Graded on a Curve:
Molly Hatchet,
Flirtin’ with Disaster

Remembering guitarist Dave Hlubek of Molly Hatchet.Ed.

I consider myself a southern rock fan of sorts—Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of my favorite bands, and I still plan to get that tattoo of their plane going down, Ronnie Van Zant looking out a window and saying, “Turn it up!”—but I always drew the line at Molly Hatchet. I think it had to do with those fantasy covers—you know, the ones with steroidal Huns in Viking helmets like the sopranos in operas wear wielding wicked-looking double axes. I’ve never liked fantasy art, or people who like fantasy art, and while I’m ashamed to admit I refused to listen to a band because of its album covers, it’s the god’s honest truth.

Anyway, I finally took the plunge, and I was shocked—Molly Hatchet wasn’t half bad. A kind of poor man’s Lynyrd Skynyrd—both bands hailed from swampy Jacksonville, Florida—Molly Hatchet boasted a singer who sounded a lot like Ronnie Van Zant and three guitarists just like Skynyrd, which gave them the ability to “Free Bird” out to their heart’s content. True, their songwriting skills were never up to Skynyrd standards—all meat and potatoes, only without the meat—but they were good enough, good enough. And when I call Molly Hatchet a poor man’s Lynyrd Skynyrd it’s not a total diss, because I still—having finally heard them—rate them above the Outlaws, the Charlie Daniels Band, .38 Special, The Marhall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, and all the rest of their Southern Rock brethren, with the exception of Black Oak Arkansas, because BOA is just so fucking weird.

Molly Hatchet mixed in enough hard rock to differentiate themselves from the more countrified Southern Rock pack, but were also capable of pure South of Dixie goodness—just check out their loving cover of Gregg Allman’s “Dreams I’ll Never See” if you don’t believe me. Or “Gator Country,” an excellent tune in which they name-check their competition and their home states and conclude they’d just as soon be back in the gator country of Jacksonville. True, they lost the thread later on—as is demonstrated by songs that sound like bad hair metal and an album called Southern Rock Masters that included songs by Thin Lizzy, the Eagles, and Mountain—proof either that they had a very flexible concept of Southern Rock, or should really have paid more attention to their geography teacher in high school.

But like I said before they had assets, chiefly lead singer Danny Joe Brown’s raspy growl and intense delivery and the 3-guitar army of Dave Hlubek, Steve Holland, and Duane Roland, all of which allowed them to pull off songs that were often little more than serviceable roadhouse clichés. And like I said before, their country influences were less pronounced than those of their competition, thanks largely to the input of producer Tom Werman, who’d built his reputation working with hard rock acts like Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent.

But on albums like 1979’s Flirtin’ with Disaster they demonstrated just enough originality and southern influence—thanks largely to Brown’s swamp devil vocals and cowboy horse-whistling—to keep them, especially with Skynyrd gone, at the forefront of the Southern Rock pack. Take opener “Whiskey Man.” It’s a hard-driving, harmonica-driven tune with relatively vacuous lyrics that Brown pulls off by means of pure tonsil strength, with the help of a long guitar instrumental that’ll have you thinking Skynyrd’s plane never went down. It’s followed by a boogie-fried cover of “It’s All Over Now,” which works thanks to some very frisky guitar work, one honky-tonk piano, and Brown’s “Come on boys, turn it up.” Just like Ronnie Van Zant at the beginning of “Sweet Home Alabama”! And the guitarists—they do, they turn it up and then take it out, with some awesome licks that just accentuate that piano.

“One Man’s Pleasure” is a slightly subpar Skynyrd imitation, which not even Brown’s dynamite vocals or lots of perty guitar work can save. It’s not terrible; there’s just no way of not comparing it to Lynyrd Skynyrd, or any way of concluding that it comes up short. I do love me those guitars, though. “Jukin’ City” also carries the weight of Skynyrd’s influence, but the big boogie chorus and the song’s swing both save it from slavish imitation. Throw in some funky guitar, a whistle from Brown, and the way he says “Good time!” and you’ve got yourself a winner. As for “Boogie No More,” it sounds like a hybrid of Free and Skynyrd, and moves at too much of a crawl for my tastes. Boogie is right there in the goddamn title, so why. I wondered the first time I heard it, aren’t they boogieing? Ah, but about a minute and a half into the song the tempo picks up and the guitars blast away, producing the kind of din that would make the perfect soundtrack for a bloody brawl at your local roadhouse. And on it goes, the guitars climbing towards a crescendo and then coming back down to earth and then climbing again, and if you’re not a fan of solos I definitely recommend you avoid this great piece of group playing.

“Flirtin’ with Disaster” opens on a hard rock note and kicks along at a healthy pace, and there’s a reason it’s a classic—it’s a road song that sounds hard-earned, and both Brown and the guitarists burn their bridges before they get to them. Some whistling, a fantastic guitar solo or three, and a rhythm section that carries the song along combine to produce a song almost as good as Skynyrd’s best. There isn’t a country bone in its body, but who cares? It rocks like AC/DC. As for “Good Rockin’,” it’s a pretty good tune undermined by its clichéd message—“We’re gonna have a rock’n’roll night tonight,” etc.—but the guitars thunder, the song has hooks aplenty (even if they do seem borrowed from Skynyrd), and you could do plenty worse. “Gunsmoke” does nothing for me—it makes clear why Lynyrd Skynyrd was the better band, namely because while Ronnie Van Zant was a born storyteller, the guys in Molly Hatchet too often fell back on second-hand generalities—although I do like Brown’s ad libs, the piano, and those guitars, which I never tire of hearing.

“Long Time” has some Skynyrd DNA in its melody, but still works for the usual reasons—tight guitar playing and Brown’s gruff vocals. The wah guitar solo is fantastic, as is the solo that follows it, and before you know it they’re playing intertwined lines that match anything Skynyrd’s crew of guitarists could do. Lyrically, album closer “Let the Good Times Roll” is another string of hackneyed lines, while the melody is serviceable but not much more. The guitarists go out of their way to out-solo one another, Brown growls like a bear, and there isn’t much more to be said about the tune except that it’s likeable but won’t blow you away.

A lesson in ancient history: Ronnie Van Zant was slated to produce Molly Hatchet’s 1978 debut, and it’s interesting to wonder how his influence—as opposed to the hard rock guy they got—would have altered their sound. But Van Zant died in that plane headed for Baton Rouge, and never got the chance. Maybe it would have changed nothing; maybe he’d have contributed some lyrics, which would have helped, but probably not. As it was, Brown left the band due to health reasons only to later return, but their songwriting went from serviceable to sorry, and like I said they forayed into AOR hair metal country in songs such as “Satisfied Man”—it came complete with a synthesizer, for Christ’s sake—and the vacuous “Shake the House Down,” which featured a hackneyed metal chorus. Oh well. When they were in their prime they could boogie your pants off, and set your hair on fire, weak lyrics notwithstanding. And that ain’t nothin’. Not by a long shot. So let’s crank up those three guitars and do us some flirtin’ with disaster.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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