Lynyrd Skynyrd were, in many ways, the archetypal Southern States good-time whiskey and bar-room guitar/piano boogie rock'n'roll band. Maybe not as innately talented as The Allman Brothers Band, they were earthier and more flawed, but always retained an irresistible bluesy appeal. The plane crash that took the lives of three band members and effectively ended the first phase of the band's existence is well-documented, but it doesn't make it any the less tragic.
I have reviewed the first five Lynyrd Skynyrd albums, and the 1976 live one. Therein can be found their best work.
Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd (1973)
I Ain’t The One/Tuesday’s Gone/Gimme Three Steps/Simple Man/Things Goin’ On/Mississippi Kid/Poison Whiskey/Free Bird
This was the debut album from Alabama’s Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is full of muscular, often slowish-paced bluesy rock, as you would expect - drums, guitars and rollicking bar-room piano topped off with Ronnie Van Zant’s rousing, charismatic Bourbon-sodden vocals. The sound is a bit rough and ready in places but hell, just turn it up, buddy. Ain’t no goddamn audiophiles round these parts, boy. Having said that, I have an old copy of the album, the latest remaster of it is excellent, so there you go.
I Ain’t The One is a typical chugging piece of Skynyrd bluesy rock of the sort they would make a career on. Tuesday’s Gone is the first example of the slow-burning, anthemic rock ballad that the band would do so well. It has vibe of The Rolling Stones’ bluesy material from Beggar’s Banquet about it, but with that uplifting, rousing BIG chorus too. The bit at 3:21 when it slows down slightly and the piano comes in is archetypal Skynyrd. The dénouement of the song is thoroughly wonderful and everything that was great about this band. They could take you to rock heaven. It is truly a magnificent song.
Gimme Three Steps is a riffy, chunky rocker with a huge, heavy bass sound that pounds straight out of your speakers with a huge thump. Lyrically, it has some of the wry humour that Skynyrd often injected into their songs. They even diversify the drum sound to include some congas too, surprisingly.
Simple Man is also the name of a Bad Company song and funnily enough this could easily be one. You could easily imagine Paul Rodgers singing this and instrumentally it sounds similar too, with that big, slow rumbling bass driving it inexorably along. Things Goin’ On is a piano-driven slice of Southern roadhouse rock. You can’t go too far wrong with this, can you, while Mississippi Kid is an authentic-sounding bottleneck blues straight out of the backwoods - Skynyrd could play the blues as well as rock. Poison Whiskey is rock, but it is solid bluesy rock. Apart from Gimme Three Steps, most of this album is slow paced but grindingly strong. While The Allman Brothers came along first in the South with their often extended, skilfully played blues jams, it was Skynyrd who really merged rock and anthemic hooks with the blues. This was not a commercial album, though, they still wanted to put out serious album material. They did just that here. It was highly credible, yet at times it could be singalong. Despite Skynyrd’s reputation as kick-ass rockers, though, I have always thought of this as an album of slow, swaggering, whiskey-drenched blues rock peppered with occasional irresistible hooks.
Oh did I forget Free Bird? Over nine minutes of classic seventies, Southern rock. It has all the ingredients - a brooding build to the anthemic “I can’t change” chorus parts, killer guitar and finally rock-out ending with the drums on fire and the band rocking full pelt. No arguments here. Classic fare.
Skynyrd never really changed that much, either before or after their tragic accident. You knew what you were going to get. Fine by me.
The non-album tracks available from this period were the authentic, bluesy Mr. Banker and the singalong bar-room rock of Down South Jukin'. Both would have been fine additions to the album.
Second Helping (1974)
Sweet Home Alabama/I Need You/Don’t Ask Me No Questions/Workin’ For MCA/The Ballad Of Curtis Loew/Swamp Music/The Needle And The Spoon/Call Me The Breeze
This was a slightly more polished follow-up to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s raw, bluesy debut from the previous year. As the title suggests, though, it is pretty much more of the same - muscular, soulful Southern blues rock. It has yet to be remastered, however, so the sound is a bit duller than it might be. Skynyrd are often seen as the archetypal Southern rock band, certainly the rawest, but probably the more perfect one were The Allman Brothers. Skynyrd were no musical perfectionists, but it did give their albums an unfettered edginess. You got the impression that they wouldn’t do endless re-takes of songs, they laid them down and got on with the next one.
