Although Ursa Major’s self-titled LP flopped and the band broke-up, Wagner developed a friendship with their young producer and Ezrin – fresh off a hit with Alice Cooper’s School’s Out album – would use Wagner as his secret weapon in the studio. The guitarist would record and tour with Cooper throughout his initial solo years and well into the 1980s, writing hits like “Only Women Bleed” and “I Never Cry.” Ezrin partnered Wagner and fellow Detroit guitarist Steve Hunter with Lou Reed, the pair bringing lightning to the Hall of Famer’s Berlin and thunder to Rock N’ Roll Animal. Wagner would later play on sessions (and hits) by Etta James, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, and Kiss (playing acoustic guitar on “Beth”). It was the dueling guitars of Wagner and Hunter that set fire to Aerosmith’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” from the band’s Get Your Wings.
Dick Wagner’s Solo Debut Album
Given their friendship and strong working relationship, it was only natural that Ezrin would produce Wagner’s 1978 solo debut album. Both men pulled names from their extensive Rolodexes, lining up a talented studio band for the project that included guitarists Steve Hunter and Domenic Trioano (from the James Gang); bassists Prakash John (Parliament/Funkadelic) and Bob Babbitt; and drummers Whitey Glan and Allan Schwartzberg. Considering Wagner’s hard rock credentials, his solo debut comes across – at first blush – as a relatively lightweight affair…kind of like a boxer dropping pounds to punch down in a lower weight class. That doesn’t make it a bad album, just an unexpected cruiserweight effort, with a greater reliance on melody and songcraft than previous, which would serve Wagner’s songwriting efforts well in the future.
The album opens with a cover of Andy Pratt’s elegant “Some Things Go On Forever,” a piano-driven ballad that manages to channel a bit of the old Ursa Major magic nonetheless with intertwined guitars and beefy rhythms. “Don’t Stop The Music” is a similar construct, albeit a Wagner original, and it treads awfully close to Gary Wright/“Dreamweaver” turf with a chiffon arrangement, ethereal instrumentation, floating vocals, and Ernie Watt’s wired jazz-funk sax solo playing off of Wagner’s soulful fretwork. The song itself is an ode to rock ‘n’ roll and the DJs playing it on the radio, lyrically wrapped with a bow and concealing a deceptive romantic undercurrent.
Go Down Together
Lyrically, “Nightwork” echoes Wagner’s late-career return to the blues, the song a hard-luck tale turned smooth R&B romp with sultry backing vocals and subtle horn flourishes. It’s Wagner’s fluid guitarplay that stands out, though, driving the performance into a more soulful corner, the guitarist mixing scraps of Ernie Isley, George Benson, and Sly Stone in creating his own bluesy, funky contemporary edge. By contrast, “Heartlands” comes across as a country-flavored, Segeresque symphony with acoustic git pickin’ and a folkish lyrical slant with Wagner’s plaintive vocals up front and high in the mix, wearing his sentiment on his sleeve before the entire band kicks in and swerves the entire affair into the melancholy-tinged “Oceans.”
With a little louder guitars and a tougher arrangement, I could easily see “Oceans” as an Ursa Major jam. It’s more nuanced here, though, with swelling, lush instrumentation; obligatory whale cries in the background (it was the late 1970s, after all…); and some prog-rock styled playing that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Pink Floyd album. “Go Down Together” is the album’s foot-stomper, Wagner’s opening solo knocking down anything “Terrible” Ted tried to do during the decade. An up-tempo six-string rocker with honky-tonk piano, strident rhythms, and sizzling fretwork, it’s one of Wagner’s finest rock ‘n’ roll moments with a great storyline and an overall vibe that could have made it a big hit if FM radio hadn’t gone all wussy and corporate by ’78.
Motor City Showdown
Swerving the listener once again, “Small Town Boy” is nifty lil’ slice of pop-rock fluff with island rhythms not all that far, aesthetically, from Pablo Cruise or, better, Jay Ferguson’s “Thunder Island,” about as radio-friendly a tune as you’d find in the era. Wagner takes his cue from Nashville with the country-rock tune “Hand Me Down Heartaches,” a lovely melody surrounding finely-crafted lyrics and backed by the slightest of twangy instrumentation that works mostly because of Wagner’s earnest, emotionally-charged vocals. It’s a song ripe for rediscovery by a Music Row establishment hungry for new material.
Wagner closes his solo debut with the grandiloquent “Motor City Showdown,” a street-savvy medium-tempo soft-rocker just a step away from Jim Steinman with its swells of orchestration surrounding and coddling Wagner’s oblique ‘Sharks vs. Jets’ story-song lyrics. It’s a strange but effective song to end the album with, veering dangerously close to the prog-rock edge in its ambition but with an undeniable singer/songwriter veneer lying close to the surface. It’s a gorgeous performance, and the musicians imbue it with a sort of majesty and grandeur that’s out-of-sync with contemporary rock sounds (circa 1978). Appropriately, Wagner’s searing guitar solo is threaded through the outro, ending the album with a quiet dignity.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
As a major fan of Wagner and his late 1960s/early 1970s bands Frost and Ursa Major, as well as his sideman work, I still somehow missed hearing this album when it was first released. I might have been surprised at the time if I had heard it at the time; and maybe only a little less so in hearing it now, given its ambitious performances and the often lush arrangements provided Wagner’s frequent power ballads. The album sold poorly in spite of the guitarist’s reputation – a reality ascribed to Atlantic Records’ enormous blunder of naming the disc Richard Wagner (rather than Dick Wagner, the name by which he performed), which allegedly confused record stores into stocking it in the classical music section. With this long-overdue reissue, Real Gone Music has corrected this mistake and re-titled the album Dick Wagner.
Decidedly less blustery than much of Wagner’s earlier band work, his never less than stellar guitar playing provides the steely muscle rippling beneath the surface of many of the album’s songs. Dick Wagner is definitely an album of its time, and yet also curiously out-of-step with late ‘70s trends in rock music, which just further spotlights Wagner’s unique vision and talents. If you’re not expecting the second coming of Frost or a sequel to Rock N Roll Animal, you’ll find a lot to like among the lofty pop-rock tunes to be found on Dick Wagner. Grade: B (Real Gone Music, released November 4, 2014)
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