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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bargain Bin Finds #2: The Edgar Winter Group--They Only Come Out at Night


Way back on November 29, 2009, I published the first installment of "Bargain Bin Finds".  It was intended to be the first in a long series of record reviews in which I philosophized and pontificated about whatever cool record or CD I found somewhere on the cheap.  Though I've periodically intended on finally publishing #2 in the series, it never actually came to pass.  Well, you need not wait anymore, because at long last I bring to you a brand new "Bargain Bin Finds".

Several weeks ago, my 10-year-old and I were at Schuler Books & Music (a place with which, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I have a long and close association--and absolutely adore).  Of course, the second we walk past the bargain CDs, I was like a moth to flame.  I spied The Edgar Winter Group's They Only Come Out at Night and my son saw it and immediately exclaimed with horror, "That's creepy!"--which I found funny because it's exactly the reaction I had when I first saw the album cover way back in the late '70s.  I was at my next door neighbor's house and happened to see some of what could have only been his older brother's LPs in a stack on the living room floor.  As I recall, and memories can be faulty, They Only Come Out at Night was in the front of the stack.  It had to have been, because forever imprinted in my brain is the sight of the ghostly pale guy (Edgar Winter is an albino, in case it wasn't obvious) with bright red lipstick, long white hair flowing behind him, seemingly gliding across the album jacket like a vampire who "only comes out at night." (The album title may also be a sly reference to what the public at large think, or thought, about albinos).  How could anyone possibly forget that album cover? Though I didn't actually verbalize it back then like my son did in the store, I'm sure I was thinking, "that's creepy!"

So after we both looked at the CD, we placed it back in the bin and I bought what I came there for in the first place (a birthday present and card, in case you're interested). But over the next few days, the music nerd in me kept thinking about that disc: that strange cover that had haunted me since I was a kid, the two hit songs on the record that I knew from classic rock radio ("Free Ride" and the instrumental "Frankenstein"), the fact that the album had always been mysterious to me, and most importantly--the nice price of five bucks. I eventually broke down, returned to Schuler hoping that the disc was still there.  Sure enough, it was...and now it's mine.  (By the way, I will probably be the last person on Earth to buy CDs, but that will have to be the topic for another blog entry).

We've all heard the old expression, "You can't judge a book by it's cover", and seldom has a tired old cliche been more true than with They Only Come Out at Night.  At first glance, one would guess that this was a dark, proto-goth metal album in the same vein as Black Sabbath, but in fact the record is the quintessential '70s party album (which is why my neighbor's teenaged older brother liked it). Sure it rocks mightily, but it's certainly not metal.

The record kicks off with "Hangin' Around", a Mott the Hoople-ish good time tune with chugging guitars, and appropriately celebratory lyrics about the joys of slacking off, "Drivin' along with my radio on feelin' good/Ain't got no lady but maybe thinkin' I could/I slept all day nothing to do...I'm just hangin' around".  It could easily be the theme song for David Wooderson, Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed and Confused.  If I'm not reading too much into the song--and I probably am--it captures the hangover and malaise of post-sixties America.

A delectable drum beat ushers in the second tune, "When It Comes", featuring blistering bluesy guitar licks and a great sax solo.  It needs to be mentioned that the late great Ronnie Montrose and Rick Derringer both play guitar on this album (as well as Dan Hartman, who went on to have a huge solo hit in the '80s, "I Can Dream About You").  I don't know enough about the Edgar Winter Group to tell precisely who plays what on each song, but the guitar playing is excellent throughout this entire record, and from what I've gathered through some internet research, it's Ronnie Montrose providing the wicked slide guitar on "When It Comes".

The next song, "Alta Mira", finds the group delving into uptempo Latin-flavored pop.  It's a little like a Santana song chopped in half with all the hard edges rounded off.  Perfectly pleasant, but not much else.  It doesn't matter too much though, because the next song is The Big Hit, "Free Ride". Deconstructing this song, it's not difficult to see why it was such a smash--it's impeccably arranged and played, with wonderful guitar interplay and a smokin' solo, along with a cool breakdown after the solo with swooshing keyboard sound.  The whole thing is topped off with a Sly and the Family Stone-like coda.  "Free Ride" is a song that has been played so often on classic rock radio and beer commercials that it's hard to listen to with fresh ears.  However, if you can find a way to do so, you'll find a tune that is tremendous fun and deserved to be a hit.

At this point, the album hits its one big Spinal Tap-like moment with "Undercover Man", salvaged only by another smoking guitar solo.  This, and "Rock 'n' Roll Boogie Woogie Blues", are the only true clinkers on the record.  The remainder of the album is good-to-excellent: "Round and Round" has a definite Gram Parsons country-rock feel, with a yearning tenor vocal, jangly guitars with pedal steel coloring from Rick Derringer.  The Dan Hartman-penned "Autumn" is a gentle lost-love lament with a shimmering acoustic guitar accompaniment.  "We All Had a Real Good Time" is a song that I was convinced had to have been written by Ronnie Lane and Rod Stewart, as it sounds so much like the Faces.  I even checked the track listings of my my Faces albums just to double-check. As it turns out, the Faces had a similarly titled song "Had Me a Real Good Time" on 1971's Long Player, but "We All Had a Real Good Time" was written by Edgar Winter and Dan Hartman.  Anyway, despite being highly derivative of the Faces, "We Had a Real Good Time" is...er, a real good time.

If "Free Ride" was The Big Hit on this album, the album-closing instrumental "Frankenstein" must be classified as The Colossal Hit. "Free Ride" peaked at #14 on the Billboard charts while "Frankenstein" made it all the way to number one in May 1973. This is keyboardist Edgar Winter's showcase, and though it may be complete '70s rock excess, that doesn't stop it from being a jam, and a hell of a lot of fun.  Edgar provides a monstrous (no pun intended) electric keyboard riff and a jazzy sax solo, drummer Chuck Ruff gets a chance to shine, and Edgar returns with a spooky sci-fi psychedelic synthesizer interlude, and it all adds up to a hard-rocking instrumental roller coaster ride.  Oddly enough, "Frankenstein" was originally the B-side of "Hangin' Around", but Epic Records reversed them at the insistence of disc jockeys, who had been inundated with requests for "Frankenstein".

The Only Come Out at Night is a compendium of early '70s rock styles, with shades of country rock, blues, spacey jams, and boogie rock, along with some late '60s psychedelic carryover.  It's an album with some excellent playing and with songs that say what they have to say and don't waste time doing it. Unfortunately, this album seems to be the high water mark, at least commercially, for Edgar Winter. This is the only album by Edgar Winter that I I've ever heard, so I really can't speak for the rest of his career.  And while contemporary albums such as Exile on Main St. and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars have transcended the early '70s and are still highly regarded today, They Only Come  Out at Night seems pretty well trapped in 1972, as does poor Edgar himself.  These days, he's doing self-mocking cameos on cell phone commercials. All of this is too bad because They Only Come Out at Night is a good record that, for the most part, holds up fairly well today.  And I've got to say that the album cover doesn't seem that creepy to me anymore.

Here are some YouTube clips of "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride":