Year of the Cat by Al Stewart

Buy Year of the Cat

Year of the Cat by Al StewartIt took Al Stewart more than a decade of grind and seven studio albums before it finally achieve a measure of mainstream success with the release of Year of the Cat in 1976. Here, Stewart fully realized his distinct style of composing about historic and exotic situations through an English folk-rock style which seamlessly incorporates elements of jazz, roots and reggae. The contributions of guitarist Peter White did much to help shape the musical vibes on this record.

Scottish by birth, Stewart grew up in England and got started as a folk singer in London coffeehouses in the mid 1960s, sharing the scene with contemporary players like Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Bert Jansch, and Roy Harper. He recorded his first single (“The Elf”) for Decca records in 1966, with some guitar work from Jimmy Page. Stewart later signed with Columbia Records and released six albums between 1967 and 1975. While Stewart’s popularity increased among his dedicated following, the modest sales led Columbia to drop him in 1975.

Year of the Cat was Stewart’s first album for RCA Records. Produced by Alan Parsons, the music and orchestration were written and recorded completely before before any lyrical themes or titles were developed for any of the songs. The title song itself, originally conceived in 1966, went through several iterations before it was completed.

CRR logo
Year of the Cat by Al Stewart
Released: July, 1976 (MCA)
Produced by: Alan Parsons
Recorded: Abbey Road Studios, London, January 1976
Side One Side Two
Lord Grenville
On the Border
Midas Shadow
Sand in Your Shoes
If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
Flying Sorcery
Broadway Hotel
One Stage Before
Year of the Cat
Primary Musicians
Al Stewart – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Peter White – Guitars
George Ford – Bass
Stuart Elliott – Drums, Percussion

 

For a hit album, Year of the Cat features a unique sequence of songs, commencing with a sad folk tune and finishing with it’s top hit. The album starts abruptly with the sad folk, hauntingly beautiful song “Lord Grenville”, which tells the tale of the 16th century doomed ship “The Revenge” from the point o view of the crew members. It features a very rich arrangement and orchestration with elegant guitar motifs by White and heartbreaking lyrics of accepting one’s ultimate fate. “On the Border” combines exotic storytelling, Spanish style flamenco guitars and a quasi-disco rhythm and beat. The lyric tells of smugglers during Rhodesia’s guerilla war earlier in the 1970s. “Midas Shadow” features a prominent electric piano along with a moderate jazz/rock feel, while the bright and upbeat “Sand in Your Shoes” features Caribbean rhythms paired with a Hammond organ and accordion.

The middle part of the album features an eclectic group of well-produced songs. “If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” is a solid rocker in the vein of the E Street Band and a very entertaining arrangement throughout, featuring a pair of great guitar leads along with animated piano and bass and fine drum fills. “Flying Sorcery” starts with a finger-picked acoustic intro but soon incorporates many styles with harmonica and slide guitar shining through and lyrics about heroic British pilot Amy Johnson, who died while ferrying supplies during World War II. “Broadway Hotel” has a darker feel as an acoustic waltz with some dramatic violin leads by Bobby Bruce, while “One Stage Before” is another dramatic, acoustic-based ballad which picks up mood a bit during the refrain.

Al Stewart, 1976

This all leads to the closing title song, “Year of the Cat”. A long and deliberative intro rotates through the piano of the verse and chorus in full before the Stewart’s vocals enter with poignant lyrics about a whirlwind relationship in an exotic locale. The song also features a long middle instrumental section where is abruptly but expertly morphs into various styles and motifs, taking turns between orchestration, a blistering guitar lead and a smooth saxophone by Phil Kenzie. The song reached The Top 10 on the US singles chart in early 1977, Stewart’s highest charting single to date.

Year of the Cat also reached the Top 10 as an album in the United States and Australia and it was certified platinum as a million-seller within a year of its release. Stewart’s commercial streak continued with the 1978 follow-up Time Passages and into the early 1980s.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

The Runaways

Buy The Runaways

The Runaways 1976 debutThe Southern California all-female teenage rock group The Runaways had a short and tumultuous career during the mid 1970s, a career which commenced with their 1976 self-title debut album. In spite of being recorded and released very shortly after the quartet was compiled and signed to a record deal, this album has long since been critically praised due to its raw power, originality and in-your-face lyrics about teenage angst, rule-breaking and sex.

The Runaways were formed in August 1975 by drummer Sandy West and guitarist Joan Jett. After being introduced to producer Kim Fowley, the group went through many rapid formations and lineup changes before adding lead guitarist Lita Ford. West and Ford were both big Deep Purple fans and formed a solid rock foundation along with Jett, who switched to rhythm guitar and began composing original music. Lead vocalist Cherie Currie was later recruited by Fowley (who intentionally forged a “jailbait” image for the group) after he spotted her at a local teen nightclub.

