Don't Look Back by Boston

Don’t Look Back by Boston

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Don't Look Back by BostonDon’t Look Back was the much anticipated second album by Boston. After the unprecedented success of the group’s debut album, the two year wait was considered a long gap between albums. Still, producer and composer Tom Scholz considered the album to be rushed and history has shown that this album fell far short of the debut (which, by the way, was our album of the year for 1976). Still, there are moments of brilliance dispersed through this album which are among the finest ever produced by Scholz. Further, Don’t Look Back did reach #1 on the album charts, achieving one benchmark that the debut did not (Boston peaked at number 3), even if overall sales through three and a half decades were only about a fifth of the incredible 17 million of the debut.

Due to the unprecedented record sales of Boston, the group went from a virtually unknown act to a major headliner in less than a year. In fact, Boston was the first and only band to make their New York debut at historic Madison Square Garden in 1977. The fusion of Scholz’s unique guitar sounds and vocalist Brad Delp‘s vocal abilities were a major draw to catch this rock “band” live. However, Boston was never really a true band but more a conscious effort to de-emphasize Scholz as the mastermind behind the music.

Despite their incredible success on all fronts through 1976 and 1977, Don’t Look Back was recorded in a tiny home studio built by Scholz (at the time he jokingly called Boston “the one multi-million-selling basement band that never left the basement”). For the most part, this album was recorded by three of the five members of the original band with guitarist Barry Goudreau only providing leads on a handful of tracks and bassist Fran Sheehan only partially playing on one. In the end, Don’t Look Back meets (and in some cases surpasses) the sonic quality of Boston’s dazzling debut, but most of its compositions tend to pale in comparison.


Don’t Look Back by Boston
Released: August 2, 1978 (Epic)
Produced by: Tom Scholz
Recorded: Hideaway Studio and Northern Studio, Massachusetts, 1977-78
Side One Side Two
Don’t Look Back
The Journey
It’s Easy
A Man I’ll Never Be
Feelin’ Satisfied
Party
Used to Bad News
Don’t Be Afraid
Primary Musicians
Brad Delp – All Vocals
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Percussion
Barry Goudreau – Guitars
Sib Hashian – Drums, Percussion

 

A few of the songs on Don’t Look Back, came from Scholz’s early seventies back catalog, including the title song “Don’t Look Back”, which became a Top 10 hit for the group. Led by the infectious, recurring guitar riff, which is an apt beginning for an album so dominated by guitar sounds, this song contains the most variation and development of any on the album. During the choruses Scholz’s layered riff builds, offering a new variation with each iteration and the climatic lead section, while Delp’s layered vocals are well formed and melodic throughout.

Next comes the sequence of “The Journey”/”It’s Easy”, which mimics the “Foreplay/Long Time” from the debut album (although that original was considered one track). “The Journey is a short sonic instrumental with Scholz repeating the same emotional riff, adding more dramatic effects each time until abruptly breaking into the full arrangement of “It’s Easy”. Lyrically, this song goes back to the philosophical realm of past songs like “Peace of Mind”, while leaning more towards a love song. Musically, it is pretty average with only the pre-chorus vocals providing any real highlight on the song.

A Man I'll Never Be singleCompleting the first side is “A Man I’ll Never Be”, the best song on Don’t Look Back. On its surface, this is built like a typical power ballad (even though those really weren’t that typical in 1978). But what makes this song special is the layered guitar riffs, which are some of the best ever – anywhere! Particularly impressive is the Scholz’s lead during the middle section which jumps from key to key in an impressive choir of guitar mastery. Nearly all the sonic candy provided by Scholz alone, with Delp adding rather low key vocals and drummer Sib Hashian sticking to a standard drum beat. Further, the sticky-sweet, trite lyrics keep this one from being a true masterpiece, while it certainly comes close. In the end all the great guitars give way to a majestic organ to bring the climax to an end before a very short piano outro closes the song. This piano was actually the only part of the entire album recorded in a “professional” recording studio, simply because Scholz could not fit one in his basement.

Boston in 1978

By all accounts, the second side of the album is where the weak spots lie and Scholz later conceded that only the first side of Don’t Look Back was truly completed. The best part of the upbeat “Feelin’ Satisfied” is a long riff-driven outro following the second verse. The next track “Party”, the weakest song on the album which sounds like a cheap filler to emulate the far superior “Smokin’” from Boston. A much better song is the moody yet melodic “Used to Bad News”, written solely by Delp. Here Scholz completely puts down the guitars to focus on the fine melodies of the Hammond organ. Delp fills in with a great acoustic (along with his vocal melodies) and Goudreau provides a short guitar lead before the organ returns for some fine riffing during the final verse. Although the shortest song on side two, “Used to Bad News” seems to pack in more quality than the other three combined. “Don’t Be Afraid” finishes things off, again offering sonic quality and vocal mastery with the added dynamics of some mean drumming by Hashian. Still, the composition itself is rather weak, making this an unsatisfying conclusion to what potentially could have been a much better album.

Boston went on another tour following Don’t Look Back, but management problems soon plagued the band. Further, Scholz refused to be hurried in producing Boston’s third album and CBS Records filed a lawsuit, alleging breach of contract. A long court battle ensued and that album, Third Stage took more than eight years until it was finally released at the end of 1986.

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1978 Images

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

Darkness On the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen

Darkness On the Edge of Town
by Bruce Springsteen

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Darkness On the Edge of Town by Bruce SpringsteenBruce Springsteen set out to make a rural influenced album with Darkness On the Edge of Town, the long awaited follow-up to his 1975 breakthrough, Born to Run. This album is what many consider as one of Bruce’s best albums. The album’s delay was caused mainly by a legal battle with former manager, Mike Appel,  over song rights and control, during which Springsteen toured extensively with the E Street Band, building group chemistry which carried over into the recordings. The album was produced by Springsteen, John Landau and guitarist Steve Van Zandt, with Landau being more a “formalist”, Van Zandt preferring more of a “garage” sound and Springsteen acting as arbitrator.

