In Perspective

Lynyrd Skynyrd Flies Again

Rarities provide a revealing glimpse into the South’s rowdiest band

“skynyrd”

As the most fiercely Southern and hardest rocking of all the ’70s Southern hard rockers, Lynyrd Skynyrd holds an esteemed place in the history of American pop. Although they continue in a sort of bastardized fashion, religiously churning out rugged but uninspired albums every few years – their last was a relatively lame Christmas release – the soul of the group went down with their October 1977 plane crash, which killed three members. Since then, the demand for music from the original Ronnie Van Zant-led bad boys has only increased. Two new generations have grown up to the sounds of a band who currently exist as an enjoyable, crowd-pleasing, but hardly pioneering ghost of itself. MCA, now swallowed up by the Universal conglomerate, understands this, and has conscientiously and meticulously reissued the six albums in their pre-1977 catalog, complete with upgraded sound, extra tracks, scholarly essays and spiffy graphics that do justice – hell, even improve on – the originals. Those modern rockers who self-righteously chuckled and dismissed the band during their ’70s glory years as scummy, unkempt, long-haired white-trash rockers without an ounce of innovation or intelligence (preferring to embrace the lunkheaded, skinny-tie likes of The Knack or The Thompson Twins), have had over 20 years to re-evaluate their opinion. Universal has certainly fought for the Skynyrd cause, not only revamping their albums, but releasing a classy box set and a few compilations of their best work, all usually with extra “rare” tracks thrown in for diehards.

While some of these have been merely glossy, fast-buck repackagings of various versions of their hits (Freebird: The Movie, anyone?), others like 1998’s Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album have added volumes of understanding to the concept of the band, and proved to even the most ardent detractor there was far more to these raggedy, long-haired, good ol’ guitar wielding boogie boys than initially met the eye. Those who at first ignored or outwardly disliked Skynyrd for any number of reasons have generally rethought their primary reactions. While they may never turn into fans, naysayers have to begrudgingly admit that this was a phenomenally talented and considerably influential group whose place in fickle rock history becomes further cemented with each passing year. For all the fist raising, Union Jack-waving rhetoric of their most ardent followers, here was an outfit that defined – and ultimately transcended – their genre to crossover into a commercial mainstream acceptance unheard of for a bunch of ratty Southern rockers. Certainly their sound can be felt in newer bands who revel in a similarly rowdy, working-class image. The Bottlerockets, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, The Georgia Satellites, Truckadelic, and countless others currently riding the wave of alt-country fever are deeply indebted to all things Skynyrd.

From a corporate viewpoint, though, they, like any artist, are simply a commodity, so any “new” release as the result of vault cleaning at this late stage can easily, and justifiably, be perceived as greedy barrel scraping. Which was my initial reaction when I received the unfortunately titled Lynyrd Skynyrd Collectybles album recently. Thankfully, I was mistaken. Sure, the double-disc package is filled with long-forgotten scraps and leftovers, but at almost 2 1/2 hours of previously unheard material, some of it as good, if not better than what’s already available, this is a compilation that can be treasured by anyone who ever drunkenly sung along to “Sweet Home Alabama.”

For native Southerners, the seven alternate takes recorded during the three One More From the Road Fox Theater shows in 1976 are alone enough to justify buying the set. These songs comprise the majority of disc two, and like the officially released tunes from those amazing concerts, show the band at the peak of their powers egged on by a wildly appreciative audience. Although they’re already on the original album’s set list, these are different, rougher, and actually better versions chosen from other shows during that legendary weekend stint. The band seems looser and more at ease, yet just as intense. Stage patter that had been chopped from the album is restored, showing just how closely and intimately the band, and especially the often-moody Van Zant, connected with and even reflected the look, attitudes, and views of their audience. Compare these performances with disc one’s six previously unissued tracks recorded live in a Memphis radio studio from 1973. The band is still unusually tight, and their sound is already formed, yet there’s a dryness to the approach that doesn’t reverberate with the same raw cliff-hanging excitement as the Fox concert. But these tracks that were cut before the recording of 1974’s Second Helping and include one of the album’s three (!) versions of “Free Bird,” confirm that as early as their first album, they were frightfully talented, doggedly dedicated, and totally at home on stage.

The package is fleshed-out with early studio recordings from 1968 and 1970 that prove invaluable tracing their deep country and blues roots. In fact, “No One Can Take Your Place” from 1970 sounds like a classic honky-tonk number, even though it’s a Rossington/Collins/Van Zant composition. Sung with low-key charm by Ronnie, the band plays with a subtlety that clearly illustrates their love of traditional C&W. Hearing these sessions provides fly-on-the-wall perspective to the origins of the band, who we experience in full flight on disc two’s 1977 shows. A few other rarities, like a pair of unused outtakes from 1977’s Street Survivors – one of them a heartfelt reworked cover of Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man,” apparently Van Zant’s last studio vocal performance before his death – add extra depth to this set.

Far from a last ditch sleazy attempt to wring more dollars from one of their most consistent catalog sellers, Collectybles is an entertaining, enlightening, and damn near essential look into the past of the best Southern rockers ever. Collectors can rightfully salivate over these formerly lost tracks and the colorful booklet with rare photos, but even neophytes will find plenty to like. At the very least these performances remove all doubt that the original Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the most talented, gifted and focused bands to ever break out of the South, and one spin of this enlightening collection shows why. Accept no substitutes.


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