Degüello by ZZ Top

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Degüello by ZZ TopZZ Top came back from an extended break to close out the 1970s with Degüello, their sixth studio release. Mirroring the group itself, this album is as much about an attitude and lifestyle as it is about the actual music (a prime example is that the extended, three year break was used to grow the signature beards of Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill). All this being said, there are real gems on this funk and blues influenced record, which borrowed its name from the Mexican Army bugle call at commencement of the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. The title may also be analogous to the group’s approach of wielding their electric-blues signature sound to reach a new level of pop/rock achievement.

ZZ Top got started in 1969, with the release of a couple of singles composed by Gibbons. The group’s self-titled debut album was released in 1971, followed by Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres the following two years. A live album and a couple of more studio albums were released in the mid seventies, highlighted by the critically-acclaimed Tejas in 1976. Following a worldwide tour to support the album, the band planned a 90-day tour, which was ultimately extended to be two years long.

In 1979, ZZ Top signed a new contract with Warner Bros. Records, with Degüello being the first release of this new contract. The album was produced by the group’s long time manager Bill Ham, who first met the band when they opened for The Doors at a concert in Houston and remained with ZZ Top right up until their breakup in 1996.


Degüello by ZZ Top
Released: November 14, 1979 (Warner Bros.)
Produced by: Bill Ham
Recorded: 1979
Side One Side Two
I Thank You
She Loves My Automobile
I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide
A Fool For Your Stockings
Manic Mechanic
Dust My Broom
Lowdown in the Street
Hi Fi Mama
Cheap Sunglasses
Esther Be the One
Group Musicians
Billy Gibbons – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Dusty Hill – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Frank Beard – Drums, Percussion

Degüello opens with a cover of Sam & Dave’s 1968 Soul hit “I Thank You”, written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. ZZ Top’s version takes the Soul roots and treats it with Texas flavored blues-boogie, with Gibbons vocals being extra rough but potent. “She Loves My Automobile” is more blues with the added synthesized horn arrangement by Hill complimenting Gibbon’s bluesy guitar solos.

“I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” is more rock oriented than the previous tracks with a cool drum shuffle by Frank Beard. The song is cut a bit rough with the overdubbed guitars, but this ultimately adds to the overall charm of the song, which was released as a single. A cool outro goes into a bit of a funk with a backing clavichord by Hill. The fine beat-driven ballad “A Fool for Your Stockings” is sonically different than anything else on the album, with a few excellent, mood-driven guitar instrumentals above dry and pointed bass and drums. Side One ends with “Manic Mechanic”, a unique and almost Frank Zappa-esque track with oddly-produced spoken vocals over strong rock and funk riffing.

Like the first side, the second starts with a cover. Robert Johnson‘s “Dust My Broom”, was made most famous by Elmore James in the 1950s and ZZ Top’s version sticks pretty close to that version with a pure, standard blues arrangement and some slide guitars. “Lowdown In the Street” is back to a more edgy approach, with an interesting vocal arrangement that complements the main riff. “Hi Fi Mama” features Hill’s only lead vocals on the album and he employs a Little Richard-type hyper approach to the vocals. Musically, there is a nice back-n-forth between Gibbons’ guitars and Hill’s synth horn arrangement.

The album’s climax comes with “Cheap Sunglasses”, built on a consistent groove which has been derided as either a rip-off of Edger Winter’s “Frankenstein” or Blind Faith’s “Had to Cry Today” (or both). No matter the case, this is a musical highlight for the band, with a long, cool, middle section built on a bass groove and key riffs with some bluesy lead guitar by Gibbons and great drumming by Beard throughout. After a final verse, the song slowly dissolves through scaled back groove. “Esther Be the One” is the most like a standard late seventies pop/rock song, with a full arrangement of dual guitars, keyboards, and a great bass groove to top off the album.

The platinum selling Degüello reached the Top 40 on the charts and sparked the group’s first tour of Europe in 1980. More importantly, it re-ignited ZZ Top’s career and introduced the band to a new radio audience, which brought even more popularity through the early 1980s.

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1979 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1979 albums.

 

Black Rose by Thin Lizzy

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Black Rose by Thin LizzyPerhaps the last great classic album by Thin Lizzy, the 1979 release Black Rose: A Rock Legend, peaked at number 2 on the U.K. album charts, making it the band’s most successful album commercially. Produced by Tony Visconti, the rich sound established on the group’s previous albums continues and is built upon by the eclectic songwriting of lead vocalist and bassist Phil Lynott. Thin Lizzy has been hailed as the first true rock band from Ireland, and Lynott took this privilege seriously by composing several songs through their career which were rooted in Irish tradition, starting with the famous Irish traditional folk song, “Whiskey in the Jar”,  which was Thin Lizzy’s first charting hit in 1972. On Black Rose, the closing title song contains a seamless medley of Irish standards and Celtic mythology, presented within a top-notch rock arrangement that makes this album one of a kind.

Thin Lizzy recorded their commercial breakthrough, Jailbreak, in 1976. On this album, the group established their signature twin guitar sound with guitarists Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham and the success of the album saw the group touring alongside bands Like Aerosmith and Rush. However, Lynott contracted hepatitis and the tour had to be cancelled. The following tour was again cancelled, this time when Robertson got a hand injury resulting from a drunken brawl, which ultimately resulted in artery and nerve damage. The 1977 album, Bad Reputation, was recorded as a trio, but Robertson did rejoin the band for the critically acclaimed Live and Dangerous in 1978. However, the strain between Robertson and Lynott ultimately resulted in the guitarist being replaced by blues-inspired journeyman Gary Moore.

Lynott and Moore had played together in a band called Skid Row in the late sixties right before Lynott formed Thin Lizzy. In 1974 Moore briefly joined Thin Lizzy during a tour in 1974 and was a replacement for Robertson during a tour in 1977. Black Rose saw the first actual recording to feature Moore, who offered a shredding contrast to Gorham’s more traditional style, but advanced the dual guitar sound to a level not seen by the band before or after.


Black Rose: A Rock Legend by Thin Lizzy
Released: April 13, 1979 (Vertigo)
Produced by: Tony Visconti
Recorded: Paris and London, December 1978–February 1979
Side One Side Two
Do Anything You Want To
Toughest Street in Town
S & M
Waiting For an Alibi
Sarah
Got to Give It Up
Get Out of Here
With Love
Róisín Dubh (Black Rose):
A Rock Legend
Group Musicians
Phil Lynott – Lead Vocals, Bass
Scott Gorham – Guitars, Vocals
Gary Moore – Guitars, Vocals
Brian Downey – Drums, Percussion

The album commences with the thundering rhythms by Lynott and drummer Brian Downey before the two guitarists break into the first of many harmonized guitar riffs. Recorded in Paris, the song uses rapidly rhyming lyrics during the verse which yield to a more traditionally constructed chorus. Above the outro thumps, Lynott adds some distant vocals stating “Elvis is dead” and the brief start of “Blue Suede Shoes” before it completely fades out. the collaborative “Toughest Street in Town” leans more towards early eighties style hard rock as it massages the band’s “tough guy image” in a rather trite fashion with a chanting hook but still some slightly interesting lyrics,

Like a rat in a pack it attacks from the back through a crack in a track and you take a smack…”

A long drum roll introduces the unique composition “S & M”, which is driven by flange-drenched rapid funk music and starkly brutal lyrics. This track was co-written by drummer Downey, who provides a consistent shuffle throughout and also adds a slight drum solo later. “Waiting for an Alibi” is pure upbeat rock and probably the best constructed pop/rock track on the first side. The first single released from Black Rose, the song features further harmonized guitars by Moore and Gorham and well-crafted, poetic lyrics by Lynott. “Sarah” completes side one as a ballad with slightly Latin rhythms dedicated to Lynott’s then-newborn first daughter. This song sounds different than anything else on the album due to the instrumental arrangement and additional session musicians, including a pre-fame journeyman harmonica player called Huey Lewis. Moore’s fine, sharply contrasting lead guitar after the second verse/chorus temporarily brings the song back into the hard rock realm.

