18. Lynyrd Skynyrd

(I had to begin a post about fuckin' Skynyrd with "dude").  
If any band epitomizes the inverse of my taste in music (especially in my teens and twenties), it's Skynyrd.  This band symbolizes the reason I got into Bauhaus and Talking Heads.  They're an icon for my decision to turn off classic rock and look toward Magazine.  They're an icon for everything I was rebelling against upon hearing Entertainment! by Gang of Four - or The Man Machine by Kraftwerk for that matter - or anything by Dead Kennedys - and fucking rejected not just Lynyrd Skynyrd, but everyone who liked them and everything they stood for.  Fuck this band.  Fuck their fans.  Fuck YOU.

OK, I'm'ma' calm down.  I'm fanning myself with one hand as I type this.  I have three hands.   So, eighteen posts into this series, I'm gonna tackle the band who wrote "Free Bird".  I've been working as a sound engineer for thirty years.  Every god damned night of my life, some stupid pinhead yells out "Freebird!" at whatever concert I am mixing.  It doesn't matter if it's a rock gig, a jazz gig, or a fucking gospel gig, someone without any sense at all thinks it's clever to yell "Freebird!" at some point in the show.  Every.  Night.  About three times out of the 2000+ live converts I've engineered, some smart-ass band has actually started playing it, and every single time, the audience has been dumbfounded.  Not because the band have the audacity to play the song, but because few of the people present actually understand that "Free Bird" is a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Usually, the dipshit who requested it doesn't even realize it's a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  They seem to think that "Freebird!" just something you're supposed to shout at a concert to show everyone what a jackass fratboy date rapist you are.

So yeah, fucking "Free Bird".  What else does this band play?  I dunno.  Is "Sweet Home Alabama" theirs?  I think so.  Man, this post is gonna be a slog.  What else?  "Gimme Three Steps"?  Is that Skynyrd?.  Oh and "What's Your Name Little Girl"?  That's them, right?  That's all I've got.  What else do I know about this band?  Not a lot.  Maybe one of the main guys is Ronnie van Zandt (is that spelled right)?  I wanna say a couple of the lads died in a plane crash.  The Big Bopper, Richie Valens, and Buddy Holly.  No, sorry, that was the real plane crash.  The O.G. rock n' roll plane crash.  

All right, I had to pick a Skynyrd album to listen to, because I hate myself, life, and everything about the universe, and listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on purpose is the only way I can truly perform an adequate act of self -harm horrific enough to express my deep inner turmoil.   A quick web search for the oxymoron "best Lynyrd Skynyrd album" reveals that their 1973 debut Lynyrd Skynyrd (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) is universally in first place, followed by their 1974 follow-up, Second Helpings.  Third place album varies widely.  So Pronounced it shall be.  As for versions, the Songs of the South, MSFL, and AP pressings are well-rated, as are the original MCA pressings from Japan (but not MCA pressings from USA).  Sadly(?) I couldn't find any of the desired pressings, so I had to go with an MCA pressing from the U.S.

This series is all about tabula rasa listening, my friends.  As usual I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life (above), I'm taking it at face value with no baggage.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) (1973)
Version: MCA 088 112 727-2 (2001)


I Ain't The One
The first thing we learn on this record is that at least one band member can count to three, but apparently he couldn't manage four.  Then we get backward drums.  That's a surprise.  Definitely unexpected.  Turns out these backward drums continue playing through the whole song.  They become gimmicky and annoying, and are often the loudest thing in the mix.  This is a ham-fisted and clumsy use of a (usually) always welcome production trick.   The normal drums stay buried in the mix, throwing it all off-kilter, mix-wise.  This guitar work reminds me a lot of The Eagles.  That is not a surprise.  Almost completely expected.  Vocalist is really buried in this mix; is it that he can't sing or is it that what he's saying isn't important?  At 0:55 his voice suddenly and noticeably drops even lower, and stays there for the duration of the song.  He mentions a gun at one point.  I wonder how many of these songs will do so?  So far these guys sound like a typical southern bar band.  The playing is competent but not special.  Song is completely forgettable.

