Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ‘n Roll

I knew I had heard Joan Jett somewhere before when “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” became her breakthrough single and album. The Internet wasn’t around back in 1981, so it took me a while to realize that along with metal rocker, Lita Ford, she was previously in the all female punk band The Runaways, best known for their minor hit “Cherry Bomb”.

Joan Jett took the punk rock edge from The Runaways and gave it just enough polish to make one of greatest albums from the ’80s. With its perfect blend of of amped up covers and power chord originals, “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” was an album that really couldn’t miss. It also has one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Perfectly capturing Joan Jett’s slicked back bad and reputation sides, photographer Mick Rock said he had set out to capture something memorable, in the vein of a female Elvis. Well done Mick.

Gentle Giant – Three Friends

The story of three childhood friends and the very different paths their lives take after going their separate ways; falling out of touch with each other in adulthood. That’s the concept behind Gentle Giants eclectic 1972 progressive rock showcase.

One becomes part of the blue-collar working class. He feels trapped in a dead-end job living paycheck to paycheck. Another becomes a starving artist. Answering to no one but himself and expressing the good and hidden evil he sees in the world through his paintbrush. The third becomes a successful businessman. With his trophy wife and materialistic lifestyle he looks uses people to his own ends and looks down on the on the lazy working class and unambitious artists.

It’s not a deep concept, but it’s one that can be easily combined with different musical themes that make for a diverse combination of intricately complex arrangements which is what Gentle Giant’s music is all about.

Alice Cooper – Zipper Catches Skin

The early 80s were kind of a rough time for Alice Cooper. Even though flashy hair metal had become a popular sound, so had new wave music. The former would have been the path of least resistance for the theatrical shock rocker, but Cooper chose the more drastic transition. “Zipper Catches Skin” was the third album of four in Alice Cooper’s new wave era. Unfortunately, long time fans weren’t buying into his new sound and image and he didn’t gain many new ones from the new wave crowd. Consequently, Alice Cooper’s popularity took a big hit during the early and mid ’80s.

Alice Cooper was also battling a very personal issue during the early 1980s – addiction. Cooper had spent time in a sanitarium in the mid ’70s for treatment of alcoholism. The experience became the inspiration for his 1978 album, “From the Inside“. Tragically, he fell off the wagon a few years after recording that album. In the new decade, his addiction took over with a vengeance as he dove into heavy cocaine use combined with alcohol. He went into treatment a second time after the disease nearly killed him. Today, the long-time sober Alice refers to “Zipper Catches Skin” and his other records from the early ’80s as his “blackout” albums because he has little to no memory of writing or recording them.

Like many, I totally wrote off Alice Cooper’s new wave era; at least at first. I actually didn’t realize how good his music was from this era until I happened to hear a couple of songs from it a decade or so later. Today, these albums are some of my favorites by Alice, partly because they are so different from anything he did before or since, yet they are still, unquestionably Alice.

“Zipper Catches Skin” is the sound of Alice Cooper trying to find a creative outlet in a rapidly changing musical landscape. It may have been a commercial misstep, but it was also an adventurous musical expression of a true artist. I just wish he could remember doing it.

Johnny Cash – Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous

Although it may sound like the title of a greatest hits record, “Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous” is not. It is only the second album by Johnny Cash, released in 1958. “Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous” is a collection of the songs Johnny Cash was famous for performing live; the songs that got him signed to the infamous Sun record label. Johnny Cash went on to become a legend in country music and a huge influence in both country and rock and roll. His songs are still revered today as some of the greatest songs ever recorded.

A biopic movie of Cash’s early life “Walk the Line” was released in 2005. Although the movie portrays the song “I Walk the Line” – Cash’s biggest hit off of this album – to have been written about his future wife of 35 years (until his death in 2003) it was actually written as an ode to his first wife, Vivian.

Boston – Third Stage

I remember waiting such a long time for Boston’s third album to come out. In between when “Don’t Look Back” and “Third Stage” were released, I had graduated from high school, moved to Tennessee, served in the US Army as an air traffic controller, moved back home, met and lost who I thought was the girl of my dreams, enrolled in college, worked as a Zamboni driver, janitor, and courier, got hired by General Motors as a factory rat, and moved into an upper flat on Detroit’s east side.

Okay, that’s a lot to have going on in six years. Even so, six years is a long time between albums – especially for a band as popular as Boston. Apparently a flood and several power failures in Tom Scholz’s home studio had something to do with the delay. I’m sure his perfectionist attitude toward Boston’s sound had something to do with it as well.

Tom Scholz’s attention to the finest of details is what made “Third Stage” totally worth the wait though. That, and it being a collection of great songs. In Scholz’s own words, each individual song “relates a human experience” and collectively they “tell the story of a journey into life’s Third Stage”.

Of those songs, Amanda is perhaps the most beautiful arrangement Boston ever did. “Cool the Engines” is possibly the most rocking. But best of all, all the songs on “Third Stage” are unmistakably Boston.

Yeah, a lot had happened and a lot of time had passed in between Boston’s second and third album. But all things considered, it was well worth the wait.

John Cougar – American Fool

American Fool was the album that really sold me big time on John Cougar’s music. The thing is, I almost didn’t buy it because of the crappy two star review Rolling Stone magazine gave it in 1982. Had it not been for an Army buddy of mine who, like John Cougar, was from Indiana, I probably would have totally written this album off. Then again, it was also at number one on the album charts for more than two months, had three hit singles and was all over the radio. I guess there was no way I was going to miss it, really.

