June 8 – Guess Who Were Stars At Home?

They were one of the first big Canadian rock successes in the U.S., ironically enough largely on the strength of a song that seemed to take a dig at Americans. Yes, Americans loved “American Woman”, and a handful of other songs by the Guess Who, but in Canada they were homegrown superstars. And their winning streak continued on this day in 1974 when they hit the Canadian album charts yet again with Road Food, their 13th overall studio album (including a couple under Chad Allan’s name in the ’60s) and ninth one on RCA Records. Road Food had come out approximately six weeks earlier and was the third of four new albums they’d put out in 1973-74.

By then the band had settled into an established lineup centering around singer and keyboardist Burton Cummings. With him were long-time drummer Garry Peterson, lead guitarist Kurt Winter, and the pair of bassist Bill Wallace and rhythm guitarist Donnie McDougall, who’d joined about three albums prior. Star bassist Jim Kale and one-time frontman Randy Bachman were each distant memories, having quit the band in ’71 and ’70 respectively.

Cummings wrote most of the nine song album; in fact only on “Attilla’s Blues” did the whole band get credit. Though the album wasn’t bad by most people’s standards, one might wonder if four albums in two years wasn’t a little much to keep up, not many songs seem to stand out in fans memories from it besides two singles and the 7-minute plus “The Ballad of the Last Five Years” which seemingly gripes about the troubles of trying to please the record company and make it big in the States. The two singles however, were catchy and did well – “Star Baby” and the oddball radio homage “Clap for the Wolfman.

Star Baby” was inspired by one of their roadies who was apparently romantically involved with Bonnie of Delaney and Bonnie. Cummings imagined what it would be like to be a roadie with a big star and wrote the song in about twenty minutes. It was a fine power-pop 45 they’d premiered on the Midnight Special the previous year. “Clap for the Wolfman” was memorable for having none other than legendary DJ Wolfman Jack on it, adding ad libbed commentaries.

Allmusic rated it just 2.5 stars, actually the best rating for them since 1971’s Goodbye Bannatyne. They noticed “Cummings piano was moved to the front of the mix” and while “Star Baby” was “catchy and sounds like a hit”, the album overall was “uneven with some snazzy, jazzy tunes and a couple of overblown ballads.”

RCA did their part, releasing it both in stereo and quadrophonic sound on both LP and 8-track. The album itself sold tolerably, reaching #28 at home (actually the lowest peak of any of their RCA albums to that point) and in the States, #60. As for singles, in the U.S., “Star Baby” only hit #39 nationwide (it was a regional hit in some markets) but spending a credible 19 weeks on the charts, but “Clap for the Wolfman” got to #6. At home they got to #9 and #4 respectively, giving them some 25 top 20 hits to that point. They would however, only chart one more and McDougall and Winter quit after this album, leaving the door open for Cummings to embark on a successful solo career a couple of years later.


June 7 – Old Sounds Sped Up New Charts

After racing up the British charts for the past two years, The Stray Cats were Built for Speed on the Billboard charts in North America. Their first North American album came out this day in 1982. The New York retro-rockabilly trio had moved to London at the end of the ’70s thinking the UK more receptive to their ’50s-inspired rock. They were likely right; their first album, a self-titled one was a top 10 hit there and that helped them eventually got a deal with EMI to release a record at home.

The album, culling songs from their first two UK records, was a monster – and surprise – hit. It hit #2 in the U.S. and was double-platinum there and in Canada as well, largely on the strength of a pair of top 10 hits that sounded like nothing else on the air then – “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock this Town.” The latter had already been a top 10 across the sea the year before, as had another song on Built for Speed, “Runaway Boys.” All three were produced by another talented rockabilly fan – Dave Edmunds. They reciprocated somewhat, appearing on the song “The Race is On” another UK hit, on Edmunds 1981 album, Twangin‘.  Built for Speed contained one brand new song, the title track.

