After the Gold Rush by Neil Young

After the Gold Rush
by Neil Young

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After the Gold Rush by Neil YoungFor his third studio album, Neil Young embraced the Country/rock fusion style for which he would  become best known. After the Gold Rush is a moderate to slow paced album, which may require a certain type of mood to enjoy, But once tuned in, the music is an infusion of genres a nice variety of electric and acoustic guitars along with steady rhythms and just enough intense edge to make it artistically viable. Every track is good, all showing some value with very little filler, making the album solid as a whole.

Young first found mainstream success with the group Buffalo Springfield, a band which had a successful but very short existence. For that group’s 1967 second album, Young wrote and recorded three solo tracks apart from the rest of the group which , in essence, was the beginning of his solo career. Young’s 1968 self-titled debut received mixed reactions and reviews, while his next release Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere was the first to feature his backing band, Crazy Horse. Released in 1969, this second album was a raw and energetic rock record which was recorded in just two weeks and found some mainstream success. Later that year, Young became the fourth member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and recorded the early 1970 Déjà Vu with the group.

Much of After the Gold Rush was recorded in Young’s basement studio in California. Young set out to find a middle ground between the Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash sound and even enlisted CSNY bassist Greg Reeves and drummer Ralph Molina of Crazy Horse. The album got its title from an unpublished screenplay by Dean Stockwell-Herb Berman, for which Young wanted to write the soundtrack. However, the film was never produced and the actual script has been lost to time.


After the Gold Rush by Neil Young
Released: September 19, 1970 (Reprise)
Produced by: Neil Young, David Briggs, & Kendall Pacios
Recorded: Sunset Sound, Sound City, & Redwood Studios, California, December 1969–June 1970
Side One Side Two
Tell Me Why
After the Gold Rush
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Southern Man
Till the Morning Comes
Oh, Lonesome Me
Don’t Let It Bring You Down
Birds
When You Dance I Can Really Love
I Believe in You
Cripple Creek Ferry
Primary Musicians
Neil Young – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Harmonica
Nils Lofgren – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Greg Reeves – Bass
Ralph Molina – Drums, Vocals

The acoustic track with plenty of hammer-ons along with bright strumming guitar action drives the opening track “Tell Me Why”, which also includes some sparse but nice harmonies. This song was originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young during their tours earlier in 1970. The indelible title track is a classic ballad, simple and measured with the sparse arrangement of a distant piano and near lead vocals, with session man Bill Peterson adding a pleasant flugelhorn lead. The lyrics to “After the Gold Rush” are at once disparate and yet very poetic in a song that reflects contemporary life.

Peaking at #33, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” was the only real radio hit on the album, as it returns to the Country sound with strong pop elements. This Tin-Pan-Alley like song has a wistful melody and a waltz-like beat with a simple arrangement. In contrast, “Southern Man” contains a solid rock groove featuring Young on electric guitar and then-18-year-old Nils Lofgren on piano. There are harmonized vocals during hook, solo vocals during the verses and an extended jam in the middle. The lyrics vividly describe the racism towards blacks in the American South, with a sweeping accusation which sparked a direct response by Lynyrd Skynyrd on their later hit “Sweet Home Alabama”.

Neil YoungAfter the abruptly cut “Till the Morning Comes” completes side one, the second side starts with the album’s only cover track, Don Gibson’s classic Country song, “Oh, Lonesome Me”. While remaining moderately slow paced, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” contains strong variations in mood, adding its own diverse slice of uniqueness. This original track contains excellent melody and a bit of a dark tenor, which elevates the simple Country beats to a much higher level which was expanded upon on Young’s 1972 album Harvest.

Dating back to the days of Buffalo Springfield, “Birds” is a slow piano ballad, a bit sappy but with great harmonies during the choruses. Then comes “When You Dance I Can Really Love”, a very Byrds-esque jangly rocker, which seems to work a bit too hard to try and be a relevant rock song, falling just a bit short. “I Believe in You” is one final, sweet Country ballad with complex harmonies and plenty of mellow sonic treats dispersed throughout the straight-forward, traditional love/heartache song. The album concludes with “Cripple Creek Ferry”, a way-too-short song which is nonetheless deep and effective.

After the Gold Rush peaked at number eight on the American Pop Albums chart and spawned an acoustic solo tour by Young. A solo act would remain his status for the better part of a decade as CSNY split up and Crazy Horse signed their own independent record deal as a group.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1970 albums.

Permanent Waves by Rush

Permanent Waves by Rush

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Permanent Waves by RushOn the very first day of the new decade, Rush launched an evolved sound for the 1980s with Permanent Waves, their seventh studio album. The group approached this album differently than previous efforts by designating specific time and space to compose and rehearse. The result is a strong collection of songs more succinct than those on the group’s most recent efforts, such as 1977’s A Farewell to Kings and 1978’s Hemispheres, which were among Rush’s most progressive-oriented releases. While Permanent Waves maintained some of the core elements and rudiments of previous work, the group now ventured into fairly uncharted rock sub-genres such as new wave and reggae.

Both of those previously listed Rush albums were recorded in South Wales during the summers of their respective years of release. After Hemispheres was released in October 1978, the group went on an extensive eight-month tour into mid 1979. They decided to take some time off for the first time in several years to recoup and plan their next album. According to lyricist and drummer Neil Peart, this was the first time they had ever taken time off prior to recording an album and the group retreated to a farmhouse on the Georgian Bay in Northern Ontario. Later, the group also performed some of the tracks from Permanent Waves (primarily the three from ‘Side A’) live in late 1979, prior to the album’s release.

In fact, the album’s tracks were pretty much completed in the same sequence as they appear on the final product. When Rush moved into Le Studio in Quebec in the Autumn of 1979, they had nearly a full album’s worth of material, including an extensive, medieval-inspired track called “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” However, the group decided this was too “out of place” and the song was eventually discarded with short sections appearing elsewhere. The album was produced Terry Brown, who had worked with Rush on each of their previous five albums (and would also do so on two future albums). The album’s title was coined by Peart when discussing “cultural waves” with vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee and exclaiming that “a big album was like a permanent wave”.


