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Camaro rock: The ten best albums for big hair, big motors, and big...
Camaro Rock. You instinctively know this genre even if you don’t know this genre. Think about the guy who lived down the street from you, any year from 1970 through 1999. Big guy, kind of dumb, probably not a total asshole. Stopped to say hi to you when you walked by, or saluted, if he was a couple sheets to the wind (he drank Leinies. Always Leinies). Had a girlfriend, talked like she smoked five packs of Marlboro red box a day, only ever wore black concert T’s and tight blue jeans*. Had a car, probably a Camaro (a muscle car or classic sports car for sure), that he worked on all the damn time, all summer. There was music emanating from his garage, 24/7. Think: What was he playing? Uh huh. That, my friends, was Camaro Rock.
It’s a genre that doesn’t get a lick of respect. Even as we’ve reclaimed prog rock, country rock and disco from the Great Gods of Unhipdom (or should have—you guys got the memos, right?), Camaro Rock remains a black mark on the face of music. This is partly thanks (or no thanks) to classic rock stations like KQRS, who overplayed the living fuck out of all of this stuff to the point that your gut reaction to a lot of it is a soul-deep shudder and the urge to vomit. It’s also partly due to the fact that it was aimed by the labels at a kind of lumpen lowest common denominator—your Camaro guys and their girlfriends—who you probably thought were total losers. In retrospect, in the era since Nickelback and Bush (George Jr. and the band) and the Tea Party and Sugarland (have you heard “Stuck on You?” Jesus Christ, the rap part—it’s eardrum-lacerating), they seem like fucking Mensa members, no?
None of this means there weren’t great Camaro Rock albums. In fact, there’s quite a lot of great stuff in this maligned genre if you’re willing to actually admit that maybe you’re wrong about hating it and listen with an open mind. The irony (and the thing that pisses off a lot of people whenever I talk/write about it) is that none of this stuff is “lost.” These are all records that sold ten billion copies. These are all records that caused punk rockers and hipsters to scream angrily and reach for their Graham Parker records**. The marginalization of this stuff comes only from two places: record critics (the ones who still follow the Rolling Stone Record Guide—you know who you are) and hipsters (the super-orthodox ones, who follow the party line without straying). The rest of the American public loves this stuff. But sadly, those two groups control history at the moment—and many of these albums are on their way to becoming lost to the ages, at least in terms of critical assessment.
And that’s the thing. If you get nothing from my columns whatsoever, at least you hopefully take away this: there are no “good genres” and “bad genres” of music. There is only good music and bad music. And frequently, the stuff you assume is bad music is actually quite damn great when you listen with an open mind.
Okay, sermon over. In honor of the month of August and the State Fair Grandstand, home to some absolutely killer Camaro Rock concerts this year and every year (Journey, Loverboy and Kiss all count, mostly – Crüe doesn’t, but only barely), here are the ten best Camaro Rock albums of all time. Because, goddammit, who doesn’t love a good Internet list, except anti-social weirdoes and people who HATE AMERICA and FUN?
1. Journey, Escape. (1981) The sine qua non, the capo di tutti capo of Camaro Rock. The album that crystallized the genre. You know “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and don’t lie to me and tell me you haven’t sung along to it either a) in the shower or b) while drunk (possibly both at once). But the album’s absolutely chock full of killer Camaro tunes—the rifftastic “Stone In Love,” the histrionic “Lay It Down,” the absolutely epic “Mother, Father.” And who can resist the charms of the lighter-wavin’*** “Open Arms?” Nobody. Nobody I care to know, anyway. The thing is: these are great songs. There is a reason “Don’t Stop Believin’” has been the most downloaded song of all time—it’s good. It’s that simple. It has a great melody and a great lyric and it makes you feel great. Is there any other reason to listen to music, really?****
2. Boston, self titled. (1976) This one suffers the most from classic rock weariness. I can honestly say that up until a few years ago I never really listened to this album. I’d heard the songs in the periphery a billion times in a billion situations (at the gas station, the Home Depot, while getting my ass kicked in high school). But once I sat down and dedicated all my attention to it, I realized what a damn masterpiece it is. For one thing, there isn’t a single bad song on the thing, and there are so few albums you can say that about. For another, the vocals—god rest Brad Delp, the guy absolutely defined what the high-pitched lead singer of a band should sound like for all eternity*****. And for another, absolutely marvelous riffs—Tom Scholz knows how to layer the fuck out of stuff so it sounds like it was forged by the gods themselves. And maybe it was. Best song: the underrated “Let Me Take You Home Tonight.”
