Sweet – Strung Up

I don’t know if Sweet was really the first to release a live album and best of album packaged together, but in the liner notes of “Strung Up” they more or less stake claim to that honor.

The live album was recorded on December 23, 1973 at the Rainbow Theatre in London. The set is about as hard rocking as you will hear by any band. It includes a thundering drum solo that set to rest any doubts that Mick Tucker was one of the top drummers of his time.

The studio album includes Sweet’s hits “Ballroom Blitz”, “Fox on the Run”, and “Action” (which has a shorter, non echoing ending than the original), along with other songs that had success in Europe but were relatively unknown in the United States. It also included three previously unreleased songs.

Because Sweet was much more popular in Europe than in the US, this album was never released here until it was reissued on CD a couple decades later. My vinyl copy is imported from Germany.

Jefferson Airplane – Thirty Seconds Over Winterland

This is a tale of technology, the law, and flying toasters….

What are the odds of two groups of people, totally unrelated, in totally different decades, thinking of exactly the same concept as obscure as flying toasters? Well, it happened; Not only to one of my favorite bands, but to one of my favorite comic strips as well.

I think the Jefferson Airplane are one of the greatest psychedelic rock groups ever. I also think Bloom County, is one of the most brilliant comic strip series ever. Little did I know they would both cross paths in 1993.

The Jefferson Airplane released “Thirty Seconds Over Winterland” in 1973. Recorded at the Winterland Theatre in San Francisco and the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago the album is a truly underrated recording of live psychedelic rock. The album cover – one of my all-time favorites – shows a group of winged toasters flying high above the clouds. What this had to do with the music on the record is anyone’s guess. Regardless, it’s a very cool album cover.

Jump forward two decades to 1993. Berkeley Breathed, the creator of Bloom County, Outland, and Opus, decided to create a software company, Berkley Systems, that eventually made the After Dark computer screen saver that featured … wait for it … winged flying toasters. It became one of the most popular screen savers ever. Riding on its popularity, Berkley Systems decided to come out with another computer screen saver that featured Opus, a penguin who was the primary character in Bloom County and its two spin-off comic strips, shooting down the flying toasters.

The members of Jefferson Airplane felt they had dibs on the winged flying toaster concept and sued Berkley Systems for plagiarism. Jefferson Airplane eventually lost the financial part of the lawsuit because Berkley Systems claimed to have no prior knowledge of the flying toasters on the cover of “Thirty Seconds Over Winterland”. Still, according to the terms in the settlement, the Opus screen saver had to be modified so that the toasters had helicopter blades instead of wings. Still flying toasters, but I don’t know, somehow not as cool.

Kansas – Two For The Show

“Two for the Show” by Kansas is about as perfect as a live album can get. Recorded right after their two most successful studio albums, Kansas was at the height of their popularity and were drawing huge crowds at arenas across America. Feeding off of the energy of the crowds, Kansas sound like an unstoppable progressive force that wanted nothing more than to leave the audiences in awe.

To that point, it didn’t hurt their cause that the popularity of “Leftoverture” and “Point of Know Return”, which came out just before this double album set, had gained Kansas a huge new fan base and provided them with plenty of well-known songs to play at their concerts and include here. Half of the songs on “Two for the Show” are from those albums. The other half are deep cuts from their first three albums that were meant to please their long time fans.

What really makes “Two for the Show” so exceptional though, is the playing. If there was ever any doubt, Kansas proves here that they were not just a studio band. They could perform their complex compositions just as well live; even better at times, extending solos out beyond what was in the original version. And then there’s Steve Walsh’s voice…definitely one of the most incredible vocalists ever in rock and roll.

“Two for the Show” is Kansas at their best; an album of live progressive rock perfection.

Hooters – One Way Home

When I think of underrated bands from the eighties, I think of first and foremost, the Hooters. Hailing from Philadelphia, the first two albums by the Hooters were pop/rock gems with a slick production that dripped of the ’80s. But anyone who had the good fortune to see them in concert knew this was not the true sound the Hooters represented. On “One Way Home” the Hooters captured a more rootsy, organic sound reminiscent of how they sounded live.

“One Way Home” still made use of synthesizers to create great pop hooks in a style that made their sophomore effort “Nervous Night” so successful, but they were mixed in with a wider array of other instruments. The guitar playing was grittier, especially with the solos, and there was more of a folk-rock/Americana feel to the songs. The lyrics are mostly meaningful and thought-provoking.

