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Joe Walsh and The James Gang

Reviewed on this page:
Yer' Album - Rides Again - Thirds - The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get - You Can't Argue With A Sick Mind

Guitarist/frontman Joe Walsh is the ultimate classic rock regular suspect, briefly leading Cleveland's funk-rock power trio James Gang to album-oriented radio success, constantly turning up on a guest star, slipping into the Eagles as a new member when that band was already at its mid-70s peak, and managing a handful of solo hit singles that have become CHR standards. Walsh's bratty, self-deprecating sense of humor and first-rate guitar god antics set him apart from most of the pack, and his chameleon-like stylistic variety and crowd-pleasing pop-rock sensibilities aren't too far from (say) Todd Rundgren. But none of his albums really holds up as either consistently well-written or particularly innovative, his work with the Eagles was often in really poor taste, his big 1978 hit "Life's Been Good To Me" is a mixed blessing, his solo albums through the 80s and early 90s mostly flopped, and his thin, unsteady vocals are a major minus.

Walsh's big break came in 1969, when he was recruited to become the James Gang's frontman on the strength of his super-professional rock guitar skills - his early recordings show methodical influences ranging from Stephen Stills to Duane Allman to Jeff Beck, and his command of effects, slide guitar, and overdubbing was always masterful. None of the group's album's were exactly masterpieces, but Walsh always came through with at least one really memorable rock epic. He kept up the same mix of singer-songwriter balladry and power-chord grounded funk-rock on his first few solo albums in the early 70s, did some side-work producing acts like Dan Fogelberg, and then joined the Eagles in 1975, appearing on two major hit albums before that band broke up. By 1980 Walsh had gone right back to steadily releasing solo records and touring, and despite recording no substantial new material after the early 90s, did continue to team up with other classic rock artists - for example, he's a regular member of Ringo Starr's ever-changing superstar bands, and he participated in the highly lucrative mid-90s Eagles reunion.

There are several fan pages on the web, of which the fan-run official Joe Walsh website is probably the most comprehensive and certainly isn't overcommercialized.

Walsh has appeared on numerous records as a guest artist. Here are some of his guest appearances we have reviewed on our site. (JA)

Lineup (the James Gang):
Formed with Jim Fox (drums), Tom Kriss (bass), and Glenn Schwartz (guitar). Schwartz replaced by Joe Walsh (guitar, vocals, keyboards) before the group recorded its first album, 1969. Kriss replaced by Dale Peters (bass), 1970. Walsh replaced by Roy Keener (vocals) and Dominic Troiano (guitar), 1971. Troiano left, about 1972, replaced by Tommy Bolin (guitar).

Yer' Album (The James Gang: 1969)
You might guess that Walsh's original band was pretty lame. The guy can't really sing, he's never been an artiste, and his sense of humor is kind of grating. But it turns out that the James Gang had a ton of talent, and Walsh wasn't the only story: drummer Jim Fox is a real phenom, clattering away like an American Mitch Mitchell and always keeping a solid beat. Walsh, meanwhile, is a lot more interesting when he's covering inventive 60s guitarists like Steve Stills ("Bluebird") or Jeff Beck ("Lost Woman") than on those infamous mid-70s Eagles records where he's just trying to be smooth and laid-back. The original song material here is kind of slight, with some random studio chatter, some joke tracks, and an album-ending jam that starts out as a whiteboy funk masterpiece but quickly has you mumbling its title in bored frustration ("Stop"). Plus Walsh seems uncomfortable with soloing at this stage. But his guitar hero technique is already solid and flexible: wah-wah, slide, distortion, ringing acoustic parts, you name it. Some of the original tunes are going to have you tapping your toes ("Take A Look Around"), and producer Bill Szymczyk comes through with some groovy orchestration and a clever 60s acid rock ambience. (JA)

