Blackfoot

Vertical Smiles

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Although they'd managed to become bona fide second division stars in England, where their incomparably heavy brand of Southern rock and devastating live performances had thrilled orphaned Lynyrd Skynyrd disciples and open-minded metal heads alike, Blackfoot had made dispiritedly little commercial headway in their own backyard: the American market. So as pressure mounted to deliver a hit for their label, Atco, Rickey Medlocke decided to invite former Uriah Heep keyboard player Ken Hensley to join the band, a calculated move intended to modernize the group's sound for the synth-happy '80s. But 1983's Siogo, though seemingly a passable compromise, still failed to yield any hits, so Blackfoot was literally put on notice prior to getting to work on their next effort, which was rejected upon initial delivery under the working title of "Cry of the Banshee." The band was ordered back into the studio to try again, only without founding second guitarist Charlie Hargrett, who had quit under duress after being fingered as the scapegoat for all of the band's problems (including "looking old" and playing "old-fashioned"-like). The resulting Vertical Smiles was finally released in the summer 1984 and represented not only Blackfoot's creative fall from grace, but also delivered one of the most misogynistic title/cover tandems (see multiple up-skirt Polaroids) since Montrose's equally tasteless and musically inadequate Jump on It eight years earlier. For starters, the first two songs on Vertical Smiles were covers (never a good sign), and although the perennial folk rock favorite "Morning Dew" was remade into a pretty classy power ballad, the ensuing "Living in the Limelight" was doomed from the get-go for being composed by Chicago schmaltz king Peter Cetera, of all people; need we say more? Of the seven originals that followed, few fared any better, being that most had what little lingering guitar grit they could muster summarily buried beneath a wash of unnecessary, glossy ‘80s synth lines, particularly offensive on such titles as "Ride with You," the electronic-drum horror of "Heartbeat and Heels," and the intolerably insipid "Summer Days." Die-hard Blackfoot fans may be able to tolerate partially convincing hard rockers like "Get It On" and "Young Girl" (even though the first one rips off ZZ Top's Eliminator sound; the second, antipodean new wavers Split Enz!), but the surrounding embarrassments are simply too painful to warrant anyone else being exposed to the torment and disappointment that is Vertical Smiles. At least Charlie Hargrett, wherever he was, might have had a good laugh about the whole ordeal.

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