An Innocent Man by Billy Joel

Buy An innocent Man

An Innocent Man by Billy JoelBilly Joel took a musical detour by forging an album of interpretive styles on An Innocent Man, his ninth studio album. Here, Joel pays homage to various musical styles which were popular during his formative years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while finely showcasing his own music diversity and vocal skills. Despite being unique in his catalog, this album continued Joel’s streak of Grammy-nominated albums and top commercial success, with An Innocent Man spaning six Top 40 hits.

The heavy material and rich production of Joel’s 1982 release, The Nylon Curtain was an overall exhausting experience for this artist. Further, Joel was recently divorced and found himself single for the first time following his rise to international fame. Joel said he felt like a teenager again and thus reverted back to the various popular music styles of those years. In early 1983, he quickly wrote several compositions, each in a distinct style and/or as a tribute to a distinct artist.

Although this album was stylistically different than anything Joel had done before, for his backing group he maintained the same personnel he had performed with since the mid 1970s and once again brought in producer Phil Ramone, who had produced Joel’s five previous albums.

 


An Innocent Man by Billy Joel
Released: August 8, 1983 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: Chelsea Sound and A&R Recording, New York, Spring 1983
Side One Side Two
Easy Money
An Innocent Man
The Longest Time
This Night
Tell Her About It
Uptown Girl
Careless Talk
Christie Lee
Leave a Tender Moment Alone
Keeping the Faith
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
Russell Javors – Guitars
Mark Rivera – Saxophone, Percussion, Vocals
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums

 

An Innocent Man is bookmarked by two of its more upbeat tracks, starting with “Easy Money”, a homage to Wilson Pickett and/or James Brown. Musically this song features guest Leon Pendarvis on Hammond B3 organ and a generous amount of soulful brass, and although not released as single, this album opener was immediately featured as the theme of a major motion picture of the same name, starring Rodney Dangerfield. The title song, “An Innocent Man”, is an absolute masterpiece. In fact, this soulful and dynamic ballad may well be Joel’s best overall song of the entire decade of the 1980s. It is a masterpiece of production and arrangement as it migrates from a simple bass and percussion arrangement into a majestic ensemble as the song climaxes. Vocally, Joel hits the absolute top of his range during the choruses and admits that he was not able to hit those notes again.

Another vocal milestone, “The Longest Time” is a doo-wop track with a plethora of harmonized vocals all done by Joel himself. Aside from the vocals, the song uses a very sparse musical arrangement made of just plucked bass, brushed snare, and finger snaps. “This Night” continues the 1950s doo-wop homage with an inventive adaption of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata during the chorus, making Beethoven the only artist to receive a co-writing credit with Joel on this album. Motown-influence “Tell Her About It” completes the original first side as brass takes lead over Joel’s piano rhythms and the thumping bass of Doug Stegmeyer. The lead single from the album, this hit #1 on the American pop charts.

Billy Joel Band 1983

The consistent drum beat of Liberty DeVitto drives the Four Seasons-esque “Uptown Girl”. Here, Joel introduces yet another “voice”, straining his upper range throughout while staying melodic and catchy. This Top 10 song and its video also served as an allegory for Joel’s new relationship with model Christie Brinkley, who appeared in the video and would ultimately become Joel’s wife in 1985. “Careless Talk” features more great melodies and counter harmonies, choppy rhythms, and a bit of an unexpected diversion through the bridge, while the first wave rocker “Christie Lee” is highlighted by a couple of short sax solos by Mark Rivera. The pleasant and moderate ballad “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” lyrically explores awkward banter while featuring more exquisite melodies by Joel ethereal harmonica by Toots Thielemans. The album concludes with “Keeping the Faith” which, while lyrically anchored in the early sixties, is really modern sounding eighties pop song led by the sleek guitar riff of Russell Javors as well as a contemporary brass arrangement.

After the tremendous success of An Innocent Man, Joel worked with Columbia records to release the double-length compilation Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and 2, which ultimately became one of the best-selling albums to that date in American music history and marked the absolute apex of Joel’s long and successful career.

~

1983 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1983 albums.

 

More Songs About Buildings and Food by Talking Heads

Buy More Songs About Buildings and Food

More Songs About Buildings and Food by Talking HeadsThe second album by Talking Heads, 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food got its sarcastic title by addressing the cliche of the “sophomore jinx” where songs not used on the debut are combined with inferior and underdeveloped new compositions. However, that “jinx” was obliterated here as the quirky new wave quartet found decent commercial success and widespread critical acclaim for their fine combination of standard motifs and inventive techniques, perfect for that era of popular music.

Composer, guitarist and vocalist David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz were all alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design and formed their first band in 1973 before migrating to New York City in 1975. Getting their name from a TV Guide article, Talking Heads were signed to Sire Records in November 1976 and added keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison early in 1977. The group’s debut album, Talking Heads 77 found decent success in part due to the single “Psycho Killer”, which hit the airwaves around the same time as New York City was embroiled in the “summer of Sam”.

More Songs About Buildings and Food was the first of a trilogy collaboration between the group and producer Brian Eno, who took their raw sound and emphasized on more danceable rhythms to fuse a unique vibe for Byrne’s art/rock compositions. On this album the group also started their long tradition of recording in the Bahamas at Compass Studios.


