Flipside Of The Awful Eighties
Right smack centre in the musically awful 80s and I discovered Nils Lofgren with my cassette copy of his superb album Flip. I’d known of him like many as guitarist in the E Street Band but wasn’t really aware of his independent career, though I’ve collected most of his Grin and solo work on vinyl since then. I was also unaware at the time of his 17 year old cameo on Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and involvement a little latter on Tonight’s The Night. And this only scratches the surface of his involvement with other bands, musicians and live performances, individual and communal.
Lofgren’s vocal is light and an acquired taste, but I acquired a love for it long ago and think this aspect of his work is underrated. The same could be said for his guitar playing: those who know his work will surely not have this problem, but he doesn’t appear to be more widely and generally acknowledged as one of the greats. I’m not sure I have the most accurate description of his style, but the signature sound is the way he plays and uses the guitar’s harmonics, and the feedback he rides off this. Not surprisingly, Lofgren sites Hendrix as an influence, but the feedback aspect is different to Jimi’s. Another stated and perhaps bigger influence is Roy Buchanan. Truly awesome examples of this can be seen and heard in Lofgren’s mid 70s performances with Grin on the Old Grey Whistle Test [on YouTube]. Check out Back It Up, Cry Tough, but especially his brilliant Keith Don’t Go where near the end of his lengthy solo you get an excellent example of his finger-picking those harmonics - then Lofgren self-duets with electric piano and guitar, ever keen to showcase his virtuosity. There’s also a 1981 OGWT of him playing Night Fades Away and this take us towards the time when Flip was released in 1985.
Ignoring the irony of my raving about anything from the 80s, Flip is a bright and energetic album, even the decade-delighting in synth-sounds, which feature throughout, unable to spoil my enjoyment in this – cue opening to Secrets in the Streets with its anthematic chorus, strident drum beats, harmony vocals and harmonics-tinged guitar combining to bring a kudos to that synthesiser wash. Delivery Night is, for me, more typically Lofgren as songwriter and performer with its gentle vocal delivery and narrative core – hints of 50s/60s rock’n’roll balladry [sha-la-la baby] echoing throughout along with that distinctive guitar.
King of the Rock is in many ways archetypal eighties fare, but the guitar drives this too with an authority salvaging it from my aural rejection: Lofgren’s rock-roots triumphing in controlled feedback and echo in an elongated solo ending. Peach track on the whole album and in my all-time list of greats is Sweet Midnight, guitar wail railing against the 80s drum beat at its beginning. Vocal echoing runs through this track too, but the guitar is always on the top driving towards the false funky end of screeching, hisses and yelps – until it slices back in victory. New Holes in Old Shoes is an acoustic, harp and blues tune that steps outside the time frame to remind us of Lofgren’s musical roots, electric solo again at the end dancing with the harmonica.
The album ends on two classic Lofgren songs, Dreams Die Hard and Big Tears Fall, the former a love lament and the latter a beautiful if slightly lachrymose ballad. BTF foregrounds the gentle vocal that is distinctly Lofgren, and the sweet saccharine of the lyrics is a genuine reflection of his earnest honesty and innocence as man and performer.
I had the pleasure of seeing Nils Lofgren play an acoustic set at a small venue in Plymouth. Bliss.