Street Survivors

Lynyrd Skynyrd

MCA Records, 1977

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


On October 20, 1977, the face of rock and roll was changed forever when Lynyrd Skynyrd's charter plane crashed en route to a concert, killing lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines.

Lost in the overhype of the tragic anniversary this year is the fact that the album they released just days before the crash, Street Survivors, was easily the band's best work. (I would have featured the album's original cover, but I could not find a suitable scan; the cover you see above was the replacement that MCA rushed onto the market just after the crash.)

In 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd was enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts. Van Zant had cleaned up his act after the birth of his daughter, guitarist Gary Rossington was in the process of straightening up his life following a car crash the previous year, and Steve Gaines, who had just joined the band (replacing original guitarist Ed King), was providing a creative spark the band had been missing on their last studio outing, Gimme Back My Bullets. While Lynyrd Skynyrd would always be Van Zant's baby, he graciously allowed Gaines the freedom to kick in his own influences - and even take over lead vocals on occasion.

This turned out to be an excellent decision for the band. Gaines' two songs (and two co-writing contributions) were the kick in the ass that began shifting Lynyrd Skynyrd from a Southern boogie band to a group that could be appreciated at all levels by all sorts of fans. In this manner, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Street Survivors succeeds on all levels.

Most everyone knows the song "What's Your Name" off this album, as it has been beaten to death by classic rock stations. It still is a very enjoyable track, both for the humorous look at groupies and the renewed triple-guitar attack of Gaines, Rossington and the late Allen Collins. I don't remember their playing ever to be this fluid and crisp - incredible!

"That Smell," another song latched onto by rock radio, is still one of the most powerful substance-abuse songs I've ever heard. A song that took its basis from Rossington's 1976 car crash ("Oak tree, you're in my way"), it was the newly clean-and-sober Van Zant's wake-up call to Rossington. (When you hear Van Zant say in the background of one of the guitar solos, "You know I've been there before," you know that this message is sincere.)

Possibly one of the most surprising and most beautiful moments on Street Survivors is "One More Time," a song which began to break Lynyrd Skynyrd out of the boogie band classification. Flowing, stacatto guitar lines, impressive trap work by drummer Artimus Pyle and Van Zant sounding the best he ever had behind the microphone make this one a forgotten classic in my book.

In the same vein, the Van Zant-Gaines collaboration "I Never Dreamed" breaks the band out of the good-ol-boy mode, creating a song which is both gentle and powerful at the right times. Van Zant wisely delivers his vocal more softly than he might have normally, and the track clicks.

Gaines' influence is felt with the rollicking blues number "I Know A Little," which not only shows off some fancy guitar work (and what sounds like a dobro lead to me) but also the bass work of Leon Wilkerson, which often took a backseat to both guitar lines and Billy Powell's piano. Wilkerson shows how good he is on the bass here. Gaines also shows off his pipes by trading vocals with Van Zant on "You Got That Right" and taking over the microphone on "Ain't No Good Life," featuring Powell on roadhouse piano (a little out of tune, but that just added to the track). The only cover, that of Merle Haggard's "Honky Tonk Night-Time Man," is the only weak link on the album - and even that's a halfway decent track due to the fancy guitar work.

When you realize the revitalization that Lynyrd Skynyrd was going through in 1977, it makes the plane crash all the more tragic. This was a band that was at the top of their career when the unthinkable happened; one is left to wonder what new plateaus they would have reached had they been given the chance to follow Street Survivors up. (The surviving members finally reunited in 1980 as the Rossington-Collins Band. Collins later formed his own band which recorded one album in 1983; he was paralyzed in a car crash in 1986 and died four years later.)

I don't want to knock the present-day incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but Street Survivors is a high I don't think they will ever be able to reach again. This is one album that is a must-own for music fans of all styles and ages.

Rating: A

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© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.