More Songs About Buildings and Food by Talking Heads
Released: July 14, 1978 (Sire)
Produced by: Brian Eno & Talking Heads
Recorded: Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, March–April 1978
Side One Side Two
Thank You for Sending Me an Angel
With Our Love
The Good Thing
Warning Sign
The Girls Want to Be with the Girls
Found a Job
Artists Only
I’m Not in Love
Stay Hungry
Take Me to the River
The Big Country
Group Musicians
David Byrne – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Percussion
Jerry Harrison – Piano, Keyboards, Guitars, Vocals
Tina Weymouth – Bass, Vocals
Chris Frantz – Drums, Percussion

 

A rapid shuffle above a pointed hard rock riff defines the sound of “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”, with extra percussion between the verses. This opening track acts as sort of a bridge between the debut album’s tension and the bigger rhythmic sound of this album. “With Our Love” follows with a rather spazzy funk feel in the verses, while “The Good Thing” is the most accessible song thus far with an upbeat yet smooth, rounded sound led by Weymouth’s bass and odd but catchy harmonized refrains. Co-written by Frantz, “Warning Sign” features a drum beat with exaggerated reverb joined by catchy bass and guitar riff in long intro before the song proper develops into choppy new wave track.

“The Girls Want to Be with the Girls” may be the first track where the group seems to try too hard to force a quirkly style and it ends up feeling disjointed, while the side one closer “Found a Job” features pure funk verses and new wave rock choruses. Side two begins with “Artists Only”, a song which explores several pleasant styles in rapid fashion, while “I’m Not in Love” moves back to funk but with driving, rapid rhythms as it makes its way through many odd sections before completing with an entertaining quasi-guitar lead jam. “Stay Hungry” is a shorter funk/jam featuring much synth influence by Eno.

Talking Heads

By far, the album’s commercial anchor is its only cover song, a distinct version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” featuring a sound that defines an eighties hit while still in the late 1970s. The deliberative rhythm method and fine production technique brought the group a worldwide Top 40 crossover hit. The album ends with the pleasant sonics of “The Big Country” with a fine mixture of acoustic and electric and a slide/country vibe topped by a steady drum beat.

More Songs About Buildings and Food peaked in the Top 30 of the Pop Albums charts and eventually reached gold record status. Eno and the Talking Heads continued this successful formula with 1979’s Fear of Music and the hit album Remain in Light in 1980.

~

1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1978 albums.

 

Holy Diver by Dio

Buy Holy Diver

Holy Diver by Dio Holy Diver is the 1983 debut studio album by Dio, led by veteran rock vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Drawing on the influences of multiple contemporaries in pop and rock music, this platinum selling album has been historically viewed as a hallmark moment in the evolution of heavy metal, a genre which proliferated through the decade of the 1980s. Dio’s lyrics center on the topics o good and evil and draw from subjects from classic heroic adventure elements to some of the dark realities of contemporary life.

Ronnie Jame Dio became the second lead vocalist for Black Sabbath in late 1979, as that group’s original vocalist Ozzy Osbourne embarked on his own solo career. With Dio, the group found a commercial rebound as both 1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules became Top 40, Gold selling albums. However, during the mixing of 1982’s live album, disagreements ensued which resulted in both Dio and drummer Vinny Appice leaving the band. Both wanted to form a new band, so Dio recruited his former Rainbow band mate, bassist Jimmy Bain and (following the Ozzy Osbourne model) recruited a young, then unknown guitarist named Vivian Campbell to complete the rock quartet.

By the time Campbell joined, most of the material which would appear on Holy Diver had already been composed. Dio had long been courted by Warner Bros. records to work on a solo project, so production and recording arrangements swiftly fell into place.

 


Holy Diver by Dio
Released: May 25, 1983 (Warner Bros.)
Produced by: Ronnie James Dio
Recorded: Sound City Studios, Van Nuys, CA, 1983
Side One Side Two
Stand Up and Shout
Holy Diver
Gypsy
Caught in the Middle
Don’t Talk to Strangers
Straight Through the Heart
Invisible
Rainbow In the Dark
Shame on the Night
Group Musicians
Ronnie James Dio – Lead Vocals, Synthesizers
Vivian Campbell – Guitars
Jimmy Bain – Bass, Keyboards
Vinny Apice – Drums

 

Holy Diver kicks off with the straight up, hard rocking “Stand Up and Shout”, a song of rebellion containing all the prime elements which would come define 80s metal – straight-forward message, flamboyant vocals, crunchy riffing under whining leads and plenty of animated drum fills. The title song is introduced by a long atmospheric intro before the marching riff-driven music enters. A unique anthem of the day which has grown to be one of Dio’s most popular tracks, “Holy Diver” features the first of many excellent, deliberative guitar leads by Campbell. “Gypsy” is delivered in blistering fashion, while “Caught in the Middle” is a more melodic rocker and it displays the group at its tightest with fine delivery and great production. “Don’t Talk to Strangers” features a quiet, melodramatic acoustic intro with Dio’s vocals hitting an especially high register before the band launches into full gear for this side one closer.

