Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure

The second Roxy Music album.

I remember the first time I heard Roxy Music’s “For Your Pleasure”. Even more so, I remember hearing Brian Ferry’s ode to an inflatable doll, “In Every Home a Heartache”. I was not even a teenager at the time, so I’m not even sure if I entirely knew what the song was about, but its eerie feel and wicked psychedelic Phil Manzanera guitar solo at the end was all I needed to know the topic was rather offbeat – and I loved it, along with the rest of the record.

Actually, “For Your Pleasure” was the first time I had heard Roxy Music at all. I remember the radio station playing the album in its entirety because it had just been released and it was unlike anything I had ever heard at the time. It blew my mind every bit as much as what Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” had just a few weeks earlier, but in a totally different way. “For Your Pleasure” was more of an in-your-face experimental adventure, due mainly to Brian Eno’s creative genius on keyboards and his use of tape loops added to Chris Thomas’s edgy production. (as I would read the credits in the liner notes to numerous albums in the years following, I found Chris Thomas to be one of my all-time favorite producers).

Along with Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon”, Roxy Music’s “For Your Pleasure” dramatically shifted my musical listening habits from the pop songs being played on the local AM stations to the album oriented rock (AOR) on the FM dial; music that defined the most influential years of my life.

Alice Cooper – The Last Temptation

Alice Cooper’s music has gone through several phases. Although never afraid to try new styles, he has always been at his best when he returns to his hard rock origins, which is exactly the place he goes on 1994’s “The Last Temptation”.

Following a new wave / experimental period that left a lot of his fans shaking their head in confusion in the early ’80s, he found returned success in the latter part of the decade with albums that fit in perfectly with the hair metal of that time. But hair metal’s popularity was waning going into the ’90s.

I don’t know if Alice saw the writing on the wall or just felt like making a change, but his decision to abandon metal and make a concept album that had its music rooted in the hard rock from the ’70s produced one of his best albums ever. At times, I even refer to it as my favorite Alice Cooper album, but it’s neck and neck with a few others so that can change depending on the day of the week.

Through its ten songs, “The Last Temptation” tells a story that revolves around Steven, a character first introduced in Alice Cooper’s earlier masterpiece “Welcome to My Nightmare”. Bored with his dull life, Steven finds adventure and the promise of eternal youth when he meets the Showman, who runs a bizarre dark carnival. For a while, Steven travels down a dark path with the Showman and his entourage. But after realizing that in reality he is making a deal with the devil, Steven repents and redeems himself.

One of the things that makes this album really cool beyond the music, is that it was originally released simultaneously with 3 Marvel comic books that told the whole story in detail. Some of the original releases of “The Last Temptation” came with the first comic in the series. The others had to be bought separately. Now I’m not a comic book collector, but for these, you know I had to make an exception.

Styx – Cornerstone

Although Cornerstone, the ninth studio album by Styx, still held on somewhat to the band’s progressive rock beginnings, the shift to more pop oriented songs was obvious.  The musical landscape was in the US was changing as the 1970s merged into a new decade and Styx’s music was changing with it.  Styx seemed to almost declare the change with Borrowed Time,  which kicks off side two with Dennis DeYoung declaring “Don’t look  now, but here come the ’80s”.

Cornerstone gave Styx their first and only number one hit with Babe.  Shortly after the power-pop balkad came out, it seemed you couldn’t turn the radio for an hour without hearing it.  I have to say, I started to grow sick of the song after a while.  Listening to it now, I can again appreciate the beauty and tenderness of the song, which Dennis DeYoung wrote for his wife.

“Boat on the River” has always been one of my favorite tracks on Cornerstone.  Although it was an overlooked song in the United States, it remains Styx’s biggest hit in Europe.

Journey

When most people think of the band Journey, they think of the songs “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Open Arms”. When I think of Journey, I think of a band that had three distinct phases. Although those two songs are solid pop and classic rock songs, they sound almost nothing like Journey’s original phase.

The three phases of Journey were their progressive rock beginning, their middle Steve Perry years, and their later Jonathan Cain era. Although they are from Journey’s least successful era, I find myself listening to the band’s first three albums the most. Today, it’s Journey’s self-titled debut from 1975.

The members of Journey were exceptional musicians and that is what this and the two albums that followed it were all about. A combination of progressive rock with a touch of jazz fusion, the songs had longer instrumentals, fewer lyrics, and almost none of the vocal harmonies that became a staple of Journey’s sound once Steve Perry was in as vocalist. Also missing are the pop hooks of songs like “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Open Arms” that dominated the band’s sound once keyboardist and vocalist Gregg Rollie was replaced by his friend Jonathan Cain (from The Babys).

In their early years, Journey was all about hard rocking complex musical arrangements and intricate playing. Intense music that was meant to be intensely listened to.

Journey – Next

While most people who are familiar with the band Journey will associate their music with the incredible voice of Steve Perry, some may be surprised to learn that they released three albums before Perry joined the band.

