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.

The Edgar Winter Group – They Only Come Out At Night

Edgar Winter was an amazingly talented composer and musician. I found myself being reminded of this when I heard the instrumental “Frankenstein” on the radio the other day. Of course, I had to cue up the album when I got home.

It’s funny, but sometimes when you hear a song all the time on the radio you stop really listening to it because you’re always hearing it. That was the case with me and The Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein”. For some reason, when I heard it that time, for the first time in a long time, I listened to it again. It was like running into an old, long-lost friend.

“Frankenstein” is truly an amazing song and a very groundbreaking one when it came out. One of the most amazing parts of “Frankenstein” is the duet between drummer Chuck Ruff and Edgar Winter on the synthesizer. At its crescendo, Edgar Winter is twisting and turning the knobs for the oscillators on the synth to keep perfect pitch and synchronization with the drums. At times they seem like one instrument, but there’s just enough deviation to remind you that you’re listening to a duet, not a solo. Plus, synthesized drums really didn’t exist in that capacity back then.

But one song does not make a great album, and “They Only Come Out at Night” with its variety of styles ranging from the melodic pop of “Autumn” to the island sounds of “Alta Mira” to blues rockers like “Undercover Man” to the party tunes “Rock ‘n’ Roll Boogie Woogie Blues” to “We all Had a Really Good Time” to the hard rocking other big hit off the album, “Free Ride”, this is a great album that is always ready to be played when I need something to get me moving.

Oh, and speaking of “Free Ride” I feel it necessary to point out to my fellow Detroit rockers who may not be aware, that the drummer on that song is none other than John “The Bee” Badanajek from The Rockets and Mitch Ryder fame.

The J. Geils Band – Bloodshot (original red vinyl)

I said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: Colored vinyl is cool. It’s even cooler when it’s of one of your favorite albums by one of your favorite bands.

Only the first pressings of The J. Geils Band’s third album, “Bloodshot” were released on transparent red vinyl. The band also chose to have Atlantic use a red and black version of their older style label instead of their current one.

Released in 1973, “Bloodshot” was The J. Geils Band’s most successful album until they released “Freeze Frame” in 1981. The album became so popular among J. Geils fans that five of its nine songs were included on the band’s 1976 live double album “Blow Your Face Out”.

With the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl “Bloodshot” was reissued by Real Gone Music in 2015. Appropriately, they did the first pressings of it on red vinyl and got permission to use the same red and black Atlantic labels on all the pressings. The one thing I think they may have missed though, is the hidden message engraved on the run-out of side 2 on the original red vinyl: “Nice to see your face in the place”.

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?

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.

Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells A Story

Rod Stewart was still singing with The Faces when he released his third solo album “Every Picture Tells A Story” in 1971. Even though Stewart had his own band for the album, all of the members of The Faces play at some part on the record. The most prominent is Ron Wood, whose guitar playing really sets an overall feeling throughout much of the album.

This album is considered by many, myself included, to be Rod Stewart’s finest hour. There are so many great songs on “Every Picture Tells a Story” that For most people, it would be hard to list a favorite. “Mandolin Wind”, (Find a) Reason to Believe”, “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, “That’s All Right”, “Maggie May”, and of course the title song to the album all top the list of Rod Stewart’s best songs of his entire career, let alone from this album.

Although a few of the songs here are covers of previous hits by other bands, the versions Rod Stewart does on this “Every Picture Tells A Story” are far from the style of the originals. Probably the most notable was the rearrangement of The Temptations’ Motown classic “(I Know) I’m Losing You”. The version here is hard rocking with a funk groove that closes with some incredible drumming by Kenny Jones from The Faces.

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.