Abacab by Genesis

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Abacab by GenesisGenesis continued their incremental migration from prog to pop rock with their eleventh studio album, Abacab, released in 1981. The compositions here make heavy use of sequencers and studio techniques, combined with pristine melodies to forge a fresh, radio-friendly sound for this 1980s trio version of the group. The result aimed Genesis in a distinct direction, where pop fans discovered the over-decade old band for the first time as a contemporary, radio-friendly group for the decade of 1980s.

Genesis retracted from an original quintet down to a trio following the departure of guitarist Steve Hackett. Starting with the 1978 album And Then There Was Three, Mike Rutherford assumed both guitar and bass duties. 1980’s Duke became the group’s first chart-topping album in their native UK as the album spawned three radio-friendly singles. Later that year, Phil Collins recorded his debut solo album, Face Value, which became a worldwide smash following its release in early 1981.

The group purchased a farmhouse in Surrey, England which they converted into their private rehearsal and recording facility as recording for Abacab began in March 1981. The group dedicated 12 to 14 hours a day for about three months through the Spring of 1981 with engineer Hugh Padgham. Production duties were solely credited to the band for the first time with this album.

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Abacab by Genesis
Released: September 18, 1981 (Charisma)
Produced by: Genesis
Recorded: The Farm, Chiddingfold, Surrey, England, March-June, 1981
Side One Side Two
Abacab
No Reply at All
Me and Sarah Jane
Keep It Dark
Dodo / Lurker
Who Dunnit?
Man On the Corner
Like It or Not
Another Record”
Group Musicians
Phil Collins – Lead Vocals, Drums, Percussion
Mike Rutherford – Guitars, Bass
Tony Banks – Piano, Keyboards

The opening title track is an example of where Genesis works best as a trio. The song is built on call-and-response phrases between Rutherford’s sharp guitar riff and Tony Banks‘ smooth organ, set as a backing for Collins’ contrasting, strained rock vocals. The song, which got its name from the lettered sections of its original arrangement, is structured like a traditional pop song but with an extended instrumental section at the coda led mostly by Banks’ synth motifs and later a more traditional guitar lead by Rutherford. “No Reply at All” is, perhaps, the most entertaining song on the album as it features a catchy melody over Rutherford’s great bass, all accented by the poignant and dominant horn section borrowed from the group Earth, Wind and Fire. The track’s complex bridge brings the whole vibe home for this Top Ten hit.

Most of the nine tracks on Abacab were composed collaboratively by all three group members but each did get one solo composition. “Me and Sarah Jane” was composed by Banks and it definitely hearkens back to Genesis’ Peter Gabriel era in both structure and melody. The layers of Tony’s piano, organ and synths are complemented by steady but effective rhythms though this complex, guitar free mini-suite. “Keep It Dark” features odd syncopation in the vein of Devo along with mostly melodic vocals to go against the mechanical music, while “Dodo”/”Lurker” has a majestic intro to its multi-part and multi-feel suite.

Genesis 1981

After the new wave textured, repetitive phrases of “Who Dunnit?” comes the Collins composition “Man On the Corner”. Electronic percussion starts before vocals and keyboards replicate the main melody with lyrics that address society’s reluctance to find a resolution to the homeless problem. “Like It or Not” is Rutherford’s solo composition with a majestic intro to a dynamic track which moves from a pleasant sounding ballad to a more matter-of-fact tough love screed. After a short and serene intro, the song proper of the closer “Another Record” kicks in with animated drum fills under steady riffs and rhythms.

The gold selling Abacab was the second consecutive UK #1 album for Genesis and their first of several to reach the US Top Ten in the US through the eighties. Three songs recorded for but left off this album were released on Genesis’s EP, 3×3, released in May 1982, with material from the Abacab world tour added to these three tracks for the double album Three Sides Live later in 1982.

