Storm Front by Billy Joel

Storm Front by Billy Joel

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Storm Front by Billy JoelWith Storm Front, his eleventh overall studio album, Billy Joel made a concerted effort to radically change his approach on several levels. First, he discharged a few members of the support band which had been with him since the mid 1970s. Next, Joel decided not to work with producer Phil Ramone (who had produced every Billy Joel album since The Stranger in 1977, and instead enlisted Foreigner’s Mick Jones, who had brought his band to pop super-stardom earlier in the decade. The result of this pivotal effort at the sunset of the 1980s was a commercially successful album that received lukewarm critical feedback and, in many ways, began the decline of Joel’s incredible pop career.

Following the release of Joel’s previous album The Bridge three years earlier, he initiated an ambitious undertaking by becoming the first major American rock act to perform in the Soviet Union. The album КОНЦЕРТ (Russian for “Concert”) was released shortly after the August 1987 performances in Tlbisi, Moscow and Lennigrad, in part to recover the estimated $1 million of his own money that Joel spent the trip and concerts. However, more financial troubles were to come as an audit revealed major discrepancies in the accounting of Joel’s longtime manager in August 1989, subsequently costing the longtime pop star much of his fortune.

Guitarist Russell Javors and bassist Doug Stegmeyer, each of whom had been with Joel since the recording of Turnstiles in 1976, were fired prior to the recording of Storm Front and replaced by Joey Hunting and Schuyler Deale respectively. Joel also hired vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero while retaining three members of his regular band. In 1988, Joel made a cameo on Mick Jones’ self-titled solo debut and was so impressed with his production abilities that he hired him to help forge the sonic tones and moods on Storm Front.


Storm Front by Billy Joel
Released: October 17, 1989 (Columbia)
Produced by: Mick Jones and Billy Joel
Recorded: The Hit Factory and Right Track Recording, New York, Spring-Summer 1989
Track Listing Primary Musicians
That’s Not Her Style
We Didn’t Start the Fire
The Downeaster ‘Alexa’
I Go to Extremes
Shameless
Storm Front
Leningrad
State of Grace
When in Rome
And So It Goes
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Clavinet, Accordion, Keyboards
David Brown – Guitars
Jeff Jacobs – Horns, Keyboards
Schuyler Deale – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums, Percussion
 
Storm Front by Billy Joel

 

The opening track, “That’s Not Her Style” , has an underlying vibe of bluesy rock, especially during harmonica laden intro of Don Brooks, but is otherwise nothing more than topical sanitized pop. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” follows as a history lesson through rap, cut by the chorus hook that has richly disguised vocal harmonies. The main keyboard riff sounds like it could have composed on xylophone, especially along side the tribal percussive sounds and bouncy synth bass during verses. The lyrics are exclusively composed of words, terms and names of historical significance, starting in 1949, the year Joel was born. The song was Joel’s final #1 hit in the U.S.

The middle songs of this album are where you will find the top quality material. “The Downeaster Alexa” is the most indelible song on the album, led by Joel’s great vocal melodies, and an almost Gordon Lightfoot approach in its composition. It contains extraordinary sonic arrangements from the ever-present accordion of Dominic Cortese to the deadened guitar riffs to the slow methodical drum march to the strategic organ and synths. There is also a fine violin lead credited only to “World Famous Incognito Violinist”. Lyrically, “The Downeaster Alexa” tells of the plight of fisherman from Joel’s native Long Island with some poetic phrases like;

“tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis and I still have my hands on the wheel”

“I Go to Extremes” is the the purest pop/rock song on the album with a great melody and beat along with a couple of decent piano leads later in the song. This song with a bipolar theme reached #6 on the Billboard pop charts. “Shameless” is soulful and pleasantly melodic throughout, almost with the tenor of a seventies light pop/rock hit (although it would be most associated with Garth Brooks in the early nineties). This song also contains the best guitar work on the album by the team of David Brown and Joey Hunting. The title song “Storm Front” is pure Motown through and through with good rhythm, slow riffs, and a rich horn arrangement by Jeff Jacobs.

“Lenningrad” is historical ballad which feels like it would have fit in well on the 1982 album The Nylon Curtain. Influenced by Joel’s trip to the U.S.S.R. and has a great arrangement towards the end with the piano being almost classical to fit the mood. Joel compares his protagonist’s life with his own, much like he did in a previous song, “Ballad of Billy Kid”. The last really good track on Storm Front is “State of Grace”, a real forgotten gem driven by Joel’s high melodies and fantastic guitar work throughout by Jones, making it his best musical contribution on the album. “When In Rome” contains some Motown elements, especially in lead and backing vocals along a pretty good sax solo. “And So It Goes” closes the otherwise upbeat album with a sad ballad, almost tortured in its approach with vocals closely mimicking piano.

Storm Front reached the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic as the 1990s began. Billy Joel would release one more pop/rock album, The River of Dreams in 1993, before effectively retiring from this aspect of the music industry.

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1989 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1989 albums.

 

Parallel Lines by Blondie

Parallel Lines by Blondie

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Parallel Lines by BlondieBlondie has become one of those groups that is often misunderstood on multiple levels. First, this was a band, not a female solo artist with a common nickname. Next, this was not a disco group but a bona fide new wave, experimental rock band with pop leanings which had started out at CBGBs right alongside the Ramones and the Talking Heads. Blondie just had far better pop success, which started with 1978’s Parallel Lines, produced by Mike Chapman. This third studio album, which masterfully blended bubblegum pop with elements of punk, went on to sell over twenty million copies worldwide and reached the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.

