Here’s another jumbo helping of pop-friendly Canadian boogie for you. This trio of albums captures the middle part of the band’s career, including their last two charting studio albums and a lesser-known live outing that sadly was the only official live recording of the band during their heyday. Rock critics usually shrug this period off as a downward slide but time has been kinder to the studio material than it usually gets credit for – and the live album is right in the pocket for devotees of the live albums that were such big business in the rock world during the second half of the ’70s.
FOUR WHEEL DRIVE (1975): If this sounds like Not Fragile Jr., that’s no mistake: the label demanded a quick follow-up when Not Fragile became a hit and the band knocked this album out in six days utilizing mostly leftovers from its predecessor. This earns it the rep of being the album where B.T.O. started repeating themselves, an accusation aided by the way lead single “Hey You” shamelessly recycles key hooks from “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” That said, it’s a pretty tuneful and energetic set of material overall: even “Hey You” has a pumping chorus that redeems its borrowings. The title track is a barnstorming boogie with an amusingly shouty lead vocal from Turner, “She’s A Devil” is a fascinating see-saw act between mellow country-rock verses and a majestic proto-metal chorus and “She’s Keepin’ Time” is a taut little cruiser with some nice dual-guitar hooks. Random surprise: the way “Lowland Fling” feels like a folk song rearranged for the arena rock stage.
HEAD ON (1975): This would be the last Top 40 album for B.T.O. and also produced their final Top 40 single in “Take It Like A Man,” a rollicking piece that gets a shot in the arm from some boogie woogie piano by guest Little Richard. It’s hard to tell if the band knew the end was near commercially but there’s definitely a weariness that pervades the album’s lyrics, if not their tunes: lead-off track “Find Out About Love” talks about making a break from everything, “Average Man” is the lament of a rocker who finds success didn’t improve his life and the title of “Lookin’ Out For Number One” says it all. That said, it’s all hooky and well-arranged in a way that belies the lyrical mood: “Find” offsets the verses’ churning rhythms with an ethereal slide guitar at chorus time and “Lookin’ Out” is a silky, Latinized soft-rock acoustic piece that harkens back to “Blue Collar” but fits in with the yacht rock trends of ’75. Hidden gems: the conga-accented country rock of “Away From Home” and the pulse-pounding yet slick “Free Spirit.”
BTO JAPAN TOUR LIVE! (1977): Live double albums became massive business in the mid-’70s for arena rock-friendly acts so it’s kind of amazing that B.T.O. didn’t cash in, as their take-it-to-the-stage, guitar-heavy approach made them perfect candidates. Instead, fans had to hunt down this consolation prize, a live single album of their 1976 Japan tour made for that country’s market. Despite the track list missing obvious hits like “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” it’s still a barnstorming affair: Turner’s growl-shout vocals are strong throughout and the innate heaviness of the band’s sound intensifies on the live stage. Highlights include a raucous gang-shout version of “Takin’ Care Of Business,” a version of “Welcome Home” where the chorus goes full metal and a version of deep cut “Don’t Get Yourself In Trouble” that grooves like Lou Reed’s live version of “White Light White Heat” on Rock & Roll Animal (it’s also preceded by an unexpectedly jaunty wah-wah guitar solo). Listen out for Turner’s charmingly awkward stage patter and a slightly rewritten snippet of “Thank You For The Feelin'” that is transformed into a direct tribute to the Japanese audience.