September 24 – Plant Moved Foward By Looking Back

Led Zeppelin have been at times considered the originators of Heavy Metal, but anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of their output realizes they put out a diverse range of sounds spanning various rock/pop genres over the ’70s. Much of that might have come from singer Robert Plant’s interests. Nonetheless, once Zeppelin was done, Plant seemed eager to differentiate himself and explore even more territory (as continues on to date as his projects with Alison Krauss show, for example). After a couple of solo albums, he got together a side-project who looked back to the pre-Zep days. The Honeydrippers were the result and they put out their only record, Volume 1, on this day in 1984.

Their origins date back to ’81, when he would sometimes perform under the name – which they took from early Bluesman Roosevelt Sykes’ nickname – and play old retro early rock or blues numbers. Atlantic Records boss, and Plant’s friend, Ahmet Ertegun liked the idea and had played around with the idea of having an album of old ’50s songs he liked done by a new band. So he recruited Plant, who in turn brought in some high-profile talent, most notably including ex-bandmate Jimmy Page, as well as Jeff Beck on guitars. Rounding out the lineup were Paul Shaffer on keyboards (who at the time played with the Blues Brothers when they were active) , Stray Cat Brian Setzer on an uncredited guitar appearance, drummer Dave Weckl, bassist Wayne Pedzwater (who’d soon go on to work frequently with Michael Jackson) and Nile Rodgers who added yet some more guitars and co-produced the record with Ertegun himself. Like our reader Mike Ledano pointed out it was “as close to a Page/Plant reunion as we were likely to get in the ’80s but this is very different from Led Zeppelin.”

The result was an 18-minute, five song EP (which eventually came out on a CD with a live bonus track) consisting of Rudy Toombs “I Get A Thrill” (Toombs was an old Vaudevillian who became a staff songwriter for Ertegun in the ’60s), Ray Charles “I Got A Woman”, “Young Boy Blues” , a song co-written by Phil Spector and the two singles – “Rockin’ At Midnight” and “Sea of Love.” The former was said to be Plant’s favorite of the lot, a cover of a 1947 song. The latter, the lush, “Sea of Love”, a 1959 song by Phil Phillips, became the breakout hit.

Allmusic rated it 4-stars, noting “Plant always harbored a deep abiding love of early rock & roll” and suggesting while “it may not be much more than a lark but it’s truly fun.”

The surprised public figured so too. “Rockin’ at Midnight “ hit the top 20 while “Sea of Love” got to #3,and #1 in Canada, where the EP went triple-platinum in about four months. Overall the record got to #5 in the U.S. but did little overseas.

The Honeydrippers toured in ’85, joined by the Uptown Horns , but plans for a full-length followup album never materialized.

September 23 – Billy’s Experiment In Nylon

The two of them might not love it, but many of us seem to lump today’s birthday boy, Bruce Springsteen (wishing him a happy 73 today!)  and Billy Joel together in the same sort of musical box. Here we like both so it doesn’t seem to be much of an insult to me, but I digress. Anyway, both singer/songwriters came to prominence in the mid-’70s, emerged from the greater New York area and were quintessential blue collar musical heroes, singing about the ordinary people they knew and respected. And by 1982 we thought we had them both pegged when they both took a hard left turn and came out with surprisingly downbeat and different-sounding records. On this day, Joel released his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. A week later, Springsteen gave us his acoustic Nebraska.

Anyway, Joel’s The Nylon Curtain was something of a polarizing album. After delivering his most rock & roll-oriented, fun-loving Glass Houses in 1980, this one was a deeper but more challenging release. The short story – critics loved it, fans more or less panned it. But there’s more to it than that.

Joel was looking around America and wasn’t optimistic about what he was seeing. It was, after all, an era of inflation, unemployment, a growing chasm between the Wall Street rich and the ordinary workers in the companies they owned, fear about the Cold War… “It was during the Reagan years and… all of a sudden, you weren’t going to be able to inherit the (lifestyle) your old man had,” Joel remembers. Curiously, he was also listening to mid-era Beatles a lot at the time. Thus The Nylon Curtain came to be, an album Rolling Stone considered his most ambitious.