A bluesy intro by Gorham introduces “Got to Give It Up” before the song rockets into another strong rock song with more great lead guitars. Apparently glimpsing his own dire fate, Lynott wrote the song about resolving to get on the wagon but failing to do so. Almost as a response to the previous song, “Get Out of Here” offers a more rigid counterpoint. This song was co-written by Midge Ure, who would later join the band as a full member. A bit corny, but still a fun listen musically, the song is filled with pessimistic lyrics;

I used to be a dreamer but I realized that it’s not my style at all / In fact it becomes clearer that a dreamer doesn’t stand a chance at all…”

“With Love” is a desperate song with a dark feel overall where guest bassist Jimmy Bain supplies a boogie bass pattern under the dualing lead guitars. The closing “Róisín Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend” is a wild Irish rock odyssey by Lynott and Moore where everyone in the band is at the top of their game performance-wise. Consisting of a blend of traditional songs fused together by original riffs, Rolling Stone recently called this “the best Irish rock song of all time”. Completing the tribute to the Emerald Isle, Lynott name-drops some famous Irish artists during the improvised outro, including James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Van Morrison.

While Black Rose was a critical and commercial success, Thin Lizzy could never quite ride the success as their bad luck continued when Moore abruptly left the band later in 1979. The band recorded three more studio albums to mediocre receptions before  Thin Lizzy’s breakup in 1983. Tragically, Lynott died three years later due to complications from substance abuse, solidifying this album as the group’s final masterpiece.

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1979 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1979 albums.

 

Rust Never Sleeps
by Neil Young

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Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young and Crazy HorseRust Never Sleeps was a unique recording by Neil Young and Crazy Horse as it was  an album of all new material mainly recorded live but post-produced with some studio overdubbing and most of the audience ambiance removed. This all resulted in a final product that feels at once intimate and intense. The title and overriding theme for this work was a concept for the tour which preceded its production and provided much of it’s raw material. Rust Never Sleeps acts almost like a bookmark for the end of the decade that examines the state of contemporary life and the music industry, much like Don McLean’s American Pie did at the beginning of the 1970s.

Following the success of Young’s 1972 album Harvest, he had an uneven career span, marred by struggles with his vocals and performance issues by backing musicians. Although these works sold poorly, most of his albums through the mid 1970s received critical praise, highlighted by the 1975 release of Tonight’s the Night in 1975, which Young later opined was the closest he ever came to true art. Through these years, Young intermittedly used the backing musicians collectively known as “Crazy Horse” with whom Young first worked in 1968. Following the release of  commercially accessible,  Comes a Time, in 1978 Young and Crazy Horse set out on the lengthy “Rust Never Sleeps” tour, where each concert was divided into Young’s solo acoustic set and the full band electric set.

The tour was the basis for the core live elements on the Rust Never Sleeps tracks. The album was produced in a way to minimize the live nature, with some abrupt song starts and quick fade-outs to help mask the audience noise, which is really only audible on the opening and closing songs. Imaginative and bold, the material on this album blends many of Young’s previously established styles while, at points, reaching areas of music unprecedented.


Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Released: July 2, 1979 (Reprise)
Produced by: Neil Young, David Briggs, & Tim Mulligan
Recorded: Various Locations, 1975–78
Side One Side Two
My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
Thrasher
Ride My Llama
Pocahontas
Sail Away
Powderfinger
Welfare Mothers
Sedan Delivery
“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
Primary Musicians
Neil Young – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Harmonica
Frank “Pancho” Sampedro – Guitars, Vocals
Billy Talbot – Bass, Vocals
Ralph Molina – Drums, Vocals

The first three songs on the album were recorded live in 1978 at the Boarding House in San Francisco. Co-written by Jeff Blackburn of The Ducks, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” is the opening acoustic version of the more popular electric album closing track. Here, Young takes a lot around the state of rock n’ roll at the end of the 1970s and pays slight tribute to the late Elvis Presley and the emerging punk genre, while the lyrics philosophically deal life and its reality. “Thrasher” sounds less “live” than the opener, as a more traditional Bob Dylan or even Bruce Springsteen influenced folk song, less concerned with riff and rhyme than with poetry and substance. Lyrically, Young stays on the state of rock stardom while musically the song contains a substantial harmonica lead in the outro. “Ride My Llama” is a short but pleasant and melodic ballad which dates back to Young’s Zuma album in the mid seventies.

Built like a time-traveling, acid-influenced tune from the sixties, “Pocahontas” is dark folk with lyrics that alternate between historic scenes and fantasy meetings. Along the way, Young references Marlon Brando, the Houston Astrodome, and, of course, Pocahontas. Completing the first side, “Sail Away” bucks the production trend of this album as a country-style recording left over from the Comes a Time recording sessions. This well-constructed song with a light but full arrangement would have fit in well with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and contains excellent harmony vocals by Nicolette Larson.

The real brilliance of Rust Never Slepps lies on the electric side two, starting with “Powderfinger”, the best overall song on the album. With great riffing throughout, especially when Young and guitarist Frank Sampedro harmonize guitars between verses. While the compositional approach is still basically the same folk as on the acoustic side, the raw industrial strength rock puts the album in full electric stride. The poetic lyrics of “Powderfinger” tell a first-person story told by an Old West fallen pioneer who failed to defend himself and his family due to several moments of indecision. An acoustic version of the song was originally recorded by Young in 1975 but was unreleased because Young thought at the time it would work better for a band like Lynard Skynard.

Neil Young 1979

Next comes a couple of heavy rock influenced songs. “Welfare Mothers” sounds like it is musically inspired by the late sixties heavy rock, with the lyrical content being more contemporary to the late seventies. The powerful rhythms of Crazy Horse’s drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot drive the mood for the lighthearted lyrics about the rash of economically-strapped divorcées. On “Sedan Delivery” Young shifts between a heavy punk verse and slower, bluesy chorus which may have been influenced by The Who. The stream-of-consciousness lyrics portray the confusion often found in the era’s punk rock.

“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” is the most popular song on the album and, in a lot of ways, Young’s signature song of his career. A rocked out version of the opening track with slightly altered title and lyrics, Young coins some memorable phrases such as “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”, which John Lennon cited as “garbage” as he did not “appreciate the worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or dead Jim Morrison…No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy” (unfortunately, Lennon was assassinated less than a year after these comments). As the song itself does get a bit too long and repetitive, it does sustain through the final crowd applause, adding nice closure to the album.

Critically acclaimed in its day and for years to come, Rust Never Sleeps was also commercially successful, reaching the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic. Later in 1979, Young and Crazy Horse released the complimentary album Live Rust and Young also released a live concert film of the album under the same title. Beyond these follow-ups, however, Young continued to take radical new musical turns in the early 1980s, which included a documentary film soundtrack, a synth-heavy techno album, and a pure rockabilly album.

