5150 by Van Halen

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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.

~

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

Paradise Theatre by Styx

Paradise Theatre by Styx

At a time when the “concept album” had all but gone out of fashion, Styx released Paradise Theatre, an album that loosely couples a fairly interesting concept with some strategically placed (albeit unrelated) pop and rock songs.

The concept itself is one of rapid decay and lament to a past Golden Age symbolized by an actual theater on Chicago’s west side built on the eve of the Great Depression and dead by the mid 50’s. Brought forward to the turbulent economic times around 1980, this concept worked well. But concept itself is not enough, in the end it is all about the music.

Although the album is a little less than the band’s best output (The Grand Illusion four years earlier), the music did tap into a popular confluence between the band’s long-time, loyal listeners and a new crop of pop-rock fans that were suddenly starting to pay attention to durable bands from the 1970s such as Rush, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, and Styx.
 


Paradise Theatre by Styx
Released: January 19, 1981 (A&M)
Produced by: Styx
Recorded: Pumpkin Studios, Oak Lawn, IL, 1980
Side One Side Two
 A.D. 1928
 Rockin’ the Paradise
 Too Much Time On My Hands
 Nothing Ever Goes as Planned
 The Best of Times
Lonely People
She Cares
Snowblind
Half-Penny, Two-Penny
A.D. 1958
State Street Sadie
Musicians
Dennis DeYoung – Keyboards, Vocals | James Young – Guitars, Vocals
Tommy Shaw – Guitars, Vocoder, Vocals
Chuck Panozzo – Bass | John Panozzo – Drums & Percussion

 
Musically, Paradise Theatre contains a nice balance among the band’s three primary songwriters, Dennis DeYoung, Tommy Shaw, and James (JY) Young.

Shaw’s best contribution is the hit “Too Much Time On My Hands”, which is about as good as a pop single got for that era. It contains a nice mix of synth effects, a classic guitar solo, crisp and catchy lyrics, and well-delivered vocals. Besides some great axe work, Shaw also adds the top-end harmonies that distinguishes the Styx sound.
 

 
JY’s efforts were back-to-back tracks on the album’s second side. “Snowblind” is an anti-drug song with a lugubrious feel throughout. In spite of it’s noble message for society on the surface, it was targeted by Tipper Gore’s PMRC and other anti-rock groups for allegedly backwards masking Satanic messages. The band was truly offended by these charges and would mock them on their next album, Kilroy Was Here, with genuine backwards messaging.

“Half Penny, Two Penny” may be the best rock song on the album. A mini-suite in of itself, it builds to a crescendo with some excellent lead guitar and just the right touch of piano and saxophone (by guest Steve Eisen) in the coda where repeatedly JY screams;

“I wanna be free!”

The Best Of Times single

But the concept itself and all the songs that surround it, truly belongs to DeYoung. “The Best of Times” provides not only the top hit on the album, but the recurring theme with the opener “A.D. 1928” and the closer “A.D. 1958”. Many longtime fans (and apparently some band members themselves) lamented the heavy introduction of ballads by Denis DeYoung, starting with the soft-rock hit “Babe” on the previous album, Cornerstone. But this is a case where the ballad is supreme (and not so much sappy) with strong influence from each of the members of Styx and the obvious endorsement of fans at large.

However, some of the other “theme” songs really tend to straddle the line between legitimate rock opera and some high school theater production. This is especially true for “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned”, both popular songs on the album, each of which can either be interpreted as entertaining or over-the-top on any given day. For this reason, Paradise Theatre never really rises to the level of excellence of the best rock operas, such as The Who’s Quadrophenia, although it is still an interesting and enjoyable listen.

A nice touch was added to top off the album, a classy, “song after the last song” in the same fashion as “Her Majesty” off Abby Road by The Beatles. The half-minute long saloon-piano piece called “State Street Sadie”, adds just a touch of nostalgia right out of the 1920s that brings home the overall theme of Paradise Theatre.

~
RA

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

 
 
1981 Images

 


Don’t Say No by Billy Squier

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Bily Squier was an odd figure on the pantheon of rock. On the one hand, there is no doubt that he was a very talented vocalist with exception songwriting instincts and pop music instincts. Listening to his 1981 breakthrough, Don’t Say No, leaves one with little doubt that this is a bona fide and legitimate rocker. But then there is the other hand, something that’s a little odd, a little off, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but nonetheless was (probably) responsible for Squier not getting his due accolades through the years and decades. It certainly can be argued that being a little “off” adds a distinction or an “edge” that makes such an artist more interesting. This certainly was the case on Don’t Say No and its equally impressive follow-up, Emotions In Motion, in 1982.