The songwriting sessions for Darkness On the Edge of Town were the most prolific of Springsteen’s career. He composed at least 70 songs and recorded a whopping 52 of those, either fully or partially. Some of the unused material became hits for other artists, such as “Because the Night” for Patti Smith, “Fire” for The Pointer Sisters, “Rendezvous” for Greg Kihn, and “This Little Girl” for Gary U.S. Bonds, while several others were held over for Springsteen’s next album, the double LP The River in 1980. Adding to Springsteen’s reputation for providing hits for other bands was Manfred Mann’s Earth Band #1 pop hit with a rearranged version of “Blinded by the Light” from his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.

Springsteen’s songs were inspired by such diverse influences as the new punk sound and his recent embrace of traditional country music. He later called this album an honest “reckoning with the adult world” and a reaction to his own good fortune. Unlike the escapism themes of Born To Run, the album pays tribute to the stability of small time life, through good times and bad. Musically and sonically, the album features the dynamic of the many players fighting for space within the limited sonic domain of this record, making it interesting and entertaining from end to end.


Darkness at the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen
Released: June 2, 1978 (Columbia)
Produced by: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, & Steve Van Zandt
Recorded: The Record Plant, New York, October 1977 – March 1978
Side One Side Two
Badlands
Adam Raised a Cain
Something In the Night
Candy’s Room
Racing In the Street
The Promised Land
Factory
Streets of Fire
Prove It All Night
Darkness On the Edge of Town
E Street Band
Bruce Springsteen – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica
Steve Van Zandt – Guitars, Vocals
Clarence Clemans – Saxophone, Vocals
Roy Bittan – Piano, Vocals
Danny Federici – Keyboards
Garry Tallent – Bass
Max Weinberg – Drums

Starting strong with “Badlands” which, aside from “Born to Run”, may be the quintessential Springsteen song, the album roars in full frenzy. The carnival-like, twinkly piano of Roy Bittan meshes nicely with the warm toned organ sounds of his counterpart Danny Federici, all beneath the stark and straight-forward chants of lyrics chronicling the revolving blue-collar life. Springsteen provides just enough hard rock guitar to make it respectable and Clarence Clemens plays a mean sax solo, although it does sound a little out of place with the mesh of the band vibe.

The dark but upbeat bluesy “Adam Raised a Cain” contains music with a simple drive while the vocal melodies are dynamic and interesting. Perhaps Springsteen’s strongest showing as a performer on Darkness On the Edge of Town, he displays much vocal range – from the laid back verses to the intense choruses to the screaming final verse. It also contains his most impressive guitar work with a fiery guitar lead. “Something In the Night” follows with a very interesting intro build-up to a song that is an anthem and a ballad all wrapped into one, with adventurous vocals and an infectious piano riff.

“Candy’s Room” sounds like it was influenced by Lou Reed, although Springsteen does actually sing a bit in this song. It is a real showcase for drummer Max Weinberg , who shows his enormous talent with a big drum sound. Lyrically, the song details a young man’s naïve love of the damaged Candy. The first side ends with “Racing In the Street”, a somber sequel to “Born to Run” influenced by the California sound of Jackson Browne. This much acclaimed, dirge-like ballad speaks of a man with dead end job with his only joy coming from driving his custom wheels.

The second side brings the mood back up with “The Promised Land”, returning to the pop formula. Clemens returns with another short sax solo, this time interrupted by Springsteen’s harmonica solo and there are even some backing “oohs” and “ahhs” during the third verse. The song’s title was inspired by a Chuck Berry song of the same title and the lyrics link to other songs on the album. The short but potent “Factory” depicts a numbing sort of working life, inspired by Springsteen’s own father who worked in a noisy factory which affected his hearing. “Streets of Fire” is very intense and melodramatic (almost too melodramatic) with Federici’s church-like organ setting the mood.

Prove It All Night singleWith a sax lead right off the top, “Prove It All Night” brings the mood right back, scoring the only Top 40 hit from Darkness On the Edge of Town. Bassist Garry Tallent adds the perfect counterpart to the melodic keyboards and new-fangled guitar lead by Springsteen. Building with drive and excitement to the climatic outro with wails of love and the surrendering of a women’s virtue. The album concludes with the powerful title song, which starts with a Motown inspired soul beat before it breaks into a full arrangement. “Darkness On the Edge of Town” serves as an inspired conclusion to the album of the same name, especially as it refrains from being whiny as some of Springsteen’s other “working class” songs.

Although not exactly a commercial hit, Darkness On the Edge of Town did remain on the charts for 97 weeks and has sold steadily enough over 35 years to reach triple-platinum status. The 1978 tour which followed has been considered one of legendary status for the intensity and length of its shows. In 2010, a triple CD box set The Promise featured 22 previously unreleased tracks from the Darkness sessions with some added production. But this still only scratches the surface of the incredible proliferation of Springsteen in 1977/78, as scores of those songs have yet to be officially released. If you are an aspiring talent or a singer, you can visit some reliable sites like runthemusic.com to help you improve more on music and also learn some musical instruments like piano, guitar, violin and cello as well.

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1978 Images

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

Parallel Lines by Blondie

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 recordings.


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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1978 Images

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

The Cars

The Cars

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The CarsQuite simply one of the best produced albums of the era, the 1978 self-titled debut album from The Cars was a unique sounding breakthrough which brought the group instant worldwide attention. This is due to the brilliant production by Roy Thomas Baker and the approachable compositions of group leader Ric Ocasek. Combined, these elements made for a potent mix of new wave cool and radio-friendly pop, which positioned The Cars as an unavoidable jewel to carry the day in the late seventies. The band would later jokingly refer to this as their “true greatest-hits album”, as just about all of the nine tracks have receive significant rotation on rock radio through the years.

Ocasek and bassist Benjamin Orr began performing as a duo in Columbus, Ohio before migrating to Boston in the early 1970s. There they joined with keyboardist Greg Hawkes, formed the folk band Milkwood, and released a 1973 album which failed to chart. After a few more Ocasek/Orr incarnations, including a jazz band, the group decided to go in a rock-oriented direction. Guitarist Elliot Easton and drummer David Robinson rounded out the quintet with Robinson coming up with the band’s simple name.

After a demo of the song “Just What I Needed” began getting heavy airplay on a Boston radio station, Elektra Records sent Baker across the ocean to scout the band. After seeing The Cars perform in a Boston school gymnasium, Baker instantly signed the group to a four album deal, all of which he would personally produce.


The Cars by The Cars
Released: June 14, 1978 (Elektra)
Produced by: Roy Thomas Baker
Recorded: AIR Studios, London, February 1978
Side One Side Two
Good Times Roll
My Best Friend’s Girl
Just What I Needed
I’m in Touch with Your World
Don’t Cha Stop
You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
Bye Bye Love
Moving In Stereo
All Mixed Up
Band Musicians
Ric Ocasek – Guitars, Lead Vocals
Benjamin Orr – Bass, Lead Vocals
Elliot Easton – Guitars, Vocals
Greg Hawkes – Keyboards, Saxophone, Vocals
David Robinson – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

The albums first three tracks each reached the Top 40 on the pop charts. “Good Times Roll” commences the album aptly with a slow-rocking guitar riff to draw in traditional rock fans while a full-fledged new wave band arrangement and production is attractive to fans on late 70s pop. Like many of the popular songs on the album, “Good Times Roll” is masterfully segmented with repeated choruses each containing different sonic elements – a guitar riff, a synth lead, chorus vocals, and creative counter-melodies. The song methodically sequences through musical passages on the journey to the song’s end. Ocasek’s lyrics and title are meant more as irony than a true pronouncement of celebration.

“My Best Friend’s Girl” follows with much of the same formula as “Good Times Roll”, building from a simple guitar riff to a full band arrangement. However, this song has more roots rock and blues elements than the opener, especially the cleanly picked guitar overdub and lead by Easton and the bouncy electric piano by Hawkes. While this recording pushes the song into new wave territory, it remains firmly a pop song with simple elements like handclaps and call-and-response vocal interplay. “Just What I Needed” may be the most purely new wave song on the album with spazzy guitars and square-wave synth lead. The only song on the first side which Orr sings instead of Ocasek, the song was the group’s first big hit regionally and internationally.

Aside from the cool but repetitive guitar riffing, “I’m in Touch with Your World” is really just a sound-effect-laden collage which tends to sound undercooked and a bit confused. Although not a terrible listen, the song is almost like an experimental piece which samples many synth-driven sound effects and uses other concise methods such as a saxophone solo that lasts all of five seconds. “Don’t Cha Stop” starts with a good guitar led verse which unfortunately gives way to the stale caricature of a chorus. Aside from drummer Robinson getting a chance to really wail on the drums, this side one closer one of the few tracks on the album which doesn’t hold up sonically three and a half decades later.

The flange-driven drum march of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, which later contains a few really good guitar jams. Beyond that, the song tends to lose steam as it gets repetitive during the body. Perhaps, the formula from side one goes a bit too far on this side two opener and by this point on the album Ocasek’s dry vocals seem to wear a little thin on the ears of the passive listener. Perhaps Baker had this in mind when sequencing the final three tracks which each feature Orr on lead vocals.

These final three also segue into each other, in an exhilarating mini-suite which may constitute the finest part of The Cars. “Bye Bye Love” is simply the best song on the album. A composition which dates back to the mid seventies, this tune has a driving rock energy and Orr not only handles lead vocals but also plays his best bass on the album. Aside from Orr, the song is a real showcase for Hawkes, who artfully uses the repetitive riffs between the verse lines with layered and building keyboard font which change with each iteration. A less in-your-face and more unassuming track than some of the more popular songs, “Bye Bye Love” starts and concludes with great energy with Easton’s brilliant guitar a head-banging, rudimentary rock riff.

The Cars, 1978

Hawkes co-wrote “Moving in Stereo”, making it the only song on the album not composed solely by Ocasek. A darker, theatrical, and more intense sonic experience which nearly lasts five minutes (a very long song for this album), the song carries a theme for audiophiles and stereo enthusiasts. Orr has a much smoother singer style which works well for this moody song and his bass is treated with an effects unit that doubles the bass line one octave higher. The closer “All Mixed Up” is the closest thing to a ballad on this album, with Orr singing in an almost folk-like method and with a higher range than anywhere else. While the song maintains some of the album’s new wave elements, it contains many other features such as some good faux synth orchestral horns, an actual saxophone, and a short, country-influenced guitar lead.

The Cars sold one million copies by the end of 1978 and remained on the charts for nearly three years. Although it only peaked at number 18, Billboard ranked it number 4 on their “Top Albums of the Year” countdown. Critically, the album has been labeled “a genuine rock masterpiece”. It launched a ten year charting career for the group which included several more hit albums and songs.

