Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Best Albums You Never Heard

By Kurt Torster

Van Zant “Van Zant” (1985)

When this album came out, unless you were watching MTV at 3AM like I was prone to do, you would have completely missed out on this. Luckily, not only was I watching but was completely hooked on the single, “I’m A Fighter,” in one shot. It was the kind of the sound that only 1985 could bring, bordered on one side by the decline of new wave and the other by the over produced and glossy arena rock of the latter part of the decade. Taking major cues from Survivor, Van Hagar and the like, the youngest of Florida’s Van-Zant clan released this effort to thunderous silence.

The band was signed to Geffen, which was the kind of label I tended to purchase albums from “sound unheard.” They had a real knack of releasing quality radio rock without any promotion and letting them drown without a trace. All things considered I could write a year’s worth of columns on that alone. Anyways...

The Van-Zant release always puzzled me how it didn’t at least get the band a foothold on Gold territory. “I’m A Fighter” sounded like a lost tune from the Rocky 3 soundtrack (and with good reason as seeing how it was written by Jimi Jamison) and was the kind of song that top down summer nights was made for. Strange thing (or maybe not depending on how well you know the music business), that was far from the best song here.

Listening now takes me back to those days when I was driving around in my cherry red Mustang GT, which was required driving in northern New Jersey. But, rather than blasting cheesy dance music that sounds like it was recorded with a Casio SK1, songs like the smooth and hit worthy “You’ve Got To Believe In Love,” the Jeff Paris penned “Heart To The Flame” or the urgent sounding “2+2” all should have had no trouble finding a home on rock radio or MTV.

Of course, like so many gems of the era many have tagged the “AOR Glory Years,” it went almost straight to the cut out bins only to be treasured by those who stumbled across it accidentally. To further cement that AOR connection, background vocals were provided by the awesome Terry Brock, whose band Strangeways is another cult classic that will be featured here in the future.

Though most of the songs were written by outside songwriters, the best songs were written by Johnny along with his brother, Donnie, and somewhat pointed the way of how .38 Special’s sound would shape up on their “Strength In Numbers” album. My favorite song here is the mid-tempo ballad “Two Strangers” and is one of those songs that I just never get tired of hearing. It has the kind of sonics that probably would have sounded equally as great in front of a lighter waving, crowd filled arena as it would pumping out of a beer spilled boom box.

Not much ever happened with this band after, as Johnny released a few more Southern tinged solo efforts, leading to his transformation as the lead singer in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Looks like a few of his bandmates came along for the ride for a few years, but I could find no information otherwise.

A textbook example of quality over quantity, it’s a AOR true bargain bin classic.