Early in 1976, The Runaways were signed to Mercury Records with Fowley staying on as producer for this debut album. Although bassist Jackie Fox was a member of the group at the time of recording, session musician Nigel Harrison was enlisted to play bass on the album, with Fox only contributing backing vocals on select tracks.

CRR logo
The Runaways by The Runaways
Released: June 1, 1976 (Mercury)
Produced by: Kim Fowley
Recorded: Fidelity Recorders & Criterion Studios, Los Angeles, 1976
Side One Side Two
Cherry Bomb
You Drive Me Wild
Is It Day or Night?
Thunder
Rock and Roll
Lovers
American Nights
Blackmail
Secrets
Dead End Justice
Group Musicians
Cherie Currie – Lead Vocals, Piano
Joan Jett – Rhythm Guitar, Vocals
Lita Ford – Lead Guitar
Sandy West – Drums, Vocals

The album’s opening track, “Cherry Bomb”, was written on the spot by Jett and Fowley as an audition song for Currie to sing during her first interaction with The Runaways. This short track is filled with lyrical innuendo from a teenage girl’s perspective with the simplest of rock riff motifs. Despite it’s make shift origins, the track persisted as one of the group’s most popular and it was later recorded by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts as well as Cherie and her sister Marie Currie. Jett takes lead vocals on “You Drive Me Wild”, another track with overt sexual references but with more bluesy, sloshy riffing than the opener.

“Is It Day or Night?” is interesting in how the choruses incorporate the verses with unusual rudiments, while “Thunder” enlists a new writing team who deliver a pretty standard rocker with pleasant vocal melodies. Next comes a cover of the Velvet Underground classic, “Rock and Roll”, with Jett and the group delivering great rendition which stands as a real highlight on this record.

The Runaways

The second side starts with the interesting composition, “Lovers”, highlighted by excellent drumming patterns by West and good lead vocals by Jett. This is followed by another solid rocker with good riffs and hook, called “American Nights”, which also features some decent piano by Currie. “Blackmail” uses retro, fifties-style rock motifs while maintaining a modern seventies rock edge, as “Secrets” teases lyrical intrigue as its title suggests. The extended closing suite is a duet between Jett and Currie featuring a long dramatic dialogue over the intense, marching drumming of West along with a couple of excellent guitar leads by Ford. “Dead End Justice” seals the record with an unexpected complexity to tie up the musical experience finely.

While far from a commercial success in 1976, The Runaways has long earned its place in rock history as a genre-smashing release. The band found itself on major tours in support of the record with headlining groups such as Cheap Trick, Van Halen and Talking Heads. However, tensions within the band escalated during the recording of their 1977 sophomore album, Queens of Noise, leading to the departure of Currie and Fox soon afterward.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

The Royal Scam by Steely Dan

Buy The Royal Scam

The Royal Scam by Steely DanWe’ve all heard of the genre called “outlaw country”. But with Steely Dan‘s 1976 fifth studio album, The Royal Scam, the group put forth a collection of songs that may be labeled “outlaw fusion jazz”. With allusions to characters both fictional and contemporary, many lyrical themes focus on darker subjects such as crime, homelessness, drug dealing, divorce, the loss of innocence, and other general bad faith “scams”. Musically, this album features more prominent guitar work than most Steely Dan releases, led by band co-member Walter Becker and session guitarist Larry Carlton, who delivers some of his finest performances on this record.

Steely Dan began as a tradition rock group but following their early success, Becker and lead vocalist/keyboardist Donald Fagen wanted to tour less and concentrate on composing and recording. Following their tour in support of Pretzel Logic in 1974, Steely Dan ceased live performances all together. Eventually the other members departed, with group founder and guitarist Denny Dias staying on in more of session role for later albums while Becker and Fagen recruited a diverse group of other session players starting with the 1975 release Katy Lied including Carlton and backing vocalist Michael McDonald.

With the sessions for The Royal Scam, the group brought in funk/R&B drummer Bernard Purdie for most tracks as Becker and Fagen strived for amore rhythmic sound. The album was produced by Gary Katz and it’s cover features artwork originally for and unreleased 1975 album by Van Morrison.

 

CRR logo
The Royal Scam by Steely Dan
Released: May 31, 1976 (ABC)
Produced by: Gary Katz
Recorded: ABC Studios, Los Angeles; A&R Studios, New York; November 1975–March 1976
Studio
Side One Side Two
Kid Charlemagne
The Caves of Altamira
Don’t Take Me Alive
Sign In Stranger
The Fez
Green Earrings
Haitian Divorce
Everything You Did
The Royal Scam
Primary Musicians
Donald Fagen – Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Walter Becker – Guitars, Bass, String Arrangements
Larry Carlton – Lead Guitars
Denny Dias – Guitars
Bernard Purdie – Drums

 

The album begins with its best overall tune and, really one of the most musically rewarding songs by Steely Dan, “Kid Charlemagne”. This track is built on a catchy clavichord which works perfectly in the cracks between the vocal phrases and rhythm provided by Purdie and session bassist Chuck Rainey, But the most rewarding moments here are are dual leads by Carlton, blending elements of rock, funk and jazz with not a single note less than excellent. “The Caves of Altamira” follows as a jazz/pop with more fine rhythms and featuring a rich horn section, climaxing with the tenor sax of John Klemmer. The lyrics refer to cave paintings in Spain created by Neanderthals, proving early man’s call to be creative and expressive.

