Paradise Theatre by Styx

Paradise Theatre by Styx

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Paradise Theatre by StyxAt a time when the “concept album” had all but gone out of fashion, Styx released Paradise Theatre, an album that loosely couples a fairly interesting concept with some strategically placed (albeit unrelated) pop and rock songs.

The concept itself is one of rapid decay and lament to a past Golden Age symbolized by an actual theater on Chicago’s west side built on the eve of the Great Depression and dead by the mid 50’s. Brought forward to the turbulent economic times around 1980, this concept worked well. But concept itself is not enough, in the end it is all about the music.

Although the album is a little less than the band’s best output (The Grand Illusion four years earlier), the music did tap into a popular confluence between the band’s long-time, loyal listeners and a new crop of pop-rock fans that were suddenly starting to pay attention to durable bands from the 1970s such as Rush, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, and Styx.
 

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Paradise Theatre by Styx
Released: January 19, 1981 (A&M)
Produced by: Styx
Recorded: Pumpkin Studios, Oak Lawn, IL, 1980
Side One Side Two
 A.D. 1928
 Rockin’ the Paradise
 Too Much Time On My Hands
 Nothing Ever Goes as Planned
 The Best of Times
Lonely People
She Cares
Snowblind
Half-Penny, Two-Penny
A.D. 1958
State Street Sadie
Musicians
Dennis DeYoung – Keyboards, Vocals
James Young – Guitars, Vocals
Tommy Shaw – Guitars, Vocoder, Vocals
Chuck Panozzo – Bass
John Panozzo – Drums & Percussion

 
Musically, Paradise Theatre contains a nice balance among the band’s three primary songwriters, Dennis DeYoung, Tommy Shaw, and James (JY) Young.

Shaw’s best contribution is the hit “Too Much Time On My Hands”, which is about as good as a pop single got for that era. It contains a nice mix of synth effects, a classic guitar solo, crisp and catchy lyrics, and well-delivered vocals. Besides some great axe work, Shaw also adds the top-end harmonies that distinguishes the Styx sound.

JY’s efforts were back-to-back tracks on the album’s second side. “Snowblind” is an anti-drug song with a lugubrious feel throughout. In spite of it’s noble message for society on the surface, it was targeted by Tipper Gore’s PMRC and other anti-rock groups for allegedly backwards masking Satanic messages. The band was truly offended by these charges and would mock them on their next album, Kilroy Was Here, with genuine backwards messaging.

“Half Penny, Two Penny” may be the best rock song on the album. A mini-suite in of itself, it builds to a crescendo with some excellent lead guitar and just the right touch of piano and saxophone (by guest Steve Eisen) in the coda where repeatedly JY screams;

“I wanna be free!”

Styx 1981

But the concept itself and all the songs that surround it, truly belongs to DeYoung. “The Best of Times” provides not only the top hit on the album, but the recurring theme with the opener “A.D. 1928” and the closer “A.D. 1958”. Many longtime fans (and apparently some band members themselves) lamented the heavy introduction of ballads by Denis DeYoung, starting with the soft-rock hit “Babe” on the previous album, Cornerstone. But this is a case where the ballad is supreme (and not so much sappy) with strong influence from each of the members of Styx and the obvious endorsement of fans at large.

However, some of the other “theme” songs really tend to straddle the line between legitimate rock opera and some high school theater production. This is especially true for “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned”, both popular songs on the album, each of which can either be interpreted as entertaining or over-the-top on any given day. For this reason, Paradise Theatre never really rises to the level of excellence of the best rock operas, such as The Who’s Quadrophenia, although it is still an interesting and enjoyable listen.

A nice touch was added to top off the album, a classy, “song after the last song” in the same fashion as “Her Majesty” off Abby Road by The Beatles. The half-minute long saloon-piano piece called “State Street Sadie”, adds just a touch of nostalgia right out of the 1920s that brings home the overall theme of Paradise Theatre.

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1981 Images

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

 

Diary of a Madman by Ozzy Osbourne

Diary of a Madman by Ozzy Osbourne

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Diary of a Madman by Ozzy OsbourneThere is something pure about Ozzy Osbourne that makes him so endearing to his fiercely loyal fans. Without pretension, this big, overbearing lug that just plugs away at his prophesying to the darker fringes of the Western psyche. Despite all his success, Ozzy is more Eagor than ego. But from this rock critic’s perspective, in his career that spanned over four decades, there was only a very brief moment in time when Ozzy Osbourne was truly great. It was during a few short years at the top of his solo career, when he shared the stage with an equally iconic partner, Randy Rhoads. Together they produced two brilliant albums, Blizzard of Ozz in 1980 and Diary of a Madman in 1981.

A classically trained, guitar virtuoso, Rhoads was a young musical genius who looked at his meteoric rise in rock n’ roll as just a minor pit stop on his road to achieving a true classical music education. He had actually planned on returning to school in the near future before his life was cut short when an idiotic pilot tried some idiotic stunts on a small plane in Florida in early 1982.
 

