Balancing A Band And Going Solo: The B&V Favorite Solo Albums

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I’m not sure I ever truly “belonged” to any group in high school. I had friends in different places. I was a good student so I could hang with the nerds which is frankly where I probably belonged. I was a beer drinker so I tended to hang in drinking crowds. I wasn’t a hemp enthusiast but I could hang out with the stoners because they were generally a pretty docile group and they had great music recommendations. While I liked sports I tended to shun hanging out with the jocks, they just had too much testosterone for me. I’m a lover, not a fighter. I just sort of floated around, allowing the wind to push me in whatever direction it happened to be blowing… at least from a social perspective. Although admittedly, the same argument could be made for my career choices. I’m currently at the zenith of a very mediocre career.

I say all of this, as I sit here thinking about how hard it must be to be in a band. I always thought every band was like Rush, just a bunch of dudes who share a passion for music who met when they were young and were friends for life. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ original line up all met in the same high school. The guys in U2 all went to the same school and remain close friends to this day. When I first started listening to rock and roll in the late 80s, that’s how I thought bands worked. It was like joining a gang. You were part of something bigger than yourself with a bunch of friends, nay brothers, and it was you against “them.”

It didn’t take long to realize my utopian vision of rock bands, like my utopian vision of women, was built on a lot of false assumptions. One need look no farther than my favorite band, the Rolling Stones to see a group of guys who may have started as friends, but now are just work associates. The guys in Van Halen seem to have despised each other. At least the Van Halen Brothers hated Roth and Michael Anthony which is a shame. Eddie’s legacy will be that he was an enormous asshole and not a great guitarist. The Who never got along, although I think Pete and Roger do now. To be a successful band, you need that magic…which boils down to one basic thing – chemistry. Nobody may like like the bass player because he’s weird or he doesn’t bathe, but damn he plays perfectly with the rest of us. For three to five minutes the four or five guys in the room can lock into something that is mystical and magical and create a song.

Different bands operate in different ways. I guess every band is as unique as the individuals who make it up. While it’s probably true that in the Eagles, Henley was the creative genius, but it was Glenn Frey’s band. Glenn was the guy in charge. Glenn negotiated many of the contracts, set rehearsals, and ran the day to day stuff so Henley could focus on lyrics. Some friends of mine in Denver formed a blues band and one of them had to take that same role. Surprisingly I guess it’s hard to get musicians to get organized. But when you find that magic line up, you have to stick with it. Fame and fortune await just over the next hill.

As many bands have found, the chemistry between band members, while sometimes magical, is also a very fragile thing. It was Joe Strummer who said famously (and I tend to repeat endlessly), “Never estimate the chemistry between four guys in a room.” It’s dangerous to fuck with that. And let’s face it, nothing fucks with band chemistry more than the infamous “solo project.” In the 60s and even into the 70s “going solo” typically spelled the end of a band. If the lead singer or the principal songwriter decided to go off and do something on his or her own, it would typically piss off the rest of the band and speculation would begin on whether it was over for the band. Rolling Stone would run articles about the demise of whatever band was going through it. I guess everybody was supposed to keep the creativity in the gang.

I totally understand the desire to do something different. I feel that way every day at work. It’d be fun to work with a different set of musicians to see if they can spark something creatively within the artist. Maybe you’re in a metal outfit and you want to do an album of ballads, you know, just something completely different. Deep Purple’s ex guitarist Ritchie Blackmore is out there somewhere doing madrigals for god’s sake…probably at a Renaissance Fair somewhere. But for reasons unclear, perhaps loyalty, going solo was viewed dimly in rock band circles for a long time. Musicians are artists and I tend to think of bleeding hearts and artists as being fragile.

The guy who was a pioneer in being a solo artist and a member of a band was, of course, Rod Stewart. He had already put out his first solo album when he became a member of the Faces. He’d release a solo album and a Faces album every year. That shit was unheard of back in the early 70s. Robert Plant didn’t do solo albums, he just worked on Zeppelin albums. Rod pulled it off until his solo stuff got so much more popular than the band stuff, it crumbled the Faces… something I’m still not over. In the 80s it was, dare I say, Phil Collins who mastered the solo/band thing best. He was huge solo and somehow was able to transfer that love to Genesis and they just got bigger. Of course, I feel like my friend Drew about Collins, that we were all conned in some way. I hide those records… Collins not only did his own thing and remained in Genesis, but he was also Plant’s drummer. He taught Plant how to produce his own music…he’d learned on a lot doing Face Value and Plant had a lot to learn.

Last week I wrote about Keith Richards’ first, reluctantly recorded, solo album, Talk Is Cheap and it got me thinking about solo albums. While the concept wasn’t popular in the respective bands, there have certainly been some great solo albums recorded over the years. I thought I would compile a list of our B&V favorites. Now, I’m not talking about solo careers here – like Lou Reed after the Velvet Underground or any Beatle after they broke up, those are solo, post-band careers – I’m talking about the guys who took a busman’s holiday and stepped away from the band, recorded a solo album and then returned refreshed and jazzed up to the band. I would urge everyone to check these albums out. I’ll list the artist and the band he was in when the solo album came out below.