Carlton’s heavily distorted and snarling guitar works into a full intro lead for “Don’t Take Me Alive”, another track that explores the criminal edge lyrically. However, this track has an overall feel of 1980’s AOR rock, which really shows Steely Dan’s forward-looking approach to compositions. “Sign In Stranger” changes pace as a piano-dominated piece led by Paul Griffin who provides most of the musical movement and a great lead section. Griffin also co-wrote “The Fez” along with Becker and Fagen, a track that starts with slow and moody piano but soon falls into a perfect 70s funk rhythm with some disco-era, over-the-top synth strings on top.

Steely Dan group In studio

The record’s second side picks up pretty much where the first ended, with the funk-laden “Green Earrings”, with Purdie providing great drumming throughout and lyrics about a jewel thief who feels no remorse. Next Becker and session man Dean Parks provide the signature talk-box effect on “Haitian Divorce” before Carlton returns for the slow and sloshy rocker, “Everything You Did”. The album’s closing, extended title tune is dark and monotone, with its repeated pattern of multiple verses by Fagen cut by short instrumental flourishes and a lyric about the plight of an immigrant in New York City.

While The Royal Scam reached the Top 20 on the album charts and went gold in sales, it is often panned as a critical and commercial disappointment, especially in comparison to Steely Dan’s follow-up masterpiece record Aja in 1977. However, Fagen and Becker have cited this 1976 album as the point where Steely Dan really distilled themselves into their “perfect form”.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

Station to Station by David Bowie

Buy Station to Station

Station to Station by David BowieHis tenth overall studio album, Station to Station was a transitional album for David Bowie. Musically, this 1976 album seamlessly bridges the gap between the glam rock of Bowie’s early 1970s work, the Soul sound he explored in the middle of the decade, and the experimental, synth-driven “krautrock” works to come later in the decade. This was also one of the last album’s where Bowie employed a musical alter ego with “The Thin White Duke” persona.

Bowie had moved to the United States in 1974, first to New York, after he completed recording Diamond Dogs. The following year, Bowie recorded the soul-influenced Young Americans in Philadelphia. This album spawned Bowie’s first number one hit with “Fame”, co-written by John Lennon, and elevated Bowie to becoming a worldwide pop superstar. Not all was well, however, as Bowie had major financial issues with his manager and developed a significant cocaine habit.

Station to Station was recorded after Bowie migrated to Los Angeles and completed the film “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. Recorded in late 1975, the album was co-produced by Harry Maslin and featured guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had worked on the previous Young Americans. Seven songs were recorded during the sessions, with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” being ultimately omitted from the six-track album.

 

CRR logo
Station to Station by David Bowie
Released: January 23, 1976 (RCA)
Produced by: David Bowie & Harry Maslin
Recorded: Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles, September-November 1975
Side One Side Two
Station to Station
Golden Years
Word on a Wing
TVC 15
Stay
Wild Is the Wind
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Saxophone
Carlos Alomar – Guitars
Roy Bittan – Piano
George Murray – Bass
Dennis Davis – Drums

 

The album opens with the extended title song, “Station to Station”, which was the longest song Bowie had recorded to date at over ten minutes long. A long and methodical intro introduces the track before any vocals arrive for the first of two distinct parts. Shortly after the song’s five minute mark, the song picks up the pace which makes it feel more like a theatrical number.  It is rhythmically built with the bouncy bass of George Murray and the good, animated, disco-influenced drums Dennis Davis throughout the song. “Golden Years” is the closest to a pure pop song on the album, built on moderate funk groove with reserved backing hook, giving the vocals space for assertion. This repetitive but entertaining track was originally released as a single in late 1975 and it peaked in the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic in early 1976.

“Word on a Wing” is an exquisite, upbeat ballad, driven by the piano of Roy Bittan. Here Bowie’s lyrics and vocal delivery are delivered with a desperate passion throughout in a quasi-religious song written out of a drug-fueled spiritual despair which Bowie later described as the darkest days of his life. “TVC 15” comes from another side of the drug experience, when fellow rocker Iggy Pop hallucinated that the television set was swallowing his girlfriend. Musically, this interesting and entertaining track is built off Bittan’s bouncy, boogie-woogie piano, later breaking into a straight-forward disco/rock during the verses with nice vocal effects and atmosphere like a rock carnival throughout.

