Grand Funk Railroad – Mark, Don & Mel

I don’t think there was a band loved more by their fans and hated more by the music press than Grand Funk Railroad. They sold millions of albums and sold out huge arenas in record time, yet their albums were almost universally dissed by music critics. Bad press was something that Grand Funk learned to get used to. Eventually, they laughed at it. After five solid albums in just three years, they began to revel in it.

“Mark, Don & Mel” is a best of compilation comprised of songs from those first five albums…and the brutal reviews of them. I think I get almost as much enjoyment reading the press reviews Grand Funk gathered up and put on the record sleeves of this double album as I do listening to the music. Puttin the scathing press reviws on the record sleeves was the Flint Michigan’s bands way of flipping the bird to the critics. It was their way of saying “What the F*** do you know? Did you sell millions of records? Did you top the music charts numerous times? Did you sell out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles?”

Yeah, the critics loved to hate Grand Funk Railroad and Grand Funk loved it and wanted their fans to know it. Because Grand Funk knew their fans didn’t care about the critics; they cared about the music. And Grand Funk Railroad’s music kicked some serious ass.

Meh, what do critics know anyway?

Red Rider – Neruda

Tom Cochrane never believed in following trends. He believed in individuality. That’s a theme that weaves throughout Red Rider’s third album, “Neruda”.

The album’s title was nod to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was exiled from his home country for holding on to his individualistic beliefs. The songs on “Neruda” all revolve around the importance of the individual living in a society geared towards following trends in order to fit in.

Red Rider was one of the best Canadian rock bands in the 1980’s. Their guitarist, singer and songwriter, Tom Cochrane was one of the most gifted songwriters of that decade. His songs always had a lyrical depth that was far beyond most of his peers. The accompanying music was always a perfect blend of guitar and keyboards, not too polished or rough around the edges; never over produced. Like Red Rider’s other albums, the songs on “Neruda” are easy to listen to but could be at the same time aggressive and challenging. They were always well written and intriguing. And perhaps most importantly, they are never ever trendy.

Lucifer’s Friend – Banquet

I can’t believe the difference in sound between Lucifer’s Friend’s 1970 eponymous debut and their fourth album, 1974’s “Banquet”. It’s hard to realize it’s actually the same band. Gone is the metal crunch of the overdriven guitars and Hammond B3 organ that put them in league with Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and Black Sabbath. Those sounds are replaced here with more rounded guitar tones and a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Oh, and don’t forget the full horn section. All that, along with the free-flowing extended solos, leaves “Banquet” having much more in common with the progressive, jazz-rock fusion sounds of Traffic, early Chicago, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and ELP than it does with any metal band. About the only things consistent between this and Lucifer’s Friend’s debut album is the incredible musicianship and John Lawton’s amazing voice.

Then again Lucifer’s Friend was a band that seemed to strive to sound different on every new album. I think the diversity in their sound from one album to the next is a big reason they had a hard time gaining popular traction outside of their native Germany. Their fans never knew what to expect from them from one album to the next. The thing was, that’s what I admired about them.

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – The Roaring Silence

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band liked to have control of how their songs sounded. I don’t know of one song or album by them that wasn’t produced by the band; I don’t think they ever used outside producers.

In addition fto often incorporating excerpts from classical music into their own compositions, they were also notorious for doing their own renditions of other performers’ songs, but I would never say that Manfred Mann’s Earth Band ever plated covers. Whenever they played any music written by outsiders, the song was always rearranged and made into something totally unique; something that stood apart from the original. They always made whatever they played uniquely a Manfred Mann’s Earth Band song.

Case in point: “Blinded by the Light”, a song written and originally performed by Bruce Springsteen. The version appearing on Manfred Mann’s “The Roaring Silence” is a total prog rock reimagining of Springsteen’s gritty R&B version it isn’t played to quite the progressive rock extravagance of the rest of the album the Earth Band’s fourth album but it is still a significant departure in that direction from what Springsteen had laid down.

“Blinded by the Light” may have been one of the biggest hits for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, but it is far from their best song, at least in my opinion. On this album alone, the thematic weaving of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite into “Starbird” and Manfred Mann’s synth keyboard wizardry on the instrumental “Waiter, There’s a Yawn in My Ear” always leave me in awe. It’s the seldom heard deep cuts on “The Roaring Silence” that make it one of my all time favorites albums.

The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely

There are two types of people when it comes to The Tragically Hip. Those who love them as one of the most incredible rock bands ever, and those who have never heard of them. That latter group doesn’t know what the ‘F’ they’re missing out on. But you Canadian’s know.

If I had to pick a favorite Tragically Hip album, I suppose it would be “Fully Completely”. Only because, barring the sentimentality behind first hearing them on my honeymoon in Toronto, this was the album where I realized what incredible band The Tragically Hip were.

