The Alarm – Declaration

The Alarm gained popularity in the ’80s around the same time as U2. Both bands had a distinctly different, yet similar sounds. The two bands also shared a common thread in their politically charged and passionately sung lyrics. Unfortunately, U2 became successful before The Alarm and the band from Wales became destined to stay in the Irish band’s shadow. Some critics even refered to The Alarm as U2 wannabes, which I felt was an unfair assessment.

Personally, I liked The Alarm’s music better than U2’s. It had a little more of a punk edge to it, similar to The Clash. I think their first full length album, “Declaration” was every bit as powerful as U2’s “War”. Sadly, they never attained the level of success they so undeniably deserved.

One of the performers that The Alarm looked up to and took inspiration from was Bob Dylan. His politically charged words have always been present in The Alarm’s songs. I had the pleasure of seeing The Alarm open for Dylan in 1988 at Meadowbrook Music Theater in Michigan. As you would expect, almost all the people there came to see Bob Dylan. The Alarm obviously knew this would be the case and made sure that everyone there would remember them that night as well. A couple of songs into their set, front man Mike Peters charged into the crowd to get them fired up. Everyone jumped to and stayed on their feet until The Alarm left the stage. Their performance that night remains in my memories as one of the most powerfully moving performances I have seen by any opening band. I wish I would have had a chance to see them headlining a show before they broke up in 1991.

Mike Peters reformed The Alarm in 2004, but without original members Dave Sharp, Eddie MacDonald, and Nigel Twist, it just wasn’t the same.

George Harrison – All Things Must Pass

Paul McCartney may have released the most post-Beatles albums following the breakup of the fab four, but he didn’t record the best. George Harrison holds that esteemed honor with “All Things Must Pass”.

Released in 1970, “All Things Must Pass” is an incredible three record set that let Harrison spread his wings as an artist. The last three Beatles albums were a tumultuous time for the band. Through the ’60s, the names John, Paul, George, and Ringo were synonymous with The Beatles, By 1970 it would have been more accurate to refer to them as Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Ringo. Three individuals who felt strongly about what should be on the latter Beatles albums and one who just rolled with it. They all contributed songs, but not all made the cut. On the last three Beatles albums, some songs that Harrison felt strongly about were nixed for ones by Lennon and McCartney, getting the ax without much protest (he was after all, “the quiet one”). So when The Beatles dissolved in 1970 Harrison had solo material he was confident about and was ready to record. Writing a few more, he soon had enough for a second album.

Those two records were enough to establish “All Things Must Pass” as the best post-Beatles album, but Harrison added a third record.

Although it is labeled as side 5 and 6, the aptly titled “Apple Jam” stands apart, yet in cohesion with the other two disks. “Apple Jam” is a collection of long improvisational in-studio jams from the “All Things Must Pass” recording sessions. It feels more like a celebratory encore to the rest of the record than a continuation of the rest of the songs. On the first four sides of “All Things Must Pass” George Harrison was finally able to let his voice be heard; he was no longer “the quiet one”. Sides five and six sound like a celebration of that revelation and freedom.

Muse – Drones

Muse has never been a band that has been afraid of trying something new. On “Drones” they showed they’re not worried about returning to familiar territory either. For their seventh studio album, Muse teamed up with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lang, best known for his work with Def Leppard, to make a more straightforward, hard rocking record.

The one thing that has always been consistent with all of Muse’s albums is its combination of hard rock, pop, and progressive rock. As they gained popularity, the band experimented heavily with orchestration on “The Resistance” and electronic music on its follow-up, “The 2nd Law”.  For “Drones”, Muse chose to keep things simple…well, simple in the terms of Muse. Although the music on “Drones” is noticeably stripped back compared to the two albums that came before it, it’s still as complex, innovative, and powerful as anything Muse has done before.

“Drones” has probably the most binding underlying concept of any Muse album, even venturing into rock opera territory. The songs on the album revolve around a story that in many ways parallels Queensrÿche’s “Operation: Mindcrime” – the attempt of a government or organization to brainwash or program someone into becoming a killing machine for them.  The one big difference is “Drones” definitely has a happier ending, with the protagonist defecting.

Wings Greatest

No matter what Paul McCartney record you cue up, you will always get a couple big hits that you hear regularly on the radio combined with some great deep cuts that you never hear except when you listen to that particular album. But sometimes you want to put on an album that just cuts right to the chase. That’s where Greatest Hits albums are…well, the greatest. And it’s hard to find a greater greatest hits album than “Wings Greatest”.

