Squeeze – Sweets From A Stranger

Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook are the new wave rock equivalents of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Before you jump on me about that comparison, you should know that I am not the first, nor the second, nor even the third to make such a statement. Better yet, listen to the early albums by Squeeze; you just might agree. These guys could write quality pop songs together that were leaps and bounds beyond anything being done in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Considered part of the second British Invasion, Squeeze never experienced the greater success they had back home in England; most in the U.S. may remember a couple of their hits like “Tempted” and “Black Coffee in Bed” but probably don’t even remember who did those songs. I seriously urge anyone who remembers those songs to listen to any of the first five Squeeze albums (you’ll find “Black Coffee in Bed” on “Sweets From a Stranger” and “Tempted” on their previous record “East Side Story”). Really though, even if those two songs don’t ring a bell; if you just like quality pop songs with a perfect blend of originality, innovation, and commercial accessibility, you can’t go wrong with the songwriting duo of Difford and Tilbrook – the new wave equivalents of Lennon and McCartney.

Pink Floyd – Meddle

One of the important things I learned from Pink Floyd is if you want to discover a great album by a band, listen to the one they released just before their big breakthrough.

I had never heard anything off of “Meddle” when I first bought it. Well, at least I thought I hadn’t. I was actually hoping to find the album that had a Pink Floyd instrumental I had heard only a couple of times but absolutely dug. The problem is if you never catch the radio jock announcing the name of an instrumental, how do you know the song’s name? (Note to young people, these were primitive times; before cell phones, the Internet, and even home computers. Hell, we thought digital were cool.) What I never caught until I bought “Meddle” though, was the spoken words somewhat buried in the instrumental – 13 words to be exact. Four of them are “One of These Days”.

By the time I bought ‘Meddle”, I already owned and loved “The Wall”, “Animals”, “Wish You Were Here”, and “Dark Side of the Moon”. Trying to find that elusive instrumental, I delved to Pink Floyd’s earlier catalog. They had already released my four favorite albums to that point, so I didn’t feel much risk in buying one by them that I had never heard. The one just prior to DSotM seemed the natural choice to make. Not only did I find the ever elusive instrumental I was searching for, I also found my fifth favorite album at the time.

“Fearless”, with its addictive riff that rises up and then drops off, the laid back coastal feel of “San Tropez” and the genius of letting your dog howl the melody over blues chords in “Seamus” (that’s the dog) were some of the other ear candy I would discover on side one of “Meddle”. Side two is all one song: “Echoes”, a near 24 minute masterpiece of sonic ambience, experimentalism, and musicianship. With its distinct single opening grand piano note amped through a Leslie speaker, it near instantly became one of my all-time favorite Pink Floyd songs. It still is today, just as “Meddle” is still one of my favorite albums ever. Just as it always will be.

Ten Years After – Ssssh

Released just before guitarist Alvin Lee’s blistering performance at the original Woodstock festival in 1969, “Ssssh” is blues rock at its absolute best. The band set out to capture something close to their live sound in the studio. While less elaborate than their previous album “Stonehenge” (which Alvin Lee admits was Ten Years After showing off what they could do in the studio) it is no less ambitious.

Most of the songs here are blues rock scorchers. That’s what Ten Years After did best, which they proved at Woodstock. On “Ssssh” Alvin Lee proved what an amazing talent he was on six strings and Ten Years After proved what an incredible band they were, be it live or in the studio.

BusBoys – Minimum Wage Rock & Roll

The 1980’s owe a round of thanks to Comedian Eddie Murphy; not just for the laughs, but also for going out of his way to promote the BusBoys. In 1982 Murphy was staring with Nick Nolte in the hit movie “48 Hours”. Around this time, he had heard the BusBoys and seen them play live. They instantly became one of his favorite bands. Murphy made it a point to have the new wave band’s music included in the soundtrack to his new movie and got them a cameo in the film, playing on stage during a bar scene. He also had them open for him on his “Delirious” comedy tour and appear as musical guests on “Saturday Night Live”.

The BusBoys are one of the most overlooked new wave bands from the ’80s. Being one of the only primarily African-American new wave bands (drummer Steve Felix was white) their music was not surprisingly infused with R&B and soul. Still, the BusBoys sound was anything but typical for what was expected from black musicians in the ’80s. Was this because of stereotypes? Yes. Racism? To a degree. And the BusBoys often took this head-on with a satirical spin that slapped it right in rock and roll’s mostly white face. Like any good satire there was as much humor as there was truth in their lyrics.

Maybe this was too much for some people to digest. I don’t know. All I know is the BusBoys’ debut is one of the best new wave albums from the ’80s. It deserved so much more success than it received. At times, the album made you laugh, sometimes it made you think about the unjust reality of stereotypes and racism. But mostly, it made you just want to rock and roll.

Van Halen – 5150

Or should I say Van Hagar?

One of the great debates in rock and roll is which era of Van Halen was better. In one corner, there’s those who think the flash and pompous party attitude of original lead singer David Lee Roth can never be beat. On the flip side is the camp that supports the slightly more serious approach Sammy Hagar brought to Van Halen.

5150 was the worlds introduction to Van Hagar, as many fans respectfully came to refer to the second iteration of the hard rock metal pioneers. Starting out in Montrose and already having established a successful solo career, the addition of Sammy kind of turned Van Halen into a supergroup of sorts. It didn’t necessarily make them the better of the two lineups, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

I’m not saying which side of the fence I’m on, mainly because it all depends on what album is on the platter. Ask me right now and I’m definitely all in for Sammy. But when it’s one of Van Halen’s first six albums spinning, I’ll totally contradict myself, so what’s the point?. I’ll rock out to either.

Heavy Metal – Soundtrack

Before graphic novels, there was Heavy Metal magazine…and the movie…and yes, the movie’s soundtrack…

I subscribed to Heavy Metal magazine in the early ’80s. It was awesome. Mature oriented, thought-provoking comics. A precursor to the ’90s graphic novel era. That’s what probably best describes it. The movie was a culmination of the most popular storylines from the magazine into continuous cinematic theme. Because of my being a regular reader of the magazine, I followed the storyline fairly seamlessly. For those occasional readers…well, I guess they had to figure it out for themselves. Oh well, their loss.

To me, the syncopation of the storylines was one of the glories of the “Heavy Metal” movie. Who cares if it wasn’t a perfect melding. It was far better than I could have ever imagined; especially given the diversity of the already established sub plots.

But this isn’t about the movie. This is about the music from it. “Heavy Metal” stands as one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Need proof? How about Sammy Hagar, Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Stevie Nicks, Journey, Grand Funk, Nazareth, Cheap Trick…need I go on? Who cares if you saw the movie or not? Just make sure you listen to the music from it.

Jimi Hendrix – Nine To The Universe

The name Jimi Hendrix needs no introduction; quite possibly the greatest rock guitarist that ever lived, his reputation is legendary.

To those who grew up around Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, the name Jim McCarty is also a name of legend, albeit local legend. Starting out in Mitch Ryder’s rocking R&B band, The Detroit Wheels in the ’60s; signing on as guitarist in The Buddy Miles Express, joining forces with drummer Carmine Apice and bassist Tim Bogert as part of the supergroup Cactus, and later forming The Rockets with Amboy Dukes vocalist Dave Gilbert and legendary Detroit drummer Johnny “the bee” Badanjek in the ’70s; and finally founding the no compromise blues/rock band Mystery Train in the ’80s, it’s no wonder McCarty’s name is so recognized around the Motor City.

The thing is, up until three years ago, I had no idea Detroit guitar legend Jim McCarty had ever played with Jimi Hendrix. Local legend joins forces with world-renowned legend Jimi Hendrix. How could I have missed this? I have to admit that at first, I was embarrassed that I had no idea this collaboration ever took place. Then again “Nine to the Universe” didn’t come out until 1980, a decade after Hendrix’s death. Plus, the collaboration is only on one of five songs on this album, appropriately called “Jimi/Jimmy Jam”. There’s  are so many great moments in rock and roll, I guess a one-off like this can easy to slip between the cracks. The bottom line is, I’m just glad to have a copy of this album, so I can listen to these two legends playing together, today.

