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.

Frank Zappa – Joe’s Garage, Act I

Like a dry Merlot wine, a hoppy IPA, or a the smokey-sweet burn of a good bourbon, “Joe’s Garage” by Frank Zappa can be an acquired taste. A three-part rock opera of sorts, it is more than anything, a social commentary about the dangers of censorship, government control, and the resulting rise of a dystopian society.

The lyrics can get crude at times, but then, Zappa is trying to push the limits on this album. Of course, musically as he always does, but also lyrically, especially in the songs “Catholic Girls”, “Crew Slut”, “Wet T-Shirt Nite”, and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”. Along with the theme of the album, as narrated by the Central Scrutinizer, Zappa seems to openly challenge government censors to just try it.

Like any Zappa album though, the true greatness here is in the playing and in the combination of styles and the structures of the songs. Sometimes the edginess and crude humor of the lyrics distract from really noticing the brilliance in what’s being played and how it’s arranged, but that just means you have to listen to it again to hear what you missed. Like I said, it’s an acquired taste.

Act I of “Joe’s Garage” came out in September of 1979. Acts II and III came out about a month later. Even though all three acts were released in a complete set in 1987, in honor of having to wait for the conclusion of the story back then, I feel like listening to the final two acts at some later date; in a month or so.

The J. Geils Band – Monkey Island

So what do you do when you signed a contract with a new record label but still owe your current label one more album? If you’re The J. Geils Band, you make a record that departs from what you’ve done before and try something new. What have you got to lose?

Even though it still sounded like The J. Geils Band, “Monkey Island” deviated heavily from the influences the band drew from on their six previous records. Perhaps to mark the departure in style, the band chose to shorten their name to simply “Geils” for “Monkey Island”. It is the only record of theirs to use this abbreviated name. It’s also the only album that they used a horn section, a group of background singers, and a string section.

Departing from the sound of their previous albums, “Monkey Island” plays more heavily on funk and soul than any other album Geils ever did before or after. They even try their hand (rather successfully) at a little doo-wop, with the song “I Do”. Although never released as a single, that song became a radio mainstay in the Detroit area, where Geils had their strongest following outside of their hometown of Boston. A live single of “I Do” would later be released from The J. Geils Band’s third and final live album, “Showtime”. Appropriately, that version was recorded at Pine Knob Music Theater near Detroit.

Although “Monkey Island” remains one of the least commercially successful albums by the J. Geils Band, probably because of it straying from what was expected from them at the time, it remains one of my favorite albums by them, for that very same reason.

Jack White – Boarding House Reach

I had a couple of friends recommend that I listen to Jack White’s latest album, “Boarding House Reach”, before deciding whether or not to buy it.

I did…

I bought it.

Some years back, Jack White relocated to Nashville, but he still holds a strong affinity to his roots in Detroit. With its deep R&B hooks, heavy production, and adventurous compositions, “Boarding House Reach” effortlessly makes a way stronger connection with Detroit than anything the Nashville music scene is known for. Overall, “Boarding House Reach” is Jack White’s most fractured album to date, having much less consistency than his previous solo records or any of his work with the White Stripes, Dead Weather, or Raconteurs. That’s why I loved it when I first heard it. The music went places White hadn’t gone before – many different places.

Like David Bowie, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and a handful of select others before him, Jack White is a true artist. True artists take risks. They make statements with their craft. They don’t give a sh!t about holding to convention or what is expected. They don’t try to do something that no one expects or might be ready for; it just happens. That is what best describes “Boarding House Reach”. It just happens.

And it just happens to be Jack White’s best album to date.

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?

Rick Derringer – All American Boy

One of the reasons I always enjoyed albums and was never big into buying just the single is a lot of albums had hidden gems on them. All-American boy, the debut solo album by Rick derringer is an album that is loaded with great songs that you would almost never hear on the radio, except for “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”.

Rick Derringer is an extremely versatile guitarist and producer who has played as either an official band member or guest musician on albums by Edgar Winter, Steely Dan, Todd Rudgren, Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Wierd Al Yankovic. He also toured guitarist with Cindy Lauper’s “True Colors” tour. It was her first headlining tour and Derringer really energized the shows.

I have to admit I chuckle a little bit every time I look at this album cover. I really don’t think Rick, or any other guitarist for that matter, can play the guitar wearing gloves. I mean he’s good, but not that good.

The Who – Live at Leeds

One of the things that always made albums cool was their size. With twelve inches of real estate to work with, there were some albums that took advantage of the size to do cool artwork. Others used it to throw in some cool extras – or in the case of The Who’s “Live at Leeds” A LOT of extras.

Almost all of the extras included with the original 1970 release of “Live at Leeds” were artifacts from The Who’s early career. Among some of the more interesting are a rejection letter from EMI Records (They were eventually signed to Decca), a sheet where they had worked out the lyrics to “My Generation”, a notice to take them to court if they didn’t pay the rental fees for some amps after their check bounced, A couple of tour schedules (one recent and one from before they were signed and were still performing under the name “The High Numbers”), a picture taken from backstage with band notes and some lyrics to their rock opera “Tommy” scribbled on the back, and the contract they signed to perform at the Woodstock festival in 1969. And there was more… But the album is about to run out so that’s all I have time to mention.

“Live at Leeds” is considered by many to be the greatest live album ever recorded. I don’t know if I’d personally place it at the top of the heap but as most Brits would have said it back then, I’d put it bloody well close.

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band – Night Moves

Bob Seger used to be known locally as Detroit’s best kept secret. By the time Seger’s ninth studio album was released, everything had fallen into place to ensure that the long kept secret was out.

On his previous studio releases, Seger had put together a top-notch group of local players to back him up. They had one of the tightest rhythm section anywhere and were the perfect match for Seger’s compositions. They were his Silver Bullet to success. The “Beautiful Loser” album grabbed the ears of music lovers across the U.S. It was followed by “Live Bullet”, which had unprecedented success for a live record by an artist who had no huge hit album to date.

Enter “Night Moves”.

“Night Moves” was the album that finally gave Bob Seger the recognition he had so long before earned. It was kind of sad, knowing the secret was finally out. But I think most of us around Detroit who grew up with Bob Seger’s music, were happy to see him finally make it.

Bob Seger was always dedicated to Detroit – and Detroit always supported him. Struggling to make it for so long, he represented to many of us the spirit in the city of Detroit – the spirit of never giving up. He was the local underdog who had finally made it. The best kept secret was out.

Phil Collins – Face Value

I remember when I first heard Phil Collins’s “Face Value” album. I remember thinking what a great album it was, which was disappointing to me. I remember being concerned that it was the end of Genesis, whom I had only recently started to get into, discovering their diverse back-catalog of progressive rock. I remember not wanting to like “Face Value” because it could mean the end of Genesis. But I remember it was impossible for me to not like it.

Genesis had already suffered the loss of Steve Hackett, their incredibly talented guitarist who had left years earlier to pursue a solo career. But Genesis continued on as a quartet. Then, a few years after that, Peter Gabriel, the front man and primary songwriter for Genesis, also left for a solo career. But Genesis continued on as a trio, with Collins taking on lead vocal and drums in the studio and leaving the comfort of sitting behind a drum kit to front the band when playing live (Bill Bruford, and later, Chester Thompson played drums during concerts).

But the first album by Phil Collins wasn’t the end of Genesis. Nor was his second or third. Phil Collins continued on in both his solo career and with Genesis – and that was a great thing.

The versatility Genesis had shown on all their albums was taken to the next level on “Face Value”. On it, Phil Collins incorporated influences of R&B and soul into many of the songs. He even used the horn section from funk masters Earth Wind and Fire on some of the tracks.

And then of course, there’s the moody song about the anguish and anger felt with the betrayal of love. “In The Air Tonight” was a song Collins wrote after his wife left him. Oh lord, what a great song.

Oh lord, what a great album.

The Clash – London Calling

When The Clash released their third album, “London Calling”, Did they abandon their punk rock roots or open the genre up to greater possibilities?

Punk rock started as a response to the more experimental and extravagant styles that had become commonplace with rock music in the late ’70s. When The Clash and other punk bands arose on the scene, they rebelled with rock music that was raw and stripped down to its very basic core.

Unlike The Clash’s first two albums, “London Calling” was anything but stripped down and basic. The Clash took influences from ska, reggae, R&B, rockabilly, lounge jazz and Celtic music, to create what many consider to be their best album. It surely is one that few will dispute was as groundbreaking as it was influential.

But the question remains: With “London Calling”, did The Clash abandon or expand the definition of punk rock?

It’s been at least a couple of decades since I have listened to “London Calling” in its entirety. I had the album a long time ago but got rid of it, along with a lot of other albums I now regret parting with. My intent was to replace my vinyl copy with one on compact disc. The problem was, that never happened. So, this year I asked Santa for it for Christmas, and guess what? Santa came through!

I don’t know what my answer would have been when I first listened to “London Calling” all those years ago. But listening to in its entirety now, for the first time in decades, the answer is perfectly clear and obvious to me.

With “London Calling” did The Clash abandon their punk rock roots or did they expand on the genre?

The answer is “yes.”