Gish by The Smashing Pumpkins

Gish by Smashing PumkinsGish is the debut album by alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, released independently in 1991. The album was co-produced by Butch Vig and recorded in his studio in Madison, Wisconsin. The other co-producer was the band’s lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Billy Corgan who worked tirelessly on getting the right sound, spending hours each on everything from harmonies to guitar tones to drum tunings. This was highly unusual for indy recordings at the time, which were usually recorded “nearly live” in a few days due to shoe-string budgets. This album had about 30 days of working sessions and was very intense and stressful for the four band members.

The result is a technically proficient album with strong performances by all members, starting with the beautifully executed syncopation by drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, who was described as a jazz/hard-rock drum freak let loose on alt-rock radio. Along with Corgan, the rich and layered guitars were performed by James Iha, who has a knack for playing catchy melodies. Rounding out the lineup is bassist D’arcy Wretzky, whose low, cutting bass lines have been compared to that of Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler.

The album itself has two distinctive influences – a hard-edged, alternative metal and a softer, psychedelic, dreamy influence. On Gish, these distinctions are often pulled apart, making it slightly unballanced overall, top-heavy with the songs with the most punch up front. Corgan was the son of a professional jazz guitarist and started his musical career in the early 1980’s forming the the Smashing Pumpkins in 1988 in Chicago.
 


Gish by Smashing Pumpkins
Released: May 28, 1991 (Caroline)
Produced by: Butch Vig & Billy Corgan
Recorded: Smart Studios, Madison, WI, December 1990–March 1991
Track Listing Band Musicians
I Am One
Siva
Rhinoceros
Bury Me
Crush
Suffer
Snail
Tristessa
Window Paine
Daydream
Billy Corgan – Lead Vocals, Guitars
James Iha – Guitars, Vocals
D’arcy Wretzky – Bass, Vocals
Jimmy Chamberlin – Drums

Gish by Smashing Pumkins

 
Four songs on the album were previously recorded as demos in 1989. “I Am One” starts the album and was Smashing Pumpkin’s first single. A frenetic and explosive rocker led by Chamberlin’s opening groove and the many layers of guitars by Corgan and Iha. The closer “Daydream” is also in this group, although it varies widely as a folky number featuring D’Arcy on lead vocals and including a “hidden track” at the very end.

The psychedelic “Rhinoceros” contains a cool and unique tremolo guitar and almost whispered vocals, giving an effect that is at once fascinating and nerve wracking. At over 6 minutes, it is the longest song on the album and provides a glimpse into the type of material that the band would develop in later years. It is one of the few early songs that would be performed live consistently throughout the band’s career.
 

 
A couple more of the heavier songs on the album are “Siva”, with flowing feedback and crunchy guitars and the catchy “Bury Me”, which is held together by D’Arcy’s bassline and features co-lead vocals by Iha.

Then there are the dreamy/pop sixties-influenced numbers. “Suffer” is a steady jam with soft, chiming riffs and beats by all band members. It includes several soun effects, like a distored sitar approximation and a strange flute solo. Corgan has described “Snail” as his favorite from this album primarily because it is so unapparent as anything of quality upon first listen, but slowly creeps into a better place. “Tristessa” took its title from Jack Kerouac’s 1960 novella of the same name. The word is Spanish for “sadness” and the song was originally pressed as a 7″ single prior to the release of this album.

Released prior to the more heralded 1991 albums by Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Gish nonetheless paved the way for Smashing Pumpkins to become one of the most important alt-rock bands of the 1990s. Although the album had no chart success and many mainstream critics didn’t look at this album untll the years when the band’s popularity was exploding, Gish eas the highest selling independent album for three years following its release.

~
R.A.
 

Use Your Illusion (I & II) by Guns n’ Roses

Use Your Illusion I & II by Guns n RosesIt had been four years since Guns n’ Roses had put out their last full studio album, which also happened to be their first studio album and the biggest selling debut of all time, Appetite For Destruction. With fans and critics alike eager for new material, the band unloaded a great volume of music on September 17, 1991, the day they released the equivalent of two double albums, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II.

With these albums, especially Use Your Illusion I, the band demonstrated much growth and expansion of style, including elements of country, blues, and progressive rock, while maintaining the hard rock edge which made Guns n’ Roses famous in the first place. Much like Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, these albums included older recordings which were not previously used interspersed with new material that was written for the project(s). The band also included a well-known cover on each album and each also has at least one track sung by band members other than lead singer Axl Rose.

These two albums, released in 1991, would be the final studio albums with this classic lineup in tact and Guns n’ Roses would not release another studio album for 17 years until Chinese Democracy in 2008. Also, the band put out no less than ten videos from these two albums, a final gorge for the heyday of MTV and music videos, which would go into rapid decline through the nineties.


Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II by Guns n’ Roses
Released: September 17, 1991 (Geffen)
Produced by: Mike Clink & Guns n’ Roses
Recorded: A&M Studios, Record Plant, Studio 56, Conway Studios, Metalworks, Los Angeles, 1990-1991
Use Your Illusion I Use Your Illusion II
Right Next Door to Hell
Dust n’ Bones
Live and Let Die
Don’t Cry (Original)
Perfect Crime
So Cruel
Bad Obsession
Back Off Bitch
Double Talkin’ Jive
November Rain
The Garden
Garden of Eden
Don’t Damn Me
Bad Apples
Dead Horse
Coma
Civil War
14 Years
Yesterdays
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Get the Ring
Shotgun Blues
Breakdown
Pretty Tied Up
Locomotive
So Fine
Estranged
You Could Be Mine
Don’t Cry (Alternate)
My World
Band Musicians (Both Albums)
Axl Rose – Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Guitar, Percussion
Slash – Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Dobro, Six String Bass
Izzy Stradlin – Guitars, Vocals    Dizzy Reed – Keyboards, Vocals
Duff McKagan – Bass, Vocals    Matt Sorum – Drums, Vocals

Use Your Illusion I starts off with a song intentionally aimed at Rose’s neighbor in Hollywood who had recently sued him, called “Next Door To Hell”. It also contains “Back Off Bitch” and “Bad Obsession”, which were originally written for Appetite for Destruction “Bad Obsession” later features Michael Monroe, of Hanoi Rocks and a big influence on the band, playing the harmonica and tenor saxophone.

“Don’t Cry” is a calm and steady song, which became a big radio hit. The serene guitar is cut by Rose’s sharp vocals which climax with a ridiculously long, 25 second, ad hoc vocal to end the song. Another version of this song, with alternate lyrics was included on Use Your Illusion II. “Live and Let Die” is a cover that would’ve been better left alone, as it does not add anything to the intensity of the original Paul McCartney version. “The Garden” has a bluesy beginning with a moderate acoustic accented by a long slide electric. It then kicks in more intensely for the heavier and doomier chorus sections which feature Alice Cooper on vocals. This is interesting because much of the theatrical feel of these albums are reminiscent of early Alice Cooper Band, especially the 10-minute-plus closer of Use Your Illusion I called “Coma”.

A couple of other interesting tracks from the first album are the punk-influenced, fast and furious “Garden of Eden”, and the slow country/waltz with a heavy slide guitar presence, reminiscent of cuts from the Stones Sticky Fingers called “You Ain’t the First”. “Dead Horse” which starts with intentionally flat and apathetic vocals over an opening acoustic part but later kicks into a better jam. But, without a doubt the best song on either album, and perhaps the best song ever by Guns n’ Rose, is “November Rain” on Use Your Illusion I.

"November Rain" SingleIt is amazing how, from several different perspectives, “November Rain” represents the exact end of an era, the eighties hair-band era with the obligatory power ballad and high budget music video. For this song, the tab was about $1.5 million for an eight minute video which itself depicts the good times ending; as a joyous wedding celebration through most of the song morphs into a surreal funeral during the coda. The irony here is that Guns n’ Roses themselves help bring an end to this hair band era with the cutting-edge Appetite for Destruction, which cut against the grain of many rock conventions and helped open up the industry to the deluge of grunge which was rapidly approaching. But the song itself is purely great – a piano ballad led by Rose, a theatrical, orchestral backdrop, and some of the finest guitar work by Slash which helped secure his spot as a rock legend. “November Rain” may well be one of the best songs of the entire decade of the nineties.

I suppose the danger of releasing so much music at one time is simply overkill. And if one is to listen to both of these extra-long albums, back-to-back they may become numb to the band’s edge (especially the vocals) and it all eventually becomes repetitive. What was exciting and innovative on the first album, feels like over-indulgence on the second, and this is part of the problem with Use Your Illusion II. The other part is that it is simply not as good as its twin brother. In this light, the opening “Civil War” comes off as preachy and melodramatic and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, which had long been a staple of the band in concert, just doesn’t to have the effect it had a few years before (and this may be the most tolerable of all their covers, due to an excellent lead by Slash).

Released a few months ahead of the albums and featured in the film Terminator II: Judgment Day, “You Could Be Mine” was the first big hit from either album and actually propelled sales of Use Your Illusion II slightly ahead of those by Use Your Illusion I. In reality, this is an average song at best, which benefited greatly from the cross-marketing, including a special video featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in character.

Being just about as long as UYI I, this second album does include a few interesting highlights. Izzy Stradlin, who wrote several songs on both albums, sang solo lead on “14 Years”, a song dedicated to Axl Rose, whom he had known since 1977 (14 years earlier) when the high school classmates started their first band together in their hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. “Yesterdays” is a highly reflective song, which sounds like it should be reserved for the end of one’s career. Bassist Duff McKagan provided lead vocals on “So Fine”, while the provocative “Get In the Ring” gets very personal during a profanity-laced middle section where Rose calls out several members of the music press by name. The second album concludes with the weird and distorted rap “My World”, which feels like a throwaway filler so that they could reach the 30 song mark between the two albums.

Seven years later, with fans already in a frenzy for new material from Guns n’ Roses (which would not arrive for another decade), the band released a compilation simply entitled Use Your Illusion, which featured six of the more popular cuts from each album, a sort of “trial pack” for the casual fan.

~
R.A.

1991 Images

Graceland by Paul Simon

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Graceland by Paul SimonIn some of our previous reviews from the year 1986, you’ve probably already heard us mention several times our distaste for the slick sound that was predominant throughout releases issued that year. We’ve also lamented the fact that even established acts like Genesis and Journey seemed to fall into the “group think” of replicating this uninspired, artificial, “modern” sound to some extent or another. In the midst of all this, comes a breath of fresh air in Paul Simon’s Graceland, a true original.

