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Del Shannon was one of the first-generation American rock'n'roll stars of the early 1960s, whose name will always be synonymous with the classic 'Runaway', a transatlantic No. 1 in 1961. One of several singers whose success faded with the advent of the Beatles and those who followed, he continued to record and tour at intervals, despite ongoing battles with depression and alcoholism. I haven't heard his mid-period albums yet, but the general view is that he never made a really lacklustre album in his whole life. Like Roy Orbison, in the late 1980s his career had a new boost when he teamed up with Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty to make a new album, and it was rumoured that he might replace Orbison on the second Traveling Wilburys album. Sadly, it was not to be, and 'Rock On!', the final album, almost completed and awaiting release when he shot himself in February 1990, was issued the following year.
Opening the set is 'Walk Away' (was the title deliberately a subtle reminder that his career began with 'Runaway'?), a glorious single which set a high standard for the rest - crisp acoustic guitars, a melodic restrained lead break, superb harmonies and Del's inimitable falsetto on the chorus. It is credited to Del, Jeff and Tim as a joint composition, one of only two songs not written by Del alone. It's also the best track here, and I'm tempted to say it's almost worth the price of admission alone.
'Who Left Who' is in similar vein but slower, its feel fitting in with the reflective tone of the lyrics. The pace picks up on track three, 'Are You Lovin' Me Too', more classic harmonies, that lovely falsetto he was so good at breaking into, and another instantly memorable chorus with shades of 'Oh won't you stay - just a little bit longer'. (I do like these modern songs that wear their 'classic hooks' influences on their sleeves, as long as it doesn't descend into outright plagiarism). On 'Callin' Out My Name', the tempo dips, and it sounds closer to ELO than any of the other tracks, particularly with the backing vocals arrangement. Ironically, according to the track-by-track credits, it's one of the few that doesn't feature Lynne at all.
'I Go To Pieces' is a familiar number, having been written in the early 1960s and given by Del to Peter and Gordon, who had a top ten hit in the US with it in 1965, and there have been subsequent cover versions by Cotton, Lloyd & Christian, and Nils Lofgren. With its tasteful yet unobtrusive string arrangement, it's another of the record's high points.
'Lost In A Memory' is more of a ballad, while the mid-tempo 'I Got You' culminates in a glorious hook, following the loved-and-lost theme of several of the preceding songs. 'What Kind Of Fool', composed by Ray Whitley (the only number here not written by Del), has a bass vocal intro from Randy Jones, almost to Johnny Cash depths.
It's followed by another wistful piece, 'When I Had You', opening with mournful piano chords before the other instruments join in. To round it off comes another of the high points, 'Let's Dance'. It opens with a couple of notes from Richard Greene's fiddle, and develops into a lively accordion-driven hoedown or line dancing tune - though a less polished, rougher production might have given it more of a Cajun feel.
When I first heard this album, not long after release, I found it great in parts, but a little samey and dull in others. Coming back to it some years later, I'm happy to say that I've revised my opinion for the better. It's easy to compare it with the marvellous 'Mystery Girl' album by Roy Orbison, which was quite adventurous in parts. While 'Rock On!' doesn't stray too far from familiar territory, and while there is a hint of the Jeff Lynne template dominating the sound a little too much, the songs are on the whole extremely good. There's also a good deal of emotion, even darkness, in the lyrics and vocals. In a way it's a sad album to listen to, as the lyrics show that Del was plainly not a man at peace with himself. Like Vincent van Gogh, the inner demons still haunted him and left their mark on his art. Even the otherwise joyous 'Let's Dance' opens with the world-weary line 'I'm sick and tired of bein' tied down'.
The CD was originally released by Silvertone Records and soon deleted. This reissue, courtesy of Acadia, adds five bonus tracks to the original ten. Four were recorded around the same time, one, 'Hot Love' (Del's own, nothing to do with the T. Rex song), also including Lynne, Petty and Harrison - although you'd be hard-pressed to pick out the latter's guitar, which must be well down in the mix. The final number, 'Songwriter', is a very basic unaccompanied demo of a work in progress, obviously put straight on to a cassette recorder. It ends on the slightly chilling line, 'Songwriter, give me back my life'.
The eight-page booklet includes two pages of complete track-by-track personnel credits. There's also a note from friend and manager Dan Bourgoise whch describes how Del was on a roll when writing the album, ever impatient to play Jeff, Tom and engineer Mike Campbell the demo of the latest song he had just completed.
Even if it's a sad album to listen to, musically it hits all the right buttons. It certainly proves that, as in the case of the final (and posthumous) albums by Orbison and Harrison, the artist's muse was certainly not burnt out. Incidentally, a record reviewer in 'The Independent' wrote on its first release that his suicide 'didn't exactly inspire confidence in his latest project'. Tasteless or what?
[Revised version of a review I first posted on ciao]