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1979 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1979 albums.

 

Van Halen II

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Van Halen IIWhile rarely cited as one the group’s best works, Van Halen II, features some of the band’s best individual tracks and may well showcase Van Halen at its cohesive best. Where their 1978 debut album was a fantastic showcase for guitarist Eddie Van Halen, this 1979 follow-up finds the rest of the band bringing it up near his level to give the album a greater sense of parity. Produced by Ted Templeman, this album is much more than just a carbon copy of the debut. It may have been the best example of a group successfully following up on a brilliant debut album since Led Zeppelin did it with Led Zeppelin II a decade earlier.

Following the tremendous success of their debut, Van Halen embarked on a world tour through much of 1978 before returning to California in December to immediately begin work on this second album. Warner Brothers decided to give the group a smaller recording budget, in spite of the first album’s phenomenal success. Because of this, there was very little studio time allotted to get the recordings done and many of the recordings were first takes. Further, with little time to compose new material, they drew some material from the demo tracks they recorded prior to the first album.

The entire recording process was completed in three weeks, and this frenzied pace spawned some sonic innovation. Templeman reverted back to some of his pop sensibilities from earlier in the seventies. Eddie Van Halen achieved a thick guitar sound by overloading the circuits on his amplifier, while bassist Michael Anthony used a smaller than normal bass amp to get a sharper, less rounded sound.


Van Halen II by Van Halen
Released: March 23, 1979 (Warner Bros.)
Produced by: Ted Templeman
Recorded: Sunset Sound Recorders, Hollywood, December 1978-January 1979
Side One Side Two
You’re No Good
Dance the Night Away
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Bottoms Up!
Outta Love Again
Light Up the Sky
Spanish Fly
D.O.A.
Women In Love
Beautiful Girls
Group Musicians
David Lee Roth – Lead Vocals  |  Eddie Van Halen – Guitars, Vocals
Michael Anthony – Bass, Vocals  |  Alex Van Halen – Drums, Percussion

“You’re No Good” is, frankly, an odd cover selection to start off Van Halen II. However, in reviewing the album as it is laid out in total, it seems to be that this bit of static electric spark starts the chain reaction that leads to the musical inferno portrayed toward the end of the album. Starting with the doomy, slow meandering of Anthony’s flanged out bass before the song slowly marches in. The song proper has all of the Van Halen elements prevalent on the first album and, while certainly not the finest on the album, “You’re No Good” builds enough to make the listener feel like it is cut too short at the end. The mood brightens with the pop rock of “Dance the Night Away”, the group’s first Top 20 hit. The melodic vocals of David Lee Roth accompanies the catchy guitar riff with the bouncy bass perfectly locked with the bright kick drum of Alex Van Halen. There is a higher pitched counter-riff during the chorus and a simple yet brilliant bridge riff variation, while the outro is also done well with Roth inverting his lead vocals with the backing chorus.

Next come a couple of classic barroom songs. A short intro leads into the heavy riff which launches “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”, which dates back to the years before the first album’s release. “Bottoms Up!” has a moderate, unplugged intro by Eddie Van Halen before it breaks into an upbeat quasi-rockabilly song with Anthony slightly outshining the Van Halen brothers musically, as Eddie’s short leads fall just short of the historic precedent he set on the first album. The first side closes with “Outta Love Again”, the oldest composition on the album, notably interesting for its wild, space-like drone intro and clever use of rudiments and vocal timings. Overall, this is probably one of the strongest tracks for drummer Alex Van Halen with his shuffle rhythm through the verses and use of a variety of roll techniques elsewhere.

Van Halen

The second side is where the true genius of Van Halen II lies, with every track being interesting, original, and entertaining. The multi- sectioned “Light Up the Sky” is amazing for how much is packed into this barely three minute long song. Pure hard rock verses with Roth’s precise and complex lead vocals moving through the various sections. During the scaled-back bridge section Roth performs a raspy falsetto before Eddie ignites into a blistering lead guitar, before Alex takes his turn with a short drum solo and then an interesting outro with backwards-masked harmonies leading into the closing hook. The acoustic instrumental “Spanish Fly” is brilliant just in how unlike anything else it is. Sounding almost intentionally non-professional, this is a close up trek into Eddie Van Halen’s genius stripped down to a nylon-stringed guitar and one single minute. In sharp contrast, “D.O.A.” is the heaviest rocking song with an absolutely brutal grind by Eddie Van Halen and the pure rock action of everyone else. Roth’s verse vocals are rather reserved but contrasted later with screams to match the song’s intensity. The later guitar lead is brilliant with an excellent complimentary bass underneath.

“Women in Love…” starts with a bell-like intro solo by Eddie which is pure melody and harmonic technique. The body of this steady song is a quasi-ballad with lyrics apparently about groupies and is the best song vocally on the album. Every note is pure sonic bliss right down to Roth’s word “scream” tailed with a slight inflection of an actual scream. The verses mix a somber riff with the harmonized vocals above a thumping bass and drum rhythm, while the guitar assentation mixes with the harmonies during the chorus. The album ends with the entertaining pop/rock song “Beautiful Girls”, which contains chanting vocals with some slightly clever rhyming before the song builds in crescendo excitement through the entertaining outro.

Van Halen II peaked at number six on the American album charts and has sold nearly six million copies since its release. Over the next two years the band released a couple more albums, Women and Children First and Fair Warning, which closely followed the same formula as this record and continued the band’s popularity.

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1979 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1979 albums.

Low Budget by The Kinks

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Low Budget by The KinksThe Kinks closed out their very prolific 1970s with Low Budget, their most commercially successful album of the decade. Composer, producer, and frontman Ray Davies put together a collection of songs that form a very loose concept album. Davies explored both the macro condition of the outside world (economic recession, soaring inflation, energy crisis) as well as the micro conditions of individuals. Along the way, Davies goes to the extreme to make his point without ever taking himself too seriously. Musically, the album returns to a simple rock formula similar to what the Kinks used in the mid 1960s, but with the added elements of the contemporary punk and new wave genres added to the mix.

Over the course of the 1970s, the Kinks released one album per year, starting with the Top 40, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One in November 1970. However, many of these did not fare as well commercially, as Davies explored many various genres, ranging from music hall to Caribbean to Dixieland to country and bluegrass. Davies also explored the theatrical style with the two-part rock opera Preservation and wrote music intended for a television project that became the album, A Soap Opera, in 1975. The following year, The Kinks recorded their final theatrical work, Schoolboys in Disgrace, but soon after found themselves without a recording contract. In 1978 Van Halen achieved a hit with a cover of “You Really Got Me”, which signaled the start of a commercial resurgence for The Kinks. The non-album single “Father Christmas” and the 1978 album Misfits, saw the band simplifying their sound back to basic rock and roll.

Low Budget was the seventeenth studio album for the band and, according to Davies, recorded during their most tranquil period. The Kinks had become infamous for inner turmoil and personnel shifts throughout their long career. Lead guitarist and Ray’s younger brother, Dave Davies, was often involved with these spats with his older brother, but during the end of the seventies everything was going smoothly as they moved to New York to work on Low Budget. Compared to past Kinks’ albums, this one was done quickly to capture a lot of qualities that are lost when a project is too streamlined.


