Zebra

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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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1983 albums.

1983 Images

 

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3.V by Zebra

3.V by ZebraThe three-piece rock band Zebra did not spend a long time on the national scene, nor did they have tremendous success while they were on that scene. But there is no doubt that they made some unique and original music while they were there. They are, in a sense, a rare and secret gem of a band which fewer have enjoyed than legitimately should have, due mainly to the lack of the support which they legitimately earned and deserved. That being said, there are some striking fouls and unforced errors that the band made once they did reach the national stage and it cannot be denied that, to a small extent, they had a hand in their own professional demise.

By 1986, the band was facing pressure from Atlantic Records to produce a hit album. Zebra’s self-titled debut album was released in 1983 to critical acclaim and moderate sales. They followed that up with the Jack Douglous-produced No Tellin’ Lies in 1984, but unfortunately this sophomore effort had weaker sales and a Luke-warm reception. For their third release, the band made a concerted effort to create a more widely-accepted pop-rock album and to this end, Zebra succeeded. However, by the time 3.V (pronounced “three point five”) was put on sale, the record company had all but pulled support for the project, dooming it to obscurity despite the fact that includes some of the band’s finest work. It would be the their last album for 16 years, a swan song of sorts as they spent their last creative energy on this final run at fame.

But back to the flaws and fouls committed by the band themselves. Although 3.V contains no terrible songs, the sequence of songs is suspect, such as opening with the uninspiring “Can’t Live Without” while burying the fine gem “About to Make the Time”. The album is plagued by clusters of both mediocrity as well as pure brilliance, which makes it feel unbalanced to the listener. Also, the confusing title – using mixed media to resolve a nonsensical phrase – was a serious faux pas for a band who really needed to hit this out of the park commercially. Finally, there is the production quality, something that had hampered the band’s sound on all of their recordings.

CRR logo
3.V by Zebra
Released: November, 1986 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Zebra
Recorded: 1986
Side One Side Two
Can’t Live Without
He’s Making You the Fool
Time
Your Mind’s Open
Better Not Call
You’ll Never Know
About to Make the Time
You’re Only Losing Your Heart
Hard Living Without You
Isn’t That the Way
Band Musicians
Randy Jackson – Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Lead Vocals
Felix Hanemann – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Guy Gelso – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

There is a surreal quality to the Zebra sound, a distance and narrowness which makes it either sound like it comes from some exotic, unidentified place or sound like it’s not quite professional. The truth is, it is a bit of both. Despite the band’s concerted effort to make a more pop-friendly album and the corresponding adjustment in production technique, 3.V still possesses this quality for better or worse.

On the downside there is “Can’t Live Without”, the opening and song and emphasis single from the album. After starting with a nice acoustic under some scat vocals, the song kicks into a full-fledged 80s sound, with an over-processed snare drum, saturation of keyboards, and a weak bass presence. The vocals stay mainly in the high register, which gives it a bit of monotony vocally. On most of this album, lead singer Randy Jackson alternates between the standard and falsetto voice, providing dramatic contrast in the process. But not on this opening song.

On the higher end, there are the songs which follow in sequence on the first side. “He’s Making You the Fool” contains some real sonic treats during the bridge and in the coda, with entertaining and alternating vocal motifs. This then fades into the real classic of the album, “Time”. Containing a pleasant 12-string acoustic throughout, which even allows bass player Felix Hanemann to get in some rare features of that instrument, this is perhaps the best piece that the band has ever recorded. Even with a heavier chorus, “Time” maintains a melancholy mood throughout and it contains a brilliant ending addendum section which really brings the whole piece home.

Next comes a 180-degree mood shift with the inspiring and uplifting “Your Mind’s Open”, a great song fueled by good keyboards (also played by Hanemann), just the right flavoring of acoustic and vocal effects, and some vivid lyrics such as “taking safaris right up into the sky…”

The true highlight of the second side is “About to Make the Time”, a very interesting, acoustic-driven song with steady bass riff and good bass presence throughout. It is a philosophical song which establishes a long pattern that works very well with repetition and should have been placed as the last song on the album – it would have been a gem of a closer.

The rest of 3.V contains mostly adequate but unspectacular songs, all within the Zebra style and musical direction, but in no way furthering the band’s quest to remain any longer with a major label. It is really a shame because this band had the potential to create much more quality material.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

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