Category Archives: The Essentials

The Essentials: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago: As 1980 dawned, I was 14 and finishing my final year at Keith Valley Middle School, which housed the 8th and 9th grades in the suburban Philadelphia school district of Hatboro-Horsham. By year’s end, I was 15 and a newly minted sophomore at the Hatboro-Horsham Senior High School.

Highlights of the year are many: The Far Side comic strip debuted; the Pittsburgh Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl; the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team beat the Soviets to win the Gold Medal at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY; The Empire Strikes Back flickered onto movie screens for the first time; Pac-Man first ate a ghost; CNN launched; the Robert Redford-directed Ordinary Peoplestill a powerful film – premiered; and the Philadelphia Phillies bested the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.

But for all that good, there was plenty of bad: Paul McCartney was busted in Japan for trying to smuggle in marijuana for personal use; the Iranian Hostage Crisis dragged on throughout the year; unemployment averaged 7.1 percent while inflation soared to 13.5 percent; the Philadelphia Flyers lost to the New York Islanders (and linesman Leon Stickle) in the Stanley Cup finals; and, in December, John Lennon was assassinated.

On the political front, Jimmy Carter’s mastery of politics proved to be nil. Don’t me wrong: He’s a good man, and a great former president, but he was the wrong leader for the times. In fact, after near four years in office, the only thing he could inspire people to do was vote against him. First, he faced a formidable challenge in the year’s Democratic president primaries from Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy; and then, in the fall, he lost in a landslide to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

There were also, I should mention, a slew of good-to-great albums released. Rather than replicate Wikipedia’s list, I’ll highlight ones that I added to my collection at the time: the Pretenders’ self-titled debut; Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind; Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass; Eric Clapton’s Just One Night; Paul McCartney’s McCartney II; the Kinks’ One for the Road; Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion; Al Stewart’s 24 Carrots; the Xanadu soundtrack; and Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure.

That wasn’t every new release I picked up that year, mind you, but – memory being what it is – they’re the ones that, off the top of my head, I remember dropping onto my turntable or, in the case of the Pretenders’ debut, slipping into my Realistic all-in-one stereo’s little-used cassette deck.

A few of those releases got tons of repeat plays in my household – Mad Love, Against the Wind, McCartney II, One for the Road, Crimes of Passion and Xanadu, especially. And at year’s end, as was my custom, I selected my Album of the Year from those six candidates – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind came out on top.

Even now, I’d make the same call. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s The River, Van Morrison’s Common One, Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves, the Jam’s Sound Affects, and a few other LPs would be in the running, but – when all is said and done – Against the Wind is it for me.

It’s why I have a framed lithograph of the album cover on the wall above my desk.

The 10 songs yearn and burn, ruminate and illuminate, and ride an interstate jammed with regret and hope. The songs rock (“Horizontal Bop”), roll (“Long Twin Silver Line”), cogitate (“No Man’s Land”) and contemplate (“Against the Wind”). And, like a fine wine, they’ve only gotten better with age.

One highlight is the mid-tempo “You’ll Accomp’ny Me”:

Another: the title cut.

And “No Man’s Land” –

To my ears, it’s one of Seger’s greatest (if lesser-known) songs. As I hear it, and I could be wrong, it’s a metaphor about the struggles faced by writers of every stripe – the difficulty of creating something from nothing. It also contains one of my favorite lyrics:  “But sanctuary never comes/without some kind of risk/illusions without freedom/never quite add up to bliss.” They sound more profound than they likely are, I think, but it’s no matter. They make me think, as do the lines that follow:

The haunting and the haunted
Play a game no one can win
The spirits come at midnight
And by dawn they’re gone again.

Who hasn’t had a great idea late at night only to have it fade come the morning light?

Lyrically speaking, the only song that probably hasn’t aged well is “Her Strut,” which was inspired by Jane Fonda. But the guitars are killer. (And, for what it’s worth, Jane likes the song.)

The album’s closer, “Shinin’ Brightly,” is probably the greatest song Van Morrison never wrote:

As a whole, the album proved a success: It became Bob’s first – and only – No. 1 LP, eventually selling more than 5 million copies. It’s also the home to three songs that made the Top 20 (“Fire Lake,” which reached No. 6; “Against the Wind,” which cracked the Top 5; and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” which reached No. 14.)