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Diary of a Madman by Ozzy Osbourne
Released: November 7, 1981 (Jet)
Produced by: Max Norman, Ozzy Osbourne, & Randy Rhoads
Recorded: February 9 – April 23, 1981
Side One Side Two
 Over the Mountain
 Flying High Again
 You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll
 Believer
Little Dolls
Tonight
S.A.T.O.
Diary of a Madman
Musicians
Ozzy Osbourne – Lead & Backing Vocals
Randy Rhoads – Guitars
Bob Daisley – Bass
Lee Kerslake – Drums & Percussion

At first, it seems apparent that with Diary of a Madman the band wanted to carbon-copy their breakthrough Blizzard of Ozz. In fact, the first two songs, “Over the Mountain” and “Flying High Again” strongly mirror the first two songs of that album (“I Don’t Know”/”Crazy Train”), being the most recognizable on their respective albums. But soon, Diary of a Madman makes it’s own mark as a deeper, darker, more classically-oriented piece.

“You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll” is where the music starts to get serious. The best song on this album, it both perfectly illuminates the twin sides of Rhoads, while being the ultimate theme song for Ozzy Osbourne himself. The production work is stellar, blending the classical and heavy metal elements perfectly. In the third verse, with the long, distorted droning electric guitars, really brings the volcanic passion of this song bubbling to the surface.

Blizzard of Ozz band 1981

There is some controversy that has followed this album through the years, as the original bass and drum recordings, done by Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake were later re-recorded (by Rudy Sarzo and Tommy Aldridge) at the instance of Ozzy’s wife and manager, Sharon Osbourne, in order to cleanse songwriting credits from Daisley and Kerslake. This is really unfortunate, because the original recording were much of a band effort, and the bass and drum performances shine throughout, especially through the second side of the album and the songs “Little Dolls”, “Tonight”, and “S.A.T.O.”.

But this album is undoubtedly Rhoads from start to finish. And what an eerie finish indeed, with the haunting title song. That traverses through a few haunting verses and a very haunting mid section. Then the outtro – when Rhoads furious riff is accompanied by a chorus of spiritual voices that escort his very last performance on record to a bone-chilling end.

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1981 Images

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

 

1981_BillySquier DontSayNo

Don’t Say No by Billy Squier

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Don't Say No by Billy SquierBily Squier was an odd figure on the pantheon of rock. On the one hand, there is no doubt that he was a very talented vocalist with exception songwriting instincts and pop music instincts. Listening to his 1981 breakthrough, Don’t Say No, leaves one with little doubt that this is a bona fide and legitimate rocker. But then there is the other hand, something that’s a little odd, a little off, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but nonetheless was (probably) responsible for Squier not getting his due accolades through the years and decades. It certainly can be argued that being a little “off” adds a distinction or an “edge” that makes such an artist more interesting. This certainly was the case on Don’t Say No and its equally impressive follow-up, Emotions In Motion, in 1982.

A Massachusetts native, Squier had been performing live throughout New England since the late 1960s, including stints with the bands Magic Terry & The Universe, Kicks, The Sidewinders and Piper. This latter group released two critically acclaimed (albeit commercially unsuccessful) albums in the late 1970s and opened for KISS during the height of that band’s success. Squier departed Piper to launch his solo career in 1980 with his debut album The Tale of the Tape, which had a couple of minor hits.

For this sophomore effort, Squier invited Queen guitarist Brian May to act as producer. However, May had too many prior commitments and instead suggested Reinhold Mack, who recently produced Queen’s very successful 1980 albums The Game. This combination proved fruitful, as In the Dark reached the Top 5 on the album charts and spawned two Top 40 singles.

 

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Don’t Say No by Billy Squier
Released: April 13, 1981 (Capitol)
Produced by: Reinhold Mack & Billy Squier
Recorded: The Power Station, New York
Side One Side Two
 In the Dark
 The Stroke
 My Kinda Lover
 You Know What I Like
 Too Daze Gone
Lonely Is the Night
Whadda You Want from Me
Nobody Knows
I Need You
Don’t Say No
Primary Musicians
Billy Squier – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Percussion
Cary Sharaf – Guitars
Alan St. Jon – Keyboards
Mark Clarke – Bass, Vocals
Bobby Chouinard – Drums

This “second tier” of songs are best exemplified with the final three songs on the album, which break from the normal pattern with differing tempos and acoustic textures. “Nobody Knows” is the only song that can be considered a ballad. Squier’s near-soprano vocals above a slowly-picked guitar line and just the right amount of bass and strings later gives way to the full band joining in and a fantastic double-tracked guitar lead that captures the mood perfectly. “I Need You” is a very good pop song, with a really cool new-wave-ish bass/synth riff, calm strummed acoustic and strategically inserted electric guitar during verses that becomes more forceful during the choruses. Unlike that smooth song, “Don’t Say No” is put together in bits and pieces with some interesting lyrics;

I live on the border-line, you come from the void…”

Which brings us back to that “oddness” that we mentioned at the top. Don’t Say No is littered with examples, mainly outtros of songs, such as the orgasmic chant at the end of the opener “In the Dark” or the frantic pick-up that ends “Lonely Is the Night”. But this is most evident on the album’s closing title track, which begins with a fade-in of the first verse and fades out completely near the end, only to re-emerge suddenly. Is this edgy or amateurish? Ultimately, the listener must decide. Some of Squier’s influences are apparent in a couple of other fine songs. “Too Daze Gone” contains many of the same blues-based elements utilized by Aerosmith in the 1970s, while “Lonely Is the Night” is a definite nod to Presence-era Led Zeppelin, but with an additional gloss layer that makes it very entertaining and radio-friendly.