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1978 Images

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

52nd Street by Billy Joel

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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1978 Images

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

London Town by Wings

London Town by Wings

London Town by WingsAs the sixth overall album under the group name Wings, the 1978 album London Town is often overlooked as a great album by the Paul McCartney led band. But a great album this certainly is, despite the relative commercial disappointment at the time. Wings was coming off two number one albums in 1976 (the preceding studio album Wings at the Speed of Sound and the live album Wings Over America), as well as McCartney’s two biggest hit singles of his career. Decades later, London Town trumps all those in musical quality, richness and quantity, clocking in at over 50 minutes, near the physical upper limit for a single vinyl LP.

Sessions for the album began in February 1977 at Abbey Road Studios with initial plans for a release later that year. After Linda McCartney discovered that she was pregnant, the group nixed a planned tour and decided to move recording to moored on a yacht in the Virgin Islands called “Fair Carol” in May 1977. Several new songs were recorded in this unorthodox studio, including the songs “Mull of Kintyre” and “Girls’ School”, which were released as a single in August. To the surprise of everyone, “Mull of Kintyre” became the best selling British single of all time, replacing McCartney’s own 1963 Beatles’ song “She Loves You”. However, while the band was on break for Linda’s maternity, two members of Wings (guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English) departed, leaving just the McCartneys and lead guitarist Denny Laine as a trio.

With Laine promoted to the forefront, this is the most guitar-centric Wings album. Laine also performs lead vocals on two tracks, giving the album a group feel while keeping Paul McCartney firmly at the forefront. A very diverse album, London Town is an adventurous celebration of music itself, hopping from one contemporary genre to another, all grounded by the underlying rock riffs and rhythms provided by Laine and McCartney. The album also featured many state-of-the-art synthesizers, making it a very interesting listen.


London Town by Wings
Released: March 31, 1978 (Capitol)
Produced by: Paul McCartney
Recorded: Abbey Road and Air-London-Studios, London, Fair Carol (private yacht), Virgin Islands, February 1977-January 1978
Side One Side Two
London Town
Café On the Left Bank
I’m Carrying
Backwards Traveler / Cuff Link
Children, Children
GirlFriend
I’ve Had Enough
With a Little Luck
Famous Groupies
Deliver Your Children
Name and Address
Don’t Let It Bring You Down
Morse Moose and the Grey Goose
Band Musicians
Paul McCartney – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Violin, Drums, Percussion
Denny Laine – Guitars, Recorder, Percussion, Vocals
Linda McCartney – Keyboards, Vocals

The tremolo electric piano of the title song “London Town” sets the pace for this soft-rock classic opener. McCartney’s bouncy bass gives it a soulful edge that saves it from being too traditionally English and the singer works through some great vocal melodies and harmonies. Lyrically, the song is sort of a modern day “Penny Lane”, offering word motifs of an ordinary British street scene. That 1966 song was accented by the distinct piccolo trumpet while a dozen years later “London Town” is brought into greatness by Laine’s brief but potent electric guitars. The song became a Top 40 hit in the U.S.

Like a traveler through Europe, the album transports the listener from London to Paris with the more upbeat yet just as melodic tune “Cafe on the Left Bank”. This song is sonically superb with the mixture of Laine’s hard-edged riffing, Paul McCartney’s bass and Linda McCartney’s bouncy waltz-organ. The soft “I’m Carrying” is a mainly solo piece by McCartney, recorded on the yacht as just gently picked acoustic and vocals, “Yesterday” style. Some orchestral strings were later overdubbed in London along with McCartney adding an electric guitar using a Gizmo, a then-new device which allows a guitar to be played by vibrating the strings rather than plucking them. The medley of “Backwards Traveler” and “Cuff Link” may be one of the very few parts of the album which feel like filler. “Backwards Traveler” is a single verse and repeated chorus which lasts all of a minute before devolving into a synth-driven funk instrumental “Cuff Link”, which may have sounded hip in 1978 but sounds dated today.

Laine takes over lead vocals on “Children Children”, which almost has a Burl Ives feel at first, but does eventually rise to a pleasant folk/rock song. A fiddle part is added by Paul McCartney along with layered acoustics and a main keyboard riff. “Girlfriend” was written for Michael Jackson as a soul-style song at first intended just as a demo. The recording itself does have does have some interesting caveats such as the bridge with pop/rock elements including a heavy guitar lead by Laine and great bass throughout. Making yet another radical transformation, “I’ve Had Enough” is a pure rocker that almost sounds like a proto-punk, (or at the very least Kinks-like) cynical song. This side one closer never relents from the its rock vibe, which only intensifies with the guitar overdubs by Laine later in the song.

“With a Little Luck” returns to the soft pop/rock as a turn towards optimism. It contains a rich arrangement of synth and electric piano parts and passionate lyrics with McCartney repeatedly using terms like “exploding” and “rocketing” to explain the desired outcome of fate, no doubt metaphors for the music industry. During the final verse, his shredding voice wails in hopeful desperation. The middle synth and bass section (unfortunately omitted from the original single and most “Best of..” collections) is a real highlight of the song, with Linda McCartney showing some of her keyboard talents. The song hit number one in the United States and reached number 5 in the UK.

“Famous Groupies” is a marching sing-along about the taboo subject of “those magnificent examples of female pulchritude and luminosity”. The song’s ironic theme was allegedly inspired by Linda’s distain for some of the more outspoken “groupies” and is a very entertaining acoustic folk song with regal chorus and ascending verses in the vibe of Jethro Tull and multi-character aspect of old Genesis. The brilliant “Deliver Your Children” is the second and final song to feature Denny Laine on lead vocals (although McCartney does harmonize on almost every line). The verses are pure country rock, complete with acoustic lead riffs, while the chorus is more pop-oriented. Overall, “Deliver Your Children” is one of the most unique Wings songs and a truly under-appreciated gem despite some slightly trite lyrics.

