ROCK MUSICIANS WHO die in the service of the faith have a way of becoming idolized and canonized by the legions of the rock and roll faithful. Lynyrd Skynyrd, thanks to the auspices of a chartered plane (the same tool of fate used to glorify Jim Croce and Buddy Holly), is now a certified rock and roll legend--martyr, if you will. Last winter, the leader of the group, Ronnie Van Zant, and several band members died in a plane crash which terminated Skynyrd's ascent to the forefront of Southern and probably American rock. Left behind, broken and in disarray, were the rest of the band and a collection of tapes made in 1970 which were some of the group's earliest songs.
These tapes have now been released as Skynyrd's First and Last Album. Despite the advertising hype that accompanies the reviewer's copy, the immediate response from anyone who has suffered through any one of the execrable "roots" albums that sprang up in the aftermath of Jimi Hendrix's death runs along these lines: "Here is a half-assed first album being released now to pay the bills for the next few years ...Forget it."
Well, this album doesn't deserve that curse, but it is certainly not a forgotten masterpiece. In general, it is an adequate collection of derivative hard rock with a couple of ringers thrown in. The band which recorded this album bears only a family resemblance to the group that recorded in the late 70's as Lynyrd Skynyrd.
THERE ARE NO really striking songs here, no "Free Bird"s (still the most requested song on Boston radio, an American "Stairway to Heaven") and very little in the lyrics that rises above the sort of "Y'all should love yer brother and fight injustice" sentiment that had become trite even before the cynicism of the last five years slaughtered it completely.
Skynyrd's roots in British rock are obvious and there is little pretension in the album's music or the P.R. about the extent of their debt. Numbers like "Down South Jukin," "Preacher's Daughter" and "Lend a Helpin' Hand" would not have been written if the Rolling Stones and Cream had never recorded. "Comin' Home" owes its existence in part to the early Allman Brothers, the group that Skynyrd always played second Les Paul to until just before the end. And thrown in for filler are two songs by then drummer and vocalist Rickey Medlocke which are so un-Skynyrd-like in their flutey ballad styling that they seem to have snuck onto the record while the producer was out to lunch.
Buried amid these tunes, like encrusted gems, are the seeds of the later, far superior rock that the group was to produce. The guitars of Allen Collins and Gary Rossington exhibit the protean stages of the sweaty-fingered flash that made "Free Bird" such a classic. Van Zant was undoubtedly still in the throes of carving a style for himself when he did this record. He imitates Cream lead singer Jack Bruce several times and in one of the oddest numbers, "Things Going On," he double-tracks his vocals and ends up sounding like Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash singing a duet. But again, one can hear the roots of the whiskey-voiced gusto that made songs like "Sweet Home Alabama" worthwhile rock and roll.
Still, it remains true that Lynyrd Skynyrd was a workman-like but not overly sensational band which took a high-decibel brand of Southern-British boogie and a couple of great songs to the masses. In that mission they became victims, but in the ironic way of these things they have become better loved in death than they probably could have been in life. For those of you who are jumping on the Skynyrd band-plane in fulfillment of this time-honored truism: this album is not for you, it is for people who were fans all along and already have the real Lynyrd Skynyrd's best albums.
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