Billy Squier

Of course, Don’t Say No is best know for the “hits” that are still heard on AOR and other media to this day. The opener, “In the DarK” has a very good sound with mixture of guitars and synths and a steady, staccato beat along with plenty of little riffs throughout that make this song a trans-era hit. Mack’s great production is apparent right from the start. “The Stroke” is a double-entendre with infectious lyric and riff and a steady, marching beat throughout. This marching continues through to “My Kindda Lover”, but with a sweeter demeanor, as compared to it’s totally cynical predecessor.

When we made our choice as to which albums from 1981 we would review, we decided that we would either choose Foreigner 4 and Don’t Say No (but not both) as they cover very similar territory as far as genre and quality. They are also similar being that the most popular songs on each album are pretty much the best songs on each album – something that, believe it or not, is really quite rare. But while it was difficult to determine if “Urgent” was superior to “The Stroke” or if “In the Dark” was better than “Juke Box Hero”, it was ultimately the second tier of songs that, in our opinion, gave Don’t Say No the edge. Even though there are some weak points on the album, overall this is the finest work that Billy Squier ever produced.

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1981 Images

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

Ghost In the Machine by The Police

Ghost In the Machine by The Police

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Ghost In the Machine by The PoliceGhost in the Machine is the fourth album by The Police and the first to actually use an English title, albeit the title was borrowed from the Albert Koestler novel of the same name. Although it used the foundation of a simple three piece power sound with reggae beats and a punk edge that was built by the band’s previous three albums, this album is a definitive evolution towards more ethereal jazzy sounds that would later come to fruition on the Synchronicity album in 1983.

For the first time since the band’s formation four years earlier, a dominant influence was starting to emerge from lead vocalist and bass player Sting, who lobbied for the addition of synths, layered horns, saxophones, and lyrics heavily influenced by philosophical theory. This new direction caused a riff with the other band members, especially drummer and original founding member Stewart Copeland, and proved to be the beginning of the end for this short-live and talented band. As it turned out, the more mainstream (and well-earned) popularity the Police achieved, the further they grew apart, disbanding after the break through of Synchronicity and the headlining world tour that followed.
 

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Ghost In the Machine by The Police
Released: October 2, 1981 (Jet)
Produced by: Hugh Padgham & The Police
Recorded: Le Studio, Quebec, Canada, January – September, 1981
Side One Side Two
Spirits In the Material World
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
Invisible Sun
Hungry for You Demolition Man
Too Much Information
Rehumanize Yourself
One World (Not Three)
Ωmegaman
Secret Journey
Darkness
Group Musicians
Sting – Bass, Keyboards, Saxophone, Lead Vocals
Andy Summers – Guitars, Synths, Backing Vocals
Stewart Copeland – Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals

The album opens with “Spirits in the Material World”, which sets the tone for this collection with a steady synth riff against, a syncopated drum beat, and philosophical lyrics –

There is no political solution / to our troubled evolution / have no faith in constitution / there is no bloody revolution…

Originally written by Sting in 1976, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” is the most upbeat song on the record although the lyrics suggest it’s about a guy with a crush on a girl and he is trying to get up the nerve to talk to her. It nicely fluctuates between a calm, piano arpeggio during the verse and a classic, steel drum-fueled reggae during the chorus. The song reached #1 on the mainstream rock charts, making it the biggest pop hit on the album.

What do you do if your lyrics are too hot for the English speaking world? Set them against the backdrop of a ska beat and sing them in French of course. “Hungry For You” has probably confused many non francophone listeners who may think they just can’t understand the words (because they’re in French).

The band returns to philosophical rambling with “Rehumanize Yourself”. The beginning of this song sounds like it may have influenced The Bangles hit “Walk Like and Egyptian” with Horns drifting and soaring above the racing beat.

I work all day at the factory/I’m building a machine that’s not for me/There must be a reason that I can’t see/You’ve got to humanize yourself…

The Police Invisible Sun single“Invisible Sun” continues the philosophical introspection with monotone vocals and lyrics poetically describing the mundane tasks of the day and hoping for an unseen reward at the end of the day. These words were especially striking when set against the imagery of the music video, showing footage of struggles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

The feel of Ghost in the Machine is clearly a departure from the previous Police projects. Guitarist Andy summers probably had the least amount of influence on this album, simply due to the pure displacement by the presence of all the other instrumentation. That’s not to say that this isn’t a good listen, as the band was well on their way to their creative apex.

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1981 Images

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

 

Freeze Frame by J Geils Band

Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band

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Freeze Frame by J Geils BandFreeze Frame is a confluence album, where a hard-working band with vast longevity in the bag reaches their heights towards the sunset of their career. It is a work that combines many elements of their traditional, rock n’ soul, party-time backbone with a new, (then) cutting-edge, approach that incorporates synthesized soundscapes and new wave entertainment. And Freeze Frame IS new wave in the truest sense – a well-produced collection that explores under-developed areas of the rock landscape.

