Boston “Boston” (1976)

     I have been looking forward to today’s album, as I consider it to be very unique for one notable reason.  In my years of listening to rock music, I can’t think of any other record besides this one, where every single song, without exception, is broadly played and recognized in radio rotation.  The debut album of the band Boston, simply titled “Boston”, was truly remarkable in that regard.  In my formative years listening to what we now refer to as classic rock, I never paid that much attention to Boston.  They had what seemed to be a very limited number of albums and songs, which is still true, and candidly, in comparison to some of the dominant bands of the time, I always thought they were a bit one (or two) dimensional, with a strong lead guitar and vocal pairing, but no depth or notable accompaniment from bass and drums, leaving their sound a bit “thin”.  However, a few years ago, I looked more closely at their debut album, and realized that not only did I really appreciate many of the songs on this album, I also discovered this “eight for eight” achievement and how impressive that was, particularly in a debut album.

     As noted above, Boston was primarily the pairing of Tom Scholz, the founder and creative leader of the band, on guitar, and Brad Delp, who had amazing range and strength with his high tenor vocals.  The album opens with “More Than a Feeling”, and it just goes from there, one big hit after another.  Next is “Peace of Mind”, which once upon a time captured my attention with this verse, “Now you’re climbing to the top of the company ladder, Hope it doesn’t take too long, Can’t you see there’ll come a day when it won’t matter, Come a day when you’ll be gone.”  Reasonably profound and very true, Mr. Delp.  Side one ends with the guitar explosion that is “Foreplay/Long Time”, a true air guitar classic of the 1970s.

     Side two opens with the autobiographical track “Rock & Roll Band”, which I have always enjoyed, including its references to being a New England-based band.   The up-tempo continues with “Smokin’”, another guitar rock classic, and then the pace shifts with “Hitch a Ride”, which was served as the anthem for our hitch-hiking days growing up.  In the small town we grew up in, hitching was a necessity to get from one of two central areas to the other, and although that may sound like a terrible choice, we usually got picked up by someone’s surprised parents so it wasn’t too treacherous.  My all-time favorite hitch-hiking story is my friend Mike and I electing to decline a 75-mile ride from Greeley to Parker during college, because we thought hitching would be a “better experience”.  After about 7 hours, four or five short rides and a lot of rain, we finally caved in and called my dad to come get us.  Good call, Mike…

     The last two songs are both on the slower side but like the others, classic rock radio staples, “Something About You” and “Let Me Take You Home Tonight”.  Eight songs in all, eight songs that all heavily fill the rotation to this day.  It really was a remarkable debut performance, and although I don’t say this often, I don’t possibly understand how this blockbuster was left off the Rolling Stone Top 500 list.

The Abyssinians “Satta Massagana” (1976)

     Another unique twist on reggae music today, and I think this may be the first reggae album I have listened to during this experience away from the beach.  Waking up to 37-degree temperatures didn’t naturally feel like it was reggae time, but fortunately the sun came out, and I was able to fully enjoy today’s album from The Abyssinians.  Like most of these acts, this group hails from Jamaica, and their record “Satta Massagana”, which loosely translated in the Amharic language means “He Gave Praise”, is the #7 reggae album as rated by rateyourmmusic.com. 

     I really enjoyed this record, as I have all of the new reggae exposures, and even though I may have said this before, and I know my son has said to me, it is great to hear this genre beyond the boundaries of Bob Marley, no matter how great and influential he was.  This is definitely an upbeat and spiritual album, with a steady dose of beautiful backing harmonies that really enrich the sound.  I can’t say that any song stood out above the others, although the title track, as well as “Peculiar Number” and “Declaration of Rights” are three of my favorites.  Singing the praises of God, or Jah, as followed passionately by the Rastafarians, with a notable focus on the connection back to Africa and the Promised Land.  “Know Jah Today”, “Forward Unto Zion”, “Black Man’s Strain” and “African Race” all directly connect and expand on this message.

