Draw the Line by Aerosmith

Draw the Line by Aerosmith

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Draw the Line by AerosmithAerosmith‘s fifth album in 1977 came after the phenomenal success of 1975’s Toys in the Attic and 1976’s Rocks. Although the momentum continued to an extent with Draw the Line, this album is vastly different from those predecessors. It doesn’t sound quite as polished as their previous three albums, which is probably due in equal parts to the band’s desire to return to the blues-based rock of their first album and the musician’s own impaired state of mind during this well-documented time of excess. Lead singer Steven Tyler’s vocals are most deviant as he retreated to a darker, growling and wailing style voice.

The music on Draw the Line is murky and uneven. But lost in this murkiness is some legitimately excellent musical moments. The band abandoned studio experimentation for a simple, straight-ahead hard rock approach. Lead guitarist Joe Perry delved further into his loose style of Stones-inspired blues raunch, freely floating just above the band’s rhythm section. Jack Douglas co-produced the album with the band and also got involved in co-writing four of the album’s songs. The album was recorded in an abandoned convent outside of New York City called The Cenacle. However, this former holy place set the scene for the devilish situations which had an adverse affect on the album.

The sessions at The Cenacle were marred by in-fighting, extreme excess, and much drug use. This obviously had a negative effect on some of the songs, especially a few on the second side which appear to not be fully developed. As Tyler recalls; “The negativity and the drama sucked the creativity out of the marrow of my bones.”

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Draw the Line by Aerosmith
Released: December 1, 1977 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Jack Douglas & Aerosmith
Recorded: The Cenacle, Armonk, NY, 1977
Side One Side Two
Draw the Line
I Wanna Know Why
The Critical Mass
Get It Up
Bright Light Fright
Kings and Queens
The Hand That Feeds
Sight For Sore Eyes
Milk Cow Blues
Group Musicians
Steven Tyler – Lead Vocals, Piano, Harmonica
Joe Perry – Guitars, Vocals
Brad Whitford – Guitars
Tom Hamilton – Bass
Joey Kramer– Drums

Draw the Line contains many tracks which are quite good but may take a while to adapt to as they are not immediately accessible. “I Wanna Know Why” is a straight-out rocker, with a nice piano lead by session man Scott Cushnie, a nice lead by rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford and good vocal hook by Tyler. “The Critical Mass” is much more interesting. This forgotten classic, includes a harmonica lead by the singer, whining guitars by Perry above a thumping bass of co-writer Tom Hamilton. Lyrically, the song is one of many that apparently explores the dark side of drug abuse as evident in the opening lyric;

“Arriving in boats, black-hooded coats, tormentors climbed into my room
I crawled under my bed, covered my head
but they’re flushin’ me out with a broom”

“Get It Up” was the band’s attempt at a pop song that, ironically, failed to move up the charts. It features a strong drum beat by Joey Kramer and a heavy dose of slide guitar by Joe Perry. Perry then takes lead vocals on the next song “Bright Light Fright”, one of the rarest songs of the era for Aerosmith, which has almost never been played live by the band.
Backup vocals by Karen Lawrence

The true gems of the album are the songs which open each side. “Draw the Line”, whether intentionally or not, sounds distant and “vintage”, almost like its recording was caught by accident. The song features much back-and-forth interplay between guitarists Perry and Whitford that sounds improvised but works beautifully. The highlight of the song is Tyler’s climatic “screamed” final verse. “Kings and Queens” is the most original song on the album, written by Tyler, Whitford, Hamilton, Kramer, and Douglas and driven by unorthodox (for Aerosmith) instrumentation, including piano and synths, a bass lead by Hamilton, mandolin by Douglas, and banjo by guest Paul Prestopino. The song’s lyric delves into a swords-and-sorcery epic something usually reserved for more prog-rock oriented bands like Genesis or King Crimsom.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is much less inspired with “filler” songs that are not quite terrible, but not really up to spec with the quality one might expect from Aerosmith during their finest era. “The Hand That Feeds” is the best of the three due mainly to the guitar work of Whitford. “Sight For Sore Eyes” was co-written by David Johansen of the New York Dolls, but falls short of being fully developed. The closer “Milk Cow Blues” is a blues classic which was originally written and recorded by Kokomo Arnold in and covered by such acts as Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley. But unfortunately, Aerosmith does not really advance this song much at all.

Soon after Draw the Line, internal fueding led to the departure of both guitarists Perry and Whitford for more than half a decade, resulting in a couple of albums with other guitarists. The reunited Aerosmith did make a remarkable comeback in the late eighties, reaching pop heights like never before. However, music of the same quality from the mid seventies would not quite be created again.

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

Point of Know Return by Kansas

Point of Know Return by Kansas

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Point of Know Return by Kansas In 1977 while most classic rock artists were migrating towards simple, accessible music, Kansas was one of the last stubborn holdouts to compose pure prog rock. Although the band didn’t exclusively compose tunes in this genre, they still leaned mainly in this direction on their most popular album Point of Know Return. Even while going against the stream, the band managed to compose some of their most popular, enduring, and radio-friendly songs on this album. Point of Know Return would be the zenith of the band’s popularity, reaching #4 on the album charts and launching Kansas’ one and only major headlining tour in its wake. Soon the album’s cover image of a ship on the precipice of a waterfall would become the band’s signature image, replacing the image of abolitionist John Brown from the cover of their 1974 debut album.

Kansas’ previous album, Leftoverture, had brought them to the attention of mainstream rock fans, bringing a new pressure and new tensions to the recording sessions for this follow-up album. The band’s lead singer and songwriter Steve Walsh even left the group briefly but was talked into returning by the other group members.

The rich arrangements and frantic movement of 9/10 of the album is counterbalanced by the subtle and beautiful folk of “Dust In the Wind”, which would become one of the band’s most recognizable songs. The song also, and which gives the album an air of diversity and uniqueness, Which assisted the band in their overall struggle to maintain a healthy balance of prog rock and pop.


