The Who – Tommy

In 1969, with the release of “Tommy”, The Who set the standard for a rock opera, and they set the bar high.

I always appreciated concept albums and more especially, rock operas. There has got go be so much more involved in making a cohesive collection of songs that revolve around a singular concept; even more so for telling a specific story compared to just a collection of songs. You have to constantly try to find that balance between keeping the story interesting and understandable while keeping the songs individually understandable and, more importantly, enjoyable.

While finding that balance could seem an undaunting, nearly impossible task, The Who made it look easy with “Tommy”. The album revolves around the main character who, while very young observes an incident so traumatic it rendered him mentally blind, deaf, and dumb (for those raised before the age of political correctness, “dumb” meant “mute”). He is eventually broken out of his isolated shell, and his awakening is viewed by society as a miracle. Tommy begins to view himself as a new Messiah but he is quickly brought back to reality when his followers rebel against his authoritarianism.

One of the things that impressed me about the recording of “Tommy” is that when presented with the demos and concept, the record company wanted to have the band record it with full orchestration. But The Who refused to make the album with any instruments the four band members were not able to play themselves. For that reason, the album has a somewhat stripped down sound.

The Look – We’re Gonna Rock

There once was a time when radio stations weren’t interested in a homogenized sound, and even promoted local bands by playing them during prime listening times. That was how I discovered The Look.

After the release of their debut album, “We’re Gonna Rock” in 1981, The Look seemed poised for national, even worldwide fame. They had a national hit single with the title track from their debut album. The video for that same song was getting regular airplay on MTV, making them the first Detroit area band to be played regularly on the fledgling cable TV station. They were getting lots of local radio air time at Detroit radio stations WRIF, WABX, and WWWW (W4). And they were opening concerts for the likes of Cheap Trick, The Kinks, John Cougar Mellencamp, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, and the J. Geils Band. It looked like they were going to be the next big thing from Detroit.

Unfortunately, that never happened. Because of the shifting focus of local radio stations to have a more nationally familiar sound as they were bought up by large broadcasting conglomerates, their playlists started catering to national hits, with very little emphasis on local talent, and The Look faded away nationally after only a couple incredible albums that never achieved the recognition they were worthy of.

The Look was inducted into The Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2016. It was an honor they well deserved.

But they also deserved so much more.

The Tragically Hip – Up To Here

The Tragically Hip are one of Canada’s most successful rock bands – at least in their native country. Although they never achieved the success across the border in the US, except for some bordering cities like Detroit and Buffalo, NY. In Canada, the received numerous accolades including 16 Juno Awards. They’ve also had numerous Gold Records and several number one singles in Canada. They’ve always been one of my favorite Canadian bands. 

One of the only Radio contest I have ever won was to see meet and greet The Tragically Hip at a small recording studio, where they would perform the private concert for 50 winners and a guest as well as tickets to see them at the Palace of Auburn Hills, a large concert venue outside Detroit. I really wanted to be one of the winners in that contest but new my odds of winning were slim to none. But that didn’t stop me from trying. 

One day on my way home from work, the radio DJ announced that caller ten would be one of the winners for the contest just as I was pulling in the driveway. I figured once I got inside, I’d make the call and give it a shot. So I closed my car door, casually walked in the front door, sat my stuff down on the dining room table, picked up the phone and dialed the station. The voice on the other end said “Congratulations! You’re caller 10!”

I was absolutely astonished that I had won. The DJ gave me the details of where the recording studio was and told me I could bring along any one item for them to sign. I had just bought a cheap electric guitar at a garage sale the a few weekends prior, so I knew what I would be carrying into the studio with me, along with a silver Sharpie. That guitar proudly hangs on the wall in my man cave.

I have to say, the guys in The Tragically Hip are some of the most genuinely nicest people I have ever met. There was no rock star arrogance and a real appreciation for their fans. They are one of the few bands I know of that during their 32 years as a band, always had the same members. 

Unfortunately, a few years back Gordon Downie, their lead singer and primary lyricist, was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away in 2016. A very sad day for Canadian Rock. 

The Charlie Daniels Band – Greatest Hits

I worked in radio from the mid-eighties to the early 90s. My first radio station was a small market country station in the thumb of Michigan, WLEW. The nice thing about being a DJ at a small-market radio station is, for the most part, you get to play what you want. I played a lot of Charlie Daniels while I was there.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that knows me that I’m a rocker. To me, the Charlie Daniels Band was always the perfect combination of rock and country music. Best known for his fiddle-playing, Charlie Daniels was also an accomplished guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass player. 

As should be expected from any Greatest Hits compilation, every song on this album is exceptional. But there are definitely some standouts.

