Gaucho by Steely Dan

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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.

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Classic Rock Review 1980 promo

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

Remain In Light
by Talking Heads

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Remain In Light by Talking HeadsRemain In Light is far from your typical rock album. In fact, a case might be made that it is not really a rock album at all. However, this widely acclaimed fourth studio album by Talking Heads is important in its creative approach and originality as well as a firm statement by the group that they were much more than a simple, New York, post-punk band. Remain In Light is filled with experimental African polyrhythms along with a series of samples and loops, all performed by the four group members and additional session musicians.

Talking Heads began as “The Artistics” in 1974 at the Rhode Island School of Design where three of its permanent members attended, including the couple Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, who played bass and drums respectively. Eventually the group migrated to New York City and played their first proper gig as “Talking Heads” at the famed CBGB in 1975. Over the next two years, the group gained a following which led to their signing with Sire Records. During each of the final three years of the 1970s, the group recorded and released Talking Heads 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Fear of Music, each achieving higher acclaim and popularity. The most recent of these albums was produced by Brian Eno, who stayed on board for this fourth album.

Remain In Light was conceived when the members of Talking Heads wanted to make a more music and rhythm oriented album, in part to dispel notions of that the group was just a backing for frontman and chief lyricist David Byrne. Initial recordings were made in Nassau, the Bahamas, with instrumental sessions that experimented with the communal African recording methods. For his part, Byrne provided inspired lyrics from literature on Africa and re-invented his vocal style to match the free-associative feel of the compositions.


Remain In Light by Talking Heads
Released: October 8, 1980 (Sire)
Produced by: Brian Eno
Recorded: Compass Point Studios, Nassau & Sigma Sound Studios, New York, July–August 1980
Side One Side Two
Born Under Punches (Heat Goes On)
Crosseyed and Painless
The Great Curve
Once in a Lifetime
Houses in Motion
Seen and Not Seen
Listening Wind
The Overload
Group Musicians
David Byrne – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Percussion
Jerry Harrison – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Tina Weymouth – Bass, Keyboards, Percussion, Vocals
Chris Frantz – Drums, Keyboards, Percussion, Vocals

While none of the compositions include chord changes and instead rely on the use of different harmonics and notes, the first side contains the more rhythmic songs with good sound loops, albeit excessively repetitive. The opener “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is pure techno funk and never deviates from a 10-second sequence acting as a canvas for the vocals. “Crosseyed and Painless” is more dance-oriented than the opener and, although the chorus vocals are very melodic, this track is built predominantly as a club track. Lyrically this track discusses the paranoia and alienation of urban life. “The Great Curve” features layered, multi-part vocals over hyper rhythms and a rich horn section. The song and side ends with an interesting, droning, synthesiser-treated guitar solo by Adrian Belew.

The second side of Remain In Light features more introspective songs, commencing with most popular on this album and one of the most popular in the band’s career catalog. “Once In a Lifetime” has a refreshing refrain and is the most musically interesting thus far. While Weymouth’s basic bass pattern never changes, the other musicians play brilliantly, with Frantz adding good drum fills and guitarist Jerry Harrison laying down brilliant funk and rock guitar licks. For his part, Eno composed the vocal melody for the chorus after originally expressing reservations about the song. Released as the first single from the album, the song peaked at #14 on the UK Singles Chart in 1981.

“Houses in Motion” contains a spoken introduction and later fine chorus vocals, with the music a bit more interesting than similar tracks on the first side. Conversely, “Seen and Not Seen” is almost psychedelic, as Byrne speaks seemingly declarative statements above a clapping rhythm motif with many synth interjections. “Listening Wind” is almost a new wave pop song, features some Arabic music elements, while the closing track “The Overload” is a doomy rock track with haunting sound effects and somber, chanting verse vocals. This last track almost has a Pink Floyd quality to it, taking a different approach than any previous track on this album, but is also similar in its repetition as it slowly fades away into oblivion.

Remain In Light peaked in the Top 20 in the the US and was nearly as successful in the UK, eventually selling over a million copies worldwide. In order to replicate its thick rhythms, Talking Heads expanded to 9 stage members for the subsequent tour. Following this, the group went into an extended hiatus before returning for several more successful albums through the eighties.

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

Classic Rock Review 1980 promo

 

The Last In Line by Dio

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The Last In Line by DioAfter stints in several rock groups, Ronnie James Dio found his popular groove in the early eighties with the founding of the group, Dio. Although this band was named after the veteran vocalist and songwriter, it was approached as a true rock group with each member contributing to the original compositions. Dio’s second release, The Last In Line, was released in mid 1984 and reached great critical acclaim within the rock and metal community. The album was also a mainstream crossover hit, reaching the Top 10 on several album charts fueled by three tracks which landed in the Top 10 of the American Mainstream Rock tracks chart.

Dio’s music career began way back in 1957, when he founded the band, The Vegas Kings, as a teenager in his hometown of Cortland, New York. This group went through various changes in name and personnel through the 1960s, with a few singles released along the way. In 1967, that group transformed into The Electric Elves, later shortening its name to Elf. Through the early seventies, Elf recorded three albums and toured with major acts such as Deep Purple. When Ritchie Blackmore left that group to form Rainbow in 1975, he recruited members of Elf, including Dio. While with Rainbow, Dio wrote most of the lyrics for the first three albums. However, when given the opportunity to replace Ozzy Osbourne in the legendary Black Sabbath, Dio jumped ship in 1979. Three years later, disagreements within that band resulted in the departure of Dio and drummer Vinny Appice, who formed Dio in October 1982. The following May, the band released their debut album, Holy Diver, which featured two MTV hits.

