I can remember all the good times, put ’em in a book of memories

This is the fifth in a series of posts that will feature detailed analysis and commentary of some of my all-time favorite albums.

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In June 1968, the British power trio Cream was touring the States one last time as one of the more popular groups on the rock concert circuit.  Winning the coveted spot as warm-up act for their gig in Detroit was a little-known band out of Cleveland called The James Gang.

The band had undergone several personnel changes since forming in 1966, although founding members Jimmy Fox (drums) and Tom Kriss (bass) still remained.  A talented blues guitarist named Glenn Schwartz had played an important role for a year or so, but A-327475-1125073173.jpghe split for California.  In his place, they invited an innovative guitarist from another Cleveland band called The Measles to join.  His name?  Joe Walsh.

On the drive to Detroit, keyboardist Phil Giallombardo (who was still in high school) and guitarist Ronnie Silverman informed the others they were tired of life in a struggling rock band and wouldn’t be performing that night.  Desperate for the money and the opportunity to play before Cream’s audience, Walsh, Fox and Kriss chose to perform as a trio.  If Cream can do it, they thought, maybe we can too.

The pressure was mostly on the 21-year-old Walsh to not only find a way to play lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously but handle lead vocals as well.  To his surprise and delight, he found he enjoyed the challenge and the chance to expand his technique.  The crowd ate it up, and so, by the way, did Cream’s guitarist, Eric Clapton.  “He’s one of the best guitarists to surface in some time,” he said in 1970.  “I don’t listen to many records, but I listen to his.”

The James Gang’s manager had connections with Bill Szymczyk, staff producer at ABC James_Gang_-_Yer'_AlbumRecords, and helped the band secure a recording contract.  In the spring of 1969, Walsh, Fox and Kriss convened to record their astonishing debut, “Yer’ Album,” which consisted of several Walsh originals as well as superb covers of Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird,” The Yardbirds’ “Lost Woman,” and Jerry Ragavoy’s “Stop.”

I was 14 then, and found myself visiting neighborhood record stores on a weekly basis.  One store, Fantasy Records in Cleveland Heights, often played records you didn’t hear elsewhere, and one was “Yer’ Album.”  The employees there loved to promote bands with an Ohio connection, and The James Gang certainly had that.  Following a silly, cacophonous opening bit that lasted less than a minute, the group slid into Walsh’s “Take a Look Around,” and I was mesmerized by the melody, the singing and the guitar playing.  I stuck around the store long enough to hear the rest of Side One, after which I was a huge Joe Walsh fan for many years to come.

On his own, Walsh had devised a way to hot-wire his guitar pickups to produce what became his trademark “attack” sound, which worked to brilliant effect on slow tunes like “Fred” and fast-tempo numbers like “Funk #48” and “I Don’t Have the Time.”  Perhaps the best track on the LP is the acoustic-guitar-driven piece “Collage,” which includes this Unknown-30descriptive lyric that always makes me think of late fall/early winter in Cleveland:  “Autumn calls for a change of year, bringing winter near us green to brown, and the sky’s a sign, wintertime is a razor blade that the devil made, it’s the price we pay for the summertime…” 

The album didn’t perform very well on the charts, stalling at #83, and the two singles released fared even worse.  But the band still gained momentum throughout the Midwest, thanks to reviews like this one from William Ruhlman in AllMusic:  “Even though it’s more an album of performances than compositions, ‘Yer’ Album’ contains much to suggest that The James Gang, particularly its guitarist, has a very bright future.”

As it turned out, Clapton wasn’t the only guitar great to heap praise on Walsh in those formative years.  “He has a tremendous feel for the instrument,” said Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in the mid-’70s.  “I’ve loved his playing since the early James Gang days.”

The Who’s Pete Townshend took that adulation one step further.  Following The James James-GangGang’s performance warming up for The Who, Townshend was impressed enough to invite them on their 1970 European tour.  Walsh responded by gifting Townshend his 1959 Gretsch guitar, which he subsequently used during sessions for “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia.”  “Pete’s a very melodic player and so am I,” Walsh said at the time.  “When he told me he appreciated my playing, I was flattered beyond belief.  I honestly didn’t think I was that good yet.”

