Truly brilliant songs become classics not because they’re timepieces, but because they’re timeless, a characteristic that rings true through every track Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades pay homage to on Influence.
The sophomore release from Shaw Blades, Influence is the duo’s first album since their recently re-released 1995 debut, Hallucination. Like the debut — and unlike their historycarving decades as icons in the more hard-rock minded Styx, Night Ranger and Damn Yankees — the latest release is rooted in acoustic guitar and organic production, harvesting a decade of musical influences into 11 tracks. From the Mamas and the Papas’ 1963 classic “California Dreamin’,” to Orleans’ 1975 breakthrough “Dance with Me,” Influence offers a track-by-track chronology of the musical era that helped define modern rock.
“You can always tell a brilliant song, whether it was written 30 years ago or yesterday,” says Blades, who’s the bassist in Night Ranger and Damn Yankees, but along with Shaw played all the music on the album except for drums and the occasional keyboards. “Every song we picked is identifiable in its own right, and they’re all immediately recognizable. What does that tell you? That the songs are the stars. That’s what we wanted to do on this record, we wanted the songs to be the stars. I think that’s what we accomplished.”
Whether the songs are delivered in faithful tribute, as is the case with Simon & Garfunkel’s epic masterpiece “Sounds of Silence,” or given a modern rock transfusion, as in the duo’s 1966 folk anthem “I Am a Rock,” the results are the same, sparkling like a beacon illuminating the mainstream roots of rock and roll’s formative years. “I cringe at the thought of Paul Simon hearing our stuff,” laughs Blades, only half-jokingly. “I honor his spirit so much, and I’m such a huge fan. As far as I’m concerned, they invented the word genius to go along with him, and we just wanted to make sure that we did their songs justice. Tommy and I have that special symbiotic relationship that doesn’t come along a lot. Simon & Garfunkel also had it, we have a reverence to it, and it was something that we just wanted to dig into.”
“As writers, we’re like two old friends who finish each other’s sentences,” adds Shaw. “We became best friends as a result of the music and the experiences we’ve had because of it.” But Influence isn’t about the experiences of Shaw Blades, it’s about the inspiration that helped create the experiences. “This album has been years in the making,” continues to the Styx/Damn Yankees guitarist. “The recording process didn’t take years, but the concept had been looming in our conversations for a long time. We’d always sit around with a couple of guitars and play songs we both knew from or younger days, spontaneous harmonizing and all that, and we slowly eased into the idea of making this record.”
One of the most prolific duos in the history of hard rock, Shaw and Blades have sold more than 50 million albums amongst their three bands, scored 12 Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, debuted 16 albums in the Billboard Top 200, and share joint songwriting credits for the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, Cher and Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil. Even so, Influence offered the pair an invigorating musical freedom. “With Shaw Blades, we’re able to take liberties that our respective bands couldn’t do,” offers Blades. “We need to be Styx-sounding, we need to fit in that Night Ranger world, and we even need to think about Damn Yankees, so that’s what’s fun about Shaw Blades — We get to be our alter-egos when we want to be, yet we can truly be ourselves. We grew up singing harmonies and songs with massive vocals, so it’s a wonderful thing to have that freedom here. This was a complete labor of love.”
Just as remarkable as the timeless translations of the music, is the transcendent eeriness of the lyrics, as many of the folk-inspired epics from the peace- and love-filled late ’60s make a eamless translation to the new millennium. Consider the Stephen Stills penned, Buffalo Springfield protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” rooted in the anti-war sentiments of 1967, and ringing just as true nearly 40 years later. The Zombie’s “Time of the Season” may have been a better thematic fit at the original Woodstock than amidst the festival’s anniversary lineup, but in stripping down the progressive stylings that marked the Yes nugget “Your Move,” the resulting chants of “All we are saying is, give peace a chance” echo in the chambers of new world politics. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man” is nothing short of bone-chilling.
The tracks that constitute Influence are more than just the creative core of Shaw Blades, they’re speak to the cultural core of America. Like the artists that pay them tribute, they are timeless.