Stray Cats – Built For Speed

In the US, the Stray Cats pretty much single-handedly revitalized the popularity of rockabilly music in the 1980s. As much as anything, the success of that revival was due to the guitar talents of Brian Setzer.

Rockabilly is rock and roll in one of its earliest forms. Combining old-school country music along with rhythm and blues and a lot of attitude, rockabilly first became popular in the early 1950s. Somewhat limited in the core of its scope, other influences quickly merged with rockabilly, morphing away from the earliest style of rock and roll. This left rockabilly regarded as nothing more than an oldies piece of musical nostalgia.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s some bands tried to revitalize rockabilly by infusing a little punk rock attitude into it. None were more successful than Stray Cats. Brian Setzer was the lead guitarist for the Stray Cats and not only did he have the persona to bring attention to the band, his guitar playing demanded you to listen. Setzer could keep pace with, and even outplay any of the hard rock and metal shredders around then…and now. It just wasn’t as noticable because his solos were played on a hollow bodied Gretsch guitar with a semi-twangy tone instead of an overdriven solid body electric. It was that guitar virtuosity helped the Stray Cats stand out and turn rockabilly into something new in the 1980s, making it more than just nostalgic oldies. It also helped their US debut sell over a million copies.

The Rockets – Rocket Roll

The Rockets threw everything they had into “Rocket Roll” in a final attempt to become something beyond just local Detroit favorites. The band led by three local legends, Jim McCarty (guitar), John “Bee” Badanjek (drums) and Dave Gilbert (lead vocals) had experienced just a taste of that fame with their eponymous major label debut. But when its follow-up, “No Ballads” failed to do as well nationally followed by their record label, RSO Records going defunct, they never regained the national traction they had in the beginning, even after signing a major label deal with Electra Records.

Although “Rocket Roll” failed to gain the national success of The Rockets’ debut, it became one of the band’s most popular records around the Motor City. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, I think it is their best of their six studio albums.

Even though they were trying to break onto the national scene, The Rockets alway believed in holding on to their Detroit roots. Had they hit it big nationally, like Bob Seger, they would not have abandoned their hometown, but would have tried to bring attention to it. The Rockets were putting everything they had into Rocket Roll in one last effort to become, like Seger, a headlining national act. At the same time they chose to open up side two of their make or break album with “Born in Detroit” an homage to their hometown and their fans.

“Born in the city
The city where they make the cars
Born in Detroit
You know I’m gonna be a star
Hey Motor City
Love me for what you are”

Box Of Frogs

What would the Yardbirds have been without either Clapton, Beck, or Page on lead guitar? Well, in 1984, they were known as “Box of Frogs”.

In the 1960’s, the Yardbirds were at their core, Jim McCarty on drums, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, and Paul Samwell-Smith on bass – and they had a knack for picking awesome lead guitarists. Unforfortunately those lead guitarists had a knack for pursuing solo careers. First Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck. By the time Jimmy Page joined for their third go-round, the founding members decided to call it quits. In the wake, Jimi Page went on to form Led Zeppelin, which he nearly called “The New Yardbirds” (but that’s another story).

Perhaps realizing that great music is not created by lead guitarists alone, McCarty, Dreja, and Samwell-Smith regrouped in the ’80s along with guitarist and vocallist John Fiddler, rebranding themselves on their self titled album as “Box of Frogs”.

Perhaps realizing that this was magic in the re-making, they were joined on some songs by Beck and Page. Sure, Clapton didn’t participate in the reunion, but Rory Gallagher jumped in on a couple; even better, in my humble opinion.

The McCoys – Hang On Sloopy

Rick Derringer is one of the most respected blues rock guitarists from the 1970s. In addition to his solo work, including the hit “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo”, he also lent his six string talents to the bands of brothers Edgar and Johnny Winter and on tour and in the studio with numerous acts. But his first gig was along with his brother Randy (on drums) in The McCoys.

