Def Leppard – Pyromania

Although Def Leppard’s first two albums developed a solid fan base for them, it was their third album that really broke them into the mainstream. Pyromania sold over 10 million copies and hit number 2 on the Billboard charts. Many of the songs on it still receive significant airplay on rock radio stations today.

Following the release of Pyromania, drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in an automobile accident. I give the friendship the band members held for him extreme kudos for what happened afterwards. They could have sought out another drummer. Instead, they decided to have a special drum kit designed for him that made greater use of foot pedals so he could still play drums with the band. The incident is documented in the 2001 film “Hysteria – The Def Leppard Story” which was named after their fourth album. I saw Def Leppard on tour, supporting that album. Rick Allen did a drum solo that was nothing short of amazing and was one of the highlights of the concert.

When I met my wife over 25 years ago, she didn’t have nearly as many records as I did. As a matter of fact, she only had a handful. Pyromania was one of them. I would have added it to my collection but I already owned a copy of it.

Liberace – The Best of Liberace

Many people today have heard of Liberace. Most who have, know of the flamboyance of his appearance and performances. But most have never listened to his music. If you have never listened to Liberace, you owe it to your ears to do so. He was one of the most incredible pianists you will ever hear.

Liberace came into popularity in the 1950’s, when rock and roll was just forming. Rock and roll at that time was stripped down and fairly basic, built upon the foundation of black Southern blues performers. But Liberace was not rock and roll, nor did he ever try to be. I don’t think he ever tried to be anything other than what he was best at being – a virtuoso and an entertainer.

Pop, classical, and even jazz and latin, Liberace could play it better than anyone. But that style of playing didn’t fit in with rock and roll. At least not until the emergence of progressive rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Had he been born two decades later, Liberace would have been as highly regarded in the world of rock as that genre’s most notorious keyboardists. He would have been another Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. Instead, his virtuosity is resigned to the memories of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Then again, I suppose the same fate will be bestowed upon the keyboard wizards of my era. Many younger people today have only heard the names Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson – legends in the original age of vinyl.

But I know there will always be a few who will dig into the past for the music from before their time. The music that influenced their musical heroes, and their heroes. I know that if they keep digging, they will eventually discover Liberace, and when they do, I know they will be compelled to listen to it undistracted. And when the music stops and silence befalls their ears, they will utter only one word: “Wow” – because it is at that moment that they will discover and know the virtuoso that was Liberace.

John Cougar Mellencamp – Uh-huh

Written, arranged, and recorded in a 16 day blowout, John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1983 album, “Uh-huh”, was the transitional point where his music started to have a more Americana feeling to it. On “Uh-huh” Mellencamp’s lyrics were becoming more heartfelt and personal and his music was moving away from the more pop/rock/prog leanings of his earlier records to a more organic sound. It wasn’t as pronounced as it would be on the albums that followed and which defined his later career, but it was still a noticeable shift. It was this transitional combination of styles that made “Uh-huh” one of his most popular albums, and one of my personal favorites by him.

Recorded at his home studio that he called “The Shack”, “Uh-huh” was also Mellencamp’s first album to bear his actual last name. When he started out his career, the record company refused to sign him unless he changed his last name to “Cougar” because they felt the name “Mellencamp” was simply not marketable. This is the only album where he used both names. He dropped “Cougar” all together on all his subsequent records, making his name on his seventh album as much of a transitional combination as his music on it.

I wonder if that was intentional or just a lucky coincidence.

The J. Geils Band – Live! Blow Your Face Out!

“Hey Reputah! Reputah the Beautah!

You know you’re really good when you can totally screw up and still make it better than if you had gotten it right.

Case in point: the introduction to the live version of “Musta Got Lost”.

Peter Wolf, the singer to the J. Geils Band, totally forgot the name of the well-known storybook character he wanted to use in his introduction to “Musta Got Lost” when recording their live album “Blow Your Face Out”. But instead of being throw off kilter by the screw up, Wolf molded it into one of the most iconic spoken introductions to any song on any record…ever.

Take your big curls and squeeze them down Ratumba –
What’s the name of the chick with the long hair?
(Rapunzel!) Hey Rapunzel!

Hey Reputa! Reputa the Beautah!
Hey Reputa the Beautah, flip me down your hair
And let me climb up to the ladder of your love!!

Although unintended, the screw-up was incredibly appropriate to the song it introduced. “Musta Got Lost” was a song about screwing up. It was a song about letting somebody go and realizing afterwards that it was a mistake. Peter Wolf played on his mistake perfectly, just as anyone needs to do in such a circumstance.