A Massachusetts native, Squier had been performing live throughout New England since the late 1960s, including stints with the bands Magic Terry & The Universe, Kicks, The Sidewinders and Piper. This latter group released two critically acclaimed (albeit commercially unsuccessful) albums in the late 1970s and opened for KISS during the height of that band’s success. Squier departed Piper to launch his solo career in 1980 with his debut album The Tale of the Tape, which had a couple of minor hits.

For this sophomore effort, Squier invited Queen guitarist Brian May to act as producer. However, May had too many prior commitments and instead suggested Reinhold Mack, who recently produced Queen’s very successful 1980 albums The Game. This combination proved fruitful, as In the Dark reached the Top 5 on the album charts and spawned two Top 40 singles.

 


Don’t Say No by Billy Squier
Released: April 13, 1981 (Capitol)
Produced by: Reinhold Mack & Billy Squier
Recorded: The Power Station, New York
Side One Side Two
 In the Dark
 The Stroke
 My Kinda Lover
 You Know What I Like
 Too Daze Gone
Lonely Is the Night
Whadda You Want from Me
Nobody Knows
I Need You
Don’t Say No
Primary Musicians
Billy Squier – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Percussion
Cary Sharaf – Guitars
Alan St. Jon – Keyboards
Mark Clarke – Bass, Vocals
Bobby Chouinard – Drums

 
This “second tier” of songs are best exemplified with the final three songs on the album, which break from the normal pattern with differing tempos and acoustic textures. “Nobody Knows” is the only song that can be considered a ballad. Squier’s near-soprano vocals above a slowly-picked guitar line and just the right amount of bass and strings later gives way to the full band joining in and a fantastic double-tracked guitar lead that captures the mood perfectly. “I Need You” is a very good pop song, with a really cool new-wave-ish bass/synth riff, calm strummed acoustic and strategically inserted electric guitar during verses that becomes more forceful during the choruses. Unlike that smooth song, “Don’t Say No” is put together in bits and pieces with some interesting lyrics;

I live on the border-line, you come from the void…”

Which brings us back to that “oddness” that we mentioned at the top. Don’t Say No is littered with examples, mainly outtros of songs, such as the orgasmic chant at the end of the opener “In the Dark” or the frantic pick-up that ends “Lonely Is the Night”. But this is most evident on the album’s closing title track, which begins with a fade-in of the first verse and fades out completely near the end, only to re-emerge suddenly. Is this edgy or amateurish? Ultimately, the listener must decide. Some of Squier’s influences are apparent in a couple of other fine songs. “Too Daze Gone” contains many of the same blues-based elements utilized by Aerosmith in the 1970s, while “Lonely Is the Night” is a definite nod to Presence-era Led Zeppelin, but with an additional gloss layer that makes it very entertaining and radio-friendly.

Billy Squier

Of course, Don’t Say No is best know for the “hits” that are still heard on AOR and other media to this day. The opener, “In the DarK” has a very good sound with mixture of guitars and synths and a steady, staccato beat along with plenty of little riffs throughout that make this song a trans-era hit. Mack’s great production is apparent right from the start. “The Stroke” is a double-entendre with infectious lyric and riff and a steady, marching beat throughout. This marching continues through to “My Kindda Lover”, but with a sweeter demeanor, as compared to it’s totally cynical predecessor.

When we made our choice as to which albums from 1981 we would review, we decided that we would either choose Foreigner 4 and Don’t Say No (but not both) as they cover very similar territory as far as genre and quality. They are also similar being that the most popular songs on each album are pretty much the best songs on each album – something that, believe it or not, is really quite rare. But while it was difficult to determine if “Urgent” was superior to “The Stroke” or if “In the Dark” was better than “Juke Box Hero”, it was ultimately the second tier of songs that, in our opinion, gave Don’t Say No the edge. Even though there are some weak points on the album, overall this is the finest work that Billy Squier ever produced.