The album is a loosely thematic look at the U.S. in decline through the eyes of a blue collar Baby Boomer. Although the first single was the jarring “Pressure” and it contained a few missteps, like the “venomous” (in the words of Rolling Stone again) “Laura” about a guy who hates his girlfriend but realizes “living alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be” either, and perhaps the experimental “Scandinavian Skies” which he says was directly influenced by the sound of Beatles singles like “I Am the Walrus”, it contains some very good material and two of his best – and most under-rated – tunes: “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon”.

The former was actually inspired by a trip he paid tt Bethlehem, PA but that name didn’t fit the song structure as well. Regardless, it described any number of “Rust Belt” cities and the unfortunate workers caught in the changing times and closing factories. Rolling Stone applauded the “tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct” and felt it “could be a scene from The Deer Hunter set to music.” The mayor of Allentown, PA was impressed enough to give Joel the keys to the city next time he played there.

Goodnight Saigon” is a haunting, 7-minute epic complete with helicopter and cricket sounds (the Beatles experimentation rubbing off) that Rolling Stone called “the ultimate pop music epitaph to the Vietnam war”… “a stunner”. The piece about the band of brothers trained on Parris Island shipped out to the horrors of the Asian war with only their Doors tapes and Playboy who’d “All go down together” indeed is one of the most compelling musical takes on the reality of war and one of Billy’s best achievements.

People magazine approved, saying “Joel jackknifes (sic) into adulthood (with) a striking cycle of nine songs about the current plight of boomed babies” which are “vintage Joel with clever hooks.”

For all that, the public wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. While by no means a flop, it was his least-successful release since 1976, selling less than even 1981’s compilation of live tunes and outtakes, Songs in the Attic. At home in the U.S. it charted to #7 and went double platinum; it topped out at #12 in Canada and only #27 across the sea in the UK. Somehow though, it did hit #1 in the Netherlands. The singles “Pressure” and “Allentown” both it the top 20 in the States, his 10th and 11th such hits, and “Allentown” although it never got higher than #17 on the weekly charts, had such enduring popularity that it was among the 50 biggest records of the year. “Goodnight Saigon” was released as a third single, but being 7 minutes, lacking a normal kind of verse/chorus structure and being about the horrors of war, was a tough sell in a time of happy synthesizers, safety dances and Duran Duran playing with bikini-clad models on yachts.

For it all, Joel says the album is “the recording I’m most proud of.” And he rebounded very nicely the next year with his more upbeat An Innocent Man which catapulted him back to the top. (Springsteen’s fate with his Nebraska similar and he too bounced back with the multi-million selling Born in the USA less than two years down the road.)

September 22 – Brits Found Numan Quite Pleasure-able

Beggar’s Banquet Records were probably begging Gary Numan to record more stuff! His album the Pleasure Principle hit #1 in the UK this day in 1979. It was only the second chart-topper ever for that indie label which took its name from a Rolling Stones album. And the first #1 for it was Replicas, by Tubeway Army- a band Gary fronted. More impressively, that album (with its hit, “Are Friends Electric”) preceded The Pleasure Principle by only five months !

The Pleasure Principle took off with the popularity of “Cars” there and in Canada. In Britain, the follow-up single, “Complex” was also a top 10 hit. The album eschewed all regular guitars and was heavy on synthesizer making it one of the first real “new wave” albums. It won Numan his only gold record outside of his homeland, the UK (that was in Canada) and was surprisingly well-received by some critics who don’t always appreciate new wave. Robert Christgau for instance approved, and later on Q magazine rated it 4-stars, while allmusic gave it 4.5 and said “there’s not a weak moment” on it and “if you had to own just one Gary Numan album, (this) would be it.” Unfortunately for him and Beggar’s Banquet, that seemed to be something many took to heart. While his 1980 follow-up Telekon also was a #1 hit at home, such success has been elusive for him since.

Numan’s kept working with a devoted following to his generally more goth or industrial sounding latter work, but has never made it onto North American charts since nor topped the British ones even though he’s still recording and has 22 studio albums to his name.