Although the band bears the name of founding guitarist J. Geils, this album really belongs to keyboardist, songwriter, and producer Seth Justman. Justman was a student at Boston University in the late 1960s when he followed the band, then known as “The J. Geils Blues Band”, which was then an acoustic trio led by Geils and virtuoso harmonica player Richard Salwitx, better known by his stage name, Magic Dick. Soon a local DJ known as Peter Wolf joined as front man and lead singer along with drummer Stephan Bladd and, with the eventual addition of Justman, the six-man lineup that would stay together for a decade and a half was in place.

Through the 1970s, the band achieved moderate commercial success with a few minor hits, but nothing like the worldwide fame that they would enjoy in the early 1980s with Freeze Frame, fueled by the Justman’s catchy and cleaver #1 hit “Centerfold”, which introduced the band to much of the mainstream pop world.

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Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band
Released: October 26, 1981 (EMI)
Produced by: Seth Justman
Recorded: Long View Farm, North Brookfield, MA, 1981
Side One Side Two
 Freeze Frame
 Rage In the Cage
 Centerfold
 Do You Remember When?
 Insane, Insane Again
Flamethrower
River Blindness
Angel In Blue
Piss On the Wall
Band Musicians
Peter Wolf – Lead Vocals
Seth Justman – Keyboards, Vocals
J. Geils – Guitars
Magic Dick – Harmonica, Trumpet, Saxophone
Danny Klein – Bass
Stephen Bladd – Drums, Vocals

The album is really a potpourri of songs that can be segmented into one of about three distinct categories. The first of these is the direct pop category, consisting of the smash hit “Centerfold” and the opening title song. Both are bouncy and catchy and lead by an airy and accessible organ riff and upbeat entertainment, while carefully flirting with some risque subject matter. “Freeze Frame” has a great stop-start chorus, and was itself a successful top-ten hit. The band also produced a couple of entertaining music videos for the brand new MTV for these songs, no doubt helping their climb in the charts.

The next category of songs are synch-dominated, pop-art compositions that deviate vastly from the band’s traditional sound. Here, Justman’s genius shines through as he accomplishes this deviation while he still preserves the album’s overall integrity. “Rage In the Cage” is a frantic collection of beat-based tangents that is spastic and entertaining. Some wild sounds are nicely placed bit by bit to project audio that is at once natural and artificial, with the natural drumming by Bladd complimenting everything else (bass, horns, harmonica, and synths) which straddle the line between synthesized and natural. “Insane, Insane Again” takes a very similar approach but with a frantic bass line by Danny Klein holding together the backbone. “River Blindness” starts like an episode of a television mystery, with bombastic horns, before it kicks into the the main riff and takes the listener on a musical journey to dark and mysterious relms that sounds about 90% synthesized, but with a heavy guitar by Geils near the very end.

J Geils Band 1982

The final category of songs on Freeze Frame maintains the band,s traditional rock/soul sound through the ballad “Angel In Blue” and the rockers “Flamethrower” and “Piss On the Wall”. The album’s closer with the quasi-vulgar title, at first appears as a somewhat frivolous homage to the band’s own legacy, albeit with some excellent blues harp by Magic Dick. But it also adds a bit of rebellious punk rock doom and gloom –

“…everybody’s shaking ‘cause the big one’s about to fall, I’m just trying to hold it steady while I piss on the wall…”

“Angel In Blue” is a pleasant tune with a melancholy tone, containing the biggest presence by Geils on the entire album. The song is masterfully constructed with just the right touch of organ and drum beat, and a nice ensemble of backing vocals and horns in the outtro.

There is one song that doesn’t quite fit into any of the above categories, the excellent ballad “Do You Remember When?”, which contains elements of the best of ALL these categories. If you like discovering truly great, “lost” songs – this is may be one. It has all the elements of a classic love song, but with such an edge and perfectly placed musical motifs – Geils repeated, 5-note guitar riff, organ, piano, strings, extra percussion, just the right amount of special effects, and interesting background vocals. It also contains the finest vocal performance by Peter Wolf, with an amazing high note near the end of the song, which he holds and variates for nearly 10 seconds.

In the story of rock, the J. Geils Band is not quite unique in being a longstanding quality act that finally gets their mainstream “break” near the twilight of their career (see Bonnie Raitt, REO Speedwagon, or Supertramp). But they may be unique in that their popular breakthrough is also their artistic masterpiece.

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1981 Images

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

 

East Side Story by Squeeze

East Side Story by Squeeze

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East Side Story by SqueezeEast Side Story is the fourth studio album by Squeeze, released in 1981. The album signified a break with the band’s traditional “new wave” sound towards more divergent styles and genres including progressive rock, soul, and psychedelia. The band originally wanted to do a four-sided “double LP” with each side using a different producer – Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Paul McCartney, and Elvis Costello. In the end, Squeeze released a long 14-song single LP with Costello co-producing along with Roger Bechirian. Under Costello’s guidance, the band produced an album of smart, uptempo pop tunes which guitarist Chris Difford labled as “suburban short stories.”

Difford founded Squeeze in 1974 along with lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Glenn Tilbrook. The group was named after The Velvet Underground’s oft-derided 1973 album and found moderate success in the London suburbs in the mid 1970s. After signing with A&M Records, the band released a self-titled debut album in 1978, followed by Cool For Cats in 1979 and Argybargy in 1980, each of which were fine albums but strictly within the confines of the newly coined “new wave” genre.