The album contains a wide array of styles and sounds from vast corners of the globe, often intermingled together in ingenious ways by Simon, who was also the album’s producer. He enlisted over 50 musicians and singers to perform on this album, with a vast amount coming from South Africa and receiving their first exposure to a western audience. But African music is just one element on this diverse album which also includes a healthy mix of country, Tex-Mex, and reggae influence throughout, while also maintaining some of the signature Paul Simon styles that he had developed throughout his long career.

But simply throwing together all these elements is not, in of itself, enough to make a great album. It takes a bit of musical genius as well as the courage to take chances and go against the musical mainstream. Simon surely does this on Graceland. He uses the bass guitar as a lead instrument throughout, he adds the world elements strategically and in judicious doses perfectly straddling the line between the deep, philosophical artist and jocular clown to reach a notch of originality which is truly his and his alone.
 


Graceland by Paul Simon
Released: August 12, 1986 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Paul Simon
Recorded: Johannesburg, London, & New York, February 1985 – June 1986
Side One Side Two
The Boy In the Bubble
Graceland
I Know What I Know
Gumboots
Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al
Under African Skies
Homeless
Crazy Love, Vol. II
That Was Your Mother
All Around the World
(or Myth of Fingerprints)
Primary Musicians
Paul Simon – Lead & Background Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Bass
Ray Phiri – Guitars
Adrian Belew – Guitars, Synths
Bakithi Kumalo – Bass
Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Vocal Ensemble
Isaac Mtshali – Drums
Ralph MacDonald – Percussion

 
Paul Simon’s previous album was 1983’s Heart’s and Bones, which has since been praised by critics (including this one), but was a bitter commercial disappointment at the time of its release. Simon felt that he had lost his popular momentum and that his commercial fortunes were unlikely to change. So for the album which would become Graceland, he decided to be highly experimental since he had nothing to lose. After hearing a cassette recording of a song called “Gumboots” by Boyoyo Boys, he traveled to South Africa to embrace the culture and find a suitable place to record the album. For this particular song, Simon wrote the lyrics and melody but pretty much left the rest of “Gumboots” in tact – a fast-paced accordian-driven song that sounds like a warped version of polka.

The popular South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo play a big part in two songs – “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless” – the latter being completely a capella with much of the lyric in Zulu. The group was founded by the legendary Joseph Shabalala who co-wrote both of these songs with Simon. The final South African influence comes from the female vocal group The Gaza Singers who co-wrote and sang backup on the song “I Know What I Know”.

Paul Simon in 1986

The catchy and upbeat “You Can Call Me Al”, with lyrics describing a mid-life crisis, became the biggest hit from Graceland. Musically, the track features a penny whistle solo by Morris Goldberg and a palindromic bass run by Bakithi Kumalo. But the most memorable impression left by the song was the popular music video starring Simon and comedian Chevy Chase, in which the 6’9″ Chase lip-syncs the vocals while an annoyed-looking 5’3″ Simon mimics various instrumental sections, including the above-mention penny whistle and bass as well as percussion and horn parts. The video introduced the 45-year Simon to a whole new generation on MTV.
 

 
Graceland also contains several songs on which Simon collaborated with some of his American counterparts. He sings a beautiful duet with Linda Ronstadt in the calm and thoughtful “Under African Skies” and enlists Los Lobos as a backup band for the closer “All Around the World or The Myth of the Fingerprints”. But, by far, Simon’s most rewarding collaboration came in the album’s title song “Graceland”.

While still teenagers in the Bronx in the late fifties, a young Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (who at the time called themselves “Tom & Jerry”) would spend hours trying to master the harmonies of Phil & Don Everly. For the song “Graceland”, these same Everly Brothers provided background harmonies for Simon nearly three decades later. The song at once contains an upbeat, almost country & western sound, while also providing ethereal and deliberate lyrics on top. Simon would later say that this was the best song he ever wrote. While that may be a stretch, we do agree it is a great song.

Warner Brothers almost didn’t release this album because they thought it was too far “out there” for a mainstream audience to accept. When they finally relented, they were surely glad that they did as Graceland went platinum five times over. In the end, Paul Simon provided yet another example of the wonderful things that can be created when a talented musician strips away all commercial concerns and just lets his talent and instinct take over.

~

1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

Raised On Radio by Journey

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Raised On Radio by JourneyFollowing the most commercially successful era for the band, lead singer Steve Perry firmly took control over Journey‘s musical direction. The ultimate result of this new direction was this 1986 album Raised On Radio, an album which would (at least initially) become just about as popular as their biggest earlier albums, but ultimately would symbolize the decline and fall of Journey’s successful run in through the late 1970s and early 1980s.

After the 1983 album Frontiers and the subsequent stadium tour, the band took a bit of a hiatus to pursue different projects. Guitarist Neal Schon made the second of his two “experimental” solo albums, which prompted Perry to pursue his own solo album. Street Talk, released in 1984, contained the pop-rock and ballads that seemed a little too close to Journey’s signature sound for the other band members, causing some tension within the band. The five members of Journey, including Jonathan Cain on keyboards, Ross Valory on bass, and Steve Smith on drums, did re-convene to record a couple of songs for movie soundtracks later in 1984, but took virtually all of 1985 off.

Finally, the band wanted to record a new album, but Perry was hesitant to do so because his mother was ailing. When she convinced him to do the album, Perry was more determined than ever to take the reigns on the musical direction, something that he had slowly been doing as early as 1980, when founding member Greg Rollie departed. Perry’s idea for Raised On Radio (a title which he insisted on over the band’s original title of “Freedom”) was to forge a new sound that was a hybrid of traditional Journey and his solo own work. When early session work did not go over well, Perry convinced Schon and Cain to back him in firing Valory and Smith and Journey continued on as a trio.
 


