No band has been cut down in their prime so suddenly, and so horrifically, as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Having risen from humble origins in Jacksonville, Florida, Skynyrd had become major stars by the mid-70s. Their name a joke on their despised former schoolteacher Leonard Skinner, the band popularised the soulful sound of southern rock with anthems such as Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird. Then, on October 20, 1977, during a US tour, the band’s chartered plane crashed near Gillsburg, Mississippi.
Six people were killed, including singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, four of the survivors – guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboard player Billy Powell – regrouped in the Rossington Collins Band.
Then in 1987, the previously unthinkable happened. Ten years after the plane crash, a new version of Skynyrd was formed, with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny as the singer alongside Rossington, Wilkeson and Powell, with returning guitarist Ed King replacing Collins, who had been paralysed in a car crash in 1986.
Now, three decades since that unlikely comeback, Lynyrd Skynyrd are still rocking. Collins, Wilkeson and Powell have all since died, but Rossington and Johnny Van Zant continue to lead the band, along with guitarist Rickey Medlocke, who was Skynyrd’s drummer in the early 70s. Skynyrd were not the originators of southern rock – before them, the Allman Brothers Band blazed the trail – but it was Skynyrd’s blend of southern soul and hard rock that defined the genre.
And their influence has been far-reaching: Metallica have covered their ballad Tuesday’s Gone, and Guns N’ Roses referenced Skynyrd when they recorded Sweet Child O’ Mine. Axl Rose stated: “I got some old Skynyrd tapes to make sure that we’d got that heartfelt feeling.”
That depth of feeling – in the music, and in the words of Ronnie Van Zant – is what made Lynyrd Skynyrd one of the great American rock’n’roll bands. And it’s still true today. Skynyrd’s 2012 album was pointedly titled Last Of A Dyin’ Breed, and as Gary Rossington proudly proclaimed: “While I’m still alive, I just want to keep the band going, keep the Skynyrd name going, and to let people hear this music.”
Essential - the classic albums
This, their classic debut, is the quintessential southern rock album and includes the most sacred of all southern rock songs. Gary Rossington said of Free Bird: “It wasn’t anything heavy, just a love song about leavin’ town.” But this nine-minute epic is Skynyrd’s Stairway To Heaven, a legendary rock anthem.
The album also features two beautiful blues-based songs: Simple Man and Tuesday’s Gone. And on the swinging Gimme Three Steps, Ronnie Van Zant recalled having a gun pulled on him by the jealous boyfriend of a girl named Linda Lou – the archetypal southern tale.
Few bands have followed a great first album with an equally great second, but Skynyrd did.
Second Helping introduced the three-guitar attack that would become the band’s signature, with Ed King promoted from stand-in bassist. And King was co-author of the album’s three key tracks: satirical heavy hitter Workin’ For MCA, self-mythologising boogie Swamp Music, and the band’s biggest hit, Sweet Home Alabama.
Famously, the latter was Van Zant’s riposte to Neil Young’s civil rights protest song Southern Man. And although Van Zant’s defence of the south was bullish,Young later said, “I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs.”
Superior - the ones that helped cement their reputation
The surprise success story of 1976 was Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! album.
Many rock artists would follow Frampton’s lead, but none acted quicker than Skynyrd. Three months after …Comes Alive! topped the US chart, Skynyrd recorded this double live album at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, with new guitarist Steve Gaines coming in for Ed King.
One More From The Road became the band’s first million seller, and is now revered as one of the all-time great live albums, capped by an electrifying and emotionally charged 11-minute version of Free Bird.
The last album made by Ronnie Van Zant and the original Lynyrd Skynyrd was released just three days before the fatal plane crash. The album’s title would take on a cruel irony.
Its cover photo of the band standing amid flames was subsequently replaced by a more sober group shot. And there was an eerie prescience in drug song That Smell, on which Van Zant warned: ‘The smell of death surrounds you.’
Street Survivors might be a memorial, but it is also, more simply, a great rock’n’roll record. And it features Skynyrd’s most beautiful song, I Never Dreamed, written by the doomed Van Zant and Gaines.
With a title declaring the band’s no-bullshit ethos, this third album isn’t quite as great as the first two. But it’s a close call.
Having replaced drummer Bob Burns with Artimus Pyle, Skynyrd toughened up their sound a little on Nuthin’ Fancy. Opener Saturday Night Special has a stinging riff and an equally hard-hitting message, with Van Zant condemning America’s gun culture and noting bluntly: ‘If you like your whiskey, you might even shoot yourself.’
Ronnie had good reason to fear guns (see Gimme Three Steps), but he liked a drink. Whiskey Rock-A-Roller, the album’s woozy finale, is his self-portrait.
Skynyrd cut their fourth album with only Rossington and Collins on guitars, and a new producer, Tom Dowd, who had worked with giants including Ray Charles, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart.
But when Gimme Back My Bullets failed to match the success of preceding album Nuthin’ Fancy, Ronnie Van Zant complained that Dowd’s mix was “too refined”.
Really, this was just the singer’s pride talking. There’s plenty of grit and grease in this album – not least on its badass title track and the funky Double Trouble. Ronnie was wrong: Gimme Back My Bullets is a Skynyrd classic.
Good - albums worth exploring
In the 25 years since Skynyrd re-formed, the band have made seven new studio albums. Of those, it’s the two most recent records that stand tallest.
God & Guns was modern and classic, with producer Bob Marlette giving Skynyrd’s signature sound a contemporary edge. 2012’s Last Of A Dyin’ Breed was even better. Retaining Marlette and key co-songwriters including Rob Zombie/Marilyn Manson guitarist John 5, Skynyrd delivered their best album since the 70s.
From the rollicking title track to the porch blues Start Livin’ Life Again, this is prime southern rock as only Skynyrd know how.
A year after the plane crash, MCA released a collection of Skynyrd’s earliest recordings from sessions at Alabama’s fabled Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, symbolically titled Skynyrd’s First And… Last.
Twenty years later came an expanded version with eight extra tracks, rebranded as Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album. It features formative versions of future Skynyrd standards, including a deeply soulful rendition of Free Bird.
As a portrait of a legendary band in the making, this album is fascinating stuff.
In the early 80s, while Skynyrd were temporarily defunct, some great music was made by past and future members of the band.
Rickey Medlocke’s Blackfoot cut a series of rowdy albums. The Johnny Van Zant Band blended southern rock with AOR. But closest in style and spirit to classic Skynyrd was the Rossington Collins Band, which featured four veterans of Skynyrd’s peak years.
Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere was the first and best of the band’s two albums, with a brilliant hit single in Don’t Misunderstand Me. No Skynyrd collection is complete without it.
Avoid - the runt of the litter
Some of the best Christmas records have been made by rockers: Slade, Wizzard, Greg Lake and, most recently, The Darkness. But Skynyrd were really over-egging the pudding when they recorded a whole album’s worth of festive tunes.
In fairness, Christmas Time Again was never intended to be anything other than a bit of fun. And with tongues firmly in cheeks, they deliver a rocking version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, alongside amusing guest turns from fellow southern stars Charlie Daniels and .38 Special. But it’s hard to imagine that Ronnie Van Zant would ever have tolerated such tomfoolery.