Rides Again (The James Gang: 1970)
The band's somewhat disappointing second album is a little more mature and consistent than the first, but has many of the same problems. There's one monster single that works their funk-rock formula to the hilt: "Funk #49," with a sinister attitude and tons of great harmonies, guitar riffs, and drum fills. There's also a marvelous, complexly arranged hippy-dippy ballad ("Tend My Garden"). But everything else is slight, and not just the obligatory jam ("Asshtonpark"). Track after track is glaringly derivative: the Jeff Beck Group-like, mid-tempo rocker "Woman"; the Zeppelin-like "Closet Queen," with lengthy, laid-back solos; the charming acoustic guitar-and-vocal country-western tune "Garden Gate," lifted directly from Steve Stills' recipes; and an homage to Neil Young's loping country-rock style ("There I Go Again"), whose main riff gets recycled in the very next tune ("Thanks"). Things get interesting on the album closing ballad, which gets treated to a moody, dramatic, Mahler-style orchestral arrangement by Jack Nitzsche ("Ashes The Rain And I"). But the tune itself is just not all that interesting. So the record's all so very polished and earnest, but in the end merely in sync with the times - not ahead of them. Ironically, this record, its followup, and their 1971 live album all went gold and rose fairly high in the charts. Dale Peters took over on bass at this point; Szymczyk produced again. (JA)

Thirds (The James Gang: 1970)
Walsh and the band's lethargic, wimpy swan song is a big step down from the last two LPs, with Peters and Fox getting in a series of their own, utterly mediocre compositions, and co-producer Szymczyk's horn and string arrangements slaughtering half the record a la Let It Be. Peters' stuff is particularly sorry: some soporific, orchestrated acid-pop ("White Man / Black Man," with Walsh's screeching solos playing off of a gospel choir) and an ill-conceived country song (the childish, lame-brained "Dreamin' In The Country"). But Walsh is just as much to blame - his own orchestrated pop song "It's All The Same" is even more bombastic, uncomfortably recalling Simon & Garfunkel's contemporary work. And the rest is just plain insubstantial: co-producer Szymczyk's sweeping string arrangement can't salvage Walsh's aimless, acoustic "Again"; "Yadig?" is a brief, Booker T.-style blues jam; Fox's "Things I Could Be" is mediocre mid-tempo rock, and his super-slow "Hey Jude"-ish ballad "Live My Life Again" isn't much more distinct, or much more listenable. At least Walsh packs a pile of facile, Buffalo Springfield-like guitar overdubs into his swaying, dreamy "Midnight Man" (with a guest vocal by Mary Sterpka). And he totally scores with his loping, intricately arranged classic rocker "Walk Away," whose spartan arrangement leaves open plenty of room for Fox's downright melodic drumming - it's too bad that this essential tune is buried along with such dreck. (JA)

Live In Concert (The James Gang: 1971)
A quick cash-in featuring Walsh. (JA)

Passin' Thru (The James Gang: 1972)
I'm not sure whether Walsh is on this one. (JA)

Straightshooter (The James Gang: 1972)
Walsh was out of the band at this point, and I'm not sure who replaced him. (JA)

Barnstorm (1972)
At this point Walsh and his rhythm section (Kenny Passarelli, bass, and Joe Vitale, drums) were going under the band name Barnstorm - self-proclaimed solo rock artists still were an oddity in 1972, and acts ranging from Peter Frampton to David Bowie also hid themselves behind nominal "rock bands" at this time. Vitale did write one track ("Giant Behemoth"), but the rest is basically Walsh's. Produced by Szymczyk; guests include Paul Harris, Al Perkins, and Chuck Rainey. (JA)

Bang (The James Gang: 1973)
Another new guitarist in the person of Tommy Bolin, formerly of Zephyr. (JA)

The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get (1973)
Walsh certainly kept his head screwed on after going solo. You need look no further than track 1 for proof: "Rocky Mountain Way" is not just his signature tune, but one of the most memorable rock songs of the decade, with a blistering slide guitar line, a thundering piano hook, and an insidious, technically innovative talk box solo (Peter Frampton later made a goldmine out of the effect). The tune didn't top the charts, but it was a solid hit, and the album sold very strongly. The rest - some of it written by the other players - isn't quite so brilliant or original, but it's often beautiful and always cleverly produced. "Meadows" weaves together the same elements - soothing acoustic riffs, blaring dynamics, and a hard-pounding, if excessively repetitive guitar lick to tie it all down (the main riff also was used earlier the same year by Deep Purple on their radio hit "Woman From Tokyo"). Elsewhere Walsh and the Barnstorm players are dangerously derivative. Vitale's synth-heavy, low-volume rocker "Book Ends" and creepy, but uplifting arpeggiated ballad "Wolf" both recall Abbey Road. Passarelli's "Happy Ways" is a thinly-concealed Steve Stills ripoff, with not just the main hook but the entire production being hand-me-downs. "Dreams" is like a quiet Carole King piano ballad. Keyboard player Rocke Grace's chipper, slightly Latin-ized instrumental "Midnight Moodies" and the burbling, sweetly harmonized "Days Gone By" add melodic bass and an updated sheen to Traffic's dramatic piano-plus-flute jazz-rock formula. Most of these numbers run too long, but they're sweet, sincere, and inoffensive - nothing like the crass, self-involved AOR product that Walsh went on to record with the Eagles. Co-produced by Szymcyzk. There's also Joe Lala and omnipresent backing vocalists Clydie King and Venetta Fields. (JA)