Around that period, “James Gang Rides Again” was released, and that brought Walsh and his cohorts their first chart success, thanks to the single “Funk #49,” which still gets airplay today on classic rock setlists.  This album, which made it to #20, is almost as good as the debut, with Walsh writing or cowriting all nine tracks.  It was then followed in 1971 by “Thirds,” which reached #27, and “In Concert,” which peaked at #24.

But Walsh was feeling limited by the constraints of a three-man lineup.  Eager to spread his wings, Walsh said farewell to The James Gang in 1972.  He was invited to England to join Humble Pie in place of the departing Peter Frampton, but instead Walsh chose to move to Colorado, where he regrouped with producer Szymczyk and formed the group Barnstorm.  Curiously, the group turned out to be a trio too, with drummer Joe Vitale and bassist Kenny Passarelli in support, but the difference was in the multi-layered recording techniques used as Walsh performed on synthesizer, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, fuzzbox, talk box and keyboards, creating swirly, organ-like tones.

The album was a commercial disappointment, but it set the stage for what I believe to be Walsh’s other career high point, the 1973 solo album “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get.”  Retaining Vitale and Passarelli, and adding Rocke Grace on keyboards, walsh02Walsh hit the jackpot, with his signature hit single “Rocky Mountain Way” reaching #23 and the LP soaring all the way to #6.  The innovative (and ultimately gimmicky) talk box utilized on “Rocky Mountain Way” preceded Frampton’s famous use of it on his mega-platinum “Comes Alive” album by three years.

More important was the quality of songs, again all written or co-written by Walsh.  He had now musically matured to the point where he was dabbling successfully in multiple genres — blues, jazz, folk, pop, even Caribbean music.  “Book Ends” offers a stunning contrast to Walsh’s rock songs with its delicate melody and gentle lyrics about fond memories of days gone by.  “Wolf” deftly combines acoustic and electric guitars with Walsh’s spacey vocals to create a track that would’ve fit nicely on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”  The use of flute and a jazzy instrumental arrangement turns “Midnight Moodies” into a real tour de force.  “Meadows” rivals “Rocky Mountain Way” as the best pure rock song on the LP, and “Happy Ways” features Passarelli on vocals, giving it a jaunty calypso beat.

a197d979c352874e21a8641dd2d6debbI was a freshman in college by the time “Smoker You Drink” came out, and it was indeed a fine companion for those hazy dorm room evenings, as I vaguely recall.  We played the hell out of the album throughout that school year, and I took great delight in exposing others on my floor to how amazing a younger Walsh sounded five years earlier on the James Gang stuff.

By this time, Walsh had moved to Los Angeles and became friends with Dan Fogelberg, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne and others in the California rock scene.  Indeed, he quickly involved them in his next solo LP, “So What,” and was responsible for Fogelberg’s first commercial success when he served as producer and lead guitarist on his breakthrough “Souvenirs” LP that same year.

So it wasn’t really that much of a leap when he surprised a lot of people by joining The Eagles in 1975.  Walsh’s fans thought he would be softening up his music too much, and Eagles fans grumbled that Walsh would turn them into a hard rock band, but instead, they found a way to combine the best of both worlds.  The dueling guitars of walshfelderWalsh and Don Felder on “Hotel California” rank among the finest solos in all of rock.  Walsh’s song “Life in the Fast Lane” became a milestone Eagles track, and I think his lovely tune “Pretty Maids All in a Row” showed he can write melodies to rival Henley’s and Frey’s.

Another half dozen solo LPs followed, especially 1978’s “But Seriously Folks…” and his most successful single, “Life’s Been Good.”  But a slide into drug and alcohol addiction hurt him significantly, with sloppy live performances and lackluster songwriting, and sales slowed to a trickle.  In 2004, Walsh finally faced his demons and began his recovery, and The Eagles invited him back into the fold for their numerous reunion tours.  His latest solo album, 2012’s “Analog Man” (I’m an analog man in a digital world”), shows he still has the chops 28792295_800_800and the self-deprecating sense of humor that made him such an enormously entertaining guy in the first place.