The group’s iconic figure, composer and lead vocalist Deborah Harry, was already age 33 and a seasoned veteran of the New York rock scene when this album was produced. Her artistic and domestic partner in creating the group was guitarist Chris Stein, who brought with him inspiration from the new music scene of the Mercer Arts Center on New York’s Lower East Side. The duo first played together in the group The Stilettos in 1973 and formed many incarnations of a rock group before drummer Clem Burke and keyboard player Jimmy Destri came aboard and formed Blondie in 1975. The group released their self-titled debut album in December 1976 but scored their first commercial success in Australia in 1977, when a music television program mistakenly played their video “In the Flesh”.  That song, which has been described as “a forerunner to the power ballad”, went to number one down under. In February 1978, Blondie released their second album, Plastic Letters.

Producer Chapman intentionally steered the band away from their punk and new wave  leanings (although much of those elements seeped through) and towards making a pop album. He mixed Stein’s guitar right up beside Deborah Harry’s vocals and navigates from song to song and style to style smoothly. Chapman also imposed a tough rehearsal schedule and tightened up the rhythm and timing on the recordings.


Parallel Lines by Blondie
Released: September, 1978 (Chrysalis)
Produced by: Mike Chapman
Recorded: Record Plant, New York City, June–July 1978
Side One Side Two
Hanging On the Telephone
One Way or Another
Picture This
Fade Away and Radiate
Pretty Baby
I Know But I Don’t Know
11:59
Will Anything Happen?
Sunday Girl
Heart of Glass
I’m Gonna Lose You Too
Just Go Away
Band Musicians
Deborah Harry – Lead Vocals  |  Chris Stein – Guitars |  Frank Infante – Guitar, Vocals
Jimmy Destri – Keyboards  |  Nigel Harrison – Bass, Vocals  |  Clem Burke – Drums

The album begins with “Hanging on the Telephone”, a cover song written by Jack Lee for the new wave band the Nerves. Although this song sounds a bit dated just for the technology references (i.e. “telephone booth”), it does contain a pleasant harmonized guitar lead and is a near perfect setup for the next track. “One Way or Another” was co-written by bassist Nigel Harrison, who joined Blondie just prior to the recording of Parallel Lines. This rock and roll classic is a ballsy female creed of pure will and determination with an infectious cascading guitar lick. The song concludes with a tremendous outro which contains layered vocals and siren effects and it reached U.S. Top 40 in April, 1979.

“Picture This” is another gem on the first side, and the first foray into retro rock. The heavy guitar riffs are masterfully mixed throughout, giving the song a great vibe while maintaining an edge, accented by the profound lyrics;

“all I want is 20/20 vision a total portrait with no omissions…”

Stein’s “Fade Away and Radiate” Sounds like it is influenced by early Alice Cooper with its slow and haunting atmosphere. It kicks in nicely with well treated guitar and synth effects and dry but powerful vocals. “Pretty Baby” follows as a more upbeat rock song with a call and response chorus and great guitar riffs between verses. The group’s final 1978 addition, guitarist Frank Infante wrote “I Know But I Don’t Know” and shares lead vocals with Harry. This song has an intro organ has Latin influence but Burke’s driving drums make it come off more as punk rock, especially when coupled with Infante’s scorching guitar runs.

The album’s second side contains Parallel Lines two biggest hits. “Sunday Girl” almost sounds like a sixties cover, but is really just a masterful composition by Stein with a great vocal melody executed by Harry. The light plunking guitar and gentle cruising rhythms gives the song an air of innocence which is a nice break on this album and propelled it to the top of the U.K. charts.

From pure retro in “Sunday Girl”, the album takes a sharp turn to pure disco of “Heart of Glass”. The song evolved from a very different sounding demo by Stein and Harry, but the studio recording was fused together beat by beat by Chapman, who had lofty goals for this track from the start. It reached number one in both the U.S. and the U.K. (and beyond) and the group has long admitted the song was a flagrant attempt to exploit the then still raging disco scene. Deborah Harry’s vocal reaches a more airy high-pitched level than the more brassy rock numbers, which works perfectly with the band groove.

The rest of side two contains some fine tunes which tend to be overlooked next to the big hits. Destri’s “11:59” is a moderate-tempo song with apocalyptic overtones, highlighted by a choppy chord beat and organ lead. “Will Anything Happen?” is a great piece of popped-out punk which is led by a hyper guitar riff, smooth, cool vocals by Harry, and an incredibly long drum roll by Burke. The apt and brilliant closer “Just Go Away” was composed solely by Harry and is quite an original female punk classic, which finishes Parallel Lines on a very high note.

Parallel Lines got its title from a song left off the album (although the lyrics for that song were printed on the original album sleeve. Of the twelve tracks that made the cut, six were issued as singles, making this a true commercial blockbuster.

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1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1978 albums.

52nd Street by Billy Joel

52nd Street by Billy Joel

52nd Street

52nd Street by Billy JoelThe third of consecutive masterpieces by Billy Joel in the late 1970s, 52nd Street, amazingly encapsulates musical elements from Joel’s past, present and future in a rather short album. It was put together by Joel and producer Phil Ramone in near secrecy in a small studio around the corner from the street which bears its name. In fact, that famous street was where Joel’s label was located (about a block away from the studio) as well as being one of New York City’s traditional jazz centers in the twentieth century. This was also Ramone’s third consecutive album with Joel, starting with Turnstiles in 1976 and The Stranger in 1977.

Building on the styles of those previous albums, 52nd Street is a bit more sophisticated and jazzy, with looser, street-wise arrangements. Contrarily, this album makes some deliberate attempts at mimicking styles from several artists and genres, which makes the album very diverse. There is no doubt that Joel drew from influences of his youth as well as some late seventies contemporaries such as fellow New York jazz/rockers Steely Dan.

Once The Stranger became a chart phenom in early 1977, Joel and Ramone quickly re-entered the studio to record a follow-up, enlisting the same core band which played on the previous album and had toured with Joel since his return to New York in 1975. Within a span of about three months, the album was composed, recorded, mixed, mastered, and released. Joel did all of the composing and arranging while Ramone did a masterful job of making all the various styles and techniques flow together smoothly from start to finish.