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1981 Images

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

 

Fifth Dimension by The Byrds

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Fifth Dimension by The ByrdsThe Byrd‘s third album, released in the summer of 1966, Fifth Dimension saw a change both in style and personnel for the folk-rock group. Earlier in the year Gene Clark, who had previously been a chief songwriter, departed. The remaining quartet picked up some of the compositional slack while also moving the overall sound in a more psychedelic direction. The result was a record which was both uneven yet highly influential in the overall progress of rock and roll.

Formed in Los Angeles in 1964, the group found immediate success in 1965 with the albums Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn Turn Turn, both of which featured corresponding title songs that reached #1 on the American pop charts. With this, The Byrds were being promoted as “America’s answer to the Beatles”. The stress of this sudden success, along with a fear of flying, led Clark to depart the group in February 1966, shortly as they had begun recording tracks for the Fifth Dimension album.

Guitarists and vocalists Jim McGuinn and David Crosby stepped in to increase their songwriting efforts for this third album, but the group still needed to record four cover songs to complete the project.

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Fifth Dimension by The Byrds
Released: July 18, 1966 (Columbia)
Produced by: Allen Stanton
Recorded: Columbia Studios, Hollywood, January-May 1966
Side One Side Two
5D (Fifth Dimension)
Wild Mountain Thyme
Mr. Spaceman
I See You
What’s Happening?!?!
I Come and Stand at Every Door
Eight Miles High
Hey Joe
Captain Soul
John Riley
2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)
Group Musicians
Jim McGuinn – Guitars, Vocals
David Crosby – Guitars, Vocals
Chris Hillman – Bass, Vocals
Michael Clarke – Drums, Harmonica

The album begins with “5D (Fifth Dimension)”, a very Dylan-esque folk song by McGuinn which is short but builds in intensity towards it’s end. The lyrical theme explains Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and the recording features guest Van Dyke Parks on organ. “Wild Mountain Thyme” follows as one of a pair of traditional folk songs repurposed with the Byrds 12-string signature sound on this album. The other is “John Riley” on side two, with both being introduced to the band by McGuinn. “Mr. Spaceman” is an upbeat folk/rock with a more earthy sound than the previous tracks, whimsical but very melodic lyrics and an interesting lead guitar.

After the disjointed psyche-rocker “I See You” comes Crosby’s best composition on this album, “What’s Happening?!?!” This features a moderate folk/rock vibe but with slight psychedelic overtones as it consistently alternates between verse lines and instrumental passages. The first side ends with the dark “I Come and Stand at Every Door”, written about a child who perished at Hiroshima with graphic details. Starting the flip side is “Eight Miles High”, the most popular song on the album and the only one composed and recorded while Gene Clark was still a bandmember. It features a good rockin’ intro with fine, harmonized vocals delivering lyrics written about the group’s flight to London in 1965, which can be interpreted as a blatant allegory about an LSD trip. With this, the song was both influential in developing the emerging musical style of psychedelia while failing to reach it’s commercial potential (although it did still reach the Top 20 in both the US and UK) as many radio stations refused to play it.

The Byrds in 1966

Unfortunately, most of the rest of side two is simply album filler. There’s a forgettable version of the oft-covered “Hey Joe”, the uninspiring cover of “John Riley” and the weird closer “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)”, which features heavy sound effects above a simple repeating country/folk trope. The only somewhat interesting track here is the instrumental “Captain Soul”, composed by all four group members including bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke with Clarke overdubbing harmonica above an entertaining surf-rock like backing rhythm.

Fifth Dimension peaked in the Top 30 in both the US and UK albums charts, making it less commercially successful than its 1965 predecessors. Later in 1966, The Byrds recorded their fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday, with a similar approach integrating elements of psychedelia and jazz. It was  released in 1967.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1966 albums.

Year of the Cat by Al Stewart

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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.

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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.

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1976 Images

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

 

Into the Great Wide Open by
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

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Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersTom Petty continued his impressive commercial success as a new decade unfolded with Into the Great Wide Open, the eighth studio album by Petty and The Heartbreakers. This album combined the group’s traditional rock sensibilities, dating back to the mid 1970s, with the mainstream production techniques of his various projects of the late 1980s. With this combination, Into the Great Wide Open received various bits of warm critique to go along with its pop success in 1991.