The iconic Sweet Home Alabama opens the album. It is a timeless, superb rocker and needs no further comment, really. Along with Free Bird, it is the song everyone knows from the band. I have always had a bit of a problem with the band’s castigation of Neil Young for daring to call into question the South’s institutionalised racism. Look out your own window, boys.
I Need You is one of those slow rock ballads Skynyrd did so well, that Bad Company made a career trying to emulate. It has a slow burning blues sound to it, with some nice clear cymbal work too. It is in the same vein as Tuesday’s Gone from the previous album, but not quite as dramatically anthemic. It is still solid Skynyrd blues, though.
Don’t Ask Me No Questions sees the pace upping on a lively rocker full of brass, slide guitar and chunky riffs. Workin’ For MCA sees the band taking a bit of a risk and singing of the travails of working for their record company on another catchy, riffy number.
The Ballad Of Curtis Loew is an appealing slow number about an old bluesman. It has vague hints of Elton John’s early seventies material in places. There is a piano bit straight from The Band’s The Weight too. Swamp Music is a fast and infectious rocker and the same applies to the warning of the dangers of drugs in the ironically Neil Young-esque titled The Needle And The Spoon. The riff-laden, chugging rock continues on Call Me The Breeze. A couple of similar bonus tracks are included in Was I Right Or Wrong and Take Your Time, both standard rock offerings.
Nuthin' Fancy (1975)
Saturday Night Special/Cheatin’ Woman/Railroad Song/I’m A Country Boy/On The Hunt/Am I Losin’/Made In The Shade/Whiskey Rock-A-Roller
This was an album that, to a certain extent, harked back to the rawness of the debut. It is heavier, chunkier and in possession of a better, clearer sound quality.
Saturday Night Special is a solid, brooding rocker with some nice percussion backing up the trustworthy riffs. As seemed usual for Skynyrd albums now, the second track in, Cheatin’ Woman is a slow, grinding blues rock number, again in the Bad Company vein. Just keep away from those cheatin’ women, though. Railroad Song is an attractive, lively country rocker, with some nice cymbals driving it along.
I’m A Country Boy has Ronnie Van Zant telling us how he is happy to live a thousand miles from New York City and its pollution and so on. Ronnie leaves us in no doubt that he likes sunshine and fresh, clean air. Good for him. He sounded a lot like Paul Rodgers on this one. On The Hunt is straight-ahead heavyish rock. This is quite away from the whole Allman Brothers Southern rock feel. In amongst the heavy assault is found Am I Losin’, which is a surprisingly airy, acoustic-driven number with a country-ish feel to it. Made In The Shade is also an unusual inclusion, being an even more country slice of folky blues. It is a maudlin, slightly jazzy drinking song. It is fine by me, but I should imagine many fans at the time wanted the rock to return. Skynyrd were a group of country boys, though, and this often made itself known on their albums somewhere.
The rock duly returned, nevertheless, on Whiskey Rock-A-Roller, which is, as the title suggests, full of bar-room riffs. It is no-nonsense rock from a largely no-nonsense album.
Give Me Back My Bullets (1976)
Gimme Back My Bullets/Every Mother’s Son/Trust/(I Got The) Same Old Blues/Double Trouble/Roll Gypsy Roll/Searching/Cry For The Bad Man/All I Can Do Is Write About It
The heavy vibe continues on this, the band’s fourth album, and for some, this was a somewhat tired-sounding offering. You can’t help but feel it is more of the same, though, and not quite as good. Some impressive guitar solos save many of the tracks from being a bit ordinary. The sound quality isn’t quite as clear or defined as on the previous album. It was received as a bit of a disappointment at the time, and, to an extent, it still evokes a reaction like that.
