So by Peter Gabriel

So by Peter Gabriel

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So by Peter GabrielA little over a decade after departing from Genesis as their elaborate frontman, Peter Gabriel released his fifth and most successful solo album. After releasing four consecutive albums with the same exact title, “Peter Gabriel”, this fifth album was given the complex and elaborate title of So. Produced by Gabriel and Daniel Lanois, the album includes performances by some thirty musicians and singers, including some recognized names like Stewart Copeland, Nile Rogers, and Kate Bush.

The album has a quintessential mid-eighties sound, with plenty of synthesizers and over-sequenced percussion. But, it does however have a soul to it, with just the right mixture of diverse genres throughout that range from Psychedelic to R&B/Soul to World Music. So would be a huge commercial success for Gabriel, fueled by a handful of hit songs that were lifted themselves by either interesting, critically acclaimed music videos or an inclusion in a popular film. In fact, So would be the pinnacle of Gabriel’s chart success overall, including his esteemed career with Genesis.

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So by Peter Gabriel
Released: May 19, 1986 (Geffen)
Produced by: Daniel Lanois & Peter Gabriel
Recorded: Ashcombe Studios, Bath, England, February-December 1985
Side One Side Two
Red Rain
Sledgehammer
Don’t Give Up
That Voice Again
In Your Eyes
Mercy Street
Big Time
We Do What We’re Told
This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)
Primary Musicians
Peter Gabriel – Synthesizers, Piano, Vocals
David Rhodes – Guitars
Tony Levin – Bass
Manu Katche – Drums & Percussion

The opener “Red Rain” sets the pace for the album with it’s emphasis on (mainly sequenced) percussions and fully synthesized accents and effects. The sound is ethereal with very little attack or accent. Much like the material from his old Genesis days, Gabriel sings in vivid detail about a dream and has stated this song to be one of his personal favorites. The album’s pace is accelerated by “Sledgehammer”, the most popular song on the album, with a funky beat and Motown-influenced arrangement that is intersected with a signature pan flute sound for the middle lead. One would think that the bamboo and the brass would not mix, but they serve to make this song very edgy and original.

“Don’t Give Up” is a duet with Kate Bush and one of the gems from So as it musically migrates along with the mood of the lyric. Starting with interesting, recursive bass pattern That accompanies the confident beginning to a more subdued main theme, shrouded in doubt, then ultimately back to a Gospel-like, piano section during the hope and resolve of the final section.

The fine first side concludes with another pop hit, “That Voice Again”, with its percussion-guided verse and some nice keyboards to supplement the chorus. It is an almost pro-religious song about making the right choice when confronted by a tough choice, which seems to contradict the scoff at religion in another hit song, “Big Time”-

…and I will pray to a big God as I kneel in a big church…”

Here Gabriel returns to the funky beat and melody, making this a fine dance song laced with some nice high end vocal textures between the verses and in the outtro.

Say Anything movie posterAlthough not a hit at the time of the album’s release in 1986, “In Your Eyes” would find new life when it was featured in the Cameron Crowe film Say Anything in 1989 and would eventually go on to become one of Gabriel’s most recognizable songs ever. It is a straight-forward, romantic song which this album needed, but it still maintains an edge over run-of-the-mill love song due to it’s sound scape and delivery. The song is constructed masterfully, from the patient, extended drum fill in between the verses to the world-music influenced vocal parts in the coda. It also contains a distinctive, signature riff in the pre-chorus section which brings the whole piece to a new level emotionally.

The remainder of So includes a tribute to the poet Anne Sexton called “Mercy Street” and two art-rock pieces including “We Do What We’re Told (Milgrim’s 37)”, which refers to the 1961 Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, and contains a vibe that is almost comparable to a late 1960s Pink Floyd style sound scape piece, but with an updated, 1980s sound throughout. The closing “This Is the Picture” is a little more put together and upbeat than the previous song, and was co-written by Laurie Anderson, who also performs vocals on the track.

In a year and era of somewhat weak efforts by established artists, So was a complete and original effort which showed that Peter Gabriel still had some artistic fuel left in the tank.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1986 albums.