Raised On Radio by Journey
Released: May 27, 1986 (Columbia)
Produced by: Steve Perry
Recorded: Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA, Autumn-Winter 1985
Side One Side Two
Girl Can’t Help It
Positive Touch
Suzanne
Be Good to Yourself
Once You Love Somebody
Happy To Give
Raised On Radio
I’ll Be Alright Without You
It Could Have Been You
The Eyes Of a Woman
Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever
Primary Musicians
Steve Perry – Lead Vocals
Neal Schon – Guitars, Vocals
Jonathan Cain – Keyboards, Vocals
Randy Jackson – Bass
Larrie Londin – Drums & Percussion

 
Much of the album has a feel similar to Perry’s Street Talk. However, there is one element that makes this definitive Journey (and, in reality, saves the album from musical oblivion) and that element is Neal Schon’s guitar work. Mainly floating above the rhythm, Schon’s excellent guitars add the only truly interesting and uplifting sonic value to this album, with the exception of a few songs with great vocals such as on the opening classic “Girl Can’t Help It”.

Raised On Radio does get off to a very good start. “Girl Can’t Help It” is the best song on the album, with a direct and crisp sound with a just slight flange, a simple but memorable piano riff, and some counter-harmonic guitars to accent it all. The song morphs from the simple, melodic first section to a more intense second part with some excellent harmonies. “Positive Touch” follows with a definite 1986 sound that is still quite entertaining. Guest Dan Hull adds a great saxophone and the song also contains an entertaining outtro section, highlighted by Perry’s majestic high-pitched melodies. To this point Raised On Radio still feels like the natural progression of the Journey sound.
 

 
Unfortunately, the album then takes a serious downward turn. Although both were significant pop hits, “Suzanne” and “Be Good to Yourself” are sub-standard to most of the vast radio hits of Journey’s past. These are mostly disposable songs, with just small sprinklings of guitar excellence and vocal harmonies. The greatest disappoint here is Cain’s keyboard work, which has really fallen off from the bluesy piano ballads of Escape and Frontiers towards a cheap and cheesy synth sound on this album.

The rest of Raised On Radio is high-end mediocre at best. “Once You Love Somebody” contains a nice funky bass by future American Idol host Randy Jackson and the title song opens with a nice blues harp by Hull, but both of these are really average songs on the whole. “I’ll Be Alright Without You” is the best song on the second side, as a soft-rock adult contemporary ballad with harmonized vocals nicely complemented by Perry’s crooning and Schon’s slow walk-up to the signature guitar riff in the outro. “The Eyes of a Woman” is a little doomy with deep, long string synths and the closer “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever” is an attempt to replicate past ballad smashes such as “Faithfully” that falls far short.

Following the release of Raised On Radio, Journey embarked on a tour which was initially very successful, but in early 1987 Perry suddenly and unexpectedly pulled the plug and the band was forced to cancel the rest of the tour and went on an indefinite hiatus. Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain teamed up with Cain’s ex-Babys’ band mates John Waite and Ricky Phillips to form Bad English in 1988 while Ross Valory teamed up with Gregg Rolie to form The Storm. They would not again reconvene as a band for nearly a decade, when the five members who made up Journey prior to Raised On Radio had a short-lived comeback. But the classic band was never again the same.

~

1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

The Bridge by Billy Joel

The Bridge by Billy JoelBilly Joel‘s 1986 studio album, The Bridge, represents a crossroads on many fronts. It is the seventh and final Billy Joel studio album to be produced by Phil Ramone. Ramone, starting with The Stranger in 1977, forged the sound during the most successful span of Joel’s career. It was also Joel’s first album during the 1980’s to not be focused on a single, overriding concept. 1980’s Glass Houses was punk/new wave, 1982’s The Nylon Curtain was social commentary, and 1983’s An Innocent Man was homage to musical styles and personalities of the past. The Bridge is very diverse, incorporating many styles as well as several guest musicians. On a final note, this album is first of Billy Joel’s “family-centric” releases that would wind down his career as a pop musician.

The Bridge features vividly picturesque songs, each of which cross over well to other media. “Modern Woman” was featured in a Hollywood movie, “Big Man On Mulberry Street” was used in a television show, “This Is the Time” was commonly the backdrop during tributes and retirements, and “A Matter of Trust” was featured in one of the iconic music videos of the day. Even the lesser known songs on the album, such as “Temptation” and “Running On Ice” – sound like they would work well in the visual medium.

After a bit of a hiatus from recording, Joel began work on the album in 1985.
 