Brian Setzer, the singer and guitarist soon took a sabbatical to join Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers and the other two formed a spinoff band as well; after one more album the band was history, something Setzer now says “was silly…at the peak of our success.” Since then he’s played idol Eddie Cochran in the movie La Bamba and kept busy with his retro-swing outfit, the Brian Setzer Orchestra.   Although he’s worked on a number of other projects since, Setzer has reunited the Cats who put out a new album, 40, in 2019, and later a live album culled from the live performances that year. 

June 6 – Country Night Fever

Could lightning strike thrice? Hollywood, and record exec Irving Azoff, betted it could. And they weren’t entirely wrong. In 1977, John Travolta danced his way into superstardom with Saturday Night Fever, the music of which dominated the record charts the following year. In 1978, he did the same with Grease. Could the public buy Travolta in a cowboy hat, doing a two-step? And would it produce a mega-selling soundtrack? Turns out it would. And although neither the film nor the soundtrack quite matched the success of the previous two, Urban Cowboy certainly was a hit on the big screen and on big radios. The album came out this day in 1980.

The movie starred Travolta as Bud, a Texan oil worker and his at times problematic relationship with Sissy, played by Debra Winger. At night, they liked to hang out at Gilley’s, a huge bar near Houston which played itself in the film. It was billed as the “world’s biggest honky tonk” , having a capacity of 7000 people and famous mechanical bulls. It was owned by Mickey Gilley, a country music, piano-playing cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis, who saw the possibilities as soon as someone suggested a film be shot there. “I’m thinking ‘Saturday Night Fever’? Country Night Fever,” he told Billboard.

The bar had live music and musicians like Bonnie Raitt and Charlie Daniels appeared as themselves in the movie (and also appeared on the soundtrack.) And like Saturday Night Fever, they put together a double-LP (66 minutes of music, which was on a single CD when finally released in that format) using a mix of existing hit songs (like “the Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band, “Nine Tonight” by Bob Seger and “Lyin Eyes’” by the Eagles) and brand new ones for the movie. Those included a couple by Gilley himself and contribtuions from country acts like Johnny Lee and Kenny Rogers as well as rockers like Joe Walsh as well as adult contemporary stars like Boz Scaggs and Anne Murray. It was a winning combination, with Travolta getting a Rolling Stone cover that summer to publicize it and no fewer than six singles from it making the American top 40: “All Night Long” by Walsh, “Love the World Away” by Rogers, Gilley’s own cover of “Stand by Me”, “Lookin’ for Love” by Lee, “Look What You’ve Done to Me” by Scaggs and “Could I Have This Dance” by Murray. Three of those hit the top of country charts and overall, the album got to #3 in the U.S. (only #21 to the north in Canada, and worse elsewhere) and went triple-platinum.

It generally got good reviews, with retroactive ones like allmusic‘s 5-star one and Billboard pointing out how it was able to make “the music and the culture that surrounds it a pop phenomenon.” The latter says “40 years later, country owes a lot to Urban Cowboy.” Indeed, we’ve noted here how in 1981, just after this movie and album, the charts briefly had a good run of country crossover hits from the likes of Juice Newton, Dolly Parton and Eddie Rabbitt. One can only wonder what would have happened if Travolta had taken up waltzing on the big screen in ’81!

June 6 – Cars Took Express Lane To Success

Elton John made his debut this day in 1969, with a forgettable album called Empty Sky, which showed little hint of how good – and popular – he’d become within two or three years. Another June 6th debut but with different results. The Cars released their self-titled debut album this day in 1978. Although it took nearly a year to scrape up to #18 on Billboard, it would go on to sell better than six million copies in the U.S. alone, making it their best-seller other than their Greatest Hits…although as Elliott Easton jokes, “the first album should be called ‘The Cars Greatest Hits’.” Indeed. the power pop album was different than almost anything else on radio at the time and would yield songs which did surprisingly poorly in singles sales but would remain FM radio staples for decades, like “My Best Friend’s Girl”, ”Just What I Needed”, “Moving In Stereo” and “Good Times Roll.” Surprisingly, given how popular the album remains, it didn’t do all that terribly much on the charts back then. The only place it made the top 10 was New Zealand and as for the singles, over here “Just What I Needed” did best, but even it only rose to #27 (and #38 in Canada.) “My Best Friend’s Girl” did jump to #3 in the UK – which one might think would’ve been more open to their fresh sound back then – but the album didn’t sell well.