For those of you whose knowledge of Joe Walsh’s recorded work is limited to the radio hits and Eagles moments, I strongly encourage you to listen to the Spotify playlist below, which includes 1969’s “Yer’ Album” and 1973’s “The Smoker You Drink” in their entirety, with three bonus favorites thrown in (“Here We Go” and “Turn to Stone” from “Barnstorm,” and the live version of “Pretty Maids” from 1994’s “Hell Freezes Over”).  I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

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I reminisce about the days of old

I can never get enough of the thrill I get when I dip into the bottomless foot locker of fabulous rock songs from the ’60s ’70s and ’80s that I call “lost classics.”

In this installment (#12), the dozen selections hail mostly from the ’70s, with a couple in Vinyl-Record-Storagethe ’80s, but God knows there are still plenty of choices remaining from the ’60s, and even from the ’50s, for future visits to the vault.

I hope you enjoy listening to these tracks (via the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post) and getting reacquainted with them, or learning them for the first time.  And I hope you’ll send me your ideas and suggestions for candidates for future “lost classics” blog entries.

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“Marie Marie,” The Blasters, 1981

The_Blasters_(album)Brothers Phil and Dave Alvin formed The Blasters in L.A. in 1979, and the foursome quickly evolved into a remarkably tight unit, playing a smart blend of rockabilly, early rock ‘n roll, blues, country and roadhouse R&B they dubbed “American music.”  They enjoyed an enthusiastic cult following, and critics praised them as well, but they struggled for any sort of mainstream success.  Their second LP, “The Blasters,” made it as high as #32 on the Top 200 album charts in late 1981/early 1982, but none of their succinct, catchy singles made a dent.  “Marie Marie,” which had appeared on the group’s debut album and then re-recorded for the second album and released as a single, should’ve been huge, at least as big as the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town,” but it was curiously overlooked.  British artist Shakin’ Stevens had a #19 hit in the UK in 1980 with his cover version, and The Blasters’ original was used in the 1986 Tom Berenger film “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

“Dolly Dagger,” Jimi Hendrix, 1971

R-525926-1199655363.jpegIn the wake of Hendrix’s death in October 1970, the floodgates soon opened, and the market was inundated with all manner of unreleased (and often ragged and unpolished) recordings that sullied the musician’s otherwise sterling catalog.  The first two posthumous releases, though — “The Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge” — were pretty damn great, and have held up well.  They include songs now considered among his essential tracks (“Freedom,” “Ezy Ryder,” “Room Full of Mirrors,” “Angel,” “Earth Blues”) and were intended for “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” a double LP he was working on at the time of his death (and finally released, as such, in 1997).  Perhaps the best of this batch is “Dolly Dagger,” a great rocker that chugs along nicely with Jimi’s fine guitar work and vocals.  It was recorded in 1970 and wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on his ’68 masterpiece “Electric Ladyland.”

“Get It Right Next Time,” Gerry Rafferty, 1979

Night_Owl_(album)The Scottish musician’s first attempt in the music business came in the early ’70s with compatriot Joe Egan in a group called Stealers Wheel, and they hit the Top Ten with “Stuck in the Middle With You.”  Then the lawyers and record executives started suing and countersuing, and Rafferty was “stuck in the middle,” unable to record for four years.  Once free of old contractual ties, he recorded “City to City,” a solid album that soared to #1 in the US in the summer of 1978 on the strength of the monster #1 hit “Baker Street” with its unforgettable sax riff, and “Right Down the Line,” which peaked at #12.  His follow-up LP “Night Owl” leveled off at #29, and produced two modest singles, “Days Gone Down” and “Get It Right Next Time,” which both made the Top Twenty, but you rarely hear them anymore.  I’m partial to “Get It Right Next Time” because of the way the song creeps up on you and offers another fine sax part by Raphael Ravenscroft.