And, as with his other Silver Bullet Band albums, the band itself only plays on some songs; the others, which I’ve asterisked below, feature the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

Side One:

  1. The Horizontal Bop
  2. You’ll Accomp’ny Me
  3. Her Strut
  4. No Man’s Land**
  5. Long Twin Silver Line**

Side Two:

  1. Against the Wind
  2. Good for Me**
  3. Betty Lou’s Getting Out Tonight
  4. Fire Lake**
  5. Shinin’ Brightly**

The Essentials: The Jam – Snap!

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)On back-to-back days in November 1983, I bought two double-LP compilations by two paradigm-shifting British bands: the Who’s The Kids Are Alright and the Jam’s Snap! I thoroughly enjoyed both right from the start. The Who’s set is, obviously, the odds-and-sods soundtrack to the 1979 documentary film about Messrs Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle & Moon. The comprehensive Jam collection, which was released the previous month, contains 29 of the then-recently disbanded group’s songs, including their 16 U.K. singles, b-sides and the “That’s Entertainment” demo.

Both sets are great, but only one – in my estimation, at least – is essential: The Jam’s Snap! It’s one of the greatest best-of collections ever released, and remains my go-to choice when in the mood to crank the Jam.

If you’re curious about Paul Weller’s first group, it’s the best place to start. If you’re a longtime fan, it’s still the best way to experience the taut trio’s top tracks in rapid-fire succession. Even in the streaming age, where “new-and-improved” compilations and playlists are a mere mouse-click away, it’s the only such set that matters.

About it’s only competition: Compact Snap!, released in 1984, which trims eight songs from the set (so that it could fit onto one CD). I picked it up a few years after that, in late 1987 or early ’88, at a now-defunct CD-only store in Jenkintown, Pa., that was called (if my memory is right) 21st Century Sound. The excised songs were “Away from the Numbers,” “Billy Hunt,” “English Rose,” “Mr. Clean,” “The Butterfly Collector,” “Thick As Thieves,” “Man in the Corner Shop” and “Tales from the Riverbank.”

The original Snap! eventually made its way to CD in 2006, and both the original and “compact” versions are available on most streaming outlets. Give it a go.

The track list:

The Essentials: Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

It’s an album so good that I’ve bought it multiple times – first on vinyl, then CD, then via the two-CD The Best of Linda Ronstadt: The Capitol Years, which actually contains her four Capitol albums in full (plus a handful of bonus tracks), then on high-resolution (24/192) and now, for a second time, vinyl – though this last time it was a Christmas gift from my wife, so perhaps I shouldn’t count it.

In any event, it’s Linda’s greatest work.

Even that young (now old) curmudgeon Dave Marsh, in the (blue) Rolling Stone Record Guide, had nice things to say about it – after calling her “at best a competent craftsman, and at worst an empty-headed, soulless dispenser of music as sheer commodity,” that is. (Side note: I recall reading those words – and similar criticisms Marsh leveled against other artists I like[d] – in the early ‘80s and thinking he must have a hearing impairment. Because we certainly weren’t hearing the same thing.) To the point: Of this album, the first Ronstadt LP produced by Peter Asher, Marsh writes that her “voice was finally pitted against fine material and pushed to convey some of the spirit as well as the outline of the songs. ‘You’re No Good’ and ‘When Will I Be Loved’ actually are better than the Betty Everett and Everly Brothers originals, and the title song, written by Anna McGarrigle, represents Ronstadt’s first important discovery of a new writer.”

Now, I happen to like Linda’s earlier efforts. To my ears, they’re solid efforts accented by moments of sheer grace – her rendition of Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water,” from her eponymous third LP, is the best example. But Heart Like a Wheel is when she found her voice. She may not have written the songs, but she sure sounds – to me, at least – as if she’s lived them. The performances are letter-note perfect, passionate and dramatic, beginning with the album’s opening cut.

Other highlights include “It Doesn’t Matter Any More”…

…“Dark End of the Street”…

…the title cut…

…”When Will I Be Loved”…

…and “Willin’.”

And thus began a streak of LPs that helped define the 1970s, including such gems as Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams and Living in the USA. They all followed the pattern Asher and Ronstadt implemented so well on Heart – well-chosen oldies alongside songs from up-and-coming singer-songwriters. Each of those albums is worth picking up. But none sparkle as much as this gem.

Side 1:

  1. You’re No Good
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Any More
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like a Wheel

Side 2:

  1. When Will I Be Loved
  2. Willin’
  3. I Can’t Help If I’m Still in Love With You
  4. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  5. You Can Close Your Eyes