Monthly Archives: August 2013

Rocks In The Attic #272: Lynyrd Skynyrd – ‘Street Survivors’ (1977)

RITA#272Three days after this record was released Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tour plane crashed in Louisiana, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backing singer Cassie Gaines, as well as the pilot, the co-pilot, and the band’s assistant road-manager.

There’s a famous story that after the plane crashed, the drummer Artimus Pyle walked to a nearby farmhouse to get help. Taking offence to the long-haired hippy walking up to his house, the farmer then shot him in the arm with an air-rifle. Now that’s just unlucky. You survive the plane crash that kills three of your bandmates, you walk several hundred yards to raise help, struggling all the way with broken ribs, and you end up getting shot. It might just be karma though – Pyle is now a registered sex offender, so I guess what goes around comes around (albeit in an inverted way, with the punishment coming decades before the crime).

The inner sleeve of this record has the tour dates for the album listed, and you can see that they only got four dates in before disaster struck. To say that the tour got cut short would be a massive understatement. There’s a story in Stephen Davis’ Walk This Way: The Autobiography Of Aerosmith where one of the Aerosmith crew discusses being offered Skynyrd’s plane as a possible option to tour with. On examining the plane, they found ‘the two pilots smoking and passing an open bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the cockpit. The whole thing stank.’ Needless to say they turned the plane down (angering Aerosmith detractors everywhere), and exactly three months later the Skynyrd tragedy happened.

As well as the morbid tour itinerary on the inner sleeve, my copy of Street Survivors also has the original cover image, a garish photo of the band standing in a row, flanked by flames. This was pulled immediately after the crash, replaced with the non-flaming photo of the band that appears on the back cover of the original sleeve. Thankfully the original cover was reinstated for future re-releases – somebody must have had the common sense to notice that it was the band’s woeful fashion sense that was truly offensive, not the flames.

Street Survivors was Skynyrd’s fifth studio album, and ultimately their last. It’s as solid as their other albums – although it doesn’t get anywhere close to the majesty of their debut (Pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd). The band have continued to tour and release records in the decades following the plane crash – rednecks have got to listen to something, right? – but have never come close to being taken serious.

Hit: What’s Your Name

Hidden Gem: You Got That Right

Rocks In The Attic #271: Stevie Wonder – ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’ (1979)

RITA#271A soundtrack album for a nature documentary that nobody saw, featuring music composed by a blind musician in an attempt to provide an aural accompaniment to the visuals on screen that he obviously couldn’t see, this album should be a dud.

It’s not – largely due to the fact that it was released just at the cusp of Stevie’s classic period, a year before Hotter Than July, which for me will always be the bookend to his great run of albums. A couple of years later and it would have been awash with horrible ‘80s synths.

Neither is the album a quickly rushed off piece of fluff. There’s a fair amount of instrumentals present – seven out of twenty tracks – but you’d expect this from a soundtrack to a nature documentary, wouldn’t you? And anyway, Stevie still likes the album and rates it as one of his three favourite albums.

A Seed’s A Star And Tree Medley, a track on the album’s fourth side, sounds musically very similar to what you’d expect from a James Bond theme, highlighting a lost opportunity. If Stevie had scored a Bond film instead of this documentary, this would have been around the time of Moonraker. Imagine that – “Balls, Q?”, “Bolas, 007!” – to the strains of Stevie’s funky synths. It’s actually not too much of a stretch considering that Marvin Hamlisch had just recorded a disco-tinted soundtrack to 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.

Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, states that Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants was an early digital recording, released just three months after Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop (generally considered to be the first digitally recorded pop album). I guess that shows just how cutting edge Stevie Wonder was before the ‘80s came along and put all keyboard players on the same level. On paper, you’d expect a blind musician to struggle with the technology everybody else was using, but here he is cutting a new path (through the overgrown plants).

Hit: Power Flower

Hidden Gem: Venus’ Flytrap And The Bug

Rocks In The Attic #270: The Rolling Stones – ‘Some Girls’ (1978)

RITA#270There’s something eternally embarrassing about the Rolling Stones from this album and onwards. They had started as the young rebels, turning into world-conquering rock stars as the ‘60s blended into the ‘70s. From this point on, the band started to struggle to appeal to younger audiences again. A whole new generation had come along, and they weren’t interested in Jumping Jack Flash. The new breed were interested in disco, punk and (very soon) new wave.

I saw the Stones’ concert Some Girls Live In Texas the other day (which pronounced incorrectly sounds like a line from the song Some Girls itself – ‘Some girls live in Texas / Some girls live in France…’). It was pretty hard to watch. Jagger strutting around in a garish yellow jacket, and trying his damndest to appeal to a much younger – and from the looks of the crowd, a much more female – audience. You could try and pin all of this on Ronnie Wood – this album is his first as a full-time member of the group – but that theory doesn’t stack up. He’d been on the fringes of the band for a while now, and while the energy of having somebody new along for the ride would revitalise the group, it seems more likely that the change in direction was down to external influences.

