Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: LYNYRD SKYNYRD
Album: STREET SURVIVORS
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
On the cusp of being one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s magnificent fifth studio album, Street Survivors, cemented their reputation but unfortunately will always be associated with the plane crash that killed two band members, a backing vocalist, their assistant tour manager, the pilot & co-pilot just three days after it was released. Following up the previous year’s multi-platinum Top 10 double-live album, One More From The Road, the septet of lead singer/band leader Ronnie Van Zant, guitarists Gary Rossington, Allen Collins & Steve Gaines, bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboardist Billy Powell and drummer Artimus Pyle was at peak of its powers, creatively & commercially. Often described as merely a “Southern Rock” band, Skynyrd had so much more to offer while still being the definitive example of that genre. Van Zant, with his muscular yet nuanced vocals & thought-provoking lyrics, was the instantly recognizable voice of the band (as well as its heart), while the triple-guitar attack set them apart from other groups with “only” two guitarists. Mix in Powell’s under-appreciated fleet-fingered keyboard work & a rhythm section to rival most of their contemporaries, and it’s not far-fetched to consider them one of the premier American musical acts of all time. Sadly, that all came to an end when Van Zant & Gaines (the super-talented new guy) perished in that crash along with Gaines’ sister Cassie, but they left us with arguably the high-water mark of their career.
Album opener “What’s Your Name” was a Top 20 single and one of their best-known songs; an only-in-the-‘70s “rock band & groupies on the road” tale that includes a true incident about one of their roadies getting into a scuffle (“Back at the hotel, Lord we got such a mess, It seems that one of the crew had a go with one of the guests, oh yes”). Gaines & Van Zant co-wrote, and share lead vocals on, the pulsating, funky “You Got That Right,” which has become a classic rock radio staple and sounds like a cross between The Doobie Brothers & Little Feat. Van Zant once remarked of Gaines that he & the band would “all be in his shadow one day,” and album closer “Ain’t No Good Life” is evidence of his enormous talents. Not only does he deliver a searing guitar solo on this slow blues tune, but he also wrote it & sang lead. The highlight of Street Survivors for me has always been “That Smell,” an anti-drink-and-drugs anthem that’s also one of my favorite driving-down-the-road songs, with an insistent rhythm and several blistering guitar solos. “One More Time” is a lovely waltz-tempo ballad that features one of Van Zant’s most tender vocal performances. They enter swinging jump-blues territory on “I Know A Little,” a hidden gem that deserved a wider audience, and there’s even a faithful rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” which was tailor made for Skynyrd. Of the five studio albums released by the original incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd, I think Street Survivors is their most consistent and pointed the way toward a bright future that was cruelly taken from the band & its fans. It still packs quite a punch four decades later, which is cause for celebration in spite of the mourning that lingers for what might have been.