I’m a big fan of “lost classics” here at Hack’s Back Pages. These are songs that are generally buried deep on an album somewhere, rarely get airplay but bring back great memories upon rediscovery.
For many readers, they are discovering a song here for the very first time. For me personally, I sometimes find that when I look up a song by an artist I know, I learn of another album the artist released a few years later (or earlier) that I’d been unfamiliar with. I give it a listen, and maybe I find it’s full of not-very-good songs. But sure enough, there’s one hiding in there that really tickles my fancy. That’s not a “lost classic,” exactly; it’s more of a “diamond in the rough.”
This week’s collection of tracks, my 15th, is a cross section of both — songs I believe are worthy of your attention. You might have heard these somewhere before, or you may be hearing them here for the first time. When its comes to rock/pop music, it really doesn’t matter. I enjoy this opportunity to open up my readers’ ears to great songs. It’s a challenge, because tunes that appeal to me may not always appeal to you, but I’m predicting you’ll be giving most of them a grade of B or better.
And here we go:
“Let’s Get the Show on the Road,” Michael Stanley, 1974
My Cleveland friends are intimately familiar with this fabulous tune, but those from other parts of the country are probably in for a real treat. Stanley is a homegrown Cleveland guy who should have hit it big with his Michael Stanley Band (1975-1988) but for reasons unknown, the stars just weren’t aligned in their favor. I could recommend a dozen, two dozen great songs by MSB, and maybe someday I’ll do a piece focusing on just them. But here, I’m going to focus on his signature track from his 1974 solo LP, “Friends and Legends,” recorded with Joe Walsh, Joe Vitale, Kenny Passerelli, Paul Harris and Joe Lala providing the backing music, and sax legend David Sanborn virtually carrying the tune with his amazing tenor sax work. Sadly, it never made any impact on the charts, chiefly because this all-star band couldn’t tour behind it (which led Stanley to form his own band the following year). SUCH an amazing song!
“Brooklyn Kids,” Pete Townshend, 1987
Like Springsteen, Van Morrison and other prolific songwriters, Townshend often wrote, demo’ed and recorded twice as many songs as he needed for The Who albums he was working on over the years. Some of them became tracks on his official solo LPs while others sat on a shelf in his home studio collecting dust. Truly incredible, I’d say, that a song as dramatic and beautiful as “Brooklyn Kids,” written around the time of the “Quadrophenia” sessions, languished for 15 years before it finally saw the light of day. In 1983, Townshend finally satisfied fans who had long requested these forgotten gems when he released the double album “Scoop,” which also included a few alternate versions of Who songs. A second collection in 1987, appropriately titled “Another Scoop,” finally served up “Brooklyn Kids,” and we’re all the better for it.
“Mystic Traveler,” Dave Mason, 1977
Mason was a founding member of Traffic who couldn’t seem to coexist with fellow songwriter Steve Winwood, causing him to depart from and return to the lineup several times. He embarked on a solo career in 1970 with the brilliant album “Alone Together,” which is overflowing with classic British rock songs but didn’t sell all that well. Once he landed on the Columbia label a few years later, he got more recognition and flirted a few times with chart success, especially on the #12 hit “We Just Disagree” from 1977’s solid LP “Let It Flow.” Hiding on that great album is the soaring, beautiful “Mystic Traveler,” a fine addition to any “diamond in the rough” playlist.
“Bootleg,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969
John Fogerty honestly admits that he alienated the other members of Creedence early in the band’s career by insisting that he write, arrange and produce all their albums. “The others wanted to contribute their own songs and have more say, but I firmly believed I knew what was best,” Fogerty has said. “I had these songs that would tie together this whole feel and image of what was later called “swamp rock,” beginning with ‘Born on the Bayou’ and ‘Proud Mary.’ So that’s what happened.” Indeed, 1969’s “Bayou Country” set the mold for the Creedence sound on its five consecutive million-selling LPs, released in rapid fire in the next three years. I’ve always been fond of the short (2:58) but sweet “Bootleg” with Fogerty’s unmistakable vocals, guitar and hook.
“Oh Atlanta,” Little Feat, 1974
The story goes that Little Feat was formed because Frank Zappa, after hearing band member Lowell George play his song “Willin’,” kicked him out, saying he was too talented not to have his own band. George teamed up with keyboard talent Billy Payne and founded Little Feat in 1970 as a wildly eclectic Southern California group offering strains of country, blues and R&B. When their first two LPs didn’t sell, half the lineup left and were replaced by Kenny Gradney and Paul Barrére, who brought a New Orleans-style funk to the mix. Beginning with 1973’s “Dixie Chicken,” Little Feat established a solid reputation as a Southern-fried blues boogie band. A fine examples of their oeuvre was “Oh Atlanta,” from the 1974 album “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.”
