Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Lynyrd Skynyrd

  • Pronounced Leh'-nerd Skin'-nerd [Sounds of the South/MCA, 1973] A
  • Second Helping [Sounds of the South/MCA, 1974] A-
  • Nuthin' Fancy [MCA, 1975] A-
  • Gimme Back My Bullets [MCA, 1976] B+
  • One More From the Road [MCA, 1976] A-
  • Street Survivors [MCA, 1977] A
  • Skynyrd's First and . . . Last [MCA, 1978] B
  • Gold and Platinum [MCA, 1979] A
  • Legend [MCA, 1987] B+
  • Lyve [Sanctuary, 2004] C+
  • God & Guns [RoadRunner/Loud & Proud, 2009] C+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Pronounced Leh'-nerd Skin'-nerd [Sounds of the South/MCA, 1973]
Lacking both hippie roots and virtuosos, post-Allmanites like ZZ Top, Marshall Tucker, and Wet Willie become transcendently boring except when they get off a good song. But in this staunchly untranscendent band, lack of virtuosos is a virtue, because it inspires good songs, songs that often debunk good-old-boy shibboleths. Examples: "Poison Whiskey," "Mississippi Kid," and "Gimme Three Steps," whee Ronnie Van Zant, instead of outwitting the dumb redneck the way onetime Dylan sideman Charlie Daniels does in "Uneasy Rider," just hightails it out of there. Savvy production from onetime Dylan sideman Al Kooper. A

Second Helping [Sounds of the South/MCA, 1974]
Great formula here. When it rocks, three guitarists and a keyboard player pile elementary riffs and feedback noises into dense combinations broken by preplanned solos, while at quieter moments the spare vocabulary of the best Southern folk music is evoked or just plain duplicated. And any suspicions that this substantial, tasteful band blew their best stuff on the first platter should fall in the wake of the first state song ever to make top ten, which will expose you to their infectious putdowns of rock businessmen, rock journalists, and heroin. A-

Nuthin' Fancy [MCA, 1975]
On the one hand, two or three cuts here sound like heavy-metal-under-funk--check out "Saturday Night Special," a real killer. But on the other, Ronnie Van Zant has never deployed his limited, husky baritone with such subtlety. Where Gregg Allman (to choose a purely random example) is always straight, shuttling his voice between languor and high emotion, Van Zant feints and dodges, sly one moment and sleepy the next, turning boastful or indignant or admonitory with the barest shifts in timbre. I mean, dumb he ain't. A-

Gimme Back My Bullets [MCA, 1976]
Ronnie Van Zant may intend those bullets for "pencil pushers" (which means not only me but you, I'll bet) but that's no reason to shoot him down. In fact, it's just the opposite--his attraction has always been the way he gets his unreconstructed say. Unfortunately, the music could use some Yankee calculation--from Al Kooper of Forest Hills, who I figure was good for two hooks per album, and Ed King of New Jersey, the guitarist turned born-againer whose guitar fills carried a lot more zing than three doodooing Honnicutts. B+

One More From the Road [MCA, 1976]
Like I always say, live doubles function mostly as aural souvenirs for benighted concertgoers, and here's a band I never miss. Their hits rock, their covers sidle, and yahoo. A-

Street Survivors [MCA, 1977]
Some rock deaths are irrelevant, while others make a kind of sense because the artists involved so obviously long to transcend (or escape) their own mortality. But for Ronnie Van Zant, life and mortality were the same thing--there was no way to embrace one without at least keeping company with the other. So it makes sense that "That Smell" is the smell of death, or that in "You Got That Right" Van Zant boasts that he'll never be found in an old folks' home. As with too many LPs by good road bands, each side here begins with two strong cuts and then winds down. The difference is that the two strong cuts are very strong and the weak ones gain presence with each listen. I'm not just being sentimental. I know road bands never make their best album the sixth time out, and I know Van Zant had his limits. But I mourn him not least because I suspect that he had more good music left in him than Bing and Elvis put together. A

Skynyrd's First and . . . Last [MCA, 1978]
I'm glad to own this album, cut at Muscle Shoals in the pre-MCA days and overdubbed for possible release before the plane crash ended their career. I'm impressed by both the packaging (forty-four photos, many terrific) and John Swenson's notes (extensive, acute), and I like the music fine. But I don't think this is where I'll go to hear Skynyrd. Even if I wanted to disregard the two song-poems by long-departed drummer-vocalist Ricky Medlocke and the less than essential alternate version of "Things Goin' On," I expect more from Skynyrd than good white funk and second-rate message songs. And "Was I Right or Wrong" ain't it. B

Gold and Platinum [MCA, 1979]
Because Ronnie Van Zant wasn't quite an infallible songwriter, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a great band that never made a wholly undeniable album, but try saying no to this compilation and it'll loosen your bicuspids. It's not fair, really--everybody who was dumb enough to dismiss them as another pack of redneck boogie freaks now gets to catch up. Though I can hope that when they do they'll be consumed with regret at what they missed. And I can't deny that when I want to hear Skynyrd this is what I'll put on. A

Legend [MCA, 1987]
What made them a great boogie band was that Ronnie Van Zant had a mean, sly edge on him. What made them a damn fine boogie band was that they knew how to relax. Except maybe for a bit about "Hollyweird," there's no special edge on these B sides, outtakes, reconstituted demos, and live one. But a decade after the fact they sound damn fine. B+

Lyve [Sanctuary, 2004]
Maybe the Allmans supported Bush too, though I bet not; maybe that fox Ronnie Van Zant would have turned into Charlie Daniels, though he would have nuanced it. But Daniels is Donald Fagen up against the backup-singer cheerleading and golden-oldies smarm of Johnny Van Zant, and where the Allmans replaced their mythic front line with Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, who jam at least as tight and hot, Gary Rossington didn't anchor that peachy a guitar section to begin with. A few of the post-Ronnie songs are surprisingly decent--"Red, White and Blue," for instance, is about Johnny's neck, hair, and collar. But you know what else it's about, and in case you don't he has four or five ways to rub it in, including thanks to God for the lovely Nashville night. Not Memphis, not Jacksonville--Nashville. C+

God & Guns [RoadRunner/Loud & Proud, 2009]
"You can take your change on down the road/And leave me here with mine," Johnny Van Zant begins one of the two songs that take up the title theme after has run through the pleasures of home, the perfidy of woman, and the mixed blessings of the music business for the umpteenth time. Like the wary younger sibling he's always been, Johnny will always hold onto a quarter and settle for what he knows, or thinks he does. Really, he ought to have some inkling that nobody worthy of his trepidation wants to ban hunting, burn the Bible, or slam old Uncle Sam, although actually that no smoking sign means exactly what it says. On the other hand, "Unwrite That Song" would make a nice B side for Darius Rucker. C+

Further Notes:

Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies [1990s]