Point Of Know Return by Kansas
Released: October 11, 1977 (Kirshner)
Produced by: Jeff Glixman
Recorded: Woodland Sound, Nashville, TN & Studio In The Country, Bogalusa, LA, June–July 1977
Side One Side Two
Point Of Know Return
Paradox
The Spider
Portrait (He Knew)
Closet Chronicles
Lightning’s Hand
Dust In the Wind
Sparks of the Tempest
Nobody’s Home
Hopelessly Human
Group Musicians
Steve Wash – Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Kerry Livgren – Guitars, Keyboards
Rich Williams – Guitars
Robby Steinhardt – Violin, Lead Vocals
Dave Hope – Bass
Phil Ehart – Drums, Percussion

The album’s first two songs work in tandem, looking at the same theme from different points in time. The leadoff theme song has a title that has multiple meanings – discovery, knowledge, and overall risk-taking to achieve these goals. Musically, the song continues pretty much where Leftoverture left off, with a strong, highly melodic, and very accessible tone that has just enough “edge” to make it interesting to the critical listener. It contains great sonic performances by violinist Robby Steinhardt and bassist Dave Hope. “Paradox” is just as deeply philosophical but from a perspective of understanding  “knowledge” once it has been discovered. I find the fascinating contrast between a ship at sea and the name Kansas – one of the most landlocked states in the USA – to perhaps symbolize this paradox graphically. Musically the song leans more towards prog rock than its predeccessor, filled with many rudiments and musical flourishes stuffed into a less-than-four-minute song.

Kansas

“The Spider” is an instrumental that doesn’t quite mesh because it is very similar to “Paradox” but then just a bit off. The result of the two back-to-back songs is a clash like contrasting shades of the same color. Its droning conclusion dissolves into “Portrait (He Knew)”, a pop-oriented song inspired by either Albert Einstein or Jesus Christ, depending on which band member you ask. It has a long intro before breaking into a decent and melodic song. “Closet Chronicles” is an extended piece that ends the first side. It has Baroque inspired lyrics with a tone in the vein of Genesis and a tragic conclusion of times forgotten;

“I heard the king was dying, I heard the king was dead, and with him died the chronicles that no one ever read…”

The second side of the album contains three songs which feature violinist Robby Steinhardt on lead vocals. “Lightning’s Hand” is the most hard rock oriented song on the album and actually lead to Steinhardt being injured on tour when a special “lightening effect” which was supposed to pass through a sword in his hand, gave him a major shock and caused his significant mane of hair to stand straight up. “Sparks of the Tempest” Is another song featuring Steinhardt on lead vocals and starts with a very funk-oriented feel before later morphing into a pure, guitar-oriented rock song.

“Dust in the Wind” was actually a last-minute addition to Point of Know Return, but would be its greatest success. The song was written by Kerry Livgren as a finger exercise for learning finger picking. His wife liked the melody and encouraged him to write lyrics for it. Livgren was unsure whether his fellow band members would like the song, which was a major departure from their style, but they accepted it. The great folk feel of the song is complemented by deeply philosophical lyrics which deal with mortality, the vastness of the universe, and an individual’s role in the bigger picture. While the inspiration for the song’s title was a Native American poem, it also fits well with the image of geographical Kansas, the heart of the “Dust Bowl” tragedy of the 1930s. Livgren is complimented by a second acoustic played by Rich Williams, harmonized violin and viola by Steinhardt and fantastic vocals by Walsh.

“Nobody’s Home” is another great song. A melancholy ballad which is very piano and keyboard oriented, it may be the most traditionally constructed song on the album. The closing song, “Hopelessly Human”, takes the opposite approach, as the band runs the gamut of styles and instrumentation with many disjointed sections featuring different lead sections by different lead instruments. The seven minute song is a bit too indulgent to be really all that entertaining and perhaps the one who shines brightest is drummer Phil Ehart, who manages to tie it all together. The song and album ends on the upbeat sound of harmonically chiming bells.

Eventually Kansas would morph towards being a purely pop/rock band, which sustained them with some hits in the 1980s but never quite captured the aura they possessed during their heyday in the late 1970s.

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

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Rumours by Fleetwood Mac It took the band Fleetwood Mac ten albums and many lineup shifts to achieve mainstream commercial success, but the group got there with their 1975 eponymous release. This was the first album to feature songwriters and vocalists Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who joined the band following the departure of Bob Welch. Cashing in on that success, the band expanded the formula with their eleventh album, 1977’s Rumours. Produced by the band along with Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut, this album would become not just the band’s top seller, but one of the highest selling albums ever up to that point in time.

Much of the album was recorded in a small cabin north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate in Sausalito, CA. Although Rumours is filled with pleasant, easy-going, and melodic pop/rock throughout, the album’s creation and production was anything but cool and steady. All five members of the band, which included two married couples, struggled with relationship breakups around the time. Buckingham and Nicks were having an on and off relationship with constant fighting. The band’s other primary writer and keyboardist Christine McVie and bassist John McVie had recently divorced after eight years of marriage and refused to speak to each other except when working on songs. Drummer Mick Fleetwood faced his own domestic problems after discovering his wife had an affair with his best friend. It was later revealed that Fleetwood and Nicks started a relationship around this time. Further, there was much press intrusion into the member’s lives as well as unsubstantiated rumours (giving the album its name). This stressful situation and internal strife influenced many of the album’s lyrics but, to the band’s credit, this strife did not adversely effect the quality of the album or its production.

The album has high quality harmonies among three vocalists and was inspired by many different genres. Buckingham took charge of the musical directions of the sessions as the record had an original working title of “Yesterday’s Gone”. During the formative stages of compositions, Buckingham and the classically trained Christine McVie played guitar and piano together to create the basic song structures. They were latter joined by the rhythm section of Fleetwood and John McVie, who were the last remaining members of the original blues band which was formed in the late 1960s. Nicks believed that Fleetwood Mac created the best music when in the worst shape and her lyrical focus allowed the instrumentals in the songs that she wrote to be looser and more abstract. The goal of the band and their producers was to have a completely “no-filler” final product, with every song having the potential of being a single or radio hit. They would come remarkably close to reaching this goal.

