Bob Seger Never Left — But He’s Back
Bob Seger is a bona fide rock & roll legend. With more than 50 million albums sold and seats at the table at both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Detroit musician’s impact on popular music from the Golden Age of rock is certainly secure. But it wasn’t always that way.
During the 1970s, Bob Seger appeared to be just another one-hit wonder in the already long history of rock music. He’d had a handful of near misses, but mostly the bands he’d been associated with — Doug Brown and the Omens, the Beach Bums and the Last Heard — were long forgotten. In January 1969, Seger had gone Top 20 with the song “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” but, unable to repeat that success, he flirted with the idea of college.
Restless, though, Seger soon returned to the music business and built a reputation as a formidable live performer — first locally in Michigan and then regionally, finally becoming one of the premiere rock acts during the legendary heyday of 1970s live shows. Eventually, with Live Bullet, Seger and his Silver Bullet Band cracked the Top 40 in the summer of 1976. But having made that breakthrough, Seger now had to prove himself.
He did it with “Night Moves.”
“I knew it could be what we call a career song, a song that sets an artist up for years to come, but it was different [from] anything else we’d done,” the typically humble Seger told Blender in 2004.
He was right, though. “Night Moves” went on to become Seger’s signature song and the bedrock of a long and fruitful career.
Now he’s back with I Knew You When, full of the instant-classic, hook-laden, soul-infused good-time rock & roll that Seger practically invented. Opener “Gracile,” plus “The Highway,” “The Sea Inside” and “Runaway Train,” rock with a fire reminiscent of Seger’s early days, while Lou Reed cover “Busload of Faith” and Leonard Cohen cover “Democracy,” along with “Forward into the Past” and “Blue Ridge” are blues-tinged workouts with all the trademarks that only Seger can deliver.
But it’s the ballads, of course, that are the real draw here. The title track, “I’ll Remember You,” along with “Marie,” “Something More” and closer “Glenn Song,” written for the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, are majestic and memorable, with all the warmth of Seger’s best.
Best of all, Seger has something to say. While maybe not as active as in his mid-1970s to ‘80s heyday, he’s still reporting on the world around him, as he sees it — while also reflecting back on where he’s been and looking hard at where the world is headed.
Of course, Seger has long been a holdout when it comes to streaming his formidable catalogue. That’s all changed. Thirteen classic Bob Seger album are now available on TIDAL, and are proof that his songs — best experienced in the full album experience, according to Seger — are as powerful as ever, and that Seger’s unique blend of barroom rock & roll, soul, country, R&B and blues are as distinctive as they’ve always been.
Of course it all began with Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, by the Bob Seger System, released in 1969. While the title track would reach No. 17 on the Billboard charts, it was hardly a harbinger of things to come. In fact, Seger would not reach the Top 40 again until eight years later.
“A lot of that stuff sounds like punk rock now!” Seger told Mojo Magazine in 1995 of his ’69 release, and he’s right. The songs are punchy, raw, and full of energy. But you can still hear the makings of a legend in Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, on both the title track and the equally scorching “2+2=?” with Seger’s powerful voice the real showcase.
After some false starts, and artistic soul searching, Beautiful Loser followed in the footsteps of Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man in 1975. Credited to a solo Bob Seger, it was a huge artistic leap for the man who would soon be a household name. And after years of relentless touring, Seger’s loyal following — especially in his home state of Michigan, as well as pockets of loyal support in other parts of the country — scooped up the album. Featuring the elegiac title track, plus “Katmandu,” “Travelin’ Man” and a cover of Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits,” Seger had clearly pushed himself in the studio. And with half of the album recorded with the fabled Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and the other half with his own Silver Bullet Band, it created the perfect combination of studio proficiency and live feel that would mark Seger’s albums for decades to come.
Live Bullet, finally credited to Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, was the album that really put Bob Seger on the map. Released in 1976, it was built around a set list that cherry-picked the best songs from Seger’s already decade-long career, including “Turn the Page,” a medley of “Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser,” “Katmandu,” “Heavy Music” and the already celebrated showstopper “Let it Rock.” Recorded at Detroit’s fabled Cobo Hall in September 1975, it was raw, high-octane rock & roll — although it was also largely ignored by the record-buying public until critics and Seger’s small but growing fanbase of diehard followers got behind it in a big way.
Seger and his band had been playing nearly every night all across the United States for years by the time of Live Bullet, and the results are undeniable. Although still considered a regional phenomenon at the time of the album’s release, Live Bullet was proof positive that, even in the days when competition like the Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin toured constantly, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band were a band you had to see. As a result, the album became one of the must-have discs of 1976 and, even without a single, it went platinum many times over.