September 20 – Knopfler’s Passion Over Profits Paid Off

Dire Straits chose Love Over Gold for their fourth album, out this day 40 years ago. We’re not sure precisely why it was called that, but it might well have suggested a desire to put out songs and music they loved at the risk of not making much money. It was the first album of theirs to be entirely produced by Mark Knopfler and he took some commercial risks in creating this solid work.

Love Over Gold contained only five songs- the shortest of which was the North American single, “Industrial Disease”, which is nearly 6 minutes long. The epic “Telegraph Road” (about the rise and fall of Detroit) runs some 14 minutes! The other single, “Private Investigations”, which hit #2 in the UK was inspired by the detective novels of Raymond Chandler. Hardly radio-friendly but the music found its fans. It was their first #1 at home in the UK, also a #1 in Australia and a top 10 in Canada. It managed to spend an incredible four years (give or take a week or two) on the British charts and go double-platinum there as well as Canada. Even in the U.S. it scratched into the top 20 despite not registering any hit songs. All in all, it gave them a good base to build upon later with Brothers in Arms.

Most critics liked it. Rolling Stone rated it 4-star, calling it a “quantum leap from the band’s early LPs” but suggesting Knopfler exhibited “almost suicidal defiance of commercial good sense” releasing a work of such dense and lengthy songs, which they termed “radically expanded epics and evocative tone poems that demand the listener’s undivided attention” . Allmusic also gave it 4-stars, admiring their attempt to “expands (their) sounds and ambitions” and complimenting Knopfler’s guitar-work, but finding a few of the songs guilty of being overly-lengthy and “languid.” There nearly was a sixth song on it, one you probably know. Knopfler had written and recorded a demo for “Private Dancer” but pulled it at last minute, figuring it better-suited to a female singer. A few years later, Tina Turner would agree!

By the way, if you were wondering about the “brewer’s droop” mentioned in the cheeky single “Industrial Disease”, it’s a little double-entendre from the singer. It refers to a nickname for ED caused by heavy drinking – and was the name of his previous band.

September 17 – No Illusion, GNR Were Hot 31 Years Ago

A few days back we commented upon Guns’N’Roses #1 single from 1988, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Today we look at their most ambitious project, which came out this day in 1991. Use Your Illusion dumped 30 songs and over 150 minutes of hard rock on their fans, on two CDs (simply entitled Use Your Illusion I and II). Rather than put it out on as a single two-disc release, Geffen records decided to sell them separately (to add to the continuity of the project they packaged them with the same picture on the covers but in different colors – orange for I, blue for II). The albums were huge hits and helped GNR dominate rock radio for over a year. In fact, between the two of them, they hit #1 in most markets including the U.S., UK, Canada and Australia, and the final single off them didn’t come out until 1994!

Fittingly the album had taken over a year to record in fits and starts. Overall I did a tad better than II, selling some 16 million worldwide instead of 15 million for II. Both are 7X platinum in the U.S. I spawned the rather remarkable nine- minute hit single “November Rain” (a top 5 in North America) as well as “Don’t Cry” and their cover of Wings “Live and Let Die” (which Rolling Stone described as “Wings on steroids”) while II gave us the rockin’ “You Could Be Mine” and their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” which had been released a year before on a movie soundtrack.

Reviews were surprisingly good for “metal” albums. Rolling Stone graded them 4-stars although noting they were physically assaultive and verbally incendiary, at times downright screwy” and that songs with names like “Back off Bitch” and “Double-talkin’ Jive”, they weren’t going to appeal to everyone. Entertainment Weekly rated it “A” pointing out that the band has “gained more fame for their riots and uncontrollable blasts of temper than for the excellence of their mega-platinum albums,” which it considered a shame. It wondered whether these two albums, “as diverse as the band’s moods” which showed an ability to “write songs that are complex structurally and emotionally” would change that perception.

Whether or not they did is debatable. Although the records sold more than their predecessor GNR Lies, it didn’t match their Appetite For Destruction‘s success – not that anybody at Geffen was complaining. However, after that in-fighting among the members and other troubles more or less sidelined the band for years and they never again rose to the lofty heights of the late-’80s,early-’90s. In 2016, Axl temporarily took over for Brian Johnson as the lead singer of AC/DC on their tour but in 2019 GNR were back at it with a hugely popular tour.