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Rumours by Fleetwood Mac
Released: February 4, 1977 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Fleetwood Mac, Ken Caillat, & Richard Dashut
Recorded: Record Plant Studios, Sausalito and Los Angeles, CA, 1976
Side One Side Two
Second Hand News
Dreams
Never Going Back Again
Don’t Stop
Go Your Own Way
Songbird
The Chain
You Make Lovin’ Fun
I Don’t Want to Know
Oh Daddy
Gold Dust Woman
Band Musicians
Lindsey Buckingham – Guitars, Vocals
Christine McVie – Keyboards, Vocals
Stevie Nicks – Vocals
John McVie – Bass
Mick Fleetwood– Drums

 
The moody and complex song “The Chain” originated from a pair of demos by Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks which were fused together. The tempo is increased starting with a bass solo by John McVie through the song’s coda. “The Chain” is the only collaborative song on the album, composed by every member of the band, as the rest of the compositions were made solely by one of the band’s three primary writers.

Buckingham’s songs include the album’s opener “Second Hand News”, a Celtic influenced rock song with “chair” percussion for effect. It is not the strongest opening number, but it does set up the later pop tracks nicely. “Never Going Back Again” is much better, a largely overlooked classic on Rumours. It is a pleasant and melodic guitar diddy done nearly entirely by Buckingham, with just the slightest backing vocals during the shortest durations, This really should be out of place on this album of pop songs, but it works nevertheless.

Fleetwood Mac in 1977

“Go Your Own Way” is the most popular song on the album written by Lindsey Buckingham. It was released as the album’s first single and became the group’s first top ten hit in the U.S. The song’s lyric offers a pessimistic view of his complicated relationship with Stevie Nicks. Nicks offered her own view of that relationship in “Dreams”, which would go on to become the band’s only number one Billboard song.

From first listen, “Dreams” is an instant classic. The minimal backing rhythm provides a perfect canvas for Nicks to paint her vocal masterpiece masterpiece. Nicks claims she wrote the song in Sausalito in “about ten minutes” and the band started recording it the very next day. Some of the more complex guitar and bass patterns were later added in Los Angeles. Although incredibly simple, the song’s arrangement gives it an air of complexity which makes it sound fresh decades later.

Nicks’ other two compositions appear late on the second side. “I Don’t Want to Know” is leftover from the pre-Fleetwood Mac, “Buckingham and Nicks” days and contains harmonized vocals throughout. The album’s closer, “Gold Dust Woman” features some cool sounds from a dobro, percussive instruments, and several acoustic guitars. This song about cocaine addiction is haunting but never tragic as the soundscape sets a dreamy scene with a tinge of hope.

You Make Loving Fun by Fleetwood MacChristine McVie composed four songs on Rumours, starting with the smash hit “Don’t Stop”, which has become one of the Fleetwood Mac’s signature songs. Trading lead vocals with Buckingham, Christine’s lyrics offer an optimistic view following her divorce from band mate John. “It seemed to be a pleasant revelation to have that ‘yesterday’s gone’,” she remembers. “You Make Loving Fun” is a much better song, perhaps the best pure pop song that the band has ever delivered. The verse is driven’ by a Soul-inspired clarinet, which backs McVie’s calm crooning. During the chorus, Christine is joined by some complex harmonies by Buckingham and Nicks during a beautiful arrangement which puts the song over the top.

Christine McVie’s other two contributions are calm piano tunes. “Songbird” was performed and recorded in a concert hall to capture the ambiance perfectly. With introspective, almost prayer-like lyrics, the song has been covered several times, primarily by folk singers. “Oh Daddy” is a more complex theme which directly references Mick Fleetwood, who the band nicknamed “The Big Daddy”. A founding member, Fleetwood had much influence in the band’s direction and seemed to always turn out to be right, especially during this time of great success.

Fleetwood called Rumours “the most important album we ever made” (and he was there for there for each and every album). With its success, the group would continue recording for years to come through many changes in the pop and rock world. By the album’s tenth anniversary in 1987, it had sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide.

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

Aja by Steely Dan

Aja by Steely Dan

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Aja by Steely DanAja was the best album produced by the Steely Dan. With the sixth album by the group, driven primarily by keyboardist and vocalist Donald Fagen and bassist Walter Becker, the songs became more sophisticated and oriented towards the individual songwriters. In fact, Fagen and Becker never really intended to have a band at all, just a songwriting team for ABC Records and producer Gary Katz. But when it became apparent that the duo’s songs were too complex for the average ABC artist, they enlisted four more musicians and formed Steely Dan (named after a sex toy in William Burrough’s poem “Naked Lunch”) in 1972. Although Katz and engineer Roger Nichols would produce all their classic albums in the seventies, the musicians surrounding Fagen and Becker would change rapidly. In fact, by 1974 the band had ceased touring and concentrated on studio work.

For Aja, Fagen and Becker decided to utilize the vast amount of session musicians available in the Los Angeles area, especially top-notch jazz and rock musicians. In all, nearly forty musicians would perform on the seven-song album, including six different drummers, seven different guitarists, and eight to ten vocalists. Fagen and Becker were sonic perfectionists, not compromising on their envisioned sound. With the musicians, they obsessively employed a two step process that involved first perfecting their part and then getting beyond to where it sounds improvised and natural. For most of Aja they accomplished this well.

The album became the group’s best-selling album and their first to go platinum. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording in 1978 and has become regarded by most as Steely Dan’s finest work. Last April (2011), the album was added to the United States National Recording Registry and deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”.

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Aja by Steely Dan
Released: September 23, 1977 (ABC)
Produced by: Gary Katz
Recorded: Hollywood, CA & January-July 1977
Side One Side Two
Black Cow
Aja
Deacon Blues
Peg
Home At Last
I Got the News
Josie
Primary Musicians
Donald Fagen – Keybords, Synths, Vocals
Walter Becker – Bass, Guitars, Vocals

The album crashes in with the simple bass and key groove of “Black Cow”, modern sound by 1977 standards. But with the introduction of the fine chorus made of multiple voices, it is clear this is Steely Dan. The song gradually builds through a vibraphone lead by Victor Feldman, later swelling into some fine brass which adds a much more jazzy touch to the already upbeat tune. Although the writers claim a “black cow” is simply a milkshake from their childhood days around New York City, it may be a jazz metaphor on 1970s nightlife. The main riff of the song was reused for the hip hop “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz.

The title song “Aja” follows as a progressive jazz suite that hops skips and jumps all around the musical palette. It incorporates elements of Caribbean music, progressive rock, and swing within the eight minute epic, which incorporates pieces of older, unreleased songs. The song is the longest and most musically complex song that Becker and Fagen ever attempted and it features several virtuoso performances, including those by drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Denny Dias, and tenor sax by Wayne Shorter that is the purest jazz Steely Dan ever recorded.

“Deacon Blues” is the absolute pinnacle of the Steely Dan sound. It is built of complex piano chord patterns that never really seem to repeat and flavored with just the right amount of brass, laid back at some intervals, forceful and pulling at others. There great vocals throughout, starting with the perfectly delivered lead by Fagen and the ensemble of backing vocals during the choruses. The drum beat by legend Bernard “Pretty” Purdie is perfect, a guide rail along the tour that keeps all moving at a constant pace despite the ever changing sonic surprises throughout the song’s duration. Becker described the lyrics as “close to autobiography”, about suburban kids looking for some king of alternative culture, imagining what it is like to be a jazz musician or beat poet in the city. The song contains the memorable lyric;

“They’ve got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose / They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues…”

Here they use the analogy of college football success (Alabama Crimson Tide) and failure (Wake Forest Demon Deacons) in the 1970s, stressing their desire to be with the losers, the outsiders, the alternative. “Deacon Blues” was also a rarity in being a complex and extended piece which also became a popular hit, peaking at #19 on the Top 40 charts.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1977The biggest pop hit from Aja is “Peg”, which contains a funky guitar riff, lead horns, slap bass, and layers of jazzy vocal harmonies led by Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Even this relatively simple song, has a jazz oriented edge and an uncanny melody. Ever the perfectionists, the song’s guitar solo was attempted by seven different session guitarists before Fagen and Becker agreed that Jay Graydon‘s version was the best. Still, Graydon worked on it for about six hours before they were satisfied.

“Home At Last” is a nostalgic look back at New York after Fagen and Becker relocated to California. The song once again features Purdie on drums (doing his famous “Purdie Shuffle”) as well as Chicago blues-man Larry Carlton on guitar. “I Got the News” follows as a typical mid seventies Steely Dan tune, perhaps the most uninspired on this album.

The album concludes with “Josie”, the most rock-oriented song on the album, albeit heavily funk oriented. In fact, the album’s liner notes refers to the song as “punkadelia”, a fusion of funk with a more sardonic lyric. The recording features several more studio innovations ranging from the incorporation of synthesizers to the inclusion of a garbage can lid by drummer Jim Keltner.

Aja is a measured and textured album, filled with subtle melodies and lush instrumental backdrops. On this album Steely Dan would reach heights that they could not replicate in the future, as they would release only one album (1980’s Gaucho) over the following two decades. Aja was Donald Fagen and Walter Becker at their finest.

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

1976 Album of the Year

Boston

1976 Album of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston

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

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

and –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1976 Images

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

Hotel California by The Eagles

Hotel California by The Eagles

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Hotel California by The EaglesWhether it was done intentionally or not, Hotel California came pretty close to being a true concept album by The Eagles. The songs each loosely share the themes of paradise lost or squandered and the album is bookmarked by geographical locations of such. As the band’s fifth album, it was transitional in several ways including music and personnel wise. Guitarist Bernie Leadon, a strong influence on the band’s country sound of the early years was replaced by funk-rock guitarist Joe Walsh, who had previously fronted the groups James Gang and Barnstorm. As a result, the band’s sound got a bit heavier while never abandoning its mainstream pop sensibilities.

The album was produced by Bill Szymczyk, who had produced the Eagles previous two albums as well as several albums by Joe Walsh and the James Gang. Szymczyk was noted for laboriously experimenting until he found the right “sound” in each artist, as the producer possessed no musical talent or training, just extraordinary listening skills. The band took 18 months between releases of their previous album One of These Night and Hotel California, with eight of those months in the studio recording.

Thematically, members of the Eagles have described the album as a metaphor for the perceived decline of America. The band’s lead singer, songwriter, and drummer Don Henley said that because it was the bicentennial year and the “Eagle” is the symbol of our country, they felt obliged to make some kind of artistic statement. He explained how they used California as a microcosm of the whole United States, with comments on the nature of success and the attraction of excess, and an extremely pessimistic history of America.

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Hotel California by The Eagles
Released: December 8, 1976 (Asylum)
Produced by: Bill Szymczyk
Recorded: Criteria Studios, Miami & Record Plant, L.A., March-October 1976
Side One Side Two
Hotel California
New Kid In Town
Life In the Fast Lane
Wasted Time
Wasted Time (Reprise)
Victim of Love
Pretty Maids All In the Row
Try and Love Again
The Last Resort
Band Musicians
Glenn Frey – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Joe Walsh – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Don Felder – Guitars, Vocals
Randy Meisner – Bass, Guitarron, Vocals
Don Henley – Drums, Vocals

While the lyrical content of the album is up for debate, the true beauty of Hotel California is the sound, much of which was unlike anything the Eagles had done before. The opening theme song starts with long acoustic/electric intro, which was originally introduced to the band by lead guitarist Don Felder as an instrumental piece. This acts as a dramatic overture before the song kicks in with a quasi-Caribbean rhythm and beat with the first verse and the cryptic, yet intriguing, storytelling lyrics. However, the real treat that makes this song a bonafide classic are the dual electric guitars by Walsh and Felder, which float above the lyric stinging electric melodies throughout the verse and chorus, and take center stage with the long, dual guitar lead to close the song.