The Bridge by Billy Joel
Released: July 9, 1986 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: The Power Station & Chelsea Sound, New York City, 1985-1986
Side One Side Two
Running On Ice
These Are the Times
A Matter of Trust
Modern Woman
Baby Grand
Big Man On Mulberry Street
Temptation
Code of Silence
Getting Closer
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Piano; Keyboards, Guitar, Lead Vocals
Russell Javors – Guitars  |   Rob Mounsey – Synthesizers & Orchestration
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass  |  Liberty Devito – Drums & Percussion

 
The album’s first song “Running on Ice” shows that this is a long way from the “Piano Man” days. With a heavily “modern” (for 1986) sound which could be an updated version of the ska-influenced Police tracks and a frantic, sound-effect washed, tense verse that gives way to a flowing chorus section. The album then settles into a nice groove with “This Is the Time”. Featuring some excellently over laid guitars by Russell Javors, “This Is the Time” is a melancholy yet sweet ballad, which shows that Billy Joel was still in the upper pantheon of songwriting in 1986. It is a song of self-awareness, of a happy life and the grasping at the nostalgia which will surely follow these days –

“a warmth from the memory of days to come…” 

A Matter of Trust Single by Billy JoelIn the video for “A Matter of Trust”, Billy Joel is seen playing a Les Paul in this guitar-centric and entertaining hard rocker, which takes yet another departure from his traditional sound but was yet another hit. Joel is the absolute master of vocal melody making it all sound so natural and effortless, which plays a big part in being able to jump from genre to genre. “Big Man On Mulberry Street” goes in an almost completely opposite direction of the rock song. It is a Broadway-esque show tune with elements of big band and jazz. An extended version of the song was used on an episode bearing the same name on the hit television Moonlighting, starring Cybil Sheppard and Bruce Willis.

Rounding out the album’s second side, “Temptation” is another excellent song which hearkens back to 1970s-era Billy Joel in style. “Code of Silence” may be the only song in Joel’s catalog where he uses a co-writer, the flamboyant yet talented Cyndi Lauper. “Getting Closer” is a song of hope born out of the ashes of cynicism and features the legendary Steve Winwood on Hammond organ.
 

 
But the true legend on the album is Ray Charles. who performs a duet with Billy Joel on the song “Baby Grand”. The two originally got together when Charles found out that Joel had named his daughter Alexa Ray in honor of Ray Charles so Charles contacted him and suggested that they may want to work together, if they could find the “right song.” Joel considered Ray Charles one of his idols; “…as big of a pianist or as big of a star I could ever become, I could never be Ray Charles….” Joel got right to work, trying to compose a song in the style of Charles’ classic “Georgia on My Mind”, and wrote “Baby Grand” over the course of one night. Joel originally sang the song in his thick New York accent, but decided to do a Charles impression instead once he got comfortable working with him. The finished product is as much a tribute to Charles himself as it is to the instrument they both love.

Although The Bridge was a bit weaker commercially than many of Joel’s previous albums, it is a solid album through and through and especially shines in comparison to the weak music scene in 1986.

~
RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

Strong Persuader by Robert Cray

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Strong Persuader by Robert Cray The 1980’s music scene is best remembered by most people as a time when synthesized sounds ruled the radio waves and the glitzy MTV videos of hair bands and rap and hip hop artists were all the rage. In this unlikely era of technology driven pop, Robert Cray helped rein in the appreciation of a new generation for the blues. Some have criticized his blend of blues, soul and rock as a homogenization of the blues but his contemporary style was easily accessible and entertaining to a wide audience. His Gammy winning 1986 release Strong Persuader is credited with helping the Blues find new life as it spawned a top-five hit with “Smoking Gun”, with a video also shared frequent MTV screen time with the likes of A-ha and The Pet Shop Boys.

Perhaps Robert Cray’s brand of electric blues might be the result of his diverse background. Though he was born in Columbus, GA, he was an “army brat” and was raised all over the country. He started playing guitar in his early teens while living in Newport News, VA and cites blues legend Albert Collins as a major influence. Later, he would collaborate with Collins on his album Showdown!, which won a Grammy itself in 1987. Cray also lists guitar greats George Harrison, Eric Clapton and B.B. King as some of his early influences.

His third major label release, Strong Persuader remains one of his best albums to date. The songs all revolve around a common blues theme of love gone wrong. While he may not possess a technically perfect voice, Cray is a superb vocalist, delivering precisely the right emotion whether it be specific levels of sincerity, sarcasm, or cynicism. The sound of the album is simple, crisp, and clean and never muddled. It is modern electric blues featuring Memphis horns, steady bass and drums, and Cray’s signature, attack-heavy guitar style with no wasted notes.
 


Strong Persuader by Robert Cray
Released: November, 1986 (Mercury)
Produced by: Bruce Bromberg & Dennis Walker
Recorded: Sage & Sound, Los Angeles, 1986
Side One Side Two
Smoking Gun
I Guess I Showed Her
Right Next Door (Because of Me)
Nothin’ But a Woman
Still Around
More Than I Can Stand
Foul Play
I Wonder
Fantasized
New Blood
Primary Musicians
Robert Cray – Guitars, Lead Vocals
Peter Boe – Keyboards
Richard Cousins – Bass
Wayne Jackson – Trumpet, Trombone
David Olson – Drums

 
For how sanitized the may album sound, at its core Strong Persuader is really quite racy. This dichotomy is best portrayed on the song “Fantasized”, which contains some rather risque lyrics above an nonthreatening basic, soft-rock music track. If fact, “Strong Persuader” became a nickname for Cray himself due his skills at convincing young women as portrayed in the popular song “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” where he brags about his conquest being “just another notch on my guitar”.
 

 
The album’s opener, “Smoking Gun”, is perhaps Cray’s most popular song ever, accented by Peter Boe’s signature piano riff and a fine, “slow hand” guitar solo. The following song “I Guess I Showed Her” takes another musical direction, with a nice blend of cool jazz and funk, highlighted by the brass of Wayne Jackson with some ironic/comedic lyrics. Later in the album, Cray settles in to more traditional, guitar-driven blues and nearly-crooning vocals on songs like “I Wonder” and “New Blood”.

