Graded on a Curve:
Molly Hatchet,
Super Hits

Jacksonville, Florida’s Molly Hatchet released their self-titled debut LP in September 1978, less than a year after the plane carrying hometown heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd glided, gas tanks on empty, into a swamp outside Gillsburg, Mississippi, and more than anyone else they carried that band’s brand of Southern Rock into the future.

Over the course of the six albums (although the first two stand head and shoulders above the rest) they recorded during their peak—well maybe I should five, because their last one, 1984’s The Deed Is Done is a mostly a sorry spectacle—they produced a small but respectable body of songs that would have made Ronnie Van Zant proud. They were never Skynyrd’s equal—not a rock band in America was—but as the songs on 1998’s Super Hits (I love cheesy best-of compilations) prove, they learned from the best, and what’s more had a few tricks up their sleeve that their star-crossed forebearers didn’t.

The band’s history is complicated by the fact that their grit and grits lead singer Danny Joe Brown, who exuded pure swamp charisma, left the band after the band’s second LP (1979’s excellent Flirtin’ with Disaster) and didn’t return until the band’s fifth (1983’s No Guts…No Glory) and his replacement, Jimmy Farrar, simply didn’t have the same fire in the belly. And the compilation itself is flawed for the reason I stated above—when a band releases two tremendous albums and the compilers are left with having to include cuts from the other, lesser albums, you’re left to do some sorry compromising.

And it’s actually worse than that—I’ll be damned if I can understand why they only include the title track of 1979’s Flirtin’ with Disaster on the compilation while ignoring other great songs from the album like “Whiskey Man” and “Boogie No More,” while including two tracks from the largely lamentable The Deed Is Done. I’d blame it on bad moonshine, but the corporate types at Epic Records hardly seem your standard white lightning types.

Like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet boasted a “three guitar army,” and like their elders they boasted a frontman in Brown with a three-alarm fire in his tonsils, but unlike Skynyrd their songwriting was generally a collective affair. But the committee approach worked for them, and the result is an admittedly small handful of hard-rock tinged Southern Rock classics.

Molly Hatchet with Farrar behind the microphone were a dicier affair, but they too managed to produce some songs of the sort that haunt the swamps at night, baying at the moon. And let’s face it: the barbarians on their album covers, which were the work of the great Frank Frazetta, were a stroke of branding genius that helped define the band’s image as marauding Huns, although for all I know the band’s collective idea of a wild time was a good game of mahjong.

The compilation opens with a powerful flurry of 1-2-3 punches, starting with “Bounty Hunter.” It’s a nasty, brutish and short slice of hard-charging Southland boogie, Pickett’s Charge with a powerful three-guitar attack and a simply wonderful vocal performance by Brown. Who opens it with a big “Hellllllll, yeah!” then goes on to shout, laugh, whistle, and toss off a wonderful aside that goes “Did you know $500 will get your head blown off?/It will… ha, ha, ha.” Now that’s badass.

“Gator Country” is a catchy as hell and highly propulsive example of north Florida swampland chauvinism—it opens with the great lines “I’ve been to Alabama, people ain’t a whole lot to see/Skynyrd says it’s a real sweet home but it ain’t nothing to me” and goes on from there. Charlie Daniels can keep Tennessee, Dickey Betts can keep Georgia, and the same goes for the Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop and their respective home sweet homes, fuck you very much. As for Brown, there’s a gator basking in the righteous mud down there in Jacksonville and it’s calling his name, “and a saying come on boy, you better make it back home again.” Meanwhile the good old boys on guitar are playing up a hurricane big enough to sink New Orleans once and for all, one guitarist picking up where the other one left off like the masked buffoons in a match of professional wrestling.

“Gator Country” is one of the sweetest and finest Southern Rock songs of ‘em all—a declaration of pride in one’s natural born real estate that has nothing to do with the Confederacy or any of that rebel yell Charlie Daniels shit. And the boogie never lets up for a second—it’s a romp from beginning to end, and it has Brown whistling.

“Flirtin’ with Disaster” stands just as tall. It opens with some very mean guitar wank that sounds like a stock car revving up at the starting line before the song kicks into gear and hauls on down the track. Brown “has the pedal to the floor” and knows he flirting with disaster (but then again, he says, “you are too, baby”) but fuck it, how else is a southern boy supposed get his thrills? The song boasts a sweet but supercharged melody that catches you right up—what you have here is a souped-up pop song so encrusted with Southernisms you almost miss the Top Forty for the back forty.

And by Southernisms I mean Brown’s cracker-powered vocals (on that “And you are too, baby” he sounds exactly like Ronnie Van Zant), the flash-fried boogie you hear in every guitar note, and the big power chords they clomp you over the head with every time the song stops to catch its breath. This is hard rock juke joint brawlin’ music, and you can practically smell the beer and feel the crackling electricity of imminent grievous bodily harm and hear the whiskey bottle sailing past your ear.