Miami (The James Gang: 1974)
The second and last record with Bolin. After this he left the group, joined Deep Purple for a single album in 1976, then died in 1977. (JA)

So What? (1974)
Another major commercial success, like his preceding solo album. "Turn To Stone," re-recorded from the debut Barnstorm record, is the best-known tune here. But "Time Out" and "Help Me Make It Thru The Night" also are recognizeable. "Pavanne" is by Ravel, so it's not the same as the excellent Richard Thompson ballad. Half the record was cut with the Barnstorm rhythm section before that band split earlier the same year, and the rest features a mix of players such as Russ Kunkel. Frey, Henley, and Meisner from the Eagles all guest on backing vocals, and so do Dan Fogelberg (Walsh had produced his 1974 album Souvenirs) and J.D. Souther. Henley also has a co-write on "Falling Down." A few months after this Walsh replaced Bernie Leadon in the Eagles. (JA)

You Can't Argue With A Sick Mind (1976)
The amusing title is the best thing about this predictable, forgettable live album, which mostly rehashes key material from his first two solo records, but also includes the James Gang standard "Walk Away" (admittedly, it's better heard in this company than on Thirds). Walsh hardly touches the original arrangements - Vitale's long, Ian Anderson-style flute solo on "Turn To Stone" is a lousy idea - and there's hardly any spontaneity, so mostly it's just plain dull. Worse, half the tracks go on for at least seven minutes each, and although that's kind of understandable when it comes to a major hit like "Rocky Mountain Way," "Meadows" and the plodding, pretentious "Turn To Stone" are just a waste of time. Even the shorter "Time Out," with its sludgy funk-rock riff sounding just the same as everything else he'd done, is a bore. Walsh's vocals aren't all that much more thin and unsteady than usual, and he's as impressive as always with his assorted guitar effects and slide work. But I can't see spending any serious money on this one. It's actually the Eagles themselves singing harmonies on the weepy piano ballad "Help Me Make It Thru The Night"; the band is basically the same lineup that later appeared on But Seriously, with ex-Spirit member Jay Ferguson (keyboards), omnipresent session player Willie Weeks (bass), and both Joe Vitale and Andy Newmark on drums. (JA)

But Seriously, Folks... (1978)
Includes his eight-minute, reggae/synth-flavored Top 40 hit "Life's Been Good To Me"; it's much the same kind of over-the-top, overproduced AOR as The Smoker You Drink,, but not as solid. Walsh's only platinum album and probably his commercial high point. The band is Ferguson, Weeks, and Vitale, plus Joey Murcia and fellow Eagle Don Felder (guitar). Produced by Szymczyck. (JA)

There Goes The Neighborhood (1981)
The year before Walsh had a fluke hit with "All Night Long," which appeared on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. Players include Vitale, Russ Kunkel, and David Lindley. Self-produced. Walsh's last commercially significant record, with the single here ("A Life Of Illusion") being his last to crack the Top 40. Someone once tried to give me this on LP and I blew them off (d'oh!). (JA)

You Bought It, You Name It (1983)
Looks like Joe Vitale was involved pretty heavily with this one. The single was "Space Age Whiz Kids." (JA)

The Confessor (1985)
Produced by Keith Olsen. (JA)

Got Any Gum? (1987)
Produced by Terry Manning, about whom I know nothing. (JA)

Ordinary Average Guy (1991)
Co-produced by Walsh and Vitale. (JA)

Songs For A Dying Planet (1992)
Produced by Szymczyk. If I'm not mistaken, he does a cover here of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." Since this record he hasn't released anything new that I know of, although a couple more greatest hits albums have appeared. (JA)

You can't argue with a sick mind.

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