 

Third Stage by Boston

Third Stage by Boston

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Third Stage by BostonTom Scholz is a figure unlike any other in the history of rock n roll. A natural inventor, Scholz studied at M.I.T. as a mechanical engineer. After graduating, he worked at Polaroid, where he learned the basics of audio engineering and began experimenting with his own sounds. Starting in 1969, he recorded and re-recorded the music that would comprise the debut album Boston, a masterpiece that was finally released in 1976 (Classic Rock Review will look at that album in December). After the phenomenal success of their debut, the band produced the follow-up Don’t Look Back in the relatively short time of just two years. Released in 1978, Scholz never felt like it was quite “done” and swore that he’d not rush out another album. It would be eight solid years before the next album, Third Stage would see the light of day.

This wasn’t intended to take so long. In fact, the first side was written and recorded between 1980 and 1982, but technical difficulties and an eventual lawsuit by the record company CBS slowed the whole process down. To Scholz, the successful completion of this third album turned into an obsession. He claimed to have pushed the record button over 1 million times and filled over 100 reels of tape with music. He decided to use separate 24-track tapes for music and vocals and synchronize via a new digital machine. But it turned out that the high tech machine “was a lemon” and so an engineer was hired to “use his thumbs” to keep each machine running in sync. Further, Sholz refused to use any orchestral instruments, synthesizers or MIDI synchronization on Third Stage – making his job as producer infinitely harder in the process, but preserving the sound’s integrity. The only deviation from the sound of the 1970s albums, was his own invention The Rockman, which he developed over the long course of this project and which would prove to be a much more lucrative product than the album ever was.

Once the CBS lawsuit was settled in Scholz’s favor, he was free to sign with MCA and release Third Stage in late 1986. It would go to become the most successful album commercially and spawn the band’s only #1 hit.

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Third Stage by Boston
Released: September 23, 1986 (MCA)
Produced by: Tom Scholz
Recorded: Tom Scholz Hideaway Studio, 1980-1986
Side One Side Two
Amanda
We’re Ready
The Launch
Cool the Engines
My Destination
A New World
To Be a Man
I Think I Like It
Cancha Say / Still In Love
Hollyann
Primary Musicians
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Drums, Percussion
Brad Delp – Lead & Harmony Vocals   Jim Masdea – Drums

Although portrayed as a band, Boston was more like a duo with Scholz providing on the music, production, and performing most of the instrumentation and Brad Delp doing all the lead and harmonized vocals. The result is musically excellent but a bit weak lyrically. There is also a bit of disparity between the album’s earliest tracks on side one and the more recent material on side two, especially when it comes to Delp’s vocals.

“Amanda” was the very earliest song written for the project in 1980. A sweet and beautiful love song, with excellent, harmonized guitars, the song immediately reminded fans of the immense talent of Boston and, in turn, it became the band’s first and only #1 hit. “We’re Ready” follows as a nice compliment to “Amanda”, with it’s moderate, deliberate riff and beat, that does pick up at parts, but always manages to come back to earth and ease into the mood of the song.

The band then “launch’s” into the experimental and very majestic intro to “Cool the Engines”, in keeping with the their tradition of intro pieces. The song itself is musically superb with many areas of creative stop-and-start throughout. The lyrics do have a tinge of preachiness that may be a bridge too far for casual fans.

This brings us to perhaps the downside of “Third Stage”, the concept itself. Apparently coined by Scholz, the “third stage” is supposed to be that age of enlightenment beyond childhood and adulthood. It is portrayed most vividly in the song “My Destination” – a variation on the tune of “Amanda” that ends the first side and contains the lyric;

It’s not who you can be, it’s what you can see that takes you there, your destination…

In all, the theme comes off kind of new-age-y and forms a slight chasm between band and fan, especially during some of the more forgettable songs on the album’s second side, especially “To Be a Man” and the dreadful “Cancha Say (You Believe In Me)”.