September 16 – World Found There Was Something About Level 42

In the novel A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “42” was the answer to the meaning of life. That was the reason for the number in the band name Level 42, originally a jazz band started in Manchester back in 1980, led by Mark King. King had left a job selling bass guitars to play bass guitar barely out of high school. “I do remember thinking that guys over 40 should have the good grace to step aside,” he recalled not too long ago. “Now that I’m (older) I consider those thoughts hurtful not to mention childish.”

Indeed, people still like to hear Level 42, nearly four decades in. That in no small part due to World Machine, the great fifth album by the quartet which was released this day in 1985. In Britain at least, American listeners would have to wait six weeks more, which at the time wouldn’t have bothered them since they were more or less unknown here. this album would change that in a big way.

They were signed to Polydor, and while they’d had middling success at home on album charts and with a couple of dance hits, they had fallen short of the success their talent suggested they could have. For this record, Moving the Record suggest “Polydor wanted a more concerted assault on the singles charts and a more current sound” than the jazzy, often instrumental work they had been known for. Mark King stepped up and delivered. That site considered World Machine the “most cohesive, streamlined collection of songs in their catalog.” Fans would largely agree.

The record by the quartet of super-bassist and singer King, the brothers Boon (drummer Phil and guitarist Boon) and keyboard wiz Mike Lindup. Producer Wally Badarou was essentially a fifth member, co-writing six of the songs, including all the singles off it as well as adding backing vocals and more keyboards to the expertly crafted record.

There were a number of great songs on the record, including the slow, melodically-hurting love song “Leaving Me Now”, the funky title track and “Physical Presence” but for most, there was really something about “Something About You.” The great single put Level 42 on the map, so to speak, hitting #6 at home, and #7 in the U.S. (their biggest hit there) and , according to allmusic a song which “proves how good a song can sound coming from the radio.” Allmusic graded the record 4-stars, noting “Leaving Me Now” “should’ve been a hit” and was a typical of an album that “has more than its share of fine tunes.”

Indeed it did. The album spent almost a year-and-a-half on the UK charts, peaking at #3 while going double platinum, while it was also a top 20 in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand. They followed it up with an album also full of bright singles which had nearly the same success, Running in the Family. However, there was a price to be paid for it. The decidedly “pop” sound irritated the Boon brothers who wanted a more straight forward jazz outfit, and Phil quit shortly afterwards.

The band continues to this day with King, Lindup and Badarou. Boon Gould, unfortunately, passed away in 2019.

September 15 – ‘Express’ Fast-tracked L&R For Success

It was “the first time we were really exposed to music, when we were at the age where we could really appreciate it,” David J says of 1986, “and we were like little sponges …Bowie, T-Rex, the glam thing (also) Roxy Music and the electronic artists like Kraftwerk and before that, Can.” Thus Love & Rockets second album, Express which came out this day that year came to be a rich, different-sounding kind of album that drew from a fair number of inspirations. Seemingly the band’s earlier version, Bauhaus (the members of Love & Rockets were three-quarters of that band, with only singer Peter Murphy missing) was one of the least important ones. Gone was the brooding-in-black Goth; in was wild psychedelic pop they’d hinted at with their debut, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven the previous year.,

Drummer Kevin Haskins held the fort behind the kit and added some synths here and there, but the band was essentially a partnership between Kev’s brother, David J, and Daniel Ash with both having times at the mic; David playing bass and Daniel guitars and saxophone to boot. Ash wrote the majority of it but the bassist contributed two of the eight tunes on the original LP. Those who were ahead of the curve technology-wise got a bonus – the CD had three more tracks, including a brand new one (“Angels and Devils”) , a remix and their previous single, a cover of the Temptations “Ball of Confusion.” That one had been a hit on American college radio and was on some editions of Seventh Dream... but had been omitted from some due to length constrictions.

That one notwithstanding, the new songs were the album’s real draw, particularly the trio of singles – “Kundalini Express”, which got used in Miami Vice, “All in My Mind”, their first to hit U.S. mainstream rock charts, and the enigmatic and energetic “Yin and Yang (and the Flowerpot Men.)” Despite its bizarre title, its inspiration was apparently quite straight-forward…if you were British. There was a popular kids TV show called The Flowerpot Men.