David Bowie in 1976

“Stay” commences with Alomar’s funky/blues guitar lead in an excellent, methodical rock lead-in. The rest of the track is a very inventive gem with funky bass and heavy rock guitars over a steady beat and multiple styles of vocals throughout. The album conclude’s with its sole cover, the pleasant ballad with layered guitars and seventies production, “Wild Is the Wind”. Originally recorded by Johnny Mathis, this track caught Bowie’s attention when recorded by Nina Simone, and his own vocal interpretation been praised through the years.

Station to Station reached #3 on the Billboard Album charts and would be David Bowie’s highest-charting album in the US for nearly four decades. Bowie later cited this album along with its 1977 follow-up, Low, as two of his finest works.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

Rainbow Rising

Buy Rising

Rainbow RisingRainbow returned with a revamped lineup and fresh approach for the group’s second studio album, Rising. The record is comprised of six solid compositions which are comparable to the material the band had done before with dynamic and tight performances. The quintet started as a project by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore after he departed from that group because he was unhappy with the stylistic direction of the group on their 1974 albums, which drifted towards funk rock and away from the band’s signature hard rock.

Blackmore established Rainbow when he joined with the American rock band, Elf, in 1975. Blackmore wanted to record some material that was rejected by Deep Purple members and he enlisted Elf vocalist Ronnie James Dio who in turn suggested his band mates to back up on the recordings. Soon, this project turned into the album Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, with the album name (and ultimately the band name) inspired by the famous Rainbow Bar and Grill in Hollywood, CA. However, Blackmore was unhappy about the live performances of many in the Elf line-up and he fired everybody except Dio.

Keyboardist Tony Carey, bassist Jimmy Bain, and drummer Cozy Powell were recruited to complete this second incarnation of Rainbow. Further, Blackmore began constructing interesting chord progressions, inspired by his new found interest in playing cello and composing material with Dio supplying mythical lyrics. Rising was recorded in less than month in Munich, Germany with producer Martin Birch in early 1976.

 

CRR logo
Rising by Rainbow
Released: May 17, 1976 (Polydor)
Produced by: Martin Birch
Recorded: Musicland Studios, Munich, Germany, February 1976
Side One Side Two
Tarot Woman
Run with the Wolf
Starstruck
Do You Close Your Eyes
Stargazer
Light In the Black
Primary Musicians
Ronnie James Dio – Lead Vocals
Ritchie Blackmore – Guitars
Tony Carey – Keyboards
Jimmy Bain – Bass
Cozy Powell – Drums

 

From the jump, the sound of this album features sonic elements which are beyond its time. “Tarot Woman” starts with a long, wild synth intro by Carey, which sets a dramatic stage before Blackmore’s guitar riff gradually fades into the song proper. This opening track has a definitive Deep Purple quality especially during Blackmore’s soaring guitar lead. “Run with the Wolf” settles into a more conventional rock sound, still employing dramatic and satisfying overtones, but much more compact and succinct in its delivery.

“Starstruck” follows as the best overall rocker on the first side, based on classic heavy blues rock constructs and the rollicking rhythms by Bain and Powell and an excited melody by Dio, whose vocals soar and shout with great emotion. The most ordinary song on the album, “Do You Close Your Eyes” is a pretty standard hard rock song in the vein of mid seventies contemporaries like Kiss, and it does suffer slightly from compositional underdevelopment and sonic overproduction.

rainbow in 1976

The album’s second side features two extended tracks, each with a duration of over eight minutes. “Stargazer” is the epic track from Rising, starting with an interesting and inventive drum intro and working its way through several slow but powerful sections, with potent lead vocals by Dio and fantastic lead trade-offs by Blackmore and Carey. The song features mystical lyrics which tell the fable of a wizard who builds a tower from which to fly only for him to fall and die like any mortal man and includes a contribution by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. The rudiment-filled hard rocker “A Light in the Black” completes the album and sets a template for the future sounds of groups like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. This closer is highlighted by an incredible instrumental section with multiple keyboard and guitar leads.

Rising did well on the UK charts but not quite as well in the US. However, the influence of this album would reverberate for decades and it is considered by many to be Rainbow’s best overall album. Rainbow continued with several more albums through various lineups in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The biggest change occurred when Dio left Rainbow in 1979, briefly replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath shortly afterwards. Ultimately, Blackmore would rejoin the classic Deep Purple lineup for the 1984 album Perfect Strangers and Rainbow disbanded in April of that year.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

Fly Like An Eagle by
Steve Miller Band

Buy Fly Like An Eagle

Fly Like an Eagle by Steve Miller BandWith his ninth studio release, Steve Miller struck commercial gold in the quadruple platinum selling 1976 album, Fly Like An Eagle. The music on the album moves through phases of psychedelic-folk, acid-blues, soul, blue grass and other types of roots genres, while the lyrical melodies and hooks help to maintain a pop-centric sensibility which results in a very accessible, catchy and easy listen throughout.

