Back during my junior and senior years in high school, there was a plethora of good new music to be had on vinyl, and the year 1981 was a particularly stellar one in Rock. More than any other year, 1981 seemed to have more major comebacks, breakout releases by bands on the rise, albums that were consistently great from start-to-finish, and numerous releases that wound up being my favorite albums by my all-time favorite bands. It was certainly a very formative year for my musical collection, and with that in mind, here’s a look back at some dandy record albums from that magical year (in no particular order):
R.E.O. SPEEDWAGON—HI inFIdelity A carryover from late ‘80, Speedwagon dominated the radio with this monster for most of 1981. R.E.O.'s classic power ballad "Keep On Lovin’ You" undoubtedly brought more than a few bodies closer together over the winter of ’80-’81, and the album also yielded a boatload of hits, including "Tough Guys", "Take It On The Run", "Don’t Let Him Go" and "In Your Letter". "Out of Season" was a great track too, and "Shakin’ It Loose" wound up being pretty good audience-participation number in concert. R.E.O. went on to have more success in the ‘80s, but Hi inFI was clearly the pinnacle of their career.
STYX—Paradise Theater Styx rebounded nicely from their mediocre 1979 release, Cornerstone, and 1981 saw them duplicate the breakout success of their friendly Illinois rivals Speedwagon with their outstanding Paradise Theater album and its accompanying triumphant concert tour, one of the best Rock shows I ever attended. Even though they were already squabbling internally, the members of Styx still managed to string together some standout songs like "Rockin’ The Paradise", "Too Much Time On My Hands", "Snow Blind" and "The Best Of Times". If only Styx had quit while they were ahead…
OZZY OSBOURNE—Blizzard of Ozz Another carryover from ’80, no one expected a thing out of Ozzy (least of all, Ozzy himself) after being booted from Black Sabbath, so what a pleasant surprise this killer record was with its Heavy Metal classics like "Crazy Train", "Suicide Solution" and "I Don’t Know". If the late Randy Rhoads hadn’t come into the Osbournes’ lives, Ozzy and Sharon might well be on skid row today. RR was the Stevie Ray Vaughan of Heavy Metal, and one can only wonder what he might’ve gone on to do—one of the biggest (and most senseless) tragedies in Rock history.
JEFFERSON STARSHIP—Modern Times Starship continued to ride the momentum from their successful rebound on 1979’s Freedom At Point Zero with another solid effort here and reunited with an old friend in the process. Erstwhile singer Grace Slick returned from some much-needed time on the wagon to duet with Mickey Thomas on the hit "Stranger" and she can also be heard backing the underrated "Save Your Love" as well as on the penultimate "Fuck You" song, "Stairway To Cleveland". While the album did have a couple horrors like "Mary" ("I don’t want to marry Mary"—P.U.!) and "Alien", it did yield the radio-friendly hit "Find Your Way Back".
VAN HALEN—Fair Warning Clearly, Van Halen’s self-titled debut album from 1978 was their finest, but Fair Warning has always been my favorite. Cousin Eddie was just shredding licks all over this record from the get-go on opening track "Mean Streets" and he never let up throughout. This album was loaded with underrated classics like "Sinner’s Swing!", "Hear About It Later", "Dirty Movies" and "So This Is Love", and this was the period during which VH was white-hot in concert (as "Unchained" easily attests) before David Lee Roth’s burgeoning ego blew everything to hell. My only problem was the album was way too short, barely clocking in at 30 minutes, but you could say that about nearly every VH album during the DLR era.
RUSH—Moving Pictures Finally, Geddy Lee learned how to sing after shrieking like a banshee all those years. And finally, a consistent long-player from the boys from the Great White North. "Tom Sawyer" was about all you heard on FM Rock radio in the spring of ’81, and the rest of the album weren’t too shabby either, with cuts like "Red Barchetta", "Limelight" and the underrated "Vital Signs". The 10-minute-plus "The Camera Eye" is pretty cool too, with its various tempo changes and moods. From what I understand, Rush dusted that one off and played it on tour last summer. MP was the first in a very consistent string of albums during what was my favorite Rush era, up to and including 1987’s Hold Your Fire.
APRIL WINE—Nature Of The Beast Another album from a group of Canucks who finally hit their stride in 1981, Beast turned out to be one of my favorite records of the year. April Wine’s prior two albums yielded decent-sized radio hits with "Roller", "I Like To Rock" and "Say Hello", but NOTB blew away all of their previous efforts with rockers like "Future Tense", "Big City Girls", "Caught In The Crossfire", "One More Time" and my personal fave, the short-but-sweet attitude piece "Wanna Rock". "Just Between You And Me" and "All Over Town" were big hits on the radio too, and AW seemed to be well on their way to becoming the next Foreigner or Loverboy, but it appears they shot their wad on Beast because none of their subsequent output even came close to equaling it.