Low Budget by The Kinks
Released: July 10, 1979 (Arista)
Produced by: Ray Davies
Recorded: The Power Station & Blue Rock Studios, New York, January–June 1979
Side One Side Two
Attitude
Catch Me Now I’m Falling
Pressure
National Health
(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman
Low Budget
In a Space
Little Bit of Emotion
A Gallon of Gas
Misery
Moving Pictures
Group Musicians
Ray Davies – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards  |  Dave Davies – Guitars, Vocals
Jim Rodford – Bass, Vocals  |  Mick Avory – Drums

Opening track “Attitude” is rocking in tempo with a pure punk “attitude” during the verse before it moves into more melodic sections through the complex chorus, with lyrics that are simple and advice-giving. “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” is more indelible than the opener, starting as piano ballad, but soon breaking into a stronger riff which almost plagiarizes The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. With the reprise about “Captain America calling”, the overall theme of the song looks at fair weather friends on the international stage as an Englishman looks at the apparent desertion of the world as America goes through its stiffest challenge,

I stood by you through all of your depressions and I lifted you when you were down / Now it’s your chance to do the same for me, I call your office and your secretary tells me that you’ve gone out of town…”

The frantic “Pressure” is quasi-punk and quasi-old-time-rock-n-roll and probably the best track on the album for bassist Jim Rodford. Lyrically, it looks at the common man being beset by situations not of his own making. After “National Health”, a grinding song with a real new wave vibe, comes the slightly disco influenced “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman”. Here, an arpeggio synth pattern accompanies the steady drum beat of Mick Avory, with guitars, effects, and melodic vocals above. The lyrics move from fantasy to the reality of depressed economy,

I switched on the radio and nearly dropped dead, the news was so bad that I fell out of bed / There was a gas strike, oil strike, lorry strike, bread strike, got to be a Superman to survive…”

The album’s second side begins with the title track “Low Budget”, which is about as lyrically cheap as its title, but is musically entertaining with Dave Davies’ grinding, distorted guitars and brother Ray’s equally gritty vocals. “In a Space” is a good, melodic rocker with nice harmonies and a mixture of guitars, bouncy bass, and synths, and lyrics which literally speak about taking up space. “Little Bit of Emotion” is held together by a steady acoustic guitar with nice, bluesy electric overdubs. Later on the guitar of Dave Davies and the saxophone of Nick Newall trade leads. Here the lyrics are a bit trite but poppy and slightly comical,

Look at that lady dancing around with no clothes, she’ll give you all her body that’s if you’ve got the dough / She’ll let you see most anything but there’s one thing that she’ll never show…”

“A Gallon of Gas” is a pure tongue-in-cheek track about the rising costs of fuel in 1979 (back then they peaked at near $1.00 per gallon!) The music is bluesy throughout while vocals are more whimsical to give the song a distinct edge. “Misery” continues as a partial medley with the previous track. The music is excellent, upbeat rock with some boogie piano by Ray Davies, while his lyrics encourage the antagonist to loosen up and to not “take yourself so seriously”. The album concludes with “Moving Pictures”, a fine track built like a standard late seventies pop song, with an almost disco beat, quasi funk guitar riff, decorative synth flourishes, and smooth vocals with accents of soprano notes. This makes this unlike previous Kinks songs and leaves the listener with an appreciation for this album.

Low Budget became the highest charting studio album for The Kinks in the US, peaking at #11 on the charts. The group supported the album with an extensive tour which spawned the 1980 live record, One For the Road, and set the group up for further success into the 1980s.

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1979 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1979 albums.

Head Games by Foreigner

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Head Games by ForeignerHead Games was the third studio album released by the rock band, Foreigner, in three years and continued their incredible success by reaching the Top 5 on the album charts and selling over five million copies. Produced by Roy Thomas Baker, the third producer employed in three album, Head Games has a grittier sound than its predecessors, with driving rock elements and sprinkles of synthesized embellishments. But what truly makes this album unique among Foreigner albums is the fact that the best material is not the popular radio tracks, but found within the mostly unheralded songs in the heart of the album.

Originally formed in 1976 by veteran musician Mick Jones and ex-King Crimson guitarist Ian McDonald, Foreigner got its name from the fact that half of the original sextet was British and half was American (therefore no matter where they performed, three band members were “foreigners”). After auditioning several singers, Jones brought on Lou Gramm, a little known singer from Rochester, New York. After rehearsing for six months, the group scored a recording contract before even playing their first gig and released their self-titled debut in early 1977. The album was a raving success, staying in the Top 20 for the better part of a year and spawning a world tour into 1978. Double Vision was released in the summer of 1978 sold even better than the debut.

Prior to the recording the album, bassist Rick Wills was brought on as the newest member of the band. Jones wrote or co-wrote most of the material which was all new and written in the studio over the course of a couple months in 1979. One track recorded but left off the original LP was “Zalia”, a collaboration among Jones, McDonald and Gramm, which was later included on a CD re-issue.


Head Games by Foreigner
Released: September 11, 1979 (Atlantc)
Produced by: Roy Thomas Baker, Mick Jones, & Ian McDonald
Recorded: Atlantic Studios, New York, June–July 1979
Side One Side Two
Dirty White Boy
Love On the Telephone
Women
I’ll Get Even with You
Seventeen
Head Games
The Modern Day
Blinded by Science
Do What You Like
Rev On the Red Line
Group Musicians
Lou Gramm – Lead Vocals, Percussion
Mick Jones – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Ian McDonald – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Rick Wills – Bass, Vocals
Al Greenwood – Keyboards
Dennis Elliot – Drums, Vocals

The pure rocker with unrelenting drive and slightly controversial lyrics “Dirty White Boy” opens the album as the hardest rocking song Foreigner had done to that point. Still, the track was accessible enough to reach the Top 20, peaking at #12 on the Pop charts. Jones stated the song was a veiled tribute to the late Elvis Presley, who had “changed the shape of music completely with the kind of heritage that he left”. “Love On the Telephone” revives the more traditional sound of Foreigner in the late seventies. Here Jones switches from guitar to his piano skills, holding down the rhythm with highly melodic vocals and multiple synths floating on top.

The wild, picked, single note riff introduces “Women”, a track with some Southern rock flavorings. The mostly classic rock arrangement (with some boogie piano added later) has no real verse/chorus structure, just a uni-directional drive with a few bridge sections. Gramm’s vocals are very reserved through the first verses but grows in intensity through the latter part of the song as Jones’ lyrics employ a repetitive word method;

Women that you write songs about, women who turn around and kick you out, women you dream about every night, women who stab you in the back with a switchblade knife…”

“I’ll Get Even with You” starts with a bright guitar riff with synth accents through the intro and into the melodic verses with simple hooks, while “Seventeen” is the first and only song on the album that is not top grade, as the melodies seem a little forced to fit a particular style. The title song has a sweeping, synth-driven approach which was ahead of the 1980s style it would help inspire. Compositionally, “Head Games” is catchy but, aside from the intro and identical bridge part, Gramm’s melody and vocals pretty much carry this track completely.

“The Modern Day” is pure new wave with very reserved vocals and otherwise good movement throughout. There are acoustic textures during the bridge, which seem to be added for pure fun and unique entertainment in this mid-tempo pop song. By contrast, “Blinded by Science” is dramatic and theatrical. Built with Jones’ minor-key piano chords beneath Gramm’s soaring vocals, this multi-part mini-suite returns to the opening hook between the various sections, which feature multiple synth textures and just the right enough of guitar riffing for effect.

