Songs In the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

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Songs In the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder The incredibly long and ambitious Songs In the Key of Life became the tour-de-force of Stevie Wonder‘s prolific seventies. The album consisted of two LPs plus an addition four-song EP, a total 85 minutes of music from its 21 total songs. Wonder’s songs dealt with a variety of subjects many of which were the serious issues of the day and the musical performances are considered some of the best of his career. Because of its incredible length and rich arrangements, Songs In the Key of Life took a year longer than expected to complete, which made for a stressful situation between Wonder and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, especially since Gordy had just given Wonder the largest record contract in history in 1975. It was a seven-album, $37 million deal with Wonder guaranteed full artistic control, and Gordy and the world eagerly awaited the first album of this new contract to be completed.

The album was finally released at the end of September 1976, and by early October it was already number one on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart, where it stayed for thirteen consecutive weeks into 1977 and eventually became the second best-selling album of that year. Songs In the Key of Life also became the most successful Stevie Wonder album as far as charting singles, and several of the songs were even the basis for hip-hop standards decades later. The album also became Wonder’s third in four years to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, winning previously in 1974 and 1975 for Innervisions and Fulfilligness’ First Finale respectively. Wonder also won Grammys for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male Rhythm and Blues Performer, and Producer of the Year in 1977.

Although a total of 130 people worked on the album, many of the songs on the album were performed entirely by Wonder. The album took the listener through a journey of musical styles, recollections, and observations about issues ranging from childhood, first love, faith, social issues, and the downtrodden.

 


Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder
Released: September 28, 1976 (Motown)
Produced by: Stevie Wonder
Recorded: Crystal Sound, L.A. & The Record Factory, New York, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Love’s In Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Contusion
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Side Three Side Four
Isn’t She Lovely?
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia
If It’s Magic
As
Another Star
A Something’s Extra EP
Saturn
Ebony Eyes
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
Primary Musicians
Stevie Wonder – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Drums, Percussion
Michael Sembello – Guitars
Nathan Watts – Bass
Ray Pounds – Drums

 
When Stevie Wonder chose the title, he set an ambitious personal goal to live up to its billing. He worked with a core group of musicians laying down many of the funk-oriented tracks while independently developing several of the more innovative tracks. Although this diverse album does have amazing cohesion, the first two original sides and EP seem to be far superior to sides three and four, which are still good but far less dazzling. All that being said, side one starts with an odd sequence of songs.

“Love’s In Need of Love Today” starts with deep harmonies before breaking into an R&B ballad. Like many songs later on the album, it contains a very long outro with much vocal improvisation all the way to the end. “Have a Talk with God” is performed in total by Wonder, mostly synths with some drums and a nice lead. “Village Ghetto Land” is completely original, with orchestral parts performed on the Yamaha “dream machine” the lyrics were written by Gary Byrd, who actually recited them over the phone to Wonder minutes before he recorded the song. The fourth song, “Contusion” is actually the first to use a “band” arrangement. It is (almost) an instrumental with just some scat vocals and where Wonder really takes a backseat to the other musicians like guitarist Michael Sembello.

“Sir Duke” finishes side one and is a true classic. The song was written in tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington, who died in 1974. Ellington had a strong influence on Wonder as a musician and he wanted to write a song acknowledging musicians he felt were important. Originally done on 16 track but later on the new 24 track recorder, “Sir Duke” is one of the great songs from the era, fresh and bold with lots of harmonized brass upfront and a fantastic vocal melody by Wonder.
 

 
The A Something’s Extra 7″ EP was included with many editions the original album and the tracks are on most CD versions. It contains four fine tracks, starting with Sembello’s “Saturn”, who got the title when he misinterpreted Wonder’s singing “Saginaw” (the town of his birth). It is a pleasant ballad with a bit of edginess and marching piano. “Ebony Eyes” is a great, upbeat boogie-woogie piano song with strong bass by Nathan Watts and drums by Wonder and really cool instrumentation in the arrangement including a talkbox, a steel guitar, and a great growling sax lead. “All Day Sucker” is another synth-driven, hyper funk song, while “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” starts kind of dramatic but eases into a nice jazz rhythm with a Fender Rhodes electric piano, topped by Wonder’s double-tracked harmonica.

I Wish single by Stevie WonderSide two kicks off with “I Wish”, a song that is nearly impossible not to dance to at every listen. It revolves around several very complex synth and bass lines that mesh together like a funky symphony. The song was the first and most successful hit off the album, with nostalgic lyrics. “Knocks Me Off My Feet” begins with a lounge act piano until it works into a nice romantic ballad with some very interesting and intense sections.

“Pastime Paradise” is another complex art piece, which contains a reverse gong and strings from the “dream machine” that Wonder says were influenced by the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It also contains some very complex, Latin-influenced percussion with bells and two full choral groups singing completely different parts simultaneously. Yet somehow it all comes together in a beautiful and haunting piece. “Summer Soft” is a beautiful piano tune that breaks into nice ensemble with stronger instrumentation, with the end of the song going through many key changes, becoming more and more intense on each iteration until giving way to a closing organ lead by Ronnie Foster. “Ordinary Pain” finishes the fantastic second side as another very pleasant melody with a strong, thumping rhythm which turns sharply about midway through to a new-fangled funk with vocals by Shirley Brewer.

The third LP side starts with “Isn’t She Lovely?”, which would become one of Wonder’s all time popular songs. Written in celebration ofthe the birth of his daughter, Wonder incorporated sounds from home to complement the excellent piano riff, vocal melody, and sweet harmonica lead during the long outtro. “Joy Inside My Tears” contains a slow and steady drum beat played by Wonder with really subdued vocals. “Black Man” has a strong synth presence and 1980s type deep funk (in 1976), with a section of long question and answer chanting at the end.

Stevie Wonder

On the fourth side, “If It’s Magic” stands out as a unique piece containing on harp by Dorothy Ashby and vocals with a little harmonica by Wonder. “As” is an upbeat R&B ballad dominated by the chorus hook sung by background singers with Wonder improvising much of the lead vocals. “Another Star” finishes the side with an almost disco-beat above some Caribbean-influenced piano and percussion and is yet another song with a long outro of consistent riff and improvised vocals.