52nd Street by Billy Joel
Released: October 13, 1978 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: A&R Recording, New York City, July–August 1978
Side One Side Two
Big Shot
Honesty
My Life
Zanzibar
Stiletto
Rosalinda’s Eyes
Half a Mile Away
Until the Night
52nd Street
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano
Richie Cannata – Saxophones, Clarinet, Keyboards
Steve Khan – Guitars, Vocals
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums

The nine track 52nd Street can really be divided into three, three-song sections. The first of these sections contain the three big radio hits, all of which reached the Top 40. Allegedly an inside dig against Mick Jagger’s wife Bianca, “Big Shot” drops some New York society names and terms with its storytelling lyrics. Musically, Joel takes a back seat to the members of his rock band, especially guitarist Steve Khan, whose strong guitar riffs drive the song much more than the simple guide piano.

While “Big Shot” is a showcase for his band, the following track “Honesty” is where Joel firmly takes center stage. This is a song which demonstrates the upper limit of Joel’s writing and performing ability, a philosophical piano ballad with soaring yet delicate vocals. “Honesty” may be Joel’s best Elton John impression, a complex piece with a great bridge seeping with emotion. The song features David Spinozza on acoustic guitar and Robert Freedman providing horn and string orchestration.

“My Life” is a steady rocker, driven by Khan’s acoustic guitar and an excellent bass by Doug Stegmeyer. On top of it all, are the tasteful lead piano riffs and great melodies by Joel and, even when he is at his most pop-oriented, his lyrics maintain their philosophic edge. On this track, the music is laid back and reserved yet still has a feeling of fast-paced motion, a tribute to Ramone’s ingenious production techniques.

The second three-song section of the album is where the true genius of the 52nd Street lies. All three of these songs are gems which have kind of gotten lost in the retrospectives of Joel’s career, but all three belong in the top echelon. “Zanzibar” is one of Joel’s most complex and richly arranged compositions. This tour de force of 52nd Street is a truly unique song which vacillates from pure rock to jazz with Joel’s shouting vocals leading the way throughout. Even when the song seems to breakdown to a completely off-the-wall jazz section, it works great and flows well with guest Freddie Hubbard on flugelhorn and trumpet. The song evokes the carnival-esque glare of Manhattan at night.

“Stiletto” is a great piano blues/rocker led by a saxophone riff by Richie Cannata. This song has some interesting sonic passages starting with a simple but powerful beat by Liberty DeVitto that drives this song which would be entertaining whether performed solo in a nightclub or in a stadium filled with 50,000 people. The bridge section is a fun piano run that harkens back slightly to “Root Beer Rag”, while the lyrics are nearly sadomasochist. On the lighter and cleaner side, “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is a moderately soft love ballad with Spanish-influenced rhythms, like a more mature version of “Just the Way You Are”. The song contains many sonic treasures by guest players, including vibes and marimba by Mike Mainieri, nylon string guitar by Hugh McCracken and a unique and excellent percussion by Ralph MacDonald, which Ramone creatively had play out for 20 or 30 seconds after the rest of the song fades.

Perhaps the only flaw on 52nd Street lies within the final three songs, which each seem to try too hard to point in one direction or another. I have long contended that the demise of rock and roll began once it became self-aware, sometime in the 1970s, and these last three songs each exhibit that theory to an extent. “Half a Mile Away” may sound like Joel’s earliest 70s pop attempts or later 80s numbers, but either way it sounds hollow compared to the finer tracks. The bright horn arrangements are the only real highlights from this song. “Until the Night” is a very retro, Phil Spector inspired track that forecasts some tracks on the future album An Innocent Man. This is a good tune where Joel really shows his vocal range, but is a little too self-indulgent and over-produced to really jive on this album. The best part of the song is the dramtic bridge section which precedes and equally dramatic sax solo by Cannata. The title song “52nd Street” finishes the album as almost an afterthought (probably by design). After the dramatic climax of “Until the Night” and a pregnant pause, the closer kicks in as a very brief, one verse Ray Charles tribute with a clarinet lead during the outro section.

Although it did not sell as well as its predecessor, 52nd Street was Billy Joel’s first #1 album that was extremely well-received by critics, and earned the 1979 Grammy for Album of the Year. 52nd Street is also distinct as the first album to be commercially released on compact disc, by Sony Music in Japan in 1982. Joel continued his commercial success with fine albums throughout the eighties, but none were quite as good as his works from the late seventies.

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1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1978 albums.

Naked by Talking Heads

Naked by Talking Heads

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Naked by Talking HeadsTalking Heads eighth and final album was Naked , released in 1988. The album was an attempt at a quasi-concept album which brings the listener to an ironically serene world following an (apparently) man-made apocalypse. This may not have been the original intent, as the complex musical arrangements were composed and recorded before any of the lyrics which made up this theme were recorded. The four member group employed an additional twenty or so musicians of vastly different genres in order to achieve a world music sound through most of the album, making Naked the most musically diverse album by the band.

Talking Heads previous two albums, Little Creatures in 1985 and True Stories in 1986, were both very pop oriented, and the band wanted to try something completely different. They decided to record their next album in Paris, based on scores of improvisational tracks they recorded as the foundation for the new material. Steve Lillywhite was brought in to co-produce and he conducted day-long, improvised musical sessions with the group and several other musicians with one take selected for each particular track.

The lyrics and melodies were left until later when the band returned to New York. Lead vocalist and chief songwriter David Byrne added themes to the prerecorded tracks. The album’s title and cover were loosely based on a Chinese proverb; “If there is no tiger in the mountains, the monkey will be king”, which was also printed on the LP jacket of Naked. Although the musical approach works for most of the album, the apocalyptic lyrics laced with late-eighties fatalism tend to sound dated. Of course, the band was in the midst of slowly breaking up at the time, so that may have had an influence on the lyrical content.

