Shot through the heart -- and you're to blame
Anthology serves as a reminder of the many sides of 38 Special. At the end of the day, they’re a southern rock band but, as the material on this album shows, they were rarely purists about it, letting in influences from straightahead rock to pop to new wave to hard rock and even a little heavy metal and acid rock. “Teacher, Teacher”, from the 1984 movie Teachers, is a ready example of 38 Special’s strengths as a band. Written for them by Jim Vallance and a then still-reckless Bryan Adams, it’s got a terse bass line for Larry Junstrom, hard-rock guitars for Don Barnes, a concise beat and Donnie Van Zant’s melodic vocals. These basic elements, with only one or two significant changes, make up the spine of 38 Special’s material and core lineup.
The band members admit in the liner notes that at the start of their careers they were a little too much in the shadow of great southern bands like Lynryd Skynrd (but of course they come by that influence honestly, Special lead singer Donnie Van Zant being brother to the late Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd). It shows on early tracks like “Long Time Gone”. But the buzzing guitars and chanted hook of “Rockin’ into the Night”, their first big hit, set the parameters for much that was to follow with its instantly agreeable music and bland but inoffensive lyric—if you’re looking for a band manifesto, “Ooh rockin! Oh yeah!” will do nicely for 38 Special. “Hold on Loosely”, from the next year, strums along a similarly successful path.
Perhaps knowing that songwriting was not their strong point, the band have often been open to collaborators, as with Adams/Vallance above. Jim Peterik of Survivor and The Ides of March has written with and for the band since “Rockin into the Night”. The results have often been laudable, but “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys” is mainly remarkable now for how much it sounds like a Billy Joel rewrite and “Caught up in You” shows another admitted influence, that of the Cars. A later movie theme by the same team who wrote “Teacher” (plus P. Giraldo), “Back to Paradise”—wrongly credited to the first Revenge of the Nerds here, it’s actually from the inferior sequel—is not as good a song and was not as big a hit. It does have some interesting but almost instantly dated keyboard work (ah, 1987), which carried forward into the polished Rock & Roll Strategy material. That album was a commercial peak for 38 Special, who have since gone downhill in terms of chart positions, but songs from the 1997 album Resolution show there is still some water in the well this late in the game. “Deja Voodoo” is a particularly good guitar showcase for Barnes and relative newcomer Danny Chauncey, who replaced Barnes in 1987 and remained in the band when he returned a decade later.
There is thrilling material here, in its way. Yet if rock and roll is truly dead (and it is, kids, it is), then bands like 38 Special are at once the mourners and the murderers, symbols both of what was good about it and what sloped toward self-parody. For this reason, though there is more to 38 Special than meets the eye, this collection may be too much of a good thing. I can’t imagine casual fans needing two discs’ worth of this material, and serious, longtime fans will presumably already have the albums. A good one-disc compilation might be a better buy (Flashback is the one that I’d probably recommend). Yet you would then lose the strong Resolution material, so you might want to pick up Anthology and make use of that CD remote. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Aim, point, and click.