Stray Cats – Built For Speed

In the US, the Stray Cats pretty much single-handedly revitalized the popularity of rockabilly music in the 1980s. As much as anything, the success of that revival was due to the guitar talents of Brian Setzer.

Rockabilly is rock and roll in one of its earliest forms. Combining old-school country music along with rhythm and blues and a lot of attitude, rockabilly first became popular in the early 1950s. Somewhat limited in the core of its scope, other influences quickly merged with rockabilly, morphing away from the earliest style of rock and roll. This left rockabilly regarded as nothing more than an oldies piece of musical nostalgia.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s some bands tried to revitalize rockabilly by infusing a little punk rock attitude into it. None were more successful than Stray Cats. Brian Setzer was the lead guitarist for the Stray Cats and not only did he have the persona to bring attention to the band, his guitar playing demanded you to listen. Setzer could keep pace with, and even outplay any of the hard rock and metal shredders around then…and now. It just wasn’t as noticable because his solos were played on a hollow bodied Gretsch guitar with a semi-twangy tone instead of an overdriven solid body electric. It was that guitar virtuosity helped the Stray Cats stand out and turn rockabilly into something new in the 1980s, making it more than just nostalgic oldies. It also helped their US debut sell over a million copies.

Dick Clark – 20 Years Of Rock N’ Roll

1953 to 1972. If it’s 20 years into the history of rock and roll and you want to chronicle the music year by year on a double album, you better have a recognized rock and roll authority on the cover. Maybe someone like Dick Clark.

From the fifties into the eighties, Dick Clark, a former rock and roll DJ from WFIL in Philadelphia was the host of American Bandstand. In its 37 years on the air, Bandstand helped launch or excel the careers of more rock and roll bands than probably any other single show – over 8 thousand different acts.

I picked this album up at an estate sale not too long ago. Besides being excited about finding this great compilation of early rock and roll, I was really excited find it still had the 24 page yearbook and bonus record still with it. A lot of times, the extras like these get separated from the album. The yearbook was very insightful, talking about significant events of each year and how popular music both affected and was affected by them.

The bonus record is a picture disk that has Dick Clark’s brief recollections of the numerous bands that made their first appearance on one of his shows. It’s a great insight to just how influential Dick Clark and American Bandstand were during the first 20 Years of Rock n’ Roll.

Joe Cocker!

There are singers, and there are interpreters.

Interpreters are a rare breed of singers. Interpreters don’t need to write their own songs, although they do on occasion; they make any song they sing their own. Interpreters can choose a song that you think could never be done by anyone except the band that first wrote, performed, and made it popular, and turn it into something totally original. They make it unforgettably their own.

Joe Cocker is an interpreter.

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.