MOLLY HATCHET – Fall Of The Peacemakers: 1980-1985

There’s a school of thought that says Molly Hatchet never bettered their first two albums. Whilst those records were home to many of the classics – tunes which set the blueprint for their future works – the best of band’s 80s output was arguably just as strong in many ways…and even saw the southern rock heroes stretching out their considerable talents. It’s those 80s albums which are the focus of the 2018 box set ‘Fall of The Peacemakers: 1980-1985’, an excellent package that brings together three studio albums, a classic double live set, a hard to find promo featuring extra live tracks and also a handful of other nuggets.

1980 was a year of change for Hatchet. Vocalist Danny Joe Brown exited the band from stage left and subsequently formed the Danny Joe Brown Band, whose sole album, the amusingly named ‘Danny Joe Brown & The Danny Joe Brown Band’, is essential listening for Molly Hatchet fans. Molly Hatchet, meanwhile, soldiered on with Jimmy Farrar in the vocalist’s spot. For any band, a change in vocalist is a tricky proposition, but Farrar proved a more than suitable replacement; the resulting ‘Beating The Odds’ album is about as fine a follow up to ‘…Disaster’ as the band could ever hope to make. Keen to reinforce the idea that everything that made Hatchet great, the title cut in particular found the band in fierce boogie-rock mode; all big boots, triple geetars and southern twang. With echoes of ‘Flirting With Disaster’ and ‘Whiskey Man’ throughout, this tour-de-force re-introduces the three guitar attack from Duane Roland, Dave Hlubek and Steve Holland in classic style while giving Farrar something to slide into with ease. He has a slightly cleaner vocal style than Brown, but his sense of drive on the chorus in particular shows why he was a perfect fit.

The best of that album – and that track in particular – set Molly Hatchet in good stead for the material found within this fine box set.

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LIVE PROMO LP
Six of the bonus tracks on the first disc of ‘Fall of Peacemakers’ capture Farrar and the boys on tour for the aforementioned ‘Beatin’ The Odds’. The New Years Eve show from the Lakeland Civic Centre Arena was recorded and partially released on a promotional only LP issued for FM radio, and while it’s inclusion here is welcome, it’s sort of odd that the album itself is absent, especially when that would really help to place the live selections in context.

Nevertheless, it’s great stuff. Following an intro with a guy yelling his lungs out (you don’t get those any more), the band rips into ‘Beatin’ The Odds’ with abandon. The sound quality from the source tape is terrific; just a couple of bars in, the supercharged ZZ Top-ish riff really thunders and you can actually hear the guitarists playing their allotted individual parts. Farrar’s voice has a genuine grit – something that makes this and the five subsequent tracks stand up much better than their studio counterparts. The other five tracks are also live versions of tracks from ‘BTO’, with each one demonstrating the power in a typical Hatchet performance of the era. The way the slide guitars cut through the meat of the main riff during ‘Few And Far Between’ is a highlight, as is the tough rendition of ‘Dead & Gone’, which on this recording comes across like Lynyrd Skynyrd with massive balls.

In theory, these tracks are a fantastic bonus, finally making an impossible to find slab of vinyl available to all. However, things aren’t necessarily quite as exciting for the bigger fan: with five more tracks from the show available elsewhere, it’s a little frustrating the full show couldn’t be included. That’s the only real negative that can be applied to this box set.

TAKE NO PRISONERS
The main feature on disc one is the band’s fourth album, 1981’s ‘Take No Prisoners’. For many, it’ll be the opener, ‘Bloody Reunion’, that remains the album’s best known track. It became something of a live staple, and rightly so. Even decades down the line, its gritty intro is thrilling, going straight in with something most bands would consider already good enough, but then layering that with extra slide guitar. Somewhere between fiery bar-room rock and a classic 70s southern boogie, it really grabs a hold of a trademark Hatchet style, and by the time various lead guitar solos are traded, there’s no denying it is a genre classic. ‘Respect Me In The Morning’ follows quickly with more sounds that are interchangeable with the best parts of the previous three albums and wouldn’t necessary stand out if not for the vocal performances: Farrar is on fire throughout, but perhaps that’s because he knows he’s going to have to duet with the mysteriously named Baby Jean. Duets can be fun, but in this case, Baby Jean over-sings everything horribly and ends up sounding like a cross between a cut-price Tina Turner impersonator and a helium filled chicken. With a two pronged take on ‘Long Tall Sally’ to follow – a cover that starts out stodgy and uninspired and finishes like a by-numbers run through of the over-familar Little Richard staple – the album appears to run out of steam early.