~

1981 Images

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

Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band

Freeze Frame by J Geils Band

Freeze Frame is a confluence album, where a hard-working band with vast longevity in the bag reaches their heights towards the sunset of their career. It is a work that combines many elements of their traditional, rock n’ soul, party-time backbone with a new, (then) cutting-edge, approach that incorporates synthesized soundscapes and new wave entertainment. And Freeze Frame IS new wave in the truest sense – a well-produced collection that explores under-developed areas of the rock landscape.

Although the band bears the name of founding guitarist J. Geils, this album really belongs to keyboardist, songwriter, and producer Seth Justman. Justman was a student at Boston University in the late 1960s when he followed the band, then known as “The J. Geils Blues Band”, which was then an acoustic trio led by Geils and virtuoso harmonica player Richard Salwitx, better known by his stage name, Magic Dick. Soon a local DJ known as Peter Wolf joined as front man and lead singer along with drummer Stephan Bladd and, with the eventual addition of Justman, the six-man lineup that would stay together for a decade and a half was in place.

Through the 1970s, the band achieved moderate commercial success with a few minor hits, but nothing like the worldwide fame that they would enjoy in the early 1980s with Freeze Frame, fueled by the Justman’s catchy and cleaver #1 hit “Centerfold”, which introduced the band to much of the mainstream pop world.
 


Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band
Released: October 26, 1981 (EMI)
Produced by: Seth Justman
Recorded: Long View Farm, North Brookfield, MA, 1981
Side One Side Two
 Freeze Frame
 Rage In the Cage
 Centerfold
 Do You Remember When?
 Insane, Insane Again
Flamethrower
River Blindness
Angel In Blue
Piss On the Wall
Band Musicians
Peter Wolf – Lead Vocals | Seth Justman – Keyboards, Vocals
J. Geils – Guitars | Magic Dick – Harmonica, Trumpet, Saxophone
Danny Klein – Bass | Stephen Bladd – Drums, Vocals

 
The album is really a potpourri of songs that can be segmented into one of about three distinct categories. The first of these is the direct pop category, consisting of the smash hit “Centerfold” and the opening title song. Both are bouncy and catchy and lead by an airy and accessible organ riff and upbeat entertainment, while carefully flirting with some risque subject matter. “Freeze Frame” has a great stop-start chorus, and was itself a successful top-ten hit. The band also produced a couple of entertaining music videos for the brand new MTV for these songs, no doubt helping their climb in the charts.
 

 
The next category of songs are synch-dominated, pop-art compositions that deviate vastly from the band’s traditional sound. Here, Justman’s genius shines through as he accomplishes this deviation while he still preserves the album’s overall integrity. “Rage In the Cage” is a frantic collection of beat-based tangents that is spastic and entertaining. Some wild sounds are nicely placed bit by bit to project audio that is at once natural and artificial, with the natural drumming by Bladd complimenting everything else (bass, horns, harmonica, and synths) which straddle the line between synthesized and natural. “Insane, Insane Again” takes a very similar approach but with a frantic bass line by Danny Klein holding together the backbone. “River Blindness” starts like an episode of a television mystery, with bombastic horns, before it kicks into the the main riff and takes the listener on a musical journey to dark and mysterious relms that sounds about 90% synthesized, but with a heavy guitar by Geils near the very end.

The final category of songs on Freeze Frame maintains the band,s traditional rock/soul sound through the ballad “Angel In Blue” and the rockers “Flamethrower” and “Piss On the Wall”. The album’s closer with the quasi-vulgar title, at first appears as a somewhat frivolous homage to the band’s own legacy, albeit with some excellent blues harp by Magic Dick. But it also adds a bit of rebellious punk rock doom and gloom –

“…everybody’s shaking ‘cause the big one’s about to fall, I’m just trying to hold it steady while I piss on the wall…”

“Angel In Blue” is a pleasant tune with a melancholy tone, containing the biggest presence by Geils on the entire album. The song is masterfully constructed with just the right touch of organ and drum beat, and a nice ensemble of backing vocals and horns in the outtro.

There is one song that doesn’t quite fit into any of the above categories, the excellent ballad “Do You Remember When?”, which contains elements of the best of ALL these categories. If you like discovering truly great, “lost” songs – this is may be one. It has all the elements of a classic love song, but with such an edge and perfectly placed musical motifs – Geils repeated, 5-note guitar riff, organ, piano, strings, extra percussion, just the right amount of special effects, and interesting background vocals. It also contains the finest vocal performance by Peter Wolf, with an amazing high note near the end of the song, which he holds and variates for nearly 10 seconds.