Songs In the Key of Life was an incredible success on all fronts and would serve as a major influence for scores artists over the coming decades. It was also the absolute apex of a very long career by Stevie Wonder.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums

 

Leftoverture by Kansas

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Leftoverture by Kansas For a long time I considered Kansas to be more like a sidekick act in relation to those truly talented British progressive rock bands. This was probably due, in no small part, to the weak critical reception and tepid coverage that they seem to get from the mainstream rock press, many of whom dismiss them as “corporate rock” or whatever intellectually lazy label they use to dismiss certain acts. But as I listened extensively to Leftoverture while preparing for this review, I came to realize that this band may well equal some of these acts held in higher esteem. While it is i true that they draw heavily from contemporaries like Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd, and Rush, they really have an art for mixing it up in a totally entertaining fashion. Kansas also has a knack for hitting the “sweet spot” when it comes to melody and harmony and they really make their own mark when it comes to true sonic value.

The second epiphany I had concerning the Leftoverture album was actually a question – can this be considered a religious album? There is no doubt that it is definitely philosophical, inspired and spiritual in the new-age lefty kind of way. But is it religious? If so, it may be the best type of religious album; implicit and artful with many subjects left in the form of a very good question, rather than a conclusion or directive.

Which brings us back to the critics of this album, many of which blast it for being a “concept album” without having a true concept. My statement to that is perhaps it is not a concept album at all, just a fine collection of songs with more universal themes than traditional rock and roll. These universal themes may reach beyond the typical conventions of the garden variety rock critic. Others have said the band tries to be too “arty” when they don’t have the talent to do so. To those who say this album doesn’t contain rhythm or composition, I say they simply do not like music.

 


Leftoverture by Kansas
Released: October 1976 (Kirshner)
Produced by: Jeff Glixman & Kansas
Recorded: Studio In the Country, Bogalusa, LA, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Carry On Wayward Son
The Wall
What’s On My Mind
Miracles Out of Nowhere
Opus Insert
Questions of My Childhood
Cheyenne Anthem
Magnus Opus
Group Musicians
Steve Wash – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
Kerry Livgren – Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Clarinet
Rich Williams – Guitars
Robby Steinhardt – Violin, Viola, Vocals
Dave Hope – Bass
Phil Ehart – Drums, Percussion

 

The first side on the album contains a nice mix of styles, highlighted by “The Wall”. The guitar-led intro is just fantastic and nicely switches to the baroque-inspired verse with harpsichord-like keys that are later accented by strings and thumping rhythms. This song really feels influenced by a mixture of Yes and classic Genesis, but with a more terrestrial feel especially when it comes to Walsh’s lead vocals and Livgren’s poetic lyrics which pre-empted Roger Waters by about three years;

It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between,
All I am, and all that I would ever want be, it’s just a travesty…

The next song, “What’s On My Mind”, is almost a straight-forward pop song and therefore probably the weakest song on the album artistically, but not a terrible listen. “Miracles Out of Nowhere” is much stronger, moving through many great instrumental passages with rich instrumentation including acoustic guitars, strings, synths, and piano, while almost folk during verses.

The album’s opener, “Carry On My Wayward Son”, has become the most lasting piece from Leftoverture, receiving heavy airplay through the decades. While this song is definitely pop-oriented, it still feels “epic” in many ways, from the perfect harmonies at the start, to the various passages of musical interlude, and the fine piano backing the verse and very poetic lyric. The song has been called “a sonic monolith” with its meaning still debated, from that of an ongoing theme brought forward from the previous album Masque, to the religious sentiment I touched on earlier in this article.
 

 
The album’s second half is where I feel the true genius lies. Although, I can’t quite articulate that genus in words (something that no doubt frustrated those harsh critics). Starting with “Opus Insert” which is an absolutely brilliant song to the ears but quite baffling (due to its title) to the mind. It may be an inside joke or puzzle left to be solved, but I’ll just stick to what I can report. It is extremely entertaining, starting with an odd, interesting organ that breaks into a heavier section, very good with thumping bass by Dave Hope. It is a “carpe diem” song with nicely strummed acoustic during the chorus followed by a majestic riff of violin/viola which morphs even further into a marching sound with drum rolls behind vibraphone and piano before returning again to odd and beautiful beginning and then synth-led ending.

Before you can catch your breath “Questions of My Childhood” kicks in with a wild and upbeat intro led by synth then organ. More philosophical themes are explored around maturing and realizing you never get all the answers. A great violin lead in the outtro by string man Robby Steinhardt sits on top of the intro synths, which nicely migrate into the background. “Cheyenne Anthem” is nearly a straight-forward folk song with a message, but it seems to have a deeper, poetic meaning as the verses go on (again, religious?) –

All our words and deeds are carried on the wind…”

Musically the song is once again brilliant, never getting bogged down by any predisposed “message”, with nice acoustic guitars and synth overtones and Jethro Tull-like folksy passages which lead to an upbeat section that sounds almost polka (although probably based on Native American tribal dance). This gives way to more Kansas-style riff before the big mid-section breaks back down to simple strummed acoustic guitars and haunting vocals in background.

Kansas in 1976

The album concludes with “Magnum Opus”, an 8½ minute piece which is nearly an instrumental save for a single verse with almost throw-away lyrics about how “rock and roll is only howling at the moon”. The song explores even more exotic sounds, starting with native-type drumming and subtle synths on the top, then moving to heavier guitars and strong rock drumming by Phil Ehart. After the single verse, the song goes into an extended jam, sometimes frenzied, that may have been influenced by Rush’s Caress of Steel, before reaching an abrupt ending to close out Leftoverture.

Kansas would build on the success of this album by cutting Point of Know Return the following year, an even more successful album commercially, which combined with Leftoverture marks the apex of the band’s career.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1976 albums.

 

The Live Album

CRR Special on The Live AlbumWe pretty much cover studio albums exclusively at Classic Rock Review and will continue to do so with the exception of the few studio/live hybrids that we explore later in this article. The reason we do this is because of the generally ubiquitous nature of these live albums as well as the inconsistency in sound and the art of production. In short, we feel the only true way to hear a band live is to hear a band live and we’ll stick to that whole other entertainment art form, the studio album. However, this surely does not mean that the live album has now place in the world of classic rock. So today we will examine some of the more important live albums through time, with a special look at 1976, the current year we are reviewing with our regular features and one year that was especially rich with quality live albums.

The Classic Live Albums

Ever since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 there have been live recordings, starting with the the first commercially available music recordings in the 1880s. All recordings were “live”, whether in a studio or concert hall for about 70 years until the 1950s when the first multi track recordings began. But it wasn’t really until 1960s when the true distinction of a live album was made. Although rock n’ roll would be the genre most strongly tied to the live album, two of the most influential recordings came from artists tied mainly to other styles, James Brown and Johnny Cash.