Permanent Waves by Rush
Released: January 1, 1980 (Mercury)
Produced by: Rush & Terry Brown
Recorded: Le Studio, Morin Heights, Quebec, September-October 1979
Side One Side Two
The Spirit of Radio
Freewill
Jacob’s Ladder
Entre Nous
Different Strings
Natural Science
Group Musicians
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass, Synths
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Synths
Neil Peart – Drums, Percussion

Permanent Waves launches with the wild fingerboard action of guitarist Alex Lifeson, introducing the exciting and unique opener “The Spirit of Radio”. Inspired by the slogan of a local Toronto rock radio station, the song transcends into a pure celebration of music, showcasing a perfect blend of Rush past and present. Funky rudiments lead to the main riff, which bookmark the accessible verse sections where Lifeson’s guitars ring out like a chorus of triumphant bells across a landscape. The track also uses effects and hard production untypical of any previous Rush track, such as the inclusion of steel drums by guest percussionist Erwig Chuapchuaduah, an atypical but fantastic method that introduces the Rush of a new decade.

As fine as the opener is, “Freewill” is the best song on the album. Lyrically superb as Peart’s words are dripping with wisdom and philosophy, Lifeson’s guitar strikes the perfect balance between a ring and a crunch while remaining cool and even throughout. The bass led mid-section is the real highlight that puts this song over the top, with perfect timings and a potent jam as good as any of the group’s historic instrumental flourishes. Like on much of the album, Lee’s voice is reserved, direct, and sung at a lower register than on previous albums. However, during the final verse Lee lets loose the highest part of his vocal range for a dynamic climax to the song. “Jacob’s Ladder” comes in with a pure march joined by all three members, and only employs one single verse before a fine instrumental section is kicked off. Led by Lifeson’s harmonized guitar leads, the song goes from here through the final five minutes or so on a soundscape of morphing textures. From hard rock jam to synth ensemble to repetitive rudimentary pattern which builds in intensity until reaching the songs climatic outro. There is so little spoken word on this extended track that it is almost although the musical and sonic motifs speak to the listener.

Rush in 1980

Like the first side closer, the album’s final track, “Natural Science” is an extended track in the spirit of earlier Rush material. This final track was the only one fully constructed in the studio, composed after the band discarded the intended “Green Knight” epic. Peart locked himself in a cabin near Le Studio for three days to come up with the new lyrical concept, which explores the autonomous societies that emerge and decline in tidal pools. Musically, the track starts with a calm, strummed acoustic section with heavy natural reverb on Lee’s vocals along with water sound effects recorded by Lifeson and Peart in a row boat. The song soon launches into an exciting rock part with wild vocals by Lee and tremendous drumming by Peart (but, what else is new?). Late in the song comes the “lesson” lyric from the professor;

Wave after wave will flow with the tide and bury the world as it does, Tide after tide will flow and recede, leaving life to go on as it was…”

While it was written prior to entering the studio, “Different Strings” was reserved for production in order to embellish some sonic qualities and add some piano by artistic collaboratoe Hugh Syme. The interesting “Entre Nous” is about as close to pop/rock as Rush will ever get. With a theme of relationships, the track starts with a rotating electric guitar by Lifeson and a heavy synth by Lee. The verse is pure hard rock with a direct and choppy riff along with a direct beat by Peart. The choruses introduce a quasi-folk element with an acoustic guitar and the refrain of “just between us”, which technically translates to the song’s title.

Permanent Waves became Rush’s highest charting album to date, reaching #4 in the US. This also began a string of releases through the early eighties which continued the band’s commercial success as the rock trio continued to evolve their sound and compositional approach.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1980 albums.

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1979_NeilYoungCrazyHorse RustNeverSleeps1

Rust Never Sleeps
by Neil Young

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Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young and Crazy HorseRust Never Sleeps was a unique recording by Neil Young and Crazy Horse as it was  an album of all new material mainly recorded live but post-produced with some studio overdubbing and most of the audience ambiance removed. This all resulted in a final product that feels at once intimate and intense. The title and overriding theme for this work was a concept for the tour which preceded its production and provided much of it’s raw material. Rust Never Sleeps acts almost like a bookmark for the end of the decade that examines the state of contemporary life and the music industry, much like Don McLean’s American Pie did at the beginning of the 1970s.

Following the success of Young’s 1972 album Harvest, he had an uneven career span, marred by struggles with his vocals and performance issues by backing musicians. Although these works sold poorly, most of his albums through the mid 1970s received critical praise, highlighted by the 1975 release of Tonight’s the Night, which Young later opined was the closest he ever came to true art. Through these years, Young intermittently used the backing musicians collectively known as “Crazy Horse” with whom Young first worked in 1968. Following the release of  commercially accessible,  Comes a Time, in 1978 Young and Crazy Horse set out on the lengthy “Rust Never Sleeps” tour, where each concert was divided into Young’s solo acoustic set and the full band electric set.

The tour was the basis for the core live elements on the Rust Never Sleeps tracks. The album was produced in a way to minimize the live nature, with some abrupt song starts and quick fade-outs to help mask the audience noise, which is really only audible on the opening and closing songs. Imaginative and bold, the material on this album blends many of Young’s previously established styles while, at points, reaching areas of music unprecedented.


Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Released: July 2, 1979 (Reprise)
Produced by: Neil Young, David Briggs, & Tim Mulligan
Recorded: Various Locations, 1975–78
Side One Side Two
My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
Thrasher
Ride My Llama
Pocahontas
Sail Away
Powderfinger
Welfare Mothers
Sedan Delivery
“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
Primary Musicians
Neil Young – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Harmonica
Frank “Pancho” Sampedro – Guitars, Vocals
Billy Talbot – Bass, Vocals
Ralph Molina – Drums, Vocals

The first three songs on the album were recorded live in 1978 at the Boarding House in San Francisco. Co-written by Jeff Blackburn of The Ducks, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” is the opening acoustic version of the more popular electric album closing track. Here, Young takes a lot around the state of rock n’ roll at the end of the 1970s and pays slight tribute to the late Elvis Presley and the emerging punk genre, while the lyrics philosophically deal life and its reality. “Thrasher” sounds less “live” than the opener, as a more traditional Bob Dylan or even Bruce Springsteen influenced folk song, less concerned with riff and rhyme than with poetry and substance. Lyrically, Young stays on the state of rock stardom while musically the song contains a substantial harmonica lead in the outro. “Ride My Llama” is a short but pleasant and melodic ballad which dates back to Young’s Zuma album in the mid seventies.

Built like a time-traveling, acid-influenced tune from the sixties, “Pocahontas” is dark folk with lyrics that alternate between historic scenes and fantasy meetings. Along the way, Young references Marlon Brando, the Houston Astrodome, and, of course, Pocahontas. Completing the first side, “Sail Away” bucks the production trend of this album as a country-style recording left over from the Comes a Time recording sessions. This well-constructed song with a light but full arrangement would have fit in well with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and contains excellent harmony vocals by Nicolette Larson.