Nevertheless, the LP has gone on to be considered a rock staple and one of the finest of the decade. The Village Voice gave it a B+ rating, Rolling Stone approved as well. They scored it a 4-star rating, saying “the best band to come out of Boston since J. Geils (were) evenly divided between pop songs and pretentious attempts at art,” and thinking the “pop songs are wonderful- easy and eccentric at the same time” but dissing producer Roy Thomas Baker – best known for working with Queen – and his “lacquered sound.” Years later, allmusic graded it a perfect 5-stars, one of two for them. They call the debut “a genuine rock masterpiece” and add that “all nine tracks are new wave/rock classics”,which is rather true. For instance “Moving in Stereo” was just a buried album track and b-side to a single, but still garners considerable airplay on classic rock stations over four decades later.

The Cars soldiered on into the late-’80s and had decent success, as we know, but never really matched the enthusiasm or the enthusiastic response the debut created. They last appeared in 2018 when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; singer Ric Ocasek’s death not long afterwards (Benjamin Orr had already passed away) makes it seem that another reunion will not occur.

June 4 – A Worldwide Phenomenon No Matter Where It Was From

The Boss” got promoted on this day in 1984. Bruce Springsteen put out his seventh album, the iconic (and perhaps ironic) Born In The U.S.A. While Bruce was already popular and had already famously been on the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously, this was the record that took him to an entirely new level of worldwide popularity.

The cover photo is iconic, being right up there with the other mega-hit of the early-to-mid ’80s, Thriller, when it comes to fame and recognition. It’s also where the irony begins. It looks about as patriotic and flag-waving as it could be – it has the flag as a backdrop after all – but hides the fact that much of the record’s message is about the problems of America in the 1980s and the woes of the ordinary American. Barry Miles noticed that discrepancy, but gave Springsteen some latitude for it. Writing in The Greatest Album Covers Of All Time, he opines “the choice of working class symbols (such as the baseball cap and Levis) rather than the symbols of corporate America reveal Springsteen’s leftward leanings and pro-working class stance.” Of course, the only leads into the title track and it’s similar dichotomy of an anthemic, in-yer-face “Born in the U.S.A.” bellowed between gritty lyrics about the country’s disregard for its veterans. Journalist Bruno MacDonald noted that as well, pointing out “millions heard the song but not all listened – then-president Ronald Reagan cited the song’s ‘message of hope’”.

The rather discouraging lyrics on songs like that one, “Glory Days” and “My Hometown” don’t stray far from the downbeat themes of the album’s predecessor, the acoustic Nebraska. But the sound itself was something entirely different – mainly loud, rocking and enthusiastic. Springsteen himself says of it, “if you look at the material…it’s actually written very much like Nebraska – the characters and their stories, the style of writing. It’s just in a rock band setting.”

Whether people heard it as a message of a middle class in decline and indifferent politicians or just a great Friday night party soundtrack, hear it they did… and buy it. It was easily the biggest of his career, hitting #1 in most major markets including his homeland (where it topped the charts for seven weeks), Canada, Australia, the UK and Germany, where he’d never even had a top 30 hit before. When all was said and done it had sold something in the range of nearly 30 million copies – about 15 times that of Nebraska. It ended up as the biggest-seller of 1984 in Canada and of 1985 in the U.S., helped along by a major world tour of huge outdoor stadiums and the many singles.

The album dropped an incredible seven singles – there were more singles than songs not released as 7” 45s on it – and more incredible, all seven hit the Billboard top 10, something only Thriller could match in the decade. From the first, the lively “Dancing In The Dark” (which went platinum as a single in both the U.S. and Canada) to the final one, “My Hometown”, the singles dominated rock radio for fully two years.

