Special Forces is a criminally underrated album in the Southern catalogue and deserves re-acquaintance … Now, where’s that dang fightin’ whiskey, boy?
Looking in the rearview mirror at the career of .38 Special can easily result in a false memory of the band’s musical identity. Forming at the end of the ’70s, and fronted by Donnie Van Zant, brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie (and Johnny for that matter), adding their handgun-derived name to that makes the mind remember them as a full-on, ‘outlaw’, stetsons-and-Jack-Daniels Southern Rock band in the vein of Skynyrd or The Outlaws. In actual fact, while the band certainly had roots in that culture and influence, and it always ran as a thread through their music, they were never as easily defined as that. Their early albums were in some ways a little too varied and unfocused for their own good, with straight hard rock, bluesy Southern rock and country balladry colliding somewhat uneasily. By the time of their fourth album, 1981’s Wild Eyed Southern Boys, the band had made a collective decision to streamline and smooth out their sound, making it more accessible and, dare we say it, commercial. It certainly worked in the US, because not only was the album a pretty big seller, but lead-off single Hold Me Loosely was itself a mainstream hit. .38 Special were suddenly major players, and to commemorate 40 years since the album’s release, it has been reissued, along with the following year’s Special Forces, remastered and on coloured vinyl.
Listening to the Wild Eyed Southern Boys album, right away it is easy to see that while popular, this could easily be a divisive album. After all, if you’re named after a handgun and have a Skynyrd legend’s kid brother fronting you, people are going to have expectations. Unfortunately, sounding like Free Bird, Sweet Home Alabama and Call Me The Breeze is going to part of that expectation for some of those people. To their credit, however, they managed this pretty well, and a big part of that is that the album is just so very very well done. That lead-off track Hold Me Loosely comes into that Southern beer joint waving albums by The Cars and Foreigner, but it just about gets away without getting hit with a pool cue by virtue of being a very good, catchy song. Don’t get me wrong though, you wouldn’t want a whole album of those songs – unless you are a rabid fan of The Cars and Foreigner, in which case what the hell are you doing in this bar, boy? Take that perm and go home.
No, the album gets very much more settled on a rocking path with the next two tracks, the heavy First Time Around, the very catchy title track and the simple but lively boogie of Back Alley Sally. Fantasy Girl, closing the first side, is much more in a pop-rock ballad vein, yet conversely exhibits the first real overt Skynyrd influence thus far, with guitarist Jeff Carlisi scattering some prime Free Bird licks around as the song goes on. In fact, there are three guitarists on the album, with Don Barnes playing more rhythm than lead (and actually doing a surprising amount of the lead vocal) and Jeff Smith, who only appeared on this album, actually unable to be credited or play live as he was under the legal age to work at that time. Carlisi is, as I understand it at least, the driving six-string force here, and certainly over both of these albums it is the lead guitar work which clings most to that Southern template.
The opening track on the second side, Hittin’ & Runnin’ sees the band skirting very close to REO Speedwagon territory, and risking the wrath of those pool cues again, but the funky Honky Tonk Dancer sets things right by invoking the spirit and feel of Sweet Home Alabama in its funk-rock groove. Throw Out The Line is a fairly standard rocker, good without being exceptional, but the closing Bring It On, the longest track at going on for six minutes, is a fine closer. The South Rises Again for this one, with the guitars crackling like electricity, as the band show that they can hit that Southern Swagger when they really choose to. All in all, the album may not be a Southern Classic in the vein of Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, Bring It Back Alive or Eat A Peach, but it’s a fine attempt to merge the charts and the swamplands into an enjoyable brew.
Fine as that album is, it is 1982’s Special Forces which really saw the band get that balance just right, with most of the songs on that one being top drawer, with that Southern swagger being given a noticeably bigger role. I say most of the songs, because the album does open with a real clunker, in the shape of Caught Up In You, a dated and blatant power-pop attempt to get another big hit single. Disappointingly it worked, hitting the top ten, but the great dollops of REO, Cars and even Asia would have seen the guys carried out of that pool joint unconscious. We’ll let it slide, however, as the album gets up, dusts itself down and starts to rock like it means it from the very next song. Back Door Stranger is a cracker, riding along on a Stones / Bad Company groove with some propulsive wah-wah lead work keeping it going throughout. This is what the band were capable of, and it’s great stuff. Back On The Track is another groove laden rocker, grinding away with heavy riffing and attitude to spare with the typically ‘outlaw’ lyrical tale of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks and running with the wrong crowd. Chain Lightnin’ (another big hit, but this time deservedly so) thunders along with a massive chorus that simply dares you not to bellow along with it, and finishes the first side on a real high.
Opening Side Two is Rough Housin’. Now, think of a Southern-tinged American rock band performing a song called Rough Housin’. Got it in your head? Well, this sounds exactly like that. No more, no less, and it’s good for what ails ya. You Keep Runnin’ Away shows them overdoin’ it a bit usin’ those apostrophes, and sits in a slightly more blue-collar, John Mellencamp zone. Not bad, though not quite up to the last few, but the following Breakin’ Loose (oh no, they’re doin’ it again) is much much better, title notwithstanding. Heavy and mean, it grinds along in fine style. Take ‘Em Out (we can still spot the apostrophes at the beginning of the words, guys) is a real cowboy-bootheel-tapping delight, cracking along at a fine pace while the guitars this time scream ‘Skynyrd’ at us. They keep screaming it in the closing Firestarter as well, with a classic Southern groove just dropping off at the end to leave a nicely mellow finish. Seven out of nine tracks on this one are real, 24-carat winners, and that ain’t a bad ratio in anyone’s book.
These vinyl releases are very very nice as well. Roughly corresponding in colour with the overriding theme of the album covers, Wild Eyed Southern Boys is described as ‘hot pink’ vinyl – and it really, really is! Vibrant isn’t the word for it, and it looks just great. Special Forces, meanwhile, gets a vivid orange treatment for the disc, and it looks just as good. The sound is crystal clear, with every instrument well defined and powerful in the mix, and if you’re a fan you will most certainly want both of these. If you’re a more casual buyer just wanting one to spring for, well, Special Forces is your man without a doubt. It’s a criminally underrated album in the Southern catalogue and deserves re-acquaintance. Maybe skip over Caught Up In You , but from that point on you’re gold. Now, where’s that dang fightin’ whiskey, boy?