This was the bittersweet climax of Lynyrd Skynyrd's career. After a wild ride to stardom, these Southern Rock icons took a breather to craft an album more slowly than on their other four studio efforts, the last of which had seen a slip in standards. They succeeded triumphantly with Street Survivors, which shipped gold on October 17, 1977.
Three days later a plane crash killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines (Steve's sister), and road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and injured the rest of the band. MCA recalled the original LP cover [left], which depicted the seven main band members amid red-and-yellow flames, substituting a plainer, less eerily violent photo. (Most CD editions have reverted to the original cover.)
But they didn't change what was inside, in the music itself. The frightening "That Smell" was written by Van Zant after Gary Rossington passed out drunk while driving, hitting a telephone pole and oak tree and damaging a house. That inspired a memorable, almost-funny opening couplet: "Whiskey bottles and brand new cars / Oak tree you're in my way." But in a prophetic leap, the refrain proclaims, "The smell of death surrounds you." It wasn't just Rossington, it was the excesses of many; in fact, Collins, who co-wrote the song, had a DUI car crash around the same time. But Van Zant, a new father, was changing his ways and looking back at the hard partying in a new, more mature light. Hard-won wisdom is also evident on "One More Time." The old outlook remained on the Rossington-Van Zant ode to groupies "What's Your Name" (it was the album's first single, and aptly peaked at unlucky No. 13).
The band was also growing through the addition of guitarist Steve Gaines, who beefed up the three-guitar attack and contributed songwriting. "I Know a Little" (featuring a rollicking Billy Powell piano solo) offers a still energetic but lighter musical approach, while "You Got That Right" (co-written with Van Zant) shows Gaines fitting perfectly into the band's established style. "I Never Dreamed," another collaboration with Van Zant, is a ruminative, tables-turned tale of lost love that's the flip side, in a way, of "What's Your Name"'s casual attitude towards romance -- and another example of the band's emerging maturity. Gaines' "Ain't No Good Life" closed the original LP with a proclamation that the life they'd been living wasn't producing the desired results, with a pledge to turn it around.
Skynyrd often chose unexpected covers; here it's country great Merle Haggard's "Honky Tonk Night Time Man." Van Zant added autobiographical lines of his own, but ultimately went with the original version; the altered one is now a bonus track, along with alternate takes of "You Got That Right" and "I Never Dreamed." There are also two outtakes, the Gaines-Van Zant tune "Georgia Peaches" and Rossington and Van Zant's "Sweet Little Missy" -- lesser material, but precious now. Or you can go for the two-CD deluxe edition, which includes a few more outtakes, five songs from the band's last recorded concert (rough sound but ferocious energy), and an inferior earlier version of the LP. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.