To this day, many of the unique terms and phases used in the song’s lyric are debated as to their exact meaning or intent. These include “colitas”, “this could be Heaven or this could be Hell”, “wine” referred to as a “spirit” (which it is not), “steely knives”, and the key phase of the song – “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

After this unique artistic masterpiece, the band serves up a couple of songs which both went on to be big hits, one in the country-rock style of the past, and one in the heavier rock style of the future. “New Kid In Town” is probably the greatest country rock song ever (if there ever really was such a genre) It has some great chord structure, a beautiful mix of instrumentation, and more great guitar by Don Felder, although much less subtle than on the title song. Co-written by J.D. Souther and sung by Glenn Frey, the song ascends keys in the third verse and then finds a smooth passage back before the outtro, in a piece of musical mastery. “Life In the Fast Lane” features a heavy guitar riff and lead by Joe Walsh, with lyrics that are a bit edgy. It uses the driving analogy for a drug and danger fueled lifestyle and contains a great hook with an almost-disco beat. The nice flanged section after last chorus gives the song an edgy, new-wave feel that makes the sound quite advanced for 1976.

Eagles in 1976

The first side ends with “Wasted Time”, a song that may be the perfect barroom ballad speaking of broken relationships. The song is very slow and measured, with great vocals by Henley. However, the orchestral reprise of the song which opens up the second side of the album is, in fact, “wasted time” as it adds absolutely nothing to the album. This short foray is mercifully disrupted by the hard rocker “Victim of Love”, a song which proves that the Eagles can do more with two chords than any other band ever. This song was recorded live in the studio and contains a great descend into a slide solo by Joe Walsh.

Walsh’s only songwriting and lead vocal effort is “Pretty Maids All In a Row”, which is not a very strong representation of his talents. It is a piano ballad, surprising by Walsh with Felder playing the lead guitar role. “Try and Love Again” was written and sung by bassist Randy Meisner, who has that strange kind of voice which gives songs a cool edge, such on his “Take It To the Limit” on the previous album. Hotel California would be Meisner’s last album with the band, as he decided to return to his native Nebraska in order to be with his family.

The album concludes with Henley’s “The Last Resort”, which bookends the “Hotel California” theme nicely on one hand, but is kind of the anti-Hotel California on another hand. Where that classic song is poetic and leaves much room for interpretation, this one is preachy with lyrics that are a bit bigoted, racist, elitist, and yet self-loathing, taking away from the otherwise beautiful melody and score. All that being said, the song does include some profound lyrics;

“There is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
You call something paradise, kiss it goodbye…”

Hotel California would be the absolute pinnacle of the The Eagles’ career, selling more than any other of their multiple successes and being considered high up on several “all time” lists. The band went on to record one more studio album, The Long Run, which took even longer to create. Although that album was also a smash hit, it contributed greatly to the tensions that ultimately broke up the band in 1980.

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1976 Images

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

1976_Kiss Destroyer

Destroyer by Kiss

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Destroyer by KissOn the brink of mainstream success, glam rock band Kiss set out to create a serious studio album by enlisting Alice Cooper’s producer Bob Ezrin. In producing the band’s fourth album, Destroyer, Ezrin added richer production and instrumentation with some outside musicians to the band’s base, party-rock sound. As none of the band members had any formal musical training or knew much musical theory, Ezrin ran the sessions like a classroom, explaining theory along the way and scolding any band member who deviated from specific directions, something Kiss would later refer to as “musical boot camp”. The result was the most successful album to date, following the modest success of the the first three studio albums, and the launching of Kiss into super-stardom through the late 1970s and beyond.

The group was formed in 1972, when guitarist/vocalist Paul Stanley and bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons stumbled upon an Ad placed by veteran New York drummer Peter Criss. Criss had previously played in a band called “Lips”, to which Stanley evolved into the name “Kiss”. Starting as a trio, the group played hard rock covers and eventually injected original material as well as their trademark stage costumes. After three studio albums with modest success, Kiss released a very successful live album in late 1975 called Alive!, which sought to capture the live energy of their concerts.

For the production of Destroyer, rather than try to recreate a concert setting on this studio album, Ezrin went the opposite route and made what is perhaps the most experimental album in the Kiss catalog. Not everyone was on board with this, as lead guitarist Ace Frehley (who joined the group as a fourth member in 1974) caused much friction to the point where he was threatened to be replaced and then relented. Virtually no one was on board with the inclusion of the orchestra to back “Beth”, with the exception of Criss, who wrote song and sang lead. This song, of course became a smash hit for the band and opened up their music to whole new audiences.

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Destroyer by Kiss
Released: March 15, 1976 (Casablanca)
Produced by: Bob Ezrin
Recorded: Electric Lady & Record Plant, New York, Sep 1975- Feb 1976
Side One Side Two
Detroit Rock City
King of the Night Time World
God of Thunder
Great Expectations
Flaming Youth
Sweet Pain
Shout It Out Loud
Beth
Do You Love Me?
Rock and Roll Party
Group Musicians
Paul Stanley – Rhythm Guitars, Vocals
Ace Frehley – Lead Guitars, Vocals
Gene Simmons – Bass, Vocals
Peter Criss – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

The album’s opener, “Detroit Rock City” includes news reports and other sound effects overlaying a hard rock song with dramatic lyrics written by Stanley and inspired by a real life story where a fan was killed in a car crash while hurrying to get to a Kiss concert. “King Of the Night” follows, but is of far less quality, almost a caricature of a pretentious rock song by players with minimal skill. “God Of Thunder” features vocals by Simmons and over the years came to be known as his theme song, even though it was actually written by Stanley.