3. Rush, Moving Pictures. (1981) Technically a prog record, Moving Pictures hit big with the Camaro crowd for one reason and one reason only: it is motherfucking heavy. I know, I know: we all hate Geddy Lee’s voice, and Neil Peart’s drumming is overbusy in a way that made the Moldy Peaches necessary or whatever. But if you’re not moved by the first few seconds of “Tom Sawyer”—that unholy MMMMMMMRRROOOOWWWWWWWW from the synth, plus Peart’s slamming drum groove—there is literally something wrong with you. And if there was no “YYZ,” there would be no drummers from about 1980 through about 1991, because literally all of ‘em (well, the good ones—well, the technically good ones anyway, the ones that weren’t busy learning Misfits songs) knew it, learned it and loved it.
4. Styx, Pieces of Eight. (1978) I know, I know—Styx suck. I mean, or so you probably think and have been taught to think since the minute you started listening to music. And sometimes it’s true—I think even the band is embarrassed by their awful ’80s turn Kilroy Was Here, and even the most ardent Styx fan has to admit that Dennis DeYoung’s histrionic broadway-isms occasionally seem rather—well, mawkish is putting it politely. But on Pieces of Eight, the band reigns in most of their indulgent tendencies (most—DeYoung’s Hobbit-tastic “Lords of the Ring” aside) and delivers an album of solid, hard-hitting songwriting. The genius here is Tommy Shaw—his “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade” are the album’s most solid rockers, and his gorgeous “Sing For The Day” its most pretty moment. And I am admittedly a sucker for DeYoung’s ’70s feel-good moment, “I’m OK.”
5. Foreigner, Self-Titled. (1977) Oh, you don’t believe Foreigner were an influential band? Listen to the one-note-Johnny bassline of “Feels Like The First Time” and list how many songs from the rest of the 70s and the 80s borrowed that sucker******. You’ll be listing ’till the cows come home, because this album is the template for most hard rock / metal / hair metal that came after it (until Metallica came along—oh, you bet GnR owned a couple Foreigner LPs). I’d argue, controversially, that it’s even more influential than Never Mind the Bollocks — not that that’s a good thing, but probably a fact. You know a lot of this stuff, but listen closely to the muscular riffage on “Long, Long Way from Home” or “I Need You,” or the totally credible tender moments like “Fool For You Anyway”—a lot of it would been at home on a Badfinger record with different production. It’s better than you remember it being, even though it occasionally (on stuff like “Headknocker”) veers into generic territory.
6. Heart, Dreamboat Annie. (1976) Heart’s mid-’70s albums are perhaps the most credible, listenable, forward-thinking records of this genre—imagine a female-fronted Zeppelin circa-III or Zoso, with that level of songwriting and playing—rendered unfairly less-than-credible by the band’s hokey 80s stuff, which lives forever in lighter-pumping infamy. And that’s a damn shame, because the hard-hitting “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You” and “Sing Child” have lost none of their potency over time, nor have the gorgeous “Soul of the Sea” or the achingly pretty “(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song.” If there’s anything you should take away from this list, it’s mid-’70s Heart—forget for a moment (if you can) the group’s MOR embarrassments and embrace this moment in time when they were hot*******, fringe-clad stoner mamas non pareil.
7. Thin Lizzy, Jailbreak. (1976) Of all the bands listed here, the Lizzy are perhaps the ones that deserve the Camaro moniker the least. After all, despite their deserved place on classic-rock radio, beneath the surface there’s something smarter and more Springsteen-ish lurking around the group’s hard-hitting slice-of-life anthems. Sure, they’re crunchy as hell—“Emerald” is as heavy as anything on a Foghat album, and “Warrior” presages Maiden and the New Wave of Heavy Metal. But listen to the way Phil Lynott snakes his vocals around the riffing in the title track or on “Running Back”—he’s aiming more for “literate poet” than “metal god,” despite the twin-guitar attack his band is sporting. And “Romeo and the Lonely Girl” sounds almost exactly like “Wild/Innocent”-era Springsteen, even down to the “Shakespeare of the streets”-type chorus. But damned if this stuff doesn’t sound even better coming out of the speakers of a muscle car in the summer—as smart as it is, it’s still loud and damn heavy, and isn’t that why we’re here?