Tuesday's Gone
By chance, I'm writing this one Tuesday!  Wow, that means there must be supernatural cosmic forces at work!  This guitar lead already reminds me of "Free Bird".  So does the vocal cadence.  This band are showing limitations already; it's already clear that they have a fairly narrow palette of ideas to draw from.  There's a really chimey guitar in there with an interesting tone (good), an acoustic guitar that's all pick and no body (bad), and some strings in the left channel (and then the right, they move) that could be Mellotron.  Wait, one of these guys was smart enough to master use of a Mellotron?  There's an extended instrumental section that shows a little ambition, but definitely feels like a bit of detritus from the recently-concluded 1960s.  The oft-repeated refrain is "Tuesday's gone with the wind. My woman's gone with the wind."  Man, that's freakin' trite.  This song is pretty long at 7:32 but seems to run out of steam a bit after the 5:00 mark.  Doesn't really do anything new after that.  Further noodling  reaches a dynamic peak at 6:06 and then breaks down and keeps going; they definitely should have ended it there if not much sooner. 

Gimme Three Steps
This song is ostensibly about a conflict between two men.  One wants to shoot the other for dancing with his wife.  The man with the gun pointed at him seems to imply that the woman never told him she was married, and he wouldn't have approached her if he knew.  This is a very noble perspective and shows some level of integrity on his part; we wonder if the gunman let him go.  Can we assume that "cutting a rug" (dancing) is a euphemism for doing something significantly more naked?  If not, is dancing all that bad?  Maybe it was 50 years ago... but then again, that era was much closer to a time when partner dancing was far more common than it is today.  These days lots of people just jump out on the dance floor solo or with a group and shake it.  Really, this song isn't about a conflict between two men.  It's about a duplicitous woman who lied to our poor narrator.  She needed to have told him she was married, or turned down his advances.  Her dishonesty and selfishness is about to get this dude killed.  The song is throwing light upon some of the more dire consequences of lying.  Do I believe that?  Probably not.  But it's worth thinking about.  "Well the crowd cleared away / And I began to pray / And the water fell on the floor."  Is he crying, or did he piss himself?  The song is another moderately competent little rocker with a sing-along chorus and way too much of the congas in the mix.

Simple Man
Simple song, simply lyric, simple man.  When any lyric starts off with any variant on the theme of "my mama told me" you know we're in for something about being a good person and letting your troubles go.  I want to hear a song that's like "my mama told me to do drugs, fuck, and drive faster, and that was great advice".  Yeah, go write that one, I'll wait.  Halfway through "Simple Man", the mix engineer cranks up the reverb on the snare drum for a dramatic effect, but then leaves it on for while.  Sounded good for the dramatic part, but after that it just sounds awful, draws attention to itself, and murks up the mix.  Later, they crank it up on individual drum hits at the end of each phrase.  It sounds so cheesy, so bad.  It's like this guy just got out of sound mixing skool and wanted to play around with these effects, but had no sense of how to use them with any grace or subtlety.  This drummer is serviceable at best, but between these reverberation shenanigans and the backward stuff on "I Ain't The One" he just can't get a chance to play drums without this freakin' D-list mix engineer monkeying with his tone.  The rest of the song is our vocalist warbling trite platitudes like "Be a simple kind of man / Won't you do this for me son, If you can? "  Life-changing advice there, mom.  Surprised she didn't advise him to buy a gun.

Things Goin' On
This sounds like a southern rock stereotype.  It's like what someone from Massachusetts might think southern rock sounds like.  "Too many lives they've spent across the ocean. / Too much money been spent upon the moon."  Interesting and topical lyric there.  I guess one of these guys is capable of reading a newspaper.  Or at least listening to gossip.  We can guess that the "across the ocean" line was in reference to war, or (being 1971) Viet Nam in particular.  And of course this record was made two years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and during the years when five subsequent moon landings were happening.  I reckon the moon landings to be one of the great achievements of both science and of the human spirit, one of mankind's finest moments.  But it's also true that lots of people were against it at the time (as is clearly the case with this band's lyricist) because of the expense and the perspective that NASA is nothing but an extension of the military-industrial complex (a view which I understand but don't agree with; wars are destructive and vile, while space exploration is vital and life-affirming).  "They're goin' ruin the air we breathe" (true 'dat, but listen, we're all helping them to do so), and "I don't think they really care / I think they just sit up there / And just get high."  Yeah, the southerners and northerners can agree on one thing: shit's fucked up.  It's just the specifics of what is most fucked up, and the why, and and the best methods of fixing it that no one can agree on.

