American Fool by John Cougar

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American Fool by John CougarAmerican Fool may mark the midway point of the artist’s evolution from the stage name “Johnny Cougar” back to his given name John Mellencamp. The differing names (of which there are four distinct) mirrored the change in musical style and image from the slick, glam-like pop star of the 1970s to the earthy, folk singer of the 1980s. This album straddles the line between the two, with a slight edge to the former as it tends to get quite formulaic as it progresses. In 1974, when Mellencamp was struggling to break through in the music industry, his manager suggested that his given name was too hard to market and concocted “Johnny Cougar” for the artist. The name used on American Fool, his sixth overall, was simply “John Cougar” the last of three to use this name.

Although his previous album, 1980’s Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did yielded two Top 40 singles, Mellencamp hated that album, dismissed its material as “stupid little pop songs”, and derided its outlandish cost of production of about a quarter of a million dollars. So it was clear that he wanted to move in a different direction with this album, and he accomplished much with a more authentic sound throughout. Still, American Fool is an uneven album with the bulk of the good (and popular) material on its first side and much repetitive filler on the second.

Also, there are, unfortunately, a bunch of interesting performances on this album that have gone un-credited. A record of who performed on the keyboards, accordion, harmonica, and who were female background singers, have been hard to discover. These are apparently session performances, but they all enhanced the album above the very basic core sound of the five credited musicians.

 


American Fool by John Cougar
Released: July 10, 1982 (Riva)
Produced by: Don Gehman & John Mellencamp
Recorded: Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles & Criteria Studios, Miami, 1981-1982
Side One Side Two
Hurts So Good
Jack and Diane
Hand To Hold On To
Danger List
Can You Take It
Thundering Hearts
China Girl
Close Enough
Weakest Moments
Primary Musicians
John Mellencamp – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Mick Ronson – Guitars, Vocals
Larry Crane – Guitars
George Perry – Bass
Kenny Aronoff – Drums

 

The album opens with “Hurts So Good”, co-written by George S. Green, a childhood friend of Mellencamp’s who would go on to collaborate on some of his most recognizable songs. This song is as pure a rocker as you can get. Its sonic boundaries combines a Lynard-Skynard-like-70s guitar riff with the most modern 80s drum sound (a potent formula) and it follows the common rock arrangement of Intro/Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus/Outtro. “Hurts So Good” would be Mellencamp’s biggest hit to date, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts.

A couple of other songs on the first side stick to this same basic formula, including the pleasant and melodic “Hand to Hold on To” and “Danger List”, a song composed by Mellencamp and guitarist Larry Crane. This latter song contains some harmonized guitars over an acoustic intro, returning to simple riff intermediately throughout the verse and chorus. It is reserved and quiet through most of its duration but gets louder and more rock-oriented as it approaches the end. According to Mellencamp, he recorded about 30 different improvised verses for the original demo and weeded out the ones he didn’t like for the final cut.
 

 
As much as “Hurts So Good” and the rest of the first side stick to convention, “Jack & Diane” is completely original in arrangement, using all kinds of instrumentation. “Hand claps” were added to the sparse, main electric riff to help keep time with the intention of removing them on the final cut, but it was just too empty without them so this distinct sound was kept in the mix. The acoustic verses and choruses are accompanied at different times by nice little flourishes of piano, organ, bass, and percussive effects. The song was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami and Mellancamp gave the credit for the arrangement to the legendary Mick Ronson, who salvaged the song after Mellencamp had thrown it on the “junk heap”.

The second side of the album is much less rewarding with the bulk of the material being lesser songs that strictly follow the same formula as the hits on the first side. Ironically, the strongest moment on this side is the closing song “Weakest Moments”, a moody ballad with nice lyrical motifs. The song is acoustic throughout and also contains an interesting flute-like organ lead, an accordion, and a female backing chorus. Cougar’s vocals are a bit exaggerated in their melancholy, but otherwise this a fine tune to close the album.

With the commercial success of American Fool under his belt, Mellencamp had enough clout to add his real surname, going as “John Cougar Mellencamp” on his next album, 1983’s Uh-Huh. Eventually, the evolution would be complete and this artist would simply become John Mellencamp.

