Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Flashback, May 1978: Bob Seger’s ‘Stranger in Town’ Climbs Charts

I read somewhere that the songs we remember best are those released when we are between the ages of 13 and 17—roughly corresponding to high school. Indeed, Stranger in Town came out in the last month of my senior year. Through the weeks leading up to graduation, then till the end of the ensuing summer, when I waited with trepidation to begin college, these nine songs by Bob Seger seeped into my consciousness.

When I think back to those warm days, a number of songs and albums form the soundtrack of my life, including Jefferson Starship’s Earth, The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” and, over and above all, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town

But Seger has his place, too, like the good-hearted friend who shared your struggles and joys, finding special exhilaration in the abandon of rock ‘n’ roll. Every note signaled he was just like you, all communicated in lyrics of the most direct, heartfelt emotion. 

They had the same effect across the nation, too. On the strength of four singles—“Hollywood Nights," "Still the Same," "Old Time Rock and Roll," and "We’ve Got Tonight"—Stranger in Town made it all the way up to No. 4 on the charts and sold more than 6 million units. 

It started with that voice, best described as “gruff” and “gritty.” Neither smooth nor pretty, it got the job done, a surprisingly durable product, much like the cars that this Michigan native loved to drive.

Stranger in Town caught Seger at the exact moment when he sought to build upon his recent success even as he moved into an alien environment that might threaten it. After a decade of slowly building a provincial audience through high-energy concerts with a backup band in the Detroit music circuit, he broke through to large-scale national acceptance with his studio LP Night Moves. It was the same formula for success that Bruce Springsteen was using on the East Coast, except that “The Boss” was younger and needed somewhat less time to become a sensation.

Yet Seger’s sojourn halfway across the country to California to record at the heart of the nation’s rock-’n’-roll scene left him wondering about his place in the new order. The “Stranger in Town” of his new LP was himself, newly anxious to match his record label’s expectations in what he termed, in an interview with Rolling Stone's Dave Marsh, “platinum paranoia.” “Hollywood Nights” recorded his alienation, symbolized by his fear of being used and discarded by a woman "born with a face that would let her get her way."

Disorientation also figured into “Feel Like a Number.” Although “Hollywood Nights” took the point of view of a nomad, “Feel Like a Number” lashed out at the indignities visited upon a Rust Belt worker already feeling stressed by a new world of foreign competition and automation. (“I work my back till it’s racked with pain,/The boss can’t even recall my name.”) 

At the time of its release, “Feel Like a Number” felt like an exhilarating vow of identity and independence, a rage against the machine. Forty years on, it sounds more like an omen of what can happen when the suppressed discontent of the blue-collar worker bursts out: a to-hell-with-you-all gesture that creates an opening for a con-man Presidential candidate. 

Younger music listeners today will never know what it was like to experience on free-form FM stations like New York’s WNEW the joy of deejays introducing “deep album cuts”—non-single songs whose length or other factors might militate against airing on three-minute Top 40 formats. On Stranger in Town, the quintessential “deep cut” for my money is “Brave Strangers.”

To my knowledge, Seger has performed this rarely, if at all, in concert in the last few decades. Perhaps he felt exhausted by the effort simply to get this on vinyl. It took 168 takes over 11 consecutive days to extract the optimum version, he told “Redbeard,” who wrote about this interview in his “In the Studio” blog. (In the end, the singer chuckled, “We used take seven!”)

The last song on the album was appropriately titled “The Famous Final Scene,” about the conclusion of a love affair. But for leaving listeners on a high, I think Seger would have been better off concluding with “Brave Strangers.” Its long bridge, chronicling the heart-freezing moments surrounding a raucous sexual encounter (“And my hand it was…shaking!”), is really only a pause in a song where half the fun lies in Seger flinging the words out barely fast enough to catch up with the thumping piano.

Like Night Moves, Stranger in Town used the services not just of the Silver Bullet Band but the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and its studio in northwest Alabama. That group amply demonstrated why they became among the most in-demand studio musicians of the Sixties and Seventies. Particularly brilliant was pianist Barry Beckett, whose work on "We’ve Got Tonight" supported Seger in one of the most sensitive, soaring vocals of his entire career. 

But Seger’s touch was so golden at this point in his career that even studio mistakes could turn out to be happy accidents. Such was the case with "Old Time Rock and Roll," when Seger liked an engineer's error so much—an elongated da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-da on the piano—that he used it as the song’s infectious opening. (Five years later, that opening would give Tom Cruise all the time he would need to skid across the floor at home in an impromptu dance in Risky Business.) 

Stranger in Town confirmed that Night Moves was no fluke. Rather than freezing in “platinum paranoia,” as he had feared, the album demonstrated Seger’s growing self-assurance as a songwriter, vocalist and studio force. It continued a run of successful albums that lasted well into the late ‘80s, ultimately ensuring him a place in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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