When Derringer became successful in the ’70s, most people probably never made the connection back to The McCoys. Most of their songs, like the title track from their debut album “Hang On Sloopy” were 1960s pop. But their deeper tracks show quick glimpses of what Rick Derringer would unleash years later. I especially love the cover of T-Bone Walker’s blues classic “Call it Stormy Monday” which closes this album out.

But it’s not only the pop style that would have most people miss the connection between blues rock guitarist Rick Derringer and The McCoys. The biggest reason is that when he and brother Randy played in The McCoys, they used their real surname, Zehringer. Going into the ’70s, Rick changed his performing name to something with more of a rock and roll feel to it.

Tomato, tomahto.
Derringer, Zehringer.
Still great, no matter how you say it.

Joe Cocker!

There are singers, and there are interpreters.

Interpreters are a rare breed of singers. Interpreters don’t need to write their own songs, although they do on occasion; they make any song they sing their own. Interpreters can choose a song that you think could never be done by anyone except the band that first wrote, performed, and made it popular, and turn it into something totally original. They make it unforgettably their own.

Joe Cocker is an interpreter.

The Frost – Rock And Roll Music

Of all the Detroit bands that were ever poised to hit the national spotlight but remained hidden in the shadows from fame, The Frost were grandest.

Back in the ’60s through the ’90s, before the age of streaming, making it in the music industry meant signing a deal with a record label. More importantly, it meant signing a record deal with the right record label. Unfortunately, for The Frost, Vanguard was not the right label. Vanguard abandoned them with virtually no promotion for their albums. While their Detroit contemporaries at the time like Bob Seger, The MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, gained national fame, The Frost achieved a legendary status in Detroit and throughout Michigan, but remained relatively unknown anywhere else.

Except for Dick Wagner.

Dick Wagner was the lead guitarist, vocalist, and one of the chief songwriters for The Frost. He went on to work with Kiss, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and many others in rock and roll in the 1970s and ’80s. Dick Wagner’s influence has become legendary far beyond Detroit.

“Rock and Roll Music” encapsulates what The Frost’s music was all about. Hard rock, psychedelia, and blues. Half of the album was recorded in Vanguard’s studios in New York, and half was recorded live at the legendary Grande Ballroom in Detroit. The studio material is good, but it’s the live performances here that really make this album stand out. The Frost were first and foremost, a live band.

Even though The Frost never saw the national fame of their contemporaries, that didn’t stop them from becoming highly influential to many national acts that came after them. Today, “Rock and Roll Music” is highly sought by record collectors across the U.S. and even overseas.

The Pretty Reckless – Who You Selling For

Although I like the music I grew up with, I sometimes get tired of what’s familiar to my ears.

The Pretty Reckless are a band that impressed me from the first time I heard them. I discovered them because the daughter of my best friend is really into them. Even though I had only heard one song from their third album, “Who You Selling For”, which I thought was one of their best songs, I was familiar with both of their previous albums. Quite frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t picked one of them up at some point by now. But rather than buying one of their earlier records, I decided to take a chance on “Who You Selling For”.

Even more so than the two previous albums by The Pretty Reckless, “Who You Selling For” is a modern take on old school blues-based hard rock riffs. One unexpected surprise I found when reading the cover and liner notes is that the closing track on side two, “Back to the River”, features Warren Haynes (The Allman Brothers, Govt. Mule) who is one of my favorite blues/rock guitarists.

Part of what makes The Pretty Reckless such a good band is frontwoman Taylor Momsen. Depending on the song, her always powerful voice ranges everywhere between sultry and seductive to snarling, growling aggression. Not only a talented singer, she has also had successful careers as a model and actress (one of her first roles was playing Cindy Lou Who in the 2000 movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”). Momsen also cowrote all the songs on the album along with the band’s guitarist, Ben Phillips.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland

I have a bit of extra time this morning before work, so I figured I’d put on a double album. Not just any double album, but one of the heavy hitters of rock and roll; a double album that anyone who loves rock and roll needs to listen to before they die.

With its combination of rock, blues, jazz, funk, and psychedelia, “Electric Ladyland” had numerous hit songs for The Jimi Hendricks Experience including their most successful song, “All Along the Watchtower”, a cover version of a Bob Dylan song. Bob Dylan also had a hit earlier with his folk oriented version of the song.