Luckily, things are given a lift by another gutsy workout in ‘Loss of Control’ which, although not as distinctive as ‘Bloody Reunion’, scores a place as an album highlight due to some sharp lead guitar solos and a really punchy bass part that cuts through many of the more ordinary elements. Other highlights include the single ‘Power Play’, presenting the more commercial side of Molly Hatchet (more of which later) and ‘Don’t Mess Around’, a number where Farrar pushes his voice for maximum grit and guitarists Dave Hlubek and Duane Roland sound like they’re having a great time. This is one of those tunes that sounds even better with the volume cranked and also raises the quality threshold on an otherwise patchy album. In addition to ‘Bloody Reunion’ – the swaggering, brass punctuated ‘Lady Luck’ finally adds something else to the “classic Hatchet” canon. A number that really benefits from a rinky-dinky piano accompaniment and sassy backing vocals, partly contributed by the legendary Katey “Leela from Futurama” Sagal, there’s an element of fun here that’s often not obvious on a lot of the band’s more narrative-based material. Overall, ‘…Prisoners’ is the weakest album in this set, but even then, it’s not without charm.

Bonus tracks on this box set edition include radio edits of ‘Lady Luck’ and ‘Power Play’, as well as a live recording of Mountain’s ‘Mississippi Queen’ recorded with Ted Nugent, back at a time when people still wanted to associate with him. It’s not especially subtle. The Hatchet guitarists come together to create a fine and meaty backdrop; Farrar is in his element, really getting to exercise some gruff vocal chops and there’s a good punchy cowbell that’s on hand to give aid those who have the fever. Interestingly, aside from a couple of guitar squeals that are obviously out of character for Hatchet and a spoken introduction from Ted that contains few discernible words, you’d hardly know he was there. While this is obviously something that would be far more effective with visuals, it’s great that somebody took the time to dig it out of the archive for inclusion here.

NO GUTS…NO GLORY
In 1982, almost as quickly as he’d arrived, Jimmy Farrar left Molly Hatchet. It had been a good couple of years, but there was no escaping the fact that about half of ‘Take No Prisoners’ represented the band on autopilot. If not time for a drastic re-think (yet), it was time for a change. The 1983 incarnation of Molly Hatchet included a completely new rhythm section…and an old, familiar face. Re-enter Danny Joe Brown.

Brown had lent so much greatness to the first two albums. With his presence, ‘No Guts…’ was almost guaranteed to be a better record before it even got off the ground. Indeed, on tracks like the album’s opener, ‘It Doesn’t Matter’, his return to the band feels especially natural. Also, the band aren’t looking backwards; they’re able to take their core sound and rough it up. A great way to start what’s essentially a new chapter, this driving rock affair that sounds like a head on collision between ‘Tres Hombres’ era ZZ Top and the slightly more hard rock oriented Blackfoot. Dropping away from big riffs and into an interlude where the slide guitars and piano are pushed to the fore also gives a reasonable sense of balance, but when it comes down to it, this track is simply made great thanks to Hlubeck’s command of a riff and Brown giving his all. ‘Ain’t Even Close’ offers more of the same on the surface but comes a little closer to the sounds of the band’s 1978 debut, with Brown’s vocal delivery making the band’s origins more than obvious, while the swaggering ‘On The Prowl’ finds a sound that’s equal parts Blackfoot, Gregg Allman and Steve Gaines. In other words, these tracks represent Molly Hatchet’s southern rock played at championship level. If you transplanted their debut album into an early 80s landscape, this is what you’d get. In fact, it’s only the thin drum sound and trebly production that suggest this is an 80s recording.

A sprawling instrumental, ‘Both Sides’ presents a bouncy riff that almost shoe-horns in a cheeky nod to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, before stretching to something that’s the Molly Hatchet equivalent of the Allmans’ ‘Jessica’. it’s not just empty homage, though; the band more than put their own stamp on things and the interplay between Jai Winding’s busy piano and Duane and Dave’s escalating guitar battles makes it a genuine highlight.

