Two discs of no-frills rock n’ roll at its finest
When Bruce Springsteen arrived in the early Seventies, part of his appeal was a return to the honesty of the early rock n’ roll of the Fifties. Fellow Jersey native Southside Johnny Lyons furthered that roots appeal into a long career, featuring many twists and turns. Although, never attaining the blockbuster success of the Boss, his band did gain the reputation for their spirited live shows. The folks at Real Gone have coupled the three albums that the Asbury Jukes cut for Epic Records, alongside a rare, promo-only live album for The Remastered Epic Recordings.
The band’s debut, I Don’t Want to Go Home, has Springsteen’s influence all over it. The album was produced by E. Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who also wrote many of the songs on the set. In fact, the entire album is made up of tracks either written by Van Zandt or Springsteen, or are covers of classic R&B and rock n’ roll.
The title cut from I Don’t Want to Go Home is an ambitious piece, featuring strings and horns. plus a driving beat, with Johnny’s gruff voice pleading over top. The guys invite R&B legend Lee Dorsey to duet on the two man/one woman “How Come You Treat Me So Bad.” “The Fever” might be the quintessential Southside Johnny track. Penned by Springsteen, it starts out moody before building to a horn-laden chorus, featuring an uncredited Clarence Clemmons doing the low voice. “You Mean So Much to Me” was significant because it marked the first time Ronnie Spector was heard from in a long time (she’s in great voice, by the way).
The cover songs are done with the reverence of true believers. “Got to Get You Off My Mind” is slower than the original, and Johnny matches Solomon Burke for grittiness, while “Fannie Mae” settles into a party groove, and “It Ain’t the Meat” is good fun.
Their fantastic cover of Sam Cooke’s “Havin’ a Party,” released only as a single, is included here as a bonus track. It actually scraped the bottom of the pop charts.
Van Zandt returned to produce their followup, This Time It’s For Real. The title suggests that the band was disappointed by their debut album’s lack of success and were ready to conquer the world this time around. For his part, Little Steven wraps these tracks in a radio-ready punch that was missing from the first. The entire record is penned by Van Zandt, with a few exceptions. “Without Love” is a lush cover of an obscure Aretha Franklin song.
There’s also more guests this time around. The Coasters handle background vocals on “Check Mr. Popeye,” while “Little Girl on Fire” features an arrangement that echoes “Spanish Harlem” and highlights the Drifters on backup. The ballad, “First Night” features the Satins on harmonies.
Despite the title, their second album is actually full of mid-tempo and slow numbers. The other issue is the production – it may be “radio ready,” but the compression sucks some of the sound out of the band that was so infectious on their debut. One highlight is definitely “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” a great R&B track.
Disc two starts with Live at the Bottom Line, a 1976 concert that was previously only available as a promotional album delivered to radio. Recorded four months after the release of their debut, this excellent concert recording is made up primarily of songs from that record. The lone exception is a spirited Junior Wells’ cover, “Little By Little.”
The live version of “The Fever” features an extended harmonica solo at the start, while the concert take of “Havin’ a Party” clocks in at over seven minutes. The encore of the set involved Ronnie Spector reprising her role on “You Mean So Much to Me.”
Their third, and final album for Epic, Hearts of Stone, didn’t feature any legendary guests and didn’t have any classic soul covers either. Entirely written by Van Zandt and Springsteen, it came at a point of personal turmoil for Johnny, and some of the songs reflect a darker tone. “Take It Inside” is one of the highlights, and features some searing guitar work. The juiced-up R&B of “Talk to Me” was another peak. Some tracks really blur the line between Asbury Jukes and E. Street Band, like “Next to You,” and the funky “Trapped Again”
Honestly, this record is the weakest of the bunch because it could use a few rock n’ roll covers, not only to lighten the mood, but also add some different colors. Several of these tracks also appear on Little Steven’s debut solo album, and they sound more like his songs than Southside Johnny’s, like “Light Don’t Shine,” for one example.
The booklet contains not only a career overview, chronicling things from their humble beginnings in Jersey, but several quotes from Southside Johnny himself. Also included are the original (and very entertaining) sleeve notes for their debut LP, penned by Springsteen.
Any fan of Springsteen’s early output, or of gritty, R&B-infused rock n’ roll, should check out The Fever – The Remastered Epic Recordings. —Tony Peters