Friday, May 5, 2017

Where Have All The Bob Seger Albums Gone?

There was no such thing as Classic Rock in 1976 — the phrase, and the radio format it inspired, wouldn't come into common usage until the mid-1980s. But there was already some notion of a rock and roll canon, a list of key albums that FM listeners needed to have in their collection. At the start of 1976, Bob Seger had zero albums on that list. Twelve months later, he had two: Live Bullet, the double LP documenting some blistering hometown sets at Detroit's Cobo Hall, and Night Moves, his first platinum album, whose title single would peak at No. 4 as 1977 began.

His next record, 1978's Stranger in Town, would go platinum within a month. I bought all three at once that year, because they were the ones Columbia House offered. But I knew there were others. As a budding, 13-year-old music obsessive, every record in the canon triggered a cascading need for several more. Some might be content with Elton John's Greatest Hits, but I wanted the entirety of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and then some way to prioritize the rest of his back catalog. Destroyer was not enough KISS; At Budokan was not the sum total of Cheap Trick.

But there were always more records than money to buy them with, even if you stocked your initial collection with 13 titles for the mere penny Columbia House demanded. So every few weeks, when I'd scrounged together $10, I'd flip through the stacks in my local record store, starting at A (Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic was the must have, then the self-titled debut, which had "Dream On," but was Get Your Wings worth the $4.95?) and ending at Y (so many Neil Young albums besides Harvest), trying to decide which one or two LPs were the next to be added to my shelves.

I spent a lot of time lingering in the S bin, studying Seger's back catalog as well as that of another rock and roll true believer: Bruce Springsteen. Both were all over the radio with songs that sounded a lot simpler than they really were, and tackled similar subjects — humble roots, wanting to escape, fearing your chance had passed — in similar ways, transforming the R&B singers who'd inspired them into something a little less groovy, a lot more driving and therefore more immediately digestible for white suburban kids. (...)

There's an amiable haphazardness to Seger's first seven or eight records (and the mid-'60s singles that preceded them), which saw Seger adopting then discarding a variety of different approaches, from the bottom-heavy psychedelic rocker heard on his earliest hit, 1968's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," to acoustic singer-songwriter to good-time purveyor of slightly sanitized Stones riffs. But what might have come off as cynical careerism in another artist just felt like a true fan's promiscuousness with Seger. He'd inhaled rock and roll's history with an acolyte's belief in its redemptive power and a gifted composer's ability to intuit the specific elements that made certain songs work. He was a human radio antenna, with a conviction so genuine and a melodic skill so great that he could turn the most basic elements — Chuck Berry leads plus Ike & Tina howls on the rockers; restrained but steadily building arrangements from the Muscle Shoals rhythm section on the ballads — into perfectly realized creations that leapt straight from the speakers into your soul, bypassing your brain entirely.

The gold record he earned with Bullet simply gave him a sorely needed combination of confidence, clout and cash. He promptly spent all three realizing a vision one could only catch glimpses of in his previous recordings, like 1970's cover of "River Deep, Mountain High," an early display of his agility at translating R&B into hard rock. "Turn the Page," from 1972, is the original brooding, road-weary power ballad. Both now sound like templates for multiple mega-hits Seger would have later that decade. He'd been called old-fashioned (as a compliment) in 1973 and was referred to (with zero irony) as punk in 1977. These are not contradictions — in 1977, punk was old-fashioned, musically, an effort to strip away every extraneous filigree that had accreted like barnacles on the hull of rock music. Bob Seger was basic, when basicness was a good thing the world lacked.

The main thing that distinguishes the albums from '76 on is just how much better he got at distilling his various inspirations. Spending more time in better studios with more accomplished producers certainly helped, but so did the fact that Bullet, which was nothing but live versions of the most fully realized songs from his first eight records, had already proven there was a wider audience for Seger's particular mélange.

1980's Against the Wind continued Seger's platinum streak, and savvy licensing deals extended Seger's presence far beyond radio and record stores. The iconic scene in Risky Business where Tom Cruise lets the audience know just how liberating having your parent's mansion to yourself can be by lip-synching Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" while dancing around in his underwear rocketed the movie, the star and the song into the broader pop cultural firmament. In 1991, Chevrolet's use of "Like a Rock" to advertise their trucks proved so powerful that the campaign, which was planned to last three to six months, ran for 13 years.

Fast forward to this decade. I hear someone singing "If I Were a Carpenter," which reminds me Seger did a surprisingly heavy version of that song on Smokin' O.P.'s, which I haven't heard for a while. I reach for my copy, only to find that it's gone. This is bothersome, but correctable, I imagine. I am a gainfully employed adult, living in a city with multiple wonderful used record stores, plus there's an entire Internet at my fingertips. I decide to go on a spree, replacing not just the missing album, but finally adding the several I never purchased to my collection.

But I discover something odd: Bob Seger's old albums are not only missing from my shelves. They seem to be missing from the world.

Seger is one of the few remaining digital holdouts — there's nothing beyond the odd Christmas tune available on subscription services, and even on iTunes his only studio album for sale is 2014's Ride Out, which sits beside two anthologies and two live albums. (Disclosure: I already knew this. As a content executive at Rhapsody and, later, Google Play, I have been involved in at least two attempts to convince his label and management to make his catalog available on demand. This entire article can maybe be read as my third attempt, though I'm no longer in a position to benefit professionally from such a development. The benefits to me as a fan are hopefully obvious. The benefits to Seger as an artist, I will argue, are incalculable.)

But this is not merely a case of artist/management being cautious about digital distribution, because most of his studio albums are no longer in print physically, either. Out of 17 total, his own website shows only six available for purchase: his '75 through '80 run of Beautiful Loser, Night Moves, Stranger in Town and Against the Wind, plus this century's Face The Promise and Ride Out. Used copies of his first seven albums start around $30, and go as high as $200, if you can even find one. Those eye-popping prices suggest I made several wrong calls back in 1978. They also convince me I know who took my copy of Smokin' OP's — a former housemate who worked in a record store, and was apparently savvier than I about its slowly increasing value. Copies of '80s and '90s albums The Distance, Like a Rock, The Fire Inside and It's a Mystery are a bit easier to locate, and accordingly more affordable, but also, officially, out of print.

Simply stated, this is a bizarre state of affairs. (...)

Seger's absence from digital services, combined with the gradual disappearance of even physical copies of half his catalog, suggest a rare level of indifference to his legacy. I can't think of any other artist of his stature, with such a string of era-defining hits, who's been content to let his past work fade away in this manner. Contemporaries from the '70s and '80s regularly issue 25th anniversary editions of old LPs while basking in critical re-evaluations of their early work. Bruce Springsteen, the other artist I lingered over in those S bins in the 1970s, has embraced this reality. A significant chunk of fans who bought all his albums on vinyl as teenagers have since added anniversary editions (with tempting bonus CDs of outtakes and making-of documentaries on DVD) of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. But with Seger, all you hear is crickets. It's 2017, but for some reason it's easier for casual music fans to start playing deep cuts by Bing Crosby, who had a No. 1 record in 1940, than most anything by Bob Seger, who had a No. 1 record in 1980.

by Tim Quirk, NPR |  Read more:
Image: Malcolm Clarke/Getty Images