 


Naked by Talking Heads
Released: March 15, 1988 (EMI)
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite & Talking Heads
Recorded: Studio Davout, Paris, 1987
Side One Side Two
Blind
Mr. Jones
Totally Nude
Ruby Dear
(Nothing But) Flowers”
The Democratic Circus
The Facts of Life
Mommy Daddy You and I
Big Daddy
Bill
Cool Water
Band Musicians
David Byrne – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Jerry Harrison – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Tina Weymouth – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Chris Frantz – Drums, Percussion

 

The first side is a collection of upbeat, well syncopated tunes. “Blind” is a funk track with an Afro-flavored groove and a full horn section which includes three saxophones, two trumpets, and a trombone. If not for the violent lyrical themes, the song may almost be considered a spoof on James Brown. “Mr. Jones” also includes a rich horn section, although this song is more swing than funk. Still upbeat and fun, it is a great musical blend and the closest to soulful vocals as you’ll get from Byrne. Drummer Chris Frantz
decided to use brushes and softer percussive techniques in order to give room to the various other percussionists.

“Totally Nude” contains a fine slide guitar by Yves N’Djock, along with Caribbean rhythms. However, this track does get a bit too crowded as the ensemble seems to be trying to do too many things at once. On his album Graceland a few years earlier, Paul Simon had much better success at making these diverse styles mesh together. “Ruby Dear” begins with blues-like drum beat before breaking into some odd yet intriguing verses, which employ a bit of sixties pyschedelia. This is the first of many tracks on which Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr appears.

Marr provides the sharply plucked leads on “(Nothing But) Flowers”, which was the most popular song on the album and the album’s best musically. Bass guitarist Tina Weymouth provides an overall fantastic groove to back up Byrne’s melodic vocals. The songs lyrics describe a world where modern conveniences has ceased and the world has reverted to a more natural state, which the protagonist originally favored but now longs the conveniences and culture of the modern world.

The original LP’s second side takes a bit of a dark turn, both musically and philosophically. “The Democratic Circus” starts as the closest to the 1980s new wave sound that you’ll find on the album, before later breaking out into rougher, riff-driven sections. “The Facts of Life” uses machine-like synth effects by Jerry Harrison, which is somewhat cool for about a minute or so, but after six and a half minutes gets quite mundane. “Mommy Daddy You and I” includes some bluesy squeeze notes above a deep synth bass and a rapid accordion by James Fearnley during the verses.

“Big Daddy” is a nice fusion song with a pure soul intro and blues elements led by the harmonica of Don Brooks. Lyrically it is analogous to the “big brother” figure in George Orwell’s 1984. “Bill” features Eric Weissberg, who found previous famous for his arrangement of “Dueling Banjos” in 1973. This song is really quite subdued and mellow, with the exception of the apoplectic lyrics. The closer “Cool Water” features dramatic, movie scene-like atmosphere with Byres singing monotone in the fashion of Nico from years passed. Marr adds to the intensity of the song with his guitar as Byrnes offers pleas for human fellowship through his lyric.

Talking Heads achieved a fitting swan song with their stylistically fruitful Naked, which reached the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming only the second album by the group to accomplish that feat. The band dissolved shortly after the album’s release, officially announcing their breakup in 1991.

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1988 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1988 albums.

 

Zebra

Zebra

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ZebraThe rock trio Zebra existed with almost equal measures of three critical stripes – love, hate and indifference. The group’s dedicated fans point out the melodic dynamics present with group leader Randy Jackson, as he fused some of the best arena rock of the 70s with the pop and rock sensibilities of the 80s. Critics dismiss the band as nothing more than Zeppelin ‘clones’ who tried to fill a void in the wake of that legendary band’s dissolution. As for the rest, well, most passive listeners never really heard of the band Zebra. However, in early 1983 when the band released their self-titled debut, there were many who saw great things down the line.

Zebra, whose name was inspired by a 1922 cover of vogue magazine, had been together since forming in 1975 in New Orleans. Led by guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Randy Jackson, the group started to gain notoriety when they migrated to Long Island, NY and furiously played in that area’s club and college scene, mainly as a cover band. However, their limited catalogue of originals were strong enough to impress Atlantic Records, who signed the group to a five album deal right out of the gate in late 1982.

This seemed like a wise business deal for the suits as the album Zebra became the fastest selling debut record in Atlantic Records history when it sold over 75,000 copies in its first week and spent eight months on the Billboard charts, peaking at number 29. But this was largely due to their dedicated fan bases in both New York and Louisiana, and widespread acceptance by critics or radio stations never quite materialized.


Zebra by Zebra
Released: March 21, 1983 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Jack Douglas
Recorded: 1983
Side One Side Two
Tell Me What You Want
One More Chance
Slow Down
As I Said Before
Who’s Behind the Door?
When You Get There
Take Your Fingers from My Hair
Don’t Walk Away
The La La Song
Band Musicians
Randy Jackson – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Synthesizers
Felix Hanemann – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Guy Gelso – Drums, Vocals

 
Veteran producer Jack Douglas was at the production helm and forged a processed (perhaps over-processed) sound which was snare-heavy and bass light. Still the dynamics of the band shine through on this debut. “Tell Me What You Want” starts immediately as an acoustic ballad which quickly builds to a frenzied and intense electric screed driven by Jackson’s ever intense vocalizing and the deep synth and bass riff line by Felix Hanemann. “One More Chance” is built like a traditional love song where Jackson shines with both his vocal range and great guitar textures. Theses guitars range from the delicately picked flange of the verse to the driving crunch of the choruses, all underneath some space-aged lead guitar licks. “Slow Down” is an oddity for this or any subsequent Zebra album – a cover. Written by Larry Williams in 1958 (but best known for the 1964 Beatles’ cover), the song has the band stepping out sonically and providing a simple, driving hard rock song complete with boogie piano by Hanemann.