The original quartet of Dio included Vivian Campbell on guitar and Jimmy Bain on bass. Later on keyboardist Claude Schnell was recruited for live shows and ultimately became a permanent member of the band.


The Last In Line by Dio
Released: July 2, 1984 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Ronnie James Dio
Recorded: Caribou Ranch, Colorado, 1984
Side One Side Two
We Rock
The Last In Line
Breathless
I Speed at Night
One Night In the City
Evil Eyes
Mystery
Eat Your Heart Out
Egypt (The Chains Are On)
Group Musicians
Ronnie James Dio – Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Vivian Campbell – Guitars
Jimmy Bain – Bass
Vinny Appice – Drums, Percussion

The Last In Line followed the same basic pattern as Holy Diver, leading these albums to later be packaged together. The album comes in strong with “We Rock”, led by the frenzied drums by Appice throughout, including a beat-driven post lead section. Co-written by bassist Bain, the most quality track on the album is the title track, “The Last in Line”. The laid back intro section allows for a nice setup to the driving song proper, with its steady and heavy approach. However, it is Dio’s philosophical and fascinating lyrics that shine brightest on this track, finding the line between good and evil like a heavy metal counterpart to “Hotel California”,

We don’t come along, we are fire, we are strong, we’re the hand that writes and quickly moves away…”

“Breathless” sounds much like Rainbow-era material, built on the interesting riffing by Campbell and the melodic hooks by Dio. “I Speed at Night” may be the most overtly concocted tune (perhaps to take advantage of the recent success of Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55”). In any case, this is not a good showcase for Dio and Appice. The side one closer “One Night In the City” is heavy pop, starting with a couple of interesting riff sections before it breaks into pristine rock with repeatable hooks. “Evil Eyes” forges the high-end 80’s heavy rock where Campbell adds some of his finest guitar work during the brief verses and frantic, hammer-on lead.

“Mystery” is the most accessible song on the album and a true Dio classic. Everything comes together on this collaboration between Dio and Bain, as it is melodic and musically sweet, with a hook, guitar lead, and keyboard riff that it puts in firmly within the boundaries of pop/rock radio. “Eat Your Heart Out” follows as one last accessible hard rock song and a true band collaboration with good rock rudiments. The album closer “Egypt (The Chains Are On)” adds a theatrical and dramatic element to the album with opening wind effects and a slow and deliberative thumping in the verses.

Within two months of its release, The Last In Line was certified Gold and would later go on to become the first Dio album to be certified Platinum. A third album followed soon in 1985, along with more later in the decade, but the group would not again achieve this level of success.

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

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Pretzel Logic by Steely Dan

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Pretzel Logic by Steely DanAt first glance, Steely Dan‘s third album, Pretzel Logic, may seem almost too short and efficient. Many of the songs do not even reach three minutes in length and the album as a whole barely surpasses the threshold beyond EP territory. However, after a few listens you realize that this may be the true genius of the album after all. Composers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker started their studio practice of employing scores of session musicians to record just the right part, phrase or note so that not a moment is wasted on filler. By expertly mixing pop, rock, and jazz intricacies into direct and succinct album tracks, the duo found a sonic sweet spot for the mid seventies. This allowed them to proliferate on pop radio while hardly ever seeing the light of public performances.

Following the success of Steely Dan’s debut Can’t Buy a Thrill, the group felt that the 1973 follow-up Countdown to Ecstasy was rushed and incomplete due to their hectic touring schedule not allowing time to develop the material properly. As a consequence, that second album did not receive good critical or commercial marks. Further, after the departure of front man David Palmer, Fagen was the sole lead singer, a role he did not like performing live.

When the band entered The Village Recorder studio with producer Gary Katz in late 1973, they decided to write material without regard to live performances. Fagen and Becker also decided to use many Los Angeles-based studio musicians, something that eventually led to the departure of all remaining “band” members and solidifying Steely Dan as a duo for the rest of their career. Also, following the release of Pretzel Logic in 1974 when the group ceased performing live and focused on studio recording exclusively.


Pretzel Logic by Steely Dan
Released: February 20, 1974 (ABC)
Produced by: Gary Katz
Recorded: The Village Recorder, Santa Monica, CA, October 1973-January 1974
Side One Side Two
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Night by Night
Any Major Dude Will Tell You
Barrytown
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo
Parker’s Band
Through with Buzz
Pretzel Logic
With a Gun
Charlie Freak
Monkey In Your Soul
Primary Musicians
Donald Fagen – Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Saxophone
Walter Becker – Bass, Guitars, Vocals
Jeff Baxter – Guitars
Denny Dias – Guitars
Jim Gordon – Drums

 

The album begins with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, which would become the biggest hit of Steely Dan’s career, topping out at number four on the pop charts. Musically, this is about as smooth as any song by the band, led by the simple piano line of Michael Omartian and great samba-inspired drums and percussion by Jim Gordon. During the lead and bridge section, the song morphs from jazz to rock seamlessly and the rather obscure lyrics tend to add to the overall mystique of this unique song (although artist Rikki Ducornet believes it was inspired by Fagen approaching her at a college party years earlier).