With East Side Story, the band recorded their masterpiece as they branched out to explore other facets of their talents. With the variety of genres explored, the production of Costello, and the fully developed songwriting of Difford and Tilbrook East Side Story has the feel of the double-album it was originally intended to be.

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East Side Story by Squeeze
Released: May 15, 1981 (A&M)
Produced by: Roger Bechirian & Elvis Costello
Recorded: London, 1980-1981
Side One Side Two
 In Quintessence
 Someone Else’s Heart
 Tempted
 Piccadilly
 There’s No Tomorrow
 Heaven
 Woman’s World
Is That Love?
F-Hole
Labelled With Love
Someone Else’s Bell
Mumbo Jumbo
Vanity Fair
Messed Around
Band Musicians
Glenn Tilbrook – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Chris Difford – Guitars, Vocals
Paul Carrack – Keys, Vocals
John Bentley – Bass
Gilson Lavis – Drums

The album begins with “In Quintessence”, an upbeat song with repetitive phrasing and simultaneous vocals by Tilbrook and Difford throughout. This is followed by “Someone Else’s Heart” (not to be confused with “Someone Else’s Bell” on the second side of the album), which harkens back to the new-wave-ish sound with a crisp organ and subdued vocals with fantastic harmonies.

Later on the album’s first side is the album’s finest sequence of songs. “Piccadilly” starts with an excellent piano before settling into a simple, upbeat, three-chord rock groove with chanting vocals delivered in a linear, story-telling fashion. “There’s No Tomorrow” contains a heavy dose of Beatle-esque surrealism with a dramatic key riff and backwards-masked percussion along with Costello on backing vocals. The ska influenced “Heaven” is an excellent song which contains a great bass line and weird sound effects after the chanting choruses. Later in the song their is a banjo section with some weird, vocalized animal sounds. The side ends with “Woman’s World”, a good pop song with nice piano note runs, building ascension in the late verses, and a great key jump later on.

By far the best song on the album, “Tempted” contains a great thumping bass line by John Bentley under the subtlely swelling organ by band newcomer Paul Carrack, who was a member of Squeeze for this one album. Carrack also sang most of the seductive lyrics with some cool secondary and background vocals. The band’s first “hit” in the U.S., “Tempted” has become one of Squeeze’s most well known songs as it is infectiously catchy and never seems to grow old. It is quite ironic that, with short-timer Carrack at the lead, most passive fans are unaware of the basic sound of the band as normally led by Tilbrook’s vocals.

Although much weaker than the first, the second side of the album does contain a few very interesting tracks. “Is That Love” was the first single released from the album, while “F-Hole” contains thick strings and an almost psychedelic approach. “Labelled With Love” contains a pure country rhythm with calm acoustic guitar, piano, and rim-shot drums overlaid by some good guitar later on. It was a song recorded as a semi-farce and Tilbrook initially objected to its inclusion on the album but was convinced by Costello and it became a minor hit. “Vanity Fair” uses orchestration much like later-era Beatles albums with no rock instrumentation, just vocals, while the album concludes with “Messed Around”, a rockabilly song much like the Stray Cats, that would be more convincing without the vocals of Tilbrook.

After a fifth album was released in 1982, Squeeze took a break for a while before reforming later in the decade. Although they continued to record interesting music, the band would not again reach the heights of East Side Story.

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1981 Images

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

 

Bella Donna by Stevie Nicks

Bella Donna by Stevie Nicks

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Bella Donna by Stevie NicksAfter three albums with Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks was doubtlessly the most recognizable figure in that popular and talented band. However, her actual participation as far as songwriting and lead vocals had never eclipsed 50% on any of those albums. So prior to her debut solo effort in 1981, there was uncertainty about how a full album of her music would pan out. One serious listen to Bella Donna would set all doubt aside. This debut solo album went on to achieve critical and commercial success, topping the U.S. album charts and spawning four Top 40 hit singles, while reaching the Top 20 in six other nations.

The album contains ten songs composed by Nicks on piano over several years while on tour with Fleetwood Mac in the late seventies. These songs were then enhanced by producer Jimmy Iovine and a posse of talent, ranging from headline acts like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Don Henley, formerly of The Eagles, to top-notch session musicians such as Donald “Duck” Dunn from the famed Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. The result is an interesting and pleasant listen which contains some timeless works that flirt with pop, country, and folk while remaining distinctive and original.

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Bella Donna by Stevie Nicks
Released: July 27, 1981 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty
Recorded: Studio 55, Los Angeles, Autumn 1980 – Spring 1981
Side One Side Two
Bella Donna
Kind of Woman
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around
Think About It
After the Glitter Fades
Edge of Seventeen
How Still My Love
Leather and Lace
Outside the Rain
The Highwayman
Primary Musicians
Stevie Nicks – Lead Vocals, Piano
Tom Petty – Guitars, Vocals
Don Henley – Drums, Vocals
Lori Perry & Sharon Celani – Backing Vocals
Waddy Wachtel – Guitars
Roy Bittan – Piano
Dan Dugmore – Pedal Steel
Bob Glaub – Bass
Russ Kunkel – Drums

…and we fight for the northern star”

While Bella Donna‘s opening title song is definitely Fleetwood Mac-esque in it’s calm approach and long sustained guitar drones, it also contains a more ceremonious or ritualistic feel, like some kind of mass, as it vacillates between beatless sound scape and rhythmic drive. It is followed by “Kind of Woman”, another very calm, almost melancholy song, with a waltz-like beat an excellent guitar lead.