     The music is very peaceful and relaxing no matter my locale, and it has been a welcome and warm insertion to an otherwise cool day.  The vocals are particularly appealing on this album, with less of a rough edge than some of their peers, and I look forward to adding several of these songs to my ocean playlist and master playlist to revisit frequently,

ABBA “The Definitive Collection” (1976)

     They call it a guilty pleasure for a reason.  You may feel guilty when you listen to it, especially if you get caught, but it certainly brings you lots of pleasure.  I’m pretty sure I won’t come across a more guilty of a pleasure than today’s album, “The Definitive Collection”, by the Swedish legends, ABBA.  The album itself wasn’t released until 2001, but as a greatest hits compilation album, I tried to sequence this at the peak of their run, and with “Dancing Queen” being released in 1976, today is the day.  Apparently, they believe in guilty pleasures at Rolling Stone, as this album is rated #303 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Putting this record on this morning was truly pure happiness.  Yes, it was Monday… and yes, I had another grinding day of work ahead of me, but once I heard the incredibly catchy harmonies from Agnetha Faitskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the day just started to sail along.  The album contains almost 40 singles, in sequential order.  As a general rule of thumb, I tend to prefer their earlier work, when they weren’t trying as hard to make disco-dance songs, and just focused on their infectious melodies.  If you have seen the musical “Mamma Mia”, which I will fully cop to, you understand why we all love this music so much.  I naturally picked up a half step when one of my favorites came on, but for at least the first 20 songs, I didn’t hear a single song I didn’t love.  At the top of the list?  The best of their best…  “Ring Ring”, “Waterloo”, “SOS”, “Mamma Mia”, “Fernando”, and of course “Dancing Queen”.  My all-time favorite ABBA song?  It has always been “Take A Chance On Me”, and while that hasn’t changed, I have to admit that today’s listen moved “The Name Of The Game” right up there near the top as well.

     As noted above, most of the later dance-era songs aren’t quite as catchy to me, but one song reminded me of one of the most bizarre things I have ever witnessed.  I won’t go too far into the reasons as to why, as it isn’t quite right, but you haven’t really lived until you have seen a grown man wearing a fluorescent-green construction vest, carrying around a full-sized stuffed Bugs Bunny, singing the hell out of “Voulez-Vouz” to a stunned bar full of people.  It is a sight I will never forget, and I’m pretty sure Christie, Dan and Lori won’t ever forget it either.

     So yes, I love the music of ABBA and absolutely enjoyed this album.  And if you are being honest, you will admit you love them too.  Oh… and if for some reason you try to tell me you don’t love ABBA… I won’t believe you for a second.

AC/DC “High Voltage” (1976)

     Another of the most formative bands in my life makes their debut in the blog today, with the first internationally released album from AC/DC, “High Voltage”.  At the heart of this band were the Young brothers, with Angus on lead guitar, and Malcolm on the equally essential rhythm guitar, and their own outrageous lead singer, Bon Scott.  Although some listeners and critics wanted to lump AC/DC in with the punk rock movement, it was a much more basic and simple rock and roll sound, just a bit louder and rougher than their predecessors.  It has been said that AC/DC has made an entire career playing the same three chords, and while that certainly is an oversimplification, more so than just about any long-living band I can think of, they have stayed true to their formula and sound, over the course of almost 50 years and many lineup shifts.

     AC/DC was my first true rock concert, at McNichols Arena in Denver in the winter of 1982 with friends Mike and Nevin.  I have always loved the raw purity of this band, and this first album is no exception.  The first two songs, “It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer” most certainly use the exact same chords, but they both rock in a unique manner, with the first song featuring a heavy dose of bagpipes.  (I’m pretty sure that is the first time I have mentioned bagpipes in this blog).  AC/DC, who along with ZZ Top mastered the double entendre, gives us “The Jack”, a bluesy rocker that tells the story of an unfortunate sordid encounter with an experienced female through the dialect of a card game.  Who says they weren’t always being creative?

     Side two opens with a rocker that remains highly popular today, “T.N.T.”, and they keep us slightly uncomfortable, yet rocking at a driving pace, with “Can I Sit Next to You Girl”, “Little Lover”, and “She’s Got Balls”.  The album concludes with the title track, and let there be no doubt, they live up to all of it as this is truly “High… Voltage… Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

     In their earliest days, AC/DC were considered by many to be the next and newest lowest common denominator in rock ‘n’ roll.  However, by remaining consistent in their approach and steady and strong with their content and performances, they have endured for so long and done so much they are regarded as hard rock royalty.  There is much more to look forward to with this band, and in the late 1970s they provided a much-needed infusion of guitar rock as others were beginning to slip and struggle.

The Rolling Stones “Black and Blue” (1976)

     As the winds of change were blowing across the world of rock music in 1976, the Rolling Stones were dealing with multiple evolutionary components themselves.  This marked the release of “Black and Blue” to mixed results.  Notably, this was the first album without Mick Taylor in the band, and although Ronnie Wood did make some limited appearances on the album, almost all of the guitar work was handled exclusively by Keith Richards.  Additionally, the Stones continued to try and grow and reshape with the times, and their sound on this album has a bit more funk, rhythm and blues, and even a straight-up reggae number.