The choppy rock rhythm and spectrum of brass intervals of “Night by Night” is followed by the cools and somber “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”. Starting with a brightly strummed acoustic that soon settles into an electric piano groove with electric guitar overtones, this latter song offers great little guitar riffs between the verses composed of uplifting lyrics of encouragement;

Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door, in the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you…”

The oldest composition on the album, Fagen’s “Barrytown” is lyric driven with a moderate piano backing, not all that complex but with good melody and arrangement. Named for a small upstate New York town near the duo’s alma mater, the song is a satirical look at the small town class system. The first side concludes with the only cover and instrumental on Pretzel Logic, Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”. This modern interpretation, features the indelible pedal guitar lead by Jeff Baxter, who emulated a mute-trombone solo masterfully. The rest of the piece pleasantly moves through many differing lead sections before returning to Baxter’s guitar to finish things up.

“Parker’s Band” contains much movement as a funky track with rock overtones. Perhaps the highlight of this track is the dual drums by Gordon and Jeff Porcaro, which are potent and flawless. “Through With Buzz” is a short, almost psychedelic piece driven by mesmerizing piano and a strong string presence. This is another example of how the Katz and the group gets everything out the door with extreme efficiency in this lyrical proclamation of a resolution. The title track, “Pretzel Logic”, contains a slow electric piano groove and verse vocals which are the most blues based of any on the album of the same name. This song contains lyrics that are cryptic, driving rhythms and grooves, a pretty respectable guitar lead by Becker, and is also the only song on the second side which exceeds three minutes in length.

Steely Dan 1974

The album’s final stretch features three very short tracks of differing styles. “With a Gun” is like an upbeat Western with strummed fast acoustic, Tex-Mex styled electric riffs, and a strong, Country-influenced drum beat. “Charlie Freak” features a descending piano run, which the vocals mimic with simple, storied lyrics of a downtrodden man who pawns his ring to the protagonist at a discounted price to buy the drug fix that ultimately does him in. The closer “Monkey in Your Soul” features the coolest of grooves, with an electric piano and clavichord accented by horns between the verses and a Motown-like clap to end the album on an upbeat note.

Pretzel Logic reached the Top Ten on the album charts and remains one of the group’s most critically acclaimed releases. Two of many session players used on this album (Jeff Porcaro and David Paich) went on to form the group Toto and Becker and Fagen continued the formula of using the best possible musicians on several more fine albums through the 1970s.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1974 albums.

 

Storm Front by Billy Joel

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Storm Front by Billy JoelWith Storm Front, his eleventh overall studio album, Billy Joel made a concerted effort to radically change his approach on several levels. First, he discharged a few members of the support band which had been with him since the mid 1970s. Next, Joel decided not to work with producer Phil Ramone (who had produced every Billy Joel album since The Stranger in 1977, and instead enlisted Foreigner’s Mick Jones, who had brought his band to pop super-stardom earlier in the decade. The result of this pivotal effort at the sunset of the 1980s was a commercially successful album that received lukewarm critical feedback and, in many ways, began the decline of Joel’s incredible pop career.

Following the release of Joel’s previous album The Bridge three years earlier, he initiated an ambitious undertaking by becoming the first major American rock act to perform in the Soviet Union. The album КОНЦЕРТ (Russian for “Concert”) was released shortly after the August 1987 performances in Tlbisi, Moscow and Lennigrad, in part to recover the estimated $1 million of his own money that Joel spent the trip and concerts. However, more financial troubles were to come as an audit revealed major discrepancies in the accounting of Joel’s longtime manager in August 1989, subsequently costing the longtime pop star much of his fortune.

Guitarist Russell Javors and bassist Doug Stegmeyer, each of whom had been with Joel since the recording of Turnstiles in 1976, were fired prior to the recording of Storm Front and replaced by Joey Hunting and Schuyler Deale respectively. Joel also hired vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero while retaining three members of his regular band. In 1988, Joel made a cameo on Mick Jones’ self-titled solo debut and was so impressed with his production abilities that he hired him to help forge the sonic tones and moods on Storm Front.


Storm Front by Billy Joel
Released: October 17, 1989 (Columbia)
Produced by: Mick Jones and Billy Joel
Recorded: The Hit Factory and Right Track Recording, New York, Spring-Summer 1989
Track Listing Primary Musicians
That’s Not Her Style
We Didn’t Start the Fire
The Downeaster ‘Alexa’
I Go to Extremes
Shameless
Storm Front
Leningrad
State of Grace
When in Rome
And So It Goes
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Clavinet, Accordion, Keyboards
David Brown – Guitars
Jeff Jacobs – Horns, Keyboards
Schuyler Deale – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums, PercussionStorm Front by Billy Joel

 

The opening track, “That’s Not Her Style” , has an underlying vibe of bluesy rock, especially during harmonica laden intro of Don Brooks, but is otherwise nothing more than topical sanitized pop. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” follows as a history lesson through rap, cut by the chorus hook that has richly disguised vocal harmonies. The main keyboard riff sounds like it could have composed on xylophone, especially along side the tribal percussive sounds and bouncy synth bass during verses. The lyrics are exclusively composed of words, terms and names of historical significance, starting in 1949, the year Joel was born. The song was Joel’s final #1 hit in the U.S.

The middle songs of this album are where you will find the top quality material. “The Downeaster Alexa” is the most indelible song on the album, led by Joel’s great vocal melodies, and an almost Gordon Lightfoot approach in its composition. It contains extraordinary sonic arrangements from the ever-present accordion of Dominic Cortese to the deadened guitar riffs to the slow methodical drum march to the strategic organ and synths. There is also a fine violin lead credited only to “World Famous Incognito Violinist”. Lyrically, “The Downeaster Alexa” tells of the plight of fisherman from Joel’s native Long Island with some poetic phrases like;

“tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis and I still have my hands on the wheel”

“I Go to Extremes” is the the purest pop/rock song on the album with a great melody and beat along with a couple of decent piano leads later in the song. This song with a bipolar theme reached #6 on the Billboard pop charts. “Shameless” is soulful and pleasantly melodic throughout, almost with the tenor of a seventies light pop/rock hit (although it would be most associated with Garth Brooks in the early nineties). This song also contains the best guitar work on the album by the team of David Brown and Joey Hunting. The title song “Storm Front” is pure Motown through and through with good rhythm, slow riffs, and a rich horn arrangement by Jeff Jacobs.

“Lenningrad” is historical ballad which feels like it would have fit in well on the 1982 album The Nylon Curtain. Influenced by Joel’s trip to the U.S.S.R. and has a great arrangement towards the end with the piano being almost classical to fit the mood. Joel compares his protagonist’s life with his own, much like he did in a previous song, “Ballad of Billy Kid”. The last really good track on Storm Front is “State of Grace”, a real forgotten gem driven by Joel’s high melodies and fantastic guitar work throughout by Jones, making it his best musical contribution on the album. “When In Rome” contains some Motown elements, especially in lead and backing vocals along a pretty good sax solo. “And So It Goes” closes the otherwise upbeat album with a sad ballad, almost tortured in its approach with vocals closely mimicking piano.

Storm Front reached the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic as the 1990s began. Billy Joel would release one more pop/rock album, The River of Dreams in 1993, before effectively retiring from this aspect of the music industry.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1989 albums.

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Parallel Lines by Blondie

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Parallel Lines by BlondieBlondie has become one of those groups that is often misunderstood on multiple levels. First, this was a band, not a female solo artist with a common nickname. Next, this was not a disco group but a bona fide new wave, experimental rock band with pop leanings which had started out at CBGBs right alongside the Ramones and the Talking Heads. Blondie just had far better pop success, which started with 1978’s Parallel Lines, produced by Mike Chapman. This third studio album, which masterfully blended bubblegum pop with elements of punk, went on to sell over twenty million copies worldwide and reached the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.

The group’s iconic figure, composer and lead vocalist Deborah Harry, was already age 33 and a seasoned veteran of the New York rock scene when this album was produced. Her artistic and domestic partner in creating the group was guitarist Chris Stein, who brought with him inspiration from the new music scene of the Mercer Arts Center on New York’s Lower East Side. The duo first played together in the group The Stilettos in 1973 and formed many incarnations of a rock group before drummer Clem Burke and keyboard player Jimmy Destri came aboard and formed Blondie in 1975. The group released their self-titled debut album in December 1976 but scored their first commercial success in Australia in 1977, when a music television program mistakenly played their video “In the Flesh”.  That song, which has been described as “a forerunner to the power ballad”, went to number one down under. In February 1978, Blondie released their second album, Plastic Letters.

Producer Chapman intentionally steered the band away from their punk and new wave  leanings (although much of those elements seeped through) and towards making a pop album. He mixed Stein’s guitar right up beside Deborah Harry’s vocals and navigates from song to song and style to style smoothly. Chapman also imposed a tough rehearsal schedule and tightened up the rhythm and timing on the recordngs.


Parallel Lines by Blondie
Released: September, 1978 (Chrysalis)
Produced by: Mike Chapman
Recorded: Record Plant, New York City, June–July 1978
Side One Side Two
Hanging On the Telephone
One Way or Another
Picture This
Fade Away and Radiate
Pretty Baby
I Know But I Don’t Know
11:59
Will Anything Happen?
Sunday Girl
Heart of Glass
I’m Gonna Lose You Too
Just Go Away
Band Musicians
Deborah Harry – Lead Vocals  |  Chris Stein – Guitars |  Frank Infante – Guitar, Vocals
Jimmy Destri – Keyboards  |  Nigel Harrison – Bass, Vocals  |  Clem Burke – Drums

 
The album begins with “Hanging on the Telephone”, a cover song written by Jack Lee for the new wave band the Nerves. Although this song sounds a bit dated just for the technology references (i.e. “telephone booth”), it does contain a pleasant harmonized guitar lead and is a near perfect setup for the next track. “One Way or Another” was co-written by bassist Nigel Harrison, who joined Blondie just prior to the recording of Parallel Lines. This rock and roll classic is a ballsy female creed of pure will and determination with an infectious cascading guitar lick. The song concludes with a tremendous outro which contains layered vocals and siren effects and it reached U.S. Top 40 in April, 1979.

“Picture This” is another gem on the first side, and the first foray into retro rock. The heavy guitar riffs are masterfully mixed throughout, giving the song a great vibe while maintaining an edge, accented by the profound lyrics;

all I want is 20/20 vision a total portrait with no omissions…”

Stein’s “Fade Away and Radiate” Sounds like it is influenced by early Alice Cooper with its slow and haunting atmosphere. It kicks in nicely with well treated guitar and synth effects and dry but powerful vocals. “Pretty Baby” follows as a more upbeat rock song with a call and response chorus and great guitar riffs between verses. The group’s final 1978 addition, guitarist Frank Infante wrote “I Know But I Don’t Know” and shares lead vocals with Harry. This song has an intro organ has Latin influence but Burke’s driving drums make it come off more as punk rock, especially when coupled with Infante’s scorching guitar runs.

