Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lynyrd Skynyrd From The Road


Long before I heard any Lynyrd Skynyrd tune I knew what they looked like from articles and centrespread photographs in Hit Parader magazine. The guys in the band had amazingly long hair, some had beards, all looked mean and ornery and not at all like any kind of progressive Southern rock band. To my mind they looked exactly like long haired Southern redneck long distance truck drivers or construction workers, simple guys who worked hard all day and went to topless bars at night to get wasted on cheap beer, to pick up sleazy girls and to get into bar fights over imagined slights. That these guys were in anything like a successful rock band did not seem possible.

The articles about Lynyrd Skynyrd confirmed my suspicions. They were beer drinkers and hell raisers and got into fights, except that it seemed the fights were in the band itself, and Ronnie van Zant, the leader and singer, seemed to be the chief culprit here, a drunken bully who knew no other means than violence to win an argument.

This was just ugly rock as far as I was concerned, not my kind of thing at all, especially not for someone who as teenager had one foot in the deep blues and another in the punk rock explosion of the late Seventies. I imagined the Skynyrd boys as dumbass rockers whose idea of lyrical poetry would be to rhyme "cock" with "rock" and not have any kind of intention of being ironic, with equally leaden, plodding music to match. Not my cup of tea at all.

One of the last pieces Hit Parader published about Skynyrd was a piece about their stand at Atlanta's Fox Theatre where they recorded to shows for release on the One More From The Road double album, and then not long after, their plane crashed. Ronnie van Zant, Steve Gaines (the newest member of the band) and some others died, and for the time being Skynyrd was put on ice. From the article it sounded as if the concerts were a lot of fun, something of a Southern homecoming for Skynyrd, though the band hailed from Florida, and a completer triumph to mark the first five or so years of the band's career, which looked particularly rosy back then.

The live double album was a sudden cash cow staple of record company release rosters in the late Seventies, inspired by the success of Frampton Comes Alive, and this type of release served as a vehicle for marking time, with a combination of greatest hits album and evidence of the live chops of the musicians, giving the fans a sampler souvenir of the concerts they may have attended. It also made good sense in the case of bands like Skynyrd who made their reputations by playing live and whose tunes were well road tested.

A year or so later I read a review of One More from the Road in the New Musical Express, which had by then replaced Hit Parader as my source for information about what was currently happening in the popular music scene, especially the British scene. Hit Parader concentrated almost exclusively on the USA and the only non-American musicians featured were those Brits, and the odd Europeans like Golden Earring, who had made a breakthrough in the States.

The NME was more eclectic in its coverage of music though by the late Seventies its focus was primarily on the punk and New Wave scene in the UK. It did however review albums by American acts, even if only for the purpose of slating them. The guy who reviewed One More From The Road was much kinder to Skynyrd than some of other, more iconoclastic writers would have been. To the punk generation Skynyrd was one of many bands who represented the old, the obsolete and the antithesis to punk. Punk was about short hair, short, punchy songs, sharp clothes and a politico-social consciousness. To the punks Lynyrd Skynyrd was about very long hair, very long songs with very long guitar solos, crap clothes and no consciousness whatsoever.

To the discerning listener Lynyrd Skynyrd was no mere mindless boogie monster but a band with a great deal of subtlety in its music and lyrics and if they celebrated the American South, it was not simply the redneck, backwoods South but a land where the people still have roots they believe in and are happy to celebrate without the need to be racist or crude. For this reason, for example, Skynyrd's very sharp retort to Neil Young's accusatory song, Alabama, in their second biggest hit, Sweet Home Alabama, explains that living in the South and being proud of it does not necessarily mean that one supports the policies or ideas of recidivist racist politicians.

Anyhow, I learnt from the NME review of One More From The Road that Skynyrd had good tunes, plenty guitar power with their three ax line-up and was sufficiently in thrall to the heritage of Cream, one of my top favourite bands of all time, to cover Crossroads. They had a road song, a song about drinking, a cautionary tale about gun control, a cautionary tale about drug abuse, a JJ Cale cover, a Jimmy Rodgers cover and a lengthy version of Free Bird, the new national anthem of the South, as it then was. The album showcased a band at the top of its game, at full throttle and with the road ahead clear and rosy.

The plane crash put paid to all that optimism about the future of Skynyrd. The band went into a lengthy hiatus while Gary Rossington and Alven Collins, the two original and remaining guitarists formed the Rossington-Collins Band and tried to carry on. In the late Eighties Skynyrd Lynyrd was revived with Donnie van Zant, formerly the singer of another Southern band, 38 Special, stepped into his older brother's shoes and led the band for a tribute tour, which led to a permanent reunion. They even brought back guitarist Ed Burns, one of the early members of the band, who'd left because he could not stand Ronnie van Zant's violence. The fans were still out there and were willing to pay money to hear those old favourites once again.

In the meantime I'd bought a copy of One More From The Road at a record sale somewhere and it quite quickly became a much played record or, in fact, a tape, because I immediately recorded the vinyl LP onto a C90 tape to save the vinyl from deteriorating in the way that local pressings of records tended to do.

One More From The Road is probably my favourite live album (anything by Cream disregarded for the moment) after the somewhat shorter Live Full House album by the J Geils Band. The Geils boys play mostly high-energy, stomping R & B styled rock, where Skynyrd's energy is found in the intensity of the performances rather than in any kind of wired nature. They combine rock, blues, jazz, and country in a funky southern stew where melody and tunefulness are as important as the riffs, or extended guitar solos.

I loved Sweet Home Alabama, Whiskey Rock-a-Roller and Gimme Three Steps to bits, and endlessly replayed Free Bird simply to get to the all-out, frenzied and extended three guitar jam in the last part of the performance. It was almost too incredible to be true! Even at home I could feel how the energy in the room must have raised the roof by the rime the band played the final notes. In a sense the guitar jam built and built like a trance tune builds to the moment of release. Great stuff!

Those tunes were my top favourites but every other tune was great too, with long jams on T for Texas, and Call Me The Breeze, and an interesting but intense Crossroads which almost matched Cream's famous live version.

To my mind One More From The Road was that elusive rarity so beloved of NME writers, the live album that should not have been reduced to a single disc.

Many years later, and after a long search, I also bought the CD version of the album and was disappointed that T for Texas was left off, presumably because of the length of the set which would not in its entirety fit on a single CD. It must have been some kind of cost saving exercise not to release the album on two discs to be able to present the entire vinyl LP.

Some two years ago I came across a double sided DVD which has almost an entire Skynyrd set from Knebworth in 1976, as well as songs from various other gigs in the same period, and one side of the 1987 tribute concert with Donnie van Zant. The Seventies Skynyrd look and sound amazing, especially the stomping intro to Gimme Three Steps, and the energised finale of Free Bird recorded in front of an audience of Californian kids. I may be an older white guy with dinosaur tastes but I have not seen or heard many current rock bands that have that energy and those chops and the really joyful pounding sound of Southern boogie blues at its best. And who look so interesting. The Seventies must have been the last proper decade where rock stars truly and utterly looked materially different from the kids they entertained.

Unfortunately for the classic line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd they were not the street survivors their last studio effort claimed they were, but the memory sure does live on. The Skynyrd body of work, especially in the form of a "best of" compilation, is right up there with the gods of rock and roll.


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