David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 256: 38 Special (Hold On Loosely)

June 1, 2023

Chalk this one up as another, "Wow, I didn't know that" moment for me. The beauty (there must be some) in the on-going struggle to find 365 reasons to write about 365 artists through 365 songs is that I sometimes have to dig deep to find an angle for a song, and sometimes a band, that haven't (band or song) been an obsession through the years.

This latest a-ha moment comes, not from A-ha, but from 38 Special, a band who I like through their biggest hits, which means via one greatest hits CD. Despite the near perfect pop sensibilities of most of their charting songs ("Caught Up In You," "If I'd Been The One," "Fantasy Girl," "Back Where You Belong," and "Hold On Loosely"), their over-riding image and classification as Southern Rock meant I was never going to explore much more deeply. If you don't count various "Greatest Hits" and "Best Of" collections, the only Southern Rock album or CD I have ever owned is Atlanta Rhythm Section's Champagne Jam, an announcement that probably brings the pick-ups and shotguns to my door in a communal sense of outrage.

However, it was an engineer, and in the end, I am not savvy enough to understand the overall influence of an engineer on most completed songs, Rodney Mills, that impacted some of the poppy sounds of 38 Special's biggest hits. Sure, Mills seem embedded in the Southern Rock scene, but his fingerprints are apparently all over "Free Bird," "Sweet Home Alabama," "So Into You," "Imaginary Lover," "Caught Up In You," and "Hold On Loosely." The dude had some ability to engineer southern rock into Top 40-friendly music.

So, at least my discovery of Mr. Mills has given me some insight into the common thread of the pop influences on the Southern Rock I do enjoy. I find other interesting, albeit tiny, connections between "Hold On Loosely" as the broader pop music landscape. Turns out fellow co-writer on the song (there are three), Jim Peterik, openly nipped a line from the Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes" with the reference to "sentimental fool" in the bridge. Peterik was in the band Survivor, at the time, still searching for their own "Eye Of The Tiger."

My research into "Hold On Loosely," however, has shown a different connection that I never would have expected. Guitarist Jeff Carlisi openly admits the opening riff, and on-going lick, in the song is patterned after The Cars' "Just What I Needed." And as soon as I hear that, I, well, hear it. And, in fact, beyond that opening riff, much of the song really sounds like a Cars' song.

Start with the vocals. Dave Barnes, the third co-writer, came up with the title and sings the hell out of the song. Even though 38 Special gains some fame by being Donnie Van Zant's band (while his brothers were in Lynyrd Skynyrd), now I realize that for the big hits, almost all of them are sung by Barnes, not Van Zant. I discover another crossover with The Cars with the alternating lead singers, Barnes' voice, much like Ben Orr's, the much better voice than Van Zant or Ric Ocasek. Barnes' vocals on hits like "Hold On Loosely" sound perfectly captured in the best recording studio ever, nothing but the vocal quality coming through.

Turns out that Carlisi met and hung out with Ben Orr later in life. A lovely blog honoring the life of Ben Orr (that blog another jewel I have found in this journey) by sweetpurplejune describes the Carlisi and Orr friendship as it developed, although one wonders about the reality of memory when Carlisi says he had no idea Orr sang on so many of the hits, while also saying that Orr didn't hear the "Just What I Needed" riff when Carlisi first played it for him.

In the end, both The Cars and 38 Special produced a nice run of finely crafted pop songs throughout the 80s that in some ways could have been interchangeable. A little more flash from the band named after a gun than the band named after a mode of transportation. Maybe that is to be expected. Genres matter. I don't think we'd ever hear a Southern Rock band sing "alienation is all the craze" while standing stock still in a concert. There might have been something Ric Ocasek could have learned from these wild-eyed southern boys.

38 Special. "Hold On Loosely." Wild-Eyed Southern Boys. A&M, 1981. Link here.

Day 255: Radiohead "Creep"

Day 257: The Church "Grind"

See complete list here.