Miller formed the Steve Miller Band in San Francisco in the late 1960s as a psychedelic/blues group and soon negotiated a fairly lucrative five album deal with Capitol/EMI in 1967. Those five albums were recorded and released within a relatively short period of time (1968-1971) to mixed commercial success. The better tracks from these five were rolled into the 1972 double album compilation, Anthology. The following year, the group went through a major change in personnel as well as musical approach for the chart-topping album The Joker.

As producer of Fly Like An Eagle, Miller entered the studio in 1975 with bassist Lonnie Turner and drummer Gary Mallaber and ultimately recorded enough material for a double length LP. Miller instead opted to release two single albums concurrently, with Book of Dreams following a year later in May 1977.

 


Fly Like An Eagle by Steve Miller Band
Released: May 20, 1976 (Capital)
Produced by: Steve Miller
Recorded: CBS Studios, San Francisco, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Space Intro
Fly Like an Eagle
Wild Mountain Honey
Serenade
Dance, Dance, Dance
Mercury Blues
Take the Money and Run
Rock n’ Me
You Send Me
Blue Odyssey
Sweet Maree
The Window
Primary Musicians
Steve Miller – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Lonnie Turner – Bass
Gary Mallaber – Drums, Percussion

 

Miller’s synth arpeggios using an ARP Odyssey machine set the mood for the title track, “Fly Like an Eagle”. Slow and soulful, the track musically features Miller’s slightly funky intro guitar riff and the choppy Hammond B3 organ by Joachim Young. Miller’s lead vocals and hook carry this Top 5 song best with a soaring sensation to match the song’s title and the slightest recurring synths for effect. Written by Steve McCarty, “Wild Mountain Honey” enters from the dissolve of a previous track as a psychedelic folk song with Eastern influence. A synth lead over subtle percussion, with the slightest flavoring of sitar. this song is a bit elongated to absorb the full vibe and complete this smooth but psychedelic opening sequence.

“Serenade” is a transition tune, as an adventurous, driving strummed folk/rock song with harmonized vocals throughout, which works to ease the album’s sound down towards the roots music to follow. On “Dance, Dance, Dance”, the album takes a radical turn away from the mid-seventies space/pop towards a pure blue grass diddy with multiple acoustic instrument textures. This track was co-written by Joseph and Brenda Cooper and features an authentic lead dobro by John McFee as the musical highlight of this hoe-down. The cover of the 1940s song “Mercury Blues” follows and is delivered in an effective way which maintains its original R&B feel while subtly adding mid-seventies rock elements. The popular “Take the Money and Run” commences side two by continuing the “down home” sequence. An anthem for the slacker outlaw, this catchy and upbeat tune features slight chanting lyrics and excellent drumming by Mallaber throughout, with Miller delivering a thick and chorded guitar which works with the sharp and dynamic beats.

Steve Miller Band in 1970s

The aptly titled pure pop/rocker “Rock n’ Me” flew to the top of the charts as an inversion of Free’s earlier hit “All Right Now”. The rock guitar riff sets the edge before the song proper utilizes deadened classic rock chord patterns all under the exceptional vocal melodies and a traditional tourist effect lyric, which names several American cities along the way. After a forgettable rendition of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”, the album recovers with a couple of interesting tracks. “Sweet Maree” is an authentic acoustic blues with a wild harmonica by James Cotton. This song keeps a very basic arrangement through several distinct sections with only some fine electric blues guitar and slight tambourine percussion joining the ever-present acoustic and harmonica. The closing track, “The Window”, slowly swells into a soulful organ/acoustic groove with sonic textures similar to the title song, book-ending the album in a fine, consistent way.

Fly Like An Eagle was a hit worldwide, peaking at #3 in Miller’s native USA. The following year’s Book of Dreams was a similar success, making the mid-to-late seventies the most successful phase of Miller’s long career.

~

1976 Images

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

 

Agents of Fortune by
Blue Oyster Cult

Buy Agents of Fortune

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Blue Oyster Cult in1976

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

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

~

1976 Images

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

 

Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy

Buy Jailbreak

Jailbreak by Thin LizzyAfter a long musical journey which included style shifts, various lineup changes and five less-than-commercially successful albums, Thin Lizzy finally broke through in 1976 with Jailbreak. This quasi-concept record has an overlying theme about a figure simply known as “The Warrior” breaking away from the despotic “Overmaster” to lead the oppressed masses in a dystopian-shattering revolution. But the real beauty of this album is tilted far more towards its sound than its lyrics, as Thin Lizzy had fully mastered the the crisp, harmonized guitar attack with much rhythmic movement to complement the distinctive, barked-out lead vocals of composer and front-man Phil Lynott.