  1. Gregg Allman, (Allman Brothers), Laid Back – Laid Back is one of those great, seemingly forgotten albums that everyone should treat reverently. When he was on his own Gregg put a little more soul in the music. He redoes “Midnight Rider” in a completely different way than the band did it and it’s amazing. His version of his friend Jackson Browne’s oft covered “These Days” is the definitive version. This is a stone-cold classic album by a guy who also recorded Brothers And Sisters with his band the same year. Ah, the 70s.
  2. Stephen Stills, (CSN and/or CSNY), Stephen Stills – There were a lot of great solo albums to come out of the CSNY collective Artist Lookback: Crosby, Stills, Or Nash – The Essential Solo and Duo Albums… (I tend to treat Neil Young as a solo artist who dabbled in being in CSNY, so you won’t see him here.) The pick of the litter is Stills’ eponymously titled first solo album. Both Hendrix and Clapton show up to play lead guitar on different songs here. It was Hendrix’s last recorded stuff. Stills, dubbed “Captain Many Hands” by Graham Nash because he could play every instrument, save perhaps the tuba, does so here. He plays everything. “Love The One You’re With” is the hit, but there’s so much to love here. From gospel inflected tracks to gut bucket blues, this is Stills’ masterpiece.
  3. Joe Walsh, (The Eagles), But Seriously, Folks… – How do you follow up a smash like Hotel California? For the rest of the Eagles it was to hole up in a Miami studio, do a bunch of coke and do endless takes of “Those Shoes.” For the most likable Eagle, Joe Walsh, he merely snuck off and recorded his best solo album. Known mostly for “Life’s Been Good” there is so much more here. “Over and Over” and “At the Station” are two of my favorite tracks by Walsh. Sure, Joe was already a solo artist when he joined the Eagles which gave him some autonomy, but I thought he was done solo when this album surprised me.
  4. Rod Stewart, (the Faces), Every Picture Tells a Story – This was actually Rod’s third of five albums he’d record solo while in the Faces. This is his masterpiece. “Maggie May” is his signature tune, of course. “Mandolin Wind” is my absolute favorite Rod song. The cover tunes are all top shelf – Elvis’ “That’s All Right” and Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time” are both exceptional.
  5. Stevie Nicks, (Fleetwood Mac), Bella Donna – Fleetwood Mac’s follow up to their life-changing smash, Rumours, was the momentous, double-LP, Tusk. Lindsey had taken over and pushed them into some really experimental directions. While I love that album, its sales of 4 million copies, yes 4 million!, was seen as a let down. It wasn’t all the break-ups in the band that caused the three principal songwriters to go solo after Tusk, it was the then perceived failure of the record that made them all go solo. Stevie has an all-star band behind her – Waddy Watchel, Roy Bittan, Ben Tench, and Jimmy Iovine as producer. This is an amazing album. She returned to Fleetwood Mac with so much confidence she made them do a country tune, “That’s Alright” on their next, play-it-safe album, Mirage. 
  6. Daryl Hall, (Hall & Oates), Sacred Songs – This may be the weirdest selection ever written about on B&V. I don’t like Hall & Oates. But let’s face it, everybody loves “Sara Smile.” I turned my daughter onto this song and she sent me a video of her and her friends singing along and dancing to this song. I deleted the video before the authorities could seize my phone… but I digress. To his credit, Hall stepped away from his Philly soul, balladeer role and teamed up with King Crimson’s lead guitarist Robert Fripp, fresh off his stint with Bowie on Heroes to record an amazing, guitar-forward, rock album. None of you have heard this record but you should. “Babs and Babs” is the stand out track. The title track and “Something In 4/4 Time” are rollicking rockers. This is an unexpected, unheard treasure.
  7. Mike Ness, (Social Distortion), Cheating At Solitaire – I love the tongue-in-cheek title of this record as Ness does have a lot of help on this solo record. The first time I heard “Misery Loves Company,” a duet with Springsteen from this record, I texted the Rock Chick and said “worlds collide.” I was a Bruce fan, she turned me onto Social D. Everyone should hear that song. It’s awesome. The rest of the album is a great selection of “cowpunk,” Ness’ combination of country inflected, punk rock. I can’t resist “Dope Fiend Blues.” He covers Dylan and Johnny Cash. This is another hidden gem of a record.
  8. Keith Richards, (The Rolling Stones), Talk Is Cheap – The solo album he never wanted to do… Keith Richards: ‘Talk Is Cheap (Deluxe Version),’ The 30th Anniversary Edition With Bonus Tracks.
  9. Mick Jagger, (The Rolling Stones), Wandering Spirit – Jagger’s solo stuff is so maligned, he’d already struck out twice so by the time 1993’s, Rick Rubin produced Wandering Spirit came out, people didn’t care. They should. Rubin got Mick focused on his strengths here. He does all the great things he does in the Stones, save perhaps the blues. The title track should be played at my funeral… “I’m a wandering spirit, yes I am a restless soul, I’m a wandering spirit, there’s no place that I can call my own.” “Wired All Night” is a balls to the wall rocker. “Sweet Thing” is a disco-y track that was the first single, which may have been a mistake, but I love it. “Don’t Tear Me Up” has shades of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” There’s not a bad tune on this record. Mick is the man! (Get well soon!).
  10. Bruce Springsteen, (The E Street Band), Nebraska – Sure Petty did albums that were “solo” but Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Ben Tench played a heavy role on those albums. Here Springsteen really goes solo in every sense of that word. Nebraska is a dark, spartan record that Springsteen recorded alone. It sounds like a demo. It’s him with an acoustic guitar, by himself, in a room. It’s a masterpiece and a very hard listen. It’s been rumored for years, and recently confirmed, that there’s a full-on E Street Band version of this record that I’m hoping is coming to a box set very soon.
  11. Pete Townshend, (The Who), Empty Glass – I made the horrific mistake of buying this album on cassette. I’m a vinyl guy… but I wanted to hear “Rough Boys” in my car. It’s a great, rocking tune. “Gonna Get Ya” is an epic, 6 minute jam. “Let My Love Open The Door” is here. This is a drunk and drug-addled Townshend making sense of punk rock and his and the Who’s place in rock and roll. It’s a breath-taking listen.

There are so many more solo records that deserve praise and listening. I’m going to stop at these 11. I would urge everyone to check out any of Little Steven’s early work, where he stepped away from the E Street Band while Bruce was brooding over Nebraska. While he’s no Steve Perry, Ronnie Woods’ first couple of solo records away from the Faces and the Stones are great as well. Start with these records and explore as deeply as you can. Rock and roll is the fucking tree of life!

Dedicated to Mick Jagger and his speedy recovery!

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