For reasons that elude me, “One way Home” did not fare as well in America as “Nervous Night” although it did still earn the Hooters another gold record. The album had better success in Europe, where The Hooters remain more popular today.

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.

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.

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.

Blues Brothers – Briefcase Full Of Blues

What started out as a comedy/music skit on Saturday Night Live, turned into one of the best-selling blues albums of all time.

Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi were part of the original “not ready for prime-time players” cast on Saturday Night Live when they came up with the concept of a fictitious blues band from Chicago as a way to have some fun, pay homage to their appreciation of blues, soul, and R&B, and fill a slot for a musical guest that was lacking for the show that weekend. Little did they know, it would turn into an opening slot for comedian Steve Martin on his “Wild and Crazy Guy” tour, a hit album recorded from one of the shows on that tour, and a mega-hit movie based on the fake biographies of Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues.

They were just having fun with it all; but they had a band of crack musicians backing them up (who also happened to be the SNL band at the time). That’s what really made it all come together and work so well – taking their music, but not necessarily themselves, seriously.

That’s what I think I love most about “Briefcase Full of Blues” – it taught me that you need to think seriously about, and focus on what’s most important to you, but never forget to have fun with it at the same time.

How can I not love this album?

Meet The Monkees

Did you know that The Jimi Hendrix Experience was once the opening act for The Monkees, not once, but seven times? It’s true.

I remember as a very young kid watching the monkees on TV. I used to love watching the misadventures of this rock and roll band trying to make it in the music business. It wasn’t until years later that I first heard Jimi Hendrix.

The Monkees TV show aired once a week from 1966 to 1968 and looked very different from most other TV shows at the time. The scenes were typically edited in short clips that cut from one camera angle to another quickly. This was most evident during the selected song the band performed in each episode. Although it was not a style that was used by any TV shows that followed it, the video style became a precursor to many of the first wave of music videos on MTV in the ’80s.

Many people thought back then that the Monkeys on TV were merely actors and none of them could really play their instruments. That wasn’t true. Both Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork could play multiple stringed instruments, Micky Dolenz could play guitar, and David Jones was an accomplished drummer. The producers felt Jones would make a better frontman, so he was handed a microphone and tambourine, and Dolenz had to learn the drums.

While it is true that The Monkeys did not play the majority of the instruments on their first record, they did play on some of it and they were more than capable to have played it all. The problem was that filming a TV show back in the ’60s – especially one as time-consuming as The Monkees was, with the complex editing and camera angles, made it impossible forthe band members to have the time to be in both the recording and filming studios. After about of year of the band protesting they were eventually given more liberty to write their own songs and play the instruments themselves.

The Monkees went on their first live tour during the final year of the show and continued to record and tour until 1971. In one of the biggest mismatches ever in the history of rock and roll, a new up and coming band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was chosen to open for the Monkees on their 1967 tour. After seven shows, it was decided that the combination was bewildering audiences and not benefiting either group, so the team-up was cancelled.

No harm, no foul … except possibly to the concert promoter who set it up.

The J. Geils Band – Sanctuary

The J. Geils Band is one of the most underrated bands in the US; except in Boston and Detroit. Boston is understandable. Geils after all, comes from that city. You always love your hometown hero. But Detroit was equally, if not more enthusiastic about The J. Geils Band’s combination of blues, rock, funk, soul, and pop from day one; and Geils loved them right back. They even at one point during an interview, referred to Detroit as their home away from home.

Geils was first and foremost, a live band. If you never saw them perform live, you have no idea what they were all about. Perhaps the album that came closest to capturing their live sound and energy in the studio was their tenth record, “Sanctuary”.

I can’t even pick a favorite song on this album. Every song is my favorite off of it. “Sanctuary” is one of those albums that, when I ignorantly thinned down my record collection, converting everything to compact disc, I never considered parting with. Yes, I eventually bought it on CD, but I was never not going to own this album.

To me personally, “Sanctuary” is memories from my ignorant teenage party days, the album I took refuge in during my early adult years when I felt down and betrayed, and the record I always pulled out when I just needed to f’ing crank it up and jam out.

Musically, it has been and will always be my “Sanctuary”.