Petty’s previous album with the Heartbreakers, 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), received mixed reviews and was the first album by the group not to reach the Top 10 of the US album charts in nearly decade. The following year Petty formed the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys along with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne and their debut album, Volume One, had great success. Even greater success followed in 1989 when Petty released his debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, which was co-produced by Lynne and included four Top 40 singles. Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell was the only member of the backing group to play on Full Moon Fever.

With expectations very high, Petty once again enlisted Lynne as co-producer for Into the Great Wide Open and the pair employed a methodical, nearly formulaic approach to the compositions. Lynne also played various instruments throughout, which seemed to limit much of the Heartbreakers’ expressiveness and offered the group members sparse moments to shine musically and rhythmically.

 

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Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Released: July 2, 1991 (MCA)
Produced by: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell & Jeff Lynne
Recorded: Rumbo Recorders, Studio C, Canoga Park, CA, 1990 – 1991
Track Listing Group Musicians
Learning to Fly
Kings Highway
Into the Great Wide Open
Two Gunslingers
The Dark of the Sun
All or Nothin’
All the Wrong Reasons
Too Good to Be True
Out in the Cold
You and I Will Meet Again
Makin’ Some Noise
Built to Last
Tom Petty – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Mike Campbell – Guitars, Vocals
Benmont Tench – Piano, Keyboards, Accordion
Howie Epstein – Bass, Vocals
Stan Lynch – Drums, Percussion

Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

 

The album’s first three tracks were the most radio-friendly. “Learning to Fly” features moderately picked harmonized chords to leave an indelible musical impression, along with with Campbell’s later slide guitar expertly cutting through the pristine soundscape. The song became one of the top hits for Petty and the Heartbreakers. “Kings Highway” follows as a crisp, driving rocker with subtle guitar layers and a simple hook and message with the promise of better days. The album’s title song is a slightly dark folk storyteller with more fine slide guitars and some memorable rudiments that drive the song along.

“Two Gunslingers” is actually a song of peace with much allegory and the lyrical epiphany of “taking control of one’s life”, while “The Dark of the Sun” has a quasi-pop-country feel which morphs into harder rocking later, making for a potent and diverse track. “All or Nothin'” is an intense, dark rocker with Campbell’s slide topping a steady thumping rhythm by bassist Howie Epstein, while “All the Wrong Reasons” leans towards more traditional folk lyrically with Benmont Tench adding some accordion for color and Byrds’ legend Roger McGuinn providing backing vocals.

After the forgettable track “Too Good to Be True”, the album’s second side becomes more interesting starting with the refreshing hard rocker, “Out in the Cold”, featuring Petty’s more expressive and strained vocals. “You and I Will Meet Again” is solo composition with a classic Petty feel that leaves plenty of room for musical chops by each lead player, while “Makin’ Some Noise” features interesting, rockabilly-style riffs that are later contrasted by a short but effective wah-wah fused lead by Campbell. The closer, “Built to Last” has an overall sound different than anything else on the album, rhythmically deadened but pleasant throughout.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Into the Great Wide Open would turn out to  be the final studio release on the MCA label as well as the final with drummer Stan Lynch, who was replaced by Steve Ferrone in 1994. To wrap up their decade and a half with MCA, the group released a Greatest Hits album in 1993, which became their top seller over all and went platinum a dozen times over.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1991 albums.

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Somewhere in England by George Harrison

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Somewhere In England by George HarrisonSomewhere in England was an arduous and frustrating album to produce for George Harrison, taking more than a year to release. The album was critically panned as the material is a bit uneven, ranging from themes of frustration and panic to those of divinity and bliss. However, it is a clear beacon in history as it was recorded shortly before and in the wake of the tragic assassination of Harrison’s former Beatles bandmate John Lennon and it briefly brought together the surviving members of that classic band.

After the Beatles broke up in 1970, Harrison had great solo success with the release of the triple album All Things Must Pass and it’s follow-up, 1973’s Living In the Material World. However, his output during the mid to late 1970s received relatively less critical acclaim and commercial success. Harrison began a gradual retreat from the music business as the decade ended.