The album’s second side contains Parallel Lines two biggest hits. “Sunday Girl” almost sounds like a sixties cover, but is really just a masterful composition by Stein with a great vocal melody executed by Harry. The light plunking guitar and gentle cruising rhythms gives the song an air of innocence which is a nice break on this album and propelled it to the top of the U.K. charts.
 

 
From pure retro in “Sunday Girl”, the album takes a sharp turn to pure disco of “Heart of Glass”. The song evolved from a very different sounding demo by Stein and Harry, but the studio recording was fused together beat by beat by Chapman, who had lofty goals for this track from the start. It reached number one in both the U.S. and the U.K. (and beyond) and the group has long admitted the song was a flagrant attempt to exploit the then still raging disco scene. Deborah Harry’s vocal reaches a more airy high-pitched level than the more brassy rock numbers, which works perfectly with the band groove.

The rest of side two contains some fine tunes which tend to be overlooked next to the big hits. Destri’s “11:59” is a moderate-tempo song with apocalyptic overtones, highlighted by a choppy chord beat and organ lead. “Will Anything Happen?” is a great piece of popped-out punk which is led by a hyper guitar riff, smooth, cool vocals by Harry, and an incredibly long drum roll by Burke. The apt and brilliant closer “Just Go Away” was composed solely by Harry and is quite an original female punk classic, which finishes Parallel Lines on a very high note.

Parallel Lines got its title from a song left off the album (although the lyrics for that song were printed on the original album sleeve. Of the twelve tracks that made the cut, six were issued as singles, making this a true commercial blockbuster.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1978 albums.

1978 Images

 

52nd Street by Billy Joel

52nd Street

52nd Street by Billy JoelThe third of consecutive masterpieces by Billy Joel in the late 1970s, 52nd Street, amazingly encapsulates musical elements from Joel’s past, present and future in a rather short album. It was put together by Joel and producer Phil Ramone in near secrecy in a small studio around the corner from the street which bears its name. In fact, that famous street was where Joel’s label was located (about a block away from the studio) as well as being one of New York City’s traditional jazz centers in the twentieth century. This was also Ramone’s third consecutive album with Joel, starting with Turnstiles in 1976 and The Stranger in 1977.

Building on the styles of those previous albums, 52nd Street is a bit more sophisticated and jazzy, with looser, street-wise arrangements. Contrarily, this album makes some deliberate attempts at mimicking styles from several artists and genres, which makes the album very diverse. There is no doubt that Joel drew from influences of his youth as well as some late seventies contemporaries such as fellow New York jazz/rockers Steely Dan.

Once The Stranger became a chart phenom in early 1977, Joel and Ramone quickly re-entered the studio to record a follow-up, enlisting the same core band which played on the previous album and had toured with Joel since his return to New York in 1975. Within a span of about three months, the album was composed, recorded, mixed, mastered, and released. Joel did all of the composing and arranging while Ramone did a masterful job of making all the various styles and techniques flow together smoothly from start to finish.


52nd Street by Billy Joel
Released: October 13, 1978 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: A&R Recording, New York City, July–August 1978
Side One Side Two
Big Shot
Honesty
My Life
Zanzibar
Stiletto
Rosalinda’s Eyes
Half a Mile Away
Until the Night
52nd Street
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano
Richie Cannata – Saxophones, Clarinet, Keyboards
Steve Khan – Guitars, Vocals
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums

 

The nine track 52nd Street can really be divided into three, three-song sections. The first of these sections contain the three big radio hits, all of which reached the Top 40. Allegedly an inside dig against Mick Jagger’s wife Bianca, “Big Shot” drops some New York society names and terms with its storytelling lyrics. Musically, Joel takes a back seat to the members of his rock band, especially guitarist Steve Khan, whose strong guitar riffs drive the song much more than the simple guide piano.

While “Big Shot” is a showcase for his band, the following track “Honesty” is where Joel firmly takes center stage. This is a song which demonstrates the upper limit of Joel’s writing and performing ability, a philosophical piano ballad with soaring yet delicate vocals. “Honesty” may be Joel’s best Elton John impression, a complex piece with a great bridge seeping with emotion. The song features David Spinozza on acoustic guitar and Robert Freedman providing horn and string orchestration.

“My Life” is a steady rocker, driven by Khan’s acoustic guitar and an excellent bass by Doug Stegmeyer. On top of it all, are the tasteful lead piano riffs and great melodies by Joel and, even when he is at his most pop-oriented, his lyrics maintain their philosophic edge. On this track, the music is laid back and reserved yet still has a feeling of fast-paced motion, a tribute to Ramone’s ingenious production techniques.

 
The second three-song section of the album is where the true genius of the 52nd Street lies. All three of these songs are gems which have kind of gotten lost in the retrospectives of Joel’s career, but all three belong in the top echelon. “Zanzibar” is one of Joel’s most complex and richly arranged compositions. This tour de force of 52nd Street is a truly unique song which vacillates from pure rock to jazz with Joel’s shouting vocals leading the way throughout. Even when the song seems to breakdown to a completely off-the-wall jazz section, it works great and flows well with guest Freddie Hubbard on flugelhorn and trumpet. The song evokes the carnival-esque glare of Manhattan at night.

