The brilliant testament of Lynyrd Skynyrd
By Sergio Ariza
"One day we'll all be in Steve Gaines' shadow"; Ronnie Van Zant was clear that the band's new guitarist was a special guy and he knew that sooner or later that bird would fly high and free.
Street Survivors is one of the saddest albums that exists, not because of its content, which is full of energetic rock & roll, but because it is the confirmation that Lynyrd Skynyrd had recovered their fire and magic, and were inaugurating a new glorious stage. But, as everyone knows, this was the band's last album in their original version. Three days after its release, a plane crash took Van Zant, the heart of the band, and Gaines, their future, as well as Steve's sister, Cassie, the pilot, co-pilot and road manager.
Thus, what should have been the beginning of their second golden period, became the sad testament and the most valuable proof that Van Zant was right when he spoke of Gaines being possibly the most prodigious guitarist that the band had ever had. And this from a band that already had two other prodigious guitarists, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, in its ranks, and that had even had another: Ed King.
As if Lynyrd Skynyrd had done it deliberately, the record divides into two parts. The first begins with songs from the band’s ‘old guard’ - as Rossington composed, together with Van Zant, What's Your Name and One More Time (a song that they re-fished from an ancient session in 1971, in the mythical Muscle Shoals studios), while Collins collaborates with the singer on That Smell. Finally, the fourth and last song on that first side, was composed alone by Gaines; I Know A Little.
The album’s second side gives us a small taste of how a version of Lynyrd Skynyrd led by Gaines might have been; a version that Van Zant had in mind. This is because on the flip side the Young guitarist composed three of the four songs, one solo and two with lyrics by Van Zant, in addition to taking the lead vocals in a couple of them: You Got That Right, with Van Zant, and Ain't No Good Life, which closes the album. The fourth song that closes this side is a cover version of Merle Haggard’s Honky Tonk Night Time Man, which has an absolutely incredible solo by Gaines.
What's Your Name is the first song, and also served as a single presentation; it is a great song with all the elements that made this band great. The song was composed by Rossington and Van Zant, but it was Collins who was showing off with his brand new Explorer 58 and Peavey. Then comes the prophetic That Smell. Van Zant wrote the lyrics as a warning to Collins and Rossington, whose habit of mixing drink and drugs with driving had almost cost them their lives. The terrible thing is that this smell of death became a reality, but it was Van Zant himself who perished (something he possibly had resigned himself to, as he used to say he would never turn 30) and young Gaines. Specifically it is Gaines who begins to shine with his Stratocaster 65, entering a wonderful final duel with Rossington on his Les Paul 59. I Know A Little is proof of Gaines's love for jazz and closes the first side with an incredible demonstration of technique and know-how on his part.
The second side opened with another of the band's best songs, You Got That Right, probably Gaines' best composition, who also shares lead vocals with Van Zant. Rossington is on the slide but it is, again, Gaines who ends with a spectacular solo, this time with his Les Paul Black Beauty. I Never Dreamed proves that the Gaines/Van Zant partnership had a bright future ahead of it, as it is a beautiful song built on an acoustic, which was something unusual in the band. The song again leaves us with another incredible solo by Gaines; the tone he achieves with his Strat is absolutely unique.
Then comes the only song in which Gaines does not participate in the composition on this side; it is a version of Honky Tonk Night Time Man, but he has an absolutely amazing solo on it. The album closes with Ain't No Good Life, a blues number composed and sung alone by Gaines, with another great contribution from Billy Powell on the piano.
It is incredible the confidence that the band deposited in their new member. It is important not to forget that we are speaking about a band that had produced songs like Free Bird and Sweet Home Alabama, had two of the best guitarists of the world and had one of the most charismatic band leaders in history and, even so, they did not care at all that Gaines was the absolute star of the record. He was the one chosen to lead them into the future, but the future ceased to exist, and Street Survivors was left as the last brilliant testament of this key Southern rock band.