One can definitely hear the Alice Cooper influence on “Great Expectations”, which uses a Beethoven piece in the intro before breaking into a decent but haunting rock song. “Flaming Youth” is a piece orchestrated by Ezrin from three separate songs written by Frehley, Simmons, and Stanley. Alice Cooper guitarist Dick Wagner played the guitar lead on this track as well as on “Sweet Pain”, another mediocre, formulaic song that opens the album’s second side.

“Shout It Out Loud” was strongly influenced by the band’s label Casablanca Records, who insisted that the band create another “rock anthem” in the same vein as “Rock and Roll All Nite” from the previous album. While the song was popular and eventually became a regular concert staple on the oldies circuit, it was not nearly as successful as its predecessor.

Peter Criss’s “Beth” was written several years earlier when he was in the band Chelsea, with the lyrics coming nearly verbatim from a bandmate’s phone conversation with a clingy girlfriend (who he called “Beck”, short for Becky) as the band was rehearsing. Criss was the only band member to actual perform in the song, singing with his raspy voice which strongly contrasted the piano and strings by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which Ezrin brought in to back the track. “Beth” was originally the B-side of the “Detroit Rock City” and later released as a single of its own, peaking at #7 on the Billboard singles chart in September 1976, the group’s first Top 10 song. It was a last-minute addition to the album as Simmons and Stanley strongly objected because it was not a typical Kiss song.

Kiss in 1976

“Do You Love Me?” is the last real song on the album with an almost hip-hop drum beat, funky bass, and a good guitar during the bridge. The lyrics question how much adoration is for the man versus the rock star in the situations the band members were starting to experience. It also acts as a bit of a prediction as stardom was just starting to befall the New York band behind the white makeup.

In less than a year following Destroyer, two more highly successful studio albums were released, Rock and Roll Over in November 1976, and Love Gun in 1977. This was followed by a second popular live album (Alive II) and a whole plethora of touring, marketing and media successes that made Kiss one of the top earning bands of the decade.

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1976 Images

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

Dreamboat Annie by Heart

Dreamboat Annie by Heart

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Dreamboat Annie by HeartHeart, originally labeled the “female Led Zeppelin,” had an impressive debut with Dreamboat Annie. The album was appropriately released on Valentine’s Day in 1976. Produced by Mike Flicker, the album has a simple and direct sound that accentuates the rock dynamics within the instruments and vocals. The Seattle based band recorded the album in Vancouver and first released it in Canada only in 1975 on the Mushroom Records label, which at the time did not have a U.S. distribution system. But, due to heavy sales and radio play in Canada, Mushroom expanded to the U.S. solely to promote Heart, starting in Seattle and then working city by city through the United States, as the band’s popularity spread. The ultimate goal was to land a national distribution contract, but soon relations between the band and Mushroom deteriorated due to questionable ads. The result was Dreamboat Annie never quite reaching the heights that it legitimately deserved as a top-notch rock album with an original approach until the 1980s when Mushroom went out of business and Capitol Records picked up distribution of the early Heart material.

In the mid 1970s, there were very few women who performed and recorded the assertive, Zeppelin-esque rock that Heart had developed. Lead by singer Ann Wilson and her younger sister, guitarist and songwriter Nancy Wilson, the band developed something unapologetically strong and within the realm previously exclusive to male musicians and fans. These strong yet melodic rockers made for a potent combination which would be copied in future decades but was quite unique at the time Dreamboat Annie was released. But even within this new sub-genre, Heart added some variety with ballads and folk-influenced numbers, making this album an interesting listen.

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Dreamboat Annie by Heart
Released: February 14, 1976 (Mushroom)
Produced by: Mike Flicker
Recorded: Can-Base Studios, Vancouver, July-August 1975
Side One Side Two
Magic Man
Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child)
Crazy On You
Soul Of the Sea
Dreamboat Annie
White Lightning and Wine
(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song
Sing Child
How Deep It Goes
Dreamboat Annie (Reprise)
Group Musicians
Ann Wilson – Lead Vocals, Flute
Nancy Wilson – Guitar, Piano, Vocals
Roger Fisher – Guitars
Howard Leese – Keyboards
Steve Fossen – Bass

The album blasts out of the gate with the popular rocker “Magic Man” with a simple, rocking beat which provides the perfect backdrop for Ann Wilson’s voice. The song contains a long mid-section with extended leads by guitarist Roger Fisher and keyboardist Howard Leese in turn, giving it a more “epic” feel beyond its melodic hook in the verse and chorus. This “epic” or “concept” structure is extended to the album itself with three different versions of the title song “Dreamboat Annie”. However, only the version which closes side one acts as true song, a fast picked folk song with layered harmonies and picked acoustic guitar and banjo. The other two kind of sound like alternate takes which were added as filler.

Probably the best song that Heart would ever record, “Crazy On You” is an absolute gem which employs all the elements that make a great rock song. It has a finger-picked acoustic intro which highlights the skills of Nancy Wilson, divergent instrumentation throughout as the acoustic makes a soft bed for the dynamic electric guitars to pierce through melodically, a good riff and hook, beautiful interludes, and a sense of mystique brought out by the chord arrangements. Once again, the dynamic and emotional vocals of Ann Wilson push the song over the top.

Heart 1976

There is a lot to like about the album, especially when you explore some of the lesser known songs. “Soul Of The Sea” is a nice guitar ballad with layered strings which contrasts with “White Lightning and Wine”, a pure, bluesy rocker, driven by the rhythm of Steve Fossen and the sultry vocals of Wilson. “(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song” features strummed acoustic by Nancy Wilson and some nice slide guitar by Leese, making the vibe almost country in ways, while another acoustic ballad “How Deep It Goes” features nice bass flourishes, fine synths, and good harmonies. “Sing Child” is the only group composition and really presents early Heart as a true band as it includes a guitar solo and jam in the middle along with some Ian Anderson-like flute by Ann Wilson.

Heart would go on to produce more popular albums, especially as they morphed towards being a more pop-oriented band. But Dreamboat Annie displays them at their most innovative and talented and is a most impressive debut.

