Unknown Pleasures Chapter 3: Love When It’s Strong…

prod_1085_1_3671 Unknown Pleasures: A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exaulting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. It’s never too late.

Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes – Love Is A Sacrifice

Polygram Records 1980

Once upon a time being a proud man brought down by love for a woman was an honorable, maybe even enviable musical profession. From Frank to Hank Sr. to Marvin to Otis to Teddy to Luther, being a man didn’t mean becoming a sociopathic misogynistic dickhead when She got the better of you. Quite the opposite really: The most beautiful part of being a Beautiful Loser was finding the strength to redouble one’s efforts, to try again, try harder, try and try like a sissyphus in song, pushing a heavy heart up the Mountain of Love, waiting…hoping…praying…

In the mid to late 70s no white man embodied the ideal of the Manly Romantic better than “Southside” Johnny Lyon, a Jersey-born, no-nonsense R&B crooner/shouter that fans of the Asbury Park scene held in almost as high regard as Bruce Springsteen, who saved his more romantic tunes for Lyon’s band, the Asbury Jukes. Lyon’s wrenching, soulful take on Springsteen’s “Hearts of Stone” is still unequaled.

In fact one couldn’t be faulted for looking on the Jukes as a Springsteen/Steve Van Zandt side project as most of the writing and producing was handled by them early on. If you listened closely though, the differences were obvious: While Bruce’s take on R&B values had a definite rock edge (guitars where the horns should have been), the Asbury Jukes had a purer, brass-driven Big City soul sound, that went over huge on the Jersey Shore, but wouldn’t find an mass audience in the U.S. for several years to come. To the general public, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes came off as a novelty act. Some notable TV and movie appearances aside, they were going nowhere fast.

In 1980, after five years and three albums, Columbia dropped the Asbury Jukes. The band signed to Mercury, released the radio friendly album The Jukes and toured like mad. Most of the world took no notice. Late the same year they released Love Is A Sacrifice. A semi concept album about romance with songs written or co-written by guitarist Billy Rush and Lyon, it may be the purest expression of the band’s sound and Lyon’s persona. In the hands of a lesser singer, these tales of tough-yet-tender street guys yearning for Her love would be boring, but Lyon’s smoke and whiskey baritone makes each character come alive, subtly coloring them all. The Jukes score full marks as well, sometimes pushing the tunes, sometimes lifting them but never overpowering or hindering them. Rush’s no-bs production keeps Lyon’s voice upfront and Lyon gives each song his all while never resorting to the bluster or cliches that trap so many “soul” singers.
Lyon isn’t acting or slumming: He’s the real deal and let’s you know it. Rush’s tunes range from good to great, never mocking or parroting his sources. It’s too easy to imagine Levi Stubbs singing “Love When It’s Strong” All Green cooing and trilling “Keep Our Love Simple” or David Ruffin killing “Long Distance”. Rush’s songs feel like he’s been living his whole life just to gather ideas for them. The darnkess of “Murder” is soul-crushing while the sensual thrills of “On The Beach” are breathtaking. In addition to the Jukes’ gleaming horn charts, several songs feature “The Girls” on backing vocals: Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell and [future Mrs. Springsteen] Patti Scialfa. They help elevate “Love When it’s Strong” to near anthem status.

The record ends with the spare, near accoustic “It Hurts” where Lyon pours his bruised and aching heart out, but still refuses to bow to anger or bitterness. To a man like him, it’s not how much it hurts, but how he’ll go on despite how it hurts:

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes put out “Sacrifice” in late 1980 and proceeded to tour relentlessly on it. Polygram, still recovering from the post-disco crash had niehter the budget or the insight to market it properly and commerical radio couldn’t figure out which box the record belonged in. Love Is A Sacrifice stiffed. The band would go on to make more records, some good, some not-so-good. Buf for one album, they had it all together, the songs, the band, the sound, everything. They still play shows, record occasionally, relegated to oldies status while far lesser singers and less talented bands stand on their shoulders to reach the brass ring. If Lyon is bitter about it, he hasn’t told anyone…Proud men like Southside Johnny rarely change their stripes. There has to be a reward for that somewhere.

NEXT: Lucky Seven

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