Al Kooper’s greatest contribution to rock was not magically delivering the keyboard intro to “Like a Rolling Stone,” spearheading the influential first Blood, Sweat & Tears and Super Session albums, or rescuing The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle from the scrap heap, among his numerous accomplishments. Rather, it was discovering and then nurturing the talents of Lynyrd Skynyrd (he produced their first three albums), one of the greatest American rock bands of the seventies and probably the second greatest "Southern rock" band ever (after the Allman Brothers Band, of course). Named after a gym teacher they loathed (named Leonard Skinner), these redneck ruffians came through with a hard-nosed classic right from the gate, not the least because of the 9-minute “Free Bird,” one of rock’s signature songs (fittingly written in tribute to the late great Duane Allman) and the ultimate extended guitar epic. Starting off touchingly lyrical - love the Hammond organ, weepy guitars, and group leader Ronnie Van Zant's soulful lead vocals - but then turning fast and furious, the song showcases Skynyrd’s stun gun drumming (Bob Burns) and especially their signature multi-guitar attack (Allen Collins and Gary Rossington plus Ed King on bass), who duel unmercifully until the listener can’t help but be exhausted yet thrilled at the same time. Sure, the song is seriously over-played, and yeah it can be annoying hearing some drunk numbskull shout out "Free Bird" at damn near every concert, but if you don't think that this song is one of rock's all-time anthems, well you're just flat-out wrong! Nah, you're entitled to your opinion, but that's certainly my opinion, and though that song alone ensures this album of classic status, there are two other A+ caliber tracks that I consider all-time classics of their type. The soulful, mournful, bluesy ballad "Tuesday's Gone" is another great epic-scale track (7:30) that shows the band (with help from Kooper who I assume should be credited for the song’s dramatic, sweeping orchestrations) to be far more sophisticated (both musically and lyrically) than they're generally given credit for, while the excellent power ballad “Simple Man” honestly and heartwarmingly states a mother’s simple wish for the son that she loves. Man, if everybody would just heed his mother's elegantly stated words of wisdom the world would be a much better place, and both of these songs move me immensely, it's as simple as that. The rest of the album can't keep pace with those terrific tunes, but not for a lack of trying, as album opener "I Ain't The One" and later "Poison Whiskey" present a pair of agreeably tough, hard-hitting rockers. The catchy n' clever “Gimme Three Steps” is also extremely catchy even if it's also overplayed like several tracks here (courtesy of classic rock radio) and a bit too redneck-y. Still, contrary to widespread belief, Lynyrd Skynyrd often presented a thinking man’s brand of hard rock by virtue of singer Ronnie Van Zant’s hard won lyrics. True, they do at times succumb to bouts of machismo (“Mississippi Kid” and the aforementioned “Poison Whiskey,” for example), but the tuneful barrelhouse piano (Billy Powel) on “Things Goin’ On” and the mandolin on “Mississippi Kid” (probably the two weakest tracks but both are still pretty good) attest to a rarely acknowledged versatility, as all of the band’s considerable strengths were already readily apparent on this classic debut album.
Second Helping (MCA ’74, ‘97) Rating: A
Starting with “Sweet Home Alabama,” a memorably catchy (and somewhat controversial) anthem of Southern pride and the band’s biggest hit ever (not to mention the greatest answer song in rock history, which Neil Young loved, by the way), it was clear that this would be more of the same stellar bluesy blue collar stuff and that their first album was no fluke. With earlier bassist Leon Wilkeson rejoining the band, thus allowing Ed King (formerly of the Strawberry Alarm Clock of "Incense and Peppermints" fame!) to move over as the band's third guitarist, if anything the band's playing is even tighter and tougher this time out, though the best songs here don’t quite match the three all-time classics found on its predecessor. Man, I really like the lashing guitars and the lively boogie piano present on several of these hard-driving tracks, such as "Working for MCA," on which they beat the Sex Pistols to the punch with an unflattering song about their record company, and “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” (next line: “and I won’t tell you no lies”). Elsewhere, "The Ballad Of Curtis Loew," one of the band's best mellower blues songs, shows Van Zant's ability to tell a story and create memorable characters, “The Needle And The Spoon” is an intense anti-heroin song that hits like a ton of bricks (we’ll call this one a draw, Neil), and their catchy, horn-heavy cover of J.J. Cale's "Call Me The Breeze" is way better than the mellower original, not to mention superior to any J.J. Cale cover that Eric Clapton ever did. Even at their most generic - I like the slow, searing riffs of “I Need You” but this "power ballad" is solid but no "Simple Man," and “Swamp Music” is nothing special though the playing is still good as it grooves along nicely - this band just oozes honesty and soul, led by Van Zant’s whiskey scarred, barrel-chested lead vocals. Plus they also have the songs, again the flagship one being "Sweet Home Alabama," which has those undeniable riffs ("turn it up" indeed), a ridiculously catchy chorus helped in part by backup singers Clydie King and Merry Clayton (the latter of "Gimme Shelter" fame), and more prime Powell piano; the song was later prominently sampled (along with Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London") by Kid Rock on his big 2008 hit "All Summer Long," further proving its durability. Note: As added enticements, the reissue features three very worthwhile bonus tracks: the single version of “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and a pair of impressive "Sounds Of The South Demos" in “Was I Right or Wrong” and “Take Your Time.”