“Little Girl So Fine,” Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, 1977

51RFJGZ5KVLBeing a part of the same New Jersey shore bar scene as Bruce Springsteen perhaps turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for Johnny Lyon and his fine bar band.  As Bruce rose to stardom, he helped Southside wherever he could, feeding him songs to record and occasionally showing up at his gigs to sing with him.  But some observers felt Southside was a hanger-on, riding The Boss’s coattails, an observation I firmly believe has no merit.  Southside was the real deal, a soulful singer of great R&B, surrounded by a great horn section and solid musicians, and their live shows were exuberant affairs that left you sweaty and drained afterwards.  The Jukes’ first three LPs were packed with so many high-energy songs — “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “Without Love,” “The Fever,” “Talk to Me” — and also a few quieter numbers to balance out the repertoire.  One of the best was the Springsteen tune “Little Girl So Fine” with its bonafide Fifties sound.

“Out of the Blue,” Roxy Music, 1974

s-l300-2When I was in high school and college in the mid-’70s, Cleveland was fortunate to have WMMS, a trailblazing FM radio station that was responsible for introducing bold new acts and helping them break out nationally.  David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen both benefited from enthusiastic response in Cleveland, as did Britain’s Roxy Music, a truly eccentric band led by the ironically glamorous singer Bryan Ferry.  They were superstars in England, but it wasn’t until their fourth LP, 1974’s “Country Life,” that they first cracked the US Top 40 album charts.  I was slow to warm to Roxy Music; Ferry’s quivering voice was an acquired taste, and some of the band’s early songs were pretty dissonant.  Thanks to WMMS’s Kid Leo, I was finally won over, and the track that did it was “Out of the Blue,” which builds and soars majestically.

“Someday, Someway,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1983

51-K+vi5IML._SY450_Like a breath of fresh air, Michigan-born Crenshaw arrived in the early ’80s with a clean pop sound that owed more than a little to early Beatles.  Actually, that should come as no surprise — in 1978-79, Crenshaw mimicked John Lennon in the original national stage production of “Beatlemania!”  But the material Crenshaw developed on his debut and subsequent albums wasn’t just Beatles copycat stuff.  Critics called him a latter-day Buddy Holly, and that was perhaps closer to the mark than the Beatles comparison.  He had a knack for writing irresistible pop all his own, but with an ’80s twist of New Wave rhythm and echo production.  Sadly, only a couple of his singles and albums gained any traction on the charts, which I find inexplicable, given the radio-friendly nature of the music.  Take “Someday, Someway,” his only Top 40 single (#36 in 1982).  I dare you to sit still to this highly infectious tune.

“Can’t Take It With You,” The Allman Brothers, 1979

enlightened-rogues-51c584f3be053One of America’s finest bands in their original incarnation, The Allman Brothers Band took blues standards and some Gregg Allman originals and mixed it with a Southern sensibility and a few Dickey Betts countryish songs to create a genre all their own (though there were plenty of imitators).  Due to tragic deaths and drug-related disagreements, the group imploded in 1976, only to reunite (with lineup changes) in 1979, then threw in the towel again in 1982, then resurrected themselves a second time in 1990.  The first reunion included two forgettable LPs (hence the breakup), but their initial return on the 1979 beauty “Enlightened Rogues,” which reached #9 on the charts, is a worthy entry in the band’s catalog.  Marked by Allman’s ferocious blues vocals and organ, the guitar interplay of Betts with new guitarist Dan Toler and the always rock-steady rhythm section, “Can’t Take It With You” is the highlight track.

“Easy Livin’,” Uriah Heep, 1972

220px-Demons_and_WizardsNamed after the Charles Dickens character from David Copperfield, Uriah Heep emerged in 1969 and became durable players in Britain’s progressive rock scene.  Indeed, the group continues to perform these days, with founder Mick Box still at the helm, playing a mix of heavy metal and older prog rock classics.  In the US, their impact was far less prominent.  Three of their early ’70s albums — “Demons and Wizards” (1972), “The Magician’s Birthday” (1972) and “Sweet Freedom” (1973) — reached the Top 30 and went gold, but their fame here soon faded.  They are perhaps best known for “Easy Livin’,” a defiant rocker that just cracked the Top 40 in the autumn of 1972.  It clocks in at a neat 2:37, carried by strong vocals by long-time member David Byron and dominated by the organ work of Ken Hensley, who left the band in 1976.