“Sookie, Sookie,” Steppenwolf, 1968
Singer John Kay hailed from Ontario, Canada, and from the ashes of his band Sparrow came the mighty Steppenwolf, one of the late ’60s more successful rock bands. Everyone knows them for their ubiquitous biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” and the psychedelic rock classic “Magic Carpet Ride,” but I urge you to look a little deeper on their albums. You’ll find many other memorable tracks like “The Pusher” (memorialized in the 1969 counterculture film “Easy Rider”), “Desperation,” “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam” and an irresistible guitar/organ song called “Sookie, Sookie,” written by Don “Chain of Fools” Covay and legendary Stax Records guitar hero Steve Cropper.
“Lifetime Piling Up,” Talking Heads, 1987/1992
I admit the stark New Wave sound that New Yorker David Byrne came up with on his early Talking Heads records wasn’t really my cup of tea when they first arrived in 1977. But I warmed to them by the early ’80s when I saw and heard the extraordinary “Stop Making Sense” concert film, directed by the great Jonathan Demme. I’ve since become a Talking Heads devotee, and I often listen to the excellent 2-CD package “Sand in the Vaseline,” a 1992 collection of hits and outtakes from throughout their 15-year career. One hidden track on it is “Lifetime Piling Up,” a discarded tune from the 1988 “Naked” album sessions that Byrne tweaked, cleaned up and re-recorded for the ’92 collection. Great song!
“Later,” Cat Stevens, 1973
Following his phenomenal success on 1970’s “Tea for the Tillerman,” 1971’s “Teaser and the Firecat” and 1972’s “Catch Bull at Four,” Cat Stevens moved to Brazil in 1973 as a tax exile. During that period, he came up with “Foreigner,” a departure from those LPs in several respects. He incorporated a more R&B feel to the new compositions, using new backing musicians and producing the album himself. Half the album was devoted to a complex, piano-oriented opus called “Foreigner Suite,” which was performed and broadcast on ABC that year in an unusual quadrophonic simulcast. The album’s single, “The Hurt,” stalled at #31, a commercial disappointment after his previous Top Ten hits. Tucked into this challenging album is another piano-driven gem called “Later,” which features black female vocalists and a soulful rhythm.
“Where Are You,” Burton Cummings, 1980
Cummings was the driving force behind much of the success of The Guess Who, Canada’s most commercially successful rock band on the US charts. He and Randy Bachman shared songwriting duties as the band rose to fame in 1969-70, but then Bachman left to form Brave Belt and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Cumming’s superb, distinctive vocals kept The Guess Who’s hits coming for another five years, ending when he chose to try a solo career. After initial success — “Stand Tall,” a #10 hit — his popularity dissipated, despite a string of seven albums from 1976-1990. Buried on his mostly forgettable 1980 LP “Woman Love” (with a truly awful album cover), Cummings came up with a soulful beauty called “Where Are You.” Why this wasn’t released as a single is a mystery to me.
“Be Free,” Loggins and Messina, 1974
Jim Messina had intended to be Kenny Loggins’ producer, offering guidance and maybe a few guitar parts for Loggins’ 1971 debut album. Instead, Messina’s contributions — half the songs, most of the arrangements and multiple guitar, bass, and vocals — were so substantial that the album was entitled “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In,” and they then decided to make a go of it as a working duo for the next five years. Much of the engaging music they recorded together featured a pair of outstanding backing musicians (Al Garth and Jon Clarke on saxes, woodwinds, strings and percussion, and backing vocals), and the evidence of their value to the musical mix is never clearer than on the tour de force “Be Free,” a Messina song from L&M’s superb 1974 LP, “Mother Lode.”
“Alabama Rain,” Jim Croce, 1973
When I hear the music of Croce, I hear only sadness and “what could have been.” He was only 30 when he died in a plane crash in 1973 enroute to his next tour date. Ironically, three days earlier, just as his hard-won fame was materializing, he released a new album and single called, agonizingly enough, “I Got a Name.” What a punch in the gut for his fans. On the previous LP, 1972’s “Life and Times,” you’ll find one of Croce’s finest hidden moments, a perfect little song called “Alabama Rain” that has its own romantic “what used to be” story.
“Skyline Pigeon,” Elton John, 1969/1973
In the formative days of the songwriting partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, the duo’s hit-or-miss ratio was more erratic. Their first official album, 1969’s “Empty Sky,” has only a few songs that stand the rest of time. One of them, “Skyline Pigeon,” was written on harpischord almost as a hymn, with lyrics that reveal a longing for the freedom to pursue truer dreams and ambitions. In 1972, John re-recorded the song with his band (bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone) during the sessions for “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player,” and the result is far more satisfying, and as good as anything on that LP. It was relegated to the B-side of the “Daniel” single in 1973, and didn’t appear on an album until a career anthology in the ’90s.