The Edgar Winter Group, They Only Come Out at Night (Epic, 1972)
I first learned of this album when I heard it referenced in a Sun Kil Moon song. Mark Kozelek sings about his dad playing the album for him in a song called, appropriately enough, “I Love my Dad.” Indeed, the first thing to say about this album is that it’s the sort of album a certain kind of dad loves, the kind of dad who remembers drinking Budweiser in a pickup during long road trips along the great American highways.
People don’t make fun albums anymore. Almost all songs have beats now, but they tend to be of the chilliest, vacuum-sealed variety. They have a self-seriousness to them that great albums from the 70s just don’t have; they are not carefree. They Only Come Out at Night is a party record, almost a concept album about throwing a party, getting drunk, waking up hungover, questioning your choices, and then doing it all over again later on.
This is an album of power chords, guitar solos, squealing saxophones, boogie-woogie piano, and raucous, soulful vocals. Both Winter brothers were virtuosos—Johnny, who passed away in 2014, was an absolutely scorching guitarist, and Edgar can play just about anything with keys on it, not to mention the sax. Their main difference, it seems to me, is that Johnny was at his best on his own, playing stripped-down blues standards like on his second, self-titled album, while Edgar’s gift clearly shines brightest as bandleader, in company.
It helps that the back-up musicians are no slouches. Rick Derringer is the stand-out here, a great guitarist who played with both Edgar and Johnny on separate projects, Steely Dan, Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren, and many others. Dan Hartman also pulls his weight, contributing various instruments and singing on most of the album’s songs, many of which he wrote or cowrote (notably “Free Ride”). Edgar himself wrote the other big hit, the Eagles-y “Round & Round,” which features a lovely pedal steel part in the background that adds texture to the background of an otherwise conventional song.
One might fault the Edgar Winter Group for, at times, channeling other, more original bands. The Stones, T-Rex, Rundgren, the Eagles, and others can all be heard on this album. But originality is not the name of the game on an album like this; it’s not about the band, it’s about us, and how good we feel.
Like all parties, the album does start to wind down after a while. The slow-dance moment of the album, “Autumn,” written and sung by Hartman, is nice in a soft-rock sort of way, but its uninspired lyrics (“I lost my lover / and my summer, too / to Autumn”) ultimately make it one of the weaker moments on the record. Thankfully the tempo picks up with the two album closers, the righteous “We All Had a Real Good Time” and the classic rock-radio staple, “Frankenstein.” In terms of the album’s sequencing, this last song sounds like a bit of a jarring afterthought, too seamlessly virtuosic compared to what came before it. Ultimately, though, its irresistibly wonky character makes it an appealing and iconic track.
Overall, I think the heart of They Only Come Out at Night is in the earlier songs, which have a looseness and grit that recalls the ramshackle troupe of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen—this is why the opener, “Hangin’ Around,” remains my favorite song of the album.
Somehow They Only Come Out at Night presents its debauchery with a levity bordering on naiveté and a “take it as it comes” attitude. The 70s (at least the part of the 70s continuous with the 60s) were not dead yet; we would have to wait a few more years for Neil Young to kill them off with Tonight’s the Night.
For now, on this album, the coast is still clear. “They only come out at night,” the album seems to say, “but don’t worry—they don’t bite.”
10 February 2017
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