Most publications seemed to miss Express when it arrived, but remarkably metal-loving Kerrang gave it a listen and then rated it 4-stars. Later on allmusic outdid that, giving it 4.5-stars. They offered that producer “John A. Rivers outdid himself with the sound in this disc” and praised its “rich in sonic detail” approach, “guitars spiral to dizzying heights from beds of sound, arrangements swirl, songs change and mutate.” Diffuser FM seconded that idea, noting it was “tighter and more focused” than their debut and “more diverse…than Bauhaus…mixing psychedelic pop and vintage glam.”

As good as those reviews were, it was a case of those who liked it, liked it a lot…but most ignored it. It did well on North American college radio and on the alt rock superstations, finishing at #45 on L.A.’s KROQ year-end countdown and in the top 10 to the north on Toronto’s CFNY. However, they’d have to wait about three more years to find widespread popularity and gold and platinum success, with their self-titled album and the song “So Alive.

 

September 14 – Trio Found The ABC’s For A Hit Record

And then there were three, by three! Genesis released their 11th studio album this day in 1981, the third with the band consisting of only the core trio of Tony Banks, Phil Collins & Mike Rutherford. Abacab came out only months after Phil Collins first solo album (Face Value) and to many sounded rather like a follow-up to that instead of a follow-up to Duke and prior Genesis recordings. (Perhaps that was in part due to Hugh Padgham’s presence on both, although on this one he only assisted the band self-producing the record.)

Few complained though. It hit #1 at home in the UK , where it was their second chart-topper, and scored them their first top 10, multi-platinum release in the U.S. The abstract title track and “No Reply At All” were both hits on both sides of the ocean, the latter being noteworthy for the prominent, lively horns borrowed from Earth, Wind & Fire. With “Man on the Corner”, it gave them three American top 40 hits, after having only a pair in total before. It could perhaps have had four; they also recorded the song “Paper Late” at the time, and while it wasn’t in the finished product, they did put it on their ’83 album Three Sides Live and released it as a single then.

If Abacab sounded a bit different for Genesis, it was no fluke. They self-produced the record, and made it at an old farmhouse they’d bought and converted into a studio. Tony Banks says they made a conscious decision to sound different than before and to keep the melodies simpler. Also a little different, six of the nine tracks were written collectively, but each member got to pen one song by themselves. For Tony Banks it was the pastoral “Me and Sarah Jane,” Mike Rutherford came up with “Like it or Not” while no one could miss Collins’ mark on “Man on the Corner”, which he wrote. Rolling Stone liked what it heard, comparing them to XTC and the Police and noting it “Contrasts sharply with the forbidding ivory-tower artistry of the past.” Even Melody Maker, which found the record “inconsistent” and stamped with a “heavy Phil Collins twist” described it as the band’s “most exciting ” work in years.

The odd title by the way is derived from the making of the title track. Mike Rutherford says they were jamming together and decided to mix up three separate parts of a song in the works. They dubbed them “Section A”, “Section B” and “Section C.” At one point in the studio, the record had parts played A-B-A-C-A-B. Hence the name. He noted though that after the final play through and mix, it ended up more like “Accaabaac.” Which would have been harder to say.

September 13 – It Would Have Been A ‘Crime’ If This One Didn’t Get Noticed

Third time was the charm for Supertramp. After a couple of difficult-to-digest albums that flopped commercially, they got it right with their third album, Crime of the Century, which came out this day in 1974.

Needless to say, they’d had time to work out the kinks in their musical vision between albums. This came over three years after their almost-forgotten second one, Indelibly Stamped, and in the meantime, they’d added a new bassist (Dougie Thompson), drummer (Bob Seibenberg) and perhaps most importantly a horn player, John Helliwell, who helped shape their sound and add color to their stage show from thereonin. That said, as always, the band was a shared concept of Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies, who collectively wrote dozens of songs in their downtime. The band ended up recording 42 tracks for the record, only eight of which made the final cut, although a few were later reworked and added to later albums. Although they tended to each write songs by themselves, the credit was shared equally just as the Beatles had done with the Lennon/McCartney partnership. Lead vocals were shared as well, with four songs each on Crime… being done by Hodgson and Davies.

With only eight used out of 42, there’s little wonder it was quite a strong collection. True to their prog rock labeling, the album still ran over 44 minutes, with three of the songs running well past six minutes.

Although they technically only issued one single from it, and it was only a modest seller, many of the tracks found a home on FM rock stations and remain “classic rock” staples to this day, among them “Bloody Well Right”, “School”, “Dreamer” and the “Hide In Your Shell.” They were fan faves too; no coincidence six of the eight songs made their way onto the band’s live album, Paris.

Although it wasn’t a concept album, it did look a lot at the loneliness of growing up and school life frequently. For instance, both “Bloody Well Right” (a Davies song) and “School” (by Hodgson) were rebukes of what they felt was a failing British educational system. It was probably still fresh in their memories; Roger’s at least. Hodgson was 24 at the time; Davies was already just turned 30. Hodgson said about “Hide in Your Shell”, “I wrote that when I was 23, confused about life…I’ve always been able to express my innermost feelings more openly in song.”

Rolling Stone graded it 3-stars while the Village Voice gave it a middling review, calling them “Queen without (the) preening, Yes without pianistics and meter shifts.” Later on, allmusic gave it 4-stars, calling it when they “came into their own” despite calling them “snarky collegiate elitists, an art rock variation of Steely Dan”.

They issued a two-sided single, so to speak, off it, “Dreamer” and “Bloody Well Right.” In the U.S., the latter was the A-side and gave them their first top 40 hit, in Europe, “Dreamer” got the radio love and made it to #13 at home and #6 in Germany. Overall, the album made it into the top 5 in Britain, Canada and Germany, going gold in the UK and U.S., platinum in New Zealand …but diamond status in Canada! They always had a curious special appeal in Canada, and although it took til after Breakfast In America also went diamond in 1979, it was one of the first records ever to hit that plateau in the Great White North. It also was a rarity in being an album, by a foreign act, that sold far more physical copies in Canada than the much larger U.S.

The album was of high sound quality too, needless to say, being co-produced by Ken Scott, an engineer for several Beatles albums under George Martin. Fittingly, A&M issued it as an enhanced “Audio Master Plus” version of CD in 1984.

September 7 – Floyd Sailed Into Uncharted Waters-less Waters

Was it a momentary lapse of reason? Or a bold new start? On this day in 1987 Pink Floyd surprised some fans and annoyed others by putting out their first album after Roger Waters had left them. A Momentary Lapse of Reason was their 13th studio album and was clearly a vehicle for David Gilmour’s musical vision.

Which is no surprise since it was set against a backdrop of Waters suing Gilmour over the use of the name. Waters in turn says the remaining members threatened him with a massive lawsuit, as CBS Records had them under contract to provide another Pink Floyd record and could withhold royalties and block their future recording if they didn’t give them one. The result, allegedly didn’t please CBS that much anyway. The company’s Stephen Raalbavsky apparently told Gilmour “that doesn’t sound a f–in’ thing like Pink Floyd!” Or as Q magazine put it, “(it) is Gilmour’s album to the same degree the previous four under Floyd’s name were dominated by Waters.” If anyone had a hand in shaping it besides Gilmour, it was probably producer Bob Ezrin who co-wrote a couple of the tracks, added some keyboards and percussion to the record.

The overall reaction was middling. It was a #1 hit in new Zealand and top 5 in the U.S., UK and Canada and sold better in North America than its morose predecessor, The Final Cut. The single “Learning to Fly” was a top 10 in NZ and a rock radio hit in the U.S. – something they’d lacked since The Wall nearly eight years earlier – but didn’t really find its spot among the “classic” Floyd tracks. Although songs like that and “One Slip” had an easier, pop sound not heard from Floyd in years and it lacked a cohesive theme that Waters always strove for, there were still nods to the stylings of Waters, like the aggressive and dreary “Dogs of War.” And for every People magazine (which said of it “Waters may be gone but this album will give fans ample reason to keep thinking pink” and noted that in the age when LPs still were king the “complex sound quality cries out for compact disc.”) there was a Roger Waters admiring allmusic which rates it only 2 stars out of 5. For what it’s worth, we here thought it was a pretty good album!