Monday, June 10, 2013

Bargain Bin Treasure: Golden Earring - Grab it For a Second

It seems like I don't hear much talk about Golden Earring and that's a shame.  They are arguably Holland's most successful musical group and have crafted some classic hard rock albums over their 40 years of existence.  Moontan with it's undeniable driving single, "Radar Love" and Cut with the dynamic "Twilight Zone" would certainly be found on their list of classics.

This album isn't.

Released in 1978 when the band was in a post-Moontan hangover, Golden Earring was lost.  They were unable to follow the amazing success of 1974's Moontan, which really was the epitome of the Golden Earring sound-- a hearty mix of prog epics, heavy rockers, and songs that combine both elements. It was polished and inspired, moody and intricate. At that moment, the band had it all and was poised on the precipice of amazing international success.  Unfortunately, the  follow-up album, 1975's Switch, lacked the wide-spread appeal, exploring non-commercial themes and pushing the prog elements to the foreground.   Following albums To the Hilt and Contraband searched for a style the band could hold onto.  And also searched for an audience.

So by 1978, Moontan was a distant memory, and Golden Earring were scrambling to regain a footing in America.  They were still a big concert draw in Europe, but to recapture the American ears, they had to take drastic measures.  Enter pop-wizard producer Jimmy Iovine and engineer Shelly Yakus.  What resulted was a stab at shiny slick commerciality, that attempted to smooth away much of Golden Earring's individuality in favor of a big Arena sound.

All of which may lead you to believe that the album is a bomb.

But it's not. In fact, if you weed through a few of the clunkers, you may find, like I did, that there's some damn good late '70's prog-ish/rock going on here.   You may also agree that Golden Earring's sound was so ingrained in their music, that no big American producer could completely polish it away.  With that in mind, Grab it for a Second is a pleasant surprise.

Opener track, "Movin' Down Life" isn't one of the surprises.  This is a generic slice of bland-faced arena rock.  Iovine managed to tone down Golden Earring's eccentricities too such a homogenized level that I defy you to listen to this song without knowing who it is and make a guess.  Shooting Star?   Survivor?  Other random late-'70's band?   Whoever.  A missed opportunity if there ever was one.   Following track, "Against the Grain" fares a tad better.  Beginning with some nicely strummed acoustic guitar, the vocals come on like an attempt at a mellow Pink Floyd.  It picks up from there, with a nice chorus, but really the whole thing sounds rather bland and lifeless.  A David Gilmour-ish guitar solo and some sax don't save it from mediocrity.  It's not a bad song, just rather ordinary and a strange sequencing for track 2, since it causes a complete let down in the "momentum" started with "Movin' Down Life".   Should have been a deeper album track where it could have shined better.

Sounds like a lost cause doesn't it?

But stay tuned, because slowly but surely things start to happen.  Title track "Grab it for a Second" starts off with a bass.  That bass.  Yes, the one you first heard on "Radar Love."  As the scratch guitar and synths come in there's even more of a "Radar Love" moment, but don't worry, they're not aping themselves here.  They're building on something familiar.  Suddenly, they feel so much more comfortable with what they're doing.   Even the vocals sound better with that familiar gruffness that we loved in "Radar Love" and would love again on "Twilight Zone."  And those perfect backing harmonies.  The song builds from it's mid-tempo rocking pace, dropping into some damn funky passages, while it cruises along in a very Golden Earring way.  There's even a familiar phrasing/melody that would recur in "Twilight Zone" 4 years later.  This should be thought of as a classic sound Golden Earring cut.

All of which leads us to "Cell 29", a mini-prog epic in the classic Golden Earring vein.  Nice guitar brings this one in, with the solo searing through the gentle picking, as the song tells the story of a prisoner's lament.  We got melody.  We got a soaring, memorable choral hook.  Mood.  Ambiance. All stretched out over a very non-commercial 6:39.  It's that Golden Earring sound some of us dug the hell outta back with Moontan.

"Roxanne" drops back into a faceless stab at arena acceptance.  It's an acceptable rocker, but who is it?  Toto?  Doesn't sound like Golden Earring to me.  "Leather" is a cheeky dig into S&M, that hits all the right guitar-driven, mid-tempo rock vibes.  "Temptin'" is a better rocker to my ears.  A bit slick, but I hear Golden Earring in there, and there's some tasty bass runs and chugging guitars.  "U-Turn Time," rushes in with some of the best guitar on the album before dropping into a rather punky rocker.  It may not sound like the band I remember, but it's a corker and a fun song.

So, what do we have?   A flawed album no doubt.  A bowing down to commercial pressure to try and resurrect a dead US career at the expense of the "sound" of the band.  Yep.  But despite that, it's still a pretty damn fun rocker of an album with some glimpses of the classic sound, most notably on the epic, "Cell 29" and the prototypical title track.  Maybe not the album Golden Earring fans had hoped for back in the days, and certainly not one that would restore their lost fortunes. But a fun album nonetheless.

The title of this column is Bargain Bin Treasure.  I found this album for .98 cents at a sidewalk sale.  For that price, I'd recommend it to any fan of 70's rock.


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