The Blasters' new "Hardline" album is a finely crafted, deeply affecting blend of classic American rock and clear-eyed observation of working-class alienation.
That description could also apply to the Blasters' previous album, "Non Fiction." Both records offer sharply honed tales of lost dreams and soured aspirations. The difference? "Hardline" features brighter and more tailored arrangements that give the LP far greater accessibility.
Despite the enormous critical acclaim for independent Los Angeles rock bands like X and the Blasters in recent years, both groups have faced a crucial commercial and artistic challenge. They relied on intense, take-it-or-leave-it approaches that struck the average rock fan and radio programmer as unacceptably agitated.
The challenge was to make their sound more palatable for mainstream listeners without compromising their musical integrity. Some hard-core bands reject that alternative on the grounds that any tampering is a compromise. But X demonstrated in last year's playful, heavy-metal version of the Troggs' old "Wild Thing" that it is willing to at least consider some modern pop rapprochement.
Where the "Wild Thing" single sounded like little more than a Joan Jett B-side, the Blasters make a major advance that could open the door to the mass acceptance that's long been predicted for the Los Angeles quintet.
But the most important factor in making "Hardline" a hit may be something that occurred independently of the Blasters: the recent success of two other classic American rockers, Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty.
With both Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and Fogerty's "Centerfield" in the national Top 5, record executives and radio programmers must finally have gotten the message: There is a place once again for serious, purposeful American rock 'n' roll. That's what the Blasters have been maintaining since 1979.
The Blasters, who'll open for the Kinks on Thursday night at the Sports Arena, are a great Los Angeles rock band that has had a hard time convincing the L.A. music Establishment--much less the rest of the country--of that fact.
When the group surfaced on the local club scene in the late '70s, executives at major record companies and key talent agencies were skeptical. The band's emphasis on rock's country and blues roots may have worked a decade ago for Creedence Clearwater Revival, but this was the modern age. Where was the synthesizer? Where was the gimmick?
Slash Records, the independent L.A. label that also launched X and Los Lobos, took a chance on the Blasters in 1981, releasing an album that captured so well the purity of early rock that it became a critics' favorite around the country. The band became one of the biggest draws around town, and one song, the bluesy "I'm Shakin'," got considerable local radio air play, helping push the LP to the 60,000 sales mark.
Sensing a breakthrough, Warner Bros. Records signed a distribution deal with Slash and threw the larger label's promotional muscle behind the Blasters album. But the local sales and radio enthusiasm weren't matched across the country. Sales stopped after another 60,000.
The industry reaction around town: We told you so. No one wants to hear that traditional rock 'n' roll anymore.
Regrouping, the Blasters returned in 1983 with "Non Fiction," which offered such a gripping look at social and psychological unrest in the Reagan years that it was compared favorably to Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska."
But "Non Fiction" sank without a trace. It was hard to find the album in the stores and even harder to hear it on radio. Warner Bros. must have sensed the album was a lost cause from the beginning because there were almost no ads or other evidence of even a token promotional campaign.
The industry reaction after "Non Fiction": We told you so. No one wants to deal with serious matters in pop anymore. ("Nebraska" didn't help matters. It was by far Springsteen's weakest-selling album.)
But the greater accessibility of "Hardline" and the success of Fogerty, Springsteen and Slash stablemate Los Lobos changed the odds this time. Warner Bros., fresh from its phenomenal success with Fogerty, is apparently ready to back the new album strongly.
Guitarist Dave Alvin, who writes the Blasters' songs, was discouraged by the weak commercial showing of "Non Fiction."
Sitting in an informal West Hollywood restaurant with drummer Bill Bateman, Alvin said: "The first thing you do is try to figure out why the album didn't do better, and the natural thing if you're the writer in the band is to think it's the songs.
"So my reaction was: 'I screwed up. I can't write songs--or, at least, I can't write songs for the '80s. Maybe I belong in the '90s or the '50s.' As a result, I didn't even write for months."
Bateman and the other members of the Blasters (singer Phil Alvin, bassist John Bazz and pianist Gene Taylor) searched elsewhere for an answer to the sales problem.
"I sat down and listened to the albums and I didn't hear anything wrong with the songs, but I did come away with a feeling that the Blasters shouldn't produce themselves," Bateman explained. "In the early records, the band's philosophy was let everybody do what they wanted to do in the studio.
"We'd go, 'one, two, three,' and everyone would go their own way on the track. Now, we realize that it's OK to discuss ideas and decide on what works best for the song. We don't have to have drums on some of them or a piano and horn solo on every one. There is room to breathe."
The Blasters went into the studio this time with producer Jeff Eyrich, who has produced albums for the Plimsouls and Rank and File. Two of the 10 tracks, however, were produced by Don Gehman, who works in the studio with John Cougar Mellencamp. Mellencamp himself contributed a song, "Colored Lights," which will be the first single from the album.
Everyone benefits from the added discipline. Phil Alvin, a commanding singer, was able to assert himself over the full-throttle assault on the Blasters' old records, but he sounds far more comfortable in this controlled setting. The other members of the band also play with a greater sense of punctuation and shading.
Like Springsteen's recent work, Dave Alvin's songs move away from youthful anthems about Life's Big Moments to deeper and more intimate portraits of smaller but more universal--and sometimes desperate-- ones.
There's a tendency to equate hard times only with economic downturns, but hard times are a way of life for millions of people, and this is the territory that records like "Born in the U.S.A." and "Hardline" explore. These aren't autobiographical tales, but rich psychological studies designed to convey strong moods.
Beneath the stylistic salute to Elvis and rockabilly, "Trouble Bound" tells about a man who haunts the bars, looking for any escape from his tensions.
There's a demon deep inside of me
Sometimes I let the old boy run free
Trying to make a living during the day
Deep in the night I throw it all away
"Just Another Sunday" is about despair. Co-written by Alvin and X's John Doe, the song is set in a small-town motel, where someone sits alone with his anguish.
Maybe I'll go for a ride out in the hills
A 110 across the hot farm land. . . .
Maybe I'll just stay here where I am
This small room it seems to understand
Other songs range from social commentary (the racism outlined in "Dark Night" and the political apathy in "Common Man") to reflections on romantic anxieties.
The album's closing song, "Rock and Roll Will Stand," also has its cynical side. It contrasts the new kid in town who is courted by the star-making machinery with the veteran musician who never made it but is still hanging on to his dreams. After he gets off his day job, he heads out to play at a nightspot on the edge of town.
Despite Alvin's cynicism about the star-making process, he has obvious affection for that musician who loves the music so much that he is still playing it, even though the chances are he'll never even be able to make enough to quit his day job. It's that passion that will make rock 'n' roll stand, not the trendy bands that pump millions into the rock machinery but sap the music from its heart.
The veteran musician may not have made it to higher ground because he never got the right break or because he simply wasn't good enough. As long as that caring spirit is alive, however, there's a chance someone else may come along with the talent to put those pieces together. That's what the Blasters have done in "Hardline."
Summarized Alvin: "Everything's real encouraging when I think of the bands that two years ago were having hit records and aren't even around anymore. But X, the Blasters and the Circle Jerks--these certain kinds of bands--are still here. We connected with our audience, and they support us. That's when I knew we were doing something right. You can see in their faces what you don't see in the charts."