The real brilliance of Rust Never Slepps lies on the electric side two, starting with “Powderfinger”, the best overall song on the album. With great riffing throughout, especially when Young and guitarist Frank Sampedro harmonize guitars between verses. While the compositional approach is still basically the same folk as on the acoustic side, the raw industrial strength rock puts the album in full electric stride. The poetic lyrics of “Powderfinger” tell a first-person story told by an Old West fallen pioneer who failed to defend himself and his family due to several moments of indecision. An acoustic version of the song was originally recorded by Young in 1975 but was unreleased because Young thought at the time it would work better for a band like Lynard Skynard.

Neil Young 1979

Next comes a couple of heavy rock influenced songs. “Welfare Mothers” sounds like it is musically inspired by the late sixties heavy rock, with the lyrical content being more contemporary to the late seventies. The powerful rhythms of Crazy Horse’s drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot drive the mood for the lighthearted lyrics about the rash of economically-strapped divorcées. On “Sedan Delivery” Young shifts between a heavy punk verse and slower, bluesy chorus which may have been influenced by The Who. The stream-of-consciousness lyrics portray the confusion often found in the era’s punk rock.

“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” is the most popular song on the album and, in a lot of ways, Young’s signature song of his career. A rocked out version of the opening track with slightly altered title and lyrics, Young coins some memorable phrases such as “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”, which John Lennon cited as “garbage” as he did not “appreciate the worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or dead Jim Morrison…No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy” (unfortunately, Lennon was assassinated less than a year after these comments). As the song itself does get a bit too long and repetitive, it does sustain through the final crowd applause, adding nice closure to the album.

Critically acclaimed in its day and for years to come, Rust Never Sleeps was also commercially successful, reaching the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic. Later in 1979, Young and Crazy Horse released the complimentary album Live Rust and Young also released a live concert film of the album under the same title. Beyond these follow-ups, however, Young continued to take radical new musical turns in the early 1980s, which included a documentary film soundtrack, a synth-heavy techno album, and a pure rockabilly album.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1979 albums.

Reckless by Bryan Adams

Reckless by Bryan Adams

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Reckless by Bryan AdamsReckless was the first album by a Canadian artist to sell more than one million units within Canada. Not to mention that this fourth studio album by Bryan Adams was also a major commercial success well beyond the Canadian borders, charting near the top worldwide and spawning six singles which each reached into the top 15 of Billboard‘s pop charts in the U.S. All of the ten tracks on the album were co-written by Adams and his longtime composing partner Jim Vallence and it firmly displays the masterful ability of this songwriting team to tap into the pop/rock, radio-friendly vibe of the middle eighties.

 
Adams dropped out of high school in his mid teens and was working and recording as a professional musician by age 16. In 1978, Adams met Vallance, former drummer of the group Prism, in a Vancouver music store. Vallance had resolved to focus on a career as a studio musician and songwriter and by year’s end the team had landed Adams a contract with A&M records. His self-titled debut album was released in early 1980 and Adams’ second album, You Want It You Got It, was released the following year, both to very minor success. Released in 1983, Cuts Like a Knife contained four radio hits with adjoining videos, setting up Adams and Vallance for a blockbuster follow-up.

Co-produced by Bob Clearmountain, the sessions for Reckless began in March 1984 with daily songwriting sessions in Vallance’s home studio. A group of initial tracks were recorded but Adams was unhappy with the sound and took a month off and came back with some new songs and new ideas for the record. Once completed, the album was a particularly strong showcase for the layered guitars of Keith Scott and has a pristine sonic quality that holds up 30 years later.


Reckless by Bryan Adams
Released: November 5, 1984 (A&M)
Produced by: Bob Clearmountain & Bryan Adams
Recorded: Little Mountain Sound Studios, Vancouver, March–August 1984
Side One Side Two
One Night Love Affair
She’s Only Happy When She’s Dancin’
Run to You
Heaven
Somebody
Summer of ’69
Kids Wanna Rock
It’s Only Love
Long Gone
Ain’t Gonna Cry
Primary Musicians
Bryan Adams – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano  |  Keith Scott – Guitars, Vocals
Tommy Mandel – Keyboards  |  Dave Taylor – Bass  |  Pat Steward – Drums, Vocals

Although nowhere near the hit of some of the other tracks, the opener “One Night Love Affair” is possibly the best overall track on the album and captures mid-eighties mainstream rock at its finest. The song contains great, ethereal guitars throughout above the simple base riff and direct beat by drummer Pat Steward. The song’s arrangement changes at sonically strategic times through the later verses as the sound wall is built masterfully by Clearmountain. Unfortunately, the mood is quickly broken by “She’s Only Happy When She’s Dancin'”, the only real overt filler on Reckless, unfortunately placed so early on the album.

The last song to be recorded for the album but the first of its string of hit singles, “Run to You” has just a tinge of surreal darkness in the rotating riff of this otherwise mainstream pop song. The highlight of the track is a harmonized guitar lead by Scott during the bridge. “Heaven” is the lone “power ballad” on the album. While Adams would focus on such ballads later in his career, this was still something of a novelty when it was recorded in 1983 for the soundtrack for the film A Night in Heaven and features former Journey drummer Steve Smith. Nearly two years later, the song was re-released as the third single from Reckless and topped the charts in June 1985.

Book-ending the sides are another couple of more hits from the album. “Somebody” is a good pop-rocker, with an easily catchy hook that makes it a rock anthem. “Summer of ’69” is a story-telling song that struck a chord in the summer of ’85 as a nostalgic look at the “best days of my life”. This latter song almost didn’t make it on the album because neither Adams nor Vallance originally thought it was a strong enough.

“Kids Wanna Rock” sounds to be influenced by ZZ Top, with a bit of a Tex-Mex blues vibe through its guitars, further accented by the upbeat bluesy lead section. “It’s Only Love” was a happy accident when Tina Turner was touring in Vancouver during the final week of recording and agreed to come in the studio and perform co-lead vocals. The result was the final hit from the album in January 1986. Reckless concludes with a couple of forgotten gems. “Long Gone” is another good bluesy rock song in a style which would later emulated by artists like Tommy Conwell and even includes an impressive harmonica solo by Adams. “Ain’t Gonna Cry” is new wave in tempo but rock in approach due to the heavy guitars, penny-whistle organ by Tommy Mandel and the good driving bass by Dave Taylor. The song’s finale breaks down into a noisy implosion, given this otherwise polished album an improvised conclusion.

In total, Reckless has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide and is Adams’ best-selling album in the United States. Following the album’s release, Adams embarked on a two year world tour and would not follow-up with a new studio album until 1987. A 30th Anniversary edition of the album, featuring previously unreleased material, is slated for release in November 2014.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1984 albums.