“American Fool” was the final straw for me as far as reading negative reviews of albums. If it didn’t get at least three and a half stars or a seven out of ten mark I didn’t read it anymore. Tell me what’s good about record, not what you don’t like. That’s kind of my philosophy here. I mean, why would I keep or add an album to my collection if I didn’t like it?

Is “American Fool” a perfect album? No. But it’s damn good, and cor me, that’s close enough for rock and roll.

The Doobie Brothers – Best of the Doobies

When Michael McDonald joined The Doobie Brothers in 1975, after the departure of Tom Johnston, it significantly changed their sound. Their more straight forward R&B infused rock style was replaced by a more soul based rock sound. This was in part because of the difference in Johnston’s and McDonald’s vocal and songwriting styles and in part because McDonald played keyboards. The Doobies hardly ever used keyboards on their first five albums.

The Doobie Brothers never intended to use that name permanently. Based on one of their activities in addition to making music, they adopted it after a friend jokingly suggested it. The band thought it was a stupid name, but could never agree on anything else. When you consider that before recording their first album, they once performed under the name Pud, it’s probably a good thing they stuck with The Doobie Brothers.

A Child’s Garden of Grass (a pre-legalization comedy)

“A Child’s Garden of Grass” was a comedy album that was nearly 50 years ahead of its time. Subtitled “A Pre-legalization Comedy” it foresaw the day that occurred in my home state of Michigan this past election day and all across Canada not too long before that: the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use.

I’ll admit it. I used to smoke pot. I haven’t in decades, but I did pretty regularly back in the late ’70s (not too bright for a kid still in high school, but hey, I still got good grades). The thing is, I never saw marijuana use as any different from drinking alcohol – with one exception – it was illegal. I never felt it should be. Well, it’s not any more. This record knew that day would eventually come. Way back in 1971, it knew.

When I ran across this record a couple of weeks ago, I had to pick it up. It brought back memories relating to a book of the same name that I read back in the day (The book was subtitled “The Official Handbook for Marijuana Users”) This album is based on that book which was published a year earlier. I found the book in my high school library during my junior year. (Disclaimer: It wasn’t a book that actually belonged to the school library. I always guessed that somebody put it on the shelves as a joke, for someone to find…and guess what!) I decided to use it later as the subject for an English class book report assignment. Now that might seem a little brazen, but you see, the whole school knew I had smoked pot anyway. Students, teachers, the administration, even the janitors. (Let’s just say there was an incident during my sophomore year and leave it at that.) So I figured what the hell, let’s have some fun.

I think my general synopsis of the book was that I found it to be factually accurate but at the same time, absolutely hilarious. The same goes for this album. The one thing I will say is that I remember the book being more detailed. “A Child’s Garden of Grass”, the album, is a somewhat quirky collection of the more humorous parts of the book of the same name. But right now, it’s mostly a great trip down memory lane.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I got a ‘C’ on the book report. The teacher told me I would have gotten an ‘A’ but they marked it down because of the poor choice of subject matter.

I didn’t care. It was so worth it.

Bad Company – Desolation Angels

I picked up “Desolation Angels” when it first came out in 1979. It was the spring of my senior year in high school.

I was always drawn to Bad Company’s hard rock, blues based, soulful style of rock, yet for some reason I had always bought an album by some other artist when I went to Peaches or Harmony House, the two biggest record stores in Detroit at that time. When I first heard the song “Rock and Roll Fantasy” on the radio after school, I knew this was the next record I was going to buy.

I have many fond memories from high school and many that back then I thought I couldn’t forget too soon. As time went on I realized that the bad wasn’t nearly as extreme as I had perceived it to be. It was the good times with my closest friends that mattered. I don’t know why, but I will always associate those good times with “Desolation Angels”.

If I’m feeling down or anxious or even angry, this is one of those albums that can reel me in and make me remember what was important and made a difference in my life back then. The friends I had. The friends I am blessed to still have in my life today. There are more miles in between than there were back then, but we are still always there for each other. Until the end of my memories, they will always be the Desolation Angels that rescued me.

Maybe I’m taking the risk of being too sentimental here, but who cares? Right now, I want to Take the Time to tell them (and they know who they are) that they were, and will always be, part of my Rock and Roll Fantasy.

YOU GUYS ROCK!

ZZ Top – Eliminator

MTV was in and the popularity of blues and southern rock seemed to be waning as the 1980’s moved along. I think ZZ Top took note of that when they went into the studio to record their 8th album. “Eliminator” still sounded like ZZ Top, but with its heavier use of synthesizers and electronic drum machines it definitely had a different feel than the Texas trio’s earlier records. It was a shift in style that paid off for them big time. “Eliminator” became ZZ Top’s most successful album, selling more than 10 million copies and topping the album charts in numerous countries around the world.

And then there were the videos…

In 1983, MTV was still made its bread and butter playing music videos. The popularity of “Eliminator” was helped enormously by an unforgettable video trilogy for the songs “Gimme All Your Lovin'”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, and “Legs”. They were all over MTV back then and opened up ZZ Top up to a whole new audience, helping to the little band from Texas become one of the hugest acts of the early ’80s.