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Main Category: Rhythm & Blues
Also applicable: Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

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Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of an Alvin Lee fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Alvin Lee fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Alvin Lee, as you may know, was the frontman, guitar god and main creative talent behind the highly underrated Ten Years After. Eventually I plan to merge the two pages, but for now, his solo output will be reviewed separately.



Year Of Release: 1974

Actually, this double-album extravaganza wasn't Alvin's first venture into the world of solo projects - a year earlier, he'd already recorded On The Road To Freedom, a weird gospel/soul/blues concoction with lots of active participants, including Ronnie Wood, George Harrison and some Traffic members. Other than that, I know nothing about the record, and I doubt if it's ever been available on CD either - although I'd sure love to take a peek...

But whatever is the actual case, I doubt it could be any better than In Flight. Interesting enough, this was also an album recorded before the actual demise of Ten Years After - and it shows how much Alvin was actually tired of stardom and his status as the leader of Ten Years After, as this album is heads and tails above anything Ten Years After were recording at the time. I can now easily understand why the band's last album, Positive Vibrations, was such a miserable affair - obviously, Alvin was just saving all of his better material for solo projects and leaving the scraps to the band.

There's a large backing band here, mostly consisting of people I don't know - drums, bass, keyboards, female backing vocals, and King Crimson associate Mel Collins on sax and flute for good measure. All the tracks, credited to Alvin Lee & Company, are recorded live, which is an extra plus - despite the huge band, the music is raw, fresh and energizing. This is one of those albums which can easily get you entranced by the vibe alone; I wouldn't say that Alvin's songwriting is at peak level (although most of the songs are pretty much comestible), but even the lesser numbers sound inspired and sincere, and that makes the record a deeply personal experience. Take a song like 'Going Through The Door', for instance - essentially a rather amateurish gospel number, but there's something absolutely charming about Alvin's 'amateurish' vocals and the song's clumsy, but steady progression. The whole album's like that: you've heard all these melodies before, you're familiar with all those styles, but what you're unfamiliar with is the intentionally raw (most probably unrehearsed, too) delivery.

Like I said, most of the songs are originals, which Alvin was presenting onstage for the first time, although for some reason he also shows himself to be a huge Elvis fan - there are three Elvis covers on here ('Don't Be Cruel', 'Money Honey', 'Mystery Train'), on which Alvin tries to give his best King impersonation - laughable, for sure, but somehow it only adds to the charm of the recording. It's rather hard to butcher such immaculate tunes, anyway, isn't it? There are also covers of 'Slow Down' and 'Keep-A-Knockin', if anybody's interested. I sure am.

Oh, and, by the way, if you're looking for yet another Recorded Live or something like that, you'll be disappointed. Like Clapton, Mr Lee was rather worried about his guitar hero image at the point - yep, there are plenty guitar solos on here, but very little of that finger-flashing pyrotechnics of 'Goin' Home' or 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl'. Speaking of which, there's a track here called 'Running Round' which is nothing but an unabashed rewrite of 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl', based on the same famous riff, but slowed down and tamed down a bit.

I won't name all the songs - this review is already as boring as possible - I'll just say that a major highlight is the excellent boogie 'I'm Writing You A Letter', for some reason performed twice on the album; the second version is certainly the definite one, as after just a few verses it transforms into a gritty guitar jam that really gets the audiences going. This is where Alvin introduces a new guitar style: still fast and fluent and energizing, but completely devoid of flashiness and self-indulgence. What I mean is that it's possible to distnguish between a great guitar solo that screams "look at me, I'm so exceptional" AND a great guitar solo that's equally proficient in the technical sense but screams nothing in particular. Get it?

The CD edition also adds two extra tracks, one of which ('Put It In A Box') is a magnificent eight-minute guitar epic and definitely deserves a special mention as well. Basically, In Flight is simply a must for all Ten Years After lovers - granted, not every TYA fan will get it on first listen, especially if we're speaking of those fans who only acknowledge the Alvin Lee of 'Goin' Home', but it will definitely grow on you with time.