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Grace Under Pressure by Rush

Grace Under Pressure by Rush

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Grace Under Pressure by RushFor their tenth studio album, Grace Under Pressure, Rush brought in producer Pete Henderson, after employing Terry Brown for eight consecutive studio albums, dating back to Fly By Night in 1975. The parting with Brown was amicable and the band even went so far as to include a small tribute to him in the liner notes of the album. A dark album thematically, drummer and lyricist Neil Peart examined subjects from within and without and from the past and present. Peart gave the album its title from a Ernest Hemingway line that seemed to describe were the band was after leaving Brown and moving onto uncharted musical territory.

Grace Under Pressure is a natural compliment to Rush’s previous 1982 album, Signals, although this one is a bit darker and more mechanical in approach. Like on that album, bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee continued to use synthesizers as a primary instrument, but the production on this album balances the synths perfectly with the layered guitar work of Alex Lifeson. Although he had a lighter role than on previous Rush albums, Lifeson described Grace Under Pressure as the, “most satisfying of all our records.”

Rush had originally approached producer Steve Lillywhite to record this album, but Lillywhite withdrew at the last minute, leaving the group to temporarily self-produce until Henderson was hired. Recorded in the familiar confines of Le Studio in Quebec, Henderson and the band spent up to fourteen hours per day perfecting the album’s sound.


Grace Under Pressure by Rush
Released: April 12, 1984 (Anthem)
Produced by: Peter Henderson & Rush
Recorded: Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec, November 1983–March 1984
Side One Side Two
Distant Early Warning
Afterimage
Red Sector A
The Enemy Within (Part I of “Fear”)
The Body Electric
Kid Gloves
Red Lenses
Between the Wheels
Group Musicians
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass, Synths
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Synths
Neil Peart – Drums, Percussion

The album starts with Lee’s driving bass line and key synth hook on “Distant Early Warning”. Unlike much of Rush’s early catalog, Peart uses repetition to get across important lyrical themes and “red alert” is the key hook here, as Peart conflates the universal and the personal. Lifeson later adds a minimal, textured guitar lead, which brings the strongest rock element to the song as a whole, as the track continues to build to a crescendo. Released as a single, “Distant Early Warning” reached #3 on the U.S. Mainstream Rock charts. Peart wrote “Afterimage” to describe the impressions left by a friend who died suddenly in an accident. The song roars in with a wall of pure sound during the intro and first verse and music and has elements of reggae during the post-verses, while the choruse uses more pop/rock elements with Lifeson’s lead riff mimicking Lee’s voice

“Red Sector A” is built on Peart’s consistent, almost disco-flavored beat and Lee’s constant synth arpeggio, as there is no bass guitar on the track. Lyrically, this is one of the darkest songs in Rush’s collection, as it was inspired by Lee’s mother’s stories about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, where she was held prisoner. Using an atypical arrangement, in a lot of ways, it is Lifeson’s guitars that best convey the feel of this song as his chord structure throughout mimics the desperate wails of a human soul in a mechanical Hell; “Are we the last ones left alive? Are we the only human beings to survive?” The open reggae chords and funk rhythms of “The Enemy Within”, concludes the first side. Far from the doom and gloom of other parts of the “Fear”, this upbeat track is rhythmically supreme, especially with Lee’s bass.

The first two songs of the second side are where Lifeson has the most presence. “The Body Electric” is an exciting rocker that seems to at once celebrate and lament and the emerging computer age. Built on Peart’s rotating and almost robotic drum pattern, Lee and Lifeson add much melody over top during the verses, while the choruses are more rock-oriented and intense. “Kid Gloves” features Lifeson’s well-textured, staccato guitar riff and some odd-timed rudiments as it moves through passages that play with time and tempo.

Rush in 1984

The oddest track on the album, “Red Lenses” alternates between two distinct sections of chorus and verse, with the verses being totally synth-driven and almost cheesy in approach, while the opening and chorus sections are built on a cool, funky bass and rhythms. During an expanded mid section, Peart moves from marimba-style beats to additional, percussion-driven parts, making this his strongest overall track. The grinding synth intro of the closer “Between the Wheels” perfectly illustrates the song’s intended vibe of a negative and dystopian world. The track contains sections of brilliant rock arrangements, always eventually returning the beginning grind, and ends almost violently, with foreboding riffs on guitar and percussive smashes on drums and piano.

Grace Under Pressure reached the Top 10 on the Billboard album charts and immediately went platinum upon its release in the US. This would mark the high-water mark of Rush’s mid-eighties body of work, as subsequent albums relied much more heavily on synthesizers.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1984 albums.

 

Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell

Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell

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Court and Spark by Joni MitchellCourt and Spark is the sixth album by Joni Mitchell and the first where she moved towards pop and jazz elements to blend with her base folk compositions. The album has been considered by some to be a concept album due to its consistent, recurring themes about love and fleeting relationships. Another underlying theme is Los Angeles and Mitchell’s apparent inability to leave it despite her negative view of the city and its inhabitants. Musically, the new approach worked well and was well-received by audiences as Court and Spark became her best-selling album and lone chart-topper.

Mitchell released her debut album Song to a Seagull in March 1968, followed by the Grammy award winning Clouds in 1969. Subsequent albums Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, and For the Roses were all met with increasing popularity and critical praise through the early years of the seventies. These albums were also the first on which Mitchell also acted as producer.

While recording and producing Court and Spark, Mitchell intentionally made a break with her earlier folk sound. She was backed by the “L.A. Express”, a talented group of musicians led by guitarist Larry Carlton. She would later tour with this group and recorded a series of shows in August 1974 that were used for the future live album Miles of Aisles.


Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell
Released: January 1, 1974 (Asylum)
Produced by: Joni Mitchell
Recorded: 1973
Side One Side Two
Court and Spark
Help Me
Free Man in Paris
People’s Parties
Same Situation
Car On a Hill
Down to You
Just Like This Train
Raised on Robbery
Trouble Child
Twisted
Primary Musicians
Joni Mitchell – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Clavinet
Larry Carlton – Guitars
Tom Scott – Woodwinds & Reeds
Wilton Felder – Bass
John Guerin – Drums & Percussion

While Court and Spark is pretty solid throughout, there is no doubt that it is a bit top-heavy, with the first four tracks being the best on the album. The title track “Court and Spark” contains slow, minor key piano and extra-melodic vocals, with Mitchell’s voice pivoting smoothly through the many differing parts. This song constantly feels like it is about to break out, but instead offers great restraint and ends rather abruptly with strong piano bass notes followed by a single slide guitar note. “Help Me” became Mitchell’s only Top 10 single as a pleasant pop ballad with a deeper musical, lyrical, and melodic connotations and great bass by Wilton Felder. Lyrically, the song talks about finding the balance between commitment and freedom;

“It’s got me hoping for the future and worrying about the past / ‘Cause I’ve seen some hot, hot blazes come down to smoke and ash / We love our lovin’ but not like we love our freedom…”

Written in tribute to Asylum records owner David Geffen, “Free Man in Paris” contains bright and upbeat motifs over the bedding of Mitchell’s driving acoustic and the subtle shuffle beat by drummer John Guerin. Guest José Feliciano adds some Jerry Garcia-like interlude riffs on guitar. “People’s Parties” is a short song built on the strummed 12 string acoustic and recursive vocal melody. This song has no real structure but repeating verses until the “laughing it all away” and the direct fade to the piano ballad “Same Situation”. This builds as it goes along, with tremolo guitar notes and soaring melodies of beautiful sadness.