Critics at the time largely loved the album. The Village Voice picked it as the top album of 1984; LA Times gave it a 4-star rating (their highest) loving how he got his political message out to a wider audience with solid rock songs, and Rolling Stone lauded his “rowdy indomitable spirit”. It said of the songs, he “May shove his broody characters out the door” but at least “he gives them music they can pound on the dashboard to.” The same publication would rank the album among the 100 greatest of all-time nearly thirty years later calling it “immortal” and buoyed by a “Frank mix of soaring optimism and the feelings of, as he puts it, ‘being handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.’” Allmusic rate it a perfect 5-stars, noting that he “remembered that he was a rock & roll star” and for the “first time… Springsteen’s characters really seemed to relish the fight and to have something to fight for. They were not defeated and they had friendship and family to defend.”

And yes,if you haven’t noticed it before, that is a young Courteney Cox he dances with in the video for “Dancing In The Dark”. Imagine how big the record would’ve been if he’d used Jennifer Aniston!

June 3 – A Return To Avalon ?

Close to three years to the day after Roxy Music’s final studio album, Avalon, we look at the closest thing to its follow-up… Bryan Ferry‘s Boys and Girls. That album came out this day in 1985.

While labeled as just Ferry, it had more in common with the previous couple of Roxy albums than it did with the majority of his prior solo works, of which there was no shortage. His previous solos had been put out as a side-project to his Roxy Music work, and most had consisted mainly of Ferry’s own take on various oldies. He’d had hit singles, for instance with covers of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall” and Willie Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together.”

This record however, followed along with the sonic landscape Avalon had painted – romantic, sultry, sometimes danceable, well-crafted pop. And while it lacked core Roxy Music members Andy MacKay and Phil Manzanera, it did have a rather accomplished band backing up his velvety voice and keyboard work. Andy Newmark, a part time member of Roxy, did the drums, and there were David Gilmour, Nile Rodgers and Mark Knopfler adding guitar work, and Dire Straits’ keyboardist Guy Fletcher amongst others. The result was one of the best-recorded and played records of the decade and more or less the ultimate late-night, candlelight and wine accompaniment.

The album didn’t have any significantly weak songs, but the standout was his first single from it, “Slave to Love.” Rolling Stone singled that one out and considered that the album was “too fluffy” but “it does have one of the greatest love songs ever, the hypnotic, slow dance ‘Slave to Love.’” Later, allmusic would grade it 4-stars, saying it has “Aged well”, especially that track which they describe as “Samba-derived”.

The album didn’t match the success of Avalon three years earlier, but did quite well for him. In his native UK it was his first solo record to hit #1 and go platinum (with “Slave to Love” being his fifth top 10 single and “Don’t Stop the Dance” also hitting the top 30), in Canada it topped out at #11 with the first single being his first to make the charts at all. In the States, it eventually sold enough to go gold, largely thanks to heavy MTV play of “Slave to Love” and a prime-time appearance at Live Aid which showcased three of the songs on the album including the title track and “Sensation”.

Ferry continues to record, putting out a new release about every three years it seems, and has toured with a re-formed Roxy Music several times. This spring they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with Duran Duran welcoming them to the stage mentioning “without Roxy Music, there’d be no Duran Duran.”

June 2 – A Quarter Century On, Do Fans Still ‘Adore’ This One?

Following up a monster-seller is always tough and Smashing Pumpkins took over two years to follow up their big Mellon Collie and the infinite Sadness. That one had rocketed them from a truly “alternative” band with a decent following into the realms to superstardom, with Diamond sales awards at home and in Canada and five big radio hits including “1979” and “Thirty Three.”

They followed up that with Adore, out this day in 1998 to less-than-enthusiastic responses. Billy Corgan and Co. , without drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, went more electronic and soft in comparison to their previous works. Even the title was the Bald-one’s little joke about the change – he said it was meant as “a door” that they were going through to some new territory. Although the album did hit #2 in both the U.S. and Canada and sold in the range of four million copies, it was a massive drop from their prior popularity. “Ava Adore” and “Perfect” did fine on modern rock radio but critics were fairly unimpressed. Spin summed it up thusly: “Adore is a late night album, a headphones album…an essential part of the band is missing – the swaggering confidence!” Allmusic gave it 3.5-stars, lowest of any of their upto that point, although still praising it for being a “hushed, elegiac album that sounds curiously out of time.”

