[27 November 2007]
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from my mother’s brother was the progression by which to establish a deep appreciation for the classic rock, or AOR, idiom. For most folks, the term “classic rock” more than likely stops at the standards such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Bowie, The Who, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Deep Purple, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Bad Company, Clapton. Maybe the more adventurous might throw in The Kinks and The Faces or maybe even the old Jeff Beck Group.
My Uncle George exposed me to all this stuff practically out of the cradle, first by playing me riffs of “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “Ironman” on his acoustic guitar when I would invade his room as a tot in our old family house in Levittown, NY. Then it came to playing me the actual records, classics like Houses of the Holy, Let It Bleed, The Stranger, Ziggy Stardust, Machine Head, Fresh Cream, Lola Vs. The Powerman and Moneygoround. Whenever they would come on the television he would put on The Kids Are Alright or Let It Be for us to watch.
Next, it was taking me to actual record stores and head shops in our neighborhood where he used to get all of this stuff (in addition to copping free LPs as a perk of his job managing the local Record World at the Mid-Island Plaza). After that, it was throwing in used records he had doubles of into my Christmas or Birthday cache, stuff like Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush’s first album or Alice Cooper’s Killer or Johnny Winter’s Still Alive and Well.
But then there’s the AP style education in AOR my uncle held off schooling me on until I was in college, the records that are only known by the hardest of the hardcore classic rock heads and musicians well versed in such works but perennially fail to replicate their sounds (cough, Wolfmother!, cough cough, Bad Wizard!). I’m talking about West, Bruce and Laing’s Why Don’tcha, the Beck, Bogert and Appice album, John Phillips’ John, The Wolfking of LA, Ronnie Wood’s I Got My Own Album To Do, Roy Buchanan’s eponymous debut, any of Rory Gallagher’s albums from the 70s (but especially Live in Europe and Irish Tour).
And at the top of Uncle George’s deep AOR list was Bridge of Sighs, the second solo album from Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower. Released in 1974, the album was a monster hit, reaching number 7 on the Billboard Top Ten. According to critics of the time, Trower’s massive control of his Fender Stratocaster reminded many fans of the work of Jimi Hendrix, whose untimely and unnecessary death still shook the foundation of the music world nearly five years after the fact. The comparison was more than accurate, even though the lily-white, astutely English, flamboyantly dressed, page-boy-coiffed Trower was the total opposite of Jimi’s strong black psychedelic gypsy.
Sighs, which remains to this day Trower’s singular masterpiece, is a phenomenal amalgamation of the soulful heavy blues of Cream. This is thanks in full to the eerily similar Jack Bruce-ian howl of bassist/vocalist James Dewar, and a wicked brew of rippling sheets of wailing fuzz, subtle wah-wah funk and caterwauling blues cries. The album truly did evoke the might of Hendrix’s power at the height of his Band of Gypsys era but at the same time was a style that was entirely indicative of Robin Trower.
Originally issued as an eight-track LP, the solo-heavy Sighs was more like a scream following Trower’s complaints that the music he recorded with Procol Harum left him no room to rip. Each song features its own outstanding, lengthy guitar solo, which was the prime reason why this album is still cherished by legions of aspiring guitarists making the ranks today. The best solos appear on the sultry slow blues of the album’s title cut and the tempo-shifting seven-minute-plus arena monster “Too Rolling Stoned”. Other tracks here display Trower’s prowess at constructing a seriously mean riff, and the ones he doles out on “Day of the Eagle” and “Little Bit of Sympathy” are right up there with the meatiest, beatiest Page and Blackmore hooks currently monopolizing your “Two-fer” Tuesdays.
Of course, no true guitar god can ever truly put in a true day’s work without a rhythm section of equal dexterity. And the excellent teamwork of bassist Dewar and completely underrated rock drummer Reggie Isidore, who so ferociously combined the fury of Tony Williams and the steady hand of Buddy Miles to provide the throbbing core of this most essential LP (and would fortunately be replaced shortly after the release of this album).
This very worthwhile 2007 reissue of Bridge of Sighs doubles the length of the original LP with two outstanding John Peel sessions from May of 1974 and January of 1975. These contain scorching live versions of several tracks from the album as well as some impressive performances of cuts that would appear on Sighs’ more-formulaic follow-up For Earth Below, most notably “Confessin’ Midnight” and the burning “Gonna Be More Suspicious”.
They don’t make guitar rock like they used to, although groups like the Mooney Suzuki and The Sword do their absolute damndest pose to convince the youngsters otherwise. My personal suggestion is to listen to my uncle and his generation about this kind of stuff. Sure, they might not know a damn about politics or the environment or urban sprawl or globalization or corporate imperialism or whatever other hell that last tail of the Baby Boom generation hath brought upon this earth. But one thing is for damn sure; they can spot a tasty lick from a mile away. Thanks Unc!