Friday, March 22, 2013
(pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd
(pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd)
Yikes another classic rock entry, I guess I'm turning into an old fogey. I was watching a DVD compilation of "The Old Grey Whistle Test" (that DVD series is excellent by the way) and I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd deliver a thrilling performance of "Free Bird." It really got me bopping. The song has basically become a joke punchline, but I still love it as much as I did when I was a teen. I first became aware of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 7th grade when I was living in Salt Lake City. My best friend was a fellow outcast named Billy Jo. He had just moved there from the south. I had just come from California and we both hated our new hometown. We bonded over our alienation from the local culture. I was into the Beatles and not paying attention to contemporary music very much, Billy Jo liked these guys. "Sweet Home Alabama" was his personal theme song just as "California Dreamin'" was mine. I came to like his song as well. I moved back to California and lost touch with Billy Jo but I still liked his favorite band and bought this album when I was in high school after hearing "Free Bird" on the radio. It was their debut album and to my mind one of the best debut albums of its era. It opens with "I Ain't The One" by lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Gary Rossington. It is the familiar pop music tale of a guy running away from his girlfriend when she wants to get married. In classic southern rock fashion it is driven by a catchy guitar riff with a funky rhythm track. This band had two lead guitarists and they play up a storm. Thematically "Tuesday's Gone" is pretty similar except this time it is the girlfriend who wants to be free. It is written by Van Zant and the band's other lead guitar player, Allen Collins. The tune is a lot slower and I miss the propulsive guitar noise of the previous track, but Van Zant's vocal is very expressive. It runs about seven and a half minutes and I lose interest way before that. Nonetheless it is one of the prettiest songs they ever did. Van Zant and Collins also offer up "Gimme Three Steps" about a guy who is dancing in a bar with a lady when her boyfriend shows up with a gun. This song features a return to rocking riffs and guitar noise. The song's humor and funky underbelly make it a real winner. Rossington and Van Zant close out the side with the majestic "Simple Man" in which a guy is advised by his mother to lead a simple moral life and to remember that God is watching from above. As a cynical city slicker I don't really dig the language of the song, but I can relate to it and I appreciate the heartfelt way Van Zant sings it. Unlike a lot of hard rock bands, these guys still retain their power when they slow things down and the pounding riff that runs through the chorus is very effective. Side one is practically flawless, four memorable songs that vary in tempo and style but which flow together very naturally. This is why I dig albums. Side two is a bit of a let down in comparison. It starts with the country-flavored social protest song "Things Goin' On" by Van Zant and Rossington. Billy Powell's honky tonk piano solos are the most interesting part of the song for me. "Mississippi Kid" is a collaboration between Van Zant, the album's producer Al Kooper and drummer Robert Burns. It is a retro country blues style song about a gunslinger on his way to Alabama to pick up his girlfriend. It is derivative to be sure, but I still enjoy it. Rock returns for "Poison Whisky" by Van Zant and Ed King who plays bass on the album, but who would become the group's third guitarist on future albums. King is the most unlikely member of the band. He was no good ol' boy but rather a Californian who had been in the 60s pop-psych band, the Strawberry Alarm Clock. The song is another riff driven tune that advises against frying your brain with bad whisky. It sounds sort of generic, the weakest song on the album. It is followed by the album's final song "Free Bird" by Collins and Van Zant. If you are a white suburban kid of my generation you have heard this song a gazillion times. It is a banal song from the so-long-babe-I-gotta-ramble school. I find it kind of obnoxious in that regard. Musically though it is magnificent. Structurally it is in two parts, a slow haunting ballad sung with a lot of feeling by Van Zant which is dominated by mournful slide guitar lines from Rossington followed by a fast paced hard rock workout featuring a thrilling and seemingly endless guitar solo from Collins that will provide a challenge for you air guitarists out there and which will strain your fingers if you tackle the song in "Rock Band." The song goes on for nine minutes on the LP and it fades out with the band still going full throttle which I think is a mistake. When you hear live versions of the song, it is more satisfying to hear the song driven to its conclusion no matter how long it takes. Poke fun if you like, but this song is what rock is all about, screaming guitars, fast paced beat, pounding drums, relentless drive, it is so full of energy and vitality it makes you feel good to be alive. When I get tired of hearing this song, it will be time for me to check out. Lynryd Skynryd were truly one of the best bands of their era. It was a time when hard rock bands were a dime a dozen, but they stood out by virtue of their superior songwriting and their intoxicating blend of country, Memphis soul and straight ahead rock and roll. So much of the music of that time sounds stale and lifeless to me, but this band still pushes all my buttons. I grew up in the 1970s largely hating the decade, but I have to admit that if the decade produced a few albums as good as this one, it couldn't have been all bad. Recommended to children of the 1970s who are tired of boomers telling them how great the 1960s were.