Live At the Apollo by James BrownLive At the Apollo was recorded on October 24, 1962 at the famed theatre in Harlem, New York and released the following year. It was produced at Brown’s expense when his record label opposed the concept of recording an album full of live versions of songs which had already been released. To everyone’s surprise, Live At the Apollo sold rapidly and spent more than a year on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. It was so popular that many radio DJs began playing the album in its entirety, only pausing for commercials during the side break.

Live at Folsom Prison by Johnny CashJohnny Cash met much of the same resistance from his own record label when he proposed recording an album live at the prison he made famous over a decade earlier with his song “Folsom Prison Blues”. The album was recorded at the state prison in California during two shows on the morning and afternoon of January 10, 1968 and released later that year. Cash was supported in this project by his future wife June Carter, his backing band The Tennessee Three, supporting act The Statler Brothers, as well as then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, but with little investment by Columbia records. Nonetheless, the album still rocketed to number one on the Country Charts and the top twenty on the mainstream charts. Further, the album revitalized Cash’s career and lead to his producing a second prison album, At San Quentin.

Woodstock Original SoundtrackA third mega-successful live album from the recordings in the 1960s was the Woodstock soundtrack, a 6-sided triple album released on May 11, 1970. The album was unique at the time not only because of the variety of performers (18 different artists performed on the original version), but also for its “feel” as just about each track contained stage announcements and conversations among the musicians, which acted as a narrator of the overall Woodstock story. The original LP was also laid out with side one backed with side six, side two backed with side five, and side three backed with side four, to accommodate the popular record changer turntables, something which would become standard for most multi-disk live albums.

Early 1970s Live Albums
Some of the better Live Albums of the early 1970s

Starting in 1970, a prolific period of several top-notch live recordings began. That year featured many great live albums such as Live At Leeds by The Who, Absolutely Live by The Doors, Band of Gypsys by Jimi Hendrix, and Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Joe Cocker, which had sales fueled by his impressive performance on the the a fore-mentioned Woodstock soundtrack. Subsequent years saw more classic live recordings such as At Filmore East by the Allman Brothers in 1971, Made In Japan by Deep Purple in 1972, Yessongs by Yes in 1973, Alive by Kiss in 1975, along with a couple of original live recordings by the Grateful Dead.

As the golden age of live albums started to wane in the late seventies and early eighties, the quality live albums were fewer and further between. In 1978 Aerosmith released the fine Live Bootleg while the newcomers Cheap Trick released At Budokan. The Eagles finished off their remarkable career with Eagles Live in 1980 while another band with a long career capitalized on their new found fame with Showtime! in 1982. The following year, U2 displayed their talents on Under a Blood Red Sky.

The great live album that never was should have been released following the plethora of great performances at Live Aid in 1985. No tradition “album” was released from these performances with a four DVD set finally coming out in 2004.

Top Live Albums from the Later Classic Rock Period
Top Live Albums from the Later Classic Rock Period

Live Albums in 1976

At this articles date of publication, the year the Classic Rock Review is examining is 1976, which also happened to be a very strong year for live recordings. In fact, the deliberation on whether to cover some these live albums with regular reviews is what initially sparked the idea for this special feature. So we’ll give a little bit of special attention to some of the great live albums from the bicentennial year.

Frampton Comes Alive by Peter FramptonFrampton Comes Alive! by Peter Frampton
Released January 6, 1976 (Double LP)

Perhaps one of the most successful commercial live albums ever, Frampton Comes Alive! was a double live that sold at a price comparable to “single” albums of the day. This marketing scheme may have incentivized fans to check out this artist whose previous four solo albums had little commercial success, but it was the quality of the material and performance that created the snowball effect making this a true breakthrough for Frampton.

Robin Trower LiveRobin Tower Live by Robin Tower
Released March 3, 1976 (Single LP)

Recorded in Sweden over a year before its release, this album by a true power trio lead by the former axeman of Procol Harum captures the group extremely loose and freewheeling. This is because the shows were recorded by the Swedish Broadcasting Company while the band was completely unaware that the show was being taped.

Live Bullet by Bob SegerLive Bullet by Bob Segar
Released April 12, 1976 (Double LP)

Live Bullet forecast the popular rise of Bob Seger by first becoming a staple on Detroit rock radio and later reaching a much further audience due to some of the timeless classics on the album. Although Seger’s success was still mainly regional, this album played a large role in him headlining before 78,000 at the Pontiac Silverdome in June 1976.

One More From the Road by Lynard SkynardOne More From the Road by Lynard Skynard
Released September 13, 1976 (Double LP)

This was Lynard Skynard’s first, and sadly last live album during the “classic” era of the band, which ended with a plane crash in 1977 that killed several members. The version of “Freebird” propelled that then-five-year-old song into FM radio super status for decades to come.

The Song Remains the Same by Led ZeppelinThe Song Remains the Same by Led Zeppelin
Released September 28, 1976 (Double LP)

Led Zeppelin was a fantastic live act, as we later found out from the various bootlegs and eventual collections released in the 1990s and 2000s. Unfortunately, the band’s only concerted effort at capturing the live magic was done during a couple of sub-par shows at the end of their 1973 tour. Producer Jimmy Page and the band spent three years overdubbing and patching in both audio and video for the dual film and soundtrack. It was great because it was Zeppelin live and it was all we had for decades. But it could have been so much greater.

All the World's a Stage by RushAll the World’s a Stage by Rush
Released September 29, 1976 (Double LP)

All the World’s a Stage was the first live album by Rush, marking the conclusion of the first four studio, one live album “phase” of the band. They would repeat this pattern several more times through their long career. The performances were recorded in June 1976 in the trio’s home city of Toronto.

Wings Over America by WingsWings Over America by Wings
Released December 10, 1976 (Triple LP)

A decade after the Beatles stopped playing live gigs, fans finally got a chance to hear Paul McCartney perform live with his new band, Wings. Although the triple album was made up mostly of songs from McCartney’s post-Beatles career, Wings Over America did offer five Beatles songs becoming the most modern recordings to date of these compositions.

Hybrid Albums

Through the years there were a select number of albums which contained a hybrid of live and recorded material. These include Cream‘s Wheels Of Fire from 1968, Pink Floyd‘s Ummagumma from 1969, Eat a Peach by the Allman Brothers and Everybody’s In Showbiz by The Kinks from 1972, and Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young & Crazy Horse in 1979. Classic Rock Review may review these as regular albums when the time comes.