Ronnie James Dio in 1983

The original side two is the real heart of the album, where Dio the group really gels at their best. “Straight Through the Heart” was co-written by Bain and features some great musical rudiments with strategic stops and fills by Appice and a cool, melodic bridge. The most unique moment on album is the intro to “Invisible” with a heavily flanged guitar and dry vocals soon contrasted by the heavy jam and majestic vocals of the song proper. Later on, Campbell’s lead patiently works its way in before he unleashes some fine fingerboard effects, while Dio’s lyrical profiency is on full display;

she was a photograph just ripped in half, a smile inside a frown…”

The most accessible rock song on the album is “Rainbow in the Dark”, which features a prominent keyboard riff by Dio and a catchy hook and theme which seems to reference Dio’s late seventies rock band. A radio favorite and charting rock track, “Rainbow in the Dark” is anchored by a doomy yet uplifting guitar riff which blends especially well with the later guitar lead. “Shame on the Night” seems to have borrowed the opening howl from Deep Purple’s classic “Hush” (perhaps another veiled shot at ex-band mate Ritchie Blackmore?). This closing track has a slow and sloshy delivery which gives Dio’s vocal full frontal expression and the differing sections in bridge and extended coda also give this a definitive prog rock feel.

Building on the commercial and critical success of Holy Diver, the group delivered a similarly effective follow up with 1984’s The Last in Line and continued on as a successful group through most of the eighties decade.

~

1983 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1983 albums.

 

The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel

Buy The Nylon Curtain

The Nylon Curtain by Billy JoelAfter much commercial success with his previous albums, Billy Joel really branched out to new musical territory on his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. On this album, the artist ventures out towards more electronic instrumentation, richer compositional arrangements as well as more complex lyrical content. Joel has called this album one of his most ambitious efforts and, although he would experience some burnout from its production, has often stated that he is most proud of this recording.

The great success of the chart-topping pop/rock albums The Stranger, 52nd Street and Glass Houses led to Joel being labeled a balladeer or even a soft rocker. For The Nylon Curtain, Joel tried his hand at topical songs and was decidedly more ambitious in his use of the recording studio.

Along with producer Phil Ramone, Joel set out to forge a sonic masterpiece during the Fall of 1981, spending much more time in the studio then on previous efforts and employing brand new digital recording techniques. Joel maintained many of his backing band members, including guitarists David Brown and Russell Javors along with his longtime rhythm section, bassist Doug Stegmeyer and drummer Liberty DeVitto. However, several session players were also employed to provide extra synthesizers, strings, horns and percussion during the rich production.

 


The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel
Released: September 23, 1982 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: A&R Recording and Media Sound Studios, New York City, Spring 1982
Side One Side Two
Allentown
Laura
Pressure
Goodnight Saigon
She’s Right on Time
A Room of Our Own
Surprises
Scandinavian Skies
Where’s the Orchestra?
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Guitar
David Brown – Lead Guitar
Russell Javors – Rhythm Guitar
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums & Percussion

 

The pleasant, choppy piano tune aura, complete with industrial sound effects, masks the frustrating stories embedded in the opening track “Allentown”. The song plays like a theatrical diddy, especially during the quasi-dramatic bridge section and its combo with the real themes of blue collar manufacturing towns (not just the Pennsylvania city it is named for) made it a universal theme. The brilliant track “Laura” follows with Joel delivering a John Lennon-like quality vocally during the verses and the guitarists presenting some George Harrison-like guitar motifs during the dramatic choruses. Lyrically, this song is superb in describing a totally dysfunctional relationship with all the biting energy of the day’s most vicious punk rock while utilizing incredible melody and sonic drama.

The hit song “Pressure” is a totally unique new wave rocker within Billy Joel’s collection. It is musically cutting edge with sharp synths throughout and a mechanical, biting drum beat. The lyrics speak of the dichotomy between philosophical outlook and actual real life grew out of an episode of writer’s block Joel was feeling one day in his New York apartment. The extended track “Goodnight Saigon” completes the original first side as a heart-wrenching, haunting, brilliantly descriptive ballad about the plight of those serving in Vietnam. This song is beautifully simple with a piano motif mixed between acoustic verses and it eventually builds to a chorus crescendo with marching drums. During this part live, Joel would frequently enlist local veterans to perform onstage.

“She’s Right on Time” is a pleasant pop tune that has a quasi-Christmas theme. Joel uses several melodic vocal sections and a depth of vocals to give everything a strong, live feel. “A Room of Our Own” is the most easy going track on the album, with a down-home rock and roll feel and strong drums and some creative bass by DeVitto and Stegmeyer respectively. “Surprises” feel like another quasi-tribute to Lennon, at least vocally. While the electric piano and synths are pure eighties in sound, this track has enough gentle and melancholy vibe to make it a forgotten classic.

Billy Joel, 1982

The climactic point of the second side comes with “Scandinavian Skies”, from its really pointed and dramatic intro, through the plethora of sonic treats and production throughout. Joel’s sweet melodic vocals are placed above a really cool drum shuffle with subtle piano and synths during this song’s ‘A’ sections, while the synths of guest Rob Mounsey are much more up front and dramatic during the ‘B’ sections. The lyrics speak of a journey and several opaque incidents in many Northern European locales. The closing ballad “Where’s the Orchestra?” is almost an afterthought after the climactic previous tune, but it does feature some nice little flourishes on sax and clarinet by Eddie Daniels to accompany Joel’s simple piano and vocals.