Those four numbers would make ‘No Guts…’ an essential purchase alone, but the epic ‘Fall of The Peacemakers’ beats them into submission with it’s scale and ambition. The opening tones of twin acoustic guitars, warm bass and piano immediately set up something grand, but the arrival of drums holding everyone together signifies something great. It takes about a minute to set the scene and then Hlubeck’s soaring leads confirm everything you’ve suspected. With a tune that sounds like an odd mutant crafted from bits of ‘Freebird’, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and the band’s own ‘Rambler’ [as found on 1980’s ‘Beatin’ The Odds], it really is unmissable music. Danny Joe steps forward and asks “how many times must good men die?” in a very pointed fashion, with the semi-mournful arrangement sounding very sympathetic to questions about death, loss and passing of time. It’s his best performance on this album, never shy in letting in that necessary sadness. However, the sorrowful lyric is ultimately outshone by various emotive lead guitar breaks; the first sounds as if it’s filling the void left behind by Skynyrd’s absence in the 80s with beautiful soaring sounds and a bluesy cry. At the point that you’d expect this number would come to an end, Duane and Dave crank the gears and finish the eight minute workout with some furious guitar trade-offs that rank among their best of the decade. I

There really are no skippers on this disc; in that respect, it’s the best Molly Hatchet record since 1979. A strong case can even be made for being the finest of the band’s albums, period. ‘Sweet Dixie’ is a high speed boogie that makes most of the band’s peers sound like slackers; ‘Under The Gun’ predates Stevie Ray Vaughan’s big breakthrough, but it’s possible to imagine the furious guitar fills would have inspired him to work something similar into his repertoire. Hell, even the more throwaway material like the country-oriented ‘Kinda Like Love’ is expertly crafted. It’s got a cheesy quality, no question, but the band turn their hand to the style like true professionals.

Yup. Production quibbles aside, ‘No Guts…No Glory’ is forty one minutes of pure awesome. With the perfect band line up now in place, surely the follow up would be almost as good?

Well, that depends on your viewpoint.

THE DEED IS DONE
By the mid 80s, the powers that be decided all old bands and artists could benefit from a makeover – even Joni Mitchell had turned her hand rather deftly to pop music, of sorts. The decade’s quest for more commercial and keyboard-based sounds eventually reached Molly Hatchet. Fellow boogie rockers ZZ Top had hit paydirt with a more synthetic sound and tracks from ‘Eliminator’ and ‘Afterburner’ were all over the US and UK radio stations. Could a band previously associated with guts ‘n’ gators pull off similar success? The resultant album, 1985’s ‘The Deed Is Done’ – featured in its entirety on disc three of this set – features a collection of songs that meld a gritty guitar solos with radio friendly pop-rockers that are half a world away from Molly Hatchet’s formative years. However, Danny Joe’s distinctive drawl makes everything easily identifiable and brings a strong link to the past.

Obviously a move towards more commercial works split fan opinion on release, but in hindsight, the album could now be considered somewhat of an overlooked gem. While it could be argued that similar radio-friendly fare had reached epic levels by the time of release, the album offers plenty of highlights. On the uptempo ‘She Does She Does’ especially, the band manage to channel their older energies into something that could indeed be from the ZZ Top 80s catalogue…and with great success, too. So much of the track’s enduring appeal comes from a great vocal, but also the presence of some fantastic sax work, which eventually makes this closing instrumental part of this track sound like something from an 80s teen movie romp. A brilliant piece of AOR, ‘Stone In Your Heart’ pitches a tough rhythm guitar against a blanket of keyboards, resulting in something that sounds like a hybrid of Fortune and Survivor. It might be one of the times when a deep southern vocal is wholly at odds with the music, but the music cannot be faulted. With a beautiful and stately guitar solo and some shameless “na na nas” fleshing out an irresistible hook, it’s a number ready to be rediscovered and enjoyed again…and again.

With choppier guitars, stabbed keys and a simple use of call and response between the music and vocal, ‘Man On The Run’ also falls into the not be missed category. With a ZZ Top-ish verse and a pure AOR chorus it’s got all the bases covered, and by this point of the album, your ears should have thoroughly adjusted to all of its commercial trappings. If you’re still not ready to cut loose and just enjoy the music, there’s something wrong with you. Less distinctive, Frankie Miller’s ‘Heartbreak Radio’ ends up sounding like a stodgy version of Stevie Ray, but with a ripping piano solo and busy bassline, it still has all the makings of something that would work well in a live set and while the old r’n’b chestnut ‘I Ain’t Got You’ is treated faithfully, in all honesty, it’s hard to beat the version released by Aerosmith just a few years earlier. For those who love the multi-layered guitar work within the band, the acoustic ‘Song For The Children’ provides another great moment. Tucked away at the end of an album that more casual listeners might not have heard all the way through, this short piece presents a world of shimmering guitar sounds that owe more to Anthony Phillips and 70s prog than macho 80s rock, proving that ‘The Deed Is Done’ brings a surprise around almost every corner.