     As the band moved further and further away from the guitar-rock core of “Exile on Main Street”, I don’t find a lot on this album that really sticks with me, even after multiple listens.  The one notable single release was “Fool to Cry”, which is almost a little too much Mick Jagger for me.  It’s a decent song, but something about his falsetto on this song has always left me a bit sideways.  I feel the same way about “Hot Stuff”, which feels like a preview of where they were headed next in their late 70s co-existence with disco and dance music.  I did enjoy hearing the reggae track “Cherry Oh Baby”, and I know they were influenced greatly by the emergence of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.  I consider this the most memorable moment on the album.

      The rest of the record doesn’t do much for me, although once again, I appreciate the dual vocals of Mick & Keith on “Memory Motel”.  This album feels more like an album they had to make, versus one they wanted to make.

     One last footnote for today, I was fortunate enough to participate in a panel discussion with a real expert on rock music, legendary Denver Post music writer G. Brown.  We covered a lot of topics, including the highlights and lowlights of Red Rocks Amphitheater, which adorns the cover photo of this blog.  We heard some great stories about how Denver’s music scene expanded from another uninteresting stop between Kansas City and California into a can’t-miss destination for all artists crossing America.  Thanks to G. Brown for all of your amazing anecdotes, and of course, thanks to my good friend Jim for being the king of downtown Denver for decades.  Mutiny Information Café is where it all happens, seven days a week in Denver and Trinidad, Colorado.  Check it out…

The Ramones “The Ramones” (1976)

     You know how you always want things to be different than they are now?  If it is hot, you want it a little colder.  If it is cold, you want it a little warmer.  As much as I have enjoyed the steady diet of extended-length songs and a good run of classic and progressive rock, today’s album is a welcome change of pace.  Clearly, with the ultimate success of this album and the movement followed, the rest of the music world was ready for a change as well.  Today we feature the debut album, “The Ramones”, naturally performed by the Ramones, from the heart of Queens in New York City.  True pioneers of punk rock, this album is rated #47 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is the #2 punk rock album of all time, as rated by loudersound.com.

     Dismissing wandering jams and drifting melodies, every song on this album is short, typically around 2 minutes in length, intense and upbeat in structure, with no guitar solos to speak of at all.  Just fast, grinding chords and the clever lyrics and surprisingly melodic sounds of the Ramones.  For those of you who may not know, the Ramones were four guys, each with the adopted last name of Ramone, even though none were related.  Singer and leader Joey Ramone led the action and drove the pace.  The album opens with a song most will quickly recognize, “Blitzkrieg Bop”.  The first single and a classic still today, it is a great song, and also known to me as the song the Griswold kids used to drown out Clark and Ellen after they belted out “Mockingbird”.

     The rest of the album rocks on at the same frenzied pace, fourteen short songs in total.  After the oddly aggressive “Beat on the Brat”, we have the curiously sweet punk love song, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”.   Another of my favorite songs on this album is on the second side, “53rd & 3rd”, and while none of the other songs jumped out to me, they all carry the flag without a miss, and this is definitely a solid album from beginning to end.

     Sadly, none of the original Ramones are still alive, but the legacy they left at the front end of the punk rock movement, especially as an American act, will live on forever.  They are living proof that a rocker of any sort just can’t wear too much black, and in such an unintended way, were perpetually cool in their delivery.

Rush “2112” (1976)

     Today is an extension of the progressive sounds from yesterday’s album, “Presence” by Led Zeppelin, with the corresponding release of “2112” by Rush.  There are definitely some similarities between “Achilles Last Stand” and the “2112 Overture”.  In both cases, the instrumental performances are phenomenal, particularly the drumming, and the fantasy-based themes are also similar, with one focusing on world exploration, the other on a future world of technology vs. music.

     As noted previously, Rush has the unusual circumstance of their lyrics being written by their drummer, Neil Peart.  The entire first side of the album is a 20-minute medley of short songs, telling the story of a future time when an oppressive government regime has outlawed music, art and expression.  The protagonist finds a lost guitar, and attempts to bring new light to this dark world.  Tragically, he is ultimately crushed by the authorities and takes his own life in fury, and following more conflict, the tale ends with the ominous sounds from the oppressors, “We have assumed control… we have assumed control.”  Forty-five years later, it comes across as a bit absurd at times, but a noble attempt at looking forward and expressing the concerns of compromising art for authority.  Music, this is Rush at their very best.  The first opening segment, “Overture” and “The Temples of Syrinx”, is possibly the best example of hard rock drumming I have ever heard by anyone not named John Bonham.  Neil Peart’s work on this album is spectacular, and quickly cemented his place in the Mount Rushmore of rock drummers.  The rest of the story has similar moments of greatness, although if you really want to capture the best of this piece, you can pick it up through the first six minutes or so.  The story is reasonably easy to follow, and Geddy Lee alters his voice between soft and intense, depending on if he is speaking for the protagonist or the oppressors.