While not as commercially successful as Joel’s previous albums, The Nylon Curtain was still a smash by any measure, reaching the Top 10 on the albums charts and selling over two million copies in the U.S. alone. Joel went in the opposite direction for his next album, An Innocent Man in 1983, which had a much lighter tone as a tribute to R&B and doo wop music of the fifties and sixties.

~

 

1982 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1982 albums.

Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson

Buy Nilsson Schmilsson

Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry NilssonThe seventh studio album by Harry Nilsson, the music on 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson unfolds almost like a television variety show with its incredible diversity in musical style. The most commercially successful work of Nilsson’s career, the album was his first to fully delve into the pop/rock realm as it features a vast array of mature pop ranging from tin pan alley to contemporary rock.

With a musical career that dated back to the late fifties, Nilsson began to have some real success as a songwriter in 1963 when he wrote a songs for artists like Little Richard and producers like Phil Spector. His debut album, Spotlight on Nilsson was released in 1966 with album releases coming in rapid succession over the next several years but with very modest commercial success. However, Nilsson’s multi-octave vocals caught the ear of Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor who introduced his music to the band. By 1968, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were citing Nilsson as one of their favorite American artists. Nilsson’s first commercial breakthrough came when his rendition of Fred Neil’s song “Everybody’s Talkin'” was featured in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, becoming a Top 10 hit and leading to a subsequent Grammy Award.

Nilsson Schmilsson was produced by Richard Perry, who enlisted top-notch players to back Nilsson. This includes bassist Klaus Voormann, formally of Manfred Mann’s band, and drummer Jim Gordon who had recently been involved with Derek and the Dominos. The album was recorded at Trident Studios in London.

 


Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson
Released: November 13, 1971 (RCA/Victor)
Produced by: Jimmy Page
Recorded: Trident Studios, London, June 1971
Side One Side Two
Gotta Get Up
Driving Along
Early in the Morning
The Moonbeam Song
Down
Without You
Coconut
Let the Good Times Roll
Jump Into the Fire
I’ll Never Leave You
Primary Musicians
Harry Nilsson – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
John Uribe – Guitars
Klaus Voormann – Bass, Guitar
Jim Gordon – Drums, Percussion

 

The ten-song album features three covers and seven Nilsson originals including its first two tracks. “Gotta Get Up” is a theatrical pop/rocker driven by Nilsson’s bouncy piano, complete with a rich arrangement including slight horns and other elements packed into this song of less than two and a half minutes. The acoustic “Driving Along” follows and works well as an early seventies soft rocker with rich vocals, slight horns and a Mellotron by Perry. The album’s first cover is “Early in the Morning”, originally a late 1940s Cuban-influenced track by Louis Jordan. On this version, Nilsson nearly performs solo with a choppy reverb laden organ and extraordinarily soulful lead vocals.

“The Moonbeam Song” features slowly strummed acoustic topped by soft vocals soon accompanied by a rich backing chorus. The poetic verse structure of this song is atypical, with elongated lines at times to extenuate the overall feel. On the moderate piano rocker “Down”, Nilsson’s strained vocals and Jim Keltner‘s potent drum beats drive home the central theme strongly to finish the first side. The pop-oriented second side begins with the chart-topping cover of “Without You”, originally composed and released by Badfinger for their No Dice LP. Here, Nilsson took an incredibly dramatic ballad and made it even more emotional and melancholy as he uses his voice to max potential and performs both parts of the original duet by Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Further, the orchestration of Paul Buckmaster made this an almost operatic piece.

Harry Nilsson

Following the emotional drama of “Without You”, comes the light and nearly frivolous “Coconut”. Here, a finger-picked acoustic riff starts the rotating and persistent percussion, which does not change through the entire duration of this quirky Caribbean hit. The cover of Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll” has a genuine Southern feel throughout with bouncy piano, a fine harmonica lead and slight slide guitar by John Uribe interjected between vocal lines. In contrast, the rocker “Jump Into the Fire” is built on a de-tuned bass groove by Herbie Flowers and well-treated vocals which sound unlike anything else on the album. The slow and simple piano ballad, “I’ll Never Leave You”, wraps things up with many instances of pleasant sonic additives throughout.

Nilsson Schmilsson was nominated for several Grammy awards with the song “Without You” winning for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. In an attempt to build on this success, Nilsson followed with a couple of spin-offs, Son of Schmilsson in 1972 and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night in 1973, but neither of these were received nearly as well critically or commercially.

~

1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1971 albums

 

Fire of Unknown Origin
by Blue Öyster Cult

Buy Fire of Unknown Origin

Fire of Unknown Origin by Blue Oyster CultFire of Unknown Origin was released during an era when Blue Öyster Cult fully embraced their mythical “cult” status amoung hard rock fans, a feature of early eighties coolness which propelled them higher than they probably deserved. Still, this album is a quality jam of non-pretentious rock which still sounds pretty potent three and a half decades later. The songs on Fire of Unknown Origin are clearly theatrical, which may suggest an intended concept work. However, a closer listen proves that this is not the case, it is simply a collection of rock songs.

The New York based quintet was prolific in recording and touring through the early 1970s before their breakthrough fourth album, Agents of Fortune in 1976, which featured the group’s trademark hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. The group followed with the studio albums Spectres in 1977, Mirrors in 1977, and Cultösaurus Erectus in 1980, as well as the multi-platinum selling live album, Some Enchanted Evening in 1978. These albums all received a fair amount of critical acclaim but differing levels of commercial success.

