By Brian Ives
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s debut, ‘Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd,’ which turns 40 this week.
Calling a genre “Southern rock” is a bit redundant, if you ask Gregg Allman, whose group, the Allman Brothers Band, is part of the movement. Allman’s feeling was that most rock music comes from south of the Mason-Dixon anyway, so the geographical qualifier is unnecessary.
But if, like many rock fans, you do buy into the idea of “Southern rock”—an unpretentious, working-class, guitar- and piano-driven brand of rock music played primary by guys whose long hair didn’t quite cover up their rednecks—you can make the argument that ground zero is right here, on 1973’s Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd.
Think of it like this: Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin preceded Black Sabbath, but Sabbath is attributed with creating heavy metal with their 1970 debut. Similarly, even though the Allmans and ZZ Top had already released some classic albums by ’73, the aforementioned were more like blues bands making rock music. With Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, the South had its own radio and arena-ready act.
Let’s get “Freebird” out of the way first. Along with Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven,” it was one of the epic deep-ballad-that-morphs-into-deep-rocker songs that dominated the radio in the ’70s and continues to be a staple on classic rock stations to this day. Depending on where you sit, “Freebird” either symbolizes everything you love or everything you hate about Skynyrd and ’70s rock. Four decades later, the song has become one of music’s biggest cliches, inescapable at concerts and large events thanks to The Most Annoying Dude In The Crowd. But if, somehow, you haven’t heard the song in, say, five years and you return to it with open ears, you might be surprised by how well it holds up. “Freebird” would not have become so irritatingly legendary were it not a great song.
Then there’s “Gimme Three Steps.” In a genre filled with machismo, this is the rare song that celebrates high-tailing it out of harm’s way. “I was scared and fearing for my life/I was shakin’ like a leaf on a tree,” Ronnie Van Zant sang. “‘Cause he was lean, mean, big and bad, lord, pointin’ that gun at me!” It’s one of the funniest songs in the classic rock canon.
In an era before the phrase “power ballad” was coined and certainly before it became a dirty word, the album highlighted two classic power ballads, “Simple Man” and “Tuesday’s Gone.” Sung from the narrator’s memory of advice given to him by his mother, the former was something of a mission statement for the band: “Take your time, don’t live too fast/troubles will come and they will pass/go find a woman and you’ll find love/and don’t forget son/there is someone up above.” One could argue “Simple Man” is as influential to today’s country music as any of Hank Williams’ songs.
Meanwhile, “Tuesday’s Gone” remains one of the band’s most popular concert songs, as well as a favorite cover among artists of all genres (Metallica, Phish and Hank Williams Jr. to name a few). The sole original member still left in Lynyrd Skynyrd, guitarist Gary Rossington told Radio.com that fellow guitarist Allen Collins, who passed away in 1990, brought the music to the band and Van Zant took it from there. “Ronnie lived in a place called Brickyard Road, and a railroad track was right in front of his house. One day a train was going by, he just started singing about a train, it was a Tuesday. It’s really just a love song about a girl,” but he notes, “I’m not sure which girl.” Everyone in the group showed off their instrumental talents on the song, but Rossington cites one late bandmate who really shone: “That was one where Billy [Powell] showed off his piano playing. Man, he was playing so great, it was really fun to watch.”
One of the less celebrated songs on the album is “Things Goin’ On,” a track that’s deeply suspicious of the government, led by Republican Richard Nixon at the time of album’s release. In one fell swoop, Skynyrd express empathy for the poor (“Have you ever lived down in the ghetto? Have you ever felt the cold wind blow?”), anger at the war (“Too many lives, they’re spent across the ocean”), concern about the environment (“They’re gonna ruin the air we breathe, Lord have mercy”), and dissatisfaction over the funds being spent on NASA (“Too much money been spent upon the moon”). All of these issues still resonate today, though not always on the same side of the political aisle.
“I think that Ronnie had a lot of foresight, he was like a prophet,” Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s brother who has been singing for Skynyrd since 1987, told Radio.com. “I believe God gives different people different talents for a certain period of time. Unfortunately he wanted Ronnie up there, he’s probably up there writing something really good right now. What he wrote and what he and Gary and Allen created is gonna be around a lot longer than us.”
Forty years since Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, that last bit is proving to be true. The answer to Ronnie’s question on “Freebird” — “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” — is obvious.