BLUE ÖYSTER CULT—Fire Of Unknown Origin This was the last really good studio record BOC ever made, in my opinion. "Burnin’ For You" was the big radio hit, but Fire yielded some classic BOC thinking-man’s fare like "Veteran Of The Psychic Wars", the title track and the irrepressible "Joan Crawford".
THE TUBES—Completion Backward Principle After years of being a campy (and borderline porn) stage act, Fee Waybill and the boys tried to get everyone to take them seriously as musicians, and whaddya know—it worked! Great stuff here like "Attack Of The 50-Foot Woman", "Sushi Girl" and the big radio hit "Talk To Ya Later". Even better was the underrated power ballad "Don’t Want To Wait Anymore", which is one of my all-time favorites of that genre.
GIRLSCHOOL—Hit And Run I was introduced to this all-chick band from England during the summer of ’82 and was totally blown away by this wicked slab of Heavy Metal that easily rivals anything Judas Priest or Iron Maiden ever did. They played hard, fast and lean throughout this album on tracks like "Kick It Down", "C’Mon, Let’s Go", "Future Flash", "Yeah Right!" and their killer remake of "Race With The Devil". Not bad for a bunch of girls, eh?
AC/DC—For Those About To Rock…We Salute You No way in hell were Angus and the boys going to top Back In Black, so anything they put out would’ve been a comedown, anyway. Still, this one had its moments, like "Let’s Get It Up", the underrated "Put The Finger On You" and of course, the cannon-fodder laden title track.
NAZARETH—‘Snaz Before double-live albums totally went out of style like rotary-dial phones, platform shoes and Pong games, Nazareth snuck this one out, and it featured wicked live versions of classics like "Expect No Mercy" and "Hair Of The Dog", as well as a cool cover of the Yardbirds classic "Shapes of Things" (aka, "Come Tomorrow") for an encore. They also tacked on a nice studio cover of Tim Rose's "Morning Dew". I categorize Nazareth as a good-but-not-great band, and ’Snaz was a nice document of their career to that point.
J. GEILS BAND—Freeze-Frame Any group that has a Magic Dick in it can’t be all bad! After years of toiling in obscurity and having only a cult following, the critically-acclaimed J. Geils Band finally hit pay dirt with this album, which was aided and abetted by heavy rotation on the then-fledgling MTV thing. "Centerfold" was all over the radio, as was the title track, and "Flamethrower" even made the R&B charts as I recall. My favorite track is the intrepid closer, "Piss On The Wall". Unfortunately, success went to singer Peter Wolf’s big fat head, though, and he left the band for a solo career in 1983, and they were never the same.
SAMMY HAGAR—Standing Hampton This was quite possibly Sammy’s finest hour as a solo act before joining Van Halen, with the radio-friendly hit "I’ll Fall In Love Again" and his trademark "There's Only One Way To Rock". The album title, btw, is a British euphemism for hard-on, as "Hampton" refers to one’s manhood. ‘Tis better to be Standing Hampton than Little Hampton…
DIRE STRAITS—Making Movies As much as I like Straits, nothing from their first two albums really blew me away, apart from "Sultans Of Swing", and it wasn’t until album number three came along that I really found something to chew on. "Tunnel Of Love" and "Romeo & Juliet" have grown on me a lot over the years, and "Solid Rock" should’ve been a bigger radio hit than it was. The closing track, "Les Boys", was a fun little piece of pastiche by Mark Knopfler too.
PAT BENATAR—Precious Time Pat’s third album was every bit as good as her first two with cuts like "Promises In The Dark", "Fire And Ice" and the title track, not to mention a nice cover of Paul Revere & The Raiders’ "Just Like Me". However, she went to the cover well once too often with her unnecessary remake of The Beatles’ "Helter Skelter"—somehow a sexy babe singer in a leotard and tights singing a song about death and mayhem just doesn’t quite register! Then again, Motley Crue and U2 wasted their time covering this one too, even though there’s no need to improve on the original.
BILLY SQUIER—Don’t Say No Young master Squier had it clicking on all cylinders here and scored no less than four pretty good-sized radio hits with "The Stroke", "My Kinda Lover", "Lonely Is The Night" and "In The Dark". My personal favorite is the frenetic "Whaddya Want From Me?" and "Too Daze Gone" didn't suck either. Billy’s next album, Emotions In Motion was even more successful in terms of sales, but I think DSN was the better of the two. Then it all went downhill a couple years later when Squier more or less outed himself in the disastrous "Rock Me Tonite" video. Too bad—this guy had the chops on guitar and wasn’t too shabby a songwriter either.
More to follow in Part II, coming soon...