“Car on a Hill” is a moderate pop/funk song with more excellent exercises on Mitchell’s vocal range and a couple of unique sections where it dissolves into an avant garde section. The Grammy award winning “Down to You” was recognized for its very rich arrangement, which may be a bit much in parts as the song seems to get lost and unsure of itself. The mood picks up with “Just Like This Train”, a bright acoustic track with the variety and vibe of those on the early part of the album and lyrics that use a train and station as allegories for relationships.

Joni Mitchell

“Raised on Robbery” is a straight-forward, true rocker, which was released as the lead single ahead of the album in December 1973. This outright rock tune was emblematic of Mitchell’s new musical direction and features The Band’s Robbie Robertson on lead guitar. “Trouble Child” is another pleasant soft rock track with the slightest tinge of an edge, as it musically has just the slightest elements of jazz, led by the trumpet of Chuck Findley. The album finishes with a cover of the 1952 Annie Ross jazz tune “Twisted”, a half-serious ode to the protagonist’s insanity, which contains some backing skits by the comedy team Cheech & Chong.

Court and Spark received four Grammy nominations as an album and eventually went double platinum. Joni Mitchell continued to migrate towards jazz rock on subsequent fine albums, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and, Hejira, but neither were quite as successful as this one.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1974 albums.

Rush

Rush 1974 debut album

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RushRush burst onto the international scene in 1974 with an energetic and entertaining debut album. The only album to feature drummer John Rutsey, this self-titled album is also unique in the style, with many of the tracks taking a direct blues-flavored rock approach reflective of contemporary groups like Led Zeppelin and Nazareth. The Canadian power trio sets the template rudimentary sonic output that would become a signature over their long career. However, by predating the arrival of drummer and lyricist Neal Peart, it is clear that much of the thematic and rhythmic elements of later Rush albums is not present on this debut.

In September 1968, Rush played their first gig in a church basement in Suburban Toronto, led by 15-year-old classmates Geddy Lee (Gary Lee Weinrib) on bass and lead vocals and Alex Lifeson (Aleksander Zivojinovic) on guitars. In 1971, the group signed with Ray Daniels and got a fortuitous boost when Ontario dropped the drinking age to 18, allowing the band to play the Toronto night club circuit. Here, their emerging style of heavy-blues and rock was well received and the band was soon playing gigs six nights a week and began composing some original songs. When Daniels was initially unsuccessful in getting the band signed to a major record label, he created his own called Moon Records.

The band started recording in Toronto during late night sessions when the rates were least expensive. Rush’s first effort was a rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”, which the band released as a single in 1973 along with the original composition “You Can’t Fight It” on the B-side. These initial sessions were produced by Dave Stock but the group was not happy with the quality of sound and decided to self-produce the rest of the album at Sound Studios in Toronto, using (rather prinitive) 8-channel multi-track recorders.


Rush by Rush
Released: March 1, 1974 (Moon)
Produced by: Rush
Recorded: Eastern Sound Studios, Toronto, February–November 1974
Side One Side Two
Finding My Way
Need Some Love
Take a Friend
Here Again
What You’re Doing
In the Mood
Before and After
Working Man
Group Musicians
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Vocals
John Rutsey – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

Lifeson’s powerful riff slowly fades in to introduce the album and its opening track “Finding My Way”. The heart of the song contains a kind of hyper-blues approach, which only kicks in on the inverse verse, post-verse, and bridge sections. Lyrically, the song is more motif than lyrical substance but there is a cool rhythmic section post-lead showing Lee and Rutsey had some pretty good rhythmic comparability.

The next two tracks are examples of songs you won’t see on any future Rush albums beyond this debut album. “Need Some Love” is a straight-forward and, frankly, trite rocker which is nonetheless catchy and infectious, especially due to Rutsey’s fine drumming. “Take a Friend” is the most disposable song on the album. The most interesting part of track is the 30 seconds or so of rolling rock frenzy that fades in before the song proper kicks in.

Rush recovers nicely with the first side closer “Here Again”, a bluesy and moody rocker which shows the first flashes on brilliance in Geddy Lee’s bass playing. It is also Lee’s finest vocal performance on this album, showing much range and variants of intensity. For his part, Lifeson offers a variety of electric and acoustic guitar textures on a song that is very patient as it builds tension for about four minutes before hitting the climatic refrain followed by droning but potent guitar lead.

Rush in 1974

Side two begins with a couple of sexually charged songs, albeit of differing styles. “What You’re Doing” is the most Zeppelin-esque track on the album, with riff-driven phrases and guitar interludes between verses and wet, reverb-drenched vocals for maximum effect. Rutsey also goes into several frantic drum rolls during the guitar lead in this truly entertaining rocker. Conversely, “In the Mood” leans more towards pop/rock, with a smoother groove than the previous track. Released as a single, this track was played by a St. Louis Classic rock radio station each night at 7:45 due to the light “hey baby, it’s a quarter to eight, I feel I’m in the mood…”

“Before and After” is Alex Lifeson’s strongest showing on the album, with the instrumental “before” part being an absolutely beautiful piece of sonic treasures. It starts with a chimed electric over strummed acoustic and rounded bass notes and slowly builds into a stronger second section with heavily flanged guitars. A little over two minutes into the track it changes course and breaks into a more standard hard rock track with animated drumming and strong guitar riffs during the “after” part. The album ends with its most popular and indelible song, “Working Man”. This song is rather simple as far as Rush songs go but is definitely catchy and accessible, in a Black Sabbath-sort of way. The mid section takes a radical turn with upbeat bass line leading the multi-section jam, featuring several different leads by Lifeson, all in different styles. “Working Man” was the song that introduced Rush to America, when Cleveland DJ Donna Halper adopted it as a theme for the working-class town.