Nuthin’ Fancy (MCA ’75, ’99) Rating: B+
As aptly titled as their second helping, the band did as good as could be expected under trying circumstances. This isn’t the knockout their first two records were, but that’s more their record company’s fault, as the exhausted band, fresh from a grueling touring grind, were forced by MCA to rush out an album on too short notice. Producer Al Kooper was so spent he even left the band for a five-day break during the recording sessions, and drummer Bob Burns departed for good, replaced by Artimus Pyle, but the band still came through with some classic stuff, including the blistering anti-gun rocker “Saturday Night Special” and the convincingly nasty (that's a compliment) heavy rocker “On The Hunt.” These songs kick ass, plain and simple, and the latter tune's lyrics demonstrate (as do a few others) how, despite a growing reputation as a great live band, this party hearty Florida horde were becoming as famous for their reckless offstage antics as on (the brawling Van Zant had already seen the inside of a jail cell numerous times). The band’s early stockpile of songs gathered throughout their early years was all but used up (their "overnight success" came after almost a decade of toiling the club circuit in obscurity), so much of this album was made up on the spot, resulting in fairly pedestrian rockers such as “Railroad Song” (which still has its moments excluding the silly "choo choo train" chorus), “I’m A Country Boy” (a slower, intense grinder that does have some guitar sparks going for it), and the boogie woogie piano rocker “Whiskey Rock-A Roller” (again, this one's not bad but it's pretty Skynyrd-by-numbers). However, the slow, gritty blues ballad “Cheatin’ Woman” (with Kooper prominent on atmospheric organ and featuring more good guitar) and the uncommonly smooth and laid-back “Am I Losin’,” a tender, moving number that's notable for its flavorful harmonies and a soaring guitar solo, are also prime Skynyrd. “Made In The Shade” (the genesis of which came from an old bluesman - then-current Blackfoot and both former and future Skynyrd member Rickey Medlocke's grandfather Shorty Medlocke - telling Van Zant “don’t ever quit and you’ll have it made in the shade”), a relaxed backporch hoedown that's decidedly different from their norm, adds variety and is also enjoyable if in a minor rather than a major way. That's how I feel about most of this album as a whole, as it was a clear comedown from their prior two efforts and was a commercial disappointment as well, though it's still a strong effort that's well-worth buying. Besides, if nothing else you’ll probably get a chuckle out of the notorious back cover, where Powell lets you know what he thinks of the photographer taking his picture. Note: The reissue features good live versions of “Railroad Song” and “On The Hunt” as bonus tracks.
Gimme Back My Bullets (MCA ’76, ’99) Rating: B+
This is roundly regarded as the original band’s weakest album, as bouts with the bottle and an endless touring schedule took their toll on these weary road warriors. With Ed King departing due to exhaustion, Skynyrd was also down a guitarist, while legendary producer Tom Dowd (Allman Brothers, Cream, etc.) replaced Al Kooper in the control booth, often opting for a live in the studio approach. This was a smart tactic, and this is still a consistently good album that’s just lacking a little in the way of truly first-rate songs, the best of which are probably the smoking title track (one of the band's best, toughest rockers, which is actually not about guns but about bulleting up the Billboard charts) and the largely acoustic closer “All I Can Do Is Write About It” (accurately described in the liner notes as a "heartfelt plea for environmental awareness" and which features some pretty piano from secret weapon Powell). Although King was a key loss as both a songwriter and a player, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington do well to make up for King’s absence, cooking up some good tandem guitar work on “Searching,” on which they definitely found some searing riffs even if the song is a tad on the generic side (which is a problem with the album on the whole), and “Cry For The Bad Man,” an excellent if somewhat mean-spirited rocker (with some more smokin' hot leads) allegedly about manager Alan Walden. This song reprises the female backing vocals that had worked so well on "Sweet Home Alabama" and which works better here than on "Double Trouble," an obvious attempt at a hit but a swing and a miss (I can also live without "Trust," a resurrected older tune that's inferior to the original version that would later appear on Skynyrd's First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album). This album's bluesy J.J. Cale cover, "I Got The Same Old Blues," is more laid-back and faithful to the original than had been "Call Me The Breeze," but this version is merely good not great, much like the album itself. On the plus side, Skynyrd always excelled at ballads, and that's certainly the case on "Every Mother's Son" and "Roll Gypsy Woman," a pair of highly melodic and effective mellower numbers with notable guitar solos. All in all, this album may have some uninspiring retreads and be mildly disappointing both artistically and commercially (at least if one takes into account the band’s superior other releases), but any honest overall assessment of this album's merits is still bound to be positive. Note: The reissue includes live bonus tracks of “Gimme Back My Bullets” (pretty good but inferior to the studio version) and “Cry For The Bad Man” (really good).
One More From The Road (MCA ’76, '01) Rating: A-
With guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie (backing vocals) joining the fold, this is the only live album from the band prior to their tragic plane crash. As such, it has something of a legendary status, but though I think it is a very good live album that shows what a potent live act they were, I also feel that it's somewhat overrated, as I prefer most of the original versions of these songs and most of these renditions are (overly) faithful to the originals (the Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East this is not). That said, most of these energetic and hard rocking performances are enjoyable to listen to, with "I Ain't The One," "Sweet Home Alabama" (on which Cassie shines), "Gimme Three Steps," "Call Me The Breeze," and "The Neeedle and the Spoon" being among the standouts among the originals. Alas, "Tuesday's Gone" isn't nearly as epic here, as Kooper's sweeping orchestrations on the studio version are reduced to harmonica accompaniment live, which is a bit underwhelming by comparison. That said, this album contains arguably the definitive version of "Free Bird" (now 11+ minutes), from its famous intro ("what song is it you want to hear?") and asides ("play it pretty for Atlanta," "how 'bout you?") and of course highlighted by its extended jam section which is even wilder and more intense than the original, plus Pyle really puts in a great drumming performance. As for surprises, there's "Travellin' Man," a rather average original, and covers of Jimmy Rodgers "T For Texas" and Robert Johnson's "Crossroads." The former may have been surprising to some, but Van Zant was always a big country fan and several Skynyrd songs had a country flavor (which led to conflicts with the more blues/rock-centric Rossington and Collins). Besides, by the time they're done with it this jam-heavy 8+ minute rendition is a Skynyrd song through and through, and their cover of "Crossroads" is also fittingly furious even if it's not up to the Cream standard. Anyway, to keep things short, suffice it to say that this is a very good live album, with some great moments (such as when "Working for MCA" segues into "I Ain't The One"), and the deluxe reissue (which I don't have) is supposedly even better. I just wish that these versions were a bit more adventurous, spontaneous, and different than the originals.