Year Of Release: 1975

Alvin's first "serious" venture into a solo career. Generally speaking, I'd put it this way: the songwriting is hardly any worse than on In Flight, but most of the tracks have been recorded in the studio, and this massacres the atmosphere, pure and simple. Here, Alvin tries to be more professional and less keen on spontaneous guitar heroics, and this is where Her Majesty Boredom knocks at the door. All the ballads and all the rockers tend to merge and blend in with each other, but without the good-time attitude and hilariousness of the preceding album. And Alvin won't get far based on songwriting alone - I know he tries, but his hooks and original ideas are so painfully limited I simply can't bring myself to create some profound definition of the album's "identity". I like it, and I don't find it to be a guilty pleasure - that's enough for a thumbs-up reaction, but hardly anything more.

That said, a bunch of songs can said to be minor classics. Here, Alvin is often trying to milk his 'grim' personality, the dark, philosophic mood he was introducing on A Space In Time and particularly on the thoroughly pessimistic Cricklewood Green. If his last album opened with 'Got To Keep Moving', a simple, ballsy, unpretentious rock number, this one opens with 'One More Chance', an angry, evil little shuffle with sarcastic synth tones and needle-sharp guitar solos that almost recall something Floydish at times. The lyrics are nothing special - intentionally nothing special ('I'm gonna give you one more chance, I'll play the music, you just dance'), but the arrangement definitely contradicts the lyrics. Cool song; lovers of the 1970-72 Ten Years After period will be on cloud nine about it.

Somewhere in the middle you'll also meet 'Have Mercy' - don't forget that one, it's unarguably one of the best ballads Alvin ever had the idea to come up with. It must be stated that by this point, he was a real expert with gospel-pop, being able to breathe as much sincerity and inspiration into that kind of numbers as, say, David Bowie simply wouldn't be able to come up even on mobilizing all of his forces (not that this is a Bowie slamming, mind you - the man excelled in other things. It just irks me when some people describe Bowie as a 'master of spirituality' or something when he was nothing more than a posing clown in this respect). If you don't feel inspired at Alvin screaming 'have mercy on a child of God', you're definitely liking Music for reasons different from me.

A somewhat 'disputable' classic is the album closer, 'Let The Sea Burn Down', which definitely reminds me of all those "epic" overproduced numbers on late-period Ten Years After albums. It's pretty good, I think: Alvin does have a gift for overproducing, with layers of synthesizers, phased guitars and screechy guitar solos symbolizing the end of the world and stuff like that. Unfortunately, we really had that kind of stuff before, so there's nothing original about that approach.

The rest of the songs are decent. Just like that - decent, solid enough for one or two listens but not really requiring multiple assessments. I like all of them, and there's certainly more inspiration and talent displayed here than on the latest Ten Years After album, but when Mr Lee approaches the gates of St Peter, he sure won't be sporting this particular record on his chest. (Speaking of chests, don't you hate the album cover? What a sick joke...). If anything else stands out on some level, it will probably be 'Julian Rice', with its catchy, yet a bit annoying refrain; the acoustic shuffle 'Time And Space', recorded live with the help of a wonderful trumpet (or was that oboe?) part; the classy funky jam 'Burnt Fungus' with a brilliant organ part; and yet another ballad, 'The Darkest Night', which might seem a bit too sappy and sentimental for Alvin, but its sappiness and sentimentality are definitely undermined by his 'unprofessional' delivery, plus, how can you resist that delicious bit of romantic piano?

I would actually be glad to know who's playing what on this album - because all I know in general is the general list of players, and it's almost as lengthy as the list of players on All Things Must Pass. Apparently, Alvin just didn't have any stable team at the moment - people were coming and going, and there are tons of contributors as a result, including even yet another King Crimsonian (Boz Burrell) on bass, although there are not any less than four different bass players on the album. Despite this, the band sounds pretty tight on almost every track; Alvin didn't hire good-for-nothings.

The CD re-issue of the album adds two worthy bonus tracks - a short guitar-based instrumental called 'Madness', with some of Alvin's best funky chops, and his funny rendition of 'Midnight Special', which probably won't turn you away from the definitive version of CCR, but will be a nice addition to the song's immense bunch of interpretations nevertheless. So if you can find it at all, try to find the re-issue.