In the story of rock, the J. Geils Band is not quite unique in being a longstanding quality act that finally gets their mainstream “break” near the twilight of their career (see Bonnie Raitt, REO Speedwagon, or Supertramp). But they may be unique in that their popular breakthrough is also their artistic masterpiece.

~
RA

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

Bella Donna by Stevie Nicks

Bella Donna by Stevie NicksAfter three albums with Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks was doubtlessly the most recognizable figure in that popular and talented band. However, her actual participation as far as songwriting and lead vocals had never eclipsed 50% on any of those albums. So prior to her debut solo effort in 1981, there was uncertainty about how a full album of her music would pan out. One serious listen to Bella Donna would set all doubt aside. This debut solo album went on to achieve critical and commercial success, topping the U.S. album charts and spawning four Top 40 hit singles, while reaching the Top 20 in six other nations.

The album contains ten songs composed by Nicks on piano over several years while on tour with Fleetwood Mac in the late seventies. These songs were then enhanced by producer Jimmy Iovine and a posse of talent, ranging from headline acts like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Don Henley, formerly of The Eagles, to top-notch session musicians such as Donald “Duck” Dunn from the famed Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. The result is an interesting and pleasant listen which contains some timeless works that flirt with pop, country, and folk while remaining distinctive and original.
 


Bella Donna by Stevie Nicks
Released: July 27, 1981 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty
Recorded: Studio 55, Los Angeles, Autumn 1980 – Spring 1981
Side One Side Two
 Bella Donna
 Kind of Woman
 Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around
 Think About It
 After the Glitter Fades
Edge of Seventeen
How Still My Love
Leather and Lace
Outside the Rain
The Highwayman
Primary Musicians
Stevie Nicks – Lead Vocals, Piano
Tom Petty – Guitars, Vocals
Don Henley – Drums, Vocals
Lori Perry & Sharon Celani – Backing Vocals
Waddy Wachtel – Guitars
Roy Bittan – Piano
Dan Dugmore – Pedal Steel
Bob Glaub – Bass
Russ Kunkel – Drums

 

…and we fight for the northern star”

While Bella Donna‘s opening title song is definitely Fleetwood Mac-esque in it’s calm approach and long sustained guitar drones, it also contains a more ceremonious or ritualistic feel, like some kind of mass, as it vacillates between beatless sound scape and rhythmic drive. It is followed by “Kind of Woman”, another very calm, almost melancholy song, with a waltz-like beat an excellent guitar lead.

The album then abruptly takes a radical turn with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, one of two songs by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on the album, along with the entertaining “Outside the Rain” on the second side. That band didn’t use these songs for themselves (and their current album, Hard Promises really could’ve used these), and the resultant Nicks-led recordings add a completely new dimension to Bella Donna.
 

 
“Leather and Lace” is a true duet with Henley, resulting in a moody and romantic ballad which has a sparse acoustic arrangement that really showcases the vocal talents of both. On the other end of the pop spectrum, “Edge of Seventeen” offered a rhythmic dance beat with a near rap in between the oft-repeated chorus about the “white winged dove”. Rumor has it that the title was coined by Tom Petty’s wife, who replied “age of seventeen” when asked by Nicks how old they were when they first met. But Stevie mis-heard this as “edge of seventeen” and was instantly taken by the concept.

Perhaps the most enjoyable song on the album, “After the Glitter Fades” is a pure country song, reminiscent to some of Olivia Newton John’s early stuff, with dynamic vocals nicely complimenting to rich arrangement, which contains virtuoso piano by Roy Bittan and masterful pedal steel by Dan Dugmore.

Stevie Nicks would continue on with Fleetwood Mac as well as produce more solo albums with much success in both throughout the rest of the 1980s and well into the 1990s. But artistically, she would not again reach the heights of Bella Donna in either side of her musical career.

~

1981 Images

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

Escape by Journey

Escape by JourneyRarely does a band become more successful after one of its founders and leader departs from the group. Greg Rollie was the original lead singer, keyboardist, and overall and heart and soul of the group Journey from the band’s beginning in 1973 to the arrival of front man Steve Perry in 1978. After some lukewarm sales of the band’s moderately successful initial three albums with Rollie as lead singer, the band hired Perry at the request of Columbia Records, initially to split vocal duties with Rollie. However, Perry eventually became the primary lead vocalist and, by the end of 1980, Rollie had decided to call it quits altogether.