Throughout the rest of album, the songs vary with different combinations of these three styles, all held together by the consistent production of Bruce Bromberg & Dennis Walker. some of the highlights include the catchy and melodic “More Than I Can Stand” and the excellent “I Wonder”, with its totally unique solo technique which at one point seems to use alternate tuning and at another almost sounds like a banjo, and the cool lyric – “…Is this a dream or has Bob gone crazy?”

Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame just last month (May 2011), Robert Cray gave us an interesting and entertaining album a quarter of a century ago, which remains one of his most popular. Since Strong Persuader, Cray has released 11 studio albums but none have been as popular as this 1986 tour-de-force.

~

Robert Cray online

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Robert Cray website
Live Review of Robert Cray Band
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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1986 albums.

 

3.V by Zebra

3.V by ZebraThe three-piece rock band Zebra did not spend a long time on the national scene, nor did they have tremendous success while they were on that scene. But there is no doubt that they made some unique and original music while they were there. They are, in a sense, a rare and secret gem of a band which fewer have enjoyed than legitimately should have, due mainly to the lack of the support which they legitimately earned and deserved. That being said, there are some striking fouls and unforced errors that the band made once they did reach the national stage and it cannot be denied that, to a small extent, they had a hand in their own professional demise.

By 1986, the band was facing pressure from Atlantic Records to produce a hit album. Zebra’s self-titled debut album was released in 1983 to critical acclaim and moderate sales. They followed that up with the Jack Douglous-produced No Tellin’ Lies in 1984, but unfortunately this sophomore effort had weaker sales and a Luke-warm reception. For their third release, the band made a concerted effort to create a more widely-accepted pop-rock album and to this end, Zebra succeeded. However, by the time 3.V (pronounced “three point five”) was put on sale, the record company had all but pulled support for the project, dooming it to obscurity despite the fact that includes some of the band’s finest work. It would be the their last album for 16 years, a swan song of sorts as they spent their last creative energy on this final run at fame.

But back to the flaws and fouls committed by the band themselves. Although 3.V contains no terrible songs, the sequence of songs is suspect, such as opening with the uninspiring “Can’t Live Without” while burying the fine gem “About to Make the Time”. The album is plagued by clusters of both mediocrity as well as pure brilliance, which makes it feel unbalanced to the listener. Also, the confusing title – using mixed media to resolve a nonsensical phrase – was a serious faux pas for a band who really needed to hit this out of the park commercially. Finally, there is the production quality, something that had hampered the band’s sound on all of their recordings.
 


3.V by Zebra
Released: November, 1986 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Zebra
Recorded: 1986
Side One Side Two
Can’t Live Without
He’s Making You the Fool
Time
Your Mind’s Open
Better Not Call
You’ll Never Know
About to Make the Time
You’re Only Losing Your Heart
Hard Living Without You
Isn’t That the Way
Band Musicians
Randy Jackson – Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Lead Vocals
Felix Hanemann – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Guy Gelso – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

 
There is a surreal quality to the Zebra sound, a distance and narrowness which makes it either sound like it comes from some exotic, unidentified place or sound like it’s not quite professional. The truth is, it is a bit of both. Despite the band’s concerted effort to make a more pop-friendly album and the corresponding adjustment in production technique, 3.V still possesses this quality for better or worse.

On the downside there is “Can’t Live Without”, the opening and song and emphasis single from the album. After starting with a nice acoustic under some scat vocals, the song kicks into a full-fledged 80s sound, with an over-processed snare drum, saturation of keyboards, and a weak bass presence. The vocals stay mainly in the high register, which gives it a bit of monotony vocally. On most of this album, lead singer Randy Jackson alternates between the standard and falsetto voice, providing dramatic contrast in the process. But not on this opening song.

On the higher end, there are the songs which follow in sequence on the first side. “He’s Making You the Fool” contains some real sonic treats during the bridge and in the coda, with entertaining and alternating vocal motifs. This then fades into the real classic of the album, “Time”. Containing a pleasant 12-string acoustic throughout, which even allows bass player Felix Hanemann to get in some rare features of that instrument, this is perhaps the best piece that the band has ever recorded. Even with a heavier chorus, “Time” maintains a melancholy mood throughout and it contains a brilliant ending addendum section which really brings the whole piece home.

Next comes a 180-degree mood shift with the inspiring and uplifting “Your Mind’s Open”, a great song fueled by good keyboards (also played by Hanemann), just the right flavoring of acoustic and vocal effects, and some vivid lyrics such as “taking safaris right up into the sky…”

The true highlight of the second side is “About to Make the Time”, a very interesting, acoustic-driven song with steady bass riff and good bass presence throughout. It is a philosophical song which establishes a long pattern that works very well with repetition and should have been placed as the last song on the album – it would have been a gem of a closer.

The rest of 3.V contains mostly adequate but unspectacular songs, all within the Zebra style and musical direction, but in no way furthering the band’s quest to remain any longer with a major label. It is really a shame because this band had the potential to create much more quality material.

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RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

1986 Images

Third Stage by Boston

Tom Scholz is a figure unlike any other in the history of rock n roll. A natural inventor, Scholz studied at M.I.T. as a mechanical engineer. After graduating, he worked at Polaroid, where he learned the basics of audio engineering and began experimenting with his own sounds. Starting in 1969, he recorded and re-recorded the music that would comprise the debut album Boston, a masterpiece that was finally released in 1976 (Classic Rock Review will look at that album in December). After the phenomenal success of their debut, the band produced the follow-up Don’t Look Back in the relatively short time of just two years. Released in 1978, Scholz never felt like it was quite “done” and swore that he’d not rush out another album. It would be eight solid years before the next album, Third Stage would see the light of day.