Wings in 1978

While the album is downright brilliant through ten tracks, it tends to lose some steam during the final three. “Name and Address” is a tribute to Elvis Presley, who died the previous August, and is entertaining enough except a bit too stereotypical, like a Vegas lounge act of an Elvis impersonator. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is a bit better as a dark folksy, Scottish waltz by McCartney and Laine. Acoustic throughout with unique percussion, this moody tune contains a slight but potent electric guitar and a flute riff in the foreground. The closer “Morse Moose and the Grey Goose” seems like an attempt to end with a progressive-like mini suite but it seems to lack much substance to justify its six and a half minutes, While not a terrible or excruciating listen, the song is just an unfortunate closer for a very fine album.

London Town reached number two on the album charts, Wings’ first album since their 1971 debut Wild Life to not hit the top spot. Replacements for McCulloch and English were hired later in 1978 so the group could continue touring as a five-piece. Wings would release one more album in 1979 before McCartney settled into a multi-decade solo career, which continues to this day.

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1978 Images

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

But Seriously Folks by Joe Walsh

But Seriously, Folks by Joe Walsh

Buy But Seriously Folks

But Seriously Folks by Joe WalshJoe Walsh found his greatest solo success with But Seriously, Folks in 1978, although “solo” is used loosely here. The versatile rocker did have help from all four members of his (then) current band The Eagles as well as a prime member of his former backing group Barnstorm. In fact, some have called this “the album the Eagles should have made” because it was released at a time when the next Eagles album (eventually The Long Run) and Walsh’s leftover track “In the City” was eventually used on that band album. No matter how the credit gets dispersed, But Seriously Folks is an excellent and original album, methodically combining musical styles with top-of-the-line production techniques.

This was Walsh’s first studio album in four years after releasing three in consecutive years from 1972-1974. During that time, Walsh replaced Bernie Leadon as lead guitarist of the Eagles and recorded the blockbuster Hotel California with the band in 1976. When the band had trouble composing material for a timely follow-up, Walsh decided to do this solo album and enlisted producer Bill Szymczyk for the project.

Joining Walsh in this insightful and melodic collection is former Barnstorm drummer, keyboardist, and multi-instrumentalist Joe Vitale, who played a big part in forging the album’s song. Still, this is Walsh’s album through and through as elements from his James Gang, Barnstorm, and Eagles phases are fused with a contemporary sound to forge a truly unique collection of songs.


But Seriously, Folks by Joe Walsh
Released: May 16, 1978 (Asylum)
Produced by: Bill Szymczyk and Joe Walsh
Side One Side Two
Over and Over
Second Hand Store
Indian Summer
At the Station
Tomorrow
Inner Tube
Theme from Boat Weirdos
Life’s Been Good
Primary Musicians
Joe Walsh – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Don Felder – Guitars, Vocals
Jay Ferguson – Keyboards, Vocals
Willie Weeks – Bass
Joe Vitale – Drums, Percussion, Keyboards, Flute, Vocals

 

The opener “Over and Over” starts with measured, hat-heavy drums by Vitale accompanying Walsh’s deliberate, flanged, addictive guitar progression. When the song fully kicks in, it contains dramatic and effective riffs with melodic vocals pushed out through Walsh’s typical whine. Lyrically, Walsh takes an introspective outlook on rejuvenation, a pattern he would repeat throughout the album.

After the rock-oriented opener, the listener may be surprised by the two rather easy-listening tracks which follow. “Second Hand Store” has an Eagles-like country/waltz vibe with an acoustic backing and slide guitar by Eagle Don Felder on top, along with some piano and vocal harmonies. This all makes for a very melodic and moody song. Driven by high bass notes of Willie Weeks, “Indian Summer” is a mellow song which builds slowly and eventually, containing some orchestral instruments and the signature slide guitar of Walsh, in many ways making it the most James Gang-oriented song on the album.

Joe Walsh in1978

The first side completes with the fine “At the Station”, a true collaboration between Walsh and Vitale. This electric, upbeat and theatrical tune could easily be a theme for a film or television show. It is a mini-suite about mid-career indecision morphs from guitar riffs through an organ-led section with the drums smoking throughout to make it cohesive.

Side two begins with “Tomorrow”, almost a quintessential late seventies soft pop song laced with pleasantly strummed acoustic topped with sonically pleasing “squeezed” electric guitar and bouncy bass notes. Walsh gives way keyboardist Jay Ferguson who provides a fine organ lead which compliments the upbeat and optimistic lyrics. A couple of instrumentals fill the middle of the side. “Inner Tube” is a very short keyboard and piano piece which probably got its name from the “liquid” sounding synth that forms the backing for the piece and leads directly into “Theme from Boat Weirdos”. This semi-improvised rock jam is a collaboration among the cohesive backing band including producer Szymczyk. Although there are many fits and stops and the mood seems to constantly change from section to section, this piece still remains interesting and cohesive throughout with all kinds of instruments making cameos including several synths, clavichord, strings, synth bass and flute.

Life's Been Good by Joe Walsh singleThe finale, “Life’s Been Good” is a sarcastic ode to Walsh’s “rock star-party guy” persona and went on to become the highest charting song of his career. On this album, all roads lead to this song which is the ultimate culmination of everything on But Seriously, Folks. Put together with several semi-autonomous sections, with each section methodical yet interesting morphing from Walsh’s dominant layered guitars to a brilliant verse reggae to a mid section led by an ARP Odyssey synth. The very end of the song and album ends with a minute-long inside joke mimicking “a flock of wah wahs”. Before the release of this album, “Life’s Been Good” first appeared on the Grammy winning soundtrack to the film FM.