The album then abruptly takes a radical turn with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, one of two songs by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on the album, along with the entertaining “Outside the Rain” on the second side. That band didn’t use these songs for themselves (and their current album, Hard Promises really could’ve used these), and the resultant Nicks-led recordings add a completely new dimension to Bella Donna.

“Leather and Lace” is a true duet with Henley, resulting in a moody and romantic ballad which has a sparse acoustic arrangement that really showcases the vocal talents of both. On the other end of the pop spectrum, “Edge of Seventeen” offered a rhythmic dance beat with a near rap in between the oft-repeated chorus about the “white winged dove”. Rumor has it that the title was coined by Tom Petty’s wife, who replied “age of seventeen” when asked by Nicks how old they were when they first met. But Stevie mis-heard this as “edge of seventeen” and was instantly taken by the concept.

Perhaps the most enjoyable song on the album, “After the Glitter Fades” is a pure country song, reminiscent to some of Olivia Newton John’s early stuff, with dynamic vocals nicely complimenting to rich arrangement, which contains virtuoso piano by Roy Bittan and masterful pedal steel by Dan Dugmore.

Stevie Nicks would continue on with Fleetwood Mac as well as produce more solo albums with much success in both throughout the rest of the 1980s and well into the 1990s. But artistically, she would not again reach the heights of Bella Donna in either side of her musical career.

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1981 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1981 albums.

 

Give the People What They Want by The Kinks

Give the People What They Want
by The Kinks

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Give the People What They Want by The KinksAlthough Give the People What They Want was the 18th full-length album by The Kinks and was released nearly two decades after their actual debut, it has a feel as fresh and vigorous as any debut album. The sound is strong and contemporary, the lyrics are biting and direct, yet the message is more mature, philosophical, and satirical in nature. Best of all for the music listener, the album is interesting and entertaining with solid material throughout. With all this being said, it is somewhat amazing that the album has been pretty much panned and ignored by the rock press (and fans) for the past thirty years. This is part of why Classic Rock Review exists.

The Kinks started out in London shortly after The Beatles’ American breakthrough in 1964, in what came to be known as the original “British Invasion”. They came to prominence with simple, rocking pop songs in the mid 1960s. They later evolved towards theatrical rock and concept albums through the late sixties and early seventies. By the late seventies, they had seen alot of their earliest work co-opted and repackaged by acts in the punk, new wave, and hard rock genres. In this environment, chief songwriter Ray Davies came back with an album that not only shows this younger generation that The Kinks can do it just as well but that they can do it even better.

Listening to Give the People What They Want one has to keep reminding themself that this is a band approaching middle age, as there is so much youthfulness
 

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Give the People What They Want by The Kinks
Released: August 15, 1981 (Arista)
Produced by: Ray Davies
Recorded: Konk Studios, London, May, 1979 – June, 1981
Side One Side Two
Around the Dial
Give the People What They Want
Killer’s Eyes
Predictable
Add It Up
Destroyer
Yo-Yo
Back to Front
Art Lover
A Little Bit of Abuse
Better Things
Band Musicians
Ray Davies – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Dave Davies – Guitars, Vocals
Jim Rodford – Bass, Vocals
Mick Avory – Drums, Percussion

Overall, the album is very dark and cynical, with the exception of the finale “Better Things”, which offers a refreshing ode to optimism during the closing credits. Prior to that song, each offers a cynical look at a different subject facing people in 1981, ranging from the entertainment industry to crime and criminals to basic inter-personal issues. The sound is raw yet beautiful, capturing the dynamics of a garage band with the skill of cutting edge and smooth production. As producer, Ray Davies seemed to know exactly how much flavoring to sprinkle on the basic rhythms lead by his brother and lead guitarist Dave Davies.

The opener, “Around the Dial” is a very entertaining and interesting song that laments the downfall of a cool and edgy radio DJ, who disappeared inexplicably. It starts as the simplest of songs, with one sustained chord played over and then a simple hard rock riff, but then floats towards some interesting and melodic changes in the middle. It is followed by the album’s title song that laments the deterioration of popular culture and the crass and cynical dishing out of entertainment. This is all set to definitively punk rhythm and chant, complete with its own shock lyric on the Kennedy assassination.

Many of the songs that follow also reflect a higher end punk sound. But to say this album was “influenced” by punk would be almost a travesty. The Kinks were one of the true inventors of the genre, a dozen years before it even became a genre. By this point in 1981, punk had about five years of mainstream fame and recognition. With the production of Give the People What They Want, it is almost like the Kinks were stepping in to show these young punks how to do it with actual musical skill.

Further, this album contains some moments that could not be constructed by these punk bands on their best day. “Killer’s Eyes” is a haunting yet beautiful song about a person beyond help and beyond hope – a killer and the effect his actions have on his family and friend. It is a moody and melancholy masterpiece with outstanding sound. Another song with an excellent sound, perhaps the best on the album is “Yo-Yo”. Once you get past the repetitive use of the “yo-yo” symbolic lyric, this is a very interesting and entertaining listen that addresses the challenges of married life with its changing expectations and perspectives. It is very unique as a down beat song with a very upbeat beat.