The group’s eighth studio album, Fire of Unknown Origin was produced by Martin Birch and took a noted pivot towards the use of more synthesizers and other New Wave elements. Concurrently, the band’s sound also become even more theatrical with the lyrics more mysterious and cunning.


Fire of Unknown Origin by Blue Oyster Cult
Released: July, 1981 (Columbia)
Produced by: Martin Birch
Recorded: Kingdom Sound Studios, New York & The Automatt, San Francisco, 1981
Side One Side Two
Fire of Unknown Origin
Burnin’ for You
Veteran of the Psychic Wars
Sole Survivor
Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver
Vengeance (The Pact)
After Dark
Joan Crawford
Don’t Turn Your Back
Band Musicians
Eric Bloom – Guitars, Vocals
Donald Roeser – Guitars, Bass, Vocals
Allen Lanier – Keyboards
Joe Bouchard – Bass, Vocals
Albert Bouchard – Drums, Keyboards, Vocals

 

The album’s title song was co-written by longtime collaborator, Patti Smith. “Fire of Unknown Origin” is a pure eighties funk/pop song, complete with the keyboards of Allen Lanier as co-lead instrument. The track features an interesting groove with a good level of intensity and motion, highlighted by the excellent dual guitar lead above the animated, hi-hat infused drums of Albert Bouchard. “Burnin’ for You” is THE Blue Oyster Cult classic from their later era. Everything comes together on this composition by Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, from the layered flanged-out intro guitars to the rich intro vocal chorus to classic bass riff by Joe Bouchard in the verses under smooth vocals by Roeser. An early MTV video favorite, this song spent three weeks in the Top 40 and topped the Billboard Top Tracks chart.

The intense and dramatic “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” was co-written by vocalist and guitarist Eric Bloom with British author Michael Moorcock. This intense and dramatic mini-suite is ushered in by a theatrical drum beat with Bloom’s vocals working well with the descending synth patterns. “Sole Survivor” kicks off with a cool bass and slightly treated vocals by Bloom during the highly melodic verses. The choruses have a strong hook, giving the song an overall sense of variety and style in spite of some cheesy but fun electronic effects during the final verse. “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver” matches its title as a heavier track than anything on the first side, probably pretty potent for its day but, in retrospect, about at the same level as your garden variety hair band anthem.

Blue Oyster Cult

The album’s second side “Vengeance (The Pact)” was written by the Bouchard brothers and features a smooth intro with choppy rock verses. This track has interesting music and melodic passages throughout its multiple distinct parts. “After Dark” starts with a punk-flavored drum shuffle with New Wave-like bass, guitars, and keyboards on top, making this the most “modern” sounding track on the album. Starting with an extended solo concert piano section, “Joan Crawford” is the controversial track on the album as it unabashedly tries to cash in on the “Mommie Dearest” phenomena of the day. This track does break into a decent rock groove with rapid piano accompanied by choppy guitar riffs and really does fit in with the other theatrical themes on the album. “Don’t Turn Your Back” comes in directly from “Joan Crawford” and settles into a unique vibe built by beats in odd measures, a jazzy bass line and smooth vocal melodies and harmonies. This closer still has strong rock elements, especially through the drums and guitar lead, but is ultimately in a sub-genre that is hard to identify, which makes it truly original.

Fire of Unknown Origin reached the Top 30 on both sides of the Atlantic. It would be the final studio album with the band’s original lineup for seven years, a duration in which Blue Öyster Cult lost much of its commercial momentum, making this 1981 album their high water mark.

~

1981 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1981 albums.

 

Agents of Fortune by
Blue Oyster Cult

Buy Agents of Fortune

Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster CultThe most commercially successful album of the group’s career, the platinum selling Agents of Fortune is a diverse and interesting (albeit a bit incohesive) album by Blue Oyster Cult. Musically, this fourth album from the New York based quintet branched out from the dark and mysterious strain of heavy metal toward more pop-oriented, synth-drenched, arena style rock. Quite ironically, this album yielded the band’s most indelible single, which is a track that advances Blue Oyster Cult’s traditional musical approach rather than one which capitulates to popular trends.

Following the 1972 release of their self titled debut album, the group went on an extensive tour while simultaneously writing material for their next album, Tyranny and Mutation. This sophomore effort included the first of the band’s many collaborations with composer Patti Smith. The group’s third album, Secret Treaties in 1974 was the first to receive positive mainstream critical acclaim and launched the band into headlining status for the first time in their major label career.

Three producers collaborated on Agents of Fortune, Sandy Pearlman, Murray Krugman, and David Lucas along with engineer Shelly Yakus. The compositions on the album were dispersed among four of the five group members as well as some outside composers such as Smith, which made for an extremely diverse sequence in both sound and style as the album progresses.