However, the second side does contain a few highlights; the smooth and straight-foward rocker “I Think I Like It” and the pleasant closer “Hollyann”, which bleeds nostalgia for the 1960s and contains an interesting little organ solo in the middle, accompanied by little more than a strumming, acoustic guitar.

In the end, Third Stage would prove to be Boston‘s commercial peak. It would take yet another eight years for the band’s fourth album in 1994, Walk On (a project which, ironically, Delp “walked off”) and another followed near the end of the century. But Boston would never quite reach that sound again.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

Mean Business by The Firm

Mean Business by The Firm

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Mean Business by The FirmAfter the big success of their eponymous 1985 debut, the super-group The Firm followed up with their sophmore release in early 1986 called Mean Business, which would end up being the short-lived super-group’s final album. At first listen, this album seems to be sub-par to the debut, or at least much more under-developed at best. But, upon each closer and subsequent listen, one discovers that this album is actually quite good and original in its own right.

Unfortunately, not many people have taken this closer listen and the album had a short ride to the proverbial dust bin. This was due, in part, to the actions taken by the band themselves as The Firm suddenly decided to call it quits just a few months after Mean Business was released, signifying their own apparent disapproval of this work.

Musically, the album is filled with spastic and rudimentary riff lines from Jimmy Page, odd but solid musical timings from the rhythm section of Tony Franklin and Chris Slade, and powerful, nearly strained vocal performance by Paul Rodgers. It is an uneven album, with heavy influence from Page here and heavy influence from Rodgers there, along with some experimental pieces by the band as a whole. There are a few songs that feel under-developed and a few that feel over-produced. But with every listen, they all seem to get better and better.

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Mean Business by The Firm
Released: February 3, 1986 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Jimmy Page, Paul Rodgers & Julian Mendelsohn
Recorded: 1985
Side One Side Two
Fortune Hunter
Cadillac
All the King’s Horses
Live in Peace
Tear Down the Walls
Dreaming
Free to Live
Spirit of Love
Musicians
Paul Rodgers – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jimmy Page – Guitars
Tony Franklin – Bass, Keyboards
Chris Slade – Drums, Backing Vocals

The album begins with the only survivor from the short-lived XYZ project. In 1981, following the death of drummer John Bonham and the disbandment of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page decided to join forces with Chris Squire and Alan White, formally of Yes. The would-be super-group was to be called XYZ (for ex- Yes and Zeppelin), but fell apart within a year and yielded no recorded material. “Fortune Hunter” is a reworked song from that project, written by Page and Squire. Through the first three verses, the song displays many of the characteristics that will be found throughout this Firm album – a frenzied and frantic riff with strained vocals – but then it suddenly deviates sharply into a “quiet” middle section before quickly rebounding and building back to the fast pace.

To close the album, a near-opposite song “Spirit of Love” was chosen. Driven by Franklin’s piano riffs, this quasi-epic is probably the song that Page had the least influence on, as it is pure pop and even incorporates a full chorus towards the end, which makes one believe it was inspired by Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”. The deviation between the opener and closer, while adding to the overall oddness of the album, also puts into context the diverse material in between.

“Cadillac”, with its slow, trance-like blues, fueled by the excessively long, droning guitars by Page, is one of the more interesting songs on the first side. The song is held together by the methodical rhythm of Franklin and Slade, and contains just enough skipping in time to make it quite interesting.

Paul Rodgers contributes the next two songs – the synth-driven pop song “All the King’s Horses”, which was ill-advisedly slated as the emphasis single from Mean Business, and the darker. message-driven “Live In Peace”. This latter song has a very Bad Company-ish vibe, with Page adding a nice guitar lead.

The second side contains, perhaps, the best three songs on the album. Tony Franklin contributes the jazzy “Dreaming”, a unique and off-beat, gem which contains some very surprising turns. The other, collaborations by Rodgers and Page, offer some insight of what could have been had this group stayed together a while longer. “Tear Down the Walls” is a good, catchy pop-rock song that could’ve (and should’ve) been a hit in 1986, while “Free to Live” contains another rudiment-driven riff, that is accented brilliantly by some excellent vocals.

