Detroit music in the 1960's and early 1970's was more than just Motown. The area also produced cult favorites and proto-heavy rockers like The Stooges and the MC5. Unless you're from Detroit, however, you may be unaware that Detroiter Bob Seger released a series of albums before he arrived on the national stage in the mid-1970's with break-out hits such as 'Night Moves" and 'Beautiful Loser'. In fact, for quite a few years, both Seger and his fans bemoaned the lack of national attention his work received. Looking back on some of his work reveals why his local fans were perplexed at his delayed ascent, and also why a national audience eluded Seger.
'Smokin' O.P.'s' (meaning smoking other people's... in this case other people's hits rather than cigarettes, although the front insert is a wonderfully simplistic play on a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes) is a great collection of cover songs. In his early incarnations Seger sounded much more like the sharp-edged J. Geils Band (who first gained acclaim with their 'Full House' LP, recorded at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit) than the more middle-of-the-road rocker he became in the mid-'70's. 'Smokin' O.P.'s' was Bob's fifth album, released in 1972, and for the most part was a collection of excellent cover songs. Most are standard hard-rock offerings (the sound that went down best in local Detroit venues) including an impressive opening trio of Ellis McDaniel's 'Bo Diddley/Who Do You Love', Stephen Stills' 'Love the One You're With', and Tim Hardin's 'If I Were a Carpenter'. The first two songs feature slick lead guitar solo's from Monk Bruce, while 'If I Were a Carpenter' owes it's foundation and some great solo work to organist Skip Knape (aka 'Van Winkle' from 'Teegarden & Van Winkle'; David Teegarden provides percussion on this disc as well).
On the original vinyl release side one mellowed out a bit at the end with a cover of Leon Russell's 'Hummin' Bird' ("don't fly away"). Seger is really showing some grit by covering these four classic hits, and while it's hard to say that any of them surpass the original versions, they are sung with an obvious joy and excitement that make them a thrill to experience. It's probably the best single album side Seger put together before his more acclaimed persona emerged.
The remaining five tracks offer a couple gems as well. Seger offers a sweet version of 'Turn On Your Love Light', feeding off a funky rhythm guitar foundation, and the closer, a remake of Seger's 1966 hit with The Heard, 'Heavy Music'. 'Heavy Music' seems misplaced on the disc, as does it's predecessor, 'Someday'. Both are Seger compositions (which doesn't fit with the theme of the album), 'Someday' is a misfit as a quiet, piano-based ballad, and 'Heavy Music' would serve much better as an opener than the closer. 'Let It Rock', the opener of side two, comes across as a generic bar-hall stomper, and 'Jesse James', while less distinguished than some of the other tracks, has a beat like a churning locomotive that blends in well with the albums other tracks.
While there's a lot to like on 'Smokin' O.P.'s' including some excellent musicianship, quality composing ('Heavy Music'), and an audibly resounding desire to deliver "the goods", clearly Seger needed to develop more consistency, and broaden his range of music to become an elite performer, a mystery he solved as the '70's progressed. It's a shame that Bob has not seen fit to reissue some of his earlier work, such as this disc, his original 'Bob Seger System' album, as well as 'Noah' and 'Mongrel'. On a smaller scale, for fans of Seger, not having access to these tracks is akin to only experiencing The Beatles from 'Rubber Soul' on. While these discs may not reveal the mature talent Seger would eventually develop, their raw energy and gritty late 60's/early 70's sound has its own vintage appeal. If you release them, Bob, the fans will come.
2/8/05 ADDENDUM: Thanks, Bob! Here we come!