Year Of Release: 1978

Pretty solid record, although, as is usual with Alvin, it takes some time to grow on you. This time Mr Lee is on a thoroughly unpretentious spree - no saxes or flutes tampering with the raw atmosphere, no weird experimental passages, just straight ahead rock'n'roll with little ornaments. The songs are as unimaginative as can be, but after all, that's just what an Alvin Lee song is supposed to be: lack of imagination compensated by rawness, inspiration and a special edge in the delivery that is able to inflame even the most generic blues number.

Again, this is all rather gloomy - the title track, coming right at the very end, closes the record on a rather silly 'n' lightweight boogie-woogie note which doesn't really fit in with all the venom and poison displayed elsewhere. And it's not that the songs are really so scary and desperate: no, many of them sport titles like 'Love The Way You Rock Me' and are totally harmless in the lyrical sense. But you can't get rid of the feeling that, despite the title and the title track, despite the lack o' lyrical ambitions and suchlike, this is really one heavy record, in the sense that it really wears down on you. Let It Rock sure is not an album I'd like to put on in order to have some good clean fun; this is an album I'd put on when I'm weary and sick of the world and want somebody to empathize.

Judging by Alvin's own standards, the songs are all pretty damn fine. In fact, I can't help but feel a great amount of respect towards the man - without a doubt, Alvin has one of the best senses of taste and measure among the entire blues-rock crowd of the day, and his ability to do so much with so little is fascinating. He still hasn't returned to the finger-flashing twists of old, but there are plenty of nice guitar lines everywhere, some of which are quite soulful. And he's very rarely content with playing a typical blues or blues-rock number in a "by-the-book" way: perhaps the closest to a "by-the-book" blues-rocker on the album is 'Through With Your Loving', but that exact number actually begs to be cranked up loud and proud, with extremely sharp, jagged guitar playing and fiery, raunchy vocals that totally kill off any possible accusations of "sterility". The Allman Brothers Band would be proud.

Elsewhere, you get a bunch of "philosophic introspective" ballads that plunge us into typical moody, "deep-produced" atmosphere. 'Chemicals, Chemistry, Mystery And More' (what a groovy title) is almost Santanaesque in its structure (and no, I don't mean guitar solos - I mean the feeling that you get when listening, that you're standing at the foot of a high snowy mountain and the guy is singing from the top), and contains quite a few endearing vocal hooks. 'Images Shifting' is perhaps the least effective song here, as its glossy gospel sheen is nowhere near idiosyncratic, and the main melody suggests that Alvin had been listening to 'Nights In White Satin' a bit more than necessary; however, 'Time To Meditate' is one truly excellent way to make you go to sleep, with sparkling moonlight guitar lines and dreamy female backup vocals. Even the somewhat aggressive, lightly phased guitar solo that gradually picks up steam isn't at all disturbing - making up for a solid mood piece, if hardly anything else.

The rockers on here, contradicting the title, are hardly disturbing either. Too many of them are in "soft barroom" style, with a hint of gloominess and melancholy running throughout. I'm pretty partial towards 'Love The Way You Rock Me', with its wonderful 'ooo-ooh, love the way you rock me when you roll...' incantation; I love the way 'Little Boy' starts out with that driving harmonica pattern and thought-provoking descending guitar riffs; and I deeply adore Alvin's hilarious modulation of his voice on 'Downhill Lady Racer'. The very best number of all this bunch, though, is undoubtedly 'The World Is Spinning Faster', another one of those quasi apocalyptic numbers that Alvin is so fond of, replete with a magnificent looping riff in between the verse lines and a sharp solo on the fade-out. It's hardly on the breathtaking level of 'I'd Love To Change The World', but it has a special grandeur and solemnity of its own that are unmistakable.

Of course, if Let It Rock had been recorded by a less unpretentious, more professional, more restricted roots-rock performer, it would have gotten a much lower rating - and unless you have a very high tolerance for roots-rock, better stay away and grab a Ten Years After classic album instead. But lovers of moody guitar based slow blues-rock can't go wrong here. Where else can you find such a classy record, where it is seen so well how youthful rocking enthusiasm slowly metamorphoses into middle-age painful meditation? Where else, I ask you?



