One of America’s greatest rock bands…
Review by Paul Quinton
Release date: 26 January 2015
With vinyl making something of a comeback in recent months, a lot of record companies are looking into their back catalogues and putting together some very attractive packages, particularly in boxset form. While the Led Zep re-issues have been staggered, others, such as the recent Iron Maiden set, have been packaged together, and now it’s the turn of Southern Rock masters Lynyrd Skynyrd to get this treatment. This set is the band’s complete recorded output, from their debut album up to the last album before the plane crash that tore the heart out of the original line up, including the ‘One More from The Road’ double live album, and includes seven discs, each packaged in a reproduction of the original artwork, pressed on 180 gram, heavyweight audiophile vinyl and collected in a slipcase box. Preview copies of the package weren’t available, but in terms of the music itself, if you have any affinity at all for the Southern Rock scene of the early 70s, this is a very enticing package indeed.
Famously named after a disciplinarian teacher, one Leonard Skinner, the band were discovered by former Dylan sidesman Al Kooper, who signed them to his Sounds of The South label and produced their debut album. It was self titled, but given the bracketed sub-heading ‘Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd’, and was a heady mix of blues, a little bit of country and influences from British bands like Free and Cream. While it’s always going to be defined by the Monster that is ‘Free Bird’, it should equally always be pointed out that there is a lot of other great music on this album, especially songs like ‘Tuesday’s Gone’, Gimme Three Steps’ and ‘Simple Man’. All the facets of the band were in place, from Ronnie Van Zant’s unmistakeable vocals, the piano of Billy Powell and the twin guitars of Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, interchanging rhythm and solos, but often weaving around each other like a pair of duelling snakes. The album was licensed to MCA for a nationwide release, and ironically they were of the opinion that Free Bird would never get played on the radio because it was far too long, at just over nine minutes. Now of course, it’s a staple of classic rock radio, and eventually helped the album sell more than 2 million copies.
The band’s second album, Second Helping, released a mere eight months after the debut, could easily have been regarded in the same way as the first album, with one track dominating the conversation. That track, of course, was ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, with its unmistakeable opening riff, lyrics apparently a direct response to Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man’ and which became the band’s biggest single hit in the U.S. However, despite the success and, to a certain extent, the notoriety of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, to this reviewer the second album is a far more consistent album than the debut, with songs like ‘The Ballad of Curtis Loew’, ‘Swamp Music’, The Needle And The Spoon’, ‘Call Me The Breeze’ (one of Skynyrd’s rare cover versions) and regular set opener, the mighty ‘Working For MCA,’ rarely letting the quality level slip. This was also the first studio album to feature the band’s triple guitar line-up, with Ed King joining Rossington and Collins, and with Leon Wilkeson taking over from King on bass. This was probably the band’s finest hour in the studio.
Third album Nuthin’ Fancy saw the departure of drummer Bob Burns and the debut of his replacement, Artimus Pyle. Again released less than a year after its predecessor, (it was a different world then), it was also the band’s first top ten album in the US. Overall it doesn’t reach the heights of the first two albums, there’s no defining track for a start, but there’s still some good music here. ‘Saturday Night Special’, featured in a number of films including Burt Reynolds’ original version of ‘The Mean Machine’ and the looping riff of ‘On The Hunt’ are particular highlights. Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics probably invented most of the clichés of Southern Rock, but they’re not his best on this album, too often sounding uninspired and routine, which sums up this album as a whole, the one release that most fails to capture the essence of the band, not least their dynamic live shows.
During the tour to promote Nuthin’ Fancy, guitarist Ed King quit, and the band continued with just two guitarists. However, they did look to develop their sound, bringing in a trio of female backing singers. However, the subsequent fourth album. ‘Gimme Back My Bullets suffered from the same problems as Nuthin’ Fancy, there were some good songs here, notably the title track, and ‘Double Trouble’, and although the band did their best, it was the sound of a band treading water, not being able to find a direction that could give them a much-needed shot of adrenaline. It was Skynyrd’s least successful album to date.
The fourth album and subsequent tour had been carried out with just two guitarists, Collins and Rossington, and so the band decided that a return to the three-pronged attack was called for. Backing singer Cassie Gaines had been pushing the merits of her brother Steve, and after some thought, and jamming, he became the band’s third guitarist. Not only was he a terrific player, he brought some serious songwriting ability to the band, as the subsequent album proved, but first the band had a commitment to record a live album at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta. The shows were actually partially benefit gigs for the venue as it was threatened with closure, and were originally also intended to be filmed, although the band backed out of this, allegedly because it would have been too much pressure. A pity, because that might have been one of the great concert films, as from the first notes of ‘Working For MCA’, the band are on fire, never letting the intensity drop, singing and playing a near perfect set of Skynyrd classics, interspersed with three new songs, covers of ‘Crossroads’ and Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘T for Texas’, and a new original song ‘Travellin’ Man’. It’s the perfect record of what an incendiary live band they could be. It always surprises me that whenever there’s a discussion about the great double live albums, ‘One More From the Road isn’t in there alongside ‘Made In Japan’, ‘Strangers In the Night’ and ‘Live And Dangerous’. If you’re into Southern Rock in any way at all, this album is absolutely essential.
The live album was the band’s biggest selling album to date, which made the pressure to record a worthy follow up even more intense. The first sessions were done in Miami, but the band were told by their own sound engineer that these sessions weren’t good enough, some parts were re-recorded, but eventually that the album should be redone totally. In the end, Street Survivors was a triumph, perhaps the band’s second best studio record, after ‘Second Helping’, with consistently good songs, including ‘That Smell’, written by Ronnie Van Zant to point the finger at certain members’ off-stage behaviour, ‘What’s Your Name’, which was written deliberately to be a single, and the exuberant ‘You Got That Right’, almost the band’s mission statement.
A mere three days after the album was released came the plane crash that ripped the heart and soul out of the band, killing Ronnie van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and the road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and critically injuring the rest of the band and crew. Eventually the band reconvened with Ronnie’s brother Johnny on vocals and they continue to record and tour to this day, although with numerous line-up changes, and tragedies along the way, leaving Gary Rossington as the only original member. Although they’ve recorded some good albums since then, particularly 2009’s ‘God And Guns’, they’ve never reached the heights of the original band. While this package is solely comprised of the original studio albums, with none of the bonus tracks included on the CD rerelease programme of a decade ago, it looks to be a very nice package and will be a good introduction to the career of one of America’s greatest rock bands.
9 out of 10