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1976 Images

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

Songs In the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

Songs In the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

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Songs In the Key of Life by Stevie WonderThe incredibly long and ambitious Songs In the Key of Life became the tour-de-force of Stevie Wonder‘s prolific seventies. The album consisted of two LPs plus an addition four-song EP, a total 85 minutes of music from its 21 total songs. Wonder’s songs dealt with a variety of subjects many of which were the serious issues of the day and the musical performances are considered some of the best of his career. Because of its incredible length and rich arrangements, Songs In the Key of Life took a year longer than expected to complete, which made for a stressful situation between Wonder and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, especially since Gordy had just given Wonder the largest record contract in history in 1975. It was a seven-album, $37 million deal with Wonder guaranteed full artistic control, and Gordy and the world eagerly awaited the first album of this new contract to be completed.

The album was finally released at the end of September 1976, and by early October it was already number one on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart, where it stayed for thirteen consecutive weeks into 1977 and eventually became the second best-selling album of that year. Songs In the Key of Life also became the most successful Stevie Wonder album as far as charting singles, and several of the songs were even the basis for hip-hop standards decades later. The album also became Wonder’s third in four years to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, winning previously in 1974 and 1975 for Innervisions and Fulfilligness’ First Finale respectively. Wonder also won Grammys for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male Rhythm and Blues Performer, and Producer of the Year in 1977.

Although a total of 130 people worked on the album, many of the songs on the album were performed entirely by Wonder. The album took the listener through a journey of musical styles, recollections, and observations about issues ranging from childhood, first love, faith, social issues, and the downtrodden.

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Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder
Released: September 28, 1976 (Motown)
Produced by: Stevie Wonder
Recorded: Crystal Sound, L.A. & The Record Factory, New York, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Love’s In Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Contusion
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Side Three Side Four
Isn’t She Lovely?
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia
If It’s Magic
As
Another Star
A Something’s Extra EP
Saturn
Ebony Eyes
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
Primary Musicians
Stevie Wonder – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Drums, Percussion
Michael Sembello – Guitars
Nathan Watts – Bass
Ray Pounds – Drums

When Stevie Wonder chose the title, he set an ambitious personal goal to live up to its billing. He worked with a core group of musicians laying down many of the funk-oriented tracks while independently developing several of the more innovative tracks. Although this diverse album does have amazing cohesion, the first two original sides and EP seem to be far superior to sides three and four, which are still good but far less dazzling. All that being said, side one starts with an odd sequence of songs.

“Love’s In Need of Love Today” starts with deep harmonies before breaking into an R&B ballad. Like many songs later on the album, it contains a very long outro with much vocal improvisation all the way to the end. “Have a Talk with God” is performed in total by Wonder, mostly synths with some drums and a nice lead. “Village Ghetto Land” is completely original, with orchestral parts performed on the Yamaha “dream machine” the lyrics were written by Gary Byrd, who actually recited them over the phone to Wonder minutes before he recorded the song. The fourth song, “Contusion” is actually the first to use a “band” arrangement. It is (almost) an instrumental with just some scat vocals and where Wonder really takes a backseat to the other musicians like guitarist Michael Sembello.

“Sir Duke” finishes side one and is a true classic. The song was written in tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington, who died in 1974. Ellington had a strong influence on Wonder as a musician and he wanted to write a song acknowledging musicians he felt were important. Originally done on 16 track but later on the new 24 track recorder, “Sir Duke” is one of the great songs from the era, fresh and bold with lots of harmonized brass upfront and a fantastic vocal melody by Wonder.

The A Something’s Extra 7″ EP was included with many editions the original album and the tracks are on most CD versions. It contains four fine tracks, starting with Sembello’s “Saturn”, who got the title when he misinterpreted Wonder’s singing “Saginaw” (the town of his birth). It is a pleasant ballad with a bit of edginess and marching piano. “Ebony Eyes” is a great, upbeat boogie-woogie piano song with strong bass by Nathan Watts and drums by Wonder and really cool instrumentation in the arrangement including a talkbox, a steel guitar, and a great growling sax lead. “All Day Sucker” is another synth-driven, hyper funk song, while “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” starts kind of dramatic but eases into a nice jazz rhythm with a Fender Rhodes electric piano, topped by Wonder’s double-tracked harmonica.

Stevie Wonder I Wish singleSide two kicks off with “I Wish”, a song that is nearly impossible not to dance to at every listen. It revolves around several very complex synth and bass lines that mesh together like a funky symphony. The song was the first and most successful hit off the album, with nostalgic lyrics. “Knocks Me Off My Feet” begins with a lounge act piano until it works into a nice romantic ballad with some very interesting and intense sections.

“Pastime Paradise” is another complex art piece, which contains a reverse gong and strings from the “dream machine” that Wonder says were influenced by the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It also contains some very complex, Latin-influenced percussion with bells and two full choral groups singing completely different parts simultaneously. Yet somehow it all comes together in a beautiful and haunting piece. “Summer Soft” is a beautiful piano tune that breaks into nice ensemble with stronger instrumentation, with the end of the song going through many key changes, becoming more and more intense on each iteration until giving way to a closing organ lead by Ronnie Foster. “Ordinary Pain” finishes the fantastic second side as another very pleasant melody with a strong, thumping rhythm which turns sharply about midway through to a new-fangled funk with vocals by Shirley Brewer.

The third LP side starts with “Isn’t She Lovely?”, which would become one of Wonder’s all time popular songs. Written in celebration ofthe the birth of his daughter, Wonder incorporated sounds from home to complement the excellent piano riff, vocal melody, and sweet harmonica lead during the long outtro. “Joy Inside My Tears” contains a slow and steady drum beat played by Wonder with really subdued vocals. “Black Man” has a strong synth presence and 1980s type deep funk (in 1976), with a section of long question and answer chanting at the end.

Stevie Wonder

On the fourth side, “If It’s Magic” stands out as a unique piece containing on harp by Dorothy Ashby and vocals with a little harmonica by Wonder. “As” is an upbeat R&B ballad dominated by the chorus hook sung by background singers with Wonder improvising much of the lead vocals. “Another Star” finishes the side with an almost disco-beat above some Caribbean-influenced piano and percussion and is yet another song with a long outro of consistent riff and improvised vocals.