“Heart of the Sunrise,” Yes, 1971

fragileyesYes was one of the top two or three progressive rock bands of all, both in its native UK and in the US.  This was dense, sophisticated stuff with often impenetrable lyrics, but the musicianship was usually dazzling.  The incredible “Heart of the Sunrise” never got much airplay, but since it lasts more than 10 minutes, it’s easy to understand why.  To my mind, it is one of Yes’s finest moments, from one of their best albums, 1971’s “Fragile.”  Singer Jon Anderson’s voice is magnificent here, showcasing his impressive range and command.  Yes featured its finest lineup at the time:  Keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Bill Bruford combined to produce a singularly extraordinary sound on every track they attempted.  Many listeners aren’t willing to stick with a song that lasts longer than maybe five minutes, but this one is well worth your time, I assure you.

“Soul Shoes,” Graham Parker, 1976

51yJqH4uL2LParker is all but unknown to the US rock music listening audience, and that’s a crying shame.  This British rocker with a biting soulful edge was the victim of poor promotion and management, at least in the States, when he was the leader of Graham Parker and The Rumor in 1975-78.  His two studio albums from that period — “Howlin’ Wind” and “Heat Treatment” — offered a wicked stew of raw rock, pub soul and punkish reggae well before those latter genres had yet taken hold.  Parker’s in-your-face performing persona predated the “angry young man” stances made popular by those who followed, like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson.  Curiously, his 1979 solo debut “Squeezing Out Sparks,” which dumps The Rumor and its horn section, was his critical and commercial high-water mark, but I’m a fan of the hungry rock-soul sound of those two early LPs, exemplified in the short-and-sweet rocker “Soul Shoes” from “Howlin’ Wind.”

“And I Moved,” Pete Townshend, 1980

220px-EmptyglassAs the songwriting titan behind The Who’s monumental catalog of ’60s pop and ’70s rock anthems, Townshend has shouldered a lot of responsibility he may not have been capable of handling.  Indeed, The Who’s “By Numbers” LP in 1975 is riddled with songs that lay bare his insecurities and problems with drugs and alcohol (“However Much I Booze,” “How Many Friends”).  Keith Moon’s death in 1978 left the band unsure of its future, and Townshend, always writing and recording new demos at his home studio, decided the time was ripe for a bonafide solo album (he’d done one half-hearted attempt in 1972, “Who Came First”).  But for the absence of Roger Daltrey’s distinctive lead vocals, Townshend’s “Empty Glass” LP in 1980 sounded in many ways like a new Who album, from the opener (“Rough Boys”) to the closer (“Gonna Get Ya”).  The standout track for me, however, was “And I Moved,” with a dominant piano motif throughout.

“To the Last Whale,” Graham Nash and David Crosby, 1975

220px-WindonthewatercnThe debut of Crosby Stills and Nash’s self-titled 1969 album is still turning heads with its astounding three-part harmonies and gorgeous melodies and textures.  In its wake came the addition of Neil Young and the superb “Deja Vu” LP…but then the group splintered into four directions, each attempting solo albums, pairings and one-off projects that, while they had their moments, were hardly as strong as when the original trio first arrived.  What a delicious surprise, then, when Graham Nash and David Crosby put together “Wind on the Water,” the 1975 LP of gorgeous songs and stellar production that ranks among their most consistent work, certainly far better than anything since.  Stills’ fine guitar work may be absent, but the Crosby/Nash harmonies are in perfect form, especially on the album’s closer, “To the Last Whale,” with its “Critical Mass” a cappella choral opening and “Wind on the Water” main section.  Chills up the spine on this one.