Hybrid Albums

Ironically, as more and more live albums proliferated through the 1990s their prestige seemed to wane and fewer and fewer were considered “classic” recordings. This is likely due to the relative simplicity of digital recordings and hence the less capturing of “lightning in a bottle” with live performances. Still, we’ve only just scratched the surface of all the fine live albums through the decades, so please feel free to comment on some of these omissions.

~
Ric Albano

Hejira by Joni Mitchell

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Hejira by Joni MitchellJoni Mitchell once said, “from time to time the river of my music needs new tributaries.” And so it was with Hejira. She slowly tilted towards a more jazz influenced sound, but in a very original way. This album may be her best overall artistically, even though mainstream critics will always echo each other in insisting that 1971’s Blue is Mitchell’s masterpiece album. No doubt that is a fine album but it is a bit too “folk” for some of us rock fans. On Hejira the sound is forged by the finger-picked electric guitars of Joni Mitchell, the odd yet pleasant bass flourishes of Jaco Pastorius, and very minimal forms of any other instrumentation. This is all the canvas beneath the poetic and pretty vocals of Mitchell, whose extraordinary talents are at their height on this album.

The title is apparently a transliteration of the Arabic word heijra, which means “journey.” This makes sense because the songs were written by Mitchell on a solo drive from Maine all the way across country to her home in Los Angeles. Having traveled solo across the country myself on a few occasions, I can relate to some of the scenery painted in these songs fueled by a bittersweet combo of restless adventure and surreal isolation. While many of the songs speak of specific places and events, the underlying theme of the album is set in the music itself. The inflections of Mitchell’s voice capture the constant motion of the road and scenery. It is the languid occupation of the driver’s seat while all the “action” takes place within the mind.

Remarkably, the album contains a healthy dose of musical diversity from these very sparse instrumental arrangements. Each song is guitar based because of the mobility of that instrument unlike Mitchell’s other primary instrument, the piano. But it is really hard to lock many of the songs into a specific genre because they are truly original. For this reason many critics employed their favorite catch-all and deemed Hejira a “jazz” album, but I don’t think this is totally accurate.

 


Hejira by Joni Mitchell
Released: November, 1976 (Asylum)
Produced by: Joni Mitchell
Recorded: A&M Studios, Hollywood, CA, 1976
Side One Side Two
Coyote
Amelia
Furry Sings the Blues
A Strange Boy
Hejira
Song For Sharon
Black Crow
Blue Motel Room
Refuge of the Roads
Primary Musicians
Joni Mitchell – Lead Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Jaco Pastorius – Bass
Larry Carlton – Acoustic & Electric Guitars
John Guerin – Drums
Bobbye Hall – Percussion

 

The album begins with its strongest and most forceful song “Coyote”, with the triple sonic delights of the guitar strumming, fret-less bass, and very melodic vocals. It is clear from the start that this is nothing typical as the song turns on several dimes, never quite letting the listener relax into any specific groove. The lyrics tell of a presumed affair on one of the stops along her travels.

On the opposite end of the album, “Refuge of the Roads” contains more fantastic fretless bass by Pastorius, although this song is not quite as strong as others and kind of breaks off and whimpers with distant bass flourishes as the song (and album) concludes. “Amelia” contains a most poetic lyric and is closer to a traditional folk song than most songs on the album, but with its own share of alternate sounds. It is reminiscent of calmer folk songs by rock bands,such as “A Pillow of Winds” by Pink Floyd and “That’s the Way” by Led Zeppelin. Mitchell’s lyrics superimposed her own solo trip to that of Amelia Earhart, with a slight sense of trepidation.

“She was swallowed by the sky or by the sea
like me, she had a dream to fly…”

 
“Furry Sings the Blues” is probably the most controversial song on Hejira as it directly references (and somewhat mocks the style of) blues man Furry Lewis, who Mitchell had met the year before in Memphis. Problem is, Lewis despised the song and decried the unauthorized use of his name, at one point demanding to be paid royalties. Pastorius returns on “Black Crow”, a faster paced, tension filled song that is accented by electric overtones, while “Blue Motel Room” takes a complete turn towards a night club style, slow and bluesy jazz standard with Chuck Domanico on bass and John Guerin on drums.

Joni Mitchell Painting“Song for Sharon” is of epic length at nearly nine minutes and harkens back to the long folk pieces by Bob Dylan, as this piece focuses on the vocals and lyrics more than any other. However, it also contains a catchy swing beat and some nice female background vocals and refers to a trip to the famous Mandolin Brothers music store in Staten Island, New York. The title track, “Hejira,” is perhaps the best single example of the fantastic sound scape of this album of the same name. It features some clarinet by Abe Most, more wild bass motifs by Pastorius and a really cool picked electric riff, which gives the feeling of traveling more than anywhere else.

By the time Joni Mitchell wrote and recorded Hejira, she had already surpassed the apex of her career as far as commercial sales and critical acclaim. Consequently, the album did not sell as well as her earlier, more “radio friendly” albums. However, the test of time has shone on this album favorably and Mitchell herself believes the album to be a unique and personal gem stating, “I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
by AC/DC

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Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap by 1976 AC/DC Australian rockers AC/DC produced their third album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap during the summer of 1976 and released it in their home land in September of that year on the Albert Records label. A few months later, an international version of the album was released on Atlantic Records in many markets around the world but not in the United States. It would not be released in America until 1981, a full five years later. This fact is rather incredible when you listen to the album and recognize its high quality and commercial appeal. When the album was finally released in the States soon after the breakthrough album Back In Black, it became an instant smash, reaching #3 on the Billboard album charts and propelled the band into super-stardom.

The original Australian version of the album differs from the international (and later U.S.) version, which include shorter versions of two songs and replace “R.I.P. (Rock in Peace)” and “Jailbreak” with “Rocker” and “Love at First Feel”. All songs on the album are original, with the music written by brother guitarists Angus Young and Malcolm Young and the lyrics penned by singer Bon Scott.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap also contains some material with controversial lyrics, much in an explicit sexual nature. The band originally entertained the idea of developing a “concept” centered around a classic mystery scenario. The title was derived from a character on the cartoon Beany and Cecil, which carried a business card that read, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Holidays, Sundays and Special Rates.”
 


Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap by AC/DC
Released: September 20, 1976 (Albert, Australia)
Produced by: Harry Vanda & George Young
Recorded: January-July 1976
Side One Side Two
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Love at First Feel
Big Balls
Rocker
Problem Child
There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin’
Ain’t No Fun
(Waiting Round To Be a Millionaire)
Ride On
Squealer
Band Musicians
Bon Scott – Lead Vocals
Angus Young – Lead Guitars, Vocals
Malcom Young – Guitars, Vocals
Mark Evans – Bass
Phil Rudd – Drums

 

The closer “Squealer” is the absolute raunchiest song on the album, as it steps right up to the line between purely explicit and something much darker and creepier. This asymmetrical tangent is lead by the driving riff by bassist Mark Evans and may be comparable to some of the material of the alternative era two decades later. “Big Balls” is simply brilliant. It is as risque as “Squealer” but done in a much more tactful way as the lyric is bold and almost vulgar while protected by the tremendous use of double entendre. Scott works this song tremendously using a very dramatic and theatrical telling that drives the song home.

The album kicks in with the title song, presented almost in the form of a commercial for a criminal for hire. Using an excellent play on words and an amazing sense of restraint by the normally maniacal Young brothers, this is also the first of several songs on the album to employ the child-like chorus during the refrain. “Love at First Feel” follows as a suitable complement to the opener, with an entertaining guitar riff and an introduction into the raunchy songs of Dirty Deeds.
 

 
Bon Scott died in February 1980, over a year before any of Americans heard his great work on Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. At the time of his death, none of the surviving members of the band had yet heard their next singer Brian Johnson perform. However, Scott had heard him and compared Johnson favorably to a modern day Little Richard. This was a bit ironic, as Scott had obviously admired the classic performer as he replicated him as best he could in “Rocker”. This song, along with “There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin”, showed the band paying homage to traditional rock n’ roll. “Problem Child” goes the opposite direction in time, previewing the AC/DC style of the later Bon Scott years through the Brian Johnson era. “Ain’t No Fun Waitin’ Round to Be a Millionaire” starts with a really cool alt/chorus riff, adding a great dimension to this song, which is also well ahead of its time. The band stays on a repetitive riff for long time before finally giving way to the chorus break which repeats many times before breaking into an outtro section based on the verse riff sped up.

“Ride On” is simply a great song with the simplest of blues-based rhythm and a strong and steady beat by drummer Phil Rudd. The simple and calm riff, which displays nice restraint by the Young brothers, backs up the finest singing by Bon Scott. The song feels at times like it’s going to break into something heavier but stays within the bounds of its own structure accented only by a bluesy lead by Angus Young. The song contains good lyrics and a well-placed whisper in chorus hook, which Scott never actually sings, giving the song yet another edge.

AC/DC in 1976

The album is not only “dirty” and “raunchy” but also diverse. With a sense of satire and wittiness that rivals Frank Zappa combined with the unambiguous, straight-up rock employed by contemporaries like Aerosmith and Kiss, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap hits a unique groove like no other work. Not being released for five years may have actually placed the album in a more perfect slot for the American audience as it arrived after Back in Black as an even more mature album artistically.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1976 albums.

 

The Pretender by Jackson Browne

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The Pretender by Jackson BrowneWritten the the wake of a personal tragedy, The Pretender, by Jackson Browne brings the listener on a subtle journey. It begins by exploring the heavy burdens and trials of life from which you must fight your way through to the elusive goal and the ultimate reward – happiness. The whole thing is obviously written by someone in the midst of great despair, but the overall theme is that things will somehow work out despite all the darkness and pain. A thought that somewhere along the line you’ll be rewarded for simply doing the right thing as long as you keep plugging along is a general theme of the album.

The Pretender was written and released months after the suicide of Browne’s first wife, Phyllis Major. Browne was left with their two-year-old son. Finding one’s way through darkness and heartbreak in life is the universal theme that gives this collection its staying power. While Browne had intentionally explored many dark issues on his first three albums in the early seventies, on this fourth album he seems to be desperately crawling in opposite directions by trying to make sense of it all and understand the larger picture.

Browne continues to use his signature style of Southern California piano-folk, there are many subtle intrusions that seep into these (largely) unassuming ballads. He plays on sonic dynamics from very simple melodies to much richer musical arrangements backing up a very specific type of poetic philosophy.

 


The Pretender by Jackson Browne
Released: November, 1976 (Asylum)
Produced by: John Landau & Jackson Browne
Recorded: The Sound Factory, Hollywood, CA, 1976
Side One Side Two
The Fuse
Your Bright Baby Blues
Linda Paloma
Here Come Those Tears Again
The Only Child
Daddy’s Tune
Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate
The Pretender
Primary Musicians
Jackson Browne – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Acoustic Guitars
Fred Tackett – Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Billy Payne – Piano, Organ
Leland Sklar – Bass
Jeff Porcaro – Drums

 

The album commences with “The Fuse”, a strong yet confusing song which may be interpreted in different ways by different people. It may mean the fuse that leads to the ultimate destruction or it may simply mean light the fuse to happiness and you are what you choose to be. The music consists of choppy little piano note riffs with nice lead guitar overtones by David Lindley. “Your Bright Baby Blues” is a more measured, standard song with dynamic vocals by Browne and another nice guitar lead, this time by Lowell George, with lyrics that speak of a temporary fix but persistent issues;

“No matter how fast I run, I can’t run away from me…”

The Pretender contains a few tracks with cross-genre and diverse sounds. “Linda Paloma” has an interesting Mexican sound with a harp by Arthur Gerst and Roberto Guiterrez on guitaron. However, this song does tend to drone after a while. “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” is a more succinct ballad with thick strings backing the core piano, bass, and acoustic guitar and speaks of a sudden awakening after years of sleepwalking through life, apparently a direct reference to his wife’s suicide.

“Here Come Those Tears Again” was co-written by Browne’s Mother-in-law Nancy Farnsworth. Although it is probably the closest to a “pop hit” on the album, it is very poetic in its approach with a strong musical arrangement and well blended guitar and piano. “The Only Child” apparently speaks of Browne’s son and is another “journey” kind of song with a fiddle by David Lindley throughout. “Daddy’s Tune” starts as a basic ballad with some very good piano that later breaks into a highly enjoyable, upbeat, horn section.
 

 
The closing title song is the best song on the album as well as the theme which ties it all together. It is a multi-part, lyric rich, mini suite, which is basically poetry set to music. It speaks of getting lost in the details while losing sight of the big picture, starting young and strong but ending up living the life of a “happy idiot” with “paint by number dreams”. Browne began recording “The Pretender” in the late winter of 1975, after first joining up with rock critic and producer Jon Landau. A few weeks into the song’s development, Browne’s wife committed suicide, changing the perspective completely.