     Side two is a lighter collection of stand-alone songs.  “A Passage To Bangkok” is one of the best, other than the culturally outdated riff that is identical to the opening of “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors.  My other favorite of these songs is “Lessons”.  Oddly, there is Rush attempting a ballad of some sort on “Tears”, but at this point, I have already embraced their mechanical and robotic approach to story-telling, so it feels a bit out of place.

     I believe many Rush fans look at this album, particularly the side one medley, as one of their greatest moments, and I can’t disagree.  The progressive themes and Geddy Lee’s voice aren’t for everyone, but there is no denying how talented and synchronized this group was, delivering a sound that is tight and colossal.

Led Zeppelin “Presence” (1976)

     I have a lot to say about today’s album, “Presence” by Led Zeppelin.  Most of you know I am a die-hard Led Zeppelin fan, and for most of their first seven years, there was very little they could do wrong.  However, misfortune, questionable choices, and wear and tear began to take their toll on the band, and in August of 1975, singer Robert Plant and his wife and family were involved in an auto accident that left Plant in a wheelchair with several broken bones as the band gathered to record their next album.

    The album was by comparison, a relatively unsuccessful album for the band, both commercially and in review and radio play, and I will explore some of my theories as to what went wrong on this album before I look more closely at the individual songs.  First off, to be clear, this is an album creatively dominated by guitarist Jimmy Page.  Unlike their first six albums, John Paul Jones plays bass and only bass on this album.  No keyboards, no arranged strings, no mandolins, no anything other than Page’s guitar and Jones on bass.  I feel this led to a creative imbalance and disruption to the four-part harmony of the band.  We already know Plant wasn’t in a great place for this record, and I can’t imagine Jones welcomed this relegated role either.  This imbalance would shift too far the other direction on their next record, for different reasons.

     Even though I have listened to this record hundreds of times, I reached my second conclusion just today after another listen.  As a guitar-heavy album where Page was trying to restore and extend Led Zeppelin as the premier hard rock band in the world, I realized that Plant was no longer the vocalist they needed to sing most of the songs on this album.  The intensity of these songs needed 1969 Robert Plant.  He was no longer that singer, and he wasn’t yet 1982 Robert Plant either, singing “Sea of Love” or “In The Mood”.  What we have is him straining to keep pace, and it just doesn’t work the same way.  Not only did he struggle in-studio, his live work from 1975 through the end of the band in 1980 was marred by consistent cracks and missed notes.  As difficult as I think this record may have been for him vocally due to loss of range, it also was exacerbated by his injuries and what I would consider to be an overall lack of joy and fun on this record, a big change from the last several albums.  There is only one song on this entire album where I hear that happiness unleashed, and not surprisingly, it is my favorite overall song on the record.

     The album opens with the gigantic song, “Achilles Last Stand”.  Considered by many to be their last epic track, in the same vein as “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir”, there is some great commentary on this song and album on a recent podcast by Plant.  He hits on two key points.  The first, as noted above, is that “Presence” and this song in particular, is not a “comfortable listen”.  Intense and fierce, if somewhat devoid of passion and emotion, this song also highlights Plant’s other point.  As one who doesn’t frequently look back with fondness, he marvels at the “insane musicality” of Page, Jones, and drummer John Bonham.  Within this genre and most others, there just wasn’t a more talented and powerful trio of musicians, and it is on full display on this 10-minute adventure.

     Next comes “For Your Life”, and this song is a continuation of my theme.  Grinding and thundering in its delivery, the song lacks much melody or range, as well as an appealing hook.  The last song of side one is “Royal Orleans”, one of the lighter moments on the album, at least lyrically, as the band laughs at an alleged late-night encounter with a pretty girl in New Orleans who turned out not to be a girl after all.

“A man I know, went down to Louisiana, Had himself a bad, bad fight.  And when the sun peeked through, John Cameron with Suzanna, He kissed the whiskers, left and right… Whiskers.”

It was supposedly John Paul Jones who made this famous misstep, but who knows where the truth ends and the myth begins.