I wish the compilers hadn’t seen fit to follow it up with “Satisfied Man” from The Deed Is Done because it’s a shamelessly derivative ZZ Top rip and sadly obvious stab at relevancy from a band that had clearly run out of hatchets. The guitars are ZZ Top’s guitars, the vocals are ZZ Top’s vocals with a bit of generic Top Forty thrown in on the bridge, and the synthesizer is just… sad. There’s no denying it has a big, and by that I mean really big, sound, and both the drums and the guitars have obviously been taking steroids, so if you can put out of your mind the knowledge of what the boys in Molly Hatchet were capable of in days of yore you may even like it. Even the melody, while five-finger discounted, has something to be said for it. But compare it to say, “Gator Country,” and what you’ll hear is the sound of a label executive telling his secretary to stop taking Molly Hatchet’s phone calls.

“Bloody Reunion” is pure Jacksonville Speedway boogie—the damn thing’s in a damn hurry to get to wherever the hell it’s going, although why substitute vocalist Jimmy Farrar is in such a rush to get himself all bloodied up is beyond me—maybe it’s the “everybody’s high as a kite” part he’s looking forward to. It’s not the most original piece of work—Farrar’s vocals are more hard rock than Southern Rock and lack Brown’s redneck character and irrepressible good humor, and the guitars lack their usual Southern grace—but it’s still a solid piece of songcraft and packs a real sonic wallop.

“Respect Me in the Morning” is a powerhouse rocker without a lick of gator-on-a-stick in it—hell, guest vocalist Joyce “Baby Jean” Kennedy comes to us straight from the Damn Yankee environs of Chicago. This is standard meat and potatoes rock, but the meat ain’t of the mystery variety and if you’re the type who likes hard rock played hard as nails at above the county speed limit you’ll like this one. The guitar work in particular is mighty fine—a combination of pure power and surprising finesse.

“Fall of the Peacemakers” has more than a touch of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” in it—has a touch of “Tuesday’s Gone” in it too. Lyrically it’s a rather mawkish tribute to John Lennon. How mawkish? I give you the following:

“A voice from the past cried “Give peace a chance”
He paid our price now he’s free at last
Imagine, we called him a dreamer!
How many times must good men die?
How many tears will the children cry?
‘Til they suffer no more sadness
Stop the madness,
Oh, stop the madness.”

What madness? Was there an epidemic of gunning musical idealists down in cold blood I haven’t heard about? Fortunately it’s a pretty little thing, opens with some acoustic guitars and a soaring synthesizer followed by a tasty guitar solo, after which Brown comes in, sounding tougher than what he’s singing. He’s followed by yet more great soloing, and there’s a really lovely piano in there as well. And just when you think it’s over the guitarists decide fuck it, time to get mean and really cut loose and they do, taking the song out in a jam that just gets more and more belligerent until you begin to worry about studio damage and find yourself wondering if it wasn’t them who pulled the trigger on that poor dead Beatle.

“Dead Giveaway” features a big bottom and a razor-blade guitar riff and is another hard rocker with nary a whiff of swamp gas in it, but it’s all guitars all the time for people who like all guitars all the time and makes up for what it lacks in subtlety and even originality with sheer punch-to-the-solar-plexus axe power. It’s simplicity itself this one, a stripped to the bone “On the Hunt” exercise in hard rock reductionism without so much as a cow bell to add flavor. But it ain’t about flavor, this one. It’s about beating Bad Company at their own game, and while I wouldn’t say they win they certainly draw a tie.

“The Rambler” has a sweet “Can’t You See” feel to it and for once Farrar’s vocals are just right—he’s got enough waver in his voice to imbue this mid-tempo rocker with real emotion. He’s a ramblin’ man and country boy, our Farrar, but life in the big city has him down as you can tell by the mournful slide guitar, which sweetens up the hard rock playing of the rest of the six-string hatchet wielders. The title of closer “Song for the Children” is almost enough to make me throw away my Molly Hatchet t-shirt, but turns out it’s a lovely instrumental acoustic guitar workout that will have you both bawling and grateful because Lord knows what lamentable mess of lyrical hog maw stuffed with appalling cliches the boys could have cooked up given a title like that.

Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet never rocked the world on its heels—my own particular opinion is they should have put more Southern in their Rock, because when they did the swamps of northeastern Florida (and everywhere else) got up on their hind legs and boogied while the gators in the mangroves sang sweet harmony. But at their finest they were damn fine indeed, and at their middling they could still rock as hard as most bands in the forty-eight contiguous United States. In short, I come not to bury the Hatchet, but to praise them. They weren’t the best band to come out of the South, the best to come out of Jacksonville even, but for a brief and wonderful spell they did some truly memorable whoopin’ and hollerin’.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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