Jimi Hendrix was very much known for being a perfectionist in the studio. With the recording of “Electric Ladyland” Chaz Chandler became so frustrated with the multiple takes Hendrix was demanding (drummer Mitch Mitchell reportedly recorded at least 50 takes for one of the songs) the producer of The Experience’s previous records quit near the beginning of the “Electric Ladyland” sessions, prompting Hendrix produce the album himself. Hendrix’s perfectionism obviously paid off, as this third and final album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience was their most successful record.

Because of the cost and hassle of booking studio time for all the takes Hendrix demanded during the recording of Electric Ladyland, Hendrix decided to build his own recording studio of the same name afterwards. Unfortunately, Hendrix would record only one song at the Electric Ladyland studio – the short but sweet instrumental “Slow Blues” – before his untimely death in 1970. The song remained unreleased until its inclusion in a retrospective Jimi Hendrix Experience box set that was released in 2000.

The Faces – A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse

Rock and roll that’s raw, rowdy and played with plenty of swagger, that pretty much sums up the Faces third album; their first with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ron Wood on guitar. No discredit meant to the other band members, but it was the addition of Ron Wood’s guitar that really gave “A Nod is as Good as a Wink…” that distinct raw and rowdy sound and Rod Stewart who brought the swagger. There was no way this album could have missed in the early ’70s.

“A Nod is as Good as a Wink…” is one of those albums that needs to be listened to cranked up…at least just a little…even if everyone else in the house is sleeping. It’s for albums like this that I made it a point to put my main sound system in a very well sound isolated room in my basement.

Time to rock.

The Rockets – No Ballads

The Rockets were a Detroit band from the late ’70s that most Detroiters at the time felt were destined for national stardom. For some reason that success eluded them.

Detroit was a hotbed for rock and roll in vinyl’s golden era. Many bands from in and around the city went on to achieve national and even international success. The ’60s brought noteriety to bands like the MC5, Iggy (Pop) and the Stooges, The Amboy Dukes and Mitch Ryder. And of course, you can’t forget all the soulful Motown groups who topped the record charts in the ’60s, going into the ’70s.

Bob Seger, and Alice Cooper were also local Detroit favorites in the late ’60s whose popularity exploded nationally in the following decade. The 1970s also saw Grand Funk, Brownsville Station, Ted Nugent (who left the Amboy Dukes), Suzi Quatro, and the Romantics break onto the national music scene.

The Rockets, featuring former members of the Amboy Dukes and Mitch Ryder’s band, The Detroit Wheels, had a hard-edged blues rock sound that was immediately recognizable and made them one of the most popular bands on the local scene. Their locally distributed debut, “Love Transfusion” came out in 1977. It’s local popularity immediately earned them a major label record deal with RSO records, putting them on the same label as British blues rock legend Eric Clapton. Despite little promotion, their first album on RSO scored them two minor national hits, “Oh Well” a gritty version of an old Fleetwood Mac song, and the title track off the album, “Turn Up the Radio”.
It seemed national noteriety was just over the horizon for them with their follow-up album.

When “No Ballads” came out, radio stations immediately picked up on the songs “Desire”, “Takin’ It Back” and a cover of Lou Reed’s “Sally Can’t Dance” making the album even more successful than their previous one … well, in Detroit anyway. RSO was having financial problems and did nothing to promote the record. With the lack of airplay on radio stations outside of Michigan and a national audience only vaguely familiar with who the Rockets were, “No Ballads” pretty much fizzled nationally. RSO eventually went defunct, leaving the Rockets without a national record label. They were picked up by Electra Records, but any momentum they had was stalled. They released three more albums after “No Ballads” that also did well in and around Detroit, but failed to gain any traction nationally.

I have all six albums by the Rockets in my collection and always will. To this day, they remain one of my all-time favorite bands. I alway feel a touch of melancholy when I listen to any of their records because I am reminded of how great their music is and how much more success they deserved.