Street Survivors (MCA ’77, '01) Rating: A
Energized by young firebrand Steve Gaines, who wrote two tracks and co-wrote two others (he also takes one lead and one co-lead vocal), Street Survivors was widely touted as a "return to form," though everything the original band did was at least good. Simply put, this album features some of their catchiest and most melodic songs to date, making Street Survivors a great way to go out. Yes, as far as I'm concerned this was the last true Lynyrd Skynyrd album (excepting the next one which was a release of earlier material), as they would soon meet a tragic early demise, which made the band’s record company rescind the eerily prophetic album cover on which the band members are enveloped by fire (it was later restored, I guess after enough time had passed to come to terms with what had happened). For those who somehow don’t know the story, in one of rock’s all-time tragedies, the band’s plane unbelievably ran out of gas and crashed, killing several members (Steve and Cassie Gaines and the band's heart and soul Ronnie Van Zant) and badly injuring the rest of the lucky ones who survived. As such, it's hard to listen to this album (which was released three days before the crash) without thinking of that terrible event. That said, rarely has a band exited while in such fine form, my only complaints being that perhaps the album is a bit slicker and more Eagles-y than necessary, plus I don't care for the Merle Haggard cover which is just too honky tonk country for my taste (starting with the title: “Honky Tonk Night Time Man”) even though the playing is still impressive. The rollicking “What’s Your Name” gets the album off to a rousing start with one of the band's most easily singable tunes (I dig the slide guitars and the horns are nicely integrated), while the menacing anti-heroin diatribe "That Smell" is simply a great guitar track and one of the best Skynyrd songs ever ("hell yeah!"). "One More Time," a leftover from the earlier Muscle Shoals sessions (see the next review), is an excellent ballad, while Gaines and Van Zant trade lead vocals on the radio-ready "You Got That Right," another great guitar track (with Powell's patented boogie piano as well) whose partytime vibe is tailor made for Saturday nights. Gaines' "I Know A Little" is a nifty boogie number, and though the mellower "I Never Dreamed" may veer a bit towards the bland side of things, the song is still easily recommendable, particularly the hot guitars on the outro. Last but certainly not least is the bluesy Gaines showcase "Ain't No Good Life," which has a Free-ish vibe, not unlike earlier songs like "On The Hunt." So, their most pop friendly album still hits plenty hard, thank you very much, as these spirited all-Americans were clicking on all cylinders here. Which makes what happened an even bigger shame, because this was one band that clearly had much more to give had they lived.
Skynyrd's First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album (MCA ’78, '98) Rating: B+
This posthumous album was originally released as Skynyrd's First and...Last in 1978 and was bulked up considerably and released as Skynyrd's First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album in 1998. The original album was comprised of recordings that pre-dated their debut and featured future Blackfoot members Greg T. Walker and Rickey Medlocke among their ranks. Most of these songs are of a surprisingly high quality, if not up to the standards of their more famous later albums. "Down South Jukin'" may be their most prototypical song title along with “Whiskey Rock-A Roller,” but though it came first to me it sounds like a prelude to "What's Your Name?" That's the problem with a lot of the later additions, as songs such as "Free Bird," "Gimme Three Steps," and "Simple Man" are good but sound like inferior test runs for the more famous versions that came later. I do prefer some of these versions, however, such as "Trust" which I already mentioned, while I'm pretty sure that "One More Time" is pretty much the same version as the one on Street Survivors. Back to the original album, "Preacher's Daughter" is a fast groover with harmonized guitars, "White Dove" is a lovely and atypical soft rocker sung by Medlocke, and the intense "Was I Right Or Wrong" I also mentioned previously as it surfaced as a bonus track on Second Helping. Still, it's nice to have worthy tracks such as "Lend a Helpin' Hand," "Wino" (maybe this is their quintessential song title!), and "Things Goin' On" all in one place. My favorite tracks are probably "The Seasons," a melodic, soulful, groovy ballad, the melancholic part ballad/part rocker "Comin' Home," which is not only the best song here but is among the ten best Skynyrd songs ever, and (on the reissue) "You Run Around," an explosive hard rocker that's more like Blackfoot than Skynyrd (no surprise as it's one of four songs sung by Medlocke, who also at least co-writes five tracks total, which needless to say gives the Complete Muscle Shoals Album a different feel than your typical Skynyrd album). Anyway, the band certainly went on to bigger and better things, but their beginnings were plenty good too, so fans of the band are advised to pick up this one, albeit only after checking out their classic later albums. Note: Skynyrd have TONS of "best of" compilations, many of which are very worthwhile, so if you want to begin investigating the band, or if you're a casual fan who wants some Skynyrd but you don't want to splurge for the original albums, you might want to start with one of those, especially since I've always considered them to be more of a song band than an album band. Their first compilation, 1979's 2-cd set Gold & Platinum, is probably still the best, and for hardcore fans I'd highly recommend the 3-cd box set Lynyrd Skynyrd, a model set that has all their big hits in addition to many choice rarities. As for the post-1987 "comeback" version of the band with Ronnie's younger brother Johnny on vocals (and later Medlocke and The Outlaws' Hughie Thomasson on guitars), I don't really know enough about them to comment as I’ve never seen them live or listened to their later records, but let’s face it, it’s the Ronnie Van Zant-led version of the band who are legendary. Forget the silly Confederate flag waving and their redneck image, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a great band - though drugs and overwork took their toll somewhat during their middle period - who could've become even greater had one of rock music's greatest tragedies not befallen them right after recording one of their best albums.
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