Still, the song and album ends with a tinge of hope;

Are you there? Say a prayer for the pretender / Who started out so young and strong only to surrender…”

The last lines of the song are a call to wake up and start realizing your dreams before it’s too late – time marches and what you choose to do with your time is up to you – don’t let it pass you by or you will be the Pretender.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

Night Moves by Bob Seger

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Night Moves by Bob SegerAlthough this album was his first real breakthrough, Night Moves is actually the ninth overall studio album by Bob Seger. Starting off in his home Detroit area, his career dated all the way back to 1961. For the first decade, his career went through several incarnations with differing acts including earlier bands with names like The Decibels, The Town Criers, and Doug Brown & the Omens. In the late sixties and early seventies, Seger fronted the acts Bob Seger and the Herd and The Bob Seger System. Over those years, Seger scored some big regional hits as well as a few small national hits, but never quite found the career cohesion to build any serious popular momentum. That all changed when Seger formed the Silver Bullet Band.

Coming together in 1974, the Silver Bullet Band included original members Drew Abbott on guitar, Alto Reed on saxophone, Chris Campbell on bass, and Charlie Allen Martin on drums. With the recording of the 1975 album Beautiful Loser, Robyn Robbins joined on keyboards. In April 1976, this new band recorded Live Bullet which contained tracks that started to receive heavy airplay on album-oriented radio, forecasting some greater success to come. This potential was confirmed in a huge way during the summer of 1976, when Seger headlined a show in front of 80,000 at the Pontiac Superdome in suburban Detroit.

Although Night Moves is credited to the Silver Bullet Band, nearly half of the album is backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section from the famous studio in Alabama. The album was well received by critics and was Seger’s first to be certified platinum and to date it has sold over six million copies
worldwide.

 


Night Moves by Bob Segar
Released: October 22, 1976 (Capitol)
Produced by: Bob Segar & Punch Andrews
Recorded: Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, Alabama, 1976
Side One Side Two
Rock and Roll Never Forgets
Night Moves
The Fire Down Below
Sunburst
Sunspot Baby
Mainstreet
Come to Poppa
Ship of Fools
Mary Lou
Primary Musicians
Bob Seger – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Drew Abbot – Guitars
Robyn Robbins – Piano, Organ
Alto Reed – Saxophones
Chris Campbell – Bass
Chris Allen Martin Drums & Percussion

 

A couple of years before he would record the standard “Old Time Rock and Roll”, Bob Seger touched on the genre of roots rock with “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” as the opening song from Night Moves. The song sets the pace for the nostalgic feel of the album which seemed to be targeted at twenty and thirty-somethings.

The title song “Night Moves” was nearly an instant classic as a compelling story about the secret getaways of teenage lovers. Influenced by Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”, Seger wrote and recorded the song during a session in a Toronto studio, and employed an interesting arrangement that brings the listener on a journey from the past to the present.

Several songs on Night Moves are female-centric, starting with “The Fire Down Below” which cynically deals with the world of prostitution. “Sunspot Baby” deals with a free-spirited woman who takes off while “Come To Poppa” is quite the opposite, dealing with a needy woman who constantly returns to her benefactor when times are tough.

Mainstreet single by Bob Seger“Mainstreet” is probably the best overall song on the album. It talks of a young stripper losing her innocence in a world of smokey bars, as told from the point of view of her protagonist observer. The song has an incredible atmosphere painted by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section sound, especially the smooth, ethereal guitar line which is the song’s main signature. This background scenery is balanced by the moody, narrative lyrics by Seger, which were literally written about “Ann Street” in Seger’s childhood hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Night Moves would be a t the forefront of Segar’s most popular period, which was anchored by three solid and successful albums starting with this one in 1976, and followed by Stranger In Town in 1978 and Against the Wind in 1980.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

A New World Record by E.L.O.

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A New World Record by ELO The sixth overall album for Electric Light Orchestra (E.L.O.), A New World Record would become the band’s breakthrough worldwide. Lead singer, chief songwriter, and producer Jeff Lynne later said he considered this album to be the band’s pinnacle (and he may be right). The album combines the better elements of ELO’s of previous works – great pop sensibility and melody with deeper orchestral arrangements and polished production. It is also a transitional album where the sound of the band becomes less progressive and more radio-friendly, with no less than four “hit” songs charting from A New World Record, helping the band to finally break through in their native England.

A New World Record was recorded at Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany, the same location where ELO recorded their previous album Face the Music the year before (it is also the same location where our most recent review Presence by Led Zeppelin was recorded). This studio in the basement of a majestic hotel along with its famed engineer Reinhold Mack.

Many have describe the band’s sound as The Beatles advanced about a half decade later, and there is definitely audio evidence to back that assertion, but there is much more here. Although on one level completely unique, the sound that Jeff Lynne and the band forged through the mid-to-late seventies was the perfect soundtrack for the colorful, bright, and “Star Wars” motif of the era. Further, while many sentiments migrated to the polar extremes of disco and punk when abandoning the over-indulgent virtuosity of progressive rock, E.L.O. chose a more mainstream, roots-rock core just as the generation which grew up in the 1950s were feeling nostalgic for this music. This same core was never truly abandoned by the Beatles, through all their late sixties innovation, so there may be the true comparison.

 


A New World Record by Electric Light Orchestra
Released: September 11, 1976 (Jet)
Produced by: Jeff Lynne
Recorded: Musicland Studios, Munich, July 1976
Side One Side Two
Tightrope
Telephone Line
Rockaria
Mission (A World Record)
So Fine
Livin’ Thing
Above the Clouds
Do Ya
Shangri-La
Band Musicians
Jeff Lynne – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano
Richard Tandy – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Kelly Groucutt – Bass, Vocals
Bev Bevan – Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Mik Kaminski – Violin
Hugh McDowell & Melvyn Gale – Cellos
Louis Clark – Orchestral

 

A New World Record begins with “Tightrope”, which comes in with a deep and doomy synth that gives way to strings and orchestral vocals before finally kicking in fully at around 1:15 with the thumping rhythm of drummer Bev Bevan and bassist Kelly Groucutt. An excellent rock song interspersed with the “edge” of orchestral strings and choral vocals, this song sets the pace for the rest of the album allthe way through its concluding “Shangri-La”. This last song seems to be a play on to the theme song to the band’s 1974 album El Dorado, both mythical places where the music of E.L.O. tries to take us.