Thin Lizzy was founded in Dublin in 1969 when Lynott and drummer Brian Downey left their group Orphanage to form a new band with musicians formally from the band Them. In 1971, the group relocated to London but the musical style remained distinctly Celtic with lyrics strongly referencing Dublin and surrounding areas. In 1972, Thin Lizzy’s version of a traditional Irish ballad, “Whiskey in the Jar” was a smash hit in their native Ireland and reached the Top 10 in the UK. However, album sales did not follow suit and after, the departures of several guitarists, Lynott decided to morph the group’s sound towards harder rock and recruited Scott Gorham and then-18-year-old Brian Robertson for a double lead-guitar attack starting with the 1975 album, Fighting.

However, the record label was growing impatient with lackluster sales and gave Thin Lizzy one final chance to produce a commercially successful album. With producer John Alcock, the band extensively composed, rehearsed and recorded tracks over the winter of 1975-76, developing a tight arrangement on each of Jailbreak‘s nine track.

 


Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy
Released: March 26, 1976 (Vertigo)
Produced by: John Alcock
Recorded: Ramport Studios, London, December 1975–February 1976
Side One Side Two
Jailbreak
Angel From the Coast
Running Back
Romeo and the Lonely Girl
Warriors
The Boys Are Back in Town
Fight or Fall
Cowboy Song
Emerald
Group Musicians
Phil Lynott – Lead Vocals, Bass
Scott Gorham – Guitars
Brian Robertson – Guitars
Brian Downey – Drums, Percussion

 

The opening title track, “Jailbreak”, is a pure hard rock song of action with timeless theme of escape. It musically builds tension a bit during verses, setting up a satisfying chorus release, and contains other cool distinctions ranging from the corny alarm section under the bridge to the cool lyrical nod to Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail”. Co-written by Robertson, “Angel From the Coast” picks up where the opener left off and accelerates with much movement in the hyper-funk lead riff and rhythm. This song features exceptional drumming by Downey with great rudiments throughout by the entire band and the soaring, harmonized lead precedes a rapid funk chord effect by the two guitars in an extended bridge jam.

“Running Back” was the album’s most controversial track, internally. Intended as the lead single from the album, Lynott and Alcock brought in session keyboardist Tim Hinkley to add more “pop” elements. This was done against the objections of Robertson, who had played a large role in the original arrangement, including his own additions of piano and bottleneck guitar, and Robertson ultimately did not play on the album version of this song. Although a bit tacky lyrically, “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” features a pleasant music mix with acoustic backing the blues/jazz electric guitar, animated drums and a later piercing guitar lead. The dramatic “Warriors” was co-written by Gorham and is the hardest rocker on the album, employing some mid seventies-style heavy metal with just a tad of punk, adding to the overall sonic diversity of the album.

Thin Lizzy in 1976

The original second side of Jailbreak is where the true musical gems are found. “The Boys Are Back in Town” is, by far, the most distinctive Thin Lizzy song. It features interesting chord progressions during the verses, a brilliantly simple chorus hook and one of the most indelible rock riffs ever put to record as Gorham and Robertson perfectly harmonize their guitars during the post-chorus breaks. Lyrically, the song originated as a tribute to a returning vet from Vietnam but later morphed as a sort of party anthem dedicated to any number of traveling heroes. Although the song was not a tremendous charting hit upon its original release, it has been used countless times at sporting events, in movies, on television and as a permanent fixture on classic rock radio all over the world. In contrast to the preceding popular upbeat number, “Fight Or Fall” is quite mellow and laid back with acoustic guitar and subtle electric overtones, but with a still steady and upbeat rhythm by Lynott and Downey. This fine track is divided by slight rudimentary breaks between the verses and features a bit of American soul added to the ending section.

“Cowboy Song” starts as a subtle, Western ballad with Lynott’s bass imitating a trotting horse. But soon breaks into a riff-driven hard rocker, especially with the infectious riff which builds to triple harmonized guitars, post lead section. The final verse cools with just bass and drums, before this all explodes into a blistering, blues/rock guitar lead later in the song. The album concludes with “Emerald”, a strong rocker in tribute to Irish heritage and one more thematic “fight” against invaders, with dueling guitars to nicely symbolize the battle and rebellion. This closing track is also notable as the only composition on this album credited to all four band members.

Jailbreak was the group’s first Gold album and it set them up for subsequent success in the years that followed. However, a bit of the commercial tailcoats were severed when both Lynott and Robertson suffered ailments and injuries which caused large parts of the 1976 tours to be cancelled and expedited the production of the group’s follow-up album, Johnny the Fox.

~

1976 Images

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

 

Compilations and Box Sets

Beatles official stereo collection

 
Ever since the beginning of the rock era, there have been compilations. As we mentioned in our very first special feature on The Album, long playing vinyl albums were simply a collection of songs, maximized for sales potential, and were rarely a cohesive or artistic statement. Once the “classic era” albums come into prominence in the mid to late sixties, “Greatest Hits” or “Best of” collections stepped in to supplement regular album releases as well as reach out to audience segments who only wished to “sample” a certain artist’s output.

