If you read this blog enough you will hear me say, and, yes, I'm saying it again, the 80s were awful for mainstream music.
New mainstream sounded awful and "in the charts" mainstream was rubbish but the hardest hit by the 80s sound were the old acts from the 60s and 70s.
Many people would disagree with me but they are looking at the music, or rather, remembering the music through the joy of their youth.
Okay, I don't come to this argument with clean hands. I disliked mainstream 80s music in the 80s. I was a kid but I was listening to 50s, 60s and 70s music. I also lived for indie / underground / alternative music mainly because it (sounded then) so raw , under-produced and organic. One argument is that those bands sounded "raw" because they didn't that have the money to sound any "better". There is some truth to that because as soon as some of those bands were signed to major labels they ended up sounding like mainstream crap. I think, though, that most of those bands didn't sound like the mainstream because they were looking backwards trying to emulate their heroes of the past whilst the mainstream was looking forward to the future.
And their future was full of synthesisers, drum machines, loud guitars without any ragged edges, and full vocals that seemed to have been recorded at a different time laid and over the instrumental track.
It's one thing if you are a New Wave band doing this … you may get away with it because you sort of anticipated the sound. But, it is altogether something else, if you are an older act and you are trying to sound contemporary. It is sad.
Those albums (and everyone gave it a go: Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison) may have sounded good then and even had chart success but now they just sound awful.
And this is how we come to Stephen Stills. His previous two albums hadn't done that well, so he came out with this attempt for chart success.
But, his folk rock, country, blues singer songwriter genes was not suited to synths and drum machines
It is better to stick to your (musical) guns and remain out of touch. The music will become fashionable again and with back catalogue sales you may have a career rise. Most importantly, your career won't be blighted by ill-conceived product.
Stills is a bit of a legend, albeit not a common knowledge one. Wikipedia: "Stephen Arthur Stills (born January 3, 1945) is an American musician and multi-instrumentalist best known for his work with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young … Beginning his professional career with Buffalo Springfield, he composed their only hit "For What It's Worth," which became one of the most recognizable songs of the decade. Other notable songs he contributed to the band were "Sit Down, I Think I Love You," "Bluebird" and "Rock & Roll Woman." According to Richie Furay, he was "the heart and soul of Buffalo Springfield." … After Buffalo Springfield broke up, Stills began working with David Crosby and Graham Nash on their debut album. Stills, in addition to writing much of the album, played bass, guitar, and keyboards on most of the album. The album sold over four million copies and at that point, had outsold anything from the three members' prior bands: The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Hollies. The album won the trio a Grammy Award for Best New Artist … Neil Young, formerly of Buffalo Springfield, joined CSN months later for their second concert at Woodstock and subsequent album Déjà Vu. The album found Stills again as a leader of the group. Living up to his nickname "Captain Many Hands" he played bass, guitar and keyboard on the title track, and electric guitar and piano on Helpless. Young appeared on half of the album, which became a huge success and sold over eight million copies. In its wake all four members of CSNY released solo albums that reached the top 20 … ".
Stephen Stills released his first self titled solo album in 1970 which went to #3 in the US. Each subsequent album charted a little lower in the charts. The album preceding this one, "Thoroughfare Gap", charted at #83 (US).
That album had flirted with disco. You would have thought Stills would have learnt his lesson about chasing chart success by incorporating contemporary popular sounds.
No, he didn't.
It took six years to get to this album, "Right By You" though he wasn't quiet during that period as he put out two patchy Crosby Stills and Nash albums.
This album has a host of great guest musicians including Jimmy Page on guitar on three tracks (perhaps not that unusual as Led Zeppelin had done the Stephen Stills penned Buffalo Springfield song, "What It's Worth", live in 1975 and Stills had used Clapton and Hendrix before) and Herb Pedersen, Bernie Leadon and Jerry Scheff on one. Old cohorts Graham Nash, Chris Hillman and Mike Finnigan provide backing vocals (along with John Sambataro) and the occasional instrument.
But they are all buried under bad (atrocious and very typical) 80s production. This is truly awful. Stills knows how to write a song and choose a cover (though the use of professional songwriters with recent hits seems a little calculating) but almost nothing works here.
Chart wise, did the gambit pay off?
No, though the album charted marginally higher than his album previous. This was Stills last solo album for seven years and the last for a major label.
And, what is with the cover art? Stills must have been into speedboats, the back has him on one whilst the front pic is a speedboat in outer space with futuristic font. A visual attempt at relevancy. Granted the outer space sleeves were big in the late 70s early 80s (Chuck Berry's guitar spaceship on "Rockit" (1979) the only one that works) but this is particularly naff.
The album was produced by Ron Albert, Howard Albert and Stephen Stills apart from Can't Let Go" which was produced by (former 60s teen idol come) Steve Alaimo.
Tracks (best in italics)
- 50/50 – (Joe Lala, Stills) – a Latin feel and groove runs through this and it is awful. Starting an album with this does not offer any comfort. Page provides a short guitar solo in the Santana vein.
- Stranger – (Stills, Christopher Stills) – fark, Shoot me. This feels like, err bad Top 40 radio in, errr, 1984 or 1985. I can see myself walking through a shop in 1985 with this playing in the background.
- Flaming Heart – (Ray Arnott) – Ray Arnott was an Australian musician (drummer) from the bands Spectrum, The Dingoes, and Cold Chisel as well as fronting his own band, the Ray Arnott Group. I don't know how Stills got hold of this song. It came out on a Ray Arnott band album, "Rock n Roll" in 1985.The single came out in 1984). Page provides guitar. This is a slow but muscular rocker that is done in my the production. There is a good bit right before Page cuts loose, Stills proclaims " Talk about it James!"
- Love Again – (Stills) – fark, utter pus. This could be The Hooters, though not as good!
- No Problem – (Stills) – yes there is. A big one.
Can't Let Go – (Joe Esposito, Ali Willis) – Joe Esposito and Allee Willis were
MORpop rock American singers and songwriters. Marginally better with some nice electric guitar wankery by Stills himself.
- Grey to Green – (Stills, James Newton Howard) – rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, and very , very, very 80s.
- Only Love Can Break Your Heart – (Neil Young, additional lyrics Stephen Stills) – from Neil Yung's " After the Gold Rush" from 1970. The production is awful but the song is good and Stills vocals sound right.
- No Hiding Place – (Louise Cirtain, Gladys Stacey, A. P. Carter, additional lyrics Stephen Stills) – The Carter Family song from 1934. Slick but great. This is one of the few songs that seems to be commentating on political and social issues which was a normal feature of (liberal) Stills song writing. Stills has added some new lyrics to the old country number. "There's No Hiding place down here" in 1984 during Ronald Reagan's presidency and Star Wars program can't be accidental. This sounds out of place on this album. The guesting of Hillman, Pedersen, Nash, Leadon, Finnigan and Scheff is welcome.
- Right by You – (Stills) – a slow blues with Page on guitar. This is quite good (though a little, yawnsville, biker blues-ey) though, again, out of place on this album.
Awful, but I like Stills and have most of his other albums so for completeness …. I'm keeping it. I may try sneaking it on at a dinner party to se what happens.
1984 Can't Let Go #67
1984 Stranger #61
This is worth watching as a bad 80s video
No Hiding Place
The least typical song on the album and the best
Right by You
Acoustic live version 1984
with Neil Young