Friday, August 6, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School (1980)

Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School
Facing the new decade, the legendary Warren Zevon had a tough act to follow…his third album, 1978’s Excitable Boy, had yielded a Top 30 hit in “Werewolves of London,” an enduring classic of ‘70s rock that has since appeared in numerous movies and been covered by bands like the Grateful Dead and the Flamin’ Groovies, among others. The chart success of the song (peaking at #21) fueled sales of the album, pushing it into the Top 10 (to #8) and almost-immediate Gold™ Record status for over half-a-million platters sold. Other songs from Excitable Boy – “Lawyers, Guns & Money,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Johnny Strikes Up the Band,” and the enthusiastic title track – established Zevon as an intelligent and erudite, if quirky songwriter and vocalist possessing a way with words and a taste for the macabre.

Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School

Released in February 1980, Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School was an appropriate, if slightly less commercially-successful, follow-up to Excitable Boy. From the album title to the material contained herein, Zevon’s whipsmart lyrics and dark humor dominate over an all-star cast of musicians that included longtime collaborator Jorge Calderón; multi-instrumental talent David Lindley; guitarists Jackson Browne, Waddy Wachtel, and Joe Walsh; singer Linda Ronstadt; and members of the Eagles. The album features six original Zevon songs (plus two instrumental “interludes”) alongside a single cover song and co-writes with Calderón, T-Bone Burnett (who had toured with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue), and another rising rock ‘n’ roll star, Bruce Springsteen.

At the time of its release, critics were rather lukewarm on Bad Luck Streak, with Robert Christgau giving the album a rare B- grade (most of Zevon’s albums rated As). Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, critic Jay Cocks was complimentary overall, but most reviewers were seemingly confused by Zevon’s oddball songs and poignant glimpses into his own humanity. The album has since found kindness in reappraisal, with All Music Guide’s Mark Deming writing in 2015, “the album’s rockers hit harder and cut deeper than any of his previous work,” concluding that “while Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School didn’t quite return Zevon to the top of his game, it made clear that the quality of Warren Zevon was no fluke, and is a stronger effort than Excitable Boy in nearly every respect.”

I have to agree with Deming…Bad Luck Streak is overall a strong creative effort, an album that builds upon the strengths of its predecessor while inching, albeit slowly, onto new creative ground. Co-produced by Zevon and Greg Ladanyi (who’d worked with Browne and Fleetwood Mac), the pair perfectly capture the talents of the assorted instrumentalists while still placing an emphasis on Zevon’s strong, evocative vocals and poetic lyrics. The album-opening title track is a bit of a bawdy throw-away (“dancing school” a longtime euphemism for a brothel), but the song’s fierce fretwork and introductory orchestral flourishes point towards Zevon’s symphonic ambitions. An inspired cover of Ernie K-Doe’s 1961 hit “A Certain Girl” skews closer to the Yardbirds’ 1964 version than the New Orleans R&B of the original, but Zevon’s call-and-response vocals, backed by a chaotic instrumental soundtrack, provided the singer with his second charting hit single.
Bad Luck Streak picks up steam with the muscular ode to mercenary soldiers, “Jungle Work,” which features strident vocals, iron-pumping percussion, and Joe Walsh’s jagged guitar licks. The grand ballad “Empty-Handed Heart” (featuring a verse sung by Ronstadt) was written for Zevon’s impending divorce and reveals a sliver of the singer’s inner turmoil. “Bed of Coals” and “Wild Age” are of a similar thread, the former a lovely piano-driven ballad and the latter a more mid-tempo tune with a melodic groove; both songs delve inward, lyrically, as Zevon attempts to face up to his shortcomings with self-reflection, the emotion supported by Lindley’s wiry yet nuanced fretwork.

Play It All Night Long

At the core of Bad Luck Streak are the three songs that anchor the album and save it, perhaps, from melancholy and maudlin sentiment. “Play It All Night Long” is a dark-hued caricature of life in the deep south that cleverly references Lynyrd Skynyrd while revealing the lie behind the glorification of the Southern lifestyle. With barbed lyrics that address poverty, racism, and substance abuse, Zevon delivers one of his most scathing vocal performances above the mournful sounds of Browne’s guitar and Lindley’s pedal steel. The Springsteen co-write, “Jeannie Needs A Shooter,” was released as the second single from the album, and it should have been a huge hit. Zevon’s lyrics are inscrutable, as usual, but the song’s tale of romance and betrayal, and Walsh’s imaginative lead guitar – bolstered by slight background orchestration and a strong melody – should have helped the song receive a modicum of chart success.

“Gorilla, You’re A Desperado” is too often considered the album’s novelty song, a pithy comedic throwaway that lightens the mood before the one-two punch of introspection that closes Bad Luck Streak. I view it differently, however, and have long considered the song a savage satire of the music biz specifically and the entertainment industry-dominated Southern California lifestyle in general. Yes, it’s a funny song with visual lyrics and an infectious melody and plenty of meta references but it also features a jaunty, cheeky Zevon vocal performance alongside Jackson Browne’s tasteful slide-guitar playing and a rich musical backdrop. It’s novel only in that the song is an unbridled expression of Zevon’s imagination, which makes it a worthy successor to “Werewolves of London.”

Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School would enjoy modest success, with the aforementioned “A Certain Girl” haunting the upper half of the Billboard “Hot 100” singles chart while the album itself notched a #20 placement on the albums chart, not too shabby a showing considering that Zevon was uniquely out-of-step with musical trends at the time. The stopgap live album Stand In the Fire was released in late 1980, followed by the eccentric collection The Envoy in 1982. In spite of his earlier commercial success, Asylum Records dumped Zevon after The Envoy failed to chart, and as the artist sunk into drug and alcohol abuse, he wouldn’t record again for five years and the critically-acclaimed 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene…but that’s a story for another time. (Asylum Records, 1980)

Buy the LP from Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School

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