Fortunately for Journey, the British pop band The Babys were breaking up at about the same time, freeing up keyboardist Jonathan Cain to join the band. This created the respectable songwriting triumvirate of Perry, Schon, and Cain that launched the band into mega popularity through the early 1980s, starting with their 1981 album, Escape.

Although a critical listener may find the lyrical content a bit common and trite, there is no denying that sound that was forged on this album creates a niche and feeling that is quite fantastic. There is an edge to each and every song that makes it indelible and taps into a deep reservoir of nostalgia, while some of the individual, performances are at a stratospheric level.
 


Escape by Journey
Released: July 31, 1981 (Columbia)
Produced by: Kevin Elson & Mike Stone
Recorded: Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, California, Winter-Spring, 1981
Side One Side Two
Don’t Stop Believin’
Stone In Love
Who’s Crying Now’
Keep On Runnin’
Still They Ride
Escape
Lay It Down
Dead or Alive
Mother, Father
Open Arms
Group Musicians
Steve Perry – Lead Vocals
Neal Schon – Guitars, Vocals
Jonathon Cain – Keyboards, Piano, Guitar, Vocals
Ross Valory – Bass, Vocals
Steve Smith – Drums, Percussion

 
While Cain was the driving force behind crafting many of the songs on Escape, and Perry and Schon provided, without a doubt, the incredible performances of this album (more on them later), bass player Ross Valory added a special touch to this album, with a unique-sounding, high end buzz to his bass sound that gives it just an edge to make the overall sound distinct. This is evident right from the jump on the hit “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” as he compliments the low end of Cain’s rotating piano riff in a preview of one of the elements the distinguishes this album from any other (including other Journey albums).

Don't Stop Believin' singleNeal Schon knows how to make an entrance, holding off for nearly a minute in this opening song, then providing a memorable rapid guitar tap that builds in intensity and volume. The guitarist is on at every moment in this album, making one wonder why he is not better recognized in the present day. He adds a solo at the end of “Who’s Crying Now” that elevates the otherwise standard love song to a new level and shines brightest on “Mother, Father”, the best song on the album.

A true classic in every sense, “Mother, Father” was arranged by Neal’s father and jazz musician Matt Schon who put together the ingenious chord structure that sets the mood for Perry’s soulful vocals and the absolutely superlative solo in the mid section. It climaxes with a surreal, harmonized outro, which completes a song that is as melodramatic as anything The Who ever did, while as deep into the “inner space” as anything that Pink Floyd ever did.

Steve Perry’s voice is a unique entity, unlike any ever quite heard before or since. He compliments any odd 7th or augmented chord by smoothly transitioning from note to note along an almost-superhuman range. He never seems to miss a note, but especially shines on the rockers “Lay It Down” and “Stone In Love”, as well as the ballad “Open Arms”, a calm lullaby that eases the album to its conclusion after the emotional journey of “Mother, Father”.

Another high point on the album is “Still They Ride” a haunting ballad, dripping with melancholy, that is dark yet addictive, here the band displays amazing discipline in measuring out the simple and slow notes with perfect, moody precision.

Journey in 1981

In total, Escape is a difficult album to pigeon hole. It is best known for its ballads that rose high in the charts, but yet has made a few “Top Heavy Metal Album” lists. It was undoubtedly a template for scores of album oriented rock efforts in the 1980s. Yet it gives a slight nod to the progressive rock of the 1970s with the exotic arrangements, jazz fusion, and the mini-suite title song, “Escape” (not to mention the official title of the album being the cleverly arranged “E5C4P3”).

No matter how it may be classified, it was certainly and instantly a hit, and the band did not shy away from reaping the benefits from this new found fame. In 1982, with the gush of a mainstream audience, Journey became the top-selling concert ticket, and that same year a Journey Escape video game was released for the Atari 2600 system.

Journey may be credited or blamed for what followed in the wake of Escape, when acts such as Poison, Bon Jovi, and countless other “hair” bands would put forth their own inferior carbon copies of this album but nonetheless stuck to the formula and gained success from it. In any case, they were the originators of this hybrid of pop-friendly “hard rock”, whether by design or not.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1981 albums.

1981 Images

Pearl by Janis Joplin

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Pearl by Janis JoplinPearl was the final, posthumous album in the brief but explosive career of Janis Joplin. She died before the album’s completion on October 4, 1970, at just 27, done in by an overdose of heroin. Janis lived hard and died young.