Harrison began recording Somewhere in England, his ninth overall solo record, in March 1980. He first delivered it to Warner Bros. Records, his distributor, in late September of that year. However, the initial draft was rejected and Harrison reworked much of the material over the subsequent six months at his Friar Park studio in Henley-on-Thames. During this time three new songs were developed and added to the album while four tracks were cut from the final release.

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Somewhere in England by George Harrison
Released: June 1, 1981 (Dark Horse)
Produced by: Ray Cooper & George Harrison
Recorded: Friar Park Studio, Henley-on-Thames, England, March 1980-February 1981
Side One Side Two
Blood From A Clone
Unconsciousness Rules
Life Itself
All Those Years Ago
Baltimore Oriole
Teardrops
That Which I Have Lost
Writing’s On The Wall
Hong Kong Blues
Save The World
Primary Musicians
George Harrison – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Neil Larsen – Piano, Keyboards
Willie Weeks – Bass
Jim Keltner – Drums

Harrison’s frustration is clear on the album’s first two tracks, the Caribbean-flavored, rhythmic “Blood from a Clone”, which critiques the soullessness of the music industry and the upbeat jazz of “Unconsciousness Rules”, which features a signature guitar riff and prominent brass throughout. “Life Itself” follows and is Gospel-like but with Harrison’s signature guitar on top. The spiritual lyrics offer praise to Christ, Vishnu, Jehovah and Buddha, as Harrison believes in the concept of a universal deity.

The obvious indelible track from this album is “All Those Years Ago”, musically built on the fantastic electric piano and synths of Al Kooper along with some fine synths and slide guitars by Harrison. The song was originally written for Ringo Starr to sing on his upcoming solo record and Starr’s version was recorded in November 1980 but he was not quite satisfied with it. After Lennon’s death the following month, Harrison took the track back and rewrote it as a tribute to him. Starr’s drumming on the track was maintained and Paul McCartney and his Wings’ bandmates were brought in to provide backing vocals, making this the first recording on which Harrison, McCartney and Starr all appeared since the Beatles’ “I Me Mine” on 1970’s Let It Be. “All Those Years Ago” was released as the album’s leading single in May 1981 and it instantly became a worldwide hit.

Harrison recorded two 1940s-era songs from jazz-oriented songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. “Baltimore Oriole” features a lead sax right from the top by Tom Scott, counter-balanced by Harrison’s fine slide acoustic guitar, while “Hong Kong Blues” is a short but entertaining Americana jazz/folk composite. Both of these songs were originally featured in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not.

George Harrison

Somewhere in England‘s second side features some diverse listening, starting with the pure 80s pop of “Teardrops”, which was issued as the second single off the album. Two of the more interesting tracks follow, with “That Which I Have Lost” featuring rootsy country acoustic with slide electric riffs and fine fretless bass and “Writing’s on the Wall” having a slight synth organ with a rich musical arrangement. The whimsical, upbeat closer “Save the World” is cut by moody slide guitars and plenty of lyrical moralizing throughout this overall pleasant musical listen.

While Somewhere in England did reach the Top 20 in both the UK and US, it’s chart run was relatively brief. After the follow-up 1982 album, Gone Troppo fared even worse, Harrison retreated from the music industry for half a decade.

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1981 Images

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

 

The Runaways

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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.

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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.

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1976 Images

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

 

The Royal Scam by Steely Dan

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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.

 

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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”.

