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.

~
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.

~
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.

~

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

Buy Don’t Say No

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.

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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

Buy Pearl

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.