Steven Wilson – Home Invasion: In Concert At The Royal Albert Hall

Steven Wilson is an amazing artist. I have had the pleasure of seeing him perform live three times. Twice in Detroit with his former band Porcupine Tree and once in Chicago as a solo artist. Listening to “Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall” and looking through the 32 page book that accompanies the five albums in this box set makes me wish I would have made the trip to Chicago this past May to see him a fourth time. I won’t make that mistake the next time. Although hopefully, Detroit will be on his next US tour itinerary.

“Home Invasion” clocks in at almost three hours and captures Steven Wilson’s final of three performances at the Royal Albert Hall in England in 2018. The set spans the three most impressive phases of Steven Wilson’s illustrious musical career: Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, and of course his solo material. Steven Wilson’s music is in most often described as progressive or post-prog rock. In the middle of this set, Wilson unashamedly points out that some of some of his recent stuff is pop, and that if you can’t admit that you like pop music, your’re just trying to be a music snob. I have to agree. In reality though, Steven Wilson’s music so often spans across and incorporates so many genres that it stands alone in definition.

I have the day off of work today and decided that instead of sleeping in, I would get up at my regular time, do my normal routine, and after walking the dogs, head down to the man-cave with a cup of coffee and listen to “Home Invasion” in its entirety as the storms on the horizon roll in. I can’t think of a better way to spend a rainy Friday morning.

Genesis – Live

I alway thought it strange that Genesis didn’t gain their largest fan base until two of their most prominent members had left the band. First Peter Gabriel and later Steve Hackett, both going on to lead successful solo careers in their own right.

Originally recorded for a 1973 King Biscuit Flower Hour radio broadcast that never happened, this is Genesis at their most creative, with one of the most legendary rhythm sections ever in progressive rock – Phil Collins on drums and Mike Rutherford on bass. And then there’s the Mellotron. If ever there was an instrument that defines classic rock from the ’70s, it was the Mellotron, and Tony Banks was a master of it; not to mention any other keyboard.

Yeah, come the ’80s, they might have had their greatest commercial success, but this was Genesis at their most creative, most experimental, most innovative; with their most talented line-up.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Street Survivors

Lynyrd Skynyrd will always define what a country rock band should sound like; “Street Survivors” will always be their definitive album.

Leonard Skinner was a high school gym teacher in Jacksonville Florida that had a strong dislike for the long hair some of the students at Robert E. Lee High School had. Some of them he even got suspended until they cut it. Needless to say, some students didn’t like Mr. Skinner very much. So when Steve Gaines, Ronnie Van Zant, and the other members of a recently formed local rock band were coming up with a name, they decided to mockingly pay tribute to their high school nemesis. Only they changed the spelling and pronunciation just enough to avoid any kind of lawsuit. Lynyrd Skynyrd went on to become one of the most significant forces in country rock.

Tragically, Skynyrd’s career was nearly cut short when the Convair CV-240 the band and their crew were flying in crashed en route to Louisiana, killing Gains, Van Zant and his older sister Cassie who was singing background vocals for the band. The pilot, copilot, and Skynyrd’s tour manager also died. The band had played only four dates on their concert tour supporting “Street Survivors”. Because of the tragedy, the original album cover, showing the band members engulfed by flames, was almost immediately pulled from record stores, replaced by an enlarged copy of the band’s picture on the back of the album.

“Street Survivors” was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fifth studio album. It took what the band had accomplished on their previous records to a new level. The songwriting, playing, and production are at a level nearly all bands strive for, and few will ever achieve. Street Survivors was the album that immediately propelled Lynyrd Skynyrd to superstars and country rock legends.

Amazingly, the tragedy that struck Lynyrd Skynyrd did not end the band. The surviving members regrouped in 1991 with Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny Van Zant on lead vocals. Currently on their “Last of the Street Survivors” tour, they are scheduled to play their last ever concert on August 9, 2019 in Las Vegas.