Released in 1977, “Next” was the third and final album Journey would record before deciding to change their sound by bringing in an additional singer to front the band. This album, like the two before it, has a strong contrast to the album’s recorded with Steve Perry. In classic progressive rock style the songs on “Next” focus more on musicianship than on the vocals. If there was ever any doubt, “Next” makes it clearly obvious what great players the members of Journey were

While I have to admit that I like the later albums with Steve Perry better than Journey’s first three records, I still love listening their early stuff. It has a more aggressive style to it. Plus, I’m a sucker for extended solos an jamming. I’m glad Journey changed their sound by add-in Steve Perry. He had an amazing voice and they recorded some incredible music with him. The thing is, they recorded some greAt stuff without him too. It just didn’t become as well-known.

Roxy Music – Avalon

Even though their seven previous albums had exhibited Roxy Music as one of the most versatile groups in modern music – a band that was never afraid to explore new musical ideas – “Avalon” was a departure from anything they had done before. When I first heard it, it was like nothing like I had expected. I don’t really know what I expected.  But this wasn’t it.

“Avalon” with its ebb and flow of synths, guitars, and sax, combined with Brian Ferry’s seductive vocals is a sensual rock masterpiece. Like a good brandy or bottle of wine, the songs are simple in their initial presentation but full of complexity – and inexplicably intoxicating.

“Avalon” is an album you can crank up and jam to when you’re by yourself or hanging with friends. It’s also the perfect choice for a romantic, candle-lit evening with the one you love. It is easily, the most versatile album in Roxy Music’s catalog.

David Bowie – Aladdin Sane

“Aladdin Sane” was David Bowie’ s sixth album, following in the footsteps, yet still breaking away from it predecessor, “Ziggy Stardust”.

Bowie was far from being an unknown artist when “Ziggy Stardust” came out, but it definitely raised him to the next level of success – and raised the bar of what record buyers expected of him.  David Bowie, much like the Ziggy persona he created, had become a superstar.

Rather than trying to duplicate his  prior album, Bowie set out to make something fresh.  A new persona, Aladdin Sane was created.  And there was a significant musical shift toward avant-garde jazz on many of the songs.

When it came out, “Aladdin Sane” received praise from both critics and fans. Today, it is considered to be one of David Bowie’s best records.

John Cougar Mellancamp – Scarecrow

You would be hard pressed to find an album with more heart than “Scarecrow” by John Cougar Mellencamp.

Growing up in rural Indiana, Mellencamp went back to his roots for the songs on “Scarecrow”, taking inspiration from his the changes he saw happening to his hometown and its nearby farms. Sometimes it was proud, as in “Small Town”, and at others it was sentimental, like on  “Minutes to Memories”. But the album was most moving with the scathing picture it painted of the family farms that were unable to survive against the huge corporations on the opening song, “Rain on the Scarecrow”. Where Mellencamp sings of a heartland that had lost its heart.

The songs on “Scarecrow” struck a chord across America and it became one of Mellencamp’s most popular and memorable albums.

Shortly after the success of “Scarecrow”, Mellencamp would form “Farm Aid” along with country star Willie Nelson. The non-profit organization put on a series of benefit concerts to raise money that brought financial relief to many struggling American  farms. He remains an active advocate to rural America to this day.

Led Zeppelin – In Through The Out Door

There are many perspectives to the album cover for Led Zeppelin’s eighth studio album, “In Through the Out Door”. Six to be exact.

The album cover features a scene with a brooding guy about to burn a Dear John letter. There are six people in the barroom with him: the bartender, a blond girl at one end of the bar, a black woman at the other end, a curly-haired brunette leaning on the jukebox, a bald guy standing by a table, and a piano player. The six different versions of the cover feature a view of the brooding guy at the bar from the perspective of each of these six other people. Each cover was viewed in a sepia tone with a wiped area that revealed a small part of the scene in color.

The thing was, when you bought “In Through the Out Door” new, you never knew which cover you were going to get because they all came wrapped in a brown paper bag stamped with the band’s name and album title.

Discovering which album cover was underneath wasn’t the only surprise to be had either. Although the inner record sleeve looked like it was printed in black and white, if you wiped it with a damp cloth (or spilled a drink on it) you would discover each of the objects depicted on it were suddenly colored.

Although “In Through the Out Door” sold well overall when it came out, because of its heavier use of synthesizers, it was mixed in its reception by Zeppelin fans. Some felt it was an abandonment of the band’s heavier sounds. Others saw it as a natural progression of a band trying to keep with the times while still keeping their musical integrity.

It all depended on their perspective.

John Cougar Mellencamp – Uh-huh

Written, arranged, and recorded in a 16 day blowout, John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1983 album, “Uh-huh”, was the transitional point where his music started to have a more Americana feeling to it. On “Uh-huh” Mellencamp’s lyrics were becoming more heartfelt and personal and his music was moving away from the more pop/rock/prog leanings of his earlier records to a more organic sound. It wasn’t as pronounced as it would be on the albums that followed and which defined his later career, but it was still a noticeable shift. It was this transitional combination of styles that made “Uh-huh” one of his most popular albums, and one of my personal favorites by him.

Recorded at his home studio that he called “The Shack”, “Uh-huh” was also Mellencamp’s first album to bear his actual last name. When he started out his career, the record company refused to sign him unless he changed his last name to “Cougar” because they felt the name “Mellencamp” was simply not marketable. This is the only album where he used both names. He dropped “Cougar” all together on all his subsequent records, making his name on his seventh album as much of a transitional combination as his music on it.

I wonder if that was intentional or just a lucky coincidence.