The Scorpions’ two previous releases, Blackout and Love at First Sting, were mostly successful due to the band’s ability to adjust with the times; with Blackout, they used the classic power rock introduced by bands like Van Halen, and for Sting they used similar melodies, but with a harder, tighter sound akin to the work of such bands as Dokken and REO Speedwagon. With Savage Amusement, the group’s first studio recording in almost four years, The Scorpions experimented with more polished pop melodies that Def Leppard and the like had made popular. The end result is polished and often predictable music that, while good, on the whole fails to be as infectious as the music on their previous albums. Die-hard fans will certainly find their share of worthwhile songs, such as “Don’t Stop at the Top” and “Believe in Love,” but they still may find Savage Amusement to be incomparable to its predecessors.
The British version of the Stones’ first album has a nearly identical cover to its American equivalent, issued six weeks later, but a slightly different song lineup. Among these 12 songs, absent is “Not Fade Away,” which was a hit single in England (where singles and LPs were usually kept separate), and in its place is the Stones’ cover of Bo Diddley’s “Mona (I Need You Baby)” (credited here as “I Need You Baby”), which had to wait until Rolling Stones Now!, a year later, for its U.S. release. It’s not a big switch, a Bo Diddley-style cover of a Buddy Holly song bumping an actual Bo Diddley cover on the U.S. version. Otherwise, the main difference lies in the version of “Tell Me” included here, which sounds about two generations hotter than any edition of the song ever released in the U.S. — it’s the long version, with the break that was cut from the single, but the British LP and the original late-’80s Decca U.K. compact disc (820 047-2) both contain a version without any fade, running the better part of a minute longer than the U.S. release of the song, until the band literally stops playing.
Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote the book on Southern rock with their first album, so it only made sense that they followed it for their second album, aptly titled Second Helping. Sticking with producer Al Kooper (who, after all, discovered them), the group turned out a record that replicated all the strengths of the original, but was a little tighter and a little more professional. It also revealed that the band, under the direction of songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, was developing a truly original voice. Of course, the band had already developed their own musical voice, but it was enhanced considerably by Van Zant’s writing, which was at turns plainly poetic, surprisingly clever, and always revealing. Though Second Helping isn’t as hard a rock record as Pronounced, it’s the songs that make the record. “Sweet Home Alabama” became ubiquitous, yet it’s rivaled by such terrific songs as the snide, punkish “Workin’ for MCA,” the Southern groove of “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” the affecting “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” and “The Needle and the Spoon,” a drug tale as affecting as their rival Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done,” but much harder rocking. This is the part of Skynyrd that most people forget — they were a great band, but they were indelible because that was married to great writing. And nowhere was that more evident than on Second Helping.
The Rolling Stones finally delivered a set of all-original material with this LP, which also did much to define the group as the bad boys of rock & roll with their sneering attitude toward the world in general and the female sex in particular. The borderline misogyny could get a bit juvenile in tunes like “Stupid Girl.” But on the other hand the group began incorporating the influences of psychedelia and Dylan into their material with classics like “Paint It Black,” an eerily insistent number one hit graced by some of the best use of sitar (played by Brian Jones) on a rock record. Other classics included the jazzy “Under My Thumb,” where Jones added exotic accents with his vibes, and the delicate Elizabethan ballad “Lady Jane,” where dulcimer can be heard. Some of the material is fairly ho-hum, to be honest, as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were still prone to inconsistent songwriting; “Goin’ Home,” an 11-minute blues jam, was remarkable more for its barrier-crashing length than its content. Look out for an obscure gem, however, in the brooding, meditative “I Am Waiting.”
After summing up his maverick tendencies on Scary Monsters, David Bowie aimed for the mainstream with Let’s Dance. Hiring Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers as a co-producer, Bowie created a stylish, synthesized post-disco dance music that was equally informed by classic soul and the emerging new romantic subgenre of new wave, which was ironically heavily inspired by Bowie himself. Let’s Dance comes tearing out of the gate, propulsed by the skittering “Modern Love,” the seductively menacing “China Girl,” and the brittle funk of the title track. All three songs became international hits, and for good reason — they’re catchy, accessible pop songs that have just enough of an alien edge to make them distinctive. However, that careful balance is quickly thrown off by a succession of pleasant but unremarkable plastic soul workouts. “Cat People” and a cover of Metro’s “Criminal World” are relatively strong songs, but the remainder of the album indicates that Bowie was entering a songwriting slump. However, the three hits were enough to make the album a massive hit, and their power hasn’t diminished over the years, even if the rest of the record sounds like an artifact.