While Rush was only printed in 3500 copies in its original pressing, the American breakthrough of “Working Man” caught the attention of Mercury Records, who signed Rush by mid 1974. However, Rutsey was unable to physically keep up with the pace of national touring and left the group that same year. He was soon replaced by Peart, establishing the rock trio that persists to this day.

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1974 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1974 albums.

Presto by Rush

Presto by Rush

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Presto by RushFor all the musical complexity that Rush has shown over the years, it is absolutely amazing how much they can do with simplicity. On Presto, their thirteenth studio album released in late 1989, the classic rock trio showed such masterful efficiency like never before or since. As lead vocalist and bassist Geddy Lee stated, “We wanted Presto to be more of a singer’s album, and I think you’ll notice that the arrangements musically support the vocals.” Produced by Rupert Hine, the album is also unique in some of its arrangement techniques, such as the inclusion of piano arpeggios (a first) and backing vocals by guitarist Alex Lifeson (a rarity).

In a way, it seemed like, for a good part of the 1980s, Rush was chasing the sound that they finally caught on Presto. It may be the point where the band started embracing their past and abandoned their silly technology-based notions of 1980s music. That being said, the group did pen an occasional gem during this three album (1984’s Grace Under Pressure, 1985’s Power Windows, and 1987’s Hold Your Fire) foray into synth pop. The problem was the lack of vigor and consistency on those albums, which they were finally able accomplished on this album.

Presto was the band’s first album with Atlantic Records, after their long association with Mercury Records. In kind, the album feels like a fresh start on many levels, including lyrically. Drummer and lyricist Neil Peart provided more experience-based lyrics which were given the ability stand out more than in most past Rush projects, due to the methodical arrangements. Peart also admitted that he took a looser approach to the lyrical content than on other Rush albums, with the songs “many threads” but with no “manifesto”. Rush also chose to remain close to home when recording this album, mimicking their frequent practice from the early years.


Presto by Rush
Released: November 21, 1989 (Anthem)
Produced by: Rupert Hine & Rush
Recorded: Le Studio, Morin Heights, Quebec, June-August 1989
Track Listing Group Musicians
Show Don’t Tell
Chain Lightning
The Pass
War Paint
Scars
Presto
Superconductor
Anagram (for Mongo)
Red Tide
Hand Over Fist
Available Light
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass, Keyboards
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Vocals
Neil Peart – Drums, Percussion

Presto by Rush

 

While Presto is enjoyable throughout, there is no doubt that this album is a bit top-heavy with much of the finest material coming early on in the album’s sequence. “Show Don’t Tell” begins with a signature is the opening rudimental riff sequence, which harkens back to the groups excellent 1970s material. Lee plays a funky and bouncy bass throughout, including
a mid-section jam with a short bass lead. The verses and chorus hook are less classic Rush than 1980s Rush on this song which reached #1 on the U.S. Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart, however the song overall reaches a nice balance between the two worlds. And from here, the album only gets stronger.

“Chain Lightning” employs a unique hipster riff with exciting motion, like moving through a superhero sequence through verse and pre-chorus. A short but potent guitar lead by Lifeson complements the fantastic bass throughout and the rich vocal effects actually work well during the choruses. “The Pass” is simply a masterpiece and lyrically, one of Peart’s best ever efforts. Musically, the mood is captured with the pulse of simple, chorded bass notes that prove counterpart to the melody. There is a feeling of an emotional journey throughout as the second verse changes up the backing rhythm and Lifeson’s slow brewing guitar lead in the mid-section is backed by Peart’s drumming with expert efficiency and precision. Stated by the group on multiple occasions as one of their all-time favorites, the true highlight of “The Pass” is the potent lyric right from the top;

Proud swagger out of the schoolyard, waiting for the world’s applause / rebel without a conscience, martyr without a cause / static on your frequency, electric storms in your veins / raging at unreachable glory, straining at invisible chains…”

Rolling in like a hard rock song, “War Paint” soon becomes much more complex as it builds through the verses and choruses. The subtle musical passages are again masterful on this song, as this may well be Rush’s perfect 80s-era pop song. Lyrically, Peart uses a military allegory to describe perceived beauty and romantic courting, almost like different take on “Cinema Show” by Genesis. The heavy and climatic third verse precedes Lifeson’s best lead on the album, as the final lyrical turn calls for the “war paint” to “paint the mirror black”.

From here, the album becomes a bit weaker, while still staying well beyond the threshold of listen-ability. “Scars” has an interesting synth/percussion intro but is really quite hollow beyond that, fueled almost entirely by Peart’s lyrics and rhythms (both influenced by Africa). The album’s title song, “Presto” is a bit frustrating in the sense that it never seems to deliver on it’s own promise. A nice, driving acoustic throughout the verses is interrupted by a disjointed arrangement which tends to make the song lose momentum every time it feels like its about to hit its stride. “Superconductor” is built on simple rock riffs with lyrics that somewhat harken back to material on Signals and a very interesting, synth-fueled ballroom-waltz-like middle section, but falls into mediocrity beyond that.

The true highlight of the latter part of the album is “Anagram (for Mongo)”. This sounds like the kind of song that Rush was supposed to write in their new, sophisticated 1980s form all along. The driving pad-topped intro gives way to pure rock verses with Lifeson’s muted electric riffing, and then the chorus is lighter but beautifully melodic with Lee’s vocals. But the true genius of the song is the incredibly profound wordplay by Peart, who fused together multiple word puzzles (in the form of anagrams) into a coherent and melodic rock song. This leads the listener from room to room of philosophical observances and absurd contradictions, all while playing with words in a most cleaver way. Modern Rock Review listed “Analog (for Mongo)” as the #1 Great Forgotten Rush song.

Rush, rock paper scissors

The final three songs on Presto are almost experiments in sound, each with a strong piano presence. The dystopian “Red Tide” starts with a piano arpeggio and synth motifs, which are a little over the top for Rush. The song does pick up pace a bit in third verse but then unwisely falls back opening riff. “Hand Over Fist” contains a light and funky guitar riff which is soon dissolved in more textured beats and lyrics. This song has a fun lyrical configuration and hook, but not too much musically. “Available Light” closes the album as a moody track with slow, deliberate beat and minimalist piano chords which build in intensity through the chorus progression. This is another track which shows much promise but never quite delivers, making for a somewhat anticlimactic end to this fine album.

Despite the fact that it is rarely listed in the upper echelon of Rush albums, Presto is still a fresh and excellent listen a quarter century after its release. While reaching the Top 20 on the album charts, it did not fare much better commercially than its predecessor Hold Your Fire, but it was a definite symbol, as Rush entered the 1990s, that their sound and direction of the 1980s was about to be left behind.

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1989 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1989 albums.

 

The Band 1969 album

The Band 1969 album

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The Band 1969 albumAs a perfect counterpart to Music from Big Pink, their 1968 debut album, The Band embarked on part two of their new musical, North American roots journey with their eponymous second album in 1969. It was as if to say that the debut was no mistake, the group upped the ante by declaring in the liner notes that “the songs focus on people, places and traditions associated with an older version of Americana…” This recording was a critical and commercial success on all fronts, reaching the Top 10 on the pop album charts and eventually preserved into the US National Recording Registry due to its “cultural and historical importance”.

The album that would eventually become known by some as “The Brown Album” was recorded between gigs as the group played their first live shows, starting in early 1969 through an appearance at the Woodstock Festival in August which happened to be named after the town adjoining their “big pink” dwelling which gave the Band’s debut album its title. The album was recorded in Los Angeles and featured songs mainly written by guitarist Robbie Robertson and produced by John Simon, who also provided much of the brass instrumentation on the album.

With this second, strong album, the Band came into their own as a viable, independent group, breaking out of the shadow of Bob Dylan, who they had previously backed up and began their debut album with. The blend of rural Americana and urban-centric rock really struck a chord with listeners as the mature musicians who began their musical journey in the 1950s found broad appeal in the post-psychedelic era.


The Band by The Band
Released: September 22, 1969 (Capitol)
Produced by: John Simon
Recorded: West Hollywood, CA, Early to Mid 1969
Side One Side Two
Across the Great Divide
Rag Mama Rag
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
When You Awake
Up On Cripple Creek
Whispering Pines
Jemima Surrender
Rockin’ Chair
Look Out Cleveland
Jawbone
The Unfaithful Servant
King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
Band Musicians
Robbie Robertson – Guitars, Vocals
Richard Manuel – Piano, Keyboards, Saxophone, Vocals
Garth Hudson – Piano, Organ, Clavinet, Saxophone
Rick Danko – Bass, Fiddle, Vocals
Levon Helm – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

“Across the Great Divide” starts as a spiritual before breaking into a steady rocker. There are effective keyboards bass and drums from Rick Danko and Levon Helm. The shortest song on the album, this acts as a nice intro track for The Band. The title “Rag Mama Rag” leaves no mystery to the song’s style and features Helm on mandolin and Danko on fiddle. The song was released as a single and reached the Top 40.

Although not released as a single, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” has become one of the most popular songs by the group. While written by the Canadian born Robertson, the song convincingly tells of the last days of the American Civil War and the culture of Antebellum. Musically, the song paints a vivid picture perfectly of the human sense of history and aura of authenticity.

Pianist Richard Manuel co-wrote and sang, “When You Awake”, a steady and melodic ballad. In contrast, the choppy, upbeat rhythms of “Up on Cripple Creek”, paired with the ever-present clavichord of Garth Hudson helps make this song indelible. The multi-verse format leaves signs of Dylan influence but, overall, The Band’s sound makes this undeniably original. Helm’s lead vocals, from barking out the verses to yodeling the outro are constantly loose and carefree while Hudson tactfully applies a wah pedal to his clavichord during the breaks after the choruses. “Whispering Pines” is a unique ballad with dark, almost psychedelic organ accompanying the minor key piano by Manuel. There is a definite Grateful Dead influence, making it both haunting and beautiful.

The Band in 1969

The second side opens with “Jemima Surrender”, co-written by Helm with a melody very similar to “Up On Crippled Creek”. However, it is musically much different, driven by ever-present piano licks along with other musical motifs on guitar and horns. “Rockin’ Chair” is bluegrass to the core. Acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle sets the rustic mood and paints the perfect picture of a porch jam, while providing great variety for this album, as nothing else is quite like this on The Band. “Look Out Cleveland” is the most rock-oriented song on the second side with interesting rhythms and fills, especially Danko’s sizzling bass and Robertson’s bluesy guitar riffs.

“Jawbone” is a very interesting hybrid of a song – from spiritual to waltz to a rock-riff oriented verse. The song has diverse qualities which barely jive, but jive nonetheless, to make it an excellent listen and the best song on side two of the album. The mood is then brought down a bit with “The Unfaithful Servant”, an acoustic and piano ballad where Simon’s horns add a wild, almost spooky element to the otherwise typical country-waltz. The closer “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” provides yet one more surprise, being funky and jazzy musically like nothing else preceding it. Although credited solely to Robertson, this was really a group effort and a very strong selection to finish the album.

Following the release and success of The Band, the fame and attention to the group, along with the press anointing Robertson as the “leader”, started to take toll on the band’s chemistry. Still, they continued to tour and make great music right through The Last Waltz in 1976, when they retired from touring with a massive farewell concert.

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1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1969 albums.

Steppenwolf and The Second 1968 albums

Steppenwolf and The Second by Steppenwolf

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Buy The Second

Steppenwolf and The Second 1968 albumsSteppenwolf arrived on the rock scene like a storm in 1968 and released their first two albums, which produced their most indelible classics which persist to this day, that year. Their debut, Steppenwolf, was released in January 1968 and included two songs made world famous by their eventual inclusion in the cult film Easy Rider in 1969, along with two more radio hits. The follow-up album, simply titled The Second, was released towards the end of 1968 and includes another smash hit along with a long rock medley on its second side. Both albums were produced by Gabriel Mekler and recorded in a Los Angeles studio between the extensive touring by the band.

Steppenwolf was formed out of the ashes of sixties group The Sparrows in 1967, led by vocalist John Kay along with brothers Jerry and Dennis Edmonton. The name was suggested by Mekler and was inspired by the novel of the same name by Hermann Hesse. Jerry Edmonton stayed on board as drummer of Steppenwolf while Dennis adopted the pen name Mars Bonfire and chose a strictly songwriting affiliation with the new group.

Entering the studio well rehearsed, Steppenwolf released a surprisingly strong debut with a hard rock motif and populist themes built on classic blues. The resulting music is raw and powerful with distorted trade-offs between guitarist Michael Monarch and organist Goldy McJohn and the tight rhythms by Edmonton and bassist Rushton Moreve.


Steppenwolf by Steppenwolf
Released: January, 1968 (ABC Dunhill)
Produced by: Gabriel Meckler
Recorded: American Recording Co. Studio, Studio City, CA, Fall 1967
Side One Side Two
Sookie Sookie
Everybody’s Next One
Berry Rides Again
Hootchie Kootchie Man
Born to Be Wild
Your Wall’s Too High
Desperation
The Pusher
A Girl I Knew
Take What You Need
The Ostrich
The Second by Steppenwolf
Released: October, 1968 (ABC Dunhill)
Produced by: Gabriel Meckler
Recorded: American Recording Co. Studio, Studio City, CA, Summer 1968
Side One Side Two
Faster than the Speed of Life
Tighten Up Your Wig
None of Your Doing
Spiritual Fantasy
Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam
28
Magic Carpet Ride
Disappointment Number
Lost and Found By Trial and Error
Hodge, Podge, Strained Through a Leslie
Resurrection
Reflections
Band Musicians (Both Albums)
John Kay – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica
Michael Monrach – Guitars
Goldy McJohn – Piano, Keyboards
Rushton Morave – Bass
Jerry Edmonton – Drums

The first two singles released from Steppenwolf were “A Girl I Knew” and the opening track “Sookie Sookie”. Written by R&B artists Don Covay and Steve Cropper, “Sookie Sookie” is almost like almost a soul or Motown track arranged to a heavy late sixties rock beat and methodical guitar riff. “A Girl I Knew” was co-written by Morgan Cavett and contains a very English sounding harpsichord with Kay mimicking the mood in the lead vocals during short intro before song breaks into a driving, sixties hipster beat with a bouncing organ riff by McJohn.

Other songs on the debut album find the group experimenting with various sub-genres. On “Everybody’s Next One” an acoustic piano gives way to full electric arrangement as this progressive song moves through several sections in its short duration of less than three minutes. One of the prominant riffs would later be “borrowed” by The Doors for their 1970 song “You Make Me Real”. “Berry Rides Again” is old time rock and roll through and through as an obvious tribute to Chuck Berry with the piano really standing out on top of the mix. The band’s rendition of the Willie Dixon / Muddy Waters classic “Hootchie Kootchie Man” features the guitars slowly working out before falling into the most standard of blues riffs in an original and entertaining version of this well-healed classic. “Your Wall’s Too High” is more blues , but a bit more up-tempo with some rock riffs and bouncy sections mixed in.

The band’s most famous song, “Born to Be Wild”, was composed by Mars Bonfire and features a tight beat under the distorted guitars, with just the right amount of organ chops to make it interesting. Drummer Edmonton is the truly unsung hero of this song, holding together tightly an otherwise loose arrangement and supplying a great drum fill into second verse and perfect rolls later in the track. Due to its inclusion during the opening scene of Easy Rider, it is often tied to bikers in popular culture and the song is also the first to coin the term “heavy metal”, which would be attributed to various heavy rock styles for the next four and a half decades and counting. The third single off their 1968 debut, “Born to Be Wild” would become Steppenwolf’s most successful single, reaching #2 on the U.S. pop charts.

The other song from the debut later included on Easy Rider, “The Pusher” is a consistent blues song by Hoyt Axton, built around four chords, squeezed out through the intro guitar riff. Later, Monrach provides long descents into the guitar leads, make it interesting despite the lack of true variety. Kay takes his vocals to another level during the various “God Damn” wails on this amazingly frank and candid look at the darker side of drugs at a time when it was “cool” for rock bands to celebrate such use. This is one of the few songs retained by the group from their Sparrow days.

Side two of Steppenwolf includes a handful of other strong tracks. A beautifully constructed orchestra of melodic noise leads into the bluesy “Desperation” with constant tension between the sustained organ and distorted guitar chords throughout along with moving vocal melodies. “Take What You Need” contains an upbeat, driving piano beat and whining guitar overlay along with animated bass and drumming. “The Ostrich” is bluesy with a “Hand Jive” beat heavy with floor toms. A really good closer for the debut album with the late flaw of a good jam breaking down into an awkward, out of tune improv to finish things up.

Steppenwolf’s follow-up album, The Second, embraces more bombastic hard rock, psychedelia, and blues with more refined production and songwriting techniques. This is really a mixed blessing as some songs really bring out the finer points of composition while others are just plain filler. Unfortunately,
“Faster than the Speed of Life”, the opening track penned by Mars Bonfire is the latter with weak harmonies and uninspired guitar licks.

Fortunately, The Second does improve from there. “Tighten Up Your Wig” is a grittier and bluesier tune than the opener with a cool good harmonica lead by Kay and subtle instrumentation licks. “None of Your Doing” starts with a penny whistle organ and English folk style acoustic for a single line in each verse before the rocking kicks in with slight restraint. “Spiritual Fantasy” contains a slide acoustic guitar and strings throughout in a waltz-like ballad. This song is interesting because it is so different than anything else, but it does seem like the musicians struggle to keep time throughout. Meckler’s “Twenty Eight” almost has a surfer vibe in an intentional reach towards pop.

“Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam” fades in with bass riff and great sounding guitars playing interesting riffs. The music is measured and excellent throughout, perfectly accenting the lyrics in this pro-marijuana message which acts as a reciprocal to “The Pusher” on the first album;

Well it’s evil, wicked, mean and nasty, don’t step on the grass Sam and it will ruin our fair country, don’t be such an ass, Sam…”

“Magic Carpet Ride” was co-written by bassist Moreve, starting as a psychedelic form with guitar feedback. It then breaks into the simplest of riffs with good vocal melody to carry the song. The original track is asymmetrical, with the actual “magic carpet ride” happening through various sound effects above the tense funk jam before the tension is released with a short outro chorus. Released as the lead single from that album, it peaked at #3 on the US pop charts making it the band’s second-biggest hit.

A year before the Beatles Abbey Road, Steppenwolf had a multi-song second side medley in similar form. “Disappointment Number (Unknown)” contains slide blues guitar and a really sparse and laid back arrangement before it finally gives way to the full band with fine bass, drums, and honky-tonk piano by McJohn. Later it unexpectedly breaks out of blues riff and ends slightly with live bar sound before it quickly segues directly to “Lost and Found By Trial and Error” as a continuation blues song moving through several new forms with the guitars sounding sharp and fine. The jam continues with organ taking lead through the instrumental “Hodge, Podge, Strained Through a Leslie”, which leads to the intense climax of “Resurrection” as the extended arc piece gets closer to conclusion with the theme “Shake Your Money Maker” repeated until rudiments complete the jam part. The short “after” piece “Reflections” is some soft Baroque with heavy reverb.

Steppenwolf reached #6 on the Rock Albums charts, while The Second later climbed to #3 on the same chart. Steppenwolf continued to have success through the early 1970s and has gone on to sell more than 25 million records worldwide. The band initially broke up in 1972 but have reformed several times through the decades with various lineups behind John Kay, who is the only original member to remain with the band since its inception.

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1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1968 albums.