[And now for something completely different: at the heart of each and every one of Christian’s columns will be audio from his radio show in which he dissects and analyzes the featured song, track by track. I find it a fascinating process, and hope you’ll enjoy it—Ed.]
In May of 1978, Capitol Records released Bob Seger‘s 10th LP, Stranger In Town. This epic album was recorded in a number of studios throughout the States. Bob had spent time at Criteria in Miami; studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Cherokee and Capitol in Los Angeles; and Sound Suite in Detroit— all trying to get the album tracked and finished for release that summer. There was considerable pressure: his last album, Night Moves, had sold six million copies, and the label was MORE than hungry to match that success.
There are two bands playing on Stranger. Half of the tracks feature The Silver Bullet Band, and on the other half, The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a cadre of some of the greatest studio musicians of all time. Bob’s reason for this? He was, obviously, a HUGE fan of the Old School Sound of the records of his youth, but, sometimes, as he said, the band just needed to ROCK. The song “Hollywood Nights” is one of those rockers. The musicians playing on it are as follows:
David Teegarden – drums
Chris Campbell – bass
Robyn Robins – keys
Bill Payne (Little Feat) – organ
Drew Abbott – guitar
Bob Seger – guitar/vocal
The fellas in the band had decamped to LA to finish the tracking on a few of the tunes. Bob had been living in a rented house in the Hollywood hills for the duration of his stay. One night he found himself driving home, roof down, stereo cranked, blasting through the hills, a perfect Summer night, and the lyric “just came to him”: “Hollywood nights/ Hollywood hills/ Above all the lights/ Hollywood nights.”
And that, as they say, was that. When he got back to the rented house, he sat down to complete the lyrics. On a table in the room was the latest Time magazine with a photo of Cheryl Tiegs on the cover. Bob’s idea was to write the story of a boy from a small town coming to LA, meeting a girl like her, and getting caught-up in the whole ‘bizzaro thing’ of that world.
It’s absolutely fantastic. Mission accomplished.
The first stroke of genius with the song was when David Teegarden decided to play TWO drum-parts. At the same time. Tracked separately. He went through the song once and then played against himself for a second take. Two completely different patterns. Two sets of drum-tracks. Same player. Brilliant.
The gallop that the entire song sits on is perfectly established by the beautiful cacophony of Teegarden’s playing. It is both anarchic and precise at the same time. Matched with the epic bass part of Chris Campbell, this “Engine Room” sets the pace for the track with a skyscraper-secure foundation. Campbell’s rolling, counter-melody-laced, bass part is the perfect counter to the Teutonic nature of the drums. Inspired choices.
Next comes the simplicity of the guitar parts, proving less is more. This is, after-all, Rock’n’Roll! You don’t get to play with Bob for 9 albums if you can’t give him what he wants and needs, and Drew Abbott nails the gallop perfectly. And, lest we forget, Bob is no slouch on the ol’ 6-string either.
Robyn Robins’ piano part is the first hint that we get of the Gospel moving through this tune. He is also a lifer in the SBB and knows what the boss wants to hear. There are some beautiful choices being made. The song begins to stack together at this point. Each musician making choices to enhance and embellish, injecting their own perspective and personality, but holding tight to the purpose, as they serve the song with full intention. There’s NO fat on this thing.
And then…Bill Payne. Long time member of Little Feat, considered by many to be one of the greatest rock and blues players of all time. His organ track on this song is one of my favorite performances of all time. Detroit is a hard city. A tough place to live. And the church, and religion, and the Gospel music that it brought with it, are a source of comfort and pride in that place. Bill Payne takes us ALL to church in “Hollywood Nights”! It’s the moment when the song completely falls into place. It’s the setting that Bob needs to have in order to provide…
That vocal. Holy SHITE!. I can’t imagine that you have ever heard anything like it. Remember, as you listen, that this is a man writing an ENTIRELY fictional account of a relationship that NEVER HAPPENED! Between a guy, clearly based on himself, and a super-model, Cheryl Tiegs. All inspired by a photo on the cover of a magazine.
It’s absurd. He sings the words as if his life, and happiness, depend upon it. He tells us the story, the joy, the heartache, the magic, and we believe it. THAT is an artist. And that is, unfortunately, something that I find absent in much of the music I hear today.
Then, when the choir kicks in at the end…WE ALL BELIEVE! We all celebrate the tale and wish it had happened to us. And that’s the real magic in this song. It didn’t happen to ANYONE! Incredible accomplishment. Listen to the moments in-between the lyrics, the little “snatch breaths” that Seger takes in order to get out the next line. If it isn’t all one take, I’d hazard a guess that it wasn’t many. Bob Seger is a badass. Period. And if this vocal were the ONLY evidence presented, the jury would have no choice but to convict!
Here’s how it breaks down, track by track:
And here it is, all put together:
Ah, the good old days:
Stranger In Town proceeded to sell exactly the same amount as Night Moves. Six times Platinum. Six million copies. Other singles on this album? “Still the Same”, “Old Time Rock’n”Roll”, and “We’ve Got Tonight.” It’s a monolith of a record. Track-to-track. Check the video and then go back and enjoy the entire album. It’s one that deserves some time in your system.
But…don’t sue me if, like Bill Payne, you find yourself barreling along the highway, “Hollywood Nights” at 11 on the stereo, and you look down to find that you’re doing 100 miles-an-hour. That’s what that song is made for. You’ll have been hit by the Spirit.
Until next time.