It was on “Fully, Completely”, that I discovered how wonderful it can be after the honeymoon; when I could strip out the newness and the sentimentality. It was a time when I first analyzed the core and heart and soul before me and realized the awesome aura of honesty, sincerity and passion surrounding me.

Wait a second…was I talking about my wife of almost 30 years or The Tragically Hip’s music.

Oh yeah…both.

I love you Helen.

The Hip are pretty F’ing awesome too.

Procol Harum – Grand Hotel

Procol Harum was a band that could combine classical and rock music better than most any other band. “Grand Hotel” was Procol Harum’s first studio album without guitar virtuoso Robin Trower who left to pursue a solo career in 1972. Fortunately, Trower’s departure didn’t affect the band’s sound very much. Like their previous albums, “Grand Hotel” was an avant-garde blending of baroque era classical music with blues and rock.

Because of its unique combination of styles “Grand Hotel” is an album I can listen to almost any time, although I prefer it to be at times I can really focus on the interplay of all the musical elements and shifting rhythms and time signatures. Although not a concept album by definition, “Grand Hotel” is an album that should be listed to as a whole. As with most Procol Harum records, it is obvious that the goal when recording it was not so much to have a hit single as it was to album that is an intriguing listening experience.

Emerson Lake and Palmer – Pictures At An Exhibition

Emerson Lake and Palmer’s masterpiece, “Pictures at an Exhibition” was proof that almost anything could go with rock and roll in the early seventies.  Performed live in 1971, the concert album combined arrangements from Russian composer Modest Muskorky’s 1874 classical score, which Keith Emerson had seen performed traditionally many years earlier with other related songs written by the band. Keith Emerson had seen  a traditional performance of Muskorky’s peice many years earlier and became stoked to have Emerson Lake and Palmer record an adaptation of it.  The album hit number 10 on the US charts and went up to number 3 in the UK.

Like many in the US, the first song I ever heard off of “Pictures at an Exhibition” was “Nutrocker”, a song combining an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite with progressive rock. It was released as a single in the United States only. The song was performed as the encore to the concert. I remember my elementary school music teacher playing “Nutrocker” for us in class one day. I was familiar with The Nutcracker Suite and was absolutely enthralled by this variation of its music.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – One More From The Road

Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t create Southern rock. They didn’t reinvent it. But in the seventies, Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the select few who defined the genre. When it was released in 1976, “One More for from the Road” became the quintessential live southern rock album.

Prior to the recording of this masterpiece, Skynyrd had added Oakie guitarist Steve Gaines into their fold, solidifying the band’s signature three lead sound. His influence is most noted on the 13 plus minute closing track “Free Bird” where the band’s three guitarists trade off solos in what has become one of the most legendary live performances ever captured on any recording.

“What song is it you wanna hear?”

Point Blank – The Hard Way

One of the greatest things about rebuilding my vinyl record collection is searching for old records I got rid of because I regrettably replaced them on CD.  Sometime the hunt can be almost as much fun as the prize. Another great thing is having friends recommend old albums that I forgot to check out back in the day and discovering a great new record; even if it is over 3 decades old.

I remembered hearing of the band Point Blank when a friend reminded me of them a few months back. I couldn’t remember anything about them except that they were from Texas. I couldn’t remember anything by them except…I really couldn’t remember anything by them.

Well, the other day I ran across Point Blank’s 1980 album “The Hard Way” so I felt obliged to pick it up. After all these years, I wanted to check them out.

Yeah, this is a band I missed out on back in the day. Hard rock blended with a helping of soulful R&B flavored southern rock and Texas blues, Point Blank was one of those bands that slipped under my radar. Then again, at least I had heard of them; a lot of people missed out on them because they only got mediocre airplay on radio. But they were a far cry above mediocre. I guess that’s just rock and roll. I’m just glad my friend Dave reminded me of them and that I had the good fortune of running across this album a short while later; definitely a keeper in my collection.

Ringo Starr – Ringo

When Ringo Starr released his third solo album in 1973, it was the closest any album would ever come to a Beatles reunion. All three of Ringo’s former bandmates share writing credits and perform on the record. True, they never all appear together on one song and there were no Lennon & McCartney penned songs, but hey, Beatles fans would take what they could get.

The album also included a slew of other guest musicians throughout and became Ringo’s inspiration for touring through decades following with his “All Star Band” of constantly rotating members.

“Ringo” remains among the most successful among the solo records from any former Beatle. It sold over three million copies, hit number 7 on the UK, number 2 in the US, and topped the charts in Canada. The album also score three hit singles fo Ringo: “Photograph”, You’re Sixteen”, and “Oh My My”.