Fair Warning was such a dark, intense record that Van Halen almost had no choice but to lighten up on their next album, and 1982’s Diver Down is indeed much lighter than its predecessor. In many ways, it’s a return to the early albums, heavy on covers and party anthems, but where those records were rough and exuberant — they felt like the work of the world’s best bar band just made good, which is, of course, kind of what they were — this is undoubtedly the work of a finely honed band who has only grown tighter and heavier since their debut. As a band, they might be tight, but Diver Down is anything but tight. It’s a downright mess, barely clocking in at 31 minutes, cobbled together out of five covers, two minute-long instrumentals, and five new songs. By most measures, this should be the kind of slop that’s difficult to muddle through, but it’s not: it’s one of Van Halen’s best records, one that’s just pure joy to hear. Like the debut, it’s a great showcase for all the group’s strengths, from Eddie Van Halen’s always thrilling guitar to the bedrock foundation of Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony’s throbbing pulse to, of course, David Lee Roth’s strut. Each member gets places to shine and, in a way, covers showcase their skills in a way none of the originals does, since they get to twist “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” inside out, all the better to make them their own. But this isn’t complacent; Van Halen is stretching out in different ways, funneling the menace of Fair Warning into the ominous instrumental “Intruder,” playing with the whiplash fury of a punk band on “Hang ‘Em High,” and honing their pop skills on the bright, new wavey rock of “Little Guitars” and the sweet “Secrets,” which displays the lightest touch they’ve ever had on record. Combine that with the full-throttle attack on the covers, along with Dave’s vaudevillian song and dance on “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” — a shtick that’s electrified on the equally fun “The Full Bug” — and the result is a record that’s nothing but fun, the polar opposite of its predecessor.
There may be no better place to hear how both punk and prog rock informed the New Wave of British Heavy Metal than Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut. Often overlooked and overshadowed by the glorious Bruce Dickinson years, it’s easy to forget that Iron Maiden was itself a game-changer when it appeared on the scene in 1980. That year also saw important albums from Motörhead, Saxon, and Angel Witch, but Iron Maiden vaulted its creators to the head of the NWOBHM pack, reaching the U.K. Top Five and establishing them as an outfit with the talent to build on Judas Priest’s late-’70s innovations. On the one hand, Maiden was clearly drawing from elements of punk rock — the raw D.I.Y. production, the revved-up velocities, and the vocals of rough-and-ready growler Paul Di’Anno, who looked and sounded not like a metal god, but rather a short-haired street tough. On the other hand, Maiden had all the creative ambition of a prog rock band. Compositionally, even their shortest and most straightforward songs featured abrupt changes in tempo and feel. Their musicianship was already light years beyond punk, with complicated instrumental passages between guitarists Dave Murray and Dennis Stratton and bassist Steve Harris. When Murray and Stratton harmonize their leads, they outdo even Priest’s legendary tandem in terms of pure speed. The lyrics have similarly high-flying aspirations, spinning first-person stories and character sketches with a flair for the seedy and the grotesque. Add it all up, and Iron Maiden performs the neat trick of reconciling two genres seemingly antithetical to one another, using post-Priest heavy metal as the meeting ground. The seven-minute “Phantom of the Opera” is a landmark, the band’s earliest progressive epic and still among its best; with its ambitious fusion of musical styles, its multi-sectioned construction, and the literary retelling of the lyrics, it seemed to encapsulate all the promise of both the band and the NWOBHM. Two of the simpler, punkier rockers, “Running Free” and “Sanctuary” (the latter left off the U.K. version but added to subsequent reissues), made the lower reaches of the British singles charts. The flasher tale “Prowler,” one of the band’s more enduring numbers, is in the same vein, but ups the instrumental complexity, while the title track still remains a concert staple. Elsewhere, the band offers the first of many instrumentals with “Transylvania,” introduces the recurring title character of “Charlotte the Harlot,” and reimagines Judas Priest’s “Beyond the Realms of Death” with the “ballad” “Remember Tomorrow,” which starts out soft but closes with a speed-freak guitar section. Perhaps the only hint of a misstep comes on the more restrained ballad “Strange World,” the only song from this album that was never re-recorded in a live or alternate version by the Dickinson lineup. Nonetheless, the whole project explodes with energy and ideas, and while the band would certainly go on to refine much of what’s here (including the cover painting of mascot Eddie), Iron Maiden would still rank as a landmark even if the Dickinson years had never happened.