News Of the World by Queen

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News Of the World by Queen News Of the World was recorded and released in the heart of Queen’s most prolific and creative era and may be the band’s most balanced album. It bridges the harmony-rich, virtuoso studio pieces of the era such as 1975’s A Night At the Opera, with the funk-influenced, rhythm driven hits of their near future, like 1980’s The Game. The band’s sixth album in just over four years of recording, News Of the World, is extremely diverse with every one of its eleven tracks credited to a single composer within the band, each of the four band members composing multiple tracks, and a variety of genres explored within the songs themselves.

News Of the World was the second album to be produced solely by the band, with the 1976 predecessor, A Day At the Races, being the first. After that album received some criticism as being “boring”, Queen decided to scale down their complex arrangements and employ a “rootsier” sound while incorporating many diverse styles and approaches for this album. These styles ranged from heavy metal to soft jazz, from Spanish influenced to “stadium rock” and many genres in between. The album contains two tracks without the band’s dynamic front man Freddie Mercury, and two tracks absent their virtuoso lead guitarist Brian May. With the overall songwriting less dominated by May and Mercury, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor stepped in to play a larger role.

The album cover was a painting by American sci-fi artist Frank Kelly Freas and was presented to the band by Taylor, who had a copy of the October 1953 issue of Astounding Science Fiction with this cover art. The band contacted Freas, who agreed to alter the painting for the News Of the World album cover, incorporating the four band members. Of course, the title itself came from the British tabloid of the same name, which was once the most popular newspaper on Earth but has in the past year (2011) folded up due in part to scandal.
 


News Of the World by Queen
Released: October 28, 1977 (EMI)
Produced by: Queen & Mike Stone
Recorded: Basing Street & Wessex Studios, London, July-September 1977
Side One Side Two
We Will Rock You
We Are the Champions
Sheer Heart Attack
All Dead, All Dead
Spread Your Wings
Fight From the Inside
Get Down, Make Love
Sleeping On the Sidewalk
Who Needs You
It’s Late
My Melancholy Blues
Group Musicians
Freddie Mercury – Lead & Harmony Vocals, Piano, Percussion
Brian May – Guitars, Percussion, Lead & Harmony Vocals
John Deacon – Bass, Guitars, Percussion
Roger Taylor– Drums, Percussion, Lead & Harmony Vocals

 
News Of the World has eleven tracks, each written solely by one of the four band members. May lead the way, composing four songs, Mercury wrote three, while Deacon and Taylor wrote two apiece.

May made a conscious decision to make “We Will Rock You” a simple anthem in order to get the live audience more directly involved. The album’s opener would go on to become one of Queen’s biggest songs worldwide and a staple of arena and stadiums everywhere. It was inspired by a gig at Stafford’s Bingley Hall, when the audience sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to the band to lull them out for an encore (this was a commonplace at “football” matches and one such occurrence was captured at the end of “Fearless” on Pink Floyd’s Meddle.

“It’s Late” was the May’s idea of treating a song as a three-act theatrical play (the verses are even called “acts” in the lyrics sheet). As the guitarist put it at the time;

“It’s another one of those story-of-your life songs. I think it’s about all sorts of experiences that I had, and experiences that I thought other people had, but I guess it was very personal, and it’s written in three parts, it’s like the first part of the story is at home, the guy is with his woman. The second part is in a room somewhere, the guy is with some other woman, that he loves, and can’t help loving, and the last part is he’s back with his woman…”

Brian May also takes over lead vocals on his two other compositions. “Sleeping On The Sidewalk”, was recorded in one take instrumentally with the vocals later overdubbed. It has a strong rockabilly backing with a heavier guitar up front which all works well with the subdued vocals, making it one of the album’s gems. Lyrically, it tells a rags-to-riches story about an aspiring trumpet player. “All Dead, All Dead” is an excellent composition with melodic piano and vocal harmonies, more subdued vocals by May, a section with swelling guitar coming in like a majestic Medieval organ, and a crisp and thumping, yet measured and sparse rhythm by Deacon and Taylor. In later interviews, May revealed that the song is about the passing of his cat.

John Deacon wrote a couple of interesting songs. “Who Needs You” features the bassist along with May playing dueling Spanish guitars with Mercury adding some percussion. “Spread Your Wings” is one of the forgotten gems in the Queen catalog. With moody piano, acoustic guitar, melodic lead vocals, and just a touch of dynamism from May’s lead the song brings out just about all of the best aspects of the band at their peak. Beyond composing the song, Deacon really shines on bass, playing in a style reminiscent of early John Paul Jones, and giving the song a legitimate edge that makes it a classic.
 

 
Drummer Roger Taylor contributed a couple of the harder-edged songs on the album. “Sheer Heart Attack” gave the band’s third album its title in 1974, but the song itself was only partially finished and didn’t make it on to that album. With the punk rock movement in full effect in 1977, Queen brought the song back to life as precursor to “death metal”, setting a template that would be adapted by acts such as Judas Priest in subsequent years. On “Fight From the Inside”, Taylor plays just about every instrument and sings lead as well, making the song very unique in the Queen catalog.

“Get Down, Make Love” was written by Mercury and makes heavy use of sexual innuendo, with suggestive lyrics that stop just short of being explicit. This funk and punk inspired club piece includes a short mid-section with effects that sound like the ambiance of an early 1980s arcade. However, these “psychedelic” effects were not produced on a synthesiser, but on but May’s guitar and an Electroharmonix Frequency Analyzer pedal. The album’s closer, “My Melancholy Blues” is a nightclub inspired, soft jazz number which includes Mercury’s vocal and piano backed only by a fret less bass and percussive hi-hat and kick drum.

Mercury’s masterpiece on the album is “We Are the Champions”, which acts as a melodic counter piece to May’s “We Will Rock You”, also built on audience response. The song had been written by 1975 but was held off albums until 1977. It reached the top five on both sides of the Atlantic. It features beautifully layered and harmonized guitars and and four to five part vocal harmonies, all built above the simple piano tune at its core. Like its counterpart, “We Are the Champions” would be used over and over again in the sports world.

News Of the World went multi-platinum worldwide even though it initially received mixed reviews because of the band’s abandonment of their predominantly progressive rock sound. However, critical reception soon shifted positively as it became evident that the band was displaying yet another layer of their musical ability.

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Book of Dreams by Steve Miller Band

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Book Of Dreams by Steve Miller Band Steve Miller forged his reputation as a Chicago blues man, immersing himself in that scene during the 1960s and playing with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry. Still, his most popular and enduring records came in the mid-to-late seventies and featured a blend of pop-rock songs and quasi-psychedelic pieces with synthesized effects. Book of Dreams fell right in the heart of this era and, along with its predecessor, Fly Like An Eagle, demonstrated this approach as well as any album. In fact, much of both these albums were recorded together in 1975. Miller produced both of these albums and considered releasing a double album but instead opted for two single albums that were released in May of consecutive years (1976, 1977).

Fly Like An Eagle by Steve Miller BandFly Like An Eagle was a great success, spawning many radio hits and three singles which reached the Top 20 including the #1 hit “Rock n’ Me”. That album peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts. Book of Dreams fared even better as an album, peaking at #2 on Billboard. This pair of albums represented the peak of Miller’s commercial career.

The diversity of style is what makes the whole of this album far greater than the sum of its parts, although most fans only really know those parts as individual songs long heard on classic rock and AOR radio. Book of Dreams provided a nice blend of the fundamentals of blues-rock and the indulgences of prog rock.
 


Book of Dreams by Steve Miller Band
Released: May 1977 (Capitol)
Produced by: Steve Miller
Recorded: CBS Studios, San Francisco, 1976-1977
Side One Side Two
Threshold
Jet Airliner
Winter Time
Swingtown
True Fine Love
Wish Upon a Star
Jungle Love
Electro Lux Imbroglio
Sacrifice
The Stake
My Own Space
Babes In the Wood
Primary Musicians
Steve Miller – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Synthesizer
David Denny – Guitars
Greg Douglass – Guitars
Lonnie Turner – Bass
Gary Mallaber – Drums

 
The album starts off with “Threshold”, a minute-long, pure synth-effect track which almost sounds like a distant air patrol alarm and acts as defacto into for “Jet Airliner” (in fact, most classic radio stations play these songs together). “Jet Airliner” was composed by Paul Pena for his album in 1973, but when that artist encountered label problems the album and song went unreleased. The song was presented to Miller by a former band mate and Miller developed it using a variation of Eric Clapton’s guitar riff on Cream’s version of “Crossroads”. This method of using a synth-heavy piece to introduce a proper song was commonplace with Miller during this era as he did the exact same thing to start off Fly Like An Eagle and uses this method again later on Book of Dreams with “Electro Lux Imbroglio” and “Sacrifice”.

A couple of Miller’s moody, prog rock-influenced songs are “Winter Time” and “Wish Upon a Star”, which each make heavy use of keyboards for a surreal backdrop. “Winter Time” also features a simple, acoustic folk motif and features some harmonica by Norton Buffalo. The song later breaks into a nicer groove led by double-tracked lead guitar.
 

 
“Jungle Love” was written by guitarist Lonnie Turner and bassist Greg Douglass and may be the best pure pop song on the album, in spite of despite some annoying whistling effects. It features a crisp but heavy guitar riff out front and slightest tinge of reggae in the underlying rhythm, all working in tandem with Miller’s steady, melodic vocal line. Another good pop song on the album is “True Fine Love”, which executes the perfect seventies songwriting formula of – intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/lead/verse/chorus/fadeout.

“Swingtown” is an excellent song built on a beat (which is actually more of a “shuffle” than a “swing”) by drummer Gary Mallaber. The intro builds instrument by instrument – first drums, then bass, then rhythm guitar, then piano, then second guitar, then vocals. It is a potpourri of sonic candy especially from the deadened-note guitar and ending synth section. “The Stake” was written by guitarist David Denny and is actually the closest to the classic blues with which Miller cut his teeth, with its riff, harmonica, and harmonized guitar lead – but with a much “hipper” seventies feel, especially with the vocal effects.

The remarkable 1975 sessions at CBS Studios in San Francisco gave us Fly Like An Eagle and Book of Dreams, a unique confluence of sound which worked perfectly for the era and held up well through time. While both of these are excellent albums, Book of Dreams marks the absolute pinnacle of the Steve Miller Band.

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1977 albums.

 

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Slowhand by Eric Clapton

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Slow Hand by Eric Clapton1977’s Slowhand was the pinnacle of Eric Clapton’s pop-rock phase during the late seventies, fusing well-crafted rockers, ballads, alt country, and blues numbers. The album came a few years into Clapton’s “comeback” following a four year hiatus in the early seventies. Prior to that Clapton had been one of the most prolific artists on Earth, forming and playing in the band The Yarbirds, John Mayell’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie, and Derek and the Dominoes, as well as releasing his debut solo release in 1970. Clapton then fell into a deep funk and heroin addiction due to his unrequited infatuation of Patty Boyd, then George Harrison’s wife. By 1974, Clapton had won Boyd over and began his comeback with the critically acclaimed 461 Ocean Boulevard, although that album was comprised mainly of covers. Clapton followed suit over the next couple years with studio albums which were about 60/40 covers to original but with less success.

With Slowhand, Clapton reached a nice balance recording more recently composed songs by other artists while writing many himself or in concert with members of his backing band. Here the formula is perfected with enough musical prowess to attract rock and blues fans and the right touches of pop craftsmanship to reach the radio-friendly pop audience of the day.

The album was produced by Glyn Johns who had previously worked as an engineer with several top caliber bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. It contains three of Clapton’s most popular singles as well as several other classic rock standards that became Clapton classics. The album is an easy listen from front-to-back, with a sort of laid-back virtuosity that never sound pretentious or forced. Yet it is quite eclectic in the styles and approach used in forging each of the nine tracks.
 


Slow Hand by Eric Clapton
Released: November 1977 (R.S.O.)
Produced by: Glyn Johns
Recorded: Olympic Studios, London, May 1977
Side One Side Two
Cocaine
Wonderful Tonight
Lay Down Sally
Next Time You See Her
We’re All the Way
The Core
May You Never
Mean Old Frisco
Peaches and Diesel
Primary Musicians
Eric Clapton – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Marcy Levy – Vocals
George Terry – Guitars
Carl Radle – Bass
Jamie Oldaker – Drums

 

Slowhand‘s hit songs are all stack up front. Right from the jump, the album establishes a nice groove with J.J. Cale‘s “Cocaine”. The combination of the song’s ever-infectious, groovy guitar riff and taboo subject made it both a cult classic and pop song all at the same time. I remember how big this was at a sixth grade, catholic school dance, where the chorus hook whipped us adolescents into a frenzy that totally baffled the chaperones who were on the lookout for the more overt shock-rock by artists like Alice Cooper and not this relatively calm, soft spoken Clapton song. For his part, Eric Clapton claims this is actually an anti-drug song, but that is definitely up for debate. There is no doubt this song did its part to inspire a lot of young people of the seventies to become coke heads in the eighties and because of its “ambiguous” message, Clapton rarely performed the song live for many decades.

Eric Clapton and Patti BoydWhat “Cocaine” did to proliferate drug use, “Wonderful Tonight” may have done for sex. This standard slow dance at weddings and events of all kinds got its start when Clapton was waiting for Boyd to get ready for a Paul McCartney concert they were attending in 1976 and the rest is history. As a disc jockey, I played this song at every single gig, always introducing it as “a song for the ladies”. Although I’ve heard this song way more than its fair share, it is still hard not to appreciate this as one of Clapton’s finest pieces, with the signature guitar riff and almost quiet vocals of Clapton, backed by the perfect slow-dance rhythm of bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jamie Oldaker.

Background singer Marcy Levy and rhythm guitarist George Terry wrote the album’s third hit, “Lay Down Sally”. This is an almost-country song driven more by Terry’s rhythm than the Clapton’s lead. The members of the backing band were all from Oklahoma and Clapton explained how the sound came much more naturally for them;

“It’s as close as I can get, being English, but the band being a Tulsa band, they play like that naturally…”

Marcy LevyLevy also co-wrote “The Core”, a song on which she shares lead vocals with Clapton. The song has a great dancing riff that drives it along nicely through the verses with another excellent, counter-riff following the choruses. The long overall sequence and ending sax solo inflates the song to near epic length at close to nine minutes. “Next Time You See Her” is another fine song with a late sixties vibe due to its organ-rich backing and the chanting vocal style of the bridge, almost a revival folk song. “Mean Old Frisco” is an updated blues song which fills in nicely on the second side.

But the true heart of the album is a trio of largely forgotten classics which really put the album over the top. “We’re All the Way” is a tremendous ballad which ends the first side. It is every bit as romantic as “Wonderful Tonight” with nice harmonies and a perfectly subdued guitar riff that hangs in the background. “May You Never” is an up-beat folk song played as a reverse-schadenfreude barroom anthem, which should have been far more popular. The closer “Peaches and Diesel” is a beautiful instrumental. It predates the instrumental fad of the 1980s with a great, picked-out rhythm and a couple of simple lead riffs soaring above. It closes this pop-fueled album in a more classic style for Clapton.

Eric Clapton 1977

Slow Hand‘s title derives from Clapton’s long-time nickname which was born in the early sixties during his days with the Yardbirds. The album ultimately reached #2 on the Billboard album charts, kept from the top spot only by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It would be his highest charting album for nearly twenty years.

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1977 Images

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Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf

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Bat Out of Hell by Meat LoafAlthough credited as a solo album by Meat Loaf, the blockbuster album Bat Out of Hell was actually forged through a collaboration of three people – Meat Loaf (born Marvin Lee Aday), songwriter Jim Steinman and producer/guitarist Todd Rundgren. This album would go into the stratosphere sales-wise, certified platinum fourteen times over and currently ranked ninth all-time in worldwide sales. However, these gentlemen may have been the only three to believe in this project during its early years. By the time of its release in late 1977, the album had been worked on for over five years but it had been rejected by every major Label (and quite a few minor labels as well). The project was finally picked up by tiny Cleveland International Records, not so much by musical merit but more so when owner Steve Popovich heard the witty dialogue which precedes the song “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” (see video below).

Meat Loaf met Steinman shortly after releasing his soul-influenced debut album Stoney & Meatloaf in 1971. Both were deeply interested theatrical music as Meat Loaf had starred in several Broadway plays and the film, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Steinmen had composed for several productions including a sci-fi update of Peter Pan called Neverland, which was a pre-cursor to Bat Out of Hell. Writing for the album started as early as 1972, with the songs fully developed by the end of 1974, when Meat Loaf decided to leave the theatre to concentrate on this project. In 1975, the dual performed a live audition for Todd Rundgren, an avant garde performer and producer, who was impressed that the music did not fit any rock conventions or sub-genres to date. However, this was a double-edged sword as they had immense difficulty finding a record company willing to sign them. According to Meat Loaf’s autobiography, the band spent two and a half years auditioning the record and being rejected. One of the most brutal rejections came from CBS head Clive Davis, who first dismissed Meat Loaf by saying “actors don’t make records” before turning his ire towards Steinman’s songwriting;

You don’t know how to write a song! Have you ever listened to pop music? Have you ever heard any rock-and-roll music? You should go downstairs when you leave here and buy some rock-and-roll records…”

The group had reached a verbal deal with RCA Records and started recording the album in late 1975 at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY. However, the RCA deal fell through during production and Rundgren essentially footed the bill for recording himself. And this was no small bill as the album includes contributions by sixteen rock musicians and singers as well as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Some of these backing musicians include members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as well as Rundgren’s backing band, Utopia.

Steinman, who wrote every song and gave the album its title and artwork, had wanted equal billing with Meat Loaf on the album’s title, but was out-voted by record execs who felt that Meat Loaf alone was a more marketable, with the unorthadox, “Songs by Jim Steinmen” sub-heading appearing on the album’s cover. Even after the album was finally released in October 1977, it took awhile to catch on In the U.S. Ironically, it was after a CBS Records convention where Meat Loaf performed a song for that label’s top artist Billy Joel, that the album finally got some mainstream momentum.
 


Bat Out of Hell by Meatloaf
Released: October 21, 1977 (Epic)
Produced by: Todd Rundgren
Recorded: Bearsville Studio, Woodstock, NY, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Bat Out of Hell
Hot Summer Night
Heaven Can Wait
All Revved Up With No Place to Go
Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad
Paradise By the Dashboard Light
For Crying Out Loud
Primary Musicians
Meatloaf – Lead Vocals
Jim Steinman – Keyboards, Percussion
Todd Rundgren – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Roy Bittan – Piano
Ellen Foley – Vocals
Kasim Sulton – Bass
Max Weinberg – Drums

 
Although Bat Out of Hell is generally high caliber throughout, it is quite uneven in musical flow, especially when you compare the dynamic and climatic opening title song and the slow moving closer “For Crying Out Loud”, a relationship-oriented song which spends about seven of its eight and a half minutes with a very simple and subdued arrangement.

Steinman has described “Bat Out of Hell” as “feverish, strong, romantic, vibrant, and rebellious”. He stated that his goal was to write “the ultimate car or motorcycle crash song”. It starts with a rapid and frantic piano backed by tribal drums before breaking into a calmer section with thick, dimensional guitar overtones. After about a two minute overture, the song proper commences with Meat Loaf singing the vivid lyrics. Steinman was extremely ambitious with this song and constantly suggested new parts to enhance the song, many of which were rejected by Rundgren. However, Steinman insisted on a motorcycle effect in the song and an exasperated Rundgren finally grabbed a guitar, set some custom controls and mimicked a Motorcycle effect in one take. Another great moment comes at the very end when Meatloaf’s intense and sustained vocals dissolves into a calm and subdued outro with a female chorus and synthesized strings.

In between the colossal epics that bookend the album are five excellently crafted, pop-oriented songs which maintain the dramatic overall feel of the theme. “Heaven Can Wait” is ballad which showcases Meat Loaf’s voice more than any other song, accompanied only by piano and a light orchestral arrangement by Ken Ascher. Converesly, “All Revved Up with No Place to Go” is a thumping rocker driven by the bass of Kasim Sulton and featuring saxophone by Edgar Winter. Although it is shortest song in duration on the album, it still feels kind of epic due to the interesting arrangement of the mid-section made up of short vignettes and a section with a breathless rant by Meat Loaf to close the song and first side.
 

 
After the unique intro, spoken by Steinman and Marcia McClain, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” settles into a classic, do-wop style rock song with a very catchy hook. Another radio-friendly track is the ballad “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”. This melancholy love song counter-balances the more theatrical music perfectly, while still maintaining an edge with the slightly satirical title. The song was written near the end of the album’s production and was reportedly influenced by the success of the Eagles’ soft rock approach in the late seventies. The single version of the song edited out the controversial lyric “There ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box” and reached #11 on the Billboard charts, the group’s highest-charting single.

Meatloaf

“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is either the most brilliant or the lamest song on the album. This duet features Ellen Foley sharing lead vocals and tells a hilarious story of teenage desire leading to permanent misery in three or four distinct sections. On one hand, the song is brilliantly produced, including a “play-by-play” section by New York Yankee announcer Phil Rizzuto, a couple of perfectly blended duet sections, and a Caribbean-influenced “Let Me Sleep On It” section. On the other hand, the song has grown to be the over-played caricature of Meat Loaf and this famous album.

The album’s title was resurrected for two more Meat Loaf albums. In 1993 came Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, again featuring the songwriting of Jim Steinman. In 2006 came Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose, which did not involve Steinman, who had registered “Bat Out of Hell” as a trademark in 1995 in an attempt to prevent Meat Loaf from using the title again.

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1977 Images

part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

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The Grand Illusion by Styx

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The Grand Illusion by StyxAlthough it was seventh overall studio album for the band, The Grand Illusion was the second album from Styx to head towards a more radio-friendly direction. The Chicago based band with a traditional prog-rock approach, began to write more mainstream material with the arrival of guitarist Tommy Shaw in late 1975. Shaw joined fellow guitarist James “JY” Young and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung as the band’s trio of songwriters and lead singers. Each brought a distinct style which  contrasted with the others. Yet they also complimented each other in various ways and, for the most part, Styx forged a decently harmonic sound.

The Grand illusion itself is a pleasant listen, albeit a bit uneven and less-than cohesive. The fantastic first side contains all the radio and chart hits with a much less inspired second side featuring some under-developed pieces which render the album short of greatness. The album showed the great potential of Styx band as a sort of “prog lite” outfit with much more pop crossover appeal than their earlier work. This would be a template set for bands like Genesis, who followed suit in subsequent years and through the 1980s.

Seven turned out to be the lucky number for the band as this album (their 7th overall, released on 7/07/77) went triple platinum in sales and spawned a couple of hit singles. Thematically, the concept of The Grand Illusion examines the futility of solely aspiring to fame. According to DeYoung, it is about the struggle to overcome self-deluding superficiality in order to affirm one’s genuine value.
  


The Grand Illusion by Styx
Released: July 7, 1977 (A&M)
Produced by: Styx
Recorded: Paragon Recording Studios, Chicago, 1977
Side One Side Two
The Grand Illusion
Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
Superstars
Come Sail Away
Miss America
Man In the Wilderness
Castle Walls
The Grand Finale
Primary Musicians
Dennis DeYoung – Keyboards, Synths, Vocals
James Young – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Tommy Shaw – Guitars, Vocals
Chuck Panozzo – Bass
John Panozzo – Drums

 
The intro march of “The Grand Illusion” draws you in immediately, complimented in short time by the stop/start nature of the first verse. This theme song by Dennis DeYoung eventually breaks into the more driving, melodic choruses and features early guitar fills by Shaw and a soaring lead by JY later in the song. More than any other song on the album, this opener finds the nice balance between between progressive and AOR, which appears to be the band’s vision for this album.

Tommy Shaw’s “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” begins with a nice opening synth sequence by DeYoung which compliments Shaw’s acoustic strumming. The song eventually settles into a strong rhythmic beat by bassist Chuck Panozzo and his brother, drummer John Panozzo, before another nice synth lead. Both this song and Shaw’s ballad, “Man In the Wilderness” are written in the same vein as material by the band Kansas, revealing that band’s influence on Styx.

“Superstars” is a collaborative effort by DeYoung, Shaw, and Young, which built like a show tune with a rock backbone. Although the song does contain some rewarding and entertaining sections like the nice lead guitar, it does sound a bit dated like something which could have been on a teen-oriented TV show of the era, not to mention the title itself.
 

 
Closing the first side, “Come Sail Away” is the album’s true masterpiece. It is a beautiful song with a refreshing, simple piano arrangement by DeYoung up front. The song is adventurous and romantic with just a tinge of strangeness like a journey into the unknown. There are a couple of great moments when the melodic, keyboard driven sections are cut sharply by a strong, rock-oriented, guitar-driven arrangement. The mid section contains dualing synths by DeYoung and JY, which adds to the mystique of the song with its “modern” sequencing and new agish overtones. Long considered a pioneering power ballad, “Come Sail Away” is a much richer number and is perhaps the finest Styx would ever forge.

JY takes lead vocals on his track “Miss America”. It starts with a synth rendition of the traditional song before giving way to a sharper, driving verse and a thickly harmonized chorus. “Castle Walls” starts with a heartbeat-like bass line by Chuck Panozzo with overlain Baroque keys by DeYoung before Shaw and Young again trade guitar leads later in the song. “The Grand Finale” closes the album as a sort of reverse-overture which incorporates elements of the better songs from the first side.

The success of The Grand Illusion launched Styx into the most successful era of their career with three more successful albums up to and including their blockbuster Paradise Theatre in 1981. The band built of the theatrical, pop-oriented, and soft rock elements of this 1977 album to bring them the widespread success that they had worked towards for years.

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Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols

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Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex PistolsThe ongoing tradition of rock n roll has always been to push conventional boundaries and be a voice for the youth. In the 1950s, Elvis dared to sway his hips in a “scandalous” fashion. In the early sixties, The Beatles grew their hair “long” by fashioning their mop tops. Later in the sixties, artists like Jim Morrison pushed the envelope onstage. Through the early seventies rock stars dressed in freakish ways and the world had become accustomed to the hedonistic drug and alcohol-laden lifestyle that was the rock and roll world. But by the mid seventies what was left to do in showcasing shocking rebelliousness? Enter the Sex Pistols.

This short-lived band turned the rock world on its ear by managing to be irreverent and creative all at the same time. Although they ranted about living for the present, they were actually forging the future on a daily basis. They lived for the moment like no one else – whatever felt good at the time was what they did and whatever absurd thought came to mind is what they said. This is a classic youth rebellion, but the Sex Pistols took it to an absurdly unrefined level. In their wake, spawned the new genre of punk rock along with several sub-genres which rippled through pop culture for several decades.

Although this London band had roots back to the early seventies, they didn’t really get much attention until 1976 when they added lead vocalist Johnny Rotten, who would perform crazy antics on and off the stage with a wild vocalization style. But the band also had some musical credentials, led by guitarist Steve Jones the band had developed into a tight live act. The instrumentalists experimented with overload, feedback and distortion which accented their overall attitude. By late 1976, the Sex Pistols were signed to the major EMI label and entered the recording studio.

However, a profanity laced tirade by Jones on live television, a vomit and spit fest at Heathrow Airport, and other shock incidents wore thin with the label as well as bassist Glen Matlock, who left the band and was replaced by Rotten’s friend and Sid Vicious in early 1977 with virtually no experience at all on his new instrument, the bass guitar. Although Vicious would ultimately become the most famous (or infamous) Sex Pistol, he only played on one track of their debut Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Steve Jones played most of the bass parts on this one and only studio album .
 


Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Released: October 27, 1977 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Chris Thomas & Bill Price
Recorded: Wessex Sound, London, October 1976-August 1977
Side One Side Two
Holidays In the Sun
Bodies
No Feelings
Liar
God Save the Queen
Problems
Seventeen
Anarchy In the UK
Submission
Pretty Vacant
New York
EMI
Group Musicians
Johnny Rotten – Lead Vocals
Steve Jones – Guitars, Bass, Vocals
Paul Cook – Drums
Glen Matlock – Bass
Sid Vicious– Bass

 
The album contains fresh guitars and nicely layered tracks, with simple driving drumlines by Paul Cook. The production is almost slick, with Rotten’s vocals cutting throw with a quasi rap/chant rather than traditional singing. There is nothing at all complicated about this music and there aren’t groundbreaking musical techniques or virtuoso performances here. The irreverence of this music is what sets it apart. The music
is short and to the point with not much more to it.

However, there are some musically rewarding moments on the album, starting with the opener “Holidays In the Sun”, with a musical intro which sounds similar to material Mott the Hoople, at least until the the vocals start. The second side contains the gem “Submission” with a good beat, hook, and almost melodic vocals.

“God Save the Queen” is not so much a message as an attitude; “we will be irreverent just because we can…” The scabrous lyrics prompted widespread outcry and an unintended marketing boom for the band as the song was released to coincide with the height of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. The single reach number two in the UK, with many conspiracy theorists claimimg that it was actually number one but the chart had been rigged to prevent a spectacle.

“Anarchy in UK” is most famous for its sneering opening lyric “I am the anti-Christ” and became the defacto punk anthem, labeled by some as “the clarion call of a generation.” It contains an interesting, decending guitar riff by Jones and some of the best playing by the band as a whole.

Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols is not influential for being cutting-edge music but more for simply cutting-edge attitude. It was a true spark of fire that burned in a flash. By January 1978, the Sex Pistols split and this ever-so-short chapter of rock history was concluded.

~

1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

 

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Draw the Line by Aerosmith

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Draw the Line by AerosmithAerosmith‘s fifth album in 1977 came after the phenomenal success of 1975’s Toys in the Attic and 1976’s Rocks. Although the momentum continued to an extent with Draw the Line, this album is vastly different from those predecessors. It doesn’t sound quite as polished as their previous three albums, which is probably due in equal parts to the band’s desire to return to the blues-based rock of their first album and the musician’s own impaired state of mind during this well-documented time of excess. Lead singer Steven Tyler’s vocals are most deviant as he retreated to a darker, growling and wailing style voice.

The music on Draw the Line is murky and uneven. But lost in this murkiness is some legitimately excellent musical moments. The band abandoned studio experimentation for a simple, straight-ahead hard rock approach. Lead guitarist Joe Perry delved further into his loose style of Stones-inspired blues raunch, freely floating just above the band’s rhythm section. Jack Douglas co-produced the album with the band and also got involved in co-writing four of the album’s songs. The album was recorded in an abandoned convent outside of New York City called The Cenacle. However, this former holy place set the scene for the devilish situations which had an adverse affect on the album.

The sessions at The Cenacle were marred by in-fighting, extreme excess, and much drug use. This obviously had a negative effect on some of the songs, especially a few on the second side which appear to not be fully developed. As Tyler recalls; “The negativity and the drama sucked the creativity out of the marrow of my bones.”


Draw the Line by Aerosmith
Released: December 1, 1977 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Jack Douglas & Aerosmith
Recorded: The Cenacle, Armonk, NY, 1977
Side One Side Two
Draw the Line
I Wanna Know Why
The Critical Mass
Get It Up
Bright Light Fright
Kings and Queens
The Hand That Feeds
Sight For Sore Eyes
Milk Cow Blues
Group Musicians
Steven Tyler – Lead Vocals, Piano, Harmonica
Joe Perry – Guitars, Vocals
Brad Whitford – Guitars
Tom Hamilton – Bass
Joey Kramer– Drums

 

Draw the Line contains many tracks which are quite good but may take a while to adapt to as they are not immediately accessible. “I Wanna Know Why” is a straight-out rocker, with a nice piano lead by session man Scott Cushnie, a nice lead by rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford and good vocal hook by Tyler. “The Critical Mass” is much more interesting. This forgotten classic, includes a harmonica lead by the singer, whining guitars by Perry above a thumping bass of co-writer Tom Hamilton. Lyrically, the song is one of many that apparently explores the dark side of drug abuse as evident in the opening lyric;

Arriving in boats, black-hooded coats, tormentors climbed into my room
I crawled under my bed, covered my head, but they’re flushin’ me out with a broom..”

“Get It Up” was the band’s attempt at a pop song that, ironically, failed to move up the charts. It features a strong drum beat by Joey Kramer and a heavy dose of slide guitar by Joe Perry.
Perry then takes lead vocals on the next song “Bright Light Fright”, one of the rarest songs of the era for Aerosmith, which has almost never been played live by the band.
Backup vocals by Karen Lawrence
 

 
The true gems of the album are the songs which open each side. “Draw the Line”, whether intentionally or not, sounds distant and “vintage”, almost like its recording was caught by accident. The song features much back-and-forth interplay between guitarists Perry and Whitford that sounds improvised but works beautifully. The highlight of the song is Tyler’s climatic “screamed” final verse. “Kings and Queens” is the most original song on the album, written by Tyler, Whitford, Hamilton, Kramer, and Douglas and driven by unorthodox (for Aerosmith) instrumentation, including piano and synths, a bass lead by Hamilton, mandolin by Douglas, and banjo by guest Paul Prestopino. The song’s lyric delves into a swords-and-sorcery epic something usually reserved for more prog-rock oriented bands like Genesis or King Crimsom.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is much less inspired with “filler” songs that are not quite terrible, but not really up to spec with the quality one might expect from Aerosmith during their finest era. “The Hand That Feeds” is the best of the three due mainly to the guitar work of Whitford. “Sight For Sore Eyes” was co-written by David Johansen of the New York Dolls, but falls short of being fully developed. The closer “Milk Cow Blues” is a blues classic which was originally written and recorded by Kokomo Arnold in and covered by such acts as Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley. But unfortunately, Aerosmith does not really advance this song much at all.

Soon after Draw the Line, internal fueding led to the departure of both guitarists Perry and Whitford for more than half a decade, resulting in a couple of albums with other guitarists. The reunited Aerosmith did make a remarkable comeback in the late eighties, reaching pop heights like never before. However, music of the same quality from the mid seventies would not quite be created again.

~

1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

 

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Point of Know Return by Kansas

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Point of Know Return by Kansas In 1977 while most classic rock artists were migrating towards simple, accessible music, Kansas was one of the last stubborn holdouts to compose pure prog rock. Although the band didn’t exclusively compose tunes in this genre, they still leaned mainly in this direction on their most popular album Point of Know Return. Even while going against the stream, the band managed to compose some of their most popular, enduring, and radio-friendly songs on this album. Point of Know Return would be the zenith of the band’s popularity, reaching #4 on the album charts and launching Kansas’ one and only major headlining tour in its wake. Soon the album’s cover image of a ship on the precipice of a waterfall would become the band’s signature image, replacing the image of abolitionist John Brown from the cover of their 1974 debut album.

Kansas’ previous album, Leftoverture, had brought them to the attention of mainstream rock fans, bringing a new pressure and new tensions to the recording sessions for this follow-up album. The band’s lead singer and songwriter Steve Walsh even left the group briefly but was talked into returning by the other group members.

The rich arrangements and frantic movement of 9/10 of the album is counterbalanced by the subtle and beautiful folk of “Dust In the Wind”, which would become one of the band’s most recognizable songs. The song also, and which gives the album an air of diversity and uniqueness, Which assisted the band in their overall struggle to maintain a healthy balance of prog rock and pop.
  


Point Of Know Return by Kansas
Released: October 11, 1977 (Kirshner)
Produced by: Jeff Glixman
Recorded: Woodland Sound, Nashville, TN & Studio In The Country, Bogalusa, LA, June–July 1977
Side One Side Two
Point Of Know Return
Paradox
The Spider
Portrait (He Knew)
Closet Chronicles
Lightning’s Hand
Dust In the Wind
Sparks of the Tempest
Nobody’s Home
Hopelessly Human
Group Musicians
Steve Wash – Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Kerry Livgren – Guitars, Keyboards
Rich Williams – Guitars
Robby Steinhardt – Violin, Lead Vocals
Dave Hope – Bass
Phil Ehart – Drums, Percussion

 

The album’s first two songs work in tandem, looking at the same theme from different points in time. The leadoff theme song has a title that has multiple meanings – discovery, knowledge, and overall risk-taking to achieve these goals. Musically, the song continues pretty much where Leftoverture left off, with a strong, highly melodic, and very accessible tone that has just enough “edge” to make it interesting to the critical listener. It contains great sonic performances by violinist Robby Steinhardt and bassist Dave Hope. “Paradox” is just as deeply philosophical but from a perspective of understanding  “knowledge” once it has been discovered. I find the fascinating contrast between a ship at sea and the name Kansas – one of the most landlocked states in the USA – to perhaps symbolize this paradox graphically. Musically the song leans more towards prog rock than its predeccessor, filled with many rudiments and musical flourishes stuffed into a less-than-four-minute song.

Kansas

“The Spider” is an instrumental that doesn’t quite mesh because it is very similar to “Paradox” but then just a bit off. The result of the two back-to-back songs is a clash like contrasting shades of the same color. Its droning conclusion dissolves into “Portrait (He Knew)”, a pop-oriented song inspired by either Albert Einstein or Jesus Christ, depending on which band member you ask. It has a long intro before breaking into a decent and melodic song. “Closet Chronicles” is an extended piece that ends the first side. It has Baroque inspired lyrics with a tone in the vein of Genesis and a tragic conclusion of times forgotten;

“I heard the king was dying, I heard the king was dead, and with him died the chronicles that no one ever read…”

The second side of the album contains three songs which feature violinist Robby Steinhardt on lead vocals. “Lightning’s Hand” is the most hard rock oriented song on the album and actually lead to Steinhardt being injured on tour when a special “lightening effect” which was supposed to pass through a sword in his hand, gave him a major shock and caused his significant mane of hair to stand straight up. “Sparks of the Tempest” Is another song featuring Steinhardt on lead vocals and starts with a very funk-oriented feel before later morphing into a pure, guitar-oriented rock song.
 

 
“Dust in the Wind” was actually a last-minute addition to Point of Know Return, but would be its greatest success. The song was written by Kerry Livgren as a finger exercise for learning finger picking. His wife liked the melody and encouraged him to write lyrics for it. Livgren was unsure whether his fellow band members would like the song, which was a major departure from their style, but they accepted it. The great folk feel of the song is complemented by deeply philosophical lyrics which deal with mortality, the vastness of the universe, and an individual’s role in the bigger picture. While the inspiration for the song’s title was a Native American poem, it also fits well with the image of geographical Kansas, the heart of the “Dust Bowl” tragedy of the 1930s. Livgren is complimented by a second acoustic played by Rich Williams, harmonized violin and viola by Steinhardt and fantastic vocals by Walsh.

“Nobody’s Home” is another great song. A melancholy ballad which is very piano and keyboard oriented, it may be the most traditionally constructed song on the album. The closing song, “Hopelessly Human”, takes the opposite approach, as the band runs the gamut of styles and instrumentation with many disjointed sections featuring different lead sections by different lead instruments. The seven minute song is a bit too indulgent to be really all that entertaining and perhaps the one who shines brightest is drummer Phil Ehart, who manages to tie it all together. The song and album ends on the upbeat sound of harmonically chiming bells.

Eventually Kansas would morph towards being a purely pop/rock band, which sustained them with some hits in the 1980s but never quite captured the aura they possessed during their heyday in the late 1970s.

~

1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

 

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Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

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Rumours by Fleetwood Mac It took the band Fleetwood Mac ten albums and many lineup shifts to achieve mainstream commercial success, but the group got there with their 1975 eponymous release. This was the first album to feature songwriters and vocalists Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who joined the band following the departure of Bob Welch. Cashing in on that success, the band expanded the formula with their eleventh album, 1977’s Rumours. Produced by the band along with Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut, this album would become not just the band’s top seller, but one of the highest selling albums ever up to that point in time.

Much of the album was recorded in a small cabin north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate in Sausalito, CA. Although Rumours is filled with pleasant, easy-going, and melodic pop/rock throughout, the album’s creation and production was anything but cool and steady. All five members of the band, which included two married couples, struggled with relationship breakups around the time. Buckingham and Nicks were having an on and off relationship with constant fighting. The band’s other primary writer and keyboardist Christine McVie and bassist John McVie had recently divorced after eight years of marriage and refused to speak to each other except when working on songs. Drummer Mick Fleetwood faced his own domestic problems after discovering his wife had an affair with his best friend. It was later revealed that Fleetwood and Nicks started a relationship around this time. Further, there was much press intrusion into the member’s lives as well as unsubstantiated rumours (giving the album its name). This stressful situation and internal strife influenced many of the album’s lyrics but, to the band’s credit, this strife did not adversely effect the quality of the album or its production.

The album has high quality harmonies among three vocalists and was inspired by many different genres. Buckingham took charge of the musical directions of the sessions as the record had an original working title of “Yesterday’s Gone”. During the formative stages of compositions, Buckingham and the classically trained Christine McVie played guitar and piano together to create the basic song structures. They were latter joined by the rhythm section of Fleetwood and John McVie, who were the last remaining members of the original blues band which was formed in the late 1960s. Nicks believed that Fleetwood Mac created the best music when in the worst shape and her lyrical focus allowed the instrumentals in the songs that she wrote to be looser and more abstract. The goal of the band and their producers was to have a completely “no-filler” final product, with every song having the potential of being a single or radio hit. They would come remarkably close to reaching this goal.
 


Rumours by Fleetwood Mac
Released: February 4, 1977 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Fleetwood Mac, Ken Caillat, & Richard Dashut
Recorded: Record Plant Studios, Sausalito and Los Angeles, CA, 1976
Side One Side Two
Second Hand News
Dreams
Never Going Back Again
Don’t Stop
Go Your Own Way
Songbird
The Chain
You Make Lovin’ Fun
I Don’t Want to Know
Oh Daddy
Gold Dust Woman
Band Musicians
Lindsey Buckingham – Guitars, Vocals
Christine McVie – Keyboards, Vocals
Stevie Nicks – Vocals
John McVie – Bass
Mick Fleetwood– Drums

 
The moody and complex song “The Chain” originated from a pair of demos by Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks which were fused together. The tempo is increased starting with a bass solo by John McVie through the song’s coda. “The Chain” is the only collaborative song on the album, composed by every member of the band, as the rest of the compositions were made solely by one of the band’s three primary writers.

Buckingham’s songs include the album’s opener “Second Hand News”, a Celtic influenced rock song with “chair” percussion for effect. It is not the strongest opening number, but it does set up the later pop tracks nicely. “Never Going Back Again” is much better, a largely overlooked classic on Rumours. It is a pleasant and melodic guitar diddy done nearly entirely by Buckingham, with just the slightest backing vocals during the shortest durations, This really should be out of place on this album of pop songs, but it works nevertheless.

Fleetwood Mac in 1977

“Go Your Own Way” is the most popular song on the album written by Lindsey Buckingham. It was released as the album’s first single and became the group’s first top ten hit in the U.S. The song’s lyric offers a pessimistic view of his complicated relationship with Stevie Nicks. Nicks offered her own view of that relationship in “Dreams”, which would go on to become the band’s only number one Billboard song.

From first listen, “Dreams” is an instant classic. The minimal backing rhythm provides a perfect canvas for Nicks to paint her vocal masterpiece masterpiece. Nicks claims she wrote the song in Sausalito in “about ten minutes” and the band started recording it the very next day. Some of the more complex guitar and bass patterns were later added in Los Angeles. Although incredibly simple, the song’s arrangement gives it an air of complexity which makes it sound fresh decades later.

Nicks’ other two compositions appear late on the second side. “I Don’t Want to Know” is leftover from the pre-Fleetwood Mac, “Buckingham and Nicks” days and contains harmonized vocals throughout. The album’s closer, “Gold Dust Woman” features some cool sounds from a dobro, percussive instruments, and several acoustic guitars. This song about cocaine addiction is haunting but never tragic as the soundscape sets a dreamy scene with a tinge of hope.