“And I Said Before” is a great play on a simple lyric motif put to use with great music arrangement and vocal variations. It is also the first on the album where drummer Guy Gelso really shows his chops and it contains an interesting bridge with a banjo in the foreground and a heavy rock riff on the interlude. The song acts as a defacto intro for “Who’s Behind the Door?”, the group’s signature song through their early recording years. Philosophically deep (it is like the “Dust in the Wind” of 1983) with the finest production on the album, it is musically driven by Jackson’s complex acoustic riffing through the intro. Later the chorus and climatic ending have a much more spacey, electric feel (complete with laser-like sound effects). The song reached the Top 10 on the US rock charts but failed to breach the Top 40 on the pop charts.

The album’s second side begins with “When You Get There”, a simple, entertaining, and upbeat rocker. Unlike much of the material, this one is really carried by the rhythm section, especially Hanemann’s bass. “Take Your Fingers From My Hair” is an ambitious, extended piece which makes a half-hearted attempt at a rock suite, ranging from folky acoustic verses to head-banging metal electric choruses. The band later tries this extended approach once again (albeit with a slightly different angle) on the ill-conceived closer “The La La Song”. The best part of this both of these longer tracks is that they each contain authentic jam sections, which breaks the band out of the sanitized production into more authentic rock sections put together by the trio as a band.

Somewhat lost between these more ambitious pieces is the real highlight of the second side, “Don’t Walk Away”. Built on a simple rock guitar riff and a steady upbeat rhythm, this song contains simple and melodic, McCartney-esque vocals by Jackson. It builds sonically throughout with simple yet precise synth and piano motifs all while building towards the climatic double-bridge, which sandwiches the best guitar lead on the entire album. The song ends simply and elegantly, leaving the listener wanting for more (as every great rock song should).

Zebra followed up their debut with the 1984 album No Tellin’ Lies, which contains some brilliant moments but is not as solid as their debut. Their third album 3.V, released in 1986, was the most critically acclaimed of the three but arrived long after Zebra’s initial momentum had faded and the band was already doomed to be one of the greatest bands that nobody heard.

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1983 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1983 albums.

 

She's So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper

She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper

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She's So Unusual by Cyndi LauperOne of the most successful pop debuts ever, She’s So Unusual by New Yorker Cyndi Lauper, went on to spawn four top-five hits, a first for a debut album by a female artist. Released in late 1983, the album continued to chart and release singles through the mid 1980s and was an early peak of Lauper’s long sustained career. It was produced and recorded mainly by the team that fueled the later success for the Philadelphia band The Hooters, producer Rick Chertoff and musicians Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman. The material for the album was drawn from an abundance of sources, with each song having distinct composers which gave the album a diversity of song styles.

Lauper first had minimal success with the group Blue Angel, a new wave/pop band which was formed in 1978 and had released their only album in 1980. When that album sold poorly, many record execs lost interest in the band but Lauper’s dynamic vocals sparked some interest. She was signed to a subsidiary label of Epic records in 1982 and given a sizable budget and generous time to record at the famed Record Plant in New York City.

Aside from her two original compositions, Lauper herself did little more than sing on this album, as the material was developed through Chertoff and the production team using some cutting edge synthesizers and sequencing. Still, Lauper carries the day on She’s So Unusual with her incredible range (4 octaves), perfect pitch, and a unique mix of effervescent pop, sentimentality, and a bit of humor.


She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper
Released: October 14, 1983 (Portrait)
Produced by: Rick Chertoff & William Wittman.
Recorded: Record Plant, New York City, December 1982 – June 1983
Side One Side Two
Money Changes Everything
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
When You Were Mine
Time After Time
She Bop
All Through the Night
Witness
I’ll Kiss You
He’s So Unusual / Yeah Yeah
Primary Musicians
Cyndi Lauper – Lead Vocals
Rob Hyman – Keyboards, Melodica, Vocals
Eric Bazilian – Guitars, Bass, Saxophone, Vocals
Rick Chertoff – Percussion

A cover of a the 1978 song by The Brains called “Money Changes Everything” starts the album as a rocker with a straight 4/4 beat and a riff built on Hyman’s synthesizer. The song was released as a single in 1984, peaking at #27. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” fared much better on the charts. Written by Robert Hazard in 1979, the song was Lauper’s first major single and the one most associated with her throughout her career. It reached #2 on the pop charts but is most remembered for its inventive video, which was the product of a volunteer cast and the free loan of sophisticated video equipment and studio time donated by Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live, who had ties to Lauper’s manager.

A cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” follows, with a duet harmony through the verses of this pop ode to lost love. “Time After Time” was written in the studio by Rob Hyman and Lauper and was nominated for a Grammy Song of the Year. The song is melancholy and sweet, driven by a synth organ, a fat synth bass effect, some laid back guitars, and some inventive percussive effects using a harmonize, effects loop, and pitch-shift, programmed by Hyman. The ballad became Lauper’s first number one hit in America in early 1984 and reached the Top Ten in 15 countries.

The second side of She’s So Unusual starts with “She Bop”, co-written by producer Chertoff. This is a full-fledged new wave anthem which contains a neat “whistling” lead that trades licks with a more traditional synth sound for pure entertainment. Although the song was considered controversial, it reached number three on the pop charts. “All Through the Night” was written by folk singer Jules Shear and became the fourth single to reach the Top Five. A real highlight vocally and melodically for Lauper, the song is driven musically by Hyman’s synths and electronic rhythms, along with an interesting faux bagpipe during the lead. Lauper’s finest moment comes with the great vocal wailing during the song’s outro.

The ska-influenced “Witness” is a song written by Lauper and former Blue Angel band mate John Turi and features great bass riffing by Bazilian, which drives the song. Solid up to this point, the album does end weakly starting with the brain-drilling “I’ll Kiss You”, the worst song on the album. Next, comes a Betty-Boop like rendition of the 1920’s tune “He’s So Unusual”, complete with distorted piano and old record scratch effects, which oddly acts as an intro to synth-heavy closer “Yeah Yeah”, where Lauper ad-libs with weird vocal effects throughout.

