50 Years on, Seger’s dirty secret still rocks
Half a century ago, Bob Seger was rock ‘n’ roll’s relentless Sisyphus, struggling to make a name for himself outside the Midwest, and Back in ‘72 was his latest run up the hill.
The Detroit hero had been making records under his own name since 1966 and had one big single (1968’s Top 20 “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”) and nothing even close to a hit album. He’d spent the last few years seemingly throwing everything he could think of at the wall to see what would stick. On his second album, Noah, he experimented with having somebody else sing lead (not his greatest idea). His fourth LP, Brand New Morning, was just him with his acoustic guitar and piano, possibly because that’s all he could afford to record. The next, 1972’s Smokin’ O.P.’s, was a covers album.
Running out of tricks, he hit on a fine idea for the follow-up. He decided to record at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with that studio’s wrecking crew, The Swampers. He lined up guitarists Pete Carr and Jimmy Johnson, keyboardist Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins, who had collectively played on way too many classic tracks to name, so just look it up.
The sessions were going great until they turned into the funkiest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm ever. Seger had reportedly been quoted the musicians’ fee per “side” and took that to mean album side, but in fact “side” was their lingo for “song.” The realization quickly arrived that there wasn’t a big enough budget to do the whole record with The Swampers, so the sessions were cut short, and the rest of the tracks were recorded with Seger’s regular band.
Though the big plan to fill the album with Muscle Shoals magic was partly foiled, it could have been a lot worse. Seger’s band did a bang-up job backing him on the bulk of what was released in January 1973 as Back in ‘72. But once again, Seger brought blood, sweat, and tears to the table (no, not the contemporaneous jazz-rock band) while remaining persona non grata on the charts.
As with a lot of his albums from this era, Seger has retrospectively expressed his dissatisfaction with Back in ‘72 and barred its reissue in any format. Apparently, it’s painful for him to hear his work from the period when he was still searching and hadn’t yet fully found the sound we regard as quintessential Seger today. But that decision has kept a lot of fans from soaking up some intensely soulful tracks for five decades.
It seems Seger wasn’t quite over the cover kick he was on with Smokin’ O.P.’s, because he included three more on this album, kicking the record off with a version of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” that pumps some Detroit muscle into the laid-back Southern rock anthem. He manages to give Free’s “The Stealer” a more feral bite than the original. And while nobody’s likely to outdo Van Morrison on the funky rumbler “I’ve Been Working,” Seger adds something of his own. When he sings “I’ve been grinding for so long” it’s easy to imagine him thinking of his long, hard climb up the rock-star ladder, which was still a few years from completion.
AUDIO: Bob Seger “I’ve Been Working”
“Turn the Page” would become a staple of Seger’s sets, especially after its inclusion on the blockbuster 1976 concert album Live Bullet. And if you’ve grown weary of that version’s ubiquity and melodrama, be advised that a song about dealing with endless crap on the road goes down a lot easier coming from 1972 Seger. “Rosalie” is a rocking tribute to Rosalie Trombley, the influential radio Music Director who was helping to spread the Seger gospel. The music choogles along agreeably, and if the lyrics are a little cringey, it’s at least nice to know there was an upside to Seger’s career grind at the time.
The title track is possibly the album’s peak. It’s partly another life-on-the-road plaint, but Seger puts some real grit behind his grumble. He also looks beyond his own situation, casting a wary glance at the period’s political scene. He singles out not only low-hanging fruit like Richard Nixon, but also Roman Gribbs, a hometown bête noire best remembered today as the reason Detroit didn’t have another white mayor after him for 40 years.
Seger still had a ways to go before the one-two punch of Night Moves and Live Bullet made him a coast-to-coast star in 1976. And you’ll probably never hear Back in ‘72 anywhere outside of YouTube if you aren’t among the lucky few with an original copy. But it stands up a lot better alongside the more celebrated sections of his legacy than that fact might lead you to believe.
AUDIO: Bob Seger “Back in ’72”
- Bob Seger Wants to Bury ‘Back in ‘72,’ But He’s Wrong - January 23, 2023
- How Eno Altered Reality On Before And After Science - December 27, 2022
- Ward White’s Ice Cream Chords: Movies That Melt in Your Ear - December 22, 2022