You Make Loving Fun by Fleetwood MacChristine McVie composed four songs on Rumours, starting with the smash hit “Don’t Stop”, which has become one of the Fleetwood Mac’s signature songs. Trading lead vocals with Buckingham, Christine’s lyrics offer an optimistic view following her divorce from band mate John. “It seemed to be a pleasant revelation to have that ‘yesterday’s gone’,” she remembers. “You Make Loving Fun” is a much better song, perhaps the best pure pop song that the band has ever delivered. The verse is driven’ by a Soul-inspired clarinet, which backs McVie’s calm crooning. During the chorus, Christine is joined by some complex harmonies by Buckingham and Nicks during a beautiful arrangement which puts the song over the top.

Christine McVie’s other two contributions are calm piano tunes. “Songbird” was performed and recorded in a concert hall to capture the ambiance perfectly. With introspective, almost prayer-like lyrics, the song has been covered several times, primarily by folk singers. “Oh Daddy” is a more complex theme which directly references Mick Fleetwood, who the band nicknamed “The Big Daddy”. A founding member, Fleetwood had much influence in the band’s direction and seemed to always turn out to be right, especially during this time of great success.

Fleetwood called Rumours “the most important album we ever made” (and he was there for there for each and every album). With its success, the group would continue recording for years to come through many changes in the pop and rock world. By the album’s tenth anniversary in 1987, it had sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide.

~

1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1977 albums.

 

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Aja by Steely Dan

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Aja by Steely DanAja was the best album produced by the Steely Dan. With the sixth album by the group, driven primarily by keyboardist and vocalist Donald Fagen and bassist Walter Becker, the songs became more sophisticated and oriented towards the individual songwriters. In fact, Fagen and Becker never really intended to have a band at all, just a songwriting team for ABC Records and producer Gary Katz. But when it became apparent that the duo’s songs were too complex for the average ABC artist, they enlisted four more musicians and formed Steely Dan (named after a sex toy in William Burrough’s poem “Naked Lunch”) in 1972. Although Katz and engineer Roger Nichols would produce all their classic albums in the seventies, the musicians surrounding Fagen and Becker would change rapidly. In fact, by 1974 the band had ceased touring and concentrated on studio work.

For Aja, Fagen and Becker decided to utilize the vast amount of session musicians available in the Los Angeles area, especially top-notch jazz and rock musicians. In all, nearly forty musicians would perform on the seven-song album, including six different drummers, seven different guitarists, and eight to ten vocalists. Fagen and Becker were sonic perfectionists, not compromising on their envisioned sound. With the musicians, they obsessively employed a two step process that involved first perfecting their part and then getting beyond to where it sounds improvised and natural. For most of Aja they accomplished this well.

The album became the group’s best-selling album and their first to go platinum. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording in 1978 and has become regarded by most as Steely Dan’s finest work. Last April (2011), the album was added to the United States National Recording Registry and deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”.
 


Aja by Steely Dan
Released: September 23, 1977 (ABC)
Produced by: Gary Katz
Recorded: Hollywood, CA & January-July 1977
Side One Side Two
Black Cow
Aja
Deacon Blues
Peg
Home At Last
I Got the News
Josie
Primary Musicians
Donald Fagen – Keybords, Synths, Vocals
Walter Becker – Bass, Guitars, Vocals

 
The album crashes in with the simple bass and key groove of “Black Cow”, modern sound by 1977 standards. But with the introduction of the fine chorus made of multiple voices, it is clear this is Steely Dan. The song gradually builds through a vibraphone lead by Victor Feldman, later swelling into some fine brass which adds a much more jazzy touch to the already upbeat tune. Although the writers claim a “black cow” is simply a milkshake from their childhood days around New York City, it may be a jazz metaphor on 1970s nightlife. The main riff of the song was reused for the hip hop “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz.

The title song “Aja” follows as a progressive jazz suite that hops skips and jumps all around the musical palette. It incorporates elements of Caribbean music, progressive rock, and swing within the eight minute epic, which incorporates pieces of older, unreleased songs. The song is the longest and most musically complex song that Becker and Fagen ever attempted and it features several virtuoso performances, including those by drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Denny Dias, and tenor sax by Wayne Shorter that is the purest jazz Steely Dan ever recorded.

“Deacon Blues” is the absolute pinnacle of the Steely Dan sound. It is built of complex piano chord patterns that never really seem to repeat and flavored with just the right amount of brass, laid back at some intervals, forceful and pulling at others. There great vocals throughout, starting with the perfectly delivered lead by Fagen and the ensemble of backing vocals during the choruses. The drum beat by legend Bernard “Pretty” Purdie is perfect, a guide rail along the tour that keeps all moving at a constant pace despite the ever changing sonic surprises throughout the song’s duration. Becker described the lyrics as “close to autobiography”, about suburban kids looking for some king of alternative culture, imagining what it is like to be a jazz musician or beat poet in the city. The song contains the memorable lyric;

“They’ve got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose / They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues…”

Here they use the analogy of college football success (Alabama Crimson Tide) and failure (Wake Forest Demon Deacons) in the 1970s, stressing their desire to be with the losers, the outsiders, the alternative. “Deacon Blues” was also a rarity in being a complex and extended piece which also became a popular hit, peaking at #19 on the Top 40 charts.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1977The biggest pop hit from Aja is “Peg”, which contains a funky guitar riff, lead horns, slap bass, and layers of jazzy vocal harmonies led by Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Even this relatively simple song, has a jazz oriented edge and an uncanny melody. Ever the perfectionists, the song’s guitar solo was attempted by seven different session guitarists before Fagen and Becker agreed that Jay Graydon‘s version was the best. Still, Graydon worked on it for about six hours before they were satisfied.

“Home At Last” is a nostalgic look back at New York after Fagen and Becker relocated to California. The song once again features Purdie on drums (doing his famous “Purdie Shuffle”) as well as Chicago blues-man Larry Carlton on guitar. “I Got the News” follows as a typical mid seventies Steely Dan tune, perhaps the most uninspired on this album.

The album concludes with “Josie”, the most rock-oriented song on the album, albeit heavily funk oriented. In fact, the album’s liner notes refers to the song as “punkadelia”, a fusion of funk with a more sardonic lyric. The recording features several more studio innovations ranging from the incorporation of synthesizers to the inclusion of a garbage can lid by drummer Jim Keltner.

Aja is a measured and textured album, filled with subtle melodies and lush instrumental backdrops. On this album Steely Dan would reach heights that they could not replicate in the future, as they would release only one album (1980’s Gaucho) over the following two decades. Aja was Donald Fagen and Walter Becker at their finest.

~

1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1977 albums.

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