Walsh returned to the Eagles for their final studio album (for nearly three decades afterwards) and played a major role in recording 1979’s The Long Run. That band adopted “Life’s Been Good” during their final tour and, when Walsh ran a mock campaign for President in 1980, one of the planks of his platform was to make “Life’s Been Good” the new national anthem. After the Eagles broke up in 1980, Walsh continued his solo career with many more albums for decades to come.

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1978 Images

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

 

1988 Album of the Year

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1
by Traveling Wilburys

Buy Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1

1988 Album of the Year

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1“Super Groups” were commonplace during the seventies and eighties, often causing much hype which was rarely surpassed by the music itself. But in the case of the Traveling Wilburys, by far the most “super” of any super group, the resulting music was downright brilliant. Their debut Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 displays an incredible array of three decades of pop and rock elements wrapped in concise tunes penned and performed by some of the biggest legends in the business. The group and album were not initially planned and came together through a serendipitous series of coincidences and the fantastic music they produced together easily makes Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 Classic Rock Review’s Album of the Year for 1988.

It all started in Los Angeles in Spring 1988 when George Harrison was looking to record B-side material for a vinyl 12-inch European single. Jeff Lynne, who co-produced Harrison’s most recent album Cloud Nine was also in Los Angeles at the time. Lynne was producing some music for Roy Orbison as well as the debut solo album, Full Moon Fever by Tom Petty. Lynne was able to enlist both artists to help out Harrison, who was in a huge hurry to record his material. The final piece of the Traveling Wilbury puzzle was Bob Dylan, who had built a home studio in nearby Malibu and agreed to let the makeshift group record the very next day. On that day, the legendary musicians wrote and recorded the song “Handle with Care” in about five hours. The experience was so positive that all five agreed to form a group and reconvened a month later to record the other nine tracks on what would become Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. Here the magic continued as the group wrote and recorded on acoustic guitars. With a limited amount of time before Dylan headed out on a scheduled tour, the five singers in the group often took turns at songs until Harrison (as group arbiter) selected the best “lead” voice for each part. The final phase was Harrison and Lynne returning to England for final overdubs and production. Here Harrison added some electric and lead guitars, Lynne added keyboards and bass, Jim Keltner was brought in on drums.

Although it is generally agreed that Harrison was the group’s leader, they did work hard to maintain a collective image and even set up fictional names for each member masquerading as the “Wilbury” brothers – Nelson (Harrison), Otis (Lynne), Lucky (Dylan), Lefty (Orbison), and Charlie T. Jr. (Petty) with Keltner given the humorous “outsider” name “Buster Sidebury”. All group members also got songwriting credits on the album, although the publishing credits were disbursed according to the actual songwriter. The Wilbury name originated from Harrison and Lynne previously working together as a pseudonym for slight recording errors (“we’ll bury ’em in the mix”).


Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 by Traveling Wilburys
Released: October 18, 1988 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Jeff Lynne and George Harrison
Recorded: Lucky Studios and Dave Stewart Studios, Los Angeles and FPSHOT, London, April–May 1988
Side One Side Two
Handle with Care
Dirty World
Rattled
Last Night
Not Alone Anymore
Congratulations
Heading for the Light
Margarita
Tweeter and the Monkey Man
End of the Line
Band Musicians
George Harrison – Guitars, Vocals
Bob Dylan – Guitars, Harmonica, Vocals
Jeff Lynne – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Roy Orbison – Guitars, Vocals
Tom Petty – Guitars, Vocals
Jim Keltner – Drums

 

The ringing guitars of “Handle with Care”, the original Wilbury song, starts things off. Harrison, the primary composer, delivers deliberate vocalizing during the verses which gives way to Orbison’s smooth crooning during the choruses. Dylan and Petty deliver a chanting post-chorus and two instances of Harrison’s classic guitar along with a short Dylan harmonica lead make the song a true classic in just about every way. Within its brief three and a half minutes the song is dotted with decades of rock history, making this the perfect track to introduce the album. While not every song on the album wraps itself so well as “Handle with Care”, there is not a truly weak moment on the album.
 

 
On “Dirty World” Dylan’s rough lead vocals are complimented by smooth backing vocals and a bright acoustic arrangement. The song also contains some horns and an interesting arrangement all around. This song was a particularly enjoyable one for the band to record as each member took a turn singing in the “round” during the extended outro. Jeff Lynne’s “Rattled” is pure rockabilly led by Orbinson on vocals, almost like a lost early Elvis song. Lynne’s bass and Harrison’s lead guitar shine musically and the actual “rattle” in the song is drummer Keltner tapping the refrigerator grill with his drum sticks.

“Last Night” contains Caribbean elements with some percussion and horns and Petty singing during verse and Orbinson during the bridges. The whimsical, storytelling song has a great aura and feel throughout. Petty did the core composing with each group member contributing to the songwriting approach. The verses has an upbeat folk/Latin feel with the bridge being a bit more dramatic. The first side completes with “Not Alone Any More”, a vocal centerpiece for Orbison. His vocals smoothly lead a modern version of early sixties rock and Lynne’s keyboards add more decoration than any other song on the first side. If “Not Alone Anymore” is in the clouds, the second side opener “Congratulations” is right down at ground level. This tavern style ballad with Dylan on lead vocals sounds much like his late 70s / early 80s era material, with blues-like reverences to broken relationships, and includes a very short but great lead guitar by Harrison right at the end.