Gimme Back My Bullets is the usual reliable bluesy rock opener, while Every Mother’s Son is a nice slow number with a great guitar solo near the end, but it suffers a bit from a muffled sound. Trust rocks solidly enough but is nothing outstanding. There is nice guitar in it too, although one bit lifts straight from Sweet Home Alabama.
(I Got The) Same Old Blues is the J.J. Cale song also covered by Bryan Ferry. Skynyrd do it justice. Double Trouble rocks along impressively enough. Roll Gypsy Roll causes no offence but pulls down no trees either. Once more, a fine guitar solo is its best part. Searching is a good one, I have to say, being a Free/Bad Company-esque mid-pace rocker. That same sound is found on Cry For The Bad Man. Both Skynyrd and Bad Company were similar in that they produced a fair few albums of the same sort of material. After around four of them it does tend to get a bit samey, however good it is, and this is a good track. All I Can Do Is Write About It is a doleful but melodious ballad to end on.
Overall, it was the guitar that gave this album its good points, as opposed to the songwriting.
Street Survivors (1977)
What’s Your Name/That Smell/One More Time/I Know A Little/You Got That Right/Never Dreamed/Honky Tonk Night Time Man/Ain’t No Good Life
Tragically, three days after this album’s release, three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and several members of their management and road crew were killed in a plane crash. It would mark the end of the classic first Lynyrd Skynyrd line-up. It is an improvement on the previous album, both sonically and compositionally. However, it has a bit of a change in style and by the end it has gone decidedly country rock.
What’s Your Name is a brassy rocker with a bit of a loose, easy edge to it. That Smell, horrible in its prescience, is a broody, bluesy number that tells that “the smell of death’s around you”. Check out the great guitar solo on it, however, despite its eerie coincidence it is a corker of a track. It was probably the first incarnation of the group’s last classic song.
One More Time is a typical Skynyrd slow pace but powerful rick ballad. They specialised in this sort of thing and did it so well, making these sort of songs very much their trademark. I Know A Little is a different sort of number for the band, being a lively boogie-woogie blues that rocks from beginning to end. You Got That Right is a stomping slice of bar-room boogie, while I Never Dreamed has a more subtle bass line and melody than the band usually used and a bit of a laid-back sort of country soul vocal. It is quite a departure from their usual material, almost Eagles-like. Even more country rock-ish is a cover of Merle Haggard’s Honky Tonk Night Time Man, enlivened by some excellent finger-pickin’ guitar.
Solid rock is back for the final track, Ain’t No Good Life, which chugs along bluesily. Some fine piano enhances the song, together with pounding drums and impressive lead guitar. Sadly, this was to be the last track heard from this great rock band. These five albums were a great legacy and still sound good today, a fine testament to a fine band.
The bonus tracks Georgia Peaches and Sweet Little Missy are both good tracks and could have been included on what was originally quite a short album. The jaunty Jacksonville Kid is enjoyable too.
The only Lynyrd Skynyrd live album from the original line up so tragically taken a short while after this concert. It sees this kick-ass Southern, whiskey-swilling rock band at their finest.
Yes, their signature tune Sweet Home Alabama and the live staple of Free Bird are there, of course, but for a taste of Lynyrd Skynyrd at their absolute best, listen to Tuesday’s Gone, with its beautiful piano part in the middle and stunning guitar at the end, as well as the late Ronnie Van Zant’s excellent lead vocal.
There are many other highlights too - superb rockers like Saturday Night Special, Call Me The Breeze and Gimme Three Steps and the authentic blues rock of Travellin’ Man and Simple Man. Strangely there is a track by Free called Travellin’ Man and one by Bad Company called Simple Man although these are different tracks, the influence of both bands on Skynyrd is clear to hear. Skynyrd’s Simple Man was written three years before Bad Company’s though, so there are no doubt cross-influences to be fair. There is an impressive cover of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads too, in the same blues rock vein.
The album has great remastered, full sound and has a true “live” atmosphere. Great stuff. The deluxe edition has several of the tracks repeated as “alternate takes”, however, for the best full concert effect, it is probably wise to listen to the tracks as listed.
Ronnie Van Zant, Cassie Gaines and Steve Gaines, who lost their lives on 20 October 1977. RIP.