 


Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult
Released: May 21, 1976 (Columbia)
Produced by: Murray Krugman, Sandy Pearlman & David Lucas
Recorded: The Record Plant, New York City, 1975–76
Side One Side Two
This Ain’t the Summer of Love
True Confessions
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper
E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)
The Revenge of Vera Gemini
Sinful Love
Tattoo Vampire
Morning Final
Tenderloin
Debbie Denise
Band Musicians
Eric Bloom – Guitars, Percussion, Vocals
Donald Roesar – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Allen Lanier – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Joe Bouchard – Bass, Piano, Vocals
Albert Bouchard – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

 

The album begins on a sober, if not cynical, note to reflect the darker mood of the mid 1970s with,”This Ain’t the Summer of Love”, co-written by drummer Albert Bouchard. While musically this is rather typical pop/rock with a slightly harder edge, it has been suggested that this song forecasts the rage and thematic subject matter of punk rock. “True Confessions” was composed and sung by guitarist and keyboardist Allen Lanier. It is much brighter than the opener as a piano driven tune with an electric guitar trailing close behind to form a Randy Newman-type vibe with choppy rhythms.

Continuing the vast diversity of the album is the dark and smooth classic “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, the group’s biggest chart success and the only Top 10 single. Written by lead guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and primarily built around his ringing guitar riff. The lyrics are clearly about death, an odd choice of subject matter and arrangement to work for a mainstream audience, but this one certainly caught fire. The song is also notable for Bouchard’s consistent use of cowbell (later parodied on this classic Saturday Night Live skit) and a dynamic middle section which diverts into Roesar’s theatrical, feedback-laden guitar lead.

“E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” starts with the infectious talk-box drenched riff, complemented by a choppy piano. On this track, Roesar’s vocals are dry and cool in contrast to the upbeat musical riffs, beats and rhythms. The lead section starts with wild synth effects to give life to the spacey lyrics, a line of which gives the album its title. Co-written by Smith, “The Revenge of Vera Gemini” finishes side one as a smooth, unique, interesting, and entertaining track with some spoken and sung female backing vocals under smooth musical arrangements and upbeat rhythms.

Blue Oyster Cult in1976

The album’s original second side starts with two of its weaker tracks. “Sinful Love” is a pale attempt at pop/soul with its only redeeming traits being a good guitar lead and consistent animated bass by Joe Bouchard. “Tattoo Vampire” continues the theatrical sequence but with a much harder rock approach, led by the guitars and lead vocals of Eric Bloom. Agents of Fortune does finish very strong, starting with Joe Bouchard’s “Morning Final”, which starts with a squealing guitar lead before settling into a funk groove accented by melodic injections through the verse sections and later musical rudiment sections featuring multiple keyboards. On “Tenderloin”, the bass motors along with calm synths/piano on top and very unique lead vocals by Bloom. “Debbie Denise” closes the album as a pleasant and moderate pop ballad which tries to pack in a bit too much variety of instrumentation and tempo.

Agents of Fortune reached the Top 30 on the Pop Albums chart and launched the band into an even larger concert attraction, where the Blue Oyster Cult indulged in a state-of-the-art laser light show to accompany their music. Through the next half decade, the group’s popularity continued to grow with more album and live success, reaching its peak just before Albert Bouchard left the group in the early 1980s.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1976 albums.

 

Do You Believe in Magic
by The Lovin’ Spoonful

Buy Do You Believe in Magic?

Do You Believe In Magic by The Lovin SpoonfulThe Lovin Spoonful had a meteoric career which climaxed shortly after it began in the mid 1960s. Do You Believe in Magic is the 1965 debut album by the group. It displays an incredible diversity of styles, ranging from folk to blues to country, bluegrass, and jug band. Led by composer and vocalist John Sebastian, this debut contains tracks which are equal parts original and innovative along with a healthy amount of reinterpreted standards  traversing many American genres.

Sebastian grew up as the son of a studio session harmonica player (of the same name) and he launched his own music career playing the folk circuit in Greenwich Village, New York City in the early 1960s. Along with guitarist Zal Yanovsky and two future members of The Mamas and The Papas, Sebastian formed a group called The Mugwumps in 1964. Later bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler joined Sebastian and Yanovsky to form The Lovin’ Spoonful. Starting in 1965, the group began recording for Elektra Records before Kama Sutra Records exercised a previous option to sign the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Beyond the 12 tracks which appear on Do You Believe In Magic, the band recorded some of their biggest hit singles in 1965. Sebastian’s “Daydream” is a moderate pop/folk song which reached #2 in both the US and the UK. The rock-oriented chart topper “Summer In the City” was written by Sebastian and Boone and features a signature Hohner electric piano, further expanding the group’s palette.


Do You Believe In Magic by The Lovin Spoonful
Released: November 26, 1965 (Kama Sutra)
Produced by: Erik Jacobsen
Recorded:June-September, 1965
Side One Side Two
Do You Believe In Magic
Blues In the Bottle
Sportin’ Life
My Gal
You Baby
Fishin’ Blues
Did You Ever Have to…
Make up Your Mind?
Wild About My Lovin’
The Other Side of This Life
Younger Girl
On the Road Again
Night Owl Blues
Primary Musicians
John Sebastian – Guitars, Keyboards. Vocals
Zal Yanovsky – Guitars
Steve Boone – Bass, Vocals
Joe Butler – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

The album aptly begins with its title song, “Do You Believe In Magic”, an upbeat folk tune with nicely layered guitars and a backing vocal chorus provided by Yanovsky and Butler. Thematically, the “magic” is about the power of music and this certainly resonated in 1965 as this, oft-covered, debut single from the group reached the Top 10 in the US.

