Bob Seger's music made its digital debut without warning last week.
Nearly every major online MP3 retailer and streaming service now carries 13 of the albums Seger recorded with the Silver Bullet Band, the Bob Seger System and on his own, righting a wrong so egregious it once seemed irreparable. Just this past March, NPR published a lengthy article by Tim Quirk contending that Seger was devaluing his reputation by not having his music online and that argument still holds water.
By keeping his music out of circulation, Seger had a hand in reducing himself to a bit of a caricature: a fogey who loved that old time-ah rock & roll. Seger may have developed a nostalgic streak as he grew older (most of us do) but in his prime, he was a fierce rock & roller and perceptive songwriter mining the melancholic undercurrent of the Midwest. As much as Springsteen, Seger is a creature of his homeland, capturing the rough and tumble of southeastern Michigan, a state that produced both Motown and the Stooges in the '60s. Bob Seger occupied a middle ground between these two extremes, rocking like a madman in his earliest days while always showing a deep affection for soulful rhythms. To this, he added sepia-toned introspection inspired by Van Morrison, a progression that moved him away from his garage rock beginnings and helped forge the sound of heartland rock.
Seger's biggest hits are so confident and assured, they not only sound inevitable but they suggest that he came on the scene fully formed. In fact, he recorded eight albums before breaking through via 1976's Live Bullet, which benefitted from these years of woodshedding -- though unfortunately everything Seger released between 1969's Noah and 1974's Seven still remains out of circulation. Even with these absences, Seger's digital debut offers an opportunity to hear how much deeper his catalog runs than the big hits gathered on 2011's double disc Ultimate Hits: Rock & Roll Never Forgets -- and just how tough and smart his songs could be.
'2+2=?' (Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, 1969)
Opening with a slinky, sinister bass riff the White Stripes would later rework for "Seven Nation Army," "2+2=?" is the best kind of rock & roll protest song: one that's all about emotion, not politics. Seger doesn't understand why he could be sent off to Vietnam to die, and he channels that frustration into three minutes of rage.
'Ivory' (Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, 1969)
One of the funkiest numbers the Bob Seger System ever worked up, "Ivory" is a 12-bar blues that gets blown out by fuzz guitars, handclaps, greasy organ, and a call and response that feels like the Bob Seger System is testifying at the altar of rock & roll.
'The Last Song (Love Needs To Be Loved)' (Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, 1969)
Speaking of gospel, this paean to free love, peace and happiness may be on the corny side, but it's also a showcase for the hardscrabble skills of the Bob Seger System. A Three Dog Night or Blood, Sweat & Tears would've made "The Last Song" dippy, but the greasy guitar and heavy beat turns this into a gritty mini-epic.
'Black Night' (Beautiful Loser, 1975)
On the lithe, funky, and tough "Black Night," Seger refines his blend of garage rock and R&B, trimming his song to the bone and then adding weight via a hard-charging performance. He's also growing as a singer: There's a restraint here that is unheard on his early albums and helps give this hard rocker dimension.
'Jody Girl' (Beautiful Loser, 1975)
So hushed it almost seems like a whisper, "Jody Girl" can recall the quietest moments on Astral Weeks. But where Van Morrison mined the mystic, Seger keeps his focus earthbound, and that lends this song of memory and regret real pathos.
'Get Out of Denver' (Live Bullet, 1976)
"Get Out of Denver" is the greatest Chuck Berry tribute -- or rip-off -- ever written. Riffing off the dope dealers on the run from Chuck's "Tulane," Seger crams too many words into its verses and the chorus never gives relief. Here, the live jams sap the song of its relentless momentum just a bit -- compare it to the numerous renditions from British pub rockers like Eddie & The Hot Rods and Dave Edmunds, where the velocity is the point, a lesson they learned from Seger's original version on Seven -- but it's still a thing of wonder.
'Lookin' Back' (Live Bullet, 1976)
Another protest song, "Lookin' Back" was a non-LP single that arrived in 1971, just between Mongrel and 1972's Smokin' OPs. It's a cousin of "2+2=?," but it pushes the politics to the forefront, a move that is diminished slightly on the Live Bullet version, where the emphasis is on the funky riff, but the Silver Bullet Band knew enough to keep this one short -- unlike the rest of the live album, this one clocks in at a 45-friendly 2:36.
'Heavy Music' (Live Bullet, 1976)
One of Seger's earliest singles, "Heavy Music" is a testament to the power of a good beat and that's why it withstands being opened up on stage. The Silver Bullet Band slows the groove down a bit and vamps on its two-chord riff for eight minutes, while Seger works the crowd into a frenzy.
'Sunspot Baby' (Night Moves, 1976)
Opens up with barrelhouse piano, "Sunspot Baby" slides into a hardcore grind, the perfect sound for Seger lamenting the loss of a two-timing woman. What's notable here is that while this is proudly part of hard rock tradition, there are no overt nods to idols -- from its muscular groove to its slyly sculpted lyrics, this is unmistakably Seger.
'Feel Like A Number' (Stranger in Town, 1978)
A cousin to Seger's early protest songs, "Feel Like A Number" finds Seger feeling like a spoke in the wheel, a faceless drone in corporate America -- a sentiment that only gained resonance in the coming decades, as late capitalism reduced the workforce to statistics. Seger rails against the darkness and his anger feels affirming.
'Till It Shines' (Stranger in Town, 1978)
A reworking of "Night Moves," "Till It Shines" almost rivals its predecessor thanks to how Seger moves the narrative into the present. Here, he's focused not on the past, but the possibility of the present, a transition that feels hopeful. Of course, the twin guitar harmonies poached from Thin Lizzy don't hurt matters, either.
'Betty Lou's Gettin' Out Tonight' (Against the Wind, 1980)
A terrific, knowing spin on several old time rock & rollers -- chief among them Bobby Freeman's "Betty Lou's Got a New Pair of Shoes," which was later covered by both Neil Young and Eddie & The Cruisers -- "Betty Lou's Gettin' Out Tonight" doesn't have any grand aspirations, but that's what's great about it. It's a simple party song, one that frat bands could've played in 1965 and the fact that Seger cut it at the peak of his fame speaks volumes to where his heart lies.
'Makin' Thunderbirds' (The Distance, 1982)
Heartland rock at its purest, "Makin' Thunderbirds" is a testament to the glory days of the Motor City. It sounds like a celebration -- the beat charges hard, the chorus is designed to be chanted by crowds -- but beneath this joy there's a sad streak. "Now the years have flown and the plants have changed/And you're lucky if you work" is an acknowledgement of the decline of the rust belt and, given that it was released at the peak of the Reagan Revolution, that admission seems almost defiant.
Bonus: 'Sock It to Me Santa' (1966 single)
"Sock It To Me Santa" isn't new to streaming but the fact that it's streaming at all is noteworthy. Released on Hideout in 1966, this novelty single is the easiest way to hear the power of Bob Seger & The Last Heard, who were one of the great unsung bands of the '60s. Here, they're splicing James Brown with frat rock and Laugh-In, creating a bit of inspired seasonal nonsense. Don't listen to the lyrics, listen to the band: They're selling this beat with all their might, and it's hard to resist the giddiness that drives their righteous noise.