❉ A welcome chance to pick up some lesser known releases by one of southern rock’s greatest exponents.
“If you’re expecting absolute classic tracks like the still-sublime Freebird, then you’re going to come away disappointed. Ronnie Van Zandt was a genius with a melody, but lightning of that intensity rarely strikes twice. What you do get is very good southern rock and each album has highlights which make the price of admission one worth paying.”
Before we get to anything else, we need a quick history lesson. Lynyrd Skynyrd are a southern rock band, most famous for their 1970s hits Freebird and Sweet Home Alabama (and for a musical feud with Neil Young). While at the height of their fame in 1977, three days after releasing the album Street Survivors, they chartered a private plane to take the band from South Carolina to Louisiana. Near the end of the flight, the plane ran out of fuel and was forced to crash land in a field, killing lead singer Ronnie van Zandt, lead guitarist Steve Gaines, and several others, as well as seriously injuring the rest of the band. With the band clearly no longer viable, the survivors went their separate ways and it seemed Lynyrd Skynyrd was finished.
Fast forward a decade – and in 1987, on the tenth anniversary of the fatal crash, five surviving members of the band got together with Van Zandt’s brother Johnny on vocals for a tribute/reunion tour culminating in the double live album Southern by the Grace of God. Intended as a one-off affair, the musicians found that they enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to continue touring and recording.
Which is where this new clamshell release from Cherry Red comes in. Collecting the first two albums of the reunited line-up (Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 and The Last Rebel) and the (so far) final two albums (and one EP) released under the Skynyrd name in 2009 and 2012, respectively, Nothing Comes Easy is a welcome chance to pick up some lesser known releases by some of southern rock’s greatest exponents.
So much for the history. What about the music? Well, what you get out of it depends to a fair extent on your expectations. If you’re expecting another (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), full of absolute classic tracks like Gimme Three Steps, Tuesday’s Gone, Simple Man and the still sublime Freebird, then you’re going to come away disappointed. But you’ll come away disappointed from 99.9% of every record you ever listen to, if that’s the height of the bar you’re setting. Ronnie Van Zandt was a genius with a melody, simple as that, and though several of the original songwriters from that debut album also contribute to these albums, lightning of that intensity rarely strikes twice.
What you do get, especially from the first two albums, is solid, often very good, southern rock. Johnny Van Zandt can sing, Gary Rossington and Ed King can still play and the band as a whole are tight as a drum. Each album has highlights which make the price of admission one worth paying but look out in particular for the twin punch of Best Thing in Life and The Last Rebel on the album of the same name, where Van Zandt’s vocal is especially impressive.
By the time it came to record Gods and Guns in 2009, Ed King, Artemis Pyle and Allan Collins from the pre-crash line-up were no longer involved with the band, and the sound had changed to something more generically rock, with much more of a debt to Bon Jovi than Southern Boogie. I suspect that Gary Rossington and Van Zandt must have recognised this, with Southern Ways on Gods and Guns very explicitly calling back to the classic line-up both lyrically and musically.
Elsewhere on that album – as the title hints pretty strongly, to be fair – it’s lyrically strongly political and patriotic, and musically even wanders into country territory on the title track and Gifted Hands. Nothing wrong with that, of course – Ronnie Van Zandt wasn’t afraid of sticking up for his homeland either, and it does give the album a real identity which would otherwise be missing. The collection is rounded off with Skynyrd’s final (to date) album, Last of the Dyin’ Breed – it’s similar lyrically to Gods and Guns, but with more of a hard rock edge and less of a country influence.
The boxset contains a cluster of bonus live tracks, including renditions of Sweet Home Alabama and Gimme Three Steps – though fans will be delighted to hear these, their inclusion does the rest a minor dis-service: hearing those familiar, fantastic songs belting out alongside the latest tracks does rather emphasise that the current lineup is a solid and professional rock band, with a more than decent singer, but also that they’ve moved quite a distance from the original Skynyrd sound.
Lynyrd Skynyrd remain hugely popular, and announced a 30 month farewell world tour in mid-2018 (as well as headlining their own southern rock cruise). For fans of the original lineup and of hard rock in general, the current version of the band is worth a listen – just don’t go in expecting Freebird.
❉ Lynyrd Skynyrd: ‘Nothing Comes Easy 1991-2012’ 5CD Clamshell Box Set (HNE Recordings QHNEBOX147) was released 26 February 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £23.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas