I’m starting what I hope will become a series of posts, which I think few people have done before. You can always find people looking over obscure LPs, but this series focuses on the LPs from which that wondrous category “One-Hit Wonders” can be drawn. Does the rest of the album explain why some of these bands dropped out of the record charts? Does the LP stand up to the single’s “One-Hit Wondrous-ness?”
Motorcycle Mama by Sailcat (Elektra) is one of those records that never seems to drop out of oldies playlists. The single was such a mishmash of laconic southern rock, with echoes of the “Singer-Songwriter” era, that automatically dates itself back to 1972, when it hit #12 on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart.
The album of the same name featured an iconic cover by MAD magazine cartoonist Jack Davis. Jack did dozens of album covers, but mostly for favored cornball comedy acts like Spike Jones, Zacherle and Homer & Jethro. His best known pop cover would have been this one, or The Greatest of the Guess Who.
“Motorcycle Mama” also sounds like it could have been recorded in some one-off late night studio session. Close enough. It was formed in the studio by Court Pickett and John Wyker, two regulars in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama studio scene. Some 20 session players played on the album, produced and co-written by Pete Carr of the later 70’s duo LeBlanc and Carr. Wyker had previously been in “The Rubber Band,” and had written some songs recorded by James and Bobby Purify.
Listening to the album online, one gets the impression that it tried to be a sort of a story album. The story is made much more clear is one has access to the LP’s gatefold, with 11 Davis cartoons, illuminating each of the LP’s cut, comic-strip style.
Opens with a bit of bluegrass, then a string of motorcycle sound effects, and your standard southern rock power ballad. A vocal that sounds like anyone in the Allman Brothers, and then a long fade out with a dual guitar solo. It sets up a sort of story for the rest of the album. The illustration has its motorcycle-riding hero, who alternates between a proper helmet and a cowboy hat, riding past a night-time graveyard and into a sunny hillside.
We get into a character sketch here, of a Thief who never made a friend, and who “Stole from those who trusted him…”, backed by some decent acoustic guitar and a fiddle solo. The cartoon shows the main character kissing a girl, while sneaking a handful of bills from her purse.
A 5:38 instrumental with some well-played blues guitar, Muscle Shoals-ish horns and organ. There’s even a Junior Walker type sax riff or two. This would not be out of place on a classic rock station today. Runs into a few too many changes in key, tempo and mood. But for the purpose of our narrative, it gives our character the name “Rip Rider.”
“I wonder when and where it will be that the lady in my dreams comes to me…” Our protagonist sees the vision of a lady in his campfire smoke.
Getting into the meat of some narrative, warning us to hide our daughters from a “Twin Pipe rascal by the name of Rip Rider.” The sheriff from the Old Dodge commercials seems ready to move on Rip if he looks to long at the girl in the convertible.
More instrumental, wandering into Prog territory with a full string section. Not much in the way of Ambush going on here. The accompanying cartoon shows Rider in the crosshairs of a figure in a tree, wearing camo. But wait! Turns out its the girl of his dreams, taking his picture with a long-barreled lens! That long-lensed camera appears on the album’s cover, too. I wonder if that was originally meant to be a rifle and the woman was the girl he wronged on side 1, come back for revenge before falling in love with Rip? And yet, there’s that title, “Ambush.”
A “long legged-tramp” that gets our Mr. Rider’s attention. Yup, there’s our camera lady being a back-seat buddy. That’s her name. “B.B. Gunn.” Another clue that she might have had plans to shoot more than his photograph.
“Before you find a love like mine.” This may or may not be the same girl from the previous pictures. Instead of camo, she’s now wearing an old-timey puff sleeve dress.
In the context of the album, at least the instrumental fits in. Though the double-tracked vocal takes it back out of that place and sounds more like the album was built around the single. It’s to the credit of this record’s producers that this single stands out strongly by itself, with no knowledge required of the “story cycle” that the LP presented. The liner cartoon shows that the couple do indeed have a sidecar with a “little one who looks just like you.” And he’s already strumming along on a guitar. Rather, we have a very radio-friendly, happy single that even has a humorous coda: “We’ll see the world from my Harley / If the chain don’t break.”