The rest of the songs that make up the heart of the album are all upbeat and modern mixes of punk new wave and ska with their own distinctive issues. “Predictable” about the mundane, boring, regularness of everyday life, “Add It Up” on the change in someone who comes into money, “Back To Front” laments double-talk and could have been the theme song to Catch 22, and the minor hit “Destroyer”, a look at the effects of drug use that shows that the band doesn’t take itself too seriously, with a bit of self-plagiarism.

The Kinks in 1981

But just when you get settled comfortably into the album’s punk/new wave vibe, it takes a radical turn with the last three songs. The first two of these are quite disturbing but may very well be ingenious. “Art Lover”, is creepy in that seems to be sympathetic to a stalker and possible pedophile. Adding to this creepiness is the fact it is sticky sweet, almost like a children’s song, and leaves one to think that Davies must have been trying to be provocative or sarcastic, because it is hard to think that the song’s message is to be taken literal. “A Little Bit of Abuse” follows with a light-hearted look at domestic abuse and battered wife syndrome. It is put together in a slow bluesy, pleasant, and melodic pop-rock package that in no way sets the mood for such a heavy subject. Again, it appears to invert the true message by demonstrating the absurdity of the common excuse making for such actions. Together, either these are brilliant, deep psychological masterpieces or we’re reading too much into it.

The closing “Better Things” then goes on to break the mold of this pessimistic album with a happy and hopeful song of hope. It concludes Give the People What They Want, a weird and wonderful ride that is true rock n roll at it’s most legitimate.

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1981 Images

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

 

Tattoo You by Rolling Stones

Tattoo You by The Rolling Stones

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Tattoo You by Rolling StonesPart of the fun of reviewing all these great albums is discovering that some of your own long held preconceptions are, in fact, false. Approaching this album, Tattoo You by The Rolling Stones, I was “sure” on a couple of things that I had always “known”. I was “sure” it was a bit of a comeback album for the band, a return to Sticky Fingers-like rock n’ roll after the various glam, disco, and funk tangents that the band undertook in the 1970s. I was also “sure” that it was a fun and cohesive album for the band to make (I mean, just listen to the first two songs and tell me they’re not having fun).

But with some initial research for this article, I found that I was wrong on both counts. The album is not directed or cohesive. It is a mishmash of unreleased material recorded over that same time period when the Stones were exploring different tangents. It was also recorded at a time of great stress within the band, so it was hardly “fun” to make, despite the resulting vibe.

In fact, album’s creation is the direct result of a practical business decision. The band was about to embark on a huge worldwide tour in late 1981/early 1982, and it was decided that having a new album to promote would boost the band’s ticket sales. With no time to write, rehearse, and record new material, long time associate and producer Chris Kimsey stepped in. He told the band that he could make an album from what he knew already existed as outtakes over the past decade or so and began sifting through old recordings to find suitable material.

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Tattoo Tou by Rolling Stones
Released: August 24, 1981 (Rolling Stones)
Produced by: Chris Kimsey, Mick Jagger, & Keith Richards
Recorded: Various Locations, November, 1972 – June, 1981
Side One Side Two
Start Me Up
Hang Fire
Slave
Little T&A
Black Limousine
Neighbours
Worried About You
Tops
Heaven
No Use in Crying
Waiting on a Friend
Band Musicians
Mick Jagger – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica
Keith Richards – Guitars, Vocals
Ronnie Wood – Guitars, Vocals
Bill Wyman – Bass, Synthesizer
Charlie Watts – Drums

Kimsey spent a few months going through the material from several previous Stones albums, discovering many incomplete or under-developed songs that had been either forgotten or rejected in the past. The earliest of these would become the songs “Tops” and “Waiting For a Friend”, the latter being Tattoo You‘s critically acclaimed signature number that closes the album’s laid back second-side. These songs were originally written and recorded in late 1972 during the sessions for the album Goat’s Head Soup and feature ex-guitarist Mick Taylor. “Waiting For a Friend” also features a solo by jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins.

In 1975, during the sessions for the album Black and Blue, the band recording the backing tracks for a reggae-influenced song, but after twenty or so takes they got frustrated and shelved it. This same song would be re-born three more times during sessions for subsequent albums, as “Never Stop” during the sessions for Some Girls in 1977, then as “Start It Up” during the Emotional Rescue sessions in 1979. At that time, most of the band were convinced they had a hit, but guitarist Keith Richards was sure that he heard something very similar on the radio somewhere and insisted it be scrapped. Finally, with the production of Tattoo You, the song would be released as “Start Me Up” to tremendous success, reaching #2 on the Billboard pop charts, a position that the band would not reach or eclipse again in their lengthy career.

The remainder of the album comes from the sessions of those two most recent albums, Some Girls and Emotional Rescue. Most of these “songs” already had the instrument tracks recorded and just lacked vocals from Mick Jagger. In fact, the bulk of the actual recording sessions for Tattoo You Jagger was the only band member in attendance. The exceptions were “Neighbours” and “Heaven” which were the only brand new songs on the album.

