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.

Asia

I remember picking up Asia’s debut, self titled album without ever hearing a song on it. The only thing I knew about the band was who was in it – and that was enough for me. Carl Palmer, the drummer from Emerson Lake and Palmer; Geoffrey Downes and Steve Howe, keyboardist and guitarist respectively from Yes, and John Wetton bassist and vocalist from King Crimson. For members from three of my favorite bands. 

I also remember that when I first heard Asia, I was initially, somewhat disappointed. To me, this was the supergroup to end all supergroups. And in a way it was – just not in the way I expected. This was the ’80s. This was the time of pop and polish – and reverb. Progressive rock was waning in popularity. Gone were the epics that took up an entire side of an album. Gone were the extended solos. The songs on Asia were short and concise compositions – songs designed to be hits. And there were many hits on this album. 

After repeated listenings, I learned to appreciate this album for what it was. The members of Asia, having been in some of the most successful bands in the ’70s, wanted to have a successful album. They also wanted to keep their integrity as musicians and songwriters. Mission accomplished. Asia was the marriage of  ’70s prog and ’80s pop music.

Listening to Asia’s first album now, I realize what a significant record it is. Although it has a somewhat overproduced, distinctly 1980s production style to it, which I am typically not a huge fan of, the musicianship on this album is exceptional. Typical to prog-rock, many of the songs mix loud and soft passages, tempo shifts, and interesting chord changes. Those elements were just more subtle than before, and mixed in with a bit of pop and polish – and reverb. Asia is a great album for what it was: a record that marked a turning point in rock and roll, for better or for worse.

David Bowie – Hunky Dory

If you want to discover a great album by an artist you really like…I’m talking about an album that you hardly ever hear any of the songs from it on the radio, except maybe one, but it will forever be one of your favorites by that artist….then I have a formula for you: Find their breakthrough album, and buy the album that came out just before it. I’ve used this formula many times, and have almost never been disappointed. “Hunky Dory” by David Bowie is one of the best examples of this that I can think of.

Yes, David Bowie had some hits before this album. Space Oddity, off his debut, was probably his biggest to this point. But none of is albums ever attained the success and musical respect of Ziggy Stardust and his albums that  immediately followed it. That was the first album by Bowie where I really went “WOW!” His preceding fourth album, “Hunky Dory”, was the second one.

The thing that made “Hunky Dory” so great was it found David Bowie in the first of many of his musically transitional phases. Bowie’s early albums were straightforward rock with a little folk rock thrown in at times. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs almost defined glam rock. Sandwiched right in between is “Hunky Dory”. It was the best of both worlds.

I often wonder if David Bowie was hinting at the fact that this was a transitional album for him – a sort of bridge between two defining styles. He did after all, open up the album with the song “Changes”. And there were many changes to come in David Bowie’s illustrious career. His timing with the changes he would make with his music to follow, made him seem like a musical chameleon. Though not one that adapted to things as they were, but to things that were to come, right around the corner. Hunky dory was the album that defined David Bowie as an artist who was always just one step ahead of the times.

Jeff Beck – Loud Hailer

A true artist, Jeff Beck has never been one to rest on his laurels or one who is afraid to try something new. On 2016’s “Loud Hailer,” he shows that he’s also not afraid to speak the Truth, even if it’s not an easy message to consume. This is by far, Jeff Beck’s angriest and most politically charged album.

Although his guitar tone and virtuosity is unmistakable throughout, it’s delivered over the top of hip-hop and edgy rhythms along with the equally edgy vocal stylings of Rosie Bones, who delivers the songs’ messages with a perfect combination of angst, urgency, and gentleness.

Throughout, Beck shows he has the experience to know when to hold back and keep it simple and when to tear things up, with songs that swing the listener between somber feelings of abandonment and raging anger at the state of the world today. All the while, the album never gives in to a feeling of helplessness; In the end, reminding the listener that we all have a beauty and strength within us to turn things around – if we really want to.