Mississippi Kid
Ha, this acoustic bluegrass number starts off with a very Chuck Berry type of riff played in parallel on a banjo and an acoustic guitar.  This tune sidesteps the southern rock cliches of the previous tune and goes straight for something resembling traditional Appalachian folk music.  It isn't a remotely engaging tune, however.  There's no melody or instrumental hook.  Just a 12-bar blues pattern and a generic lyric.  Indeed he mentions his pistols (four times).  A slide-guitar solo is buried in the mix, and is a pale imitation of anything that the greats of mid-century country or the best players in western swing might have come up with.  It's another amateurish moment that feels like somebody young experimenting with things they haven't mastered yet.  That's totally cool, everyone needs to experiment, explore, and grow as an artist, but I don't want to listen to it.  Master your craft and then record, kid.  Acknowledging that this is their first album - and therefore they have growing to do - I'll also point out that it is near-universally considered to be their best album.  Are we to understand that this band continued to get worse after this?  One shudders.  At the end of the song, there's this weird random processed/delayed snare effect.  It comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit at all.  There isn't any snare drum in the song otherwise.  That engineer is the one "sitting up there getting high", apparently.

Poison Whiskey
After the bluegrass we get a riff-heavy rocker.  This a cheerful song about a man whose father drank whiskey (specifically Johnny Walker red) until it killed him.  "Take a tip from me, people... brothers can't you see / Ain't no future in ole poison whiskey."  This was clearly more advice from his sweet mama.  Moralizing aside, this this song is a tight little rocker, but the guy runs out of lyrics so he just keeps telling us not to drink whiskey.  But, you know people use this as a joyous drinking song and have probably probably spent the past five decades playing it on jukeboxes all over Alabammy and Mississippi while downing shots.  We get a little Hammond organ here, but the tone is a bit thin with some tricky resonance.  That amateur mix engineer needed to have spent his time EQing the organ instead of fucking around with clumsy drum processing.

Free Bird
This is a song that came out when I was a toddler, and that I have subsequently spent my entire life trying to ignore.  Today is the first time I have ever listened to this song on purpose, the first time I have ever made a deliberate choice to play it, and to listen to it carefully.  So right off the bat we get this Hammond again.  A little gritter tone this time.  Better-sounding than on the previous tune.  There's also piano: how did the keyboard player pull this one off live?  Did one of the other guys help out on second keys?  The keyboard player gives up completely, and the guitars take over.  The vocalist sings four stanzas, and they don't melodically or dynamically develop at all.  It's just the same thing four times in a row, so it's a bit monotonous.  The singer's pitch is unsteady, he's having trouble holding the sustained notes.  He's all over the place.  Then he repeats "And this bird you can not change" bunch of times, while he and the band build things a bit, and the mix engineer fucks around with drum reverb again.  The band just waffles after that.  More slide guitar, which we heard in the intro, and it isn't super interesting.  No one in this band have any ideas.  None of them impress in either their performance or their innovation.  Second verse is the same as the first.  Same repetitive monotone melody that refuses to develop in any meaningful way.  But we do get Mellotron strings.  That's definitely Mellotron.  This singer keeps singing "And this bird you can not change. / Lord knows, I can't change." over and over again.  And this song won't fucking change.  There is a bit of a build and a dynamic peak after each of the two verses, but other than that we're into nearly five minutes of repetitive dirge.  Change the key, change the melody, change the tempo, change the freakin' hi-hat pattern... anything.  And this song you cannot change.  Lord knows, this band won't change.  Finally at 4:40 the song kicks into a more sprightly tempo and lifts itself out of the slog it has subjected us to for the past 280 seconds.  Those were 280 long and slow seconds, my friends.  The song is only halfway over, but it has nothing left to say.  No more words.  The band just jam out.  They sound excited and tight in this second half; they want to be playing this song.  It's a good take, but it's fairly empty musically.  It's just their guitarist(s) waffling for an intolerably long time.  At 6:31, the rhythm section play staccato breaks, while two guitarists just play stupidly tedious arpeggios for a full 30 seconds.  It's so deeply lame.  This is bullshit.  This is not great guitar playing.  It's just a bunch of diddling.  Find me development.  Find me inventiveness.  Find me melody.  All we have here is guys who can wiggle their fingers real good.  This is why punk decided to skip guitar solos altogether.  If you're not a great player, don't even pretend.  Make your point and then get out without subjecting us to your masturbation.  All the young punks said: we can't sing either, and we can't play guitar either, but we do have something important to say.  So they took a lesson from Lynyrd Skynyrd and learned to say what they had to say in two minutes of energy, and got out of dodge before the song wore out its welcome.  Brevity is the soul of wit.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Let's go with "Poison Whiskey".  It's a quick banger that's relatively fun to listen to.

Bruce Springsteen, coming January 15, 2022

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