“Stiletto” is a great piano blues/rocker led by a saxophone riff by Richie Cannata. This song has some interesting sonic passages starting with a simple but powerful beat by Liberty DeVitto that drives this song which would be entertaining whether performed solo in a nightclub or in a stadium filled with 50,000 people. The bridge section is a fun piano run that harkens back slightly to “Root Beer Rag”, while the lyrics are nearly sadomasochist. On the lighter and cleaner side, “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is a moderately soft love ballad with Spanish-influenced rhythms, like a more mature version of “Just the Way You Are”. The song contains many sonic treasures by guest players, including vibes and marimba by Mike Mainieri, nylon string guitar by Hugh McCracken and a unique and excellent percussion by Ralph MacDonald, which Ramone creatively had play out for 20 or 30 seconds after the rest of the song fades.

Perhaps the only flaw on 52nd Street lies within the final three songs, which each seem to try too hard to point in one direction or another. I have long contended that the demise of rock and roll began once it became self-aware, sometime in the 1970s, and these last three songs each exhibit that theory to an extent. “Half a Mile Away” may sound like Joel’s earliest 70s pop attempts or later 80s numbers, but either way it sounds hollow compared to the finer tracks. The bright horn arrangements are the only real highlights from this song. “Until the Night” is a very retro, Phil Spector inspired track that forecasts some tracks on the future album An Innocent Man. This is a good tune where Joel really shows his vocal range, but is a little too self-indulgent and over-produced to really jive on this album. The best part of the song is the dramtic bridge section which precedes and equally dramatic sax solo by Cannata. The title song “52nd Street” finishes the album as almost an afterthought (probably by design). After the dramatic climax of “Until the Night” and a pregnant pause, the closer kicks in as a very brief, one verse Ray Charles tribute with a clarinet lead during the outro section.

Although it did not sell as well as its predecessor, 52nd Street was Billy Joel’s first #1 album that was extremely well-received by critics, and earned the 1979 Grammy for Album of the Year. 52nd Street is also distinct as the first album to be commercially released on compact disc, by Sony Music in Japan in 1982. Joel continued his commercial success with fine albums throughout the eighties, but none were quite as good as his works from the late seventies.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1978 albums.

1978 Images

 

Naked by Talking Heads

Naked by Talking HeadsTalking Heads eighth and final album was Naked , released in 1988. The album was an attempt at a quasi-concept album which brings the listener to an ironically serene world following an (apparently) man-made apocalypse. This may not have been the original intent, as the complex musical arrangements were composed and recorded before any of the lyrics which made up this theme were recorded. The four member group employed an additional twenty or so musicians of vastly different genres in order to achieve a world music sound through most of the album, making Naked the most musically diverse album by the band.

Talking Heads previous two albums, Little Creatures in 1985 and True Stories in 1986, were both very pop oriented, and the band wanted to try something completely different. They decided to record their next album in Paris, based on scores of improvisational tracks they recorded as the foundation for the new material. Steve Lillywhite was brought in to co-produce and he conducted day-long, improvised musical sessions with the group and several other musicians with one take selected for each particular track.

The lyrics and melodies were left until later when the band returned to New York. Lead vocalist and chief songwriter David Byrne added themes to the prerecorded tracks. The album’s title and cover were loosely based on a Chinese proverb; “If there is no tiger in the mountains, the monkey will be king”, which was also printed on the LP jacket of Naked. Although the musical approach works for most of the album, the apocalyptic lyrics laced with late-eighties fatalism tend to sound dated. Of course, the band was in the midst of slowly breaking up at the time, so that may have had an influence on the lyrical content.

 


Naked by Talking Heads
Released: March 15, 1988 (EMI)
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite & Talking Heads
Recorded: Studio Davout, Paris, 1987
Side One Side Two
Blind
Mr. Jones
Totally Nude
Ruby Dear
(Nothing But) Flowers”
The Democratic Circus
The Facts of Life
Mommy Daddy You and I
Big Daddy
Bill
Cool Water
Band Musicians
David Byrne – Lead Vocals, Guitars  |  Jerry Harrison – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Tina Weymouth – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals  |  Chris Frantz – Drums, Percussion

 

The first side is a collection of upbeat, well syncopated tunes. “Blind” is a funk track with an Afro-flavored groove and a full horn section which includes three saxophones, two trumpets, and a trombone. If not for the violent lyrical themes, the song may almost be considered a spoof on James Brown. “Mr. Jones” also includes a rich horn section, although this song is more swing than funk. Still upbeat and fun, it is a great musical blend and the closest to soulful vocals as you’ll get from Byrne. Drummer Chris Frantz
decided to use brushes and softer percussive techniques in order to give room to the various other percussionists.

“Totally Nude” contains a fine slide guitar by Yves N’Djock, along with Caribbean rhythms. However, this track does get a bit too crowded as the ensemble seems to be trying to do too many things at once. On his album Graceland a few years earlier, Paul Simon had much better success at making these diverse styles mesh together. “Ruby Dear” begins with blues-like drum beat before breaking into some odd yet intriguing verses, which employ a bit of sixties pyschedelia. This is the first of many tracks on which Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr appears.