While this may not quite rise to the level of The Firm’s 1985 debut (although a strong case may be made that it does), Mean Business is well worth the listen.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1986 albums.

 

1986_VanHalen 5150

5150 by Van Halen

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5150 by Van HalenWith the possible exception of AC/DC, it is hard to find an example of an established rock band with a single, charismatic, lead singer that becomes even more successful once that singer is replaced. After the acrimonious departure of David Lee Roth in early 1985, Van Halen was at sea for a while as they actively searched for Roth’s replacement. Their record company, Warner Brothers, did not want them to continue on with the same name, feeling like it might distort the successful branding. Further, many long-time fans were hoping for reconciliation and dismissing any serious chance at reformation with a new lead vocalist.

Unfortunately, the rift between Roth and the rest of the band was far too deep and with Roth publicly declaring the band dead and making grand plans for a solo music and acting career, the band was determined to carry on without him. After briefly entertaining the idea of using multiple singers on their next album, Van Halen decided they wanted a permanent band member to front them. Enter Sammy Hagar, a well established rock star in his own rite, as the lead singer in the band Montrose and as a solo artist.

Further, Hagar was also a proficient guitarist, which freed up Eddie Van Halen to further branch out on the keyboards, as he had started with the previous album, 1984 (MCMLXXXIV). The band scored a couple of big hits from keyboard-driven songs on that album and that trend would certainly continue with 5150.

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5150 by Van Halen
Released: March 24, 1986 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Mick Jones, Donn Landee, & Eddie Van Halen
Recorded: Nov. 1985 – Feb. 1986, 5150 Studios, Hollywood, CA
Side One Side Two
Good Enough
Why Can’t This Be Love?
Get Up
Dreams
Summer Nights
Best of Both Worlds
Love Walks In
5150
Inside
Musicians
Sammy Hagar – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Eddie Van Halen – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Michael Anythony – Bass, Vocals
Alex Van Halen – Drums & Percussion

Another factor that led to the new sound of 5150 was the absence of producer Ted Templeton, who had produced all of the band’s previous six albums. This left production duties to the band itself, led by Eddie Van Halen with the help of Mick Jones and Donn Landee. This production team moved away from the traditional “live” sound of previous albums and towards a sleeker 1980s sound, especially among the three keyboard-driven songs, each of which would become huge hits.

Two of these hits used the long-string sound that Eddie Van Halen had established on the previous album. “Dreams” is the standout here, showcasing Hagar’s vocal range as well as the band’s pop sensibilities, while maintaining a unique, dynamic edge. Perhaps the first true “love song” in the Van Halen catalog, “Love Walks In” features Hagar on lead guitar and showcases some excellent background harmonies by Eddie Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, which had become a longtime staple of the band’s sound.

The most unique-sounding and innovative of these keyboard songs is “Why Can’t This Be Love”, where Van Halen uses a wild-sounding synthesized clavichord for the main riff while Hagar providing some rhythm guitar support. Being the first single to be released by the band in the Spring of 1986, this song re-introduced the band with a fresh and unique sound that was mainly well-received. However not everyone was impressed with the new sound, as a lot of longtime fans felt alienated by the dual whammy of replacing Roth and moving further away from the guitar-driven sound of the group’s early days. Soon these fans would adopt the name “Van Hagar” for this new formation, so to derisively avoid acknowledging this as a continuation of that earlier band.

Van Halen in 1986

5150 does contain a solid handful songs that would have fit into the style of some on the band’s early work including the songs “Summer Nights”, “The Best of Both Worlds” along with the album’s opening track “Good Enough”. However, none of these really rise to the level of the band’s better guitar-driven songs of the past. One exception to this is the standout title song “5150”, an upbeat jam with a catchy melody that highlights the talents of both Eddie Van Halen and his older brother, drummer Alex Van Halen.

Van Halen did score their first ever #1 album with 5150, a feat that served to validate their decision to move forward with a new frontman and updated sound. The band would continue use this formula with similar success, as all four of their Hagar-era albums reached the top of the album charts, stretching well into the early 1990s.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.