Sometimes when you make fun of a band you end up liking them down the road, this was the case with the Southern Rock AOR band 38 Special. In High School I rode the bus with my friend and we had about a 45 minute ride going there and back so we had a lot of time to kill. My friend liked 38 and since I didn't know any of their music at that time but wanted to make fun of him I relentlessly made fun of the band's name. The only nickname I can remember now is "38 Sh*thole", what can I say I'm getting old and my memory is going. Later that year I saw the video for "Back Where You Belong" and I was hooked. I had to eat my words and go buy the tape. Which led to me eventually buying all of their 80's output.
Rockin Into The Night (1980)
One of the last records I bought of 38 Special and then it was in the cut out bin. I bought this and Special Delivery (1979) at the same time and was pretty disappointed with both of them. The music wasn't bad, it just didn't stick with me. Except for two songs, the title cut was their first hit (made doubly memorable by the fact it was written by Survivor) with a cool strutting beat and Stone Cold Believer which I knew from hearing their live concert on the radio. These records were more Southern Rock than what would follow in their career, "Rockin into the Night" started a path that the group would take to the end of the decade.
Wild Eyed Southern Boys (1981)
Every fan of 80's Rock knows what happens next, the Southern rockers recorded their piece d' resistance (I don't know French from anything so this is probably spelled wrong) Hold on Loosely. From Rock radio to Guitar Hero, no one could deny the power of 38 Special's smooth advice for wild eyed boys to stop crowding their girls. With "Loosely" shaggy haired vocalist / guitarist Don Barnes became the voice of 38's hit songs leaving band leader/ vocalist Donnie Van Zant (younger brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant) with a diminshed role. I often wondered how Van Zant felt about that, but it seemed like as long as dough was rolling in he was happy to be the guy in the cool cowboy hat working the crowd while Barnes cranked out the Top 40 smashes. Before I forget, the extended guitar solo at the end of "Loosely" by Jeff Carlisi became an air guitar (and eventually Guitar Hero) classic. After "Hold on Loosely" which was track 1, I usually played the good 'ol boy title cut and the surging Fantasy Girl. More help from the Survivor gang bolstered the songwriting a touch. My tolerance for Southern Rock was a lot less in my teenage years so I didn't play the rest of the record too much. I hadn't even heard "Freebird" until the 1990's!
Special Forces (1982)
In terms of album chronology, this is the first 38 disc I remember from start to finish. And with good reason, it's a killer record. I bought it off a classmate who was selling his tapes at $5.00 a pop, Special Forces was loaded with the groups first full out melodic rock effort. The Southern Rock influence was fading away though it was still palpable. Hooky classics like the Top 10 hit Caught Up in You flooded radio waves and made good use of the band's double drum set up (until 1989 the group maintained a two drummer staff of Steve Brookins and Jack Grondin). Barnes voice continued to be more emotive and commercial than Van Zant although the latter did resemble his brother visually and sonically. Even the more Southern edged tracks like the wicked awesome Chain Lightnin and the go for broke Take 'Em Out had been streamlined with anthem rock gusto. My personal favorite, "You Keep Runnin' Away", kicked ass with its edgy verse and rushing chorus. And who could forget that awesome album cover!
Tour De Force (1983)
Encouraged by their increasing success, 38 Special kicked even more Southern influence to the curb for my fave of their albums. Tour matched up winning melodies with well practiced Arena rock moves and a hint of Country to be as cleancut as a group of hairy beer drinking guys can be. If I'd Been The One and Back Where You Belong both hit the singles chart and provided popular videos to the MTV masses ("One" became a MTV staple with its slo mo horses running from a burning barn; "Belong" was my favorite because it had humor and a slight Hill Street Blues feel). I've covered this album in detail before, so I'll just say there isn't a bum track on this joint.
Teacher's Soundtrack (1984)
To contribute to the probably forgotten Ralph Macchio / Nick Nolte vehicle Teachers, 38 loaded up (you know I was waiting to use that phrase) an unrecorded Bryan Adams song. Adams said he was interested in writing a song where the title has a word that repeats as the start of Teacher Teacher. 38 Special rocked the hell out of this song, the twin drums have power and Don Barnes unleashes a wild guitar solo. I wore out the grooves on this 45.
Strength in Numbers (1986)
With such a hot streak going the first half of the decade, it was a shock that they would jump the shark while still in their prime. Strength in Numbers saw a change in Producers (Rodney Mills produced most of the albums before this, he had the smarts to keep some Southerness in) to Keith Olsen and an increased slickness in their sound. They even traded in their Cowboy hats and Urban Cowboy garb for moussed up hair and fancy coats. That's not to say Numbers is a bad record, its actually good. They hit the Top 20 singles chart again with Like No Other Night, another smooth midtempo rocker that bore strong resemblence to "Hold On Loosely" or "Back Where You Belong". The second single, Somebody Like You (one of my personal favorites) didn't do much and record sales declined. Too bad, I liked "There's Never Been A Good Goodbye" as well. In one of those things you had to see to believe, the record had "38" cut out on the front and a multicolored inner sleeve that filled in the blanks. It was the finishing touch, the visual representation of the last bit of Southern Rock influence drowned out by gaudy 80's neon.
Revenge of the Nerds 2 Soundtrack (1987)
Nothing says Big 80's like performing a synth heavy title track to a PG rated teen movie and 38 Special would not be denied. "Back to Paradise" was the best thing about this dud film sequel that played as a backdrop to some of my own car trips down Highway 1. Granted I wasn't as cool as the...uh...nerds - well, I think I've made my point. Good song.
Rock and Roll Strategy (1989)
Oh no! Oh no! Don Barnes is gone. I don't like change! Well what I like don't matter, Barnes was gone as well as Steve Brookins and maybe a few other people too. Max Carl became the main vocalist in Barnes place and the band changed their name to a spelled out Thirty Eight Special. In spite of the hopelessly dorky title song that I love, Rock and Roll Strategy put forth a 38 -no strike that, Thirty Eight that was much blander. Strong mainstream rock tracks like "Never Be Lonely" and "Hot 'Lanta" were fun. And the group scored their biggest pop hit, a #1 no less, with the Adult Contemporary ballad Second Chance. For a taste of what the rest of the tape sounded like, here's Love Strikes!
After that, I lost interest in Thirty 38 although they continued to record. Years later, Barnes would rejoin but still I just couldn't work up any excitement. 38 Special was a strong AOR band with Southern Rock leanings that I really enjoyed. Plus, it was fun to see the surprise on people's faces when they found out how much I dug these guys. One more bit of trivia, in addition to the Van Zant family connection 38 Special has another long running tie to Lynyrd Skynyrd: bassist Larry Junstrom was the bassist for Skynyrd but left before they became famous. 38 Special became Junstrom's "second chance" so to speak. Remember to Hold on Loosely, just don't let go.