This wasn’t intended to take so long. In fact, the first side was written and recorded between 1980 and 1982, but technical difficulties and an eventual lawsuit by the record company CBS slowed the whole process down. To Scholz, the successful completion of this third album turned into an obsession. He claimed to have pushed the record button over 1 million times and filled over 100 reels of tape with music. He decided to use separate 24-track tapes for music and vocals and synchronize via a new digital machine. But it turned out that the high tech machine “was a lemon” and so an engineer was hired to “use his thumbs” to keep each machine running in sync. Further, Sholz refused to use any orchestral instruments, synthesizers or MIDI synchronization on Third Stage – making his job as producer infinitely harder in the process, but preserving the sound’s integrity. The only deviation from the sound of the 1970s albums, was his own invention The Rockman, which he developed over the long course of this project and which would prove to be a much more lucrative product than the album ever was.

Once the CBS lawsuit was settled in Scholz’s favor, he was free to sign with MCA and release Third Stage in late 1986. It would go to become the most successful album commercially and spawn the band’s only #1 hit.
 


Third Stage by Boston
Released: September 23, 1986 (MCA)
Produced by: Tom Scholz
Recorded: Tom Scholz Hideaway Studio, 1980-1986
Side One Side Two
Amanda
We’re Ready
The Launch
Cool the Engines
My Destination
A New World
To Be a Man
I Think I Like It
Cancha Say / Still In Love
Hollyann
Primary Musicians
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Drums, Percussion
Brad Delp – Lead & Harmony Vocals   Jim Masdea – Drums

 
Although portrayed as a band, Boston was more like a duo with Scholz providing on the music, production, and performing most of the instrumentation and Brad Delp doing all the lead and harmonized vocals. The result is musically excellent but a bit weak lyrically. There is also a bit of disparity between the album’s earliest tracks on side one and the more recent material on side two, especially when it comes to Delp’s vocals.

“Amanda” was the very earliest song written for the project in 1980. A sweet and beautiful love song, with excellent, harmonized guitars, the song immediately reminded fans of the immense talent of Boston and, in turn, it became the band’s first and only #1 hit. “We’re Ready” follows as a nice compliment to “Amanda”, with it’s moderate, deliberate riff and beat, that does pick up at parts, but always manages to come back to earth and ease into the mood of the song.

The band then “launch’s” into the experimental and very majestic intro to “Cool the Engines”, in keeping with the their tradition of intro pieces. The song itself is musically superb with many areas of creative stop-and-start throughout. The lyrics do have a tinge of preachiness that may be a bridge too far for casual fans.

This brings us to perhaps the downside of “Third Stage”, the concept itself. Apparently coined by Scholz, the “third stage” is supposed to be that age of enlightenment beyond childhood and adulthood. It is portrayed most vividly in the song “My Destination” – a variation on the tune of “Amanda” that ends the first side and contains the lyric;

It’s not who you can be, it’s what you can see that takes you there, your destination…

In all, the theme comes off kind of new-age-y and forms a slight chasm between band and fan, especially during some of the more forgettable songs on the album’s second side, especially “To Be a Man” and the dreadful “Cancha Say (You Believe In Me)”.

However, the second side does contain a few highlights; the smooth and straight-foward rocker “I Think I Like It” and the pleasant closer “Hollyann”, which bleeds nostalgia for the 1960s and contains an interesting little organ solo in the middle, accompanied by little more than a strumming, acoustic guitar.

In the end, Third Stage would prove to be Boston‘s commercial peak. It would take yet another eight years for the band’s fourth album in 1994, Walk On (a project which, ironically, Delp “walked off”) and another followed near the end of the century. But Boston would never quite reach that sound again.

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RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

5150 by Van Halen

Buy 5150

NOTE: This review was original published in May 2011 but has been re-purposed for the 30th anniversary of the album on March 24, 2016.

5150 by Van HalenWith the possible exception of AC/DC, it is hard to find an example of an established rock band with a single, charismatic, lead singer that becomes even more successful once that singer is replaced. After the acrimonious departure of David Lee Roth in early 1985, Van Halen was at sea for a while as they actively searched for Roth’s replacement. Their record company, Warner Brothers, did not want them to continue on with the same name, feeling like it might distort the successful branding. Further, many long-time fans were hoping for reconciliation and dismissing any serious chance at reformation with a new lead vocalist.

Unfortunately, the rift between Roth and the rest of the band was far too deep and with Roth publicly declaring the band dead and making grand plans for a solo music and acting career, the band was determined to carry on without him. After briefly entertaining the idea of using multiple singers on their next album, Van Halen decided they wanted a permanent band member to front them. Enter Sammy Hagar, a well established rock star in his own rite, as the lead singer in the band Montrose and as a solo artist.

Further, Hagar was also a proficient guitarist, which freed up Eddie Van Halen to further branch out on the keyboards, as he had started with the previous album, 1984 (MCMLXXXIV). The band scored a couple of big hits from keyboard-driven songs on that album and that trend would certainly continue with 5150.
 