Songs In the Key of Life was an incredible success on all fronts and would serve as a major influence for scores artists over the coming decades. It was also the absolute apex of a very long career by Stevie Wonder.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums

Leftoverture by Kansas

Leftoverture by Kansas

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Leftoverture by KansasFor a long time I considered Kansas to be more like a sidekick act in relation to those truly talented British progressive rock bands. This was probably due, in no small part, to the weak critical reception and tepid coverage that they seem to get from the mainstream rock press, many of whom dismiss them as “corporate rock” or whatever intellectually lazy label they use to dismiss certain acts. But as I listened extensively to Leftoverture while preparing for this review, I came to realize that this band may well equal some of these acts held in higher esteem. While it is i true that they draw heavily from contemporaries like Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd, and Rush, they really have an art for mixing it up in a totally entertaining fashion. Kansas also has a knack for hitting the “sweet spot” when it comes to melody and harmony and they really make their own mark when it comes to true sonic value.

The second epiphany I had concerning the Leftoverture album was actually a question – can this be considered a religious album? There is no doubt that it is definitely philosophical, inspired and spiritual in the new-age lefty kind of way. But is it religious? If so, it may be the best type of religious album; implicit and artful with many subjects left in the form of a very good question, rather than a conclusion or directive.

Which brings us back to the critics of this album, many of which blast it for being a “concept album” without having a true concept. My statement to that is perhaps it is not a concept album at all, just a fine collection of songs with more universal themes than traditional rock and roll. These universal themes may reach beyond the typical conventions of the garden variety rock critic. Others have said the band tries to be too “arty” when they don’t have the talent to do so. To those who say this album doesn’t contain rhythm or composition, I say they simply do not like music.

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Leftoverture by Kansas
Released: October 1976 (Kirshner)
Produced by: Jeff Glixman & Kansas
Recorded: Studio In the Country, Bogalusa, LA, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Carry On Wayward Son
The Wall
What’s On My Mind
Miracles Out of Nowhere
Opus Insert
Questions of My Childhood
Cheyenne Anthem
Magnus Opus
Group Musicians
Steve Wash – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
Kerry Livgren – Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Clarinet
Rich Williams – Guitars
Robby Steinhardt – Violin, Viola, Vocals
Dave Hope – Bass
Phil Ehart – Drums, Percussion

The first side on the album contains a nice mix of styles, highlighted by “The Wall”. The guitar-led intro is just fantastic and nicely switches to the baroque-inspired verse with harpsichord-like keys that are later accented by strings and thumping rhythms. This song really feels influenced by a mixture of Yes and classic Genesis, but with a more terrestrial feel especially when it comes to Walsh’s lead vocals and Livgren’s poetic lyrics which pre-empted Roger Waters by about three years;

“It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between,
All I am, and all that I would ever want be, it’s just a travesty…”

The next song “What’s On My Mind” is almost a straight-forward pop song and therefore probably the weakest song on the album artistically, but not a terrible listen. “Miracles Out of Nowhere” is much stronger, moving through many great instrumental passages with rich instrumentation including acoustic guitars, strings, synths, and piano, while almost folk during verses.

The album’s opener, “Carry On My Wayward Son”, has become the most lasting piece from Leftoverture, receiving heavy airplay through the decades. While this song is definitely pop-oriented, it still feels “epic” in many ways, from the perfect harmonies at the start, to the various passages of musical interlude, and the fine piano backing the verse and very poetic lyric. The song has been called “a sonic monolith” with its meaning still debated, from that of an ongoing theme brought forward from the previous album Masque, to the religious sentiment I touched on earlier in this article.

The album’s second half is where I feel the true genius lies. Although, I can’t quite articulate that genus in words (something that no doubt frustrated those harsh critics). Starting with “Opus Insert” which is an absolutely brilliant song to the ears but quite baffling (due to its title) to the mind. It may be an inside joke or puzzle left to be solved, but I’ll just stick to what I can report. It is extremely entertaining, starting with an odd, interesting organ that breaks into a heavier section, very good with thumping bass by Dave Hope. It is a “carpe diem” song with nicely strummed acoustic during the chorus followed by a majestic riff of violin/viola which morphs even further into a marching sound with drum rolls behind vibraphone and piano before returning again to odd and beautiful beginning and then synth-led ending.

Before you can catch your breath “Questions of My Childhood” kicks in with a wild and upbeat intro led by synth then organ. More philosophical themes are explored around maturing and realizing you never get all the answers. A great violin lead in the outtro by string man Robby Steinhardt sits on top of the intro synths, which nicely migrate into the background. “Cheyenne Anthem” is nearly a straight-forward folk song with a message, but it seems to have a deeper, poetic meaning as the verses go on (again, religious?) –

“All our words and deeds are carried on the wind…”

Musically the song is once again brilliant, never getting bogged down by any predisposed “message”, with nice acoustic guitars and synth overtones and Jethro Tull-like folksy passages which lead to an upbeat section that sounds almost polka (although probably based on Native American tribal dance). This gives way to more Kansas-style riff before the big mid-section breaks back down to simple strummed acoustic guitars and haunting vocals in background.

Kansas in 1976

The album concludes with “Magnum Opus”, an 8½ minute piece which is nearly an instrumental save for a single verse with almost throw-away lyrics about how “rock and roll is only howling at the moon”. The song explores even more exotic sounds, starting with native-type drumming and subtle synths on the top, then moving to heavier guitars and strong rock drumming by Phil Ehart. After the single verse, the song goes into an extended jam, sometimes frenzied, that may have been influenced by Rush’s Caress of Steel, before reaching an abrupt ending to close out Leftoverture.

Kansas would build on the success of this album by cutting Point of Know Return the following year, an even more successful album commercially, which combined with Leftoverture marks the apex of the band’s career.

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1976 Images

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