Year Of Release: 1978

Hey, Alvin gets himself a new band! Guess what's it called: "Ten Years Later". This time around, though, Alvin is clever and sticks "Alvin Lee & Ten Years Later" on the album cover - you know, so that if the project backfires, he can always come out and say, 'hey, the guys just wanted a name for themselves, but it's simply my solo project and it doesn't mean that I'm such an asshole to assemble a band for an album and then fire 'em". Tom Compton plays the drums on here, Mick Hocksworth plays bass, and probably some other guy plays the keybs, but I wouldn't wanna know.

All I know is, this album's not very good. The basic idea is simple and understandable: Alvin wanted to "give the people what they want" - get back to the good old hard-rockin' formula. There are no ballads on the album at all, not even a subtle relaxing shuffle; no gospel singers, no moody organ, no Mel Collins intruding with his saxophones. Nothing that would deviate the listener from the ass-kicking, wall-rattling energy. The question is: what's so nice about that? If it's an intentional attempt to recapture the Ten Years After vibe, it's a failure, due in part to sterile overproduction. All the songs are mercilessly FAT, with overdubbing, special effects, nagging stupid keyboards and riffs that revel in their complexity (or simplicity) over the most generic guitar tones available.

To tell the truth, some of the songs remind me of Kiss with less offensive lyrics and less intrusive vocals: same approach to riffage (the riff should be fat and ugly and totally unmemorable) and atmosphere (the song should be loud and proud of itself and that's the song's main virtue). There's no virtuous subtlety anywhere to be found; this is just half-decent arena-rock made to please the simplistic public that would be ready to swallow anything from Mr Lee as long as it features some killer guitar solos. And, to tell some more truth, I'm absolutely unmoved by the 'killer guitar solos'. Alvin does often revert to the finger-flashing style on here, but it's all painfully derivative and therefore boring; the solo on 'Gonna Turn You On', for instance, just rips off all of his earlier tricks from old standards like 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl' or 'I'm Goin' Home'. I like finger-flashing as good as anybody, but if you're gonna be replaying the same finger-flashing solo on every second song, that's what I call a profanation.

I do like a few of these rockers. 'Somebody Callin' Me', for instance, starts out real well - fast and nervous, just like 'I'd Like To Change The World' six years before, with a quirky Robin Trower-like R'n'B riff; however, just a few minutes into the song it changes tonality and tempo and becomes a slow arena-rock dazzle with self-indulgent soloing. Of course, the difference between "inspired" and "self-indulgent" is rather subjective, isn't it? Let's just put it this way: generic soloing is soloing I've heard many times before, and inspired soloing offers me a unique touch I haven't yet had the pleasure to experience. In this respect, the soloing on 'Somebody Callin' Me' doesn't move me one bit. Rather like on 'Comfortably Numb'. But boy, does the song start off cool...

Another song that's impossible not to mention, if only because it's the intentional center of attention on the record, is the nearly ten-minute long epic 'The Devil's Screaming'. I have a feeble hypothesis that this was originally one song not intended for this album - it sounds way different, more like the psychologic, paranoid, thrilling numbers on Alvin's previous albums. Starting out as a slow, moody blues tune, it then goes off into different directions, from a relatively normal blues jam to a psychedelic phased guitar extravaganza, and then to all-out chaos as Alvin tries to replicate in the studio the same set of "simultaneous-tune-and-play" effects he used to incorporate in the middle of 'I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes' at Ten Years After concerts (you can hear the passage on Recorded Live, or even see it captured on tape on the Message Of Love Isle Of Wight 1970 Festival video). The song's not a masterpiece, but in the context of all those generic arena rockers, it probably is, and it's definitely the only moment of true inspiration on the record.

Elsewhere, you just... well, you know, you just get all those three-chord riff-rockers ('Friday The 13th', title track, etc., etc.). I don't wanna say a single thing about them. They're more listenable than an average Kiss song, but only slightly, and mainly because I don't get visions of Alvin Lee screwing young girls whenever I listen to this stuff. (Of course, that's a flaw to some people, but hey, let's try to distinguish between sexuality and pornography, shall we?).


