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.

Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

A vague story of self discovery, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” was the last album done by the original lineup of Genesis. Peter Gabriel, who authored the concept behind the double album, would leave Genesis shortly after its release. Lead guitarist Steve Hackett would leave a couple of albums later.

Gabriel’s departure didn’t come as a total surprise to the band. There were tensions brewing going into the recording sessions and they escalated before the record’s completion. Peter Gabriel felt he was being held back creatively and the other band members felt they weren’t being allowed enough creative input. In short, the split was unavoidable and amicable.

Unlike many band splits, this breakup was actually a good thing for both parties. Peter Gabriel would go on to release several critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums and Genesis would achieve their greatest critical and commercial success without him. Plus, as is almost always the case when there are creative struggles within a band, the album that came from the turmoiled recording sessions was phenomenal.

It would be impossible for me to pick my favorite Genesis album. There is a noticeable distinction between their different eras, and each of the eras offer something unique. But if I had to recommend one album from the original lineup of Genesis – well, that’s easy – it would be “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”.

Queen – Live Killers

It’s kind of strange that when I first heard “Live Killers” by Queen I was disappointed, yet today it’s one of my favorite live albums. I think my problem back then, was that I was expecting carbon copies of what Queen had done in the studio played in front of an audience. That was not Queen’s intent for their first official live album. Like any exceptional live album, the purpose of “Live Killers” was to capture the energy, excitement, and atmosphere of Queen in concert; in that respect, this album kills it.

There are a couple sing alongs with the audience, a sit down acoustic set, lots of extended solos, and audience interaction; lots of audience interaction. Queen was a band that was all about performing. Whether it be in the studio or live on stage, they always strived to create something unique and original. And that’s what makes “Live Killers” so good. It is as original as Queen themselves.

I think that’s really why I had reservations about ” Live Killers” at first. I was expecting it to be a typical live album by a band. I should have known better. Queen is anything but a typical rock band. Why would I expect “Live Killers” to be anything like a typical live album?

Rory Gallagher – Deuce

Although he recorded 14 albums that collectively sold over 30 million copies from 1970 into the ’90s, Rory Gallagher is not as well known of a blues rock guitarist as many of its contemporaries. Those who know of him though always rank him up there with the best of the best.

Deuce was Rory Gallagher’s second album. It had a freer feel than his debut from a year earlier. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the songs were recorded live in the studio versus being multitracked. The songs sound spontaneous and the solos in have an on-the-spot, improvised quality to them. It’s a style that fits the Irish rocker’s playing style perfectly.

I discovered Rory Gallagher rather late in his career; in the mid ’90s. I was growing tired of a lot of the pop music, grunge, and hairbands at that time. Even country music, which I enjoy from time to time, was becoming too commercialized for my taste. My listening preference started aligning more with traditional blues-rock from the ’70s, and I started looking for artists that I might have overlooked a decade or two earlier. I became a huge Rory Gallagher fan the very first time I heard him.

I’ve always felt that blues-rock is a style of music that is best performed live. This, combined with my high regard for Rory Gallagher’s playing, make me regret that I never got a chance to see him perform in concert before his too early passing in 1995.

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.

R.E.O. Speedwagon – R.E.O. T.W.O.

As the name implies, “R.E O. T.W.O.” was R.E.O. Speedwagon’s second album. It was also the first with lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and contributing songwriter Kevin Cronin.

Although their 1972 sophomore effort didn’t have any hit singles and had lackluster sales at first, it still made a mark for the band. Five of its eight songs would make it onto their 1977 live album “You Get What You Play For”, which marked the beginning of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s phenomenal success. That live album also sparked an interest in the band’s back catalog which propelled the sales of “R.E.0. T.W.O.” to eventually go gold.

Although there are many, T.W.O. of my favorite highlights from this album are R.E.O.’s recruiting of legendary sax player Boots Randolph (best known for his song “Yakety Sax” which became the theme song to “The Benny Hill Show”) to augment their sound on the Chuck Berry cover “Little Queenie”, and the politically charged “Golden Country”. That last song, with its extended guitar soloing by lead guitarist Gary Richrath and great keys by Neal Doughty (one of the most underappreciated keyboardists in rock and roll in my opinion) make it the perfect closer to one of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s best albums.

Rush – All The World’s A Stage

Oh won’t you please welcome all, RUSH! And so begins one of my all-time favorite live albums.

I’m not going to say it’s the best live album ever, because that’s subjective. And, quite honestly this is a live album that’s not for the faint of heart. Geddy Lee’s vocals, especially in Rush’s early music, could be an acquired taste. His voice was perhaps my only reservation when I first heard “All the World’s a Stage”, which was my introduction to Rush. But after a while I began to really like it.

It was in the locker room after gym class in 8th or 9th grade when one of my classmates noticed that I had an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer tape with me. He asked if I like Carl Palmer’s drumming. Well, of course I did. He said he had something he wanted me to listen to. At the next gym class, he brought me in a copy of “All the World’s a Stage”. Without a doubt, Neil Peart’s drum solo on “Working Man / Finding My Way” is, and forever will be, the biggest highlight on this album for me. And for good reason – there are few who will argue against it being the best rock drum solo ever recorded. … EVER!

But a drum solo does not a record make. Nay, it was the rest of the musicianship and the arrangements on that make this recording iconic. Peart’s drum solo was just the icing on the cake.

Rush was one of the few bands that can claim to have introduced a whole new genre of music – at least until you get into the 90s in the new millennia. Progressive metal did not exist before Rush. Maybe it would have been introduced by some other band, had Rush not taken the bull by the horns. But no other band did. At least not in this universe. I am forever grateful to my friend in junior high school who introduced me to Rush; a band that has become one of my favorite bands of all time. A band that opened my ears to realms of new musical possibilities.