Buyer's Guide: Bob Seger
During more than 40 years of music making, it’s his ballads that have marked him out as a master craftsman of the genre.
A few minutes into ‘Live’ Bullet, the 1976 live album that first brought Bob Seger national acclaim in the US, the singer addresses his home-town audience. “I was reading Rolling Stone, where they said Detroit audiences are the greatest rock’n’roll audiences in the world,” he proclaims. There’s a pause, then: “Shit! I’ve known that for ten years!”
It wasn’t just another crowd-pleasing platitude. Seger really meant it. For all the eventual success ‘Live’ Bullet brought Seger, a series of false starts and bad breaks meant it had been a decade-long battle to get noticed outside the Motor City. In 1967 his single Heavy Music sold more than 60,000 copies in Detroit alone and threatened to break out nationally but his label, Cameo/Parkway, went bust and distribution collapsed. It got so bad that, after 1969’s half-hearted Noah album, a frustrated Seger considered enrolling in college to study criminology. The follow-up album, Brand New Morning, was an introspective, acoustic collection that ended his first stint at Capitol Records. “Everyone has down periods,” Seger said in 1977. “The acoustic album was the depths for me.”
Thankfully it got better. By 1973, Seger had brought on board most of the musicians who would form the Silver Bullet Band and provide a formidable backing for whichever direction he took. They could burn like the MC5, funk like the JBs, blast gleefully through Chuck Berry-style rockers, or provide a suitably wistful backing for Bob’s many ballads. For while Seger has been unfairly maligned as a meat-and-potatoes rocker by some, it’s his strengths as a balladeer that truly mark him out as unique. All his best albums are dominated by aching, romantic, coming-of-age songs, and it was anthems such as We Got Tonight and Night Moves that really connected with his audience. Indeed fellow Midwesterner Prince was inspired to write Purple Rain after becoming fascinated by the hold Seger’s power ballads had over arena crowds.
Seger released more albums in the 70s than he has in the 35 years since. And while his more recent recordings might not flame with the same intensity of some of his earlier landmarks, he has aged with a great deal of grace. He has hinted that last year’s Ride Out album – featuring another great ballad, You Take Me In – might be his last.