As great a songwriter that is Mick Jones, the two finest overall songs on the album were written by Gramm and lesser known composers in the band. “Do What You Like” was co-written by McDonald and is the best unheralded song that Foreigner ever recorded. McDonald provides the core of this upbeat, acoustic folk number, accented by the bouncing bass lines of Wills and the steady beat with rolling drum fills by Dennis Elliot. Then comes all the extra sonic flavorings, Gramm’s strong but melancholy lead vocals, synth accents, a potent lead riff, and a plethora of background vocal choruses, which all combine to make this the best song on the album. This leaves “Rev On the Red Line” as the second best song on the album. Co-written by keyboardist Dennis Elliot, this closing track is a classic rock, car song about drag racing with dynamic vocals by Gramm and a great musical vibe throughout.

Foreigner, 1979

Head Games continued Foreigner’s success which continued deep into the 1980s. However, not everyone was invited share the success, as Jones decided to remove co-founders McDonald and Greenwood from the lineup prior to the group’s next album 4. By paring back the group to a four piece, Jones was in firm control of all the music and compositions of future Foreigner material.

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1979 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1979 albums.

The Wall by Pink Floyd

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The Wall by Pink FloydThe Wall was the most ambitious album of a long and storied career filled with ambitious projects by Pink Floyd. This double-length concept album was composed by vocalist and bassist Roger Waters and spawned an equally ambitious tour, a feature film, and a legacy which has only grown in the three and a half decades since its release in 1979. Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In conjunction with The River of Rock, we celebrate this historical date by publishing this album review along with a review of the 1982 movie Pink Floyd The Wall on Big Blue Bullfrog and a review of the 1990 concert Roger Waters The Wall Live in Berlin on Kid’s Theatre News.

The album’s concept was developed by Waters following Pink Floyds 1977 “In the Flesh” tour, which followed their previous studio album, Animals. With Pink Floyd at the height of their popularity on this tour, Waters became increasingly frustrated by the ever rowdier audience and began to imagine building a giant wall between the audience and the stage. Waters further developed the “Wall” idea to include isolation, problems with authority, and the real-life loss of his father as an infant during World War II. However, “Bricks in the Wall” (as it was then known) was not the only concept Waters developed at that time. A second concept album dealing with themes of marriage, sex, and family life was also presented to the rest of the band for a vote in 1978. Pink Floyd opted for The Wall, and the other concept would eventually be developed into Waters’ debut solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking in 1984.

The Wall has 26 songs which, by comparison, is the same number of tracks as Pink Floyd’s four previous studio albums combined. To help refine and produce this monumental project, Waters brought in Bob Ezrin, who had previously worked with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel. Ezrin, Waters, and guitarist David Gilmour were the main refiners of the material, working from a 40-page script. The album was methodically recorded in several locations including England, France, and the United States. This was mainly due to the band’s year-long “tax exile”, which found them in odd living arrangements and often bickering with each other. Waters made it clear that he was in charge of the project, dictating the schedule and eventually advocated the firing of founding keyboardist Richard Wright when Wright refused to cut a family holiday short because Waters had moved up the recording schedule.

Drummer Nick Mason recorded many of his tracks independently at Britannia Row Studios in London early on in the process. This left Waters and Gilmour as essentially the only band members who fully participated in the day-to-day production through the end. When the team got to New York, Ezrin suggested that Michael Kamen and the New York Philharmonic and Symphony Orchestras, and a choir from the New York City Opera be recorded to enhance several of the theatrical tracks. Ezrin and Waters also captured many of the spoken-word and sound effects used on the album. The minimalist cover design and accompanying sleeve art was designed by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who later worked on the animation for The Wall tour and the 1982 film Pink Floyd The Wall, bringing a consistent feel to both projects.


The Wall by Pink Floyd
Released: November 30, 1979 (Harvest/EMI)
Produced by: Bob Ezrin, David Gilmour, James Guthrie   Roger Waters
Recorded: Britannia Row Studios, Studio Miraval, Correns, France, CBS 30th Street Studio, New York, Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles, July 1978-November 1979
Side One Side Two
In the Flesh?
The Thin Ice
Another Brick In the Wall, Part 1
The Happiest Days of Out Lives
Another Brick In the Wall, Part 2
Mother
Goodbye Blue Sky
Empty Spaces
Young Lust
One of My Turns
Don’t Leave Me Now
Another Brick In the Wall, Part 3
Goodbye Cruel World
Side Three Side Four
Hey You
Is there Anybody Out There?
Nobody Home
Vera
Bring the Boys Back Home
Comfortably Numb
The Show Must Go On
In the Flesh
Run Like Hell
Waiting For the Worms
Stop
The Trial
Outside the Wall
Group Musicians
Roger Waters – Lead Vocals, Bass
David Gilmour – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Mandolin
Richard Wright – Keyboards
Nick Mason – Drums, Percussion

Later reprised on the final side, “In the Flesh?” is a reference to the band’s tour where the Wall’s initial concept began. For a few seconds the melody of the album’s last song “Outside the Wall” is played, solidifying the album’s comprehensive feel, before this track explodes into a riff-driven hard rock jam which immediately destroys the subtle stereotype brought on by previous Pink Floyd albums. The tracks single verse is in sharp contrast with gentle staccato piano and doo-wop harmony behind Waters’ lead vocals. After exploding back to the main riff for the coda, a dive-bomber effect crashes and is interrupted by the sound of a baby crying, symbolizing the protagonist’s loss of his father as a baby. “The Thin Ice” is much softer and measured, with Gilmour providing the verse vocals and Waters the chorus as, again, there is only one verse/chorus. Gilmour’s signature, slow bluesy guitar close out the song.

The three song medley; “Another Brick In the Wall, Part 1” / “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” / “Another Brick In the Wall, Part 2” is one of the most radio-friendly sequences of the album. Driven by Gilmour’s rhythmic guitar arpeggio, the segment eerily enters in contrast to the faint sound of children playing in the background. Waters melody is soft at through the first section as Gilmour adds overdubbed, sweet slide effects. After a helicopter effect, the second part is shorter with much more movement, vocal effects, and intensity, leading to group’s first and only number one hit, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”. Although composed by Gilmour and Waters, it is Ezrin who deserves much of the credit for the song’s success, as he advocated for both the disco-flavored drum beat by Mason and the second verse and chorus, which featured a choir of schoolchildren. Like many of the early songs on the album, this was originally written as just one verse and one chorus and was barely a minute long. Without the band’s knowledge, Ezrin copied the first verse and spliced it in as an exact second. Inspired by his own earlier work on Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, Ezrin overdubbed 24 tracks of kids singing and laid it on top. The band was initially resistant to this, but eventually relented.

 
“Mother” is notable for variations between pure folk and differntly-timed waltz. Recorded later in the recording of the album, session drummer Jeff Porcaro was hired to lay down the beat under the guitar solo and later verse/chorus. Both Waters and Gilmour share lead vocal duties in this building song of question and answer dialogue between son and mother. Starting side two, “Goodbye Blue Sky” begins briefly as a pleasant folk song, which quickly turns dark with foreboding synths backing the picked acoustic guitar. “Empty Spaces” was an abridged, last second replacement for the longer “What Shall We Do Now?”, which did not appear until the Pink Floyd The Wall movie. Notable for its backwards-masked message, “Empty Spaces” acts as a bridge to the standard hard rocker “Young Lust”, a song about casual sex that has more Gilmour influence than any other on the album.

Starting with “One of My Turns”, the first half of the album concludes with four tracks that painfully describe the final internal steps of building the protagonist’s wall. “One of My Turns” is split into distinct segments, starting with a groupie’s monologue, followed by a soft ballad with Waters accompanied only by a synth-organ. Finally, the song snaps into a hard rock rendition of the protagonist’s violent breakdown, which terrifies the groupie. “Don’t Leave Me Now” uses some interesting sound and production techniques but has minimal lyrical content, while “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3” is a much more rage-filled rendition of the earlier melody. Finally, this cross-fades into “Goodbye Cruel World”, a delicate song builds on Waters two-note bass riff and the slightest synth by Wright. The vocals are haunting and dry to end the first act of The Wall.

“Hey You” is an excellent song which uniquely sits just outside the album’s concept. In fact, this song, sounds like it may have fit in better on the previous Wish You Were Here or Animals albums. Starting with Gilmour’s crisp acoustic and smooth vocals, the mesmerizing ballad gains rock instrumentation on the way to the climatic guitar solo followed by the frantic last verse sung by Waters. The spooky “Is There Anybody Out There?”, starts with a horror movie like intro where the title is spoken several times in a well-treated voice. Then the song turns quite classical and sweet with an instrumental passage led by the classical guitar of session man Joe DiBlasi, backed by an orchestral arrangement. “Nobody Home” is a deep ballad that features Ezrin on piano behind Waters’ fine lyrical motifs. Two very short tracks follow which harken back to Britain during World War II. “Vera” directly references British singer Vera Lynn, who had a very popular song called “We’ll Meet Again” during the mid 1940s, while “Bring the Boys Back Home” is driven by military snare drums, a brass orchestra, and a deep choir accompanying Waters’ strained vocals.

Pink Floyd in 1980“Comfortably Numb” is one of the most indelible tracks on The Wall due to its pure theatrical sound and lyrical dialogue. Much like “Mother” earlier on the track, Waters and Gilmour vocalize separate characters through the contrasting verses and choruses. Gilmour composed the music as an instrumental during the recording of his self-titled debut album in 1978. Waters changed the key of the verse and added the lyrics and title. However, it wasn’t all happy cooperation as this song sparked a bitter internal fight over two distinct productions of the song. Waters wanted a more stripped-down version while Gilmour advocated for Ezrin’s grander orchestral version. In the end, they compromised with the lyrical areas keeping the orchestral arrangement and Gilmour’s closing guitar solo playing over the band’s rock backing.

The fourth and final side of the original LP contains the most movement musically. The short linking track “The Show Must Go On” was to originally include The Beach Boys’ doing the backing vocals, but ultimately Bruce Johnston was the only member of that band to be recorded, along with a vocal ensemble that included Toni Tennile of The Captain and Tennile (these same backing vocalists were used for “Waiting For the Worms” later on side 4). “In the Flesh” is a reprise of the opening track which starts a violent sequence of songs where the story’s protagonist envisions himself as a fascist dictator and his concerts a political rally where “undesirables” are thrown “up against the wall” in an apparent Che Guevera-type execution method. On “Run Like Hell”, the violence spills out into the streets as told through Waters’ ever-strained, multi-tracked vocals. Musically, this upbeat piece is one of the most rewarding on the album, featuring Gilmour playing ostinato with rhythmic echoes, the only keyboard lead by Wright, and tactical effects and screams to frame the intended scenes.

“Waiting for the Worms” is less frantic but just as potent as its preceding track, with Gilmour and Waters alternating vocals and moods once again. Political and philosophical, this track straddles the lien between the internal strife of the protagonist and real-life commentary on the British empire itself. During the climatic outro, a crescendo is built until it crashes to a halts with “Stop”, where the hallucination ends and the protagonist resolves to settle his own mind once and for all. “The Trial” was composed by Waters and Ezrin and is unlike any song ever made by Pink Floyd. With Waters using several distinct voices to play the various characters. Most of the actual music is performed by the Kamen-conducted New York Symphony Orchestra in grandiose style, with a nice guiding piano by Wright and just a few splashes of traditional rock elements added by Gilmour and Mason. Ultimately, the judge renders his verdict and orders, “tear down the wall!” with a subsequent, repeated climatic chorus. “Outside the Wall” is a dénouement to the album, which takes place in the uncertain time after the wall has been torn down.

One of the best selling albums of 1980, The Wall had sold over 23 million by century’s end. It topped the charts in six different countries, including the United States, and reached the Top 10 in several more. Pink Floyd The Wall followed as a major motion picture in 1982. The band followed the album with a highly theatrical tour which included the building (and tearing down) of a 40-foot high wall of cardboard bricks on the stage. This would be the last Pink Floyd to include Waters (who left the band in 1983) and the recently-fired Wright was hired on as a paid touring musician for this tour. Ironically,  he was the only musician to make money, as the other three absorbed financial losses due to the elaborate production. In 1990, Waters broke out this elaborate set for a single concert to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall called The Wall – Live in Berlin.

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1979 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1979 albums.

Candy-O by The Cars

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Candy-O by The CarsFollowing up on a massively successful debut album is a daunting task. A group may want to build on their most successful musical elements while still leaving room to explore new directions. The members of The Cars found themselves in such a place in 1979 as they followed up their fantastic self-titled debut with their sophomore effort, Candy-O. Led by composer, guitarist and vocalist Ric Ocasek, the band blended their rock rhythms with topical new wave styles to make an album that alternates between radio and art rock. The resulting album is a sustainable second record that stands above the shadows to be in the conversation with The Cars’ best early work.

Although there was an excess of material after the production of , The Cars, in 1978, most of the songs on Candy-O were freshly composed specifically for this second album. While Ocasek was undoubtedly the leader of the musical direction, much of the true performance talent rested with the other four band members, starting with the lead instrumentalists, Elliot Easton on guitars and Greg Hawkes on keyboards.

Like the debut album, Candy-O was produced by Roy Thomas Baker and peaked at #3 on the Billboard album charts during its initial run, briefly re-entering the charts five years later in 1984. The album is also visually notable for the classic “pin-up girl” cover, painted by artist Alberto Vargas of a model coincidentally named Candy Moore.


Candy-O by The Cars
Released: June 13, 1979 (Harvest)
Produced by: Roy Thomas Baker
Recorded: Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles, 1979
Side One Side Two
Let’s Go
Since I Held You
It’s All I Can Do
Double Life
Shoo Be Doo
Candy-O
Night Spots
You Can’t Hold on Too Long
Lust for Kicks
Got a Lot on My Head
Dangerous Type
Group Musicians
Ric Ocasek – Lead Vocals, Guitars  |  Benjamin Orr – Lead Vocals, Bass
Elliot Easton – Guitars, Vocals  |  Greg Hawkes – Keyboards, Saxophone, Percussion, Vocals
David Robinson – Drums, Percussion

The album starts strong with the upbeat and catchy “Let’s Go”, sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, who shares lead vocal duties with Ocasek throughout the album. With a wild synth riff, percussive effects, and a cool pre-chorus with rolling drums by David Robinson, “Let’s Go” serves as the perfect extension of the first album’s vibe and entertaining quality. As a result, the single peaked at #14, making it the highest charting song by The Cars to that point. “Since I Held You” is a more guitar-based rock song, even a bit bluesy in its intro. While this song does not have as much movement as the one that precedes or follows it, it does have a steady vibe with great guitar riffs.

“It’s All I Can Do” is based on a rotating riff, built with electric piano and bass. The chorus soars into a fine mixture of square synths and catchy vocals hooks, followed by a short but entertaining lead guitar section by Easton. However, the true genius of the song is the interplay between Orr’s vocals and Hawkes subtle keyboard textures. “Double Life” is built on a lazy riff, a chanting melody, and building sonic textures until it climaxes with a raw and potent guitar lead. At the end, the song breaks down into this psychedelic synth of “Shoo Be Doo”, which is really just stereo filler without much real substance. The order quickly breaks from the chaos with the synth and dance-oriented title song. “Candy-O” has some rock elements through the interlude riff and drum parts but, in the end, is really a canvas for synth fonts and soon became a classic rock radio staple.

On the second side opener, “Night Spots”, the group advances a bit into the eighties in style, showing how influential The Cars actually were in their day. This syncopated arpeggio track was the only song left over from the debut that was included on Candy-O. “You Can’t Hold On Too Long” is the only song on the album not written solely by Ocasek, but a true band collaboration. This is a pure new wave rock with a refreshing return to guitar riffs musically, along with good drumming, a mixture of rhythms and a bluesy guitar lead in the coda. At first, “Lust for Kicks” sounds like another section of a multi-part song, but with a stripped back arrangement led by Hawkes’ bouncy, high organ patterns. “Got a Lot On My Head” is the weakest song on the album (with the possible exception of “Shoo Be Doo”), as a frantic but weakly composed track. The album recovers to finish strong with the steady rocker “Dangerous Type”. Once again, the pop craftsmanship is masterful by Ocasek and the rest of the band brings their musical “A” game. The song and album ends with a nice coda and long fade to make the listener want for more.

Following the success of Candy-O, The Cars faced a bit of disappointment with third studio album, Panorama in 1980. However, the band would recover strongly and find more great success with a string of hit albums and songs through the middle of the decade before the their breakup in early 1988.

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1979 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1979 albums.

Hunky Dory by David Bowie

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Hunky Dory by David Bowie Classic Rock Review has launched a new feature called “What Did We Miss?” to revisit some albums that we overlooked the first time through our voyage into the classic rock years. We start with 1971, the very first year we covered when we launched in 2011, and a truly amazing year for music. And so it was that we overlooked a truly great release from 1971, David Bowie‘s fourth studio album, Hunky Dory. This was a landmark album for Bowie in many ways, as a transition between his folksy origins and his movement into what would become his signature sound for years to come. Thankfully some wrongs CAN be undone and in this is a big one.

Looking at this album with a larger lens, one can clearly see that this album is not only the opening of a new phase for Bowie but a loving goodbye to the sixties and those artists who inspired him. In fact, this album is filled with artistic, societal and pop culture references. Bowie refers to The Pretty Things, Bob Dylan, and Andy Warhol in the song titles and, in turn, a later band (The Kooks) and television show (Life On Mars) took their names from song titles on Hunky Dory. There are also historical references through the lyrics that mention Aleister Crowley, Winston Churchill, Heinrich Himmler, Juan Pujol, and the society Golden Dawn.

But the real magic on this album lies in the music and melodies. The first side of Hunky Dory may be as good a side of musical excellence that you’ll find anywhere and, throughout the album, none of the songs go exactly where your ear expects them to go, as they throw in subtle or sometimes blatant changes. Co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, the album is a departure from Bowie’s previous 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World, which had a more solid rock sound. This album prominently features Rick Wakeman on piano, who comes to the forefront of the arrangement of most songs.


Hunky Dory by David Bowie
Released: December 17, 1971 (RCA)
Produced by: Ken Scott & David Bowie
Recorded: Trident Studios, London, June–August 1971
Side One Side Two
Changes
Oh! You Pretty Things
Eight Line Poem
Life On Mars?
Kooks
Quicksand
Fill Your Heart
Andy Warhol
Song for Bob Dylan
Queen Bitch
The Bewlay Brothers
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Saxophone
Mick Ronson – Guitars, Mellotron, Vocals
Rick Wakeman – Piano
Trevor Bolder – Bass, Trumpet
Mick Woodmansey – Drums

The album opens with “Changes”, which makes excellent use of layering Bowie’s unique voice on top of an entertaining pop rock and bluesy jazz mix. The lyrics of “Changes” evoke a sense of the upheaval of the past decade as well as the present state of Bowie himself as he would jump through multiple persona over the next few years. This is the most played radio song from the album and developed into the quintessential Bowie song of the era. “Oh! You Pretty Things” is a much softer piano-driven song through first verses but breaks into a rousing chorus halfway through as other instruments join the piano as Bowie’s vocals get more impassioned. The lyrics speak of discontent with humanity and technology in the Cold War setting,

Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use…”

“Eight Line Poem” is a short track with Wakeman’s surreal piano topped by the bluesy guitar of Mick Ronson. The animated and emotional vocals recite Bowie’s “eight line poem” and feel like they’d fit perfectly in a small beat poet performance area. “Life On Mars?” is the real masterpiece of the album. Bowie’s emotional vocals lead Wakeman’s quietly beautiful piano into a full band, jazz-infused jam before Ronson’s guitar comes in with a quick riff leading back to the piano accompanied by the drums. Wild flute sounds add depth to the song. “It’s the Freakiest Show” and Life On Mars by David Bowie“Is there life on Mars?” are just a few of the poetic lines to which every person must add their own meaning, as this is the musical equivalent of the modernism movement in literature. The song has an orchestral sounding ending like some great show has just come to its climax, after which the piano gets the final say as it quietly fades out.

With the addition of bass player Trevor Bolder, all the members of the band that would become known as the “Spiders from Mars” were in place. On “Kooks”, this band shows their versatility as the pleasant traditional-sounding English pop song contains apt acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and melodically dances on the drum beats of Mick Woodmansey. It has a certain sort of grooviness to it as horns and violins enter into the mix. The words “A Trumpet you can blow” lead to the sound of a trumpet. The song was written for Bowie’s newborn son, Duncan Jones, with the “kooks” being Bowie and his wife Angie. “Quicksand” concludes the fantastic first side as a steady, dark folk, featuring double-tracked acoustic guitars and a string arrangement by Ronson. This song’s sad but beautiful melodies are accented by an ever-increasing intensity in the backing music and lyrics referring to occult magicians like “I’m closer to the dawn immersed in Crowley’s Uniform”. The theatrical inspirations come through on this song and if this album was a character’s journey, this would be the moment when the character hits rock bottom.

David Bowie band 1971

The album’s only cover song is the upbeat and philosophical jazz dance of “Fill Your Heart”. This old-time, sing-songy tune with piano, saxophone, driving bass, and especially pitched vocals by Bowie. There is a bit of a psychedelic bridge into the next track, “Andy Warhol”, using spacey synths and a vocal collage. When the song fully kicks in, it has a Spanish acoustic drive throughout with some creative percussive sounds by Woodmansey.

“A Song for Bob Dylan” is interesting because it refers to Dylan as a separate mythical character apart from Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan’s actual name). It’s an interesting reflection of him as his legend certainly grew beyond his control in the sixties leading to his famous slaughter of his folk only persona at the Newport Folk Festival. It would be hard to believe that Dylan’s own experimentation with changing persona didn’t directly influence Bowie’s future work. As Bowie states in the song,

Now, hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you about a strange young man named Dylan, with a voice like sand and glue
Some words of truthful vengeance that can pin us to the floor…”

The album winds down with a couple of more unexpected twists. “Queen Bitch” is highly influenced by the Velvet Underground, but with their overall effect brought to the next level. This song sounds like it could have been fresh and new six or seven years later and may well be a precursor to “Rebel Rebel” on 1974’s Diamond Dogs, as both seem like anthems of strong women you’d dub punks in the best way. While this song features overt textures of acoustic and electric guitar, the song is real showcase for Bolder on bass. “The Bewlay Brothers” sounds like a quiet acoustic post party song when it starts but it gets louder as it goes. You can almost picture Bowie walking down a quiet street after a wild night before singing it. The multiple voices that suddenly break in are oddly disconcerting near the end of the song, as this masterpiece of an album concludes as oddly as possible.

Hunky Dory was not an immediate hit upon its release but it reach the Top 5 following the commercial breakthrough of Ziggy Stardust in 1972. “Life on Mars?” was released as a single the year after that, reaching #3 in the UK. Wakeman was not around to directly enjoy this success, as he had moved on to join the band Yes and make an immediate impact on their album Fragile. In short, Hunky Dory is a sublime listen and it feels like the true start of David Bowie’s super-stardom. It is a must listen for music fans of all kind.

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1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s “What Did We Miss?” series, looking at 1971 albums.

 

Born In the U.S.A.
by Bruce Springsteen

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1984 Album of the Year

Born In the USA by Bruce SpringsteenBorn in the USA marked the height of commercial success for Bruce Springsteen. It sold over 30 million copies worldwide and spawned seven Top 10 singles, a record met but not surpassed. The album also spent a record 84 consecutive weeks in the Billboard Top 10. But here at Classic Rock Review, commercial success is but a minor factor in which albums we cover and how we cover them. To us, it is all about the quality of the music, especially in naming our albums of the year. Born In the USA contains traditional story-driven songs with contemporary production and entertaining melody and hooks, making it, in our opinion, the best album of 1984.

Springsteen had experienced vast commercial success with the Top 5 double album The River in 1980. In 1981, Springsteen was asked to write music for a film originally called “Born In the U.S.A.” (but eventually released as Light of Day in 1987). While working on his solo, introspective, album Nebraska, Springsteen merged the melody for a song called “Vietnam” with the film’s title and originally wanted to include it on that 1982 album but eventually concluded that it was out of place.

Recording sessions for Born In the USA date back to January 1982, nearly two and a half years before the album’s release. These sessions predate the release of Nebraska, as Springsteen was composing and recording a number of songs specifically intended for an album besides that dark folk album. In fact, by mid-1982 most of Born In the USA was already recorded with a few more tracks added in 1983 and a final track added in early 1984. In total, Springsteen wrote an estimated 70 songs for the album, with 12 making the final cut and several more used for B-sides such as “Shut Out the Light”, “Johnny Bye-Bye”, “Stand On It”, “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart”, and “Pink Cadillac”, which became a minor radio hit on its own.

After a new CD manufacturing plant was opened in Indiana, Born In the USA was the first compact disc manufactured in the United States (actually “born in the USA”!) All previous CDs had been manufactured in Japan.


Born In the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen
Released: June 4, 1984 (Columbia)
Produced by: Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce Springsteen, & Steven Van Zandt
Recorded: The Power Station and The Hit Factory, New York, January 1982–March 1984
Side One Side Two
Born In the U.S.A.
Cover Me
Darlington County
Workin’ On the Highway
Downbound Train
I’m On Fire
No Surrender
Bobby Jean
I’m Goin’ Down
Glory Days
Dancing In the Dark
My Hometown
Primary Musicians
Bruce Springsteen – Lead Vocals, Guitars 
Roy Bittan – Piano, Synths, Vocals
Steven Van Zandt – Guitars, Mandolin, Vocals
Clarence Clemons – Sax, Percussion
Garry Tallent – Bass, Vocals
Max Weinberg – Drums, Vocals

The title track kicks off the album with spacey synths by Roy Bittan and a sanitized drum snare by Max Weinberg, world’s away from the folk of the past album. These intro sounds are nicely contrasted by Springsteen’s rough and strained rock vocals which belt out lyrics that deal with the cruel mistreatment of Vietnam veterans on their arrival back home. “Cover Me” is a bright pop song , albeit warmer than the opener and with some real bass presence by Garry Tallent. Springsteen originally wrote the song for Donna Summer but was urged by his manager, Jon Landau, to include it on the album and it peaked at #7 on the pop charts as a result.

“Darlington County” is a down-home track which seems to be slightly influenced by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was recorded in the spring of 1982 and gets its title from an actual county in South Carolina. “Working on the Highway” is the weakest song on the first side, almost a cheap attempt at rockabilly. In contrast, “Downbound Train” is an excellent dark, folk song with the added bonus of an eerie synth organ in the background. One of the more legitimate Springsteen songs on the first side, the song is a melancholy lament to a lost spouse with vivid imagery throughout.

 
“I’m On Fire” is a short but potent ballad with great production techniques on the voice, synths, picked guitar, and brushed drums, making it an overall masterpiece of arrangement. One of the earliest songs recorded for the album, the song came together in an impromptu jam between Springsteen, Bittan, and Weinberg. The second side is more solid throughout than the first and starts with a couple of songs which would’ve fit perfectly on Springsteen’s late seventies albums. “No Surrender” is an upbeat song of youth that was originally cut from the album but was reinstated at the insistence of guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who was very keen of the song. “Bobby Jean” is the most underrated Springsteen song, well constructed with a piano riff, a driving bass, great melody and romantic lyrics. The vocals are delivered masterfully with lyrics that are pure Jersey and the bonus of being the first song to include a sax solo by Clarence Clemens. Some have interpreted the lyrics to be a goodbye tribute to Van Zandt, who had decided to leave the E Street Band by the time of its recording. “I’m Goin’ Down” contains Clemons’ second sax solo and, like “Working on the Highway”, this is totally retro (but done much better here).

Bruce Springsteen in 1984

The album’s stretch run has three of its most popular hits. “Glory Days” is an infectious pop song with a great hook and story-telling lyrics. There is a cool mandolin track buried deep in the mix and a unique, improvised ending that helped fuel interest in this otherwise simple song. “Dancing In the Dark” was the last song recorded for the album and the first released as a single. This is a pure 80’s synth pop song, but so unlike anything Springsteen had done before, that it has got to be respected. The melody and arrangement is masterful (with the possible exception of the mind-numbing drums), making this experiment deep into the realm of radio-friendly an overall success. The album concludes with the folk ballad “My Hometown”, which is a darker look at the scenes and characters in “Born to Run”, a decade earlier. While talking about riots and unemployment in a very Wood-Guthrie-like approach, the serene backing vocal chorus through the final verse gives a sense of hope through the despair. This last song was also the last Top 10 single from the album, reaching #6 in late 1985.

Born In the USA was nominated for three Grammy Awards and won one for Best Rock Vocal Performance. With this unprecedented level of success, Springsteen went on a major tour which helped spawn a five-record box set called Live/1975–85. Springsteen has continued to record and tour through the present day, but has not again reached the level of success or overall quality in the intervening three decades.

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1984 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1984 albums.

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