An awkward girl from Beaumont, Texas, she would make her mark in a time and place that must have seemed like another universe – San Francisco in the late 1960s. She was fearless in the sense that she never let the shallow opinions of her adolescent peers define her and she found her place making her mark in unapologetic, unyielding fashion.

But this radical transformation ultimately came at a tragic price, as chemical dependency grabbed hold of her and refused to let go. It’s not that she didn’t try to escape this fate, even going so far as to move back to Beaumont and adopt the fashionable bee-hive hairdo of the day. But in the end, she just couldn’t stay away from the scene, the lifestyle, the drugs, and the music.

“You can go all around the world trying to do something with your life, but you only got to do one thing well…”

Janis’s style was rough, raw, and completely genuine. She didn’t have an image manufactured by a team of publicists, and would not have done well in an American Idol-like situation. She lived in the moment with every note she sang, deeply entrenched in the emotions that effervesced from every strained vocal.
 


Pearl by Janis Joplin
Released: January 11, 1971 (Columbia)
Produced by: Paul A. Rothchild
Recorded: Los Angeles between September 5 and October 1, 1971
Side One Side Two
Move Over
Cry Baby
A Woman Left Lonely
Half Moon
Buried Alive in the Blues
My Baby
Me and Bobby McGee
Mercedes Benz
Trust Me
Get It While You Can
Primary Musicians
Janis Joplin – Vocals
John Till – Electric Guitar
Bobby Womack – Acoustic Guitar
Ken Pearson – Organ
Richard Bell – Piano
Brad Campbell – Bass
Clark Pierson – Drums, Vocals

 

Pearl has a more polished and accessible sound than anything Joplin had done earlier with Big Brother & the Holding Company or The Kozmic Blues Band, the original bands she worked with in San Francisco with limited success on the national and international scene.

The sound of the album was due in large part to the expertise of Paul A. Rothchild, who had shaped the sound of The Doors as their long time producer. Further, The Full Tilt Boogie, a profession group of backing musicians, shaped the sound that was the canvas for Janis’ dynamic vocals. Joplin had previously met and worked with the band over the summer of 1970, when they were on board the famous Festival Express, a train filled with performing and partying musicians that rode across Canada.

Aside from the Kris Kristofferson penned hit “Me and Bobby McGee”, there is really nothing special about the selections on this album. But, they are entertaining enough to make Pearl the crown jewel in the catalog of this rare talent. Most of the songs are standard rock and blues with a bit of country influence here and there. This is immediately apparent on the first two tracks, “Move Over”, which Joplin wrote herself, and the quasi-famous “Cry baby”. But there are also a few oddities on the album, like the a capella “Mercedes Benz” and the purely instrumental “Buried Alive in the Blues”, which was included despite the fact that Janis died before recording the vocals.

I’d trade all my tomorrow’s for one single yesterday…”

Kristofferson had just introduced his song to Joplin just a few weeks before her death, and wasn’t even aware that she had actually recorded it until afterwards. Ironically, it would be her biggest hit and most famous song, true fame that she wasn’t able to experience during the shooting star trajectory of her life.

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1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1971 albums.

 

Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys

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1971 was an exceptionally great year for rock n roll, and we at Classic Rock Review regret that we can not give a proper review to all the great works from that year in the short time we allotted ourselves. However, there is one that we felt we had to “squeeze in” before we’re done, due to it being probably the most unique and unusual album of that year – Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys. This 17th overall album by the group was also sort of a commercial comeback as it reached the Top 30 on both sides of the Atlantic.

To be honest, this album can be very frustrating. It is a mish-mash that, on the one hand, offers deep, rewarding, quality compositions worthy of the talent in this band. But on the other hand, there are some tacky, directed “social commentary” songs that, in many cases, barely rise to the level of musical Public Service Announcements. However, the album does possess a cohesive mood and tone and it does get more consistent and stronger as it goes along. So, in the end, we decided that the good here outweighs the bad and that the album needed to be reviewed.

Some has stated that Surf’s Up defined the band’s tumultuous career better than any other album, and this very well may well be the case. The Beach Boys rode to fame on selling good times, fast cars, surfing, and girls. In the process, the squeezed every bit of the “endless fun” out of California and over-used the term “surf” (which, including this album and title song, is used in some form in the titles of four different albums and eleven different songs). In the end, this was all a nice fantasy, but eventually you have to grow up and face the realities of life.
 


Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys
Released: August 30, 1971 (Brother)
Produced by: The Beach Boys
Recorded: Los Angeles between November, 1966 and June, 1971
Side One Side Two
 Don’t Go Near the Water
 Long Promised Road
 Take a Load Off Your Feet
 Disney Girls (1957)
 Student Demonstration Time
Feel Flows
Lookin’ at Tomorrow
A Day In the Life of a Tree
Til I Die
Surf’s Up
Band Musicians
Brian Wilson – Guitars, Keyboards, Percussion, Vocals
Carl Wilson – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Mike Love – Vocals, Saxophone
Al Jardine – Bass, Vocals
Dennis Wilson – Drums, Vocals

 

The band’s primary songwriter and musical driving force, Brian Wilson, retired from performing live by 1965 due to psychological and anxiety issues. He instead concentrated on studio production for the band. In 1966 he produced the brilliant Pet Sounds, a great departure from the band’s early work that was universally acclaimed.

Later that year, Wilson brought in Van Dyke Parks to collaborate on a follow-up album titled SMiLE, but due to growing artistic turmoil within the band, Brian’s deteriorating mental state, and a prolonged production problem, Parks abandoned the project in 1967 and the album was never released.

A key song from those sessions called “Surf’s Up” was performed live on piano by Brian Wilson for a CBS News special on “modern” music, which caused much curiosity and speculation by fans and critics about the unreleased “SMiLE” material over the next several years. During this time (1967-1970), The Beach Boys released several more albums, but each decreased in popularity, signaling a rapid decline for the band.

Then in 1971, Jack Reiley was brought in as manager, and he master-minded this new album. It was to be built around the (now mythical) song “Surf’s Up”, along with other abandoned out-takes from previous projects and new, politically-orientated songs. Reiley would also co-write a couple of fine songs with Carl Wilson and even performed the lead vocals on the psychedelic Parks/Brian Wilson song “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, after everyone in the band refused to sing it.
 

 
The youngest of the three brothers in the band, Carl Wilson had never previously written anything of significance for The Beach Boys, but his co-written contributions of “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows” are two the best songs on this album. Further, with Brian all but absent from the (1971) production of this album, Carl stepped up and assumed many of the producer responsibilities, although production credit was ultimately given to simply “The Beach Boys”.

The album’s sound is further diversified by the large number of other songwriting contributors. Al Jardine wrote some of the new “politically conscious” songs, including the opener “Don’t Go Near the Water”, an ironic message from a band that had been advocating the exact opposite for many years. Mike Love reworked a live standard into “Student Demonstration Time” and, although not quite yet an “official” member of the band, Bruce Johnston wrote and sang lead another on the album’s finer songs, the nostalgiac “Disney Girls (1957)” (Johnston was a long time “stand-in” for Brian Wilson on stage).

However, even though his actual participation was minimal, Brian Wilson managed to contribute the album’s two most significant songs, the two that close out Surf’s Up.

First, there was the newly-penned “Til I Die”, a beautiful but haunting ode to helplessness, which contains the tradition “Beach Boys sound” built around the rich harmonies of Carl, Brian, and Mike Love.

Then, of course, there is the climatic title song written five years earlier. A mini-suite in three distinct parts fused together seamlessly. The original, Brian Wilson produced backing track provides a backdrop for new vocals by Carl during the first part, while Brian’s original vocals are used in the middle part. The song’s concluding section was based on another SMiLE-era track, “Children Are the Father of Man”, and features Jardine on lead vocals and Carl and Brian doing harmonies. As a whole, even though the song distinctly changes and the lyrics are a bit thick, the message is undeniable.

Through the rest of the 1970s and well into the 1980s, Brian Wilson virtually dropped out of the music scene while the rest of the band would tour and play some of their greatest hits from the early 60s in what would become known as the “Endless Summer”. Surf’s Up proved to be their last, best effort as, artistically, the Beach Boys would not quite reach this level again.

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1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1971 albums.