“The Legend of Wooley Swamp” is probably the least traditional country song Charlie Daniels ever did. If it weren’t for his North Carolina accent, it might not even be associated with country music. It tells the story of a swampland that’s haunted by the ghost of a greedy old man who was murdered for his money.

On the other end of the spectrum is “The South’s Gonna Do It Again”. Opening and closing with Charlie’s signature fiddle playing, it pays homage to the other country and southern rock performers that were becoming popular at that time. 

“Still in Saigon” paints a poignant picture of a solder who has returned from the Vietnam war. After surviving a brutal war, he returns home only to be tormented by his memories and finding himself hated and chastised by many of the people around him. Sadly this is an accurate depiction for many who fought in Vietnam.

“In America” is a song written following the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and the recession the American economy was dealing with at the same time. It is a patriotic and prideful song with a strong “United We Stand” message.

“Long Haired Country Boy was the first song I had ever heard by The Charlie Daniels Band. A simple song about living a simple life. Simply, one of my favorites.

“Uneasy Rider” was Charlie Daniels’ first hit single. It’s a humorous song in which Charlie’s car has a tire blowout down in a redneck town where they don’t take kindly to “long-haired hippies.” When his hair falls out from under his hat, he has to fast-talk his way out of trouble…and drive away even faster. Luckily, the tire was fixed in the nick of time.

And then there’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, which needs no introduction. It’s the CDB’s most famous song and proves that among fiddle players, he is the best of the best. 

I have had the pleasure of seeing Charlie Daniels live, in concert three times. The most memorable was in Nashville, Tennessee, at Volunteer Jam 8, a benefit concert he would put on every year. I was standing near the front of the crowd when he tossed one of his bows out into the audience. I saw it flying towards me  I reached up,  jumped just a little bit, and touched it ever so briefly as it bounced off my fingertips. 

So close.

W4 Homegrown

There once was a time when local rock radio stations were just that – local. Not part of a homogenous sounding subsidiary of a communication conglomorate. It was a time when local radio stations strongly promoted local bands – adding their music into the daily playlists along with the national acts, having special weekend radio programs that played local acts exclusively, and even coming out with compilation albums promoting those bands. In the 1970s, WWWW – or as it was more affectionately known to anyone who lived near Detroit, W4 – was one such rock radio station.

W4 Homegrown was a compilation album of bands from in and around Detroit that had appeared on the W4 Homegrown radio program which aired every Monday night on the station. This album is a reminder of the wide variety of rock music that existed in the Motor City in the 1970s. 

For a couple of the bands, the song they have on here is the only recording they would ever release. Others would release at least one album and become only local favorites before breaking up. Some, like Toby Redd, The Buzztones, Northwind, and Lady Grace, seemed to get just the slightest glimpse of the national spotlight but never really broke out of regional notoriety. The Rockets would go on to record six solid major label albums, including one live album and had three songs that broke Billboard’s top 200. They also had a national television appearance on the late night cocert program, “The Midnight Special.” But perhaps the best remembered band on this album is The Romantics. They went on to record 4 songs that broke into the Billboard charts, including “What I Like About You,” one of the most popular rock anthems of all time.

One morning, in 1980, to the shock of the station’s listeners, and even the disk jockeys that worked there, W4 changed its format from rock to country music, abruptly ending an era for a legendary Detroit radio station. One of the stations disk jockeys who was blindsided by the change was a very young upstart named Howard Stern. 

Journey – Infinity

Infinity was a turning point for Journey. Formed by three former members of Santana, they had started out as a progressive rock band, with songs that focused on rhythmic changes and virtuosity. Keyboardist Greg Rollie assumed all lead vocals. Unfortunately, more structured and formatted radio in the mid-to-late seventies was starting to make progressive rock more of a niche genre than something that was commercially viable. 

In 1978, for their fourth album, Journey decided to add a new lead singer to change their sound, making it more commercially marketable. Although they retained the foundations of progressive rock in their music, with the addition of Steve Perry as frontman, Journey’s songs became shorter and more concise, focusing more on vocal harmonies and melody, while still displaying the virtuosity possessed by the individual members.

Adding Perry as lead singer proved to be a masterstroke for the band. Infinity brought in more fans who were in-tune to popular music, without totally alienating the progressive rock fans that Journey had already established. Infinity became their breakout album. Journey would follow it up with a string of numerous multi-platinum albums and would go on to become one of the most successful bands of the ’80s.

Many people are unaware that Journey ever existed without Steve Perry as the lead vocalist and think Infinity was there first, not their fourth album.

Infinity will forever hold a special place in my memories because it was the first album I ever owned. Before that, it was strictly 8-track tapes for me.

Journey was also the first big concert I ever went to. There would be many, many more to follow.

What was your first album? 
What was your first concert?