Night Moves, also released in 1976, was next, and it made Bob Seger a star. The decade of relentless roadwork that Seger and his band had by that time logged had made them formidable, both onstage and in the studio. And Seger was also taking the craft of songwriting more seriously than ever. The now-legendary title track was everything any songwriter could hope for — yearning, soulful and universal — and marked the end of a long absence by Seger from the charts.
In fact, the success of the song was so remarkable and unexpected that Seger was hailed as the latest overnight success by many unfamiliar with him. As he’s said many times, Seger and the Silver Bullet Band “went from vans to planes” practically overnight as the album became a chart-topping success. Over time the album would spawn a clutch of hit songs and rock radio favorites, including the title track, the plaintive “Mainstreet,” and the barnburners “Rock & Roll Never Forgets” and “The Fire Down Below,” as well as “Sunspot Baby.”
By the time of the followup to Night Moves, Seger was a household name. And Stranger in Town, released in 1978, didn’t disappoint those legions of fans. Featuring some of Seger’s best writing, and performances by the Silver Bullet Band that are nuanced and powerful, the album would go on to sell more than six million albums, with undeniably strong songs like “Old Time Rock & Roll,” “Hollywood Nights,” “We’ve Got Tonite,” “Still the Same” and “Feel Like a Number” that have proved timeless and still form the backbone of the classic rock genre.
The album marked Seger as an artist that was here to stay, with “We’ve Got Tonight” becoming Seger’s most covered song, with renditions by artists from multiple genres and generations, including Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton, Ronan Keating and Lulu, the Glee cast, Phillip Phillips and many others, and “Old Time Rock & Roll” becoming the anthem of rock & roll fans put off by the emergence of disco. (Later, of course, it would reach another generation of fans via the famous scene in the 1983 film Risky Business when star Tom Cruise, clad in a dress shirt, underwear and socks, danced to it — with great abandon.)
It almost felt as though Seger’s run of songwriting gold couldn’t continue when he returned in 1980 with Against the Wind. But with songs like the gorgeous title track, “You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” “Her Strut,” “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” and “The Horizontal Bop,” and backing vocals on “Against The Wind” and the equally majestic “Fire Lake” from Seger’s pals the Eagles, it became Seger’s first and only No. 1 album.
Nine Tonight, a live album recorded at blistering shows in Boston and Detroit, followed, featuring superb live renditions of some of Seger’s best, recent songs, including “Feel Like a Number,” “Old Time Rock & Roll,” “Night Moves” and “Against The Wind,” and a cover of Otis Clay’s classic “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You,” which became a Top Five hit.
For his next studio album, 1982’s The Distance, Seger would enlist Jimmy Iovine, fresh off his career-defining work with Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks, to produce. Although it didn’t scale the artistic heights of Seger’s recent work, it included “Shame on the Moon,” a song written by Rodney Crowell, which would peak at No. 2 on the charts, and “Roll Me Away,” which would become a biker anthem and live show favorite, as well as “Even Now” and “Makin’ Thunderbirds,” marking some of Seger’s best, most remarkable songwriting to date.
Like a Rock, from 1986, the seventh in a run of albums credited to Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band now available on TIDAL, came next. Featuring “American Storm” and a stellar live version of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” it was, of course, the title track that would solidify Bob Seger’s place as a rock & roll legend after it was used in 1991 by Chevrolet to advertise its trucks —in a campaign that was planned to last for three to six months but ended up running for a remarkable thirteen years.
It would be five years before Seger would return, but, for fans, The Fire Inside, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s 1991 album, was worth the wait. Ace producer Don Was helped Seger achieve yet another platinum album, with the stellar title track and “The Real Love” hitting the charts. While fans were disappointed that there was no tour to support the release — an unusual circumstance for a live legend such as Seger, to be sure — the album’s classic production and as always strong songwriting more than made up for their disappointment.
Greatest hits packages would follow, as would regular tours to jam-packed arenas of adoring fans, but when word broke earlier this year that Seger’s long-gestating album I Knew You When would soon be released, fans both young and old rejoiced. And well they should have. On his eighteenth studio album, Seger proves himself once again to be the consummate craftsman, delivering songs just as majestic and timeless as ever, for rock & roll fans of all ages and across all spectrums of the America.
Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He contributed the essay “Sgt. Pepper In America” to the recent 50th anniversary reissue of The Beatles’ 1967 album, has written intimate portraits of The Beatles as a group and as solo artists, and about many other rock legends, for publications like Esquire, Rolling Stone and the fanzine Beatlefan, and is a go-to expert for many Beatles-related radio shows. Jeff has appeared at Beatles events and conventions in New York and Liverpool and is a well-known collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and The Beatles.
(Photo credit: Clay Patrick McBride)
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