Music

Robin Trower: Bridge of Sighs

Ron Hart

EMI releases a quintessential guitar rock classic for the hardcore AOR fan.


Robin Trower

Bridge of Sighs

Label: Capitol-EMI
US Release Date: 2007-10-30
UK Release Date: 2007-09-24
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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!

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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