 

Love It to Death & Killer by Alice Cooper

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Buy Killer

Alice Cooper ComboDue to his legendary live shows, Alice Cooper tended to get swallowed up by the stage persona that would come to define his career. But the foundation that preceded the stage act, was built on some very solid, very original, and very interesting music. In 1971, Alice Cooper was not merely the individual Vincent Damon Furnier, but was also a solid and excellent Alice Cooper Band which stood toe to toe with many of the more heralded groups of the day musically. Book-ending the year were two classic releases from this group, Love It to Death and Killer.

The band consisted of former members from the sixties rock band The Spiders, which Furnier joined as a 16-year-old in 1964. The Alice Cooper name and persona was adopted in 1968 and the following year they released their debut album Pretties for You. In 1970, the group recorded and released Easy Action, which was mired in production and censorship issues, temporarily halted the group’s momentum.

That all turned around in 1971, with the release of these two albums, which are similar in many ways. Both were recorded at the RCA studios in Chicago, with the same performers and the same producer, the legendary Bob Ezrin. These albums are also similar in tone and style, which took a quantum leap here from the band’s previous two albums. With this in mind, Classic Rock Review has decided, for the first time, to combine two albums into a single review.


Love It to Death by Alice Cooper Band
Released: January 12, 1971 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Bob Ezrin
Recorded: RCA Mid-American Recording Center, Chicago, 1970
Side One Side Two
 Caught In a Dream
 I’m Eighteen
 Long Way To Go
 Black Juju
Is It My Body
Hallowed Be My Name
Second Coming
Ballad of Dwight Fry
Sun Arise
Killer by Alice Cooper Band
Released: November, 1971 (Warner Bothers)
Produced by: Bob Ezrin
Recorded: RCA Mid-American Recording Center, Chicago, 1971
Side One Side Two
 Under My Wheels
 Be My Lover
 Halo of Flies
 Desperado
You Drive Me Nervous
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
Dead Babies
Killer
Band Musicians (Both Albums)
 Alice Cooper – Vocals, Harmonica
Michael Bruce – Guitars, Keyboards
Glen Buxton – Lead Guitars
Dennis Dunaway – Bass
Neal Smith – Drums

 
If we were to compare these albums with each other, Love It to Death would get a slight edge overall, primarily because it is more complete throughout. This album also contains the brilliant “Ballad of Dwight Fry”, which is perhaps one of the greatest overlooked songs ever, due to it’s haunting original theme and the quality of the music itself.

The song has some perfectly layered acoustic, a crisp bass line by Dennis Dunaway, an organ rotation by Ezrin, and a crazy, moaning electric guitar by Glenn Buxton. A perfect backdrop for the spastic, insane vocals of Cooper, which draw heavy influence from the poetry and theatrics of Jim Morrison and The Doors.

Love It to Death also contains more diversity than its successor, with “Black JuJu” drawing from Pink Floyd circa Saucerful of Secrets and “Sun Arise” being nearly the polar opposite, a happy-go-lucky pop song in the vein of the AM hits of the day. But the core of this album is made up of straight-out rockers.

Guitarist and keyboardist Michael Bruce actually had a bigger hand in songwriting than Cooper himself and his songs are some of the most recognizable on either album. On Love It to Death, these include the upbeat “Caught In a Dream” and “Is It My Body”, along with the slightly doomier but brilliant “I’m Eighteen”, the biggest early hit for Alice Cooper.

But while Love It to Death is the more complete album, the best “side” of music is the first side of Killer. “Under My Wheels” kicks things off with a guest appearance by guitarist Rick Derringer, followed by “Be My Lover”, both of which are solid, accessible rockers by Bruce, and give the impression that this album will be much more mainstream than it’s predecessor.

However this notion is quickly dismissed, as the band launches into the progressive “Halo of Flies”, a King Crimson-esque virtuoso that features extraordinary playing, especially from drummer Neil Smith, and proves, without a doubt, that Alice Cooper was much more a band than an individual in 1971.

The side concludes with “Desperado”, an excellent and completely original song that alternates between a moody crooner and an agitated shouter. It was allegedly written as a tribute to Morrison, who had died in Paris shortly before the making of Killer.

After this solid sequence of songs on the first side, Killer runs out of steam on the second, as the material becomes a little thin and gets very repetitive. Nonetheless, this album is worth owning right alongside Love It to Death.

Over the next two years, Alice Cooper the band would put out three more albums and continue to gain in popularity. Unfortunately, the live show cast an ever larger shadow and the band broke up by 1975, with Alice Cooper the individual carrying on as a solo act for decades to come.

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1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1971 albums.