Marr provides the sharply plucked leads on “(Nothing But) Flowers”, which was the most popular song on the album and the album’s best musically. Bass guitarist Tina Weymouth provides an overall fantastic groove to back up Byrne’s melodic vocals. The songs lyrics describe a world where modern conveniences has ceased and the world has reverted to a more natural state, which the protagonist originally favored but now longs the conveniences and culture of the modern world.

 
The original LP’s second side takes a bit of a dark turn, both musically and philosophically. “The Democratic Circus” starts as the closest to the 1980s new wave sound that you’ll find on the album, before later breaking out into rougher, riff-driven sections. “The Facts of Life” uses machine-like synth effects by Jerry Harrison, which is somewhat cool for about a minute or so, but after six and a half minutes gets quite mundane. “Mommy Daddy You and I” includes some bluesy squeeze notes above a deep synth bass and a rapid accordion by James Fearnley during the verses.

“Big Daddy” is a nice fusion song with a pure soul intro and blues elements led by the harmonica of Don Brooks. Lyrically it is analogous to the “big brother” figure in George Orwell’s 1984. “Bill” features Eric Weissberg, who found previous famous for his arrangement of “Dueling Banjos” in 1973. This song is really quite subdued and mellow, with the exception of the apoplectic lyrics. The closer “Cool Water” features dramatic, movie scene-like atmosphere with Byres singing monotone in the fashion of Nico from years passed. Marr adds to the intensity of the song with his guitar as Byrnes offers pleas for human fellowship through his lyric.

Talking Heads achieved a fitting swan song with their stylistically fruitful Naked, which reached the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming only the second album by the group to accomplish that feat. The band dissolved shortly after the album’s release, officially announcing their breakup in 1991.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1988 albums.

1988 Images

 

Zebra

ZebraThe rock trio Zebra existed with almost equal measures of three critical stripes – love, hate and indifference. The group’s dedicated fans point out the melodic dynamics present with group leader Randy Jackson, as he fused some of the best arena rock of the 70s with the pop and rock sensibilities of the 80s. Critics dismiss the band as nothing more than Zeppelin ‘clones’ who tried to fill a void in the wake of that legendary band’s dissolution. As for the rest, well, most passive listeners never really heard of the band Zebra. However, in early 1983 when the band released their self-titled debut, there were many who saw great things down the line.

Zebra, whose name was inspired by a 1922 cover of vogue magazine, had been together since forming in 1975 in New Orleans. Led by guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Randy Jackson, the group started to gain notoriety when they migrated to Long Island, NY and furiously played in that area’s club and college scene, mainly as a cover band. However, their limited catalogue of originals were strong enough to impress Atlantic Records, who signed the group to a five album deal right out of the gate in late 1982.

This seemed like a wise business deal for the suits as the album Zebra became the fastest selling debut record in Atlantic Records history when it sold over 75,000 copies in its first week and spent eight months on the Billboard charts, peaking at number 29. But this was largely due to their dedicated fan bases in both New York and Louisiana, and widespread acceptance by critics or radio stations never quite materialized.


Zebra by Zebra
Released: March 21, 1983 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Jack Douglas
Recorded: 1983
Side One Side Two
Tell Me What You Want
One More Chance
Slow Down
As I Said Before
Who’s Behind the Door?
When You Get There
Take Your Fingers from My Hair
Don’t Walk Away
The La La Song
Band Musicians
Randy Jackson – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Synthesizers
Felix Hanemann – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals  |  Guy Gelso – Drums, Vocals

 
Veteran producer Jack Douglas was at the production helm and forged a processed (perhaps over-processed) sound which was snare-heavy and bass light. Still the dynamics of the band shine through on this debut. “Tell Me What You Want” starts immediately as an acoustic ballad which quickly builds to a frenzied and intense electric screed driven by Jackson’s ever intense vocalizing and the deep synth and bass riff line by Felix Hanemann. “One More Chance” is built like a traditional love song where Jackson shines with both his vocal range and great guitar textures. Theses guitars range from the delicately picked flange of the verse to the driving crunch of the choruses, all underneath some space-aged lead guitar licks. “Slow Down” is an oddity for this or any subsequent Zebra album – a cover. Written by Larry Williams in 1958 (but best known for the 1964 Beatles’ cover), the song has the band stepping out sonically and providing a simple, driving hard rock song complete with boogie piano by Hanemann.

“And I Said Before” is a great play on a simple lyric motif put to use with great music arrangement and vocal variations. It is also the first on the album where drummer Guy Gelso really shows his chops and it contains an interesting bridge with a banjo in the foreground and a heavy rock riff on the interlude. The song acts as a defacto intro for “Who’s Behind the Door?”, the group’s signature song through their early recording years. Philosophically deep (it is like the “Dust in the Wind” of 1983) with the finest production on the album, it is musically driven by Jackson’s complex acoustic riffing through the intro. Later the chorus and climatic ending have a much more spacey, electric feel (complete with laser-like sound effects). The song reached the Top 10 on the US rock charts but failed to breach the Top 40 on the pop charts.
 

 
The album’s second side begins with “When You Get There”, a simple, entertaining, and upbeat rocker. Unlike much of the material, this one is really carried by the rhythm section, especially Hanemann’s bass. “Take Your Fingers From My Hair” is an ambitious, extended piece which makes a half-hearted attempt at a rock suite, ranging from folky acoustic verses to head-banging metal electric choruses. The band later tries this extended approach once again (albeit with a slightly different angle) on the ill-conceived closer “The La La Song”. The best part of this both of these longer tracks is that they each contain authentic jam sections, which breaks the band out of the sanitized production into more authentic rock sections put together by the trio as a band.

