I think we were all devastated by the loss of Tom Petty but probably nobody more than Mike Campbell. Campbell had been Petty’s “co-pilot” and musical consort for over forty years. I’ve been a huge fan of Mike Campbell since the first time I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live at Kemper Arena in 1985. I remember thinking, “Wow, this guitarist is one of the best I’ve ever seen.” I think Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at something like number 79 on their list of “best-guitarists-ever” and I think that was underrating him. I think when he co wrote Don Henley’s big hit “Boys Of Summer” it was the moment people started to more widely recognize what a talented guy Campbell was. I wondered what Campbell would do in a post-Petty world. He joined Fleetwood Mac for a tour but alas no studio record was forthcoming from that line up of the famously member-shifting band.
Fortunately for fans of rock n roll music played by talented musicians, Campbell and his long time side project the Dirty Knobs released their debut album Wreckless Abandon two years ago. The Dirty Knobs are Campbell (guitar/vocal), Jason Sinay (guitar), Matt Laug (drummer) and Lance Morrison (drums). The Knobs had been playing together for years but hadn’t released anything until that 2020 debut LP that we frankly loved down here at B&V. The Dirty Knobs are a guitar forward rock band who dabble in country rock. The sound of the Dirty Knobs conjures the feel of a roadhouse on the outskirts of town, perhaps at a crossroads, with dust and peanut shells on the floor and empty beer bottles strewn about… perhaps a tattoo’d waitress dressed inappropriately for her age and a bathroom you’re nervous about using. It’s gritty rock n roll played loud. You don’t hear good ol’ rock n roll like this much any more… there’s not even the rumor of a synthesizer.
I will admit, when I saw the album cover (pictured above) I wondered if this second LP from the Dirty Knobs, External Combusion, would see them head in a different direction. First and foremost, they’ve put Mike Campbell’s name on the cover. The original cover art of the debut was credited to just “The Dirty Knobs.” Now the band is Mike Campbell & the Dirty Knobs. He’s also pictured on the cover vs the Klaus Voorman artwork of the debut. I guess someone down in marketing at the label realized there was some brand recognition they could exploit from Campbell. Also, in the background of the cover, there’s a Rickenbacker guitar (a favorite of Petty’s) but it’s on fire. Is Campbell subtly saying good by to his former friend? Is he burning down his past? Or am I just reading too much into it? I’ve read this sounds less like a band-centric LP and more of a Campbell-centric LP but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a more varied sounding record than the first one but the sound is very similar to the debut. When a lead guitarist steps up to the microphone to do his own music it can often be guitar indulgent, like say Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell’s solo music, but I don’t get that here.
The album opens with what may be my favorite Dirty Knobs song, the rocking “Wicked Mind,” which we’ve reviewed previously. I can’t listen to this track enough. It’s a free wheeling rocker with lyrics I can totally relate to. “I don’t think you understand what kinda man I really am, I’m sinner with a rebel soul, got a wicked mind with a heart of gold…” Yeah, that sums it up for me. The next track “Brigitte Bardot” is a galloping country rocker. This may sound crazy but other than the lyrics it sounds like a classic train song to me. It has that locomotion thing happening. I love that groove. The next track “Cheap Talk” starts with drums that Cheap Trick would envy. It’s a riff rocker of a “baby done me wrong track.” For me, it’s not as good as the first two tracks but it’s a solid tune. “External Combustion,” the title track, is another great rock song much like “Wicked Mind.” “Tell me the truth, that’s all I want, external combustion…” It’s another track that just sticks in your mind. “Dirty Job” is another favorite. It’s another big rock song full of guitar riffs and funny lyrics and features Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople fame on co-lead vocals. Hunter’s gravely vocal turn on the duet adds some texture to a great track. “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.” Oh, yes, “it might as well be me…” I think we’ve all been there.
The second half of the LP starts off on a mellow note with the beautiful ballad “State of Mind.” Oh man, this wonderful track slightly conjures Tom Petty “Southern Accents” to me… and probably only me. It’s a beautiful duet with country singer Margo Price. I don’t know much about her – we’re decidedly only old school country here at B&V – but we may need to look into her. It’s all beautiful vocals and pedal steel. I can see people drunkenly slow dancing to this track at closing time in the aforementioned imaginary roadhouse. Things get back to rollicking with the next track “Lightning Boogie” which is more of a vamp than a song, kinda like “Don’t Knock The Boogie” from the first album.
“Rat City” is another rocker like “Cheap Talk.” Big riffs and complaints about the music business. I like this hard rocker more than “Cheap Talk” and it features someone else in the band singing with Campbell – is it Sinay? I literally can’t find any documentation. “In This Lifetime” takes us back into ballad territory and I have to say, wow, another gorgeous mellow track. It conjures a George Harrison-like ballad landscape. It’s a mesmerizing track with an emotional depth that grabbed me. “It Is Written” is a jaunty travelogue sounding track that veers subtly into politics. “People are hurting, people of all ages, Mother Nature is angry and Cold War wages…” It’s another great track and really the first midtempo thing I’ve heard on this album. They wrap it up with another country tinged rocker “Electric Gypsy” that may serve as Campbell’s autobiography. It features some of the fiercest guitar solo’ing on the album.
Listening to External Combustion and the Dirty Knob’s debut album this week really brings home what a brilliant guitarist, songwriter and performer Mike Campbell is… and he’s found the perfect band as a vehicle. I hope these guys tour to a venue near me soon. I think they’ll be awesome live. If you’re a fan of rock n roll or a fan of Tom Petty this is a must hear of an album. This guy has too much talent to be ignored.