It’s funny how someone’s record collection can have one or two albums that seem to not fit in at all with the rest of them. I acquired “Wings Greatest” with a collection of about 100 albums that had been set out street side with a bunch of other stuff to be either picked by someone or picked up with the trash. I figured there would probably be no good albums in there, but it never hurts to look, so I grabbed the stack. As I flipped past all the Lawrence Welk, Sing Along with Mitch (Miller), and other undesired albums, there was “Wings Greatest”; the only rock album in the lot. I couldn’t help but wonder how it got in there with the others; it seemed so out of place. Then again, sifting through my collection, someone might wonder the same thing when they come across The Singing Nun, Liberace, or Ernst Tubb.

The J. Geils Band – Hotline

The J. Geils Band was always, first and foremost, a live band. That very well might have been their biggest reason for not achieving the success they deserved until their later albums.

I will never understand how some record labels can sign a band, yet do nothing to promote them. The J. Geils Band were in their early years, one of the most popular bands around in their hometown of Boston, MA and in Detroit, MI, and were known nationally for their high energy live performances. With a little push from Atlantic Records, their label during their early career, they could have easily broke out nationally. But because of their strength on the road, Atlantic Records seemed bent on having word of mouth from The J. Geils Band’s live reputation to do all the work; doing little to promote a band destined for success not only on the road but on their records.

Like the five albums before it, “Hotline” was a record that combined the strengths of the five exceptional musicians that were The J. Geils Band.  Seth Justman, who’s wizard-like keyboard talent was a dominant force on the earlier live Geils album “Full House”, and on “Blow Your Face Out” – the live record that followed “Hotline” – was also one of the primary songwriters, along with frontman Peter Wolf, who was a former high-energy Boston area Disk Jockey that left radio to join The J. Geils Band just before their first record. The Geils rhythm section was an incomparable combination of Daniel Klein (DK) on bass and Stephen Jo Bladd on drums, who both always seemed to know just when to throw in those little extra flourishes that gave a song that extra kick it needed at just the right time. Then there was J. Geils himself; a master blues guitarist with a tone so full and a style so fluid, he could swing between power rhythms and tight leads effortlessly; listening to him play, one couldn’t help but be in awe. And of course, there’s the pièce de résistance: Magic Dick on harmonica, perhaps the best blues-harp player ever.

Once The J.Geils Band signed with EMI Records, they finally found themselves with a record label that was willing to throw just a little promotion behind them. Just a little was all it took.  The result was a string of The J. Geils Band’s most successful albums in their career. They finally got the success the had so long before deserved.

The J. Geils Band was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, 2006, 2011, 2017, 2018.  They have yet to earn the induction recognition they deserve, but I know one day they will.

The Best Of The Lovin’ Spoonful

Question: What does the 1960’s folk/blues rock band The Lovin’ Spoonful and the 1970’s sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” have in common?

Answer: John Sebastian.

Anyone who grew up in the ’70s probably remembers the sweathogs from TV comedy Welcome Back Kotter. If you remember the show, you undoubtedly remember the show’s theme song, “Welcome Back”, performed by John Sebastian, founder and former guitarist and singer for The Lovin’ Spoonful.

The Spoonful formed in the mid ’50s but didn’t release their first album until 1965. They had a solid string of hits that combined elements of folk, blues, and pop, from then until their breakup in 1969. In their early days, especially on their first album, The Lovin’ Spoonful had a heavy jug band influence. (Jug bands played their music on homemade instruments, the name derived from a jug that was sometimes blown into to keep the rhythm of the songs). That influence was less prominent on their later records but one or two jug band songs always made it to their albums.

The spoonful released their greatest hits album after three successful albums and a string of popular singles. Their best remembered song is probably 1967’s “Summer in the City”, which closes out their collection.

After their breakup, guitarist, singer, and songwriter John Sebastian had a somewhat successful career which included penning and performing the theme song to “Welcome Back Kotter”.

The Lovin’ Spoonful was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Kris Kristofferson – Jesus Was A Capricorn

Kris Kristofferson is one of the originators of what is now known as outlaw country. All that really means was that his music, in many ways, eschews traditional country music and at times, crosses over with rock and roll. Kristofferson has a DIY, singer songwriter style that both meshed with and cut across the grain of what was popular in country and rock. He wrote, sung, and played songs that were deep-rooted and highly personal. Much in the way Hank Williams changed the sound of country and influenced rock music in the ’50s, Kristofferson, along with a few other “outlaws” from the ’60s and ’70s, redefined country music for a new generation, opening the door for southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, and Charlie Daniels.

