the song failed to chart, Rea had played the first serve and was ready to go for game, set and match.

The recording: “They let me go off and do the ‘Tennis’ album with the lads again from Middlesbrough”

After laying down new material with some local musicians from his home city, Rea felt emboldened by the lack of industry involvement and set about recording his third album with renewed fervour. “In the end they let me go off and do the Tennis album with the lads again from Middlesbrough,” Rea recounted in an interview with Paul Du Noyer. In time, the musicians accompanied Rea to Chipping Norton Studios, in Oxfordshire, and Tennis slowly started to take on a very different colour to his previous efforts.

Though it might not have been immediately apparent from his early records, Rea’s natural singing register is deep and gravelly (“They didn’t want me to sing low because that wasn’t commercial,” Rea explained to Songfacts). Now he was producing Tennis on his own, he could sing the way he wanted – and, using his record label, rather than the other way around, he leveraged his industry connections to hire session ace Raphael Ravenscroft, the man who had played the iconic saxophone riff on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, to sprinkle some of his magic over proceedings.

From the soulful splendour of Sweet Kiss to the George Harrison-esque slide guitar of the instrumental No Work Today, Rea indulged his rich array of musical influences and melded them with his love of rhythm’n’blues. “The idea of R&B with slide guitar would be very unique, except you could never get it past the record company,” Rea explained. Now he was out on his own, Tennis allowed him to stretch himself as a musician further than ever before.

The album’s second single, Dancing Girls, was released in May 1980 and came across like a mix of Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler’s wistfulness and Bruce Springsteen’s anthemic blue-collar balladry. Utterly beguiling at every turn, Dancing Girls feels simultaneously pensive and joyous, and it proved that Rea’s creative impulses weren’t as outlandish as many had him believe.

The release: “It got great reviews, but not any massive Supertramp-like sales”

Gesturing towards the new-wave flavour of contemporary pop-rock while imbuing it with his accomplished slide guitar work, Chris Rea’s third album, Tennis, peaked at No.60 in the UK and was met with notable plaudits from the music press. “It got great reviews, but not any massive Supertramp-like sales,” Rea told Paul Du Noyer, before remembering the frosty reception his record company gave the record: “So they immediately put the clamps on again.”

Today, however, it’s easy to see Tennis in a much different light, representing a major turning point in Chris Rea’s career. A brave attempt to find his own musical voice as well as experiment with different styles and genres, the album has a sense of urgency and spontaneity that is rare in studio recordings. Dynamic and raw, Tennis paved the way for the more blues- and folk-influenced sound that Rea would explore on later albums. Most importantly, it instilled him with the self-belief that he could both follow his own path and continue his evolution as a songwriter.

Over time, Tennis has found a cult following among fans of Chris Rea’s music, and it is now frequently held up as one of the best examples of his early output. Not only did the album reflect his need for personal and artistic growth, but it also set the template for Rea’s distinctive sound and style in a way that would influence his work for years to come. A pivotal release, Tennis consolidated Rea’s own unique voice and vision, helping him continue his journey as one of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation.

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