~

1982 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1982 albums.

 

One On One by Cheap Trick

One On On by Cheap TrickMany critics believed that Cheap Trick was already past their peak by the time that got around to recording their sixth studio album, One On One in 1982. The band had really hit an apex in the late 1970s by combining the glam-fused power pop of British bands like Sweet with the good time heavy rock of California artists like Van Halen and all with an edge. In fact, this Illinois based band may have been too clever for their own good as they always seemed just outside the mainstream at any giving moment, but we digress. The truth is, with One On One, Cheap Trick may have actually hit its rock-centric peak, despite what mainstream critics may have said.

The album is laced with the intense yet measured, screaming vocals of Robin Zander, giving it all an air of importance mastered by the likes of The Who’s Roger Daltry. This wailing tops off the master song craft of guitarist and chief songwriter Rick Nielsen, a founding member of the band and its predecessor in the late 1960s. Although, at first, the songs themselves may seem muddled and distant, subsequent listens give the songs more breadth and depth.

The slickness of production on this album by producer Roy Thomas Baker gives it a bright, glam feel. But this could have just as easily had a darker, biker-rock feel due to the flexible writing style. One On One was the first album to feature bassist Jon Brant, the replacement for Tom Petersson, who departed after the band’s previous album All Shook Up.

 


One On One by Cheap Trick
Released: April 30, 1982 (Epic)
Produced by: Roy Thomas Baker
Recorded: 1981-1982
Side One Side Two
I Want You
One On One
If You Want My Love
Oo La La La
Lookin’ Out for Number One
She’s Tight
Time Is Runnin’
Saturday At Midnight
Love’s Got a Hold On Me
I Want to Be a Man
Four Letter Man
Band Musicians
Robin Zander – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keys | Rick Nielsen – Guitars, Vocals
Jon Brant – Bass, Vocals | Bun E. Carlos – Drums, Percussion

 
The album starts off with the upbeat “I Want You” which establishes the hyper, high end vocals ala Sweet in an upbeat and pure rocker. The title song follows with a more steady, quasi-heavy metal motif. The first side wraps with “Oo La La La” containing a bluesy, Aerosmith-like hook and especially with heavy yet vocals, and “Lookin’ Out For Number One” a grinding, heavy metal screed.

The beautiful and elegant “If You Want My Love” is the showcase for the first side. A very Beatle-esque piece right down to the three-part “oohs”, with several distinguishing parts that build a very moody and desperate love song. The song is a prime example of the band’s rich talent, especially the composing and arranging talents of Neilson.
 

 
Side two begins with the hyper and fun “She’s Tight”, with the album’s best vocal performance by Zander. The song strikes just the right amount of synths to balance the almost-punk main riff, giving it a very infectious feel overall. Critics have said this was the band trying to achieve a more commercial rock sound, unlike anything before. This may be true, but it is still undeniable that this is excellent to the hilt.

The next track “Time is Runnin'” is the truest pop-oriented song to this point on the album, while “Saturday at Midnight” really deviates from the feel of the rest of the album as a new-wavish, dance track, released as a 7″ single to appeal to a wider audience. Drummer Bun E. Carlos co-wrote “Love’s Got a Hold on Me” as electronic effects on his flanged-out drums lace the wild yet melodic “I Want Be Man”. The album concludes with the Queen-like rocker “Four Letter Word”, complete with faux audience rudiments.

With One On One, Cheap Trick released an album full of brash, loud, raucous rockers. The album achieved moderate success but physical copies of the album were out of print for several years. In April 2010 it was reissued along with the following 1983 album Next Position Please on one CD.

~
R.A.
 


1982 Images

 

1999 by Prince

1999 by Prince1999 is a double-length album by Prince, released in late 1982. The album was born out of an extremely prolific songwriting period when there was reportedly four albums worth of material available. It was the fifth studio album by the Minnesota artist born Prince Rogers Nelson, who started his recording career in his late teens in the mid 1970s. This synthesizer and drum machine heavy album marked a decided change in Prince’s sound and contained his first charting hit singles. The album beats on a “computer” theme, which is reflected in the album’s instrumentation and various electronic sounds. Prince credited the movie Blade Runner as an influence on the album’s sound as well as the sets of the corresponding music videos.

Like all his previous albums, 1999 centers on deeply sexual subjects (some have said that Prince sings about sex like B.B. King sigs about the blues). However, this album also explored other issues, especially those of mortality and death.

The album is laid out in a very top-heavy fashion, with all the singles coming from the first two sides and sides three and four reserved for strictly album tracks. Further, whether by design or not, the four singles released from 1999 were released in the exact sequence that they appear on the album. The unique cover of the album not only contains symbols and art from past Prince albums, but also tributes his future backing band The Revolution.
 


1999 by Prince
Released: November 27, 1982 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Prince
Recorded: Kiowa Trail Home Studio, Chanhassen, MN &
Sunset Sound, Hollywood, CA, 1982
Side One Side Two
1999
Little Red Corvette
Delirious
Let’s Pretend We’re Married
D.M.S.R.
Side Three Side Four
Automatic
Something In the Water
(Does Not Compute)
Free
Lady Cab Driver
All the Critics Love U in New York
International Lover
Primary Musicians
Prince – Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Drums
Dez Dickerson – Guitars, Vocals | Lisa Coleman – Lead & Backing Vocals

 
The title track, “1999” is an updated version of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, with an updated notion of turning the Rapture into an excuse to party. On the track, Prince trades lead vocals with Lisa Coleman and Dez Dickerson and built the main riff around the melody of “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas & the Papas. Although the song has become one of his most enduring anthems, “1999” failed to reach the Top 40 when it was originally released.

The next song, “Little Red Corvette”, would become Prince’s first charting hit, peaking at #6 on the Billboard pop singles chart. The song nicely fuses a drum machine beat and slow synth buildup with a full pop hook during the choruses and a classic guitar solo by Dickerson. The highly allegorical lyrics tell of a one-night stand with a beautiful and promiscuous woman in a very poetic fashion;

“I guess I should’ve known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last…”

A couple more songs are even more highly sensualized. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is a long funk and R&B tune with such risque lyrics that Tipper Gore reportedly leaped from her couch to save her children’s ears from the raunch. “Automatic” extends to almost ten minutes, setting precedent for the 80s dance remixes which were frequently released on 7″ EPs. This synth-heavy song contains bondage-inspired lyrics, re-enacted in a music video banned from the new MTV.

Delirious single“Delirious” became another Top 10 hit, reaching #8. The song employs an electric version of upbeat country or rockabilly, with a catchy keyboard hook and a fair share of sexual metaphors, ending abruptly with the sound effect of a baby cooing. “Something In the Water (Does Not Compute)” is an ode to a harsh lover, while “Free” is a delicate piano ballad expressing patriotism for America and how fellow Americans should appreciate their freedom. This especially applies to freedom of speech, of which Prince understands the importance from the perspective of a “controversial” artist.

Side four of the album includes “Lady Cab Driver”, which features the vocalist angrily rattling off an endless litany of life’s disappointments above the female wailing of the “cab driver.” “All the Critics Love U in New York” is another experiment into the world of of synthesizers and features the Linn LM-1 drum machine. The closer, “International Lover” is another long sex-centric song to wrap up the double LP.

1999‘s critical and commercial success secured Prince a place in the public psyche, and launched him into the most successful phase of his long career. The album was followed 19 months later by Purple Rain, his most successful album ever, which was also accompanied by a major Hollywood movie.

~
R.A.
 

1982 Images

 

 

Marshall Crenshaw

Marshall Crenshaw, 1982Marshall Crenshaw writes songs that could be described as simple, traditional pop/rock songs with a hint of Rockabilly in the tradition of Buddy Holly and early Beatles. In fact, Crenshaw got his first break playing John Lennon in the off-Broadway production of the musical Beatlemania in the 1970s. All the while, Crenshaw was writing and recording original songs. In 1981 rockabilly artist Robert Gordon recorded Crenshaw’s “Someday, Someway” and scored a minor hit. Encouraged, Crenshaw wrote and recorded a full length LP with a three piece band. This eponymous album was well received by critics and fellow musicians when it was released in 1982.

The album spent six months on the charts peaking at #50 and selling over 400,000 copies. These are respectable stats for a debut album, but it was hardly a blockbuster. So why is this album significant? In a sea of artists trying to be the next Michael Jackson, Crenshaw just did his thing. At that time when he was being compared to the heavily synthesized music considered cutting edge, he may have sounded a bit old fashioned, but his songs have stood up over time and still sound fresh today.

A good song can be a reflection of what the writer is thinking, feeling or experiencing . Marshall Crenshaw manages to do that perfectly on this album. The songs are not complicated, they are put together with three musicians and accentuated with overdubs. There really is a beauty in simplicity when it’s done well. The lyrics are straightforward and forthright and while there is sometimes a bit of sarcasm, they are clever and always upbeat. Crenshaw’s style was not necessarily the “next big thing” in pop music, but he created one great album filled with refreshing, smart pop tunes that stood out from the rest.
 


Marshall Crenshaw by Marshall Crenshaw
Released: April 28, 1982 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Richard Gottehrer & Marshall Crenshaw
Recorded: Record Plant, New York, January 1982
Side One Side Two
There She Goes Again
Someday, Someway
Girls
I’ll Do Anything
Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.
The Usual Thing
She Can’t Dance
Cynical Girl
Mary Anne
Soldier Of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)
Not For Me
Brand New Lover
Band Musicians
Marshall Crenshaw – Guitars, Vocals
Chis Donato – Bass | Robert Crenshaw – Drums

 
The album opens with “There She Goes Again” a melodic tune with a catchy chorus ” Will her heart ever be satisfied, there she goes again with another guy.” This is followed by the most recognized song on the album and Crenshaw’s only Top 40 hit, “Someday Someway”. Here we have another infectious melody and chorus that gets stuck in your head long after the music stops, showing how Crenshaw can craft a simple song into a pop masterpiece.
 

 
Later on the first side comes a pair of power pop tunes – “Girls, Girls Girls” and “I’ll Do Anything For You”, which are simple love songs that almost anyone can relate to. “Rockin Around In N.Y.C.” has a great rockabilly beat to help paint a euphoric scene of chasing down a dream.

There are a couple of songs here that bear an eerie resemblance to rock legend Buddy Holly. So much so that they may fool those who don’t know any better into thinking that it actually is the Crickets. The strongest of these is “Cynical Girl”, which starts out with a jangly Holly-ish melody and adds Crenshaw’s crisp, bouncy vocal settling into a steady rhythm with some cool lyrics;

“Well I hate TV, there’s gotta be somebody other than me who’s ready to write it off immediately…”

To date, Crenshaw has recorded nine more studio albums since his 1982 debut, but he has never quite reached the same level of popularity. However, several of his songs were covered through the years by many talented artists, a validation of Marshall Crenshaw’s songwriting talent.

~
Karyn Albano
 

1982 Images

 

 

Thriller by Michael Jackson

Thriller by Michael Jackson Thriller is the sixth studio album by Michael Jackson and the best selling album of all time. Seven of the nine songs on the album were released as singles and each one of those seven reached the top ten on the pop charts. The album went on to win an unprecedented eight Grammy awards, was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the all time top seller worldwide, was instrumental in providing racial harmony among music fans, made the most amount of money ever for a single performing artist, and was given credit by many in the recording industry for boosting sales industry-wide. So, why have so many of us loathed this record for three decades?

After listening to this back to front several times in preparation for this review, I may have an answer and it isn’t the music itself. In fact, I think this more mature and objective version of myself can honestly say that Thriller is quite fine musically. It hits the sweet spot in the genre we used to call “soul” (now referred to as R&B) and most of the songs are melodic, entertaining, and well composed. And then there is the title song “Thriller” and its monstrosity of a video (pun intended) where Michael Jackson and the hype machine jumped the proverbial shark. Why, Michael, why? You already had the best video ever made with “Billie Jean” and had shown you can do the choreographed dance thing on another video. There comes a point when one has to learn to just accept success and move on to other things.

The album was produced by Jackson and Quincy Jones and the two reportedly butted heads throughout the production process, which took seven solid months. Jones produced Jackson’s previous album, Off the Wall in 1979, but felt that it was too “disco” for the early 1980s. Jackson had felt that album did not get the proper acclaim that it deserved and was on a mission to make something which simply could not be ignored by the critics. Jackson and Jones worked on about thirty songs in total and nine were chosen for inclusion on the album. Jackson ultimately “wrote” four of these songs, but not by committing anything to paper. Instead, he would dictate directly into a sound recorder and commit his songs to memory for further performance.
 


Thriller by Michael Jackson
Released: November 30, 1982 (Epic)
Produced by: Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson
Recorded: Westlake Studios, Los Angeles, April-November 1982
Side One Side Two
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Baby Be Mine
The Girl Is Mine
Thriller
Beat It
Billie Jean
Human Nature
PYT (Pretty Young Thing)
The Lady In My Life
Primary Musicians
Michael Jacksson – Lead Vocals, Percussion
Rod Temperton – Keyboards | Steve Porcaro – Keyboardss | Louis Johnson – Bass

 
The album starts off with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, an excellent funk piece written by Michael Jackson. The song was originally recorded in 1978 and later slated to be recorded by Michael’s sister La Toya, but Jackson eventually decided to keep it for himself. “Baby Be Mine” follows, written by keyboardist Rod Temperton, famed for writing the song “Rock With You”, the biggest hit from Off the Wall.

The Girl Is Mine single“The Girl Is Mine” is a duet with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and was the first single released from the album in late 1982. Written by Jackson, it contains a nice mix of soft/pop instrumentation and lyrically tells of two friends’ fight over a woman, arguing over who loves her more, and concludes with a spoken rap. The song was recorded during the very first session for the album in April 1982. The song “Thriller” was written by Temperton and went through several names, including “Starlight” and “Midnight Man”, before settling on “Thriller” because of merchandising potential.

The second side kicks off with “Beat It”, the most rock-oriented song on the album, intentionally composed for cross-over appeal. The song contains a strong anti-gang-violence message and features a guitar lead by Eddie Van Halen. “Billie Jean” is the finest composition on the album by Jackson with its nice mixture of uptempo funk and somber themes of paranoia and obsession. The signature bass line was played by Louis Johnson and the song employed some unique recording techniques, including Jackson singing vocal overdubs through a six-foot-long cardboard tube and jazz saxophonist Tom Scott playing the lyricon, a rare, wind-controlled analog synthesizer.
 

 
“Human Nature” is an excellent ballad and true highlight on the album. Written by Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro and lyrisist John Bettis, the song has moody and introspective lyrics and haunting, beautiful music and melody. It is the last great moment on the album, which concludes with a couple of relatively weaker songs. Although released as a single, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” is really a throw-away filler, best remembered for the backing vocals by Michael’s sisters La Toya and Janet. “The Lady in My Life” is a soulful ballad by Temperton, but not quite as strong as some of the earlier tracks on the album.

This infamous “Thriller” video moment, along with the burning accident while filming a Pepsi commercial that left Jackson scarred for life, came right near the beginning of 1984. Ironically, this turned out to be exactly at the midpoint of Jackson’s life (08/29/58-06/25/09) and may have been the inception of the freak show and tragic figure that Jackson became in the second half of his life, which is all the more tragic when you consider the genius this man displayed during the first half of his life. There is no denying that Thriller is the gold standard for pop albums and probably will never be topped commercially. At the time of death in 2009, the album had sold over 29 million copies, that is Platinum 58 times over.

~
R.A.
 


1982 Images

 

 

Book of Dreams by Steve Miller Band

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Book Of Dreams by Steve Miller Band Steve Miller forged his reputation as a Chicago blues man, immersing himself in that scene during the 1960s and playing with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry. Still, his most popular and enduring records came in the mid-to-late seventies and featured a blend of pop-rock songs and quasi-psychedelic pieces with synthesized effects. Book of Dreams fell right in the heart of this era and, along with its predecessor, Fly Like An Eagle, demonstrated this approach as well as any album. In fact, much of both these albums were recorded together in 1975. Miller produced both of these albums and considered releasing a double album but instead opted for two single albums that were released in May of consecutive years (1976, 1977).

Fly Like An Eagle by Steve Miller BandFly Like An Eagle was a great success, spawning many radio hits and three singles which reached the Top 20 including the #1 hit “Rock n’ Me”. That album peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts. Book of Dreams fared even better as an album, peaking at #2 on Billboard. This pair of albums represented the peak of Miller’s commercial career.

The diversity of style is what makes the whole of this album far greater than the sum of its parts, although most fans only really know those parts as individual songs long heard on classic rock and AOR radio. Book of Dreams provided a nice blend of the fundamentals of blues-rock and the indulgences of prog rock.

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Book of Dreams by Steve Miller Band
Released: May 1977 (Capitol)
Produced by: Steve Miller
Recorded: CBS Studios, San Francisco, 1976-1977
Side One Side Two
Threshold
Jet Airliner
Winter Time
Swingtown
True Fine Love
Wish Upon a Star
Jungle Love
Electro Lux Imbroglio
Sacrifice
The Stake
My Own Space
Babes In the Wood
Primary Musicians
Steve Miller – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Synthesizer
David Denny – Guitars
Greg Douglass – Guitars
Lonnie Turner – Bass
Gary Mallaber – Drums

 
The album starts off with “Threshold”, a minute-long, pure synth-effect track which almost sounds like a distant air patrol alarm and acts as defacto into for “Jet Airliner” (in fact, most classic radio stations play these songs together). “Jet Airliner” was composed by Paul Pena for his album in 1973, but when that artist encountered label problems the album and song went unreleased. The song was presented to Miller by a former band mate and Miller developed it using a variation of Eric Clapton’s guitar riff on Cream’s version of “Crossroads”. This method of using a synth-heavy piece to introduce a proper song was commonplace with Miller during this era as he did the exact same thing to start off Fly Like An Eagle and uses this method again later on Book of Dreams with “Electro Lux Imbroglio” and “Sacrifice”.

A couple of Miller’s moody, prog rock-influenced songs are “Winter Time” and “Wish Upon a Star”, which each make heavy use of keyboards for a surreal backdrop. “Winter Time” also features a simple, acoustic folk motif and features some harmonica by Norton Buffalo. The song later breaks into a nicer groove led by double-tracked lead guitar.
 

 
“Jungle Love” was written by guitarist Lonnie Turner and bassist Greg Douglass and may be the best pure pop song on the album, in spite of despite some annoying whistling effects. It features a crisp but heavy guitar riff out front and slightest tinge of reggae in the underlying rhythm, all working in tandem with Miller’s steady, melodic vocal line. Another good pop song on the album is “True Fine Love”, which executes the perfect seventies songwriting formula of – intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/lead/verse/chorus/fadeout.

“Swingtown” is an excellent song built on a beat (which is actually more of a “shuffle” than a “swing”) by drummer Gary Mallaber. The intro builds instrument by instrument – first drums, then bass, then rhythm guitar, then piano, then second guitar, then vocals. It is a potpourri of sonic candy especially from the deadened-note guitar and ending synth section. “The Stake” was written by guitarist David Denny and is actually the closest to the classic blues with which Miller cut his teeth, with its riff, harmonica, and harmonized guitar lead – but with a much “hipper” seventies feel, especially with the vocal effects.

The remarkable 1975 sessions at CBS Studios in San Francisco gave us Fly Like An Eagle and Book of Dreams, a unique confluence of sound which worked perfectly for the era and held up well through time. While both of these are excellent albums, Book of Dreams marks the absolute pinnacle of the Steve Miller Band.

~

1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1977 albums.

 

The Grand Illusion by Styx

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The Grand Illusion by StyxAlthough it was seventh overall studio album for the band, The Grand Illusion was the second album from Styx to head towards a more radio-friendly direction. The Chicago based band with a traditional prog-rock approach, began to write more mainstream material with the arrival of guitarist Tommy Shaw in late 1975. Shaw joined fellow guitarist James “JY” Young and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung as the band’s trio of songwriters and lead singers. Each brought a distinct style which  contrasted with the others. Yet they also complimented each other in various ways and, for the most part, Styx forged a decently harmonic sound.

The Grand illusion itself is a pleasant listen, albeit a bit uneven and less-than cohesive. The fantastic first side contains all the radio and chart hits with a much less inspired second side featuring some under-developed pieces which render the album short of greatness. The album showed the great potential of Styx band as a sort of “prog lite” outfit with much more pop crossover appeal than their earlier work. This would be a template set for bands like Genesis, who followed suit in subsequent years and through the 1980s.

Seven turned out to be the lucky number for the band as this album (their 7th overall, released on 7/07/77) went triple platinum in sales and spawned a couple of hit singles. Thematically, the concept of The Grand Illusion examines the futility of solely aspiring to fame. According to DeYoung, it is about the struggle to overcome self-deluding superficiality in order to affirm one’s genuine value.
 

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The Grand Illusion by Styx
Released: July 7, 1977 (A&M)
Produced by: Styx
Recorded: Paragon Recording Studios, Chicago, 1977
Side One Side Two
The Grand Illusion
Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
Superstars
Come Sail Away
Miss America
Man In the Wilderness
Castle Walls
The Grand Finale
Primary Musicians
Dennis DeYoung – Keyboards, Synths, Vocals
James Young – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Tommy Shaw – Guitars, Vocals
Chuck Panozzo – Bass
John Panozzo – Drums

 
The intro march of “The Grand Illusion” draws you in immediately, complimented in short time by the stop/start nature of the first verse. This theme song by Dennis DeYoung eventually breaks into the more driving, melodic choruses and features early guitar fills by Shaw and a soaring lead by JY later in the song. More than any other song on the album, this opener finds the nice balance between between progressive and AOR, which appears to be the band’s vision for this album.

Tommy Shaw’s “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” begins with a nice opening synth sequence by DeYoung which compliments Shaw’s acoustic strumming. The song eventually settles into a strong rhythmic beat by bassist Chuck Panozzo and his brother, drummer John Panozzo, before another nice synth lead. Both this song and Shaw’s ballad, “Man In the Wilderness” are written in the same vein as material by the band Kansas, revealing that band’s influence on Styx.

“Superstars” is a collaborative effort by DeYoung, Shaw, and Young, which built like a show tune with a rock backbone. Although the song does contain some rewarding and entertaining sections like the nice lead guitar, it does sound a bit dated like something which could have been on a teen-oriented TV show of the era, not to mention the title itself.
 

 
Closing the first side, “Come Sail Away” is the album’s true masterpiece. It is a beautiful song with a refreshing, simple piano arrangement by DeYoung up front. The song is adventurous and romantic with just a tinge of strangeness like a journey into the unknown. There are a couple of great moments when the melodic, keyboard driven sections are cut sharply by a strong, rock-oriented, guitar-driven arrangement. The mid section contains dualing synths by DeYoung and JY, which adds to the mystique of the song with its “modern” sequencing and new agish overtones. Long considered a pioneering power ballad, “Come Sail Away” is a much richer number and is perhaps the finest Styx would ever forge.

JY takes lead vocals on his track “Miss America”. It starts with a synth rendition of the traditional song before giving way to a sharper, driving verse and a thickly harmonized chorus. “Castle Walls” starts with a heartbeat-like bass line by Chuck Panozzo with overlain Baroque keys by DeYoung before Shaw and Young again trade guitar leads later in the song. “The Grand Finale” closes the album as a sort of reverse-overture which incorporates elements of the better songs from the first side.

The success of The Grand Illusion launched Styx into the most successful era of their career with three more successful albums up to and including their blockbuster Paradise Theatre in 1981. The band built of the theatrical, pop-oriented, and soft rock elements of this 1977 album to bring them the widespread success that they had worked towards for years.

~

1977 Images

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

 

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.

 

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

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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.