Quite often, Kris Kristofferson’s songs shared as much in common with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan as with Merle Haggard and George Jones. Like his other albums, “Jesus was a Capricorn” isn’t an album filled with fiddles and twangy guitars (although there is lap-steel and dobro). It’s an album that focusses on roots and emotion, dedication and defiance.

“Jesus Was a Capricorn”, like the rest of Kristofferson’s catalog, is not really country or rock and roll. He is of that rare breed of performers that fits somewhere in between definitions and outside genres. In a true DIY style, with albums like “Jesus Was a Capricorn”, Kris Kristofferson defined something new with his music; something called outlaw country.

Deep Purple – Made In Japan

It’s funny that Deep Purple’s “Made in Japan” is considered by many, including me, to be one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Funny because they didn’t want to record a live album. They felt that there was no way a live record could capture the energy, excitement, and experience of being at a Deep Purple show. But since there was a huge market of live Deep Purple bootleg recordings being sold illegally, the band decided they had to nip it in the bud and shut that market down. So they recorded “Made in Japan”.

One of the things that makes “Made in Japan” so great is that it really does capture Deep Purple’s live sound as accurately as any record could. The band refused to use any studio overdubs to “enhance” the final recording. Basically, it was let the tape roll, clean up any unwanted artifacts that might have been picked up during the recording, and press the master. The result was a record that, when cranked up (the only way to listen to “Made in Japan”) you feel like you are there at the concert.

And yes, “Made in Japan” pretty much shut down the market for live Deep Purple bootlegs.

Another funny thing is, before “Live in Japan” was released, Deep Purple took the seller of what is possibly the best-selling bootleg recording of all time (it’s hard to know for sure since people who sold bootlegs rarely keep written sales records) to court to stop it being produced and sold. It’s funny because the seller of that bootleg, titled “H-Bomb”, was Richard Branson. Along with his many other accomplishments, Branson would later go on become one of the wealthiest billionaires in Britain after founding The Virgin Group of companies, which includes Virgin Records.

I’m pretty sure Deep Purple will never sign a record deal with Virgin Records.

Howard Jones – Dream Into Action

Synth pop was at the height of its popularity in the mid ’80s. It was a music style that could easily provide addictive hooks and innovative sounds, but it could also be ruined if an artist was overly dependent on the musical technology they used and less confident in their musical ability. Howard Jones knows how to find the perfect balance between composition, musicianship, and innovation. His second album “Dream Into Action” is a perfect example.

Howard Jones had a knack of knowing when to keep the arrangement of song sweet and simple or make it densely complex. That intuition helped him create a trend-setting album tha is complexly powerful and beautifully simple in all the right places.

“Dream Into Action” was the second album by Howard Jones. Other than some background vocals and a few bass lines Jones had his brother lay down, he plays and sings every note on this album.

Often overlooked and underrated by music critics, Howard Jones’ music often didn’t receive the radio airplay his contemporaries, but that never deterred him and he continues to write, record, and perform his music today.

“Dream Into Action” remains one of my favorite albums from the ’80s. It includes the hits “Things Can Only Get Better” and “No One is To Blame”. But like with many great albums, it’s the collection of songs that weren’t hits that truly define it. That’s where “Dream Into Action” is at its best.

Herb Alpbert’s Tijuana Brass – Whipped Cream & Other Delights

Herb Alpbert is the first artist to be signed to A&M records. Well, he wasn’t actually signed – he started A&M records, along with Jerry Moss as an independent label so he could release his music.

Originally there was no Tijuana Brass band. For his early records Herb Albert merely recorded his trumpet in the studio with numerous overdubs. Because of the unexpected popularity his music received, he eventually had to put together a band in order to tour. Although his music is not heard as frequently today as other artists from the 60’s, Herb Alpbert’s Tijuana Brass had a perhaps the broadest popularity of any artist in music, crossing over to all generations of record buyers, making Herb Alpbert’s Tijuana Brass one of the most successful bands in music history. They had five number one hits, sold over 72 million records, and won 9 Grammys. 1965’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights” was one of their most successful albums selling over 6 million copies alone. A&M records also went on to become one of the most successful record labels ever.

The album cover of “Whipped Cream & Other Delights” has become somewhat iconic, and has been copied by several recording artists through the years, sometimes in jest. It is immediately recognizable to record collectors.