Other such sales tools, such as rarities or B-side collections, targeted the most enthusiastic of existing fans but at time have gained significant popularity. In some cases, greatest hits collections were continued as an artist’s career went along. Bob Dylan had three sequential compilation. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, released in March 1967, contains some of the most famous songs from Dylan’s formative years. In 1971 the double LP Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume II contained some songs from the interim years along with more from the early years and nearly a side of previously unreleased material. More than two decades later, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume III encompassed all his recordings released between the years 1973 and 1991. The Eagles released a couple of sequential “Greatest Hits” collections with their 1976 compilation Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 1 going on to become the top selling album of the 20th century.

Box Sets

Usually made up of three or more discs boxes, box sets came of age in the 1980s with the media migration from vinyl LPs to compact discs. Artists with long and successful careers would release anthologies which often included rare or previously unreleased tracks along with the typical collection of singles and radio hits. There have been rare cases where a box set contained all new and original material. Led Zeppelin’s initial 1990 Box Set became the first to become a best seller on the albums chart.

Around the turn of the century, some box sets became multimedia collections. These included DVD videos, mp3 discs, or other related items to enhance the collection

Compilations in 1988

With our current look at the rock year 1988, Classic Rock Review will also focus on the compilations and box sets released during that year, a rich year for these items.

Past Masters 1 by The BeatlesReleased on March 7, 1988 to coincide with the official CD debut of Beatles album catalogue, Past Masters is a two-volume compilation set. This collection consisted of many of the band’s non-album singles and B-sides, focusing on tracks not available on The Beatles’ original U.K. albums. These also included rarities such as the UK-only Long Tall Sally EP, two German language tracks, and a couple of songs recorded for charity compilation albums. An all-mono compilation titled Mono Masters was also produced for the most die-hard collectors.

20 Years of Jethro Tull was released on June 27, 1988 was issued as five themed LPs named; Radio Archives, Rare Tracks, Flawed Gems, Other Sides of Tull, and The Essential Tull. Eric Clapton's CrossroadsIt was also simultaneously released as a three CD set and a five-cassette set, with each coming with a 24-page booklet.

Released in April 1988, Eric Clapton’s Crossroads includes highlights from his work with vast musical groups. These include The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Derek & the Dominos, and his long solo career. The collection was released as setsof four CDs or six LPs and it includes several live and alternate studio recordings which were previously unreleased.

Two compilations were released on November 15, 1988. After shocking the world with their recent breakup, Journey released Greatest Hits, which ultimately became the band’s best-selling album by selling over 25 million copies and it spent over 760 weeks on the pop album charts, more than any other compilation album in history. Smashes, Thrashes & Hits was actually the third “hits” album released by Kiss. With most tracks coming from their heyday in the seventies, this album also included two new songs.

In subsequent years and decades, artists brought the box set concept to the extreme with full collections being released. But by the time mp3s and other digital formats became the dominant media, user-driven custom compilations were the order of the day.

~

Ric Albano

Boston

Review of Boston

1976 Album of the Year

Boston 1976 debut albumAlthough portrayed as a true “band”, Boston was really pretty much a solo project by engineer Tom Scholz. An M.I.T. graduate then working for Polaroid, Sholz built a home studio in Massachusetts in the early 1970s and began experimenting with innovative sounds and developing songs. Sholz formed a band called Mother’s Milk with singer Brad Delp and guitarist Barry Goudreau , but was soon unsatisfied with the live sound and disbanded the band in order to concentrate on the studio work (although Delp continued as the primary vocalist). A perfectionist, Scholz worked on the demos for about seven years, frequently submitting tapes to record labels only to be rejected. Finally, in 1975 Sholz got the attention of Epic Records who signed Sholz and Delp under a few conditions. They had to perform a live audition, which meant that a full band had to be assembled. Also, Epic refused Sholz’s request to use his demo tapes from home, insisting that all material come from a “professional studio”. It appeared the entire album had to be re-recorded and seven years of work scrapped.

However, Scholz found an ally in producer John Boylan, who had the makeshift “band” doing sessions at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles while Sholz was back in Massachusetts finalizing his demos and transferring them to a professional, 24-track format. It was a very elaborate (and Expensive) diversion, but in the end it was well worth it. Aside from Delp’s vocals and most of the drum tracks, very little of the recordings from Capitol Studios was used in the final mix of the Boston album, which is all the more incredible when you consider the absolutely innovative nature of the album’s sound.

Arriving in August 1976, Boston resurrected the classic rock format which seemed to be giving way to the new, divergent genres of punk rock and disco. Scholz’s innovative use of self-designed equipment would be reproduced and replicated throughout the subsequent years, especially the 1980s. While the fusion of hard rock with delicate motifs and layered melodies and harmonics had been done in the past by artists like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Yes, and The James Gang, it was mastered by Boston.