The up-tempo “Heading for the Light” is a quintessential Harrison/Lynne production, with the former Beatle composing and singing and the former ELO front man providing the lush production and orchestration. The song contains great picked guitar fills as well as a saxophone solo by Jim Horn. “Margarita” may be the oddest song on the album but is still a great sonic pleasure. It begins with a programmed eighties synth line then the long intro slowly works its way into a Latin acoustic section topped by horns, lead guitar, and rich vocal harmonies. It is not until a minute and a half in that Petty’s lead vocals come in for a single verse then the song works its ways through various short sections towards an encapsulated synth ending. This spontaneous composition with free-association lyrics showed with a group of this talent could do on the spot.

“Tweeter and the Monkey Man” is Bob Dylan channeling Bruce Springsteen and coming out with what may have been one of the best Springsteen songs ever (even though he had nothing to do with it). This extended song with the traditional Dylan style of oodles of verses and a theatrical chorus includes several references to Springsteen songs throughout and is in Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey. It may have been Dylan’s delayed response to the press repeatedly coining Bruce “the next Dylan”. No matter what the case, the result is an excellent tune with lyrics rich enough to base a book or movie.
 

 
The most perfect album closer to any album – ever, “End of the Line” contains a Johnny Cash-like train rhythm beneathe deeply philosophical lyrics, delivered in a light and upbeat fashion. Harrison, Lynne, Orbinson, and Harrison again provide the lead vocals during the chorus hooks while Petty does the intervening verses. The song revisits the classic music themes of survival and return with the universal message that, in the big picture, it all ends someday. The feeling of band unity is also strongest here with the folksy pop/rock chords and great harmonies. The music video for “End of the Line” was filmed after Roy Orbison’s death in December 1988, mere weeks after the album’s release, and paid tasteful respect with a shot of a guitar sitting in a rocking chair during the verse which Orbison sang.

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 sold over two million copies within its first six months, a figure which made this album a higher seller than any of Bob Dylan’s albums to that date. The album was critically favored and won a Grammy award in 1990. The surviving members of the group reconvened for a second album, which fell far short of capturing the magic of this debut and a long-planned tour by the group never materialized, although members continued to collaborate on each other’s albums for years to come. The incredible magic that came together in 1988 is yet to repeated anywhere in the rock universe.

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1988 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1988 albums and our album of the year for 1988.

 

Now and Zen by Robert Plant

Now and Zen by Robert Plant

Now and Zen by Robert PlantRobert Plant launched his post-Led Zeppelin solo career with two fine albums, Pictures at Eleven, in 1982 and, The Principle of Moments , in 1983. His career then got a little murky in the mid-1980s with the short-lived cover band The Honeydrippers and his bizzare third album Shaken and Stirred. His fourth album, 1988’s Now and Zen, was a career renaissance as the vocalist and songwriter once again found his groove in eighties pop. The album made the top 10 in both the U.S. and the U.K. and has been certified triple platinum. The album also featured Zeppelin band mate Jimmy Page who performed on a Plant solo album for the first time (a favor Plant would return later in the year on Page’s Outrider album).

Keyboardist Phil Johnstone co-produced and co-wrote most of the material with Plant. Johnstone was part of a whole new band that Plant employed for this album after pretty much using the same personnel on all of his first three albums. Plant discovered Johnstone and engineer Dave Barrett after hearing a demo tape by the pair.

The resulting sound is a stylistic fusion that seamlessly combines hard rock and guitar blues with the synth-driven pop of the eighties and the then-new computer synchronization techniques. Now and Zen is also a vocal masterpiece for Plant who strikes his “mature” voice better than on any other of his eighties material. Lyrically, Plant’s songs have substance, intelligence and taste, making this a solo career high point in that area as well.


Now and Zen by Robert Plant
Released: February 29, 1988 (Es Paranza)
Produced by: Robert Plant, Phil Johnstone, and Tim Palmer
Recorded: Autumn 1987
Side One Side Two
Heaven Knows
Dance On My Own
Tall Cool One
The Way I Feel
Helen of Troy
Billy’s Revenge
Ship of Fools
Why
White, Clean, and Neat
Primary Musicians
Robert Plant – Lead Vocals  |  Phil Johnstone – Keyboards, Synths
Doug Boyle – Guitars  |  Phil Scragg – Bass  |  Chris Blackwell – Drums, Percussion

 

“Heaven Knows” rolls in like a fast moving storm and immediately establishes the underlying groove of Now and Zen. The song is synth heavy, but not to the point of being ludicrous like on Shaken n’ Stirred, but does contain the first appearance by Page with a dramatic guitar solo. The song topped mainstream rock charts. “Dance On My Own” starts with slight background whistling and breaks into a call-and return verse between Plant and guitarist Doug Boyle which is almost like a cheerleading chant. Overall, this song draws from good elements of all three of Plant’s previous solo albums; interesting modern guitar riffs, unique “Zeppelin-light” lead vocals, and a pleasant female backing vocal chorus.

A sterile piano guides the sound collage-ridden “Tall Cool One”, which became the top pop hit off the album. The song was Plant and Page’s response to the Beastie Boys’ unauthorized sampling of Led Zeppelin material, by sampling their own music from Zeppelin tracks “Whole Lotta Love”, “The Ocean”, “Black Dog”, “Custard Pie”, and “When the Levee Breaks”. Aside from the group’s short reunion at Live Aid in 1985, this was the first time in Plant’s solo career that he openly embraced his former band. Otherwise, “Tall Cool One” is a rather typical pop song with some really corny moments when Johnstone does the bridge rap. “The Way I Feel” completes side one as the moodiest song on the side with great atmosphere by Boyle and Johnstone beneath Plant’s soaring vocals and a fretless bass by Phil Scragg.

