They Never Dreamed: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors at 45

Reflections on the band’s classic ill-fated 1977 LP

Street Survivors ad (Image: eBay)

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors, which turns 45 today, is sadly inseparable from the tragedy which took place three days after its release.

It’s well-known rock lore. One week into a tour, the band was flying from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge in a plane that Aerosmith rejected for the Draw the Line tour. It was intended to be the band’s last flight in the plane, as they were going to switch to a Learjet in Louisiana for the rest of the tour.

The pilots, who hadn’t made sure the plane was properly fueled, couldn’t get to a safe spot to land before it crashed into trees just short of an open field they were aiming for. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines were killed, along with the pilots and the band’s assistant road manager.

While the rest of the band survived, they all suffered serious injuries. That, on top of Van Zant’s death, meant the end of Skynyrd for 10 years.

The crash cut short what had promised to be the band’s best lineup yet. Guitarist Ed King had grown tired of touring life as Skynyrd did it. After one skirmish with Van Zant too many, he quit the band during a 1975 tour.

After initially continuing with just their two remaining guitarists — Gary Rossington and Allen Collins — backing singer Cassie Gaines got them to give her brother Steve a shot. Initially reluctant, they were quickly won over by his talent, with Van Zant later saying, “One day, we’ll all be in Steve Gaines’ shadow.”

Gaines first appeared on their 1976 live album One More For the Road. Street Survivors, recorded in spring and early summer the following year, would mark his Skynyrd studio debut.

Lynyrd Skynyrd Street Survivors, MCA Records 1977

“You Got That Right” showed off his presence, as he traded vocals with Van Zant, who he co-wrote the song with. There’s a real joy in the tight playing, between the solos and Billy Powell’s piano work. It also comes through in the defiant vocals (“You won’t see me in an old folks home!”).

“What’s Your Name” is an ode to enjoying the temptations of female companionship on the road. Skynyrd may have also been an American band, but they were way more nimble than Grand Funk. They also came across a lot less predatory than the Stones did on “Stray Cat Blues”, for that matter.

Street Survivors is generally light in tone and the only retrospective foreshadowing is on the bluntly honest “That Smell” (which nicked “All Along the Watchtower” musically). But even that can be related more to events years later.

The song, with music by Collins and lyrics by Van Zant, was inspired by a car crash Rossington had one night while high (“oak tree you’re in my way”) and about other people the band knew with drug problems.

Rossington got lucky that day, as the passenger side of his took the brunt of the damage. Collins, whose addiction was exaerbated by the 1980 death of his wife Kathy due to miscarriage complications, wasn’t able to heed the warnings of his own co-write. On January 29, 1986, an intoxicated Collins, driving on a suspended license, lost control in Jacksonville. The accident claimed the life of his girlfriend Debra Jean Watts and left Collins permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The paralysis led to numerous health problems and he died from pneumonia almost four years later.

For an album with its fair share of blues and boogie, Street Survivors stays light on its feet, never becoming leaden. It turned out that the band’s live engineer, Kevin Elson, had been on to something when he heard the original version of the album, recorded in Miami with Tom Dowd, and told the band, “If you release this album, your career’s over.”

The 2008 deluxe reissue showed Elson and Gaines (who agreed with him) were on to something. Skynyrd went to Atlanta to re-record some material, make tweaks elsewhere and rearrange the album overall. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the originals, but they do sound like demos compared to the livelier version that was released.

Changes also improved the tracklist. “I Know a Little” and “One More Time” were added. Instead of Van Vant’s “Jacksonville Kid”, a rewrite of Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man”, the band just covered the original. “Georgia Peaches” and “Sweet Little Missy” were also dropped.

“I Know a Little” was a wise addition. Its jazzy western swing sounds playful, an amusing juxtaposition to its subject matter (basically “Hey! I know you’re cheating on me”).

“One More Time” dated back to some of the band’s earliest sessions. It’s as Allman-like as Skynyrd ever sounded, which isn’t a complaint. And the similarities are understandable given the mutual musical influences of the two bands and how close they were in age and geography.