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1976 Images

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

Emerson, Lake and Powell

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Emerson, Lake and PowellEmerson, Lake & Powell was a quasi-supergroup which existed in the mid-1980s and released a singular, self-titled studio album. The trio was two-thirds of the 1970s group Emerson, Lake & Palmer with drummer Cozy Powell replacing Carl Palmer, who was contractually obligated to his own 80s supergroup, Asia. While this 1986 album contained some elements of the prog-rock compositions of years past, there is no doubt that this is a product of its time with heavy use of digital synths and a slick production style.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer was very successful in the early 1970s but as the decade wore on, the group began to burn out. With the group committed to record one more studio album, they released the forgettable Love Beach in late 1978 and ultimately disbanded by early 1979. Both keyboardist Keith Emerson and guitarist/bassist/vocalist Greg Lake started solo careers, with Emerson also becoming involved with several film soundtracks in the early 1980s. Palmer went on to form a band called PM, before ultimately joining Asia, which reached incredible mainstream fame with their 1982 debut album. Powell was a strong veteran on the music scene, playing with acts like Jeff Beck and Rainbow as well as a longtime friend of Emerson’s. Despite the coincidence, the group insists that they weren’t looking for a drummer whose surname start with a ‘P’, in order to retain the initials ‘ELP’.

Recorded in England in 1985 and early 1986, Emerson, Lake and Powell was produced by Lake and engineer Tony Taverner. Beyond the eight tracks of the original 1986 album, these sessions produced two further tracks that would be featured on later album issues. A unique instrumental jam rendition of the Goffin/King pop hit “The Loco-Motion” was an obvious attempt at some radio notoriety, while “Vacant Possession” is a decent, melancholy pop ballad surprisingly left off the album proper.

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Emerson, Lake & Powell by Emerson, Lake & Powell
Released: May 26, 1986 (Polydor)
Produced by: Tony Taverner & Greg Lake
Recorded: Maison Rouge, London & Fleetwood Mobile, Sussex, 1985-1986
Side One Side Two
The Score
Learning to Fly
The Miracle
Touch and Go
Love Blind
Step Aside
Lay Down Your Guns
Mars, the Bringer of War
Group Musicians
Greg Lake – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass
Keith Emerson – Keyboards
Cozy Powell – Drums & Percussion

The album begins with its longest track, “The Score”, featuring Emerson’s fanfare boards and animated rudiments by Powell during extended, nearly four-minute-long intro. When Lake’s vocals finally enter mid-song, it is clear that this track is a sequel to earlier work with the refrain “Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends”, famously lifted from the opening line of “Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Part 2” from their 1973 Emerson, Lake and Palmer album Brain Salad Surgery, as well as the title to the subsequent 1974 live album from that album’s tour.

“Learning to Fly” is more in line with a mid-eighties pop song, driven by synth motifs, steady bass and simple drum rhythms with little to no guitar. Still, this is not an unpleasant listen with good melodies by Lake as he delivers a slightly profound lyric. “The Miracle” is a long, narrative-fueld song with a dramatic, doomy entrance which lifts a bit during the refrain sections. Later, the song settles into a steady rhythm for the middle bridge section of this seven-minute tune.

Emerson, Lake and Powell

The album’s second side features more standard length, pop-oriented tracks, starting with the album’s only single, “Touch and Go”. Here we have catchy intro and interlude synths broken by verses driven by Lake’s melodic vocals. “Love Blind” sounds more like a soundtrack montage than a standard song, albeit Powell’s drumming is fine throughout, while “Step Aside” offers a cool break and true highlight of this second side, as a unique jazzy piano tune where all three members work the vibe well with Emerson leading the way. After the forgettable “Lay Down Your Guns”, the trio cleanse their palate of sappiness with a jam of the dramatic classical movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War”, a song Lake performed with King Crimson a decade and a half earlier.

After a short tour to support the album, Emerson, Lake & Powell disbanded as quickly as they formed. In 1992 the original ELP lineup reformed with Palmer for the album Black Moon, an album with a similar style to this Emerson, Lake & Powell album. Powell tragically lost his life in a 1998 car accident, forever sealing this mid-eighties confluence as a one time occurrence.

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1986 Images

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

 

Tapestry by Carole King

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Tapestry by Carole KingAfter spending most of the 1960s writing hits for other artists, Carole King started a solo career at the dawn of the 1970s. Her 1971 second studio album, Tapestry, became her breakout work as a phenomenal commercial and critical success. This multiple Grammy Award winning album features a dozen tunes written on piano,  mostly new, but also a few classics from King’s hit-making days in the sixties. And those hit-making days continued as two singles from the album topped the pop charts.

King was born Carol Klein and she was musically inclined from a young age. She attended high school with Paul Simon and he helped record her first promotional single in 1958 called “The Right Girl”. Another high school classmate Neil Sedaka, who King had dated, had a hit in 1959 called “Oh! Carol”. When in college, King met Gerry Goffin, who became her songwriting partner, husband and father to her daughters. In 1960, King and Goffin wrote the Shirelles’ hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, which became the first Billboard Hot 100 number 1 hit by an all female black group. Further hits followed through the 1960s for various and diverse artists ranging from Little Eva to Bobby Vee to the Drifters to the Monkees. In 1968, Goffin and King were divorced and Carole relocated to Laurel Canyon, CA and formed a music trio called The City with Danny Kortchmar on guitar and future husband Charles Larkey on bass. The City produced and released a single album in 1968, Now That Everything’s Been Said.

While in Laurel Canyon, King befriended fellow musicians James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Toni Stern, who encouraged her to launch a solo career. In 1970 King released her debut solo album, Writer, to minor commercial success. In January 1971, King recorded Tapestry concurrently with Taylor’s album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon with both records using many of the same musicians. Tapestry was produced by Lou Adler (King’s longtime publisher and founder of Ode Records) Lou Adler, who wanted the album to sound like the simple demos she recorded through the years with her piano and vocals in the forefront.

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Tapestry by Carole King
Released: February 10, 1971 (A&M)
Produced by: Lou Adler
Recorded: A&M Recording Studios, Hollywood, January 1971
Side One Side Two
I Feel the Earth Move
So Far Away
It’s Too Late
Home Again
Beautiful
Way Over Yonder
You’ve Got a Friend
Where You Lead
Will You Love Me Tomorrow?
Smackwater Jack
Tapestry
A Natural Woman
Primary Musicians
Carole King – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
Danny Kortchmar – Guitars, Vocals
Curtis Amy – Saxophones, Flute, Strings
Charles Larkey – Bass
Russ Kunkel – Drums, Percussion

Built on choppy piano octaves and jazzy overtones, the opener “I Feel the Earth Move” introduces the hook right away and it is repeated often as King shines with melodic vocals and lead piano throughout. The song was released as a double A-sided single along with “It’s Too Late”. Together, this single became one of the biggest mainstream pop hits of 1971. “It’s Too Late” features lyrics by Stern and is driven by Larkey’s bass and the subtle rhythms of Joel O’Brien. The lyrics describe the end of a loving relationship with a musical arrangement that blends pop/jazz with the soft folk of the L.A. music scene.

“So Far Away” is a simple and beautiful piano ballad with limited arrangement done expertly with just enough moody counterbalance added to King’s piano and vocals. A very slight flute by Curtis Amy closes out the song. The short “Home Again” seems like a natural companion song to “So Far Away” with slightly more vigorous vocals. “Beautiful” abruptly follows as a show-tuny tune, not quite as cohesive as the prior excellent compositions, but entertaining nonetheless. “Way Over Yonder” is built on a slow, 3/4 bluesy waltz and features gospel-tinged backing vocals by Merry Clayton.

Carole King

The second side features several songs made popular by other artists, starting with “You’ve Got a Friend”, which was recorded by Taylor during the same duo-album sessions and became a number one hit for him, while winning Grammy Awards for both King and Taylor in 1972. Carole’s version features both Taylor and Mitchell on backing vocals. King’s new version of her first songwriting hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, features a slower and more methodical delivery, while her version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” does an outstanding job stretching her own vocal range without going over the top or trying to replicate the hit version by Aretha Franklin. The balance of the album includes “Where You Lead”, featuring a second lyrical contribution by Stern with an upbeat pop/rock arrangement, the upbeat folk/rock of “Smackwater Jack” which features a fine electronic piano by Ralph Schuckett, and the haunting but beautiful “Tapestry”. This folk-based title track is almost religious in nature with a bare-bones musical arrangement and lyrical metaphors on the nature of life, death and resurrection.
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Tapestry is one of the 100 best-selling albums of all time, with over 14 million sales worldwide, achieving Diamond status in mid 1990s. After it’s initial release, it remained on the Billboard charts for 313 weeks, the second most weeks to chart behind the 724 weeks of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Barely 30 years old, Carole King would continue to have success for decades to come, but this album was her career masterpiece.