The beautiful and serene “Telephone Line” is a more traditional love song with a definite late-era-Beatles “Golden Slumbers” vibe, especially during the verse. Vocally, the song is superb with Lynn’s voice starting at extreme mid-range for the “telephone” effect before slowly morphing towards normalcy and the chorus “do wap” section adds an undeniable hook. In contrast “Rockaria”, while still very poppy and entertaining, could not be any less conventional. Perhaps the best song on the album, it literally adds opera to a true rock song, in a way as smooth (if not smoother) than Queen did on A Night At the Opera a year earlier. “Rockaria” constantly fluctuates between an aria and an old time, thumping rock song, all very seamless and sweet, yet truly unique.

The first side ends with “Mission”, a quasi-thematic piece with heavy strings throughout with nice sprinklings of Lynne’s guitars and Richard Tandy’s clavichord. The second side kicks off with “So Fine”, a funky song with some modern, almost synthesized sounds complementing that show the band was trying to fit into the disco world as well.
 

 
A signature orchestral riff is carried over from “So Fine” to the hit song “Livin’ Thing”, driven by an excellent acoustic rhythm, some majestic lead vocals, and a couple of violin interludes by Mike Kaminski, This would one of the most popular songs ever by the band. “Above the Clouds” follows as an odd but interesting, McCartney-esque song with thumping piano and a subtle Theremin whining in the background through two verses before breaking down with a slow string-led ending. “Do Ya” is pop/rock at its finest, perfect for the era as a radio hit as well as a nice counter-balace to the more serious material on the album. The song is a simple rocker yet impossible to ignore and puts the album well over the top as a commercial success.

In the wake of the tremendous success of A New World Record, E.L.O. would go on to produce their most ambitious effort the following year with Out Of the Blue in 1977 and would remain a relevant force in the pop and rock world into the early eighties.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

Presence by Led Zeppelin

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Presence by Led ZeppelinIn late 1975, Led Zeppelin had planned a world tour to capitalize of the phenomenal success of their latest album Physical Graffiti. The band was at the absolute zenith of their popularity with a string on top-selling albums going back to 1969. However, a serious car accident involving lead singer Robert Plant while he was vacationing on the island of Rhodes with his wife, made the tour impossible. Plant was confined to a wheelchair for nearly six months and this tilted the band towards writing and recording a new “unplanned” album. The result was Presence, the least successful album in the Zeppelin catalog commercially and one with very mixed reviews critically. However, Presence is the album that the band themselves consider to be their “most important”.

During his recovery period in Malibu, CA following the accident, Plant began to write some lyrics. He was soon joined by guitarist and producer Jimmy Page to further work on these compositions. When enough material had been written, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham were summoned to rehearsals in California. The band then migrated to Munich, Germany for recording, all with Plant still in a wheelchair. The studio was small, in a basement, and very difficult for Plant to work in. Further, the band found out that they had just 18 days for the entire production as the Rolling Stones had the very same studio booked for their next album, Black and Blue. As producer, Page pretty much stayed awake for the entire 18 days in order to complete the album in Munich.

The result is, perhaps, the most unusual Led Zeppelin album (although each of their albums are quite distinct). Page developed a cleaner, “twang-ier” guitar sound in contrast to his signature “crunch” riffs of earlier days. Bonham’s drumming is furious and strong with a sound extended from that on Physical Graffiti, while Jones continued his migration from a dynamic blues to that of a more standard rock bass player. As Plant himself admits, his vocals dynamics suffered a bit due to his confinement. Further, he was a bit upset with the band’s management for keeping him from his wife, who was also seriously injured in the car wreck and recovering back in England, mainly due to tax reasons. Still, Robert Plant at 50% is superior to most rock singers and his performance on Presence is far from embarrassing.

The album was completed on November 26, 1975, the day before Thanksgiving, and that American holiday was considered as the title for the album. This title was rejected in favor of “Presence”, a representative force surrounding the band. The cover artwork features various images of random people interacting with a black obelisk-shaped “object”, a sort of play on the space object in the film 2001.

 


Presence by Led Zeppelin
Released: March 31, 1976 (Swan Song)
Produced by: Jimmy Page
Recorded: Musicland Studios, Munich, November 1975
Side One Side Two
Achilles Last Stand
For Your Life
Royal Orleans
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Candy Store Rock
Hots On For Nowhere
Tea For One
Group Musicians
Robert Plant – Lead Vocals, Harmonica
Jimmy Page – Guitars
John Paul Jones – Bass
John Bonham – Drums & Percussion

 

Presence is the only Led Zeppelin album with neither acoustic or keyboard tracks, as the band made a concerted effort to forge and updated version of their earliest “raw” sound. This strategy succeeds well on the first side but is less successful on the second side as the three songs on the first side are far superior to the four on the second. Still, it is refreshing that the band never lost their capacity for experimentation even with this quickly rushed album.

Unlike most albums which tend to build towards an epic song late on either sides this album kicks off right away with “Achilles Last Stand”, the tour de force of Presence. The song starts with dreamy, flanged guitar intro by Page which gives way to a rapid trigger-like riff that gets variated throughout. It is a true journey of a song lead by Plant’s lyric and vocal telling of his misfortune in the land of the Greek heroes. One flaw with the song is that it lasts just a bit too long and becomes a little repetitive towards the end. It perhaps would have worked better as a 7-minute song than this 10½ minute goliath.

Led Zeppelin in 1976

This last point is magnified with the album’s closer “Tea For One”, another extended cut but with a lot less action. The truth is, the best part of this 9-plus-minute song is the first 21 seconds when the band does a riff completely out of context with the rest of the song, which is a slow and depressing diddy that wallows in misery and desperately cries for a kick into a higher gear at some point. Some have pointed to the shorter songs on the album as “filler”, but I believe the filler actually lies within the longer compositions themselves by virtue of repetitiveness. Which begs the question – if the band didn’t feel like they had enough material, why not add some older material like they had with Physical Graffiti? We know now that there were some fine, unreleased songs out there like “Traveling Riverside Blues”, “Poor Tom”, and “Hey, Hey What Can I Do?”

Royal Orleans by Led ZeppelinRounding out side one is a couple of unique Zeppelin gems. “For Your Life” is the quintessential Led Zeppelin song, filled with bluesy licks over a catchy riff and dynamic, much-improvised vocals by Plant belting out lyrics that are hard to decipher completely, but with a vibe “felt” to the bone. The song contains nice changes, an interesting bridge, and a precise, simple, and strong beat throughout by Bonham. “Royal Orleans” is a fun and funky tune allegedly retelling a story involving John Paul Jones and a transvestite.

