Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]
For a brief but wonderful time in 1983, melodic hard rock trio Zebra appeared to be the “next big thing,” delivering what was at that time the fastest selling debut album in the history of Atlantic Records. As I mentioned in my Great Out Of The Gate series, lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Randy Jackson’s multi-octave vocal range was “one of the key aspects to Zebra’s sound that separated them from their contemporaries,” and his instrumental prowess was matched by Felix Hanemann on bass & keyboards and Guy Gelso on drums. After the following year’s commercially disappointing sophomore album, No Tellin’ Lies, which had some excellent songs but lacked its predecessor’s consistency, it would be another two years before 3.V appeared. By that point all momentum had vanished and only their most passionate fans were excited about a new Zebra album. Without the aid of legendary producer Jack Douglas, who helped shape the first two records, the self-produced 3.V lacked the punch that fans & radio programmers were probably hoping for. Instead, the songs seem to exist behind a soft haze and, combined with a heavier use of mid-‘80s synth sounds, the album was likely too slick for metalheads yet not commercial enough for pop/rock fans.
All of this explains why 3.V didn’t make an impact on radio or at record stores, but they’re also the reasons why I love this album so much. It simply doesn’t sound like anything else before or since, and just about every song is a winner. Leadoff track “Can’t Live Without” is the only song I remember hearing on the radio and it’s as catchy as anything in their discography. Acoustic guitars are featured in the thematically-linked “Time” and “About To Make The Time.” The former has more than a hint of Led Zeppelin, especially with its soft-to-loud dynamics, which has always made it the centerpiece of the album for me. Several driving rockers alternate between crunchy guitars and splashy synths: “Your Mind’s Open,” “Better Not Call,” “You’ll Never Know” and “You’re Only Losing Your Heart.” All of these could have been rock radio hits, and the ballad “He’s Making You The Fool” might have even crossed over to the pop charts. For a couple of years in the early-‘90s, following the release of their spectacular Live album, I became friendly with Randy & Felix after being introduced by a co-worker at Atlantic Records who knew I was a longtime fan. They & their wives were always very welcoming to me and my fellow Zebra-loving friend whenever we saw them at various venues in New York and New Jersey. Prior to one show I asked Randy if they could play one of my favorite tracks from 3.V, “Hard Living Without You,” which I had never seen them perform. An hour later I was grinning ear to ear as they played a note-perfect version. We eventually lost touch but I never lost interest in their music, and even though I haven’t seen them in years it makes me happy knowing the original trio is still out there playing this music 30+ years after their debut album and more than four decades after forming in New Orleans. I’m not sure how 3.V, with its date-stamped sonic touches, will sound to anyone hearing it for the first time, but I think the songs speak for themselves and the album somehow sounds timeless to me.