Somewhat lost between these more ambitious pieces is the real highlight of the second side, “Don’t Walk Away”. Built on a simple rock guitar riff and a steady upbeat rhythm, this song contains simple and melodic, McCartney-esque vocals by Jackson. It builds sonically throughout with simple yet precise synth and piano motifs all while building towards the climatic double-bridge, which sandwiches the best guitar lead on the entire album. The song ends simply and elegantly, leaving the listener wanting for more (as every great rock song should).

Zebra followed up their debut with the 1984 album No Tellin’ Lies, which contains some brilliant moments but is not as solid as their debut. Their third album 3.V, released in 1986, was the most critically acclaimed of the three but arrived long after Zebra’s initial momentum had faded and the band was already doomed to be one of the greatest bands that nobody heard.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1983 albums.

1983 Images

 

She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper

Buy She’s So Unusual

She's So Unusual by Cyndi LauperOne of the most successful pop debuts ever, She’s So Unusual by New Yorker Cyndi Lauper, went on to spawn four top-five hits, a first for a debut album by a female artist. Released in late 1983, the album continued to chart and release singles through the mid 1980s and was an early peak of Lauper’s long sustained career. It was produced and recorded mainly by the team that fueled the later success for the Philadelphia band The Hooters, producer Rick Chertoff and musicians Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman. The material for the album was drawn from an abundance of sources, with each song having distinct composers which gave the album a diversity of song styles.

Lauper first had minimal success with the group Blue Angel, a new wave/pop band which was formed in 1978 and had released their only album in 1980. When that album sold poorly, many record execs lost interest in the band but Lauper’s dynamic vocals sparked some interest. She was signed to a subsidiary label of Epic records in 1982 and given a sizable budget and generous time to record at the famed Record Plant in New York City.

Aside from her two original compositions, Lauper herself did little more than sing on this album, as the material was developed through Chertoff and the production team using some cutting edge synthesizers and sequencing. Still, Lauper carries the day on She’s So Unusual with her incredible range (4 octaves), perfect pitch, and a unique mix of effervescent pop, sentimentality, and a bit of humor.


She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper
Released: October 14, 1983 (Portrait)
Produced by: Rick Chertoff & William Wittman.
Recorded: Record Plant, New York City, December 1982 – June 1983
Side One Side Two
Money Changes Everything
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
When You Were Mine
Time After Time
She Bop
All Through the Night
Witness
I’ll Kiss You
He’s So Unusual / Yeah Yeah
Primary Musicians
Cyndi Lauper – Lead Vocals
Rob Hyman – Keyboards, Melodica, Vocals
Eric Bazilian – Guitars, Bass, Saxophone, Vocals
Rick Chertoff – Percussion

A cover of a the 1978 song by The Brains called “Money Changes Everything” starts the album as a rocker with a straight 4/4 beat and a riff built on Hyman’s synthesizer. The song was released as a single in 1984, peaking at #27. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” fared much better on the charts. Written by Robert Hazard in 1979, the song was Lauper’s first major single and the one most associated with her throughout her career. It reached #2 on the pop charts but is most remembered for its inventive video, which was the product of a volunteer cast and the free loan of sophisticated video equipment and studio time donated by Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live, who had ties to Lauper’s manager.

A cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” follows, with a duet harmony through the verses of this pop ode to lost love. “Time After Time” was written in the studio by Rob Hyman and Lauper and was nominated for a Grammy Song of the Year. The song is melancholy and sweet, driven by a synth organ, a fat synth bass effect, some laid back guitars, and some inventive percussive effects using a harmonize, effects loop, and pitch-shift, programmed by Hyman. The ballad became Lauper’s first number one hit in America in early 1984 and reached the Top Ten in 15 countries.
 

 
The second side of She’s So Unusual starts with “She Bop”, co-written by producer Chertoff. This is a full-fledged new wave anthem which contains a neat “whistling” lead that trades licks with a more traditional synth sound for pure entertainment. Although the song was considered controversial, it reached number three on the pop charts. “All Through the Night” was written by folk singer Jules Shear and became the fourth single to reach the Top Five. A real highlight vocally and melodically for Lauper, the song is driven musically by Hyman’s synths and electronic rhythms, along with an interesting faux bagpipe during the lead. Lauper’s finest moment comes with the great vocal wailing during the song’s outro.

The ska-influenced “Witness” is a song written by Lauper and former Blue Angel band mate John Turi and features great bass riffing by Bazilian, which drives the song. Solid up to this point, the album does end weakly starting with the brain-drilling “I’ll Kiss You”, the worst song on the album. Next, comes a Betty-Boop like rendition of the 1920’s tune “He’s So Unusual”, complete with distorted piano and old record scratch effects, which oddly acts as an intro to synth-heavy closer “Yeah Yeah”, where Lauper ad-libs with weird vocal effects throughout.

She’s So Unusual sold over six million copies, won two Grammy Awards (out of six nominations), charted on the album Top Forty for sixty-five weeks, was critically acclaimed, and is still vastly entertaining 30 years later, making this a success of every level. Despite the release of fine material in subsequent years, Lauper simply could not maintain this level of popularity or consistency as with her debut.

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1983 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1983 albums.