I resisted moving from the LP format to CD for as long as I possibly could. Beyond my thought that the general sound quality of CDs paled in comparison to the richness found in real records, I loved how the album cover – especially in the 1970s – had become a modern-day art canvas. There are so many great, great rock covers from the 1970s that it’s simply impossible to name one as the best of the period. Albums had photography and graphics assembled with creative composition and design. When you’d play a record you could stare at the imagery, read the jacket’s liner notes and in some cases be transported to the very studio where the album was recorded. The whole thing made having friends over to listen to records a real event.
You and your pals could thumb through a collection and have a real back and forth about music. Back then as teens I think we all knew more about rock and roll than most kids could today. Downloads offer you no real entry point to learn more about what you are listening to, and CD artwork and liner notes are of course limited by the size of the format.
In turn, music has become more disposable and lifeless. It’s a shame really. When I buy old records today I’m as impressed by the music as I am by the wear marks of the original owners’ use. Was the record cared for, or thrown into a pile? Was it played and enjoyed, or filed away and quickly forgotten? The records act like a window to another time.
Yesterday I picked up a copy of Bob Welch’s seminal debut, French Kiss. Even today the album cover is provocative. Back in ’77 when it was released it was seen everywhere and today lives as a reference point for the late ’70s. Sure, the fact that it contained two big hits, “Sentimental Lady” (originally recorded by Fleetwood Mac on the 1972 Bare Trees album) and “Ebony Eyes,” helped. But the cover photo – a snap of Bob looking like he was placing a lit match in his mouth at the very moment that a scantily-clad woman licks his face – remains a metaphor for the period’s club scene drug-heavy lifestyle, cocaine in particular. For so many, this was a time absent of boundaries, especially for the lives led by adult, single thirty-something boomers who were funded by disposable income that had never been common for people of that age before.
The songs on French Kiss aren’t songs of adolescent love, but of adults who had the means and opportunity to live life on its wilder and more carless side. The big hit, “Sentimental Lady,” sums it up best:
“You are here and warm
But I could look away and you’d be gone
Cause we live in a time
When meaning falls in splinters from our lives”
Welch is an often-overlooked artist. He replaced Peter Green in Fleetwood Mac in 1971 and was the first to help the band transition to a more mainstream pop-oriented sound. He made the unfortunate mistake of leaving the band just as Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined. In turn, he missed out on all of the commercial success that was about to present itself to the band. But as he went out on his own after quitting the band in 1974, Mick Fleetwood became his manager, and he turned to Christine McVie and Lindsey for help on the first single, “Sentimental Lady.” He also ended up opening for the band on their Rumours tour, which further drove awareness of French Kiss. That was intended to provide him with a platform for future releases.
However, his subsequent music just would never be as good as it was here and his career sputtered. He feuded with members of Mac and in the end, because of a lawsuit against his former band mates, was banished from their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. After 1977, he all but disappeared, struggling with addiction and personal issues. It’s shocking really. Welch had a small hit here and there but nothing meaningful.
French Kiss is an album that encompasses all of the energy and pure fun of what made mainstream rock popular in the late seventies. There are elements of Foreigner softened by hints of late ‘70s Elton John and soft-core disco. The album provided Welch with a forum where he could make music the way he wanted it made. In Fleetwood Mac, he and Christine McVie had become the central songwriting team for the group and together created some exceptional songs. French Kiss is, I guess, a reflection of where he wanted the band to go, had he stayed with them. Instead, Fleetwood Mac got another shot at the top and Bob was allowed to make a record that is as captivating as its cover photo. I have never listened to his other releases. I don’t think that’s necessary. Sometimes one and done is part of the grand design.
In 2012, following surgery on his back, Welch committed suicide. The press largely overlooked his passing. It was a tragic end to such a promising career.
For me, I’d like to remember Welch as I have to this day – as the wickedly cool guy on this cover who I studied for hours as a kid, who made music that I have loved for what seems like forever. That just never grows old.