As was the custom for debut albums of the time, the bulk of Do You Believe In Magic is cover songs, including the remainder of the original first side. “Blues in the Bottle” features bending, descending notes with Sebastian’s vocals being deep and rustic. “Sportin’ Life” is a slower blues number with some legitimate lead guitars for that genre, while “My Gal” is a fun, rocked up folk song about an alcoholic girlfriend who can “get drunk on shoe polish”. Co-written by Phil Spector, Barry Mann and, Cynthia Weil, “You Baby” is a somber, crooning folk song centering on the vocals, sort of in the realm of Roy Orbison with good mixture of guitar riffs. “Fishin’ Blues” closes out the side by adding a blue grass dimension to the group’s sound, with Sebastian’s vocals matching the country mood and Yanovsky’s consistent pick/slide guitar overtones bring the tune to a new level.

The Lovin Spoonful in 1965

A picked guitar intro gives way to a bright organ rhythm on Sebastian’s “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” with the singer adding vocals with a dynamic range. The second single released from the album, this song reached #2 on the American Billboard charts in 1966. “Wild About My Lovin'” follows as a simple blues track with a moderate rhythm and beat, with the philosophical “Other Side of This Life” featuring a good bass-driven rhythm by Boone.

The album finishes strong with three Sebastian originals, starting with the romantic ballad, “Younger Girl”. “On the Road Again”, is one of the harder rocking songs – in the manor of traditional rock and roll, at least – not too much in way of substance, but a fun song nonetheless. The closing instrumental, “Night Owl Blues”, is the only one credited to all four band members. It is led by a proficient harmonica through the first section, where Sebastian shows off his talent on this instrument for the first time (he would later do some memorable harp for other artists like The Doors), later followed by a quality lead guitar section by Yanovsky, complemented by some ever intensive playing by the rhythm section.

Do You Believe in Magic reached the Top 10 on the album charts and sparked an avalanche of further hit singles, albums and soundtrack themes over the next two years. Yanovsky departed from the band in mid-1967, followed by Sebastian’s decision to go solo in early 1968, which effectively ended The Lovin’ Spoonful.

~

1965 Page

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of 1965 albums.

 

The Rhythm of the Saints
by Paul Simon

Buy The Rhythm of the Saints

The Rhythm of the Saints by Paul SimonEver the artist searching for a new, authentic sound, Paul Simon went to Brazil and employed the heavily percussive samba known as Batucada for his 1990 album, The Rhythm of the Saints. Here Simon fuses his witty pop and folk roots with Latin musical and rhythm techniques by employing nearly 70 session musicians. Beyond the vast number of Latin and African musicians, Simon also brought in contemporary musicians such as guitarist J.J. Cale, drummer Steve Gadd and vocalist Kim Wilson.

The album’s conception came on the heels of Simon’s tremendous success with Graceland, the 1986 release where he worked with South African musicians and vocalists. This gave the composer a taste of world music which he chose to pursue again for his next project starting in the late eighties. While maintaining some musicians from the Graceland sessions, such as the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, most of the backing musicians were from Latin America such as the popular Grupo Cultural Olodum.

Simon produced the album and first recorded most of the rhythm tracks in Rio de Janeiro, starting in December 1989. Guitarist Vincent Nguini performed on several of the tracks as well as helped out with several of the arrangements (and has remained a member of Simon’s band ever since). Overdubs were recorded and the album was mixed at The Hit Factory in New York City in mid 1990.


The Rhythm of the Saints by Paul Simon
Released: October 16, 1990 (Warner Bros.)
Produced by: Paul Simon
Recorded: Rio de Janero, Brazil, December 1989–June 1990
Track Listing Primary Musicians
The Obvious Child
Can’t Run But
The Coast
Proof
Further To Fly
She Moves On
Born At the Right Time
The Cool, Cool River
Spirit Voices
The Rhythm of the Saints
Paul Simon – Lead Vocals, Guitars
J.J.Cale – Guitars
Naná Vasconcelos – Percussion

Although not originally intended to do so, “The Obvious Child” starts The Rhythm of the Saints off. As the lead single from this decidedly non-pop-oriented album, the label insisted that it be placed first on the album, (against Simon’s own wishes) and the track went on to be Simon’s final Top 20 hit. The military-type drums were recorded live in an outdoor square and add much contrast to the chanting vocals by Simon above strummed acoustic. The second track, “Can’t Run But”, is built on much more subtle rhythms, a xylophone, and a subtle bass, all too calm and cool against Simon’s signature rapid vocals. There is a slight bluesy guitar in the distance making this reminiscent of some of the Police’s more extravagant tracks, with lyrics that deal with the 1986 Chernobyl incident.

“The Coast” was co-written Nguini and starts with subtle hand drums, like a jungle rhythm in the distance. This song is built on brightly picked electric guitar with notes that nicely squeeze out and builds with some brass before relinquishing to a percussive chorus and starting over again. “Proof” contains good, strong brass horn accents over complex but subtle rhythms that topically rotate through an almost-digital like arpreggio while the bass rhythm uses simple 4/4 duo beats. There are also good vocal variations and plenty of interesting instrumental interludes. “Further to Fly” is more bass driven and almost jazzy in approach, but not quite as rewarding as the previous tracks, seeming like a more improvised, rehearsal-like track.