Although he didn’t mean to be so philosophical, in that spoken intro, and the accompanying song afterwards, Wolf embodies the struggle of relationships from the perspective of both heart and mind. He embodies the anger and the pain of it ending, as well as the desire and desperation to want to make it work. The introduction and song embody the realization of how a relationship can be over in one moment…with one screw-up.

If I had any complaint about “Blow Your Face Out”, it’s that it was too short – it ended too soon. But then again, the same can be said about any meaningful relationship.

The Honeydrippers – Volume One

It’s a shame there wasn’t ever a Volume Two.

Robert Plant had always had a desire to perform in a successful rhythm and blues band. So he dug up his old friends Jimmy Page, whom he had played with in Led Zeppelin, and Jeff Beck, who had played with Page in The Yardbirds. And thus in 1981, with the help of some session musicians, The Honeydrippers were formed.

Featuring Plant singing in his best crooning voice on “Sea of Love”, which hit number three on the Billboard charts, and the more upbeat “Good Rockin’ at Midnight”, another top 40 hit, the EP was a huge success for The Honeydrippers.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who wonders why there never was the “Volume Two”. Maybe they just felt it was better to leave everybody wanting more.

Heart

“What About Love” was one of the biggest hits by the band Heart. Along with the other songs on their self-titled album, it marked a significant shift in their sound that was only hinted at on their previous record. This album saw Ann and Nancy Wilson moving from hard rock bordering on progressive rock, to a more mainstream pop sound. A shift they needed to make in order to keep up with the changing music scene.

Music from the ’80s had a very distinct sound. Typically there was heavier use of reverb on the overall sound, most notably on the guitar and drums. In general, there was a heavier use of keyboards and most songs had more of a constant rhythm throughout. Also, every album needed to contain at least one or two slow ballads or love songs. Heart hit that formula perfectly on this album. It became their only album to hit number one on the billboard charts.

Normally, if a band releases a self-titled album it’s their debut. But Heart waited until their eighth. Although it was kind of a debut for them. It was their first album for Columbia Records who signed them after their contract ran out with Epic. Maybe that’s why they chose to make it eponymous.

Roger Hodgson – In the Eye of The Storm

When Rodger Hodgson had a fall out with Rick Davis and decided to leave Supertramp and release a solo album, he didn’t fool around. Almost as if he was out to prove who was the main creative Force in Supertramp, he wrote, arranged and produced every song on his debut solo album, “In the Eye of the Storm”. But he didn’t stop there. With only a handful of exceptions Rodger Hodgson please and since every vocal part on this album.

“In the Eye of the Storm” has a sound very reminiscent of Supertramp; progressive rock that is as powerful as it is insightful. It’s primarily keyboard oriented, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have some fine guitar work too. But really, the overall strength of this album lies in the composition and arrangement of the songs on it.

Although Roger Hodgson’s first solo record did have better success than Supertramp’s first album without him, neither he or his former band ever achieved the level of success apart, compared to what they accomplished together. Regardless, I still rank it up there with the best of anything he did with Supertramp.

The Ventures’ Christmas Album

The Ventures’ Christmas Album was my favorite Christmas album when I was growing up. It’s still one of my favorites today. It’s also a classic example of an album being totally screwed up when released on CD.

When the Ventures’ Christmas Album was finally released on CD, I immediately ran out and bought a copy, even though the vinyl copy I owned was one I would never part with. I mean, the CD had to sound better, right?

Wrong.

Somebody at some point must have thought it would be a good idea to remaster the Ventures Christmas Album before releasing it on a digital medium. Gone was the exceptional stereo mix that gave a wonderful soundstage, making it sound like the band was right in front of you – one guitar on the left, one on the right, the bass slightly to the left, and the drums near center behind all of the others. The remastered CD sounded like all the instruments were in same place, on playing on top of each other.

And then there’s the case of “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer”. It was like somebody tried to intentionally ruin the song. The Ventures played Rudolph with the lead guitar up front and a second guitar adding harmony underneath the lead. On the CD the guitar on harmony was brought up even to the lead guitar, making it sound like the Ventures were trying to play the song with some kind of non-traditional jazz styling. It was terrible.

The Ventures were a popular instrumental group in the 1960s. They released their Christmas album in 1965. What made this album so unique was that it took traditional Christmas songs and mixed them with riffs from popular rock and roll songs from the ’60s. It’s kind of like a mashup between the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Tequila” by the Champs and “Frosty the Snowman”, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, “Sleigh Bells” with Walk Don’t Run” by…well, the Ventures. And this is decades before anyone ever coined the phrase mashup.

The Ventures Christmas Album is truly one of the coolest Christmas albums ever, and was ranked number 12 by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 25 greatest Christmas albums ever recorded. But the only way you should ever listen to it is on the original vinyl. It may be hard to find, but its well worth the effort.

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.