Physical Graffiti buildingHowever, even though the album was not constructed in a traditional fashion nor did it contain much up-to-date material, it certainly used cutting promotion. On August 1, 1981, MTV went on the air, a mere three weeks before the album’s release. The band would produce four videos to appear on the new network, including a rather creative one for “Neighbours” that plays off of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window and a memorable one for “Waiting For a Friend” that takes place in front of the same New York building featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.

The use of this new cable medium, would bring this (then) twenty-year-old band front and center to a new generation of music fans, including myself. At thirteen, I believed this was all new material by the Rolling Stones, and I continued to believe so right up until earlier this week.

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1981 Images

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

 

Escape by Journey

Escape by Journey

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Escape by JourneyRarely does a band become more successful after one of its founders and leader departs from the group. Greg Rollie was the original lead singer, keyboardist, and overall and heart and soul of the group Journey from the band’s beginning in 1973 to the arrival of front man Steve Perry in 1978. After some lukewarm sales of the band’s moderately successful initial three albums with Rollie as lead singer, the band hired Perry at the request of Columbia Records, initially to split vocal duties with Rollie. However, Perry eventually became the primary lead vocalist and, by the end of 1980, Rollie had decided to call it quits altogether.

Fortunately for Journey, the British pop band The Babys were breaking up at about the same time, freeing up keyboardist Jonathan Cain to join the band. This created the respectable songwriting triumvirate of Perry, Schon, and Cain that launched the band into mega popularity through the early 1980s, starting with their 1981 album, Escape.

Although a critical listener may find the lyrical content a bit common and trite, there is no denying that sound that was forged on this album creates a niche and feeling that is quite fantastic. There is an edge to each and every song that makes it indelible and taps into a deep reservoir of nostalgia, while some of the individual, performances are at a stratospheric level.

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Escape by Journey
Released: July 31, 1981 (Columbia)
Produced by: Kevin Elson & Mike Stone
Recorded: Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, California, Winter-Spring, 1981
Side One Side Two
Don’t Stop Believin’
Stone In Love
Who’s Crying Now’
Keep On Runnin’
Still They Ride
Escape
Lay It Down
Dead or Alive
Mother, Father
Open Arms
Group Musicians
Steve Perry – Lead Vocals
Neal Schon – Guitars, Vocals
Jonathon Cain – Keyboards, Piano, Guitar, Vocals
Ross Valory – Bass, Vocals
Steve Smith – Drums, Percussion

While Cain was the driving force behind crafting many of the songs on Escape, and Perry and Schon provided, without a doubt, the incredible performances of this album (more on them later), bass player Ross Valory added a special touch to this album, with a unique-sounding, high end buzz to his bass sound that gives it just an edge to make the overall sound distinct. This is evident right from the jump on the hit “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” as he compliments the low end of Cain’s rotating piano riff in a preview of one of the elements the distinguishes this album from any other (including other Journey albums).

Don't Stop Believin' singleNeal Schon knows how to make an entrance, holding off for nearly a minute in this opening song, then providing a memorable rapid guitar tap that builds in intensity and volume. The guitarist is on at every moment in this album, making one wonder why he is not better recognized in the present day. He adds a solo at the end of “Who’s Crying Now” that elevates the otherwise standard love song to a new level and shines brightest on “Mother, Father”, the best song on the album.

A true classic in every sense, “Mother, Father” was arranged by Neal’s father and jazz musician Matt Schon who put together the ingenious chord structure that sets the mood for Perry’s soulful vocals and the absolutely superlative solo in the mid section. It climaxes with a surreal, harmonized outro, which completes a song that is as melodramatic as anything The Who ever did, while as deep into the “inner space” as anything that Pink Floyd ever did.

Steve Perry’s voice is a unique entity, unlike any ever quite heard before or since. He compliments any odd 7th or augmented chord by smoothly transitioning from note to note along an almost-superhuman range. He never seems to miss a note, but especially shines on the rockers “Lay It Down” and “Stone In Love”, as well as the ballad “Open Arms”, a calm lullaby that eases the album to its conclusion after the emotional journey of “Mother, Father”.

Another high point on the album is “Still They Ride” a haunting ballad, dripping with melancholy, that is dark yet addictive, here the band displays amazing discipline in measuring out the simple and slow notes with perfect, moody precision.

Journey in 1981

In total, Escape is a difficult album to pigeon hole. It is best known for its ballads that rose high in the charts, but yet has made a few “Top Heavy Metal Album” lists. It was undoubtedly a template for scores of album oriented rock efforts in the 1980s. Yet it gives a slight nod to the progressive rock of the 1970s with the exotic arrangements, jazz fusion, and the mini-suite title song, “Escape” (not to mention the official title of the album being the cleverly arranged “E5C4P3”).

No matter how it may be classified, it was certainly and instantly a hit, and the band did not shy away from reaping the benefits from this new found fame. In 1982, with the gush of a mainstream audience, Journey became the top-selling concert ticket, and that same year a Journey Escape video game was released for the Atari 2600 system.

Journey may be credited or blamed for what followed in the wake of Escape, when acts such as Poison, Bon Jovi, and countless other “hair” bands would put forth their own inferior carbon copies of this album but nonetheless stuck to the formula and gained success from it. In any case, they were the originators of this hybrid of pop-friendly “hard rock”, whether by design or not.

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1981 Images

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