“Honky Tonk Night Time Man” is energetically performed and shows that Van Zant certainly could have had a career in country music had he chosen that path. It gets lost with his personality, but his vocal skills, handling ballads and rockers with equal aplomb, were crucial to his success as a frontman. He also threw in little touches, like the way he drawls “stick those needles in your arm” in “That Smell.”

Van Zant certainly had a bit of a reputation of being a man who liked a drink and could wind up engaging in fisticuffs or other stereotypical rock bad boy behavior if he’d consumed enough beverages. But he was starting to calm down, especially after the birth of his second child in 1976. 

The calmer Van Zant appears on “I Never Dreamed” which, if not the longest song on the album (which was “That Smell”), is the jammiest. Built off strong acoustic underpinnings, it captures that moment of sad apology right before the pain really sinks in.

Skynyrd was never lacking in the guitar department. Collins and Rossington both had chops and played off each other well. King, who was something of an “old pro” having been in Strawberry Alarm Clark before, was no slouch either (that riff to open “Sweet Home Alabama” alone).

Gaines might have been the best of the bunch and meshed with Rossington and Collins as well as King had. Check out the footage from the band’s legendary 1976 set opening for the Rolling Stones in Knebworth for examples of how it was taking shape even before Street Survivors.

The band was established critically and commercially at that point, but there was no hazing the new guy. He even got lead vocals on the last song, the bluesy and loose “Ain’t No Good Life.”

Some Street Survivors material had been getting a good response during its appearances on the Gimme Back My Bullets tour, which ended in August, 1977.

Instead of even more positive response, the band was gone.

After the crash, MCA changed the cover art on Street Survivors, wanting to be respectful to the families of the deceased. Originally, it featured the band standing on a street, with flames behind them. The original copies of the album were pulled, replaced by the photo of the band members put in front of an all black background.

Alternate Street Survivors cover art (Image: Discogs)

The original cover had been the subject of an easily debunked myth that only the band members killed in the crash were touched by flames on the cover. And for that matter, it wasn’t a fiery crash, as there was no fuel left to burn.

As impossible as it is to separate Street Survivors from the tragedy that came right after its release, the album demands that one at least try.

As a whole, Street Survivors was Skynyrd’s best album since their opening one-two punch of (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) and Second Helping. The writing and performances were outstanding. And for an established band, the addition of Steve Gaines was one that showed promise for the future.

Fans did get a second version of Skynyrd, starting in 1987. That lineup feature four crash survivors in Powell, drummer Artimus Pyle, Rossington and bassist Leon Wilkeson. King returned. Ronnie’s brother’s Johnny Van Zant took over as lead singer. Collins served as musical director initially. He also did charity work and came out onstage at each show, while he could, to speak briefly about the bad decisions that put him in a wheelchair and took another person’s life.

Skynyrd 2.0, despite scattered moments that clicked, never approached the original, due in no small part to the absence of Ronnie, the superior Van Zant brother as a writer and singer. The Skynyrd capable of the anti-gun “Saturday Night Special” in 1975 gave way to the one who gave the world the unintentional parody of 2009’s”God and Guns.”

That’s not to say the original Skynyrd was always a bastion of progressivism. The claims that MCA foisted the use of Confederate flag iconography on them have more than a whiff of revisionist history.

There was also revisionist history the other way, as King would later say “Sweet Home Alabama” was meant to be supportive of George Wallace. That’s in opposition to what Ronnie Van Zant, who had been dead for over 30 years and couldn’t rebut King, had said in the ’70s.

While Skynyrd has basically become its own tribute act (Rossington’s the only initial era member left), we still have that initial run of five albums with Ronnie up front.

We’re left with Street Survivors, sadly the only snapshot we have in the studio from the Steve Gaines era. It wasn’t intended as such, but it’s a standout farewell from the best iteration of the band, the one where subtlety was still possible and the future still felt so bright.

 

 

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