The Pumpkins are still smashing along, without D’arcy these days but with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin back. They have put out eight more studio albums since, including Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts, a box set of three discs running nearly two and a half hours, this spring. But there seem to be fewer fans around to “adore” them these days; their last three releases all failed to crack the American top 50.

May 31 – Album Wasn’t A Scam But Neither Was It Their Crowning Achievement

For fans it wasn’t really being “scammed”, but it wasn’t necessarily Steely Dan‘s finest moment either. They released their fifth album, The Royal Scam, this day in 1976.

By then, they were down to the core pair of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, although they as always wanted to surround themselves with talent in the studio. They enlisted their favorite producer, Gary Katz, once more and brought in 21 studio musicians to complete the record, including Elliott Randall (who’d played the memorable solo on “Reeling in the Years” awhile earlier) on guitar, Rick Marotta on drums and backing vocalists including Michael McDonald (who’d go on to help them on their later hit “Peg”) and Timothy B. Schmit, soon to join the Eagles.

They took their time recording this, as was their trademark, but unlike their previous records (not to mention the follow-up, Aja) this one lacked a standout hit. But it wasn’t from a lack of trying. The compositions were well-written, the studio help top-notch, and as usual, the lyrics poetic and reflective of their varied tastes and obscure interests. There was a “Haitian Divorce”, and “The Fez” as well as a song inspired by some caves with hieroglyphics, and the not-quite-a-best-seller novel written about them, “Caves of Altamira.,  And there was the closest thing the album had to a hit single, “Kid Charlemagne”, loosely inspired by Owlsley Stanley, a San Francisco hippie musician/producer of LSD. Which perhaps fit the album, as they would later say they made The Royal Scam “under the influence of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ‘whatever’”. Of course, not all the references in their songs were obscure; “Everything You Did” was about a couple having their problems and name-dropped The Eagles being played loud by neighbors. Glenn Frey (of the Eagles) would later say “apparently Walter Becker’s girlfriend loved the Eagles and she played them all the time. I think it drove him nuts!”

Whether too few lyrical references the public could relate to or just not a terribly great set of songs, the album stagnated commercially. It didn’t flop by any means – it became their fourth platinum one in the U.S. – and hit #15, #24 in Canada, those were less impressive numbers than their previous two records, or the one to follow-up, Aja. That might well be because they failed to lob even one song into the top 40 in North America. However, Brit ears pricked up for The Royal Scam (it was “royal” after all) and it got to #11 there and scored them their first top 30 song there, “Haitian Divorce.”

Reviews at the time were lukewarm, which rather continues to this day. Rolling Stone for example, later graded it 5-stars, but mostly praised “the rarefied capabilities of the hired studio help” who could “rock and swing all at the same time,” without particularly appreciating any of the nine songs. Allmusic give it 3.5-stars but point out it was “the first Steely Dan record that doesn’t exhibit significant progress from its predecessor” and calling it “their weakest set of songs” to that point although there was still “nothing particularly bad” on it.

Some might suggest it was their weakest cover art as well – the band themselves for instance. Becker & Fagen called it “the most hideous album cover of the ’70s”…but it nearly wasn’t their hideous cover! The work based on a Charles Ganse photo was commissioned for a Van Morrison album. But when the Irish bard shelved that particular project, Steely Dan swooped it up. No word if they were under the influence of “whatever” at the time!

May 31 – The Heads Were Speaking 40 Years Back

Picking up where The Clash left off, perhaps. If Joe Strummer’s outfit was lauded for pushing the boundaries of punk rock with their varied sound, Talking Heads blew down all its border walls and invaded all sorts of other musical territory. Although many of us would wonder just why the band was considered “punk” in the first place. Other than hanging out at CBGB with the Ramones, Talking Heads were always a somewhat odd, artsy band with little in common with punk beyond making music that wasn’t highly mainstream. They continued to broaden their scope and their audience with their fifth album, Speaking In Tongues, which came out this day in 1983.