“She Moves On” may be the first song which reflects the folk roots of Simon, albeit it does have some jazzy bass, horns, and smooth guitars and (of course) a chorus of percussion. Written about Simon’s ex-wife, actress Carrie Fisher, this lover’s lament brilliantly incorporates a female chorus for a single line with great effect. “Born at the Right Time” is just as interesting, with bright guitars, bass, accordion, and a catchy melody which makes this one of the more accessible songs on the album. In contrast, “The Cool, Cool River” is one of the more modern sounding tracks, especially during the verses and kind of takes a left turn in feel and tempo during the ‘B’ sections.

Coming down the stretch, “Spirit Voices” is more music oriented than most of the tracks with a few complementing guitars and a wild fretless bass under Simon’s whimsical vocals. Co-written by Brazilian songwriter Milton Nascimento, this track is uplifting overall. The title track “The Rhythm of the Saints” finishes off the album and, like the title suggests, the percussive orchestra returns with a vengeance to the point of nearly overwhelming the light guitar, bass, and vocals of Simon. The later call and response vocals between Simon and a chorus are almost spiritual in nature.

It is hard to surmise whether The Rhythm of the Saints has an over-exuberance of percussion which distracts from the core song craft or if the opposite is true, meaning these track may not have been quite as interesting without the arrangements. In any case, this album was a critical and commercial success all over the world and yet another high water mark in the long and brilliant career of Paul Simon.

~

1990 Page ad

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1990 albums.

Gaucho by Steely Dan

Buy Gaucho

Gaucho by Steely DanSteely Dan had a smooth and steady upward climb through their heyday in the 1970s, with an album-a-year released for six straight years and each gaining in popularity. The group’s seventh album however, 1980’s Gaucho, proved to be a laborious project which was plagued by personal, legal, and creative problems. When finally complete, the album is a quasi-concept of interrelated tracks with frank lyrical themes and simple (or at least simple for this band) rhythms and musical structures.

After the tremendous success of 1977’s Aja, the group’s core duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to migrate from Los Angeles back to their native New York City to record a follow-up album with producer Gary Katz. However, their perfectionism in recording did not translate well for New York session musicians when recordings began in 1978. Despite using over 40 studio musicians during a year of intense recording, Fagen and Becker were still not satisfied and spent in excess of $100,000 extra just on innovative processing of the drum beats alone. Further complicating the process, the recording of a song intended for the album called “The Second Arrangement” was accidently erased in 1979 and had to be replaced by another track late in the process. The album’s mixing sessions were no less intensive, expensive, and time consuming.

While recording the album, the group’s label was involved in a merger, which caused some legal static and prevented Becker and Fagen from changing labels. Also during this time, Becker was hit by a car and broke his leg, resulting in extensive hospitalization. Becker also battled substance abuse and his girlfriend tragically died of a drug overdose in early 1980. Gaucho was finally released in November 1980, over three years after its predecessor.


Gaucho by Steely Dan
Released: November 21, 1980 (MCA)
Produced by: Gary Katz
Recorded: New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, 1978-1980
Side One Side Two
Babylon Sisters
Hey Nineteen
Glamour Profession
Gaucho
Time Out of Mind
My Rival
Third World Man
Primary Musicians
Donald Fagen – Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Walter Becker – Bass, Guitars, Piano, Synths, Vocals
Rob Mounsey – Piano, Keyboards
Steve Khan – Guitars

The album opener, “Babylon Sisters” ,comes in with a cool, slow and deliberate rhythm with some embellishment by the electric piano of Don Grolnick. Subtle horns and reggae elements sneak in just prior to the commencement of the first verse, along with the famous “Purdie Shuffle” by drumming legend Bernard Purdie. The album’s lyrical pace is also set here with simple but profound lines like “here comes those Santa Ana winds again.”

“Hey Nineteen” is one of the finest sonic pieces ever, and where the group’s meticulous production really pays off. A simple but completely infectious beat is complemented with each subtle instrument finding its own space, while the lyrics lightly discuss the disconnect between a thirty-something and a nineteen-year-old trying to make a go but finding little in common. The song peaked at #10, making it the last major hit for Steely Dan. The first side ends weakly with “Glamour Profession”, a song with a close to moderate disco beat and slight funk and soul elements, but very little movement in its seven and a half minutes.

With the title track, “Gaucho”, the album gets back on track. Driven by a sax riff in the intro and interludes and great bass by Becker, who also later adds a potent guitar lead to conclude the song. Steely Dan was sued by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, for “borrowing” a bit from one of his songs. Fagen and Becker relented, making this the only song with a writing credit beyond those two. “Time Out of Mind” is poppy and catchy with a main chorus hook that builds nicely. However, the lyrical content is much darker with an unabashed celebration of one’s first experience with heroin. “My Rival” is almost like a movie or television soundtrack with storytelling lyrics of determination and interesting sonic qualities with an interspersing old-fashioned Hammond organ and modern square-font synth being used. The album closes with “Third World Man”, a slow and deliberate track which is  darker than the other material on the album.

In spite of its tortured conception, Gaucho was another solid hit for Steely Dan, reaching the Top Ten in the US and winning the 1981 Grammy Award for its engineering. However, the turmoil of the preceding years proved to be the breaking point and the group disbanded in mid 1981 and did not release another album for almost two solid decades.

~

Classic Rock Review 1980 promo

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1980 albums.