Launching the second side, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, Plant’s guilt-ridden song about bad things befalling him (presumably the car wreck) due to his own actions. The song contains an excellent blues harp solo, unlike anything he had done since “When the Levee Breaks” on Led Zeppelin IV, five years earlier. It is the first of two distinct leads, followed by Page’s own bluesy guitar lead, combined these make up the best part of the song. Much like “Achilles”, this composition would be better if more succinct and less repetitive, but it is still a fine track.
 

 
The heart of the second side contains two fine sounding throwback songs. “Candy Store Rock” is an Elvis tribute, which uses the candy store as an analogy for sex in the same fashion that “Trampled Underfoot” used the car on the previous album. It is not a terrible listen but just a little disappointing in the minimalist approach of Page and Jones. Bonham, on the other hand plays a very interesting beat with entertaining variations throughout. “Hots On for Nowhere” is one of the forgotten gems of the Zeppelin catalog, a stop-start rockabilly riff and beat with some nice changes. It is a song with a very upbeat vibe despite the mainly depressing lyrics.

Presence did initially rush to #1 on the Billboard charts (probably due to the band’s popularity alone) but quickly fell and tracks from this album have rarely received airplay. Also, because of it being completely built in the studio, few songs from the album were played live on subsequent tours. Still, despite this initial subdued reception, Presence is an excellent listen that has held up well over the decades and cannot be overlooked by any true fans of Led Zeppelin today.

~

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1976 albums.

 

Turnstiles by Billy Joel

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Turnstiles by Billy JoelTurnstiles is , in a lot of ways, the “growing up” album for Billy Joel. Even though he was only in his mid twenties at the time of its production (which was also his debut as a producer), it is the most reflective and nostalgic album that he would ever make. Further, it came at a time when he had decided to return to his native New York from a three year exile to California where he cut his teeth in piano bars and wrote and recorded his initial two albums for Columbia Records. This additional element played a large part in constructing this collection of songs which focus on the past and present in a deep and philosophical way.

This geographic shift by Joel is evident on several levels, lyrically as well as stylistically on Turnstiles. Both Hollywood and New York are explicitly and implicitly referred to in several songs, with the rest comparing and contrasting the past and present through specific issues – music (“All You Want To Do Is Dance”), careers (“James”), and politics/ideology (“Angry Young Man”). The album’s cover shows Joel at a subway turnstile with eight others, each representing a central lyrical characters in each of the album’s eight songs.

Stylistically, Joel abandoned the softer “California” sound, for more raw, albeit diverse, rock using his new touring band in the studio. This also migrated his sound more towards that of fellow east-coaster Bruce Springsteen, who had just released his masterpiece, Born to Run. The decision came after Joel fired the original producer of the album, James William Guercio, after being dissatisfied with the initial recordings. He then and took over as producer himself and moved production to a studio in his native Long Island to make the album his way. The result was a very musically diverse and satisfying gem.

 


Turnstiles by Billy Joel
Released: May 19, 1976 (Columbia)
Produced by: Billy Joel
Recorded: Ultrasonic Studios, Hempstead, NY, January 1976
Side One Side Two
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Summer, Highland Falls
All You Want To Do Is Dance
New York State of Mind
James
Prelude / Angry Young Man
I’ve Loved These Days
Miami 2017
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Piano, Keyboards, Harmonica, Vocals
Russell Javors – Guitars
Richie Cannata – Saxophone, Guitar
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty Devitto – Drums

 

“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” launches the album with Spector-esque percussion effects and a great overall sonic aura. Here, even the “stylish” strings are held to a minimum, so the song resists the urge of being forever “dated” in the mid-seventies. The vacillating between a slow and calm beat in the verse and a driving rocker during the chorus is a good testament to the songwriting genius of Billy Joel. The song was a celebration of his life back in New York, breaking from the culture of Hollywood.

“Summer, Highland Falls”, a true gem of a Billy Joel song, philosophically deep yet a pleasant and melodic listen. The piano definitely leads the music but does not dominate, as Billy Joel the producer allowed much room for his fine backing band. This is followed up by another reflective song, but of a sharply contrasting genre called “All You Wanna Do Is Dance”. With a consistent reggae beat and Caribbean overtones, this song fuses in some artistic nods to Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell as well as Bob Marley.

Billy Joel in 1976

Billy Joel describes “New York State of Mind” as rebellious against those ex-New Yorkers who seemed to celebrate the city’s demise during the mid seventies. It would go on to become a standard, especially after September 11th, being played at all kinds of ball games and events. The song showcases Joel’s technical proficiency on the piano as well as the fine sax playing of Richie Cannata. It is an early impersonation of Ray Charles, something he would revisit ten years later with “Baby Grand”.
 

 
The second side of Turnstiles starts with “James”, a song that is a bit corny and seems like a knock-off of Elton John’s “Daniel”, with the electric piano and all. Exploding from this calm serenity comes the “Prelude” to “Angry Young Man”, the most technically proficient, wildly entertaining, and lyrically deep song on the album. The long, multi-part “Prelude” is a jam that Joel and his band would use to start live shows for decades to come, and is a testament to the fine skills of guitarist Russell Javors, bassist Doug Stegmeyer, and drummer Liberty Devitto. The fantastic lyrics are a biting and self-effacing;

…and there’s always a place for the angry young man, with his fist in the air and his head in the sand…”

It is also a prelude to later extended classics like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” from The Stranger and “Zanzibar” from 52nd Street.

The two moody and beautiful “I’ve Loved These Days” is again about growing up and feels almost too sentimental to be lamenting the end to days of indulgence and partying, presumably during Joel’s California days. This may have been a smash hit were a more traditional ballad about love or broken relationships. “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway)” is a dystopian ballad, which borders on the absurd, probably as a satire on the doom and gloom attitude about New York. The song is narrated by a senior citizen in Florida during our present decade, who recalls a “celebration” concert held as sections of New York City were systematically destroyed. The music starts as a ballad, launches into a rocker and then ends the album in nice way, with fading piano riff.

Turnstiles would become the first of the three finest albums by Billy Joel, which were released in consecutive years starting in 1976. While it did not achieve the commercial success of its successors, 1977’s The Stranger or 1978’s 52nd Street, Turnstiles may well be the most cohesive album of the trio.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1976 albums.