8. Van Halen, II. (1979) If there is a very moment when Camaro Rock morphs into ’80s metal, it is on this album, released at the ass-end of one decade but predicting every metal-god move of the next. Diamond Dave is in full effect on high-energy, hard-rockin’ anthems like “Light Up the Sky” and the always welcome “Dance The Night Away,” hooting and hollering in perfect 3-part harmony. This was the album that pushed eight hundred skinny little dorks to pick up a guitar and learn how to fretboard-tap. This was the soundtrack to a hundred carburetor repairs and a million cigarettes illicitly smoked behind a thousand high schools. And if you didn’t make out to this record, you didn’t grow up in that decade at all – it’s that simple. My favorite: the goofy swang of “Beautiful Girls,” 100% swagger and the kind of song that would sound ridiculous in less-talented hands (and did: every hairball band in the late ’80s tried and failed).
9. Kansas, Point of Know Return. (1977) A silly album by a generally very silly band, this album is bolstered by two stone classics—the title track (if you don’t play air-keyboard or air-violin during the chorus, you need to check your head, brothers and sisters) and “Dust In The Wind,” one of those “meaningful” rock songs that gain power by overplay at proms, weddings and funerals. The rest of the record is no slouch, either—I like the zippy string-pluckage of “Paradox” and “Lightning’s Hand” sounds like a slightly-more-anemic Deep Purple. Only when the band reaches for pure-prog territory (as they do on “Hopelessly Human” and “Closet Chronicles”) do you feel like they might be over-stretching their reach. And if the album has a flaw, its a general lack of crunch – this is more of a headphone record, best played at night with some claret, a black light poster and your “special someone,” heh heh********.
10. Loverboy, Get Lucky. (1981) Chock full of well-played, keyboard laden AOR that’s just heavy enough to sound credible but new-wavey enough to not sound, you know, square, baby, like your older brother’s music, you know? “Working For The Weekend” you know already, and probably don’t need to hear again as long as you live (unless you’re the type of guy who refers to 4 o’clock Friday afternoon as “beer thirty”) but there’s plenty of other catchy stuff to be found here—“When It’s Over” is a chunky little sonofabitch, and the ominous “Gangs in the Street” almost presages the prog-new-wave crossover that’d hit two years down the line. A better record than you’d probably expect, but still suffers from a touch of genericism.
Def Leppard, Pyromania. (1983) The very last Camaro Rock record. After this album, everything became heavy metal, including the next Lep record (which was, technically, an electronic album, given Mutt Lange’s tendency to program everything into a Fairlight synth). Weird factoid: listen to the drums. They are 100% programmed. This is before the drummer lost an arm, so there was really no excuse other than perfectionism—a trait this album both suffers from and celebrates. This is a marvelous collection of hard rock songs, with “Rock of Ages” as its absolute pinnacle, and it holds up magnificently all these years later. Not one year later, all the Camaro guys would be spiking their hair out and wearing spandex.
*I always had a thing for this type of girl. None of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, would ever date me. Most of them have turned out better than their male compatriots, if Facebook is anything to be believed.
**Irony: Graham Parker sounds totally Camaro, now, in retrospect.
***Normally, I have a thing against abbreviating words with an “n-apostrophe” instead of the full “ng.” But in the context of this article, it seems appropriate.
****Okay, yes. The other reason is to feel miserable. I promise to do a list of the ten best American Music Club songs at some point.
*****In another universe, it was Eric Carmen who filled this gap—why these guys hit big and the Raspberries didn’t, or didn’t enough, is a mystery to me.
******Start with Jefferson Starship’s “Find Your Way Back” and work your way forward from there.
********Camaro dudes and chicks never, ever have trouble finding each other—you seldom see single ones. They’re not like nerds or AV guys or punk rockers where they actually have to seek companionship. Somehow there is a magnetism or a gravity that draws them together.