CRR logo
Boston by Boston
Released: August 25, 1976 (Kirshner)
Produced by: John Boylan & Tom Scholz
Recorded: Foxglove Studios, Watertown, MA, October 1975 – April 1976
Side One Side Two
More Than a Feeling
Peace of Mind
Foreplay
Long Time
Rock and Roll Band
Smokin’
Hitch a Ride
Something About You
Let Me Take You Home Tonight
Band Musicians
Brad Delp – All Vocals, Acoustic Guitars
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keys, Bass
Barry Goudreau – Guitars
Sib Hashian – Drums

 
If there is any any flaw in the Boston album it is that they got the sides wrong. While each side works well as a cohesive unit, the album should have started with side two, with the introductory “Rock and Roll Band”, and worked its way up to the fantastic side one, closing with “Long Time”. In this spirit, I’ve decided to review the second side first.

“Rock and Roll Band” is an ironic song in that Boston never really was a “band” before the production of this album. The project started just with Sholz, Delp, and drummer Jim Masdea trying to recreate the recordings that Sholz was recording, but never really reaching any point of notoriety live. Masdea, who left shortly before the Sholz and Delp were signed to Epic, did perform the drums on this track but none others. When the record label insisted on a full band doing a live audition of the material, Sholz enlisted the rest of the players and the “band” was formed.

Boston

“Smokin” was originally written by Brad Delp as a piece called “Shakin” and contains an upbeat grove in the same vein as Grand Funk though topped off by the unmistakable sound of Boston. A long jam in the middle is dominated by Sholz’s organ work and the steady, consistent drumming of Sib Hashian. “Hitch a Ride” is a beautiful ballad and a true classic by Boston. It is first dominated by the acoustic guitar through the verses under the restrained vocals by Delp. A peculiar yet entertaining organ lead comes after the second chorus, but the long ending featuring a double-tracked electric guitar lead may is the real treat. It may be one of the finest guitar leads ever performed. The song’s meaning has long been in dispute. With lyrics like –

Life is like the coldest winter, people freeze the tears I cry”

and –

Gonna hitch a ride, head for the other side
Leave it all behind, never change my mind…
Freedom on my mind, carry me away for the last time”

Some may be led to believe that this beautiful song is actually about taking one’s life, especially in light of Delp’s suicide in 2007 (although Delp did not write the song).

Closing out the second side, the album’s final two tracks are the closest to standard pop songs with standard subject matter. “Something About You”, although a fine song by any standard, is the closest thing to a throwaway song on this album as it is nothing spectacular compared to the rest of the material on the album. “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” is much better, a true pop song with the highest production value. It has a beautiful arrangement among the acoustic, electric, and organ parts and a very melodic bridge with a counter-melody. It all wraps up with an upbeat, revival-like coda section that fades to the end.

With a rather unique fade in which only serves to add more mystique to the song, “More Than a Feeling” the first song on the first album, is the greatest song Boston would ever create. It is a perfect rock song in many ways, beginning with a pleasant acoustic folk riff that launches into an incredible rock riff linked by a short, space age guitar lead previewing the fantastic harmonized electric guitar of Tom Sholz. The most fantastic item in this department store full of ear candy, Sholz would go on to patten this sound with the development of the Rockman. In “More Than a Feeling”, the guitar lead is played over a quite complex yet totally melodic progression, with the final note seems to sustain into infinity under the vocals of Brad Delp vocals in the final chorus. The song itself took five years for Sholz to perfect and his diligence sure paid off.

An acoustic intro betrays the hard rocking tenor of “Peace of Mind”, a commentary on work/life balance. Here Delp’s harmonies shine brightest through the choruses and there is also some great bass by Sholz, proving his talents on yet another instrument. On “Foreplay”, the album’s oldest piece, Sholz plays the organ and clavichord in a space age instrumental consisting of rapid triplet arpeggios played on a Hammond M3 organ. All “effects” were performed on guitar by Sholz, as the band swears that not a single synthesizer was used on the album. “Long Time” is the perfect closing song, starting with a great lead guitar which pierces through the very basic rhythm by the organ and bass as the song kicks in and accents each verse nicely. The choruses switch up and are dominated by a strummed acoustic guitar and what sounds like an electronic hand clap. But even with this radical departure, the song flows perfectly from one section to the other.

Boston became the most successful debut ever by an artist and remained so for over a decade, selling a million albums in less than three months and nine times that figure over its first decade. The band would put out a similarly-styled follow-up with Don’t Look Back two years later, but Sholz felt that effort was “rushed” and it did not fare nearly as well critically nor commercially. In reality, Boston would be that unique super nova by the band which could never be replicated. It was also the rare piece that was extremely excellent, extremely popular, and has held up over the decades, and that is what makes it Classic Rock Review‘s album of the year for 1976.

~

1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.