Perhaps their living in New York City broadened their views; they utilized more influences and forms of music than most, at times blending American college rock with African and Caribbean beats and British prog rock (which was enhanced by previous collaborations with producer Eno). That they were all talented didn’t hurt either. On this album, which they shared writing credits for, each of them played different instruments; all four of them played synthesizers and keyboards on at least one song beyond their regular tools like Tina Weymouth’s bass and Chris Frantz’s drums. If there was a weak link – and that’s an “if” – it might be the seemingly incomprehensible lyrics, mainly created by David Byrne. Byrne though sees the world a bit differently, being not only an art school student (he created the album cover, by the way) but being mildly autistic. That aspect led one interviewer to suggest he has a “disembodied sci-fi feel about him” which carries into his words; he notes that he feels “very uncomfortable socially” but has an “intense focus” on his music.

By ’83, their time had come, with the mainstream radio world opening up to new wave and all sorts of varied songs (think “Come On Eileen”, “She Blinded Me With Science”) so the Talking Heads fit in by, well, not fitting in! The album rose up the charts to #15 at home, #7 in Canada and #3 in New Zealand, all their best showings to that point and earning them a platinum album in both the U.S. and Canada, their first. Much of that was on the strength of their biggest single, “Burning Down the House”, a top 10 in both those countries and New Zealand as well as an MTV classic. Their previous high position at home had been #26, for their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River.”  “Burning Down the House” didn’t make the charts in the UK, but “This Must Be The Place” did and “Swamp” got a fair bit of radio love despite not being released as a single.

At the time, Smash Hits in Britain rated it 9 out of 10 while over here, Rolling Stone gave it an impressive 4.5-stars. They declared it “obliterates the line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk” and created music “that would make Prince envious.” Both it and Slant ranked it among the 100 best albums of the decade.

Not only did it sell, it kicked open the doors for them. their next two albums, released the two years following, Stop Making Sense and Little Creatures, would be the biggest-selling of their career.

May 30 – Third Time Was The Charm For Peter

Monkeys may have been shocked. So too, Atlantic Records because 43 years back, Peter Gabriel really found his stride. On this day in 1980, he released his third solo album (which like his previous two was self-titled.) The album is sometimes nicknamed “Melt” for the distorted portrait of Gabriel on the cover, a photo created by pressing a Polaroid while it was developing. Throughout most of the world, it was released on Charisma Records but in North America it came out on Mercury Records. His prior works had been on Atlantic but that label dropped him when they heard this distinctive record!

Big mistake, Atlantic – PG3 was his biggest-seller to that point, and to this day remains his most critically-acclaimed record. In the UK it was his first #1 hit and in Canada it went double-platinum and was a top 10 hit, thanks no doubt to Toronto’s CFNY which had it as the #1 album of the year. Rolling Stone gave it a 4-star review noting “while (its) instrumentation is utilizing African drums, Scottish bagpipes and electronic effects, and the most evocative whistling since The Bridge on the River Kwai, the music is built on a sound that makes rock & roll an ally.” Later on allmusic would give it a perfect 5-star review, calling it his finest work and “for the first time, Gabriel has found the sound to match his themes.” His themes were bleak – the standout tracks were “Biko”, about an anti-apartheid activist murdered in an African prison which would become a show-stopper at his live shows in the ’80s, “Not One Of Us“, about the pressures to conform to the norm and the hit “Games without Frontiers”. That track was on the surface about a weird European game show where contestants from different cities played each other in bizarre games while dressed in costume; more obliquely it was a statement about leaders who saw war as a game. “No Self Control” off it also made the British top 40 while “Games Without Frontiers” reached #4, tied for his best-showing there to date.

Gabriel has been releasing new music this year, part of a new album to be called I/O, with him releasing a new song every full moon. Which is one way of not conforming to the norms!