Published on October 30th, 2017 | by Andy Sedlak
Roy Orbison – ‘Laminar Flow’ 
Summary: The last album of original material Roy Orbison would release in his lifetime was quarterbacked by a bunch a hired guns eager to capitalize on the trends of the 1970s. They had no sense of Obison’s powerful identity — or how easily they could belittle it.
Producers: Clayton Ivey, Terry Woodford
Top 40 singles: 0
Bacon and mayonnaise. Toasters and showers. Alcohol and cell phones.
Some things just don’t belong together.
Like Roy Orbison and disco.
So why did the balladeer — who rose to prominence alongside Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and later mentored the Beatles the year before they came stateside — record something that sounds utterly laughable when said aloud?
Well, he was desperate. He’d lost a wife in a motorcycle accident and two sons to a house fire. By the time he had a triple bypass in 1978, he hadn’t released a hit album in almost 10 years. Business had dried up, along with his personal life.
“I didn’t hear a lot I could relate to,” Orbison said around that time. “I kind of stood there like a tree.”
Enter super producers Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford, hired guns from Asylum Records who believed there was still a little life to be squeezed out of Orbison’s career.
As it turned out, they were right. They just weren’t the ones to do it.
Their contribution to Orbison’s legacy was Laminar Flow — the last record of original material Orbison would release during his lifetime. As its 40th anniversary approaches, we remember an album populated by disco beats at one minute, then flutes, recorders and strings the next. Its direction can only be described as “aimless,” stuck between a half-assed capitalization on the disco trend and a plea to adult contemporary audiences.
For good measure, there’s some flat Anglo-Saxon funk thrown in too.
There’s no telling how bizarre Orbison must have felt recording “Easy Way Out,” a honking mass of generic disco packaged to sell. Although there may be a clue on the album cover — a portrait of the Big O in tight black leather looking stiff as a board.
To his credit, Orbison is a good sport on the record. He almost sounds engaged as his producers send him searching for needles within haystacks. The problem is, in spite of his agreeability, the material seems to be fundamentally at odds with Orbison’s persona.
Orbison has no business being around songs better suited for someone like Rod Stewart. “Warm Spot Hot” has Stewart written all over it — and he’s cheeky enough to pull it off. Who knows how it got into Orbison’s hands. It’s utterly disgusting coming from him.
From “Warm Spot Hot:”
You say your daddy don’t like me much
That’s cause he knows I got the touch
And there’s some things of yours he knows
I been touchin’ too much
The majority of the songs were written by various songwriting teams who clearly had no sense of Orbison’s powerful identity — or how easily they could belittle it.
You make my warm spot hot
You make my bells ring too, ding, ding
You make my warm spot hot
And the things I need a lot you got
Orbison himself wrote three songs on the album: “Movin’,” “Poor Baby” and “Tears.” And, what do you know, they’re the best songs on the thing.
“Poor Baby” plays to Orbison’s strengths (no one coos as epically as Roy). “Tears” is a stacked ballad with a genuine emotional center, made all the more excruciating once his signature vocal takes off. “Movin’” is a throwaway, probably better suited for someone like Jerry Lee Lewis.
But compared to the rest of the material on the record, it’s a joy just to hear something that even manages to be half-assed.
Check into a hotel, hour ’til it’s showtime
Brother won’t you pass me the wine
And those front row women are always lookin’ so fine
“Love is a Cold Wind” is a barrage of serene piano, flutes and shimmering chimes. The parade of pleasantness submerges Orbison’s vocal. That’s not easy to do.
“Friday Night” is nothing but flatlined disco, scattered with cliches. For example:
There’s no telling what you’ll find cruising on a Friday night
By the time you get to “Lay It Down,” which is a grab-and-go attempt at funk, you have to wonder how many trends from the 1970s Ivey and Woodford were willing to throw against the wall.
All of them, apparently.
The thing is Roy Orbision wasn’t Parliament Funkadelic. He wasn’t the Average White Band. Nor was he Rod Stewart, James Taylor or Captain & Tennille. He was Roy Orbison. He had a persona so big that pretending to be anyone else would have been a losing game.
Everything on Laminar Flow was misguided. “I Care” comes within shouting distance of being likable but loses itself with every ting of a triangle — who turns a triangle up in the mix on a rock ’n roller’s album? One wonders what this would have sounded like if he’d cut it with the Traveling Wilburys.
After being jacked around by so many present-day gimmicks, it’s easy to imagine Orbison reminiscing about the old days. That’s exactly what he does on Laminar Flow closer “Hound Dog Man.” It’s a sincere tribute to not only Elvis Presley, but to an era.
The subtext: What happened to us?
Orbison would remain in obscurity for another decade. But in 1989 — 10 years after Laminar Flow — he finally notched a proper comeback in Mystery Girl. With a title track written by Bono and the Edge and a lead single penned by Orbison with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, the album was a Top 5 hit. At long last, someone other than Orbison understood his mystique.
Unfortunately, by that time Orbison had been dead for 2 months. His last taste of success in his lifetime came with the Traveling Wilburys in 1988. Their record, Traveling Wilburys Volume 1, had gone platinum.
“‘Isn’t it great?’” bandmate Tom Petty recalled Orbison saying in their last phone conversation.
It was a heart attack that killed Orbison — only 52 years old — between the releases of Volume 1 and Mystery Girl.
Both records wound up charting at the same time. In fact, they were simultaneously inside the Top 5. Only three other artists notched such an achievement posthumously. One is Elvis Presley. Another is Michael Jackson.
It’s a shame the Big O wouldn’t see the success his own newly recorded solo music would have. After years of seeing dismal results that followed records like Laminar Flow, he certainly would have been tickled.