Sunday, 28 July 2019

(Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Provenance: As a young guitar player I wanted to play 'Free Bird'.

Review: I almost decided to go with something by Electric Wizard or Lee Dorsey this week, as I couldn't be arsed with this album title. Even the band's name gives me a minor headache. So, henceforth, (Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) will be Pronounced..., and I may well just stick to 'Skynyrd' for the band.

It's my belief that Lynyrd Skynyrd are one of the more unfairly maligned bands out there. Certainly, their current incarnation does them little favours, having seemingly succumbed to the temptations of the Nuge crowd a decade ago with a wretched platter called God & Guns. In all probability it was a savvy move; it resonates both with the classic rock crowd (a conservative old bunch) and the fans who didn't quite get them the first time around. A victim of their own success, one might say, as Skynyrd are often portrayed as the archetypal white trash favourite, their semi-idiot fans drunkenly braying for 'Free Bird' a whole two songs into their shows.

At least in the early days, before little brother took over as the frontman, Skynyrd were a more nuanced operation. 'Saturday Night Special' was as anti-handgun as anything out there; 'Tuesday's Gone' and 'I Need You' are wonderful slices of balladry, teetering just about on this side of maudlin; 'Sweet Home Alabama' is much more ambiguous than its title suggests; and of course, they beat the Sex Pistols to the punch by slagging off their own record label with the incredible riff-monster 'Workin' For MCA'.

So, here's where it all began - with some wonderfully greasy drumming that kicks off both Pronounced... and 'I Ain't The One', a tough blues-rocker that serves as the template for a raft of Skynyrd tunes. They would get a little more complex on subsequent releases, but it's really all here; swaggering riffs interpolated by wiry, slippery blues soloing and Billy Powell's honky-tonk piano. The cherry on top is Ronnie Van Zandt's vocal; he has no real range, aside from a switch-up to a country falsetto holler, and one imagines his speaking voice wasn't too far from his singing voice. But that's the charm! His voice is no more or less 'honest' or 'authentic' than Jobriath's, or Gladys Knight's or Ian Curtis', but here it feels entirely at a piece with the style, context and ideas behind the music.

It is this unpretentious and plaintive delivery that entirely elevates the otherwise slightly pedestrian 'Tuesday's Gone' - a big ol' ballad about leaving your woman in the 'By The Time I Get to Memphis' mould - into a real heartwrencher, and good enough for Metallica to cover. It's also an effective deadpan, as on the comic-buffo 'Gimme Three Steps' (about approaching the wrong guy's woman in a bar); you can almost picture the raised eyebrow as he intones "ah said, excuuuuse me" just before a lead break. If I am going to bring authenticity into play, it's that as a native son of Alabama Van Zandt totally gets away with the couplet "Hey there fella / With the hair coloured yella". And by 'gets away', I mean it's a real kicky little moment in an already knockabout number.

Now, I know that 'Free Bird' is part of the gilded iconography of southron rock, alongside 'Whippin' Post' by the Allman Brothers, the band's very own 'Sweet Home Alabama' and Charlie Daniels' deranged Twitter feed, but for my money the better song is 'Simple Man'. It's in the same vein of cornpone balladry as 'Tuesday's Gone', but features some satisfyingly crunchy choruses and a sentimental lyric that's atypical in classic rock which recounts the advice the singer received from his mama about living a good life. Nothing here to rival Montaigne in terms of profundity you understand, but it's direct and sincere.

It's about this time that Pronounced... sags into a rhythm that approaches the formulaic, but there's nuggets of gold strewn throughout the back end, such as Powell's Dr John impression on 'Things Goin' On'. Of this little bunch of tracks that lead up to 'Free Bird', 'Poison Whiskey' is probably the most interesting for Skynyrd fans as it most obviously points towards the sound on their next album, Second Helping. There's a muscularity and aggression in the attack, and it introduces the knotty turnarounds that festoon Second Helping, which incidentally make some of the best Skynyrd songs deceptively tricksy to play.

I feel like it's a hopeless task writing about 'Free Bird', thanks to its ubiquity and notoriety. I'll say this, then; the verses, underscored by Hammond organ, are Skynyrd doing their best Allmans impersonation, and I like 'em best when they're sounding like Skynyrd. It's not bad, but on an album with two slower-paced numbers already in the mix, it drags a little. The lengthy coda, however, consisting of a galloping guitar dual, remains a treat. What impresses are not the pyrotechnics on display - it's not actually a particularly difficult solo in technical terms - but how it's constructed. The different motifs locking together, weaving in and out of each other, building both momentum and tension - and then the final release (albeit slightly anticlimactic) are what makes 'Free Bird' a perennial. You want proof? Here's some proof.

Pronounced... is a minor classic, albeit one that exists in the shadow of the monster it spawned. In this scribe's humble opinion Skynyrd actually get better on Second Helping, but that's all for another time. Yeah, this is really first-rate deep-fried southern rock, and not half as boneheaded as you may have been led to expect.

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