While their stage show to support the album looks like a band struggling to change direction, the album itself manages to do this far more effectively. The guitar-work on the album is not as accomplished as the Mick Taylor years (obviously!), but the biggest difference is that now you get Ronnie Wood running around the stage with Jagger and Richards, with Wyman remaining the only on-stage statue with Taylor out of the picture). Wood’s style of guitar playing does sound more like Richards’ much more than Taylor’s ever did, but it’s far too similar and so that crucial element of complimenting styles is now missing, and always will be.

Hit: Miss You

Hidden Gem: Before They Make Me Run

Rocks In The Attic #269: Tame Impala – ‘Lonerism’ (2012)

RITA#269I heard Tame Impala’s Elephant earlier this year on a compilation CD given away free with a rock magazine. I liked it immediately – my song of the year, hands down. What a groove – like the Super Furry Animals doing a T. Rex cover of the Dr. Who theme, with John Lennon on vocals.

I bought the album that weekend (I can’t remember the last time I did that on the strength of hearing just one song) and it became an instant favourite on the turntable. In fact the album was the soundtrack of my trip down to Dunedin to see Aerosmith play in April. It’s funny how albums do that, especially new albums. I remember when I used to go on holiday with my parents – begrudgingly of course – in my early teens. I would buy a new album just before the holiday, and it would always weld itself into the fabric of my memories of the trip.

The rest of Lonerism isn’t as focused as Elephant. I’m not entirely sure what genre of music the whole album could be classified under; although the music press is keen on pigeon-holing them as a psychedelic rock band. I’m not so sure. It doesn’t sound a million miles away from the likes of Super Furry Animals, but it’s more laid-back than that. Kevin Parker, the man behind the music, has heard a Floyd album or two in his time, that’s for sure.

Hit: Elephant

Hidden Gem: Keep On Lying

Rocks In The Attic #268: The Black Crowes – ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ (1990)

RITA#268This is a solid – but essentially unremarkable – debut record from Atlanta’s best Rolling Stones / Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band. Their second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, would get them a lot more attention, but their whole career can probably be traced down to the very funky cover of Otis Redding’s Hard To Handle that appears on this record.

I’ve never seen The Black Crowes live, and I probably never will now, but I’m not too bothered. I think The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion is a great rock n’ roll record, but they’re one of those bands who have a certain sound – in this instance, Stones and Skynyrd – and they never deviate. As a result, a lot of their material sounds very similar – bluesy guitar riffs, a swampy beat, and soulful lead and backing vocals. The only thing that changes really from song to song is the tempo – and you can really hear this on Sourthern Harmony’s opener Sting Me. The version chosen for the record is a frantic rocker, but there is a much slower take of the song available. The band sound great playing either version, but it makes you think that they could probably do that trick with all their material.

Remedy, from that second album, is their high watermark; the one occasion when all those elements came together perfectly. I love that song, and it’s just a shame that it’s been ever-decreasing circles in the decades since.

Hit: Hard To Handle

Hidden Gem: Sister Luck

Rocks In The Attic #267: James Brown – ‘The Popcorn’ (1969)

RITA#267James Brown was such a smart businessman. Despite being tied to a record contract restricting him to so many LP releases per year as a vocalist, he used to bring instrumental records out. Talk about exploiting a loophole!

The Popcorn is one such release. The LP cover states James Brown directs and dances with the James Brown Band, and just in case the record company is watching, the cover shows James mid-jive on stage. And there’s not a mic stand to be seen!

The album is a short and relatively straightforward run-through of eight instrumentals (with two numbers split into two parts each). It actually sounds like it was hastily recorded (probably to cash in on the back of the successful Mother Popcorn single) and even though 1969 was a landmark year for James Brown – Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose and Funky Drummer were both recorded or released in the same year – the album is a relatively restrained affair. There are no call-outs on the record – no “Fred!”, no “Bobby!”, etc – which I’m guessing was probably a safety measure to prevent the record company from claiming it was a vocal performance.

But it’s still as funky as hell!

Hit: The Popcorn

Hidden Gem: Why Am I Treated So Bad

Rocks In The Attic #266: Kiss – ‘Destroyer’ (1976)

RITA#266I like Aerosmith so I should like Kiss, right? Both are cartoonish rock bands from the 1970s whose appeal to denim-clad American teens didn’t really translate over the Atlantic during that decade. But while I fully understand Aerosmith, I’ve never been able to get Kiss.

Some of their tunes are pretty good, but it’s really only pop-rock nonsense aimed at adolescents. Their image can also be a bit of a curse too – good luck to them for sticking by it over the years (even though they dropped the whole look mid-career) – but at the end of the day, it’s just a gimmick isn’t it? Even though I don’t understand people who don’t like AC/DC, I can see how the gimmick of Angus’ schoolboy outfit can initially put people off the band. The trouble is, AC/DC are in a whole different class to Kiss.

Kiss seems to be an American institution. A band that has really only found the same levels of mania in Japan. Thankfully the rest of the world seems to know better.

Hit: Detroit Rock City

Hidden Gem: King Of The Night Time World