     Side two opens with another track that displays that the band, at its best, was still capable of greatness.  “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, a remake of an old blues track by Blind Willie Johnson, features an incredible opening guitar buzz from Page, more outrageous drumming from Bonham, and a surprisingly strong harmonica solo from Plant.  As great as this track is, going back to my point above, imagine if you can, 1969 Robert Plant singing this same song.

     Plant finally gets his rockabilly knock-off song, “Candy Store Rock”, and while the attempt is noble, somehow the actual result isn’t nearly as much fun as it was intended to be.  Thankfully, they really got it right on the next song; the one song I noted above, where I think past, present and future Robert Plant shows up at the same time, along with the band having fun and playing loose and tight all at once.  The track is “Hots on for Nowhere”.  Unless you are a die-hard, you probably won’t recognize it, but it is definitely worth a listen, and great flashback to the happiness and diverse sounds of “Houses of the Holy” and “Physical Graffiti”.

    The album ends with the extended blues track “Tea for One”, which is a restructured replication of “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, just darker and more despondent.  Gone is Jones’ melodic organ, it is just him on bass next to Page’s guitar, with Plant lamenting his desperate loneliness as “twenty-four hours slips into days, a minute feels like a lifetime, when I feel this way

     A dark ending to a dark album, and sadly the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s descent from their peak of greatness.  There would still be moments of magic here and there, but more or less, the best days of this band were behind them as a group, with tougher days ahead.

The Doobie Brothers “Takin’ It to the Streets” (1976)

     A significant milestone is reached today with the Doobie Brothers and their album “Takin’ It to the Streets”.  Why you ask, is this significant?  It was the first album vocalist and keyboardist Michael McDonald joined the band on, after helping to fill in for the ailing Tom Johnston on a previous tour.  For most of us, that’s an interesting fact, but for two of the people I love dearly in my life, they both have an unusual appreciation for Michael McDonald, so I guess I have to serve that interest accordingly.

     Recruited by fellow Steely Dan alum Jeff Baxter, it is no accident that this album swaps out the guitar-based legacy Doobie Brother sound for a very keyboard-centric Steely Dan-ish sound.  The first song, “Wheels of Fortune”, isn’t bad, but the title track, with Mr. McDonald on lead vocals, is definitely an upgrade.  I have always admired his talent, even though it does sound like he sings with the microphone fully inserted into his mouth.  The next song, “8th Avenue Shuffle”, starts with a great riff and hook, but somehow evolves into what sounds like a weird Broadway song.  Following that, we have the imitation version of “It Keeps You Runnin’”, the song “Losin’ End”.  Both have a very similar keyboard intro and again feature Michael McDonald on vocals.  In case you were wondering, the real version of “It Keeps You Runnin’”, an even better song, is also on this album.

     I like the next song, “Rio”, and although it is much different than the later song of the same title by Duran Duran, it has a nice groove to it.  As if the album didn’t have enough of a Steely Dan vibe, the next song is “For Someone Special”, written and sung by bass player Tran Porter, who is doing his very best Donald Fagen impression on vocals.

     Overall, it is nice to hear the first intersection of Michael McDonald, Patrick Simmons, and even a little Tom Johnston, who sings “Turn It Loose”.  The old and new members seem to coexist in reasonable harmony as the Doobie Brothers continue to reshape their lineup and sound, and this was another entertaining listen from the band.

David Bowie “Station to Station” (1976)

     Today brings another highly acclaimed David Bowie album, with the release of “Station to Station”.  This album is an interesting mix of songs, and is rated fairly high, at #52 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  I don’t think I see it quite as favorably, although there are some high points.

     The album opens with the ten-minute title track, which feels a little bit like the “Abbey Road” medley as a collection of mini-songs strung together.  The core of the song starts with a really funky riff that I love, and Bowie’s unique vocals compliment the song nicely.  I’m not sure there are ten minutes of purpose in this song, but I do like the core.  Next comes the one big hit single from the album “Golden Years”, a staple of his greatest hits, and certainly a great song.  I really liked the next song “Word on a Wing”, it has an unusual but beautiful medley, and is probably my favorite discovery on the record.

     “TVC15” comes next, and to me, this sounds like David Bowie copying David Byrne, which is highly unlikely in 1976, so I guess I will have to ask, who influenced who?  It is a great song that really grows on you.  The last two songs aren’t quite as interesting to me, but overall, this is another creative Bowie album he managed to pull together at the height of his drug addiction.  I certainly marvel at his ability to write, perform, and deliver this kind of content while mired in that struggle.