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1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1971 albums.

 

Horses by Patti Smith

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Horses by Patti SmithHorses is the 1975 debut album by Patti Smith, an album which has long become considered a breakthrough masterpiece of minimalist originality and poetic improvisation. Smith and her band had no previous recording experience and they developed the album’s songs with simple chord progressions nesting Smith’s lyrics, which ranged from subjects such as family, contemporary rock icons, and imagined narratives. On Horses the group also incorporated a few classic rock tunes into their extended pieces.

Born in Chicago, Smith was a poet and performance Artists in Paris and New York City born in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She provided spoken word soundtracks for artistic films as well as live plays. She was briefly considered to be lead singer for Blue Oyster Cult, a group for which she would provide lyrics for years to come. By 1974, Patti Smith formed her own rock group with guitarist Lenny Kaye, bassist Ivan Král and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. The band recorded a single, “Hey Joe / Piss Factory”, a hybrid of a rock standard with additional spoken word poetry. Soon, the Patti Smith Group was signed by Clive Davis for his new label, Arista Records.

Recording for this debut album began in August 1975 in New York City with producer John Cale. Smith wanted to make “a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone” but she did have some differences with Cale on recording methods, which were ultimately worked out.


Horses by Patti Smith
Released: December 13, 1975 (Arista)
Produced by: John Cale
Recorded: Electric Lady, New York City, August-September, 1975
Side One Side Two
Gloria
Redondo Beach
Birdland
Free Money
Kimberly
Break It Up
Land
Elegie
Primary Musicians
Patti Smith – Lead Vocals
Lenny Kaye – Lead Guitar, Bass
Ivan Král – Bass, Rhythm Guitar
Richard Sohl – Piano
Jay Dee Daugherty – Drums

The opening track is a quasi-cover of “Gloria”, a popular song first recorded by Van Morrison and his group, Them, a decade earlier. This unique version features Smith’s poetry over slower chord progression that eventually works into faster frenzy with the hook release finally coming over three minutes into the song. Cowritten by keyboardist Richard Sohl, “Redondo Beach” is a change up where the music is more in focus due to the fine reggae elements of the tune. The poetic lyrics are based on a fight that Smith had with with her sister Linda, after which her sister disappeared for days, causing Patti to worry that she had committed suicide (fortunately, she did not). “Birdland” is the first of two extended pieces where Sohl’s lazy piano plays behind Smith’s spoken-word narrative in verses, alternating with sung choruses. The stream of consciousness lyrics were inspired by memoir of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.

Starting as deliberative and poetic but quickly building to a proto-punk frenzy, “Free Money” is a fantasy about winning the lottery and the song closes the original first side. Starting side two is “Kimberly” a song which is very musically interesting as perhaps an early example of the new wave style, while “Break It Up” is a moderate ballad written as a tribute to Jim Morrison, following Smith’s visit of Morrison’s grave in Paris.

Patti Smith Group

The centerpiece of Horses is the nine and a half minute track “Land”, which incorporates the sixties soul classic “Land of a Thousand Dances”, This melodramatic piece which builds into a classic rock dance tune is counterbalanced by explicit and violent lyrics that layered masterfully through overdubbed poetry and melodies. In Smith’s later memoir, she reveals that primary characters in this song refer to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and author William Burroughs. Piano, bass and whining guitar make a perfect haunting effect for the closing track “Elegie”, purposely recorded on the 5th anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix, with the song also generally paying tribute to several deceased rock musicians such as Morrison, Brian Jones, and Janis Joplin.

While Horses received little to no airplay, it was instantly met with critical respect upon release and the album has grown to be a classic over time. The album solidified Smith’s influence on the New York punk rock and some have cited it as the first real punk rock album, although it is obvious that this record was not so genre-specific.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1975 albums.

1975 Images