RIDE ON **1/2

Year Of Release: 1979

Ten Years Later kick ass! On the first half of this album, that is. The second is dang dang BORING. Apparently, somewhere around this time Alvin Lee had finally lost the last drops of his songwriting talents. The five newly-recorded studio cuts that occupy half of the album are among the most faceless songs in his entire catalog - I can't even understand that oddity, seeing as the production is so neat and the dynamics so dynamic. Well, actually, no, the dynamics on here are entirely static. The solos suck, the riffs aren't memorable in any way, and the energy seems so faked and artificial it's frustrating.

Could you try and recognize 'Too Much' as a good song? It's just generic Seventies' hard-rock. If you wanna write a simplistic five-chord riff, you gotta make it crunchy and powerful, not just stand there in the background and hit you with its dumbness. And why all these ridiculous guitar overdubs that give me a headache? Aren't guitar overdubs meant to emphasize something, not just provide a chaotic background? 'It's A Gaz' starts out promisingly, with a nice fuzzy guitar tone and a steady shuffle and overcharged echoey vocals, but that's hardly enough to make the song memorable, and the feeble whiny guitar solo is boring and unremarkable. 'Sittin' Here' begins with a riff recycled from 'Sunshine Of Your Love', but even that doesn't redeem the song. If anything, this studio side reminds me of Grand Funk Railroad, being based on the same principle Farner and his gang wrote their material: "if it's loud and has a heavy riff, it can easily qualify as a good song ready for official release". Sorry, no way. Anybody can write a heavy riff and turn up the amps, but not everybody is able to make that riff memorable or cool-sounding. The only song on the studio side that comes at least close to decent is the acoustic shuffle 'Ride On Cowboy' that sets a pretty romantic mood and has Alvin display some tasty fresh electric licks in the background. Not that it's a bit more memorable than the rest of this stuff, but it at least seems like a song with a purpose other than a need to prove to the world that 'we can rock'.

And for my money, they prove that quite nice on the first side, recorded live in its entirety. Now that's where my quibbles disappear - sure enough, it's the same old Alvin Lee bendin' 'em strings, and his finger-flashing technique hasn't deteriorated a bit since the good old days. It's particularly well-proven on the opening number, 'Ain't Nothin' Shakin', which beats its studio predecessor into the dust. Yeah, same lightning-speed solos as before, and we all know that Alvin doesn't vary his solos all that much, but hey, that's a different song which we never had live before, so for this song Mr Lee has invented a new solo which I gladly take. Especially since we haven't heard a true lightning-speed solo from Mr Lee since Recorded Live in 1973.

The rest of the live material is somewhat questionable, but by no means bad. 'Scat Encounter' is a reminder of all those 'Scat Things' and 'Silly Things' Alvin used to do at Ten Years After shows, and it's not any worse if you can stand Alvin's cheesy scat passages at all. After that, however, he goes into a lengthy rendition of 'Hey Joe', done extremely close to the Hendrix version, but without the blistering pyrotechnics of the Master himself. It's hardly a necessary element to possess in your collection, but... I think Alvin fans will surely appreciate the stuff. And finally, we're 'Going Home'! When was the last time you were goin' home with Alvin? Which actually reminds me of a thing that happened once to Pete Townshend some time in the early Nineties - he was invited to a TV show where he intended to do a cover of an old forgotten tune he happened to like, but then at the last minute he told himself 'Hey, wait a minute! Why am I fuckin' up? These people, they certainly want me to do 'Pinball Wizard' and not some unknown cover. So let's give the people what they want'. There's Alvin Lee, obviously giving the people what they want - and in a good sense at that, fuelled up and inflamed by the very idea of finally regaining common ground with the audience. That's why, surprisingly, this version of 'Going Home' sounds so damn good, maybe even better than the one present on Recorded Live: Alvin knows that people really need him to do this stuff, and he feels good because of it. So yeah, three cheers for the old man.

If it weren't for the crappy studio side, that is. Ooh, does it ever stink. So annoying. I mean, was it necessary for Alvin to reduce himself to the lowest denominator and all? It's truly amazing how the pure and fresh energy of the first side contrasts with the genericness of the flip. Of course, it might have been the fault of the backing band, nowhere near as interesting sonically as Alvin's former colleagues, which might explain his disbanding Ten Years Later within months of the album's release. Not that I blame him.


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