5150 by Van Halen
Released: March 24, 1986 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Mick Jones, Donn Landee, & Eddie Van Halen
Recorded: Nov. 1985 – Feb. 1986, 5150 Studios, Hollywood, CA
Side One Side Two
Good Enough
Why Can’t This Be Love?
Get Up
Dreams
Summer Nights
Best of Both Worlds
Love Walks In
5150
Inside
Musicians
Sammy Hagar – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Eddie Van Halen – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Michael Anythony – Bass, Vocals
Alex Van Halen – Drums & Percussion

 

Another factor that led to the new sound of 5150 was the absence of producer Ted Templeton, who had produced all of the band’s previous six albums. This left production duties to the band itself, led by Eddie Van Halen with the help of Mick Jones and Donn Landee. This production team moved away from the traditional “live” sound of previous albums and towards a sleeker 1980s sound, especially among the three keyboard-driven songs, each of which would become huge hits.

Two of these hits used the long-string sound that Eddie Van Halen had established on the previous album. “Dreams” is the standout here, showcasing Hagar’s vocal range as well as the band’s pop sensibilities, while maintaining a unique, dynamic edge. Perhaps the first true “love song” in the Van Halen catalog, “Love Walks In” features Hagar on lead guitar and showcases some excellent background harmonies by Eddie Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, which had become a longtime staple of the band’s sound.

The most unique-sounding and innovative of these keyboard songs is “Why Can’t This Be Love”, where Van Halen uses a wild-sounding synthesized clavichord for the main riff while Hagar providing some rhythm guitar support. Being the first single to be released by the band in the Spring of 1986, this song re-introduced the band with a fresh and unique sound that was mainly well-received. However not everyone was impressed with the new sound, as a lot of longtime fans felt alienated by the dual whammy of replacing Roth and moving further away from the guitar-driven sound of the group’s early days. Soon these fans would adopt the name “Van Hagar” for this new formation, so to derisively avoid acknowledging this as a continuation of that earlier band.

Van Halen in 1986

5150 does contain a solid handful songs that would have fit into the style of some on the band’s early work including the songs “Summer Nights”, “The Best of Both Worlds” along with the album’s opening track “Good Enough”. However, none of these really rise to the level of the band’s better guitar-driven songs of the past. One exception to this is the standout title song “5150”, an upbeat jam with a catchy melody that highlights the talents of both Eddie Van Halen and his older brother, drummer Alex Van Halen.

Van Halen did score their first ever #1 album with 5150, a feat that served to validate their decision to move forward with a new frontman and updated sound. The band would continue use this formula with similar success, as all four of their Hagar-era albums reached the top of the album charts, stretching well into the early 1990s.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of the 30th anniversary of 1986 albums.

Too Fast for Love by Mötley Crüe

Perhaps more than any other band, Mötley Crüe epitomized the “hair band” phenomena of the 1980s, with their updated version of 1970s glam. But they did have a brief moment of pre-glam, pre-hair when they were simply a hungry hard rock band from L.A. looking to make their breakthrough.

The band’s 1981 debut album Too Fast for Love captures this era in raw and unpolished form. There are flaws throughout, including the obvious fact that Nikki Sixx had not yet learned how to play bass (which he later admitted), the overall low budget under-production, and the fact that songs do tend to repeat themselves in near mind-numbing sequence. In spite of this, the album illustrates that there is something real and legit about these four young talents, including Sixx whose main contribution is as the band’s primary songwriter, which can attract even non-fans of the band or the genre.

The talent represented here validates Mötley Crüe as a legitimate rock band. This is especially true for the most talented member of the band, guitarist Mick Mars, who is the only member of the band that truly has his sound fully formed and cultivated on this debut.
 


Too Fast for Love byMötley Crüe
Released: December, 1981 (Elektra)
Produced by: Mötley Crüe
Recorded: Hit City West, Los Angeles, 1981
Side One Side Two
Live Wire
Come On and Dance
Public Enemy #1
Merry-Go-Round
Take Me To the Top
Piece of Your Action
Starry Eyes
Too Fast for Love
On With the Show
Musicians
Vince Neil – Lead Vocals | Mick Mars – Guitars
Nikki Sixx – Bass | Tommy Lee – Drums

 
Mars’ sound is the lynch pin that really elevates this album from semi-professional demo to consumer-ready rock product. His technique and sound textures are best displayed on the album’s only ballad, “Merry-Go-Round”, in which Mars alternates between lightly picked staccato notes and sustained, heavy chords and includes a fantastic, overdubbed lead that takes the song home.

However, a true listen to Too Fast for Love reveals that there are some other budding musicians beyond Mars. Although both fall just short of being fully matured in their craft, Tommy Lee plays some animated and entertaining drums while Vince Neil sings with a melodic, new-wave-ish voice.

Several of the songs reflect the band’s seventies influences. The opener “Live Wire”, with it’s machine-gun rift that dissolves into a calmer mid-section is reminiscent of Rush’s “Bastille Day”. Deep Purple’s influence can easily be heard in the entertaining “Piece of Your Action”, while the album’s title song sounds like any number of Kiss songs.
 

 
Too Fast for Love also includes a couple of really good rock-pop songs. “Public Enemy #1” would have been a huge hit if it were released during the band’s heyday a half decade later, while the closer “On With the Show” displays the Crüe’s versatility as up-and-coming musicians.

Even some of the album’s weaker songs, such as “Take Me to the Top” and “Starry Eyes” display a bit of authentic, early eighties charm that makes Mötley Crüe’s debut well worth the listen.

~
RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1981 albums.

1981 Images