Early on the second side of Now and Zen is really where Plant has his musical renaissance. “Helen of Troy” comes in like a near heavy-metal tune with layered guitars above a strong bass before breaking into more pop elements during the rest of the song. A funky, syncopated rhythm persists throughout the song under all those great guitars, the first of two most guitar-centric songs on the album. “Billy’s Revenge” follows with a do-wop intro and pure rock song afterwards. Aside from a couple of short but great synth organ sections by Johnstone, this song is otherwise dominated by Boyle’s guitar while Plant’s vocals reach their highest register on the album. The frantic song comes to a crashing end, leading into the third of three great songs.

Robert Plant 1988

“Ship of Fools” is one of Plant’s all time classics and a true testament to his best eighties style. It is the high water mark of the album in mood, vocals, lyrics and Boyle’s guitars are at their finest, probably an all-time career highlight for him. A slight synth percussion works best on the mood of this song and the subtle instrumental outro is done with great taste, leaving the listener yearning for more.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the album does not come close to the quality of these past three songs. “Why” was co-written by engineer Robert Crash, who programmed a cheesy synth riff that prevents the song from be taken seriously. The closer “White, Clean and Neat” brings the album’s quality up slightly as an original with almost beat-like poetry with good, measured guitar lines. But the corny bridge section with spoken lines that eerily echoes the worst of Shakin’ and Stirred, leaving the overall album just shy of great.

With the critical and commercial success of Now and Zen, Robert Plant was at a high point of his solo career. Also, he further embraced his Zeppelin past by performing songs from the band on his 1988 and subsequent tours, bring his live career a balance which it had lacked for years.

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

1988 Images

 

Copperhead Road by Steve Earle

Copperhead Road by Steve Earle

Copperhead Road by Steve EarleSteve Earle has always woven in and out of the outlaw country genre  exploring different sectors of musical territory. Back in 1988, Earle took his first major turn into what would eventually be called “Americana” with the album Copperhead Road. This hybrid of country twang and solid rock elements propelled the Texas native into an area all his own for decades to come. This album followed Earle’s first two releases, Guitar Town, in 1986 and Exit 0 in 1987, both of which had sold well and earned enthusiastic reviews within the country music scene. But Earle and Nashville soon tired of each other and the artist set out to make an album “where heavy metal meets bluegrass”.

Prior to signing with MCA Records, Earle had paid his debts in the music industry in Nashville and various locations in Texas. Starting in 1975, he spent over a decade as a songwriter, session player, band bassist and front man for his group “The Dukes”. Earle had a previous contract with Epic Records but was dropped after releasing just one EP called Pink and Black in 1982.

Copperhead Road contains a definite eighties production sound by producer Tony Brown. It employs a big drum sound and arena-influenced guitars, at times sounding more like Aerosmith or Guns n’ Roses than the country/rock sound of the contemporary “New Traditionalists”. Still, the songs’ roots shine through all the gloss and firepower. Beyond the songwriting and vocals, Earle is fluent array of instruments, including six and twelve string acoustic guitars, mandolin, and harmonica.


Copperhead Road by Steve Earle
Released: October 17, 1988 (MCA)
Produced by: Steve Earle and Tony Brown
Recorded: Memphis, 1988
Side One Side Two
Copperhead Road
Snake Oil
Back to the Wall
The Devil’s Right Hand
Johnny Come Lately
Even When I’m Blue
You Belong to Me
Waiting on You
Once You Love
Nothing but a Child
Primary Musicians
Steve Earle – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Mandolin, Harmonica  | Donny Roberts – Guitars
John Jarvis – Piano  | Kelly Looney – Bass  |  Ken Custer – Drums

 

The songs on side one of Copperhead Road reflect on Earle’s leftist politics. “Snake Oil” attacks then president Ronald Reagan, comparing him to a traveling con man. “Back to the Wall” is about poverty and homelessness and “The Devil’s Right Hand” is an anti-gun tune which tells the tale of a lonely gunslinger. “Johnny Comes Lately” has its roots in Earle’s anti-Vietnam activism as a young man. This tells the story of two generations of soldiers coming home from the war – one a veteran of World War II and his son, a veteran of the Vietnam War – and contrasts the differing receptions they received on returning home. This side one closer features the folk group The Pogues as Earle’s backing band.

Title track “Copperhead Road” was also the big hit single from the album. It starts with a bagpipe-sounding synth and then morphs into a mandolin-dominated opening verses before dramatically crashing into it’s loud “rock” sections later in the song. It tells the story of a Vietnam war veteran from a Tennessee moonshine clan who returns home to grow marijuana on his family’s land in order to make ends meet. The song has a anthemic feel throughout, making it one of Earle’s most memorable songs.
 

 
So is Earle primarily a musician or a political activist? Well, on side two of Copperhead Road, he pretty much abandons his preaching on social justice and rage against the establishment for more traditional, country-influenced “love” songs. “Even When I’m Blue” is a typical country theme, which deals with your typical love and life scenarios. “You Belong to Me” and “Once You Love” are honest and absorbing reflections of the heart of a dysfunctional romantic. The closer “Nothing But a Child” is a quasi-Christmas song which features guest Maria McKee on vocals and the group Telluride providing mandolin, dobro, and violins.

Following the release of Copperhead Road, Earle was compared to everyone from Bruce Springsteen to John Mellencamp to Randy Newman to Waylon Jennings. However, a combination of heroin abuse and troubles with the law halted his career in the 1990s and Earle never quite reached the level of those artists. However, by the end of the century Earle was back to form and released several more important albums through the 2000s.

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

1988 Images