She’s So Unusual sold over six million copies, won two Grammy Awards (out of six nominations), charted on the album Top Forty for sixty-five weeks, was critically acclaimed, and is still vastly entertaining 30 years later, making this a success of every level. Despite the release of fine material in subsequent years, Lauper simply could not maintain this level of popularity or consistency as with her debut.

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1983 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1983 albums.

 

Piano Man by Billy Joel

Piano Man by Billy Joel

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Piano Man by Billy JoelWhile in the midst of a bitter legal with his first label Family Records, Billy Joel sought exile in Los Angeles, biding his time as a lounge singer under the assumed name “Bill Martin”. Joel had toured long to support his 1971 debut Cold Spring harbor, an album which was essentially dead commercially due to faulty production (something that would be fixed years later with a re-release). Under these odd circumstances, the performer was still able to land a new contract with Columbia Records as well as compose and record Piano Man, which would give him his most famous song and his pop identity, along with some other significant highlights.

“I had no leverage and had to drop off the face of the Earth…”

Joel’s career detour to the west coast was the latest in a long musical journey. He had been performing since age four and joined his first group after seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. He started as a pure rocker in the band The Echoes, a group that specialized in British Invasion covers and became a popular in New York. In 1967, Joel joined the band The Hassles, a band that had signed with United Artists records and released two albums and four singles in the late 1960s, but nothing caught on commercially. Joel and Hassles’ drummer Jon Small formed the odd duet Attila with Joel on distorted and highly processed Hammond organ. Attila released their one eponymous debut album in July 1970 before disbanding when Joel had an affair with Small’s wife, Elizabeth, whom Joel eventually married.

While the album as whole definitely draws influence from contemporaries like Elton John, James Taylor, and John Denver, the major signature songs on the album are very personal and original. The songs, all written by Joel, contain well developed characters and story narratives with some impressive music that straddles the line between rock and folk.


Piano Man by Billy Joel
Released: November 9, 1973 (Columbia)
Produced by: Michael Stewart
Recorded: Record Plant and Devonshire Sound, Los Angeles, September 1973
Side One Side Two
Traveling Prayer
Piano Man
Ain’t No Crime
You’re My Home
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
Worse Comes to Worst
Stop In Nevada
If I Only Had the Words (to Tell You)
Somewhere Along the Line
Captain Jack
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Harmonica
Larry Carlton – Guitars
Richard Bennett – Guitars
Emory Gordy, Jr. – Bass
Ron Tutt – Drums

An interesting drum shuffle by Ron Tutt along with a driving bass line moves the opener “Traveling Prayer” into an upbeat, Western sounding honky-tonk. The song comes complete with banjo and fiddle yet surprisingly sparse piano to open an album called Piano Man. Another Western-themed song completes the first side with Joel’s fictionalized “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”. This is a brilliant song both lyrically and musically with its great piano interludes and rock riffs inspired by composer Aaron Copland. Although Joel himself admits it is historically inaccurate calling it “an experiment with an impressionist type of lyric”, it draws a great comparison between the famous outlaw and himself. “Ain’t No Crime” is the first real song where Joel executes his piano talent, with mock Ray Charles vocals he would utilize in later pop hits. “You’re My Home” is an acoustic ballad written about his wife Elizabeth, with some nice layered topical instruments including a pedal steel guitar.

Billy Joel, 1973

Of course the highlight of the first side is the famous title song, which became a modest hit at the time (peaking at #25) but endured as a classic through time. That original single version was heavily edited, something Joel himself referred to on his second album Street Life Serenade on the song “The Entertainer”;

“It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long, if you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05…”

The lyrical limerick contains real characters from the piano lounges Joel played while in L.A. while lawyers at Columbia Records tried to get him out of his first record deal. Musically, the song is a perfect ballroom ballad with exquisite sound including liberal use of harmonica and accordion above Joel’s bouncy piano, a testament to the production techniques of Michael Stewart.

The album loses steam a bit on the second side, with some quality but less-than-interesting filler. “Worse Comes to Worst” is like a slow reggae with definite pop overtones and accordion by Michael Omartian. “Stop in Nevada” is a general story-telling pop song, while “If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You)” is an attempt at a crooning pop standard, but with some decent piano riffs between the verses. “Somewhere Along the Line” picks up the bit with a pop/folk flavor.

The closer “Captain Jack” is the album’s tour-de-force. It was pivotal in Joel gaining the Columbia contract, due to a performance of the song in an April 1972 live radio concert at WMMR in Philadelphia, and the subsequent airplay (and flood of requests) this recording received on the station. The song was inspired by suburban teenagers in Long Island who obtained heroin from a dealer known as “Captain Jack”, who lived across the street from Joel’s apartment. Musically the song alternates between the piano ballad verses and the soaring, riff-driven chorus with heavy use of organ. Joel played the song on his first television appearance, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1974.

Billy Joel claimed he that he netted only about $7000 total from the Piano Man album. This was the first of two Los Angeles based albums for Joel which brought him neither him fame nor fortune, but set the stage for his phenomenal success later in the decade, starting with his triumphant return to New York with Turnstiles in 1976.

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1973 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1973 albums.

There Goes Rhymin Simon by Paul Simon

There Goes Rhymin’ Simon by Paul Simon

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There Goes Rhymin Simon by Paul SimonFor his second post-Garfunkel effort, Paul Simon found a nice sonic balance with There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. This album is bookmarked by two of his top pop hits with a sandwich of soft-rock songs in between, covering such diverse styles as R&B, gospel, reggae, folk, and jazz. The album was both a commercial and critical success and firmly established Simon as a top-notch solo artist. After the deep, introspective, and often depressing tone of Simon’s 1972 debut album, this sophomore effort takes a decidedly positive approach with optimistic songs about faith, romance, family, and commitment, making it both enjoyable and uplifting.

For this album, the native New Yorker went south. Most of the album was recorded between Jackson, Mississippi and the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, with Simon employing the prolific “Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section” on several of the tracks. The compositions by Simon are contemporary narratives (something he would establish as his signature) yet there is enough variety that these songs were ripe pickings for other artists.

Simon co-produced the album with the legendary Phil Ramone, who was near the beginning of his brilliant career. Also helping out with production duties were former Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, Simon and Garfunkel producer Roy Halee, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.


There Goes Rhymin’ Simon by Paul Simon
Released: May 5, 1973 (Warner)
Produced by: Paul Simon and Phil Ramone
Recorded: Muscle Shoals Studios, Alabama, & Malaco Studios, Jackson, MS, 1972
Side One Side Two
Kodachrome
Tenderness
Take Me to the Mardi Gras
Something So Right
One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor
American Song
Learn How to Fall
Was a Sunny Day
St. Judy’s Comet
Loves Me Like a Rock
Primary Musicians
Paul Simon – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Pete Carr – Guitars
Barry Beckett – Piano, Keyboards
David Hood – Bass
Roger Hawkins – Drums, Percussion

“Kodachrome” plays like a commercial thematically, but is absolutely masterful sonically. The song is named after a Kodak product, causing it to be banned by the BBC because that name is trademarked. However the song was a major hit in the United States, peaking at #2. The image of color photography is a metaphor for imaginative vitality, setting the positive theme for the album. The song’s original working title was “Going Home” but Simon thought that title was too conventional. “Tenderness” follows as a totally retro ballad that is really the only throwaway on the album, once you get past the brief curiosity of a late-Fifties-styled doo-wop ballad.

“Take Me to the Mardi Gras” starts as an acoustic ballad with interesting deadened electric notes before ending with some legitimate Dixieland instrumentation. Reverend Claude Jeter contributed unique falsetto vocals to the mix. “Something So Right” contains a nice potpourri of instruments including an electric and acoustic piano, and a bass and double bass. These all provide the surface for Simon’s signature acoustic guitar and melodic vocals on this early classic. “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor” is a showcase for Barry Beckett, whose unique piano run bookends the song, an otherwise upbeat rocker with great background vocals.

Paul Simon in 1973

The second side begins with “American Tune”, which is right out of the Simon & Garfunkel playbook. It is a folk-based motif on on the American experience with references to struggle, weariness, and hard work. The song was released as a single but failed to make any ripples on the charts. “Was a Sunny Day” is a hybrid of folk and reggae with a bouncy, McCartney-esque bass line by David Hood. “Learn How to Fall” is an upbeat acoustic jazz tune with some great instrumental sections packed into its brief two minutes and 44 seconds.

“St. Judy’s Comet” is the best song on the album, a lullaby of pure musical beauty. Beckett’s electric piano and vibraphone along with subtle electric guitar overtones by Pete Carr, accent the perfect, calm melody and hypnotizing acoustic riff by Simon. The album concludes with “Loves Me Like a Rock”, a pop song with heavy Gospel influence, especially with the background vocals of The Dixie Hummingbirds. This was the second song on the album to peak at #2 and remains one of Simon’s most famous songs.

There Goes Rhymin’ Simon proved to be a bigger hit than its predecessor (ironically peaking at #2 on the album charts and gave Paul Simon the latitude to continue his mix of pop and experimentation with future albums.

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1973 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1973 albums.

Blue Oyster Cult

Blue Öyster Cult

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Blue Oyster CultThe eponymous debut album by Blue Öyster Cult kicked off the year 1972 as well as the recording career of this Long Island, New York based rock group. Often referred to as “the thinking man’s heavy metal group” or “heavy metal for those who hate heavy metal”, the band drew lyrical influence from a series of literary figures, often in the fields of mystery, science fiction, or horror. Musically, the album drew influence from a variety of artists ranging from Black Sabbath to The Who and a quick listen to the CD bonus tracks of omitted tracks reflects that the band spent significant time exploring a range of styles before settling on their own specific niche.

Blue Öyster Cult was formed as “Soft White Underbelly” in 1967 on the campus of Stony Brook College by students Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, who both moved on to become professional rock critics by the time of the band’s debut (although, while not official members, both wrote lyrics and Pearlman was a co-producer of this album). Two band members who persisted from the earliest days were guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and drummer Albert Bouchard. The band was briefly signed to Elektra Records under the names “Oaxaca” and “Stalk-Forrest” and recorded many tracks that were never released and the band was soon dropped from that label. Reformed with vocalist Eric Bloom and bassist Joe Bouchard (Albert’s brother), the group settle and the name Blue Öyster Cult and were signed to Columbia Records in late 1971.

The resulting debut is a kind of dark psychedelia with layered guitar riffs and thick and muddy vocals with mysterious meanings. Songs that are tough to decipher adds to the whole mystery surrounding the band which is accented by album art, symbolism, imagery, and their very name.


Blue Oyster Cult by Blue Oyster Cult
Released: January, 1972 (Columbia)
Produced by: Murray Krugman, Sandy Pearlman, & David Lucas
Recorded: The Warehouse, New York City, October 1971
Side One Side Two
Transmaniacon MC
I’m on the Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep
Then Came the Last Days of May
Stairway To the Stars
Before the Kiss, a Redcap
Screams
She’s As Beautiful As a Foot
Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll
Workshop of the Telescopes
Redeemed
Group Musicians
Eric Bloom – Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Donald Roeser – Guitars, Vocals
Joe Bouchard – Bass, Vocals
Allen Lanier – Guitars, Keyboards
Albert Bouchard – Drums, Vocals

The riff-driven “Transmaniacon MC” starts things off and alerts the listener that a very different was being brewed here. Three perfectly synced guitars are contrasted by keyboardist Allen Lanier‘s traditional rock piano. The lyrics explored the infamous murder at the Altamont festival in 1969, although not quite as eloquently as Don McClean had in “American Pie” the previous year. The follow-up, “I’m on the Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep” is far more cryptic lyrically and less entertaining musically.