With ‘Satisfied Man’ plumping for fat keyboards and ‘Straight Shooter’ reworking a much straighter southern sound and a lot of the highlights falling somewhere between, ‘The Deed Is Done’ often feels as if it’s pulling in two different directions and might never be anyone’s favourite album, but it’s inclusion within this set makes is historically important. If fans are able to re-evaluate some of the material and enjoy it on its own terms there is a lot to enjoy. Approached in the right mood, for what it does, it’s fantastic – so much better than it sounded years ago.

DOUBLE TROUBLE LIVE
The final disc, containing most of 1985’s ‘Double Trouble Live’, is worth the asking price alone for anyone yet to own a copy. As far as live albums go, when its at it’s best, it could rival the classics. The band might have been promoting their most commercial work to date, but ‘The Deed Is Done’ is only briefly represented on this collection, with the bulk of the set representing what’s essentially a “Molly Hatchet Greatest Hits” live. The classics are all here: tight and hard renditions of ‘Beatin’ The Odds’ and ‘Bloody Reunion’; a take on ‘Stone In Your Heart’ that proves they could also replicate their newly found AOR-centric sound live; but better still, there are plenty of cracking takes on the seventies classics. Since the debut and ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster’ aren’t included in the ‘Fall of The Peacemakers 1980-85’ box set, more casual listeners will be thrilled by the brilliant opening flurry of ‘Whiskey Man’, ‘Bounty Hunter’, ‘Gator Country’ and ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster’ – a crash course in classic Hatchet, right there – whilst covers of The Allman Brothers’ ‘Dreams I’ll Never See’ and Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’ fit nicely among the self-penned rockers. It’s a brave band who takes on ‘Freebird’ and succeeds, but the Hatchet cover is respectful and an important part of this live document years on.

Over the years, ‘Double Trouble Live’ has never been well served on CD, since two songs were omitted to scale the release down to a single disc. This box set finally rights that long-standing wrong and while the missing tracks are appended to the end of disc three following the marvellous ‘No Guts…No Glory’, those listeners without access to the original LP version can now enjoy the versions of ‘Walk On The Side of Angels’ and ‘Walk With You’ as intended, provided that is you don’t mind them being out of sequence. While neither of these tracks existed in a studio version, looking back, it’s easy to see why they were the obvious choices to drop from the earlier CD issues, since neither are particularly representative of the band’s classic sound. That said, with decades between the recording and their long overdue re-release on this box set, they sound great. ‘…Angels’, although not a Hatchet original, would have fit nicely with the ‘Deed’ material and the hugely superior ‘Walk With You’ (written by one-time Orleans man John Hall) finds Molly Hatchet trying their hand at the kind of uptempo radio filler that would have suited John Cafferty.

This box set actually offers the best outcome: if you’re keen to hear these commercial belters, you can now do so with ease; if you’re one of those people who thought FM radio pop-rock killed the spirit of Molly Hatchet, you can still experience ‘Double Trouble Live’ without the aid of the skip button!

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This has to be one of 2018’s most welcome reissue packages. With at least one of the original albums not too easy to find in the real world and the addition of the bonus materials – those long absent ‘Double Trouble Live’ tracks, especially – this box set is indispensable. While the merely curious might be well served by a Greatest Hits type set, this box isn’t that much more expensive and is a much more satisfying proposition. An average greatest hits compilation wouldn’t necessarily include much live material and, obviously, when it comes to that, ‘Fall of The Peacemakers: 1980-1985’ really doesn’t skimp. With a set of good to great albums, some terrific live material and a few rare nuggets, it’s a win-win for almost everyone – from relatively big fans, casual admirers, and those Allman Brothers fans looking stretch out. …And with the price point making this almost affordable as an impulse purchase, you have to ask: why can’t other box sets and reissues be this well-rounded?

In memoriam:
Danny Joe Brown (1951-2005)
Duane Roland (1952-2006)
Dave Hlubek (1951-2017)

July 2018

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