Roeser’s “Then Came the Last Days of May” speaks of a drug deal gone wrong with the country-soft melody and musical arrangement adding great contrast to the dark lyric, adding a chilling layer to the narrative. “Buck Dharma” also adds some great stinging guitar lines, making this one of the finest tracks on the album. The first side concludes with the cosmic “Stairway to the Stars” followed by the boogie rave “Before the Kiss, a Redcap”.

Blue Oyster Cult in 1972

The most famous song on side two (as well as the entire album) is “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll”, with an intense and powerful that even outdoes Black Sabbath (and that’s saying something for 1972). This punchy song was the band’s first single, and although it made few ripples commercially it became a cult classic (no pun intended) for fans beyond the band’s dedicated followers. Lyrically, it paints a vivid picture of “three thousand guitars” setting a city alight, an anthem on the power of rock and roll which would be watered down and regurgitated by fellow Long Islanders Kiss in the years to follow. The remainder of the side has short and interesting tunes, such as Joe Bouchard’s psychedelic track “Screams” and the eastern-flavored gem “She’s As Beautiful As a Foot”. “Workshop of the Telescopes” and “Redeemed” finish off the album with more lyrics of deep quizzicality accented by layered guitar riffs and strong rhythms.

Although Blue Öyster Cult would put out more popular albums with more radio-friendly songs in the decade that followed, they never again quite captured the hard rock density or originality of their 1972 debut.

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1972 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1972 albums.

Paul Simon 1972 debut album

Paul Simon

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Paul Simon 1972 debut albumStaking his own claim in the musical landscape, Paul Simon began exploring world influences with his 1972 eponymous album. It was his first post Simon and Garfunkel album, and let Simon subtly explorations musical genres from America and around the world. While there is much experimentation, most of the album;s songs have a stripped-down arrangement with a low-key feel, allowing Simon to shine brightly with his truly solo compositions. Paul Simon was actually the second solo album by this artist, as he had recorded and released an album in the U.K. in 1965, which remained unreleased in the U.S until 2005.

Simon was actually teaching songwriting classes at New York University shortly after the split from Garfunkel in 1970. He then traveled to several locations to record demos and tracks for this album. Recordings took place in Kingston, Jamaica, Paris, and New York. Much of these recordings are individual performances with differing levels of production quality, but this serves to make the album all the more interesting. Since the album uses instrumentation so sparingly, the additional riffs and melodies make a greater impact during their short sequences.

The album contained many autobiographical elements lyrically, with several songs making explicit reference to Simon’s marriage to Peggy Harper, while others make more veiled references to Simon’s own adolescence, the place he grew up, and the challenges of the music industry.


Paul Simon by Paul Simon
Released: January 14, 1972 (Columbia)
Produced by: Roy Halee & Paul Simon
Recorded: Various Locations, January-March 1971
Side One Side Two
Mother and Child Reunion
Duncan
Everything Put Together Falls Apart
Run That Body Down
Armistice Day
Me and Julio Down By the School Yard
Peace Like a River
Papa Hobo
Hobo’s Blues
Paranoia Blues
Congratulations
Primary Musicians
Paul Simon – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Percussion
Larry Knechtel – Piano, Organ
Hal Blaine – Drums

Recorded in Jamaica, “Mother and Child Reunion” may have been the very first mainstream use of reggae, something that would cascade in the years to follow. The song also includes a strong dose of Motown influence, making it a bit more unique that many of its pop successors. The song included a plethora of background musicians who would not appear anywhere else on the album. A sharp musical turn takes place with Celtic influenced folk song “Duncan”. The ringing guitars, banjo, dual flutes, and cheap and distant hi-hats accent this song of travel and discovery with a slightly Dylan-esque in lyrical approach (with flutes replacing harmonica).

“I was playing my guitar, lying underneath the stars, just thanking the Lord for my fingers…”

The remainder of side one explores some soft jazz compositions. “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” is the shortest and sparsest song, finger-picked acoustic nearly throughout with just a dash of bluesy piano. “Run That Body Down” is in the same basic genre, with a fuller musical arrangement using the whole spectrum of rock instruments and some surprise musical interludes, including an excellent guitar solo using heavy jazz wah-wah by Jerry Hahn. On “Armistice Day”, Simon really attacks the acoustic guitar with the most base type of musical discovery, almost violently, until the song evens out a bit with an electric guitar overlaid along with some topical horns.

The second side begins with the most popular song from this album, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. Although upbeat and melodic, this song has some darker undertones about crime and drug use along with some cryptic lyrical puzzles. “Peace Like a River” is a kind of a bluesy folk song with some great arpeggio riffs throughout, and a very non-symmetrical arrangement. “Papa Hobo” is waltz-like with a bluesy acoustic and a distinct big bass harmonica by Charlie McCoy.

The hobo sequence continues with “Hobo’s Blues”, an upbeat, jazzy instrumental feature the violin of Stéphane Grappelli, who also co-wrote the song (the only one on the album not completely written by Simon). “Paranoia Blues” is straight-out acoustic blues with consistent kick-drum and hi-hat by Hal Blaine and lyrics that sum up as an anti-New York screed. The mellow ballad “Congratulations” completes the album with a softer, yet still bluesy acoustic and pleasant electric piano by Larry Knechtel who plays completely solo as the song and album ends.

The juxtaposition of simple, American genres along with some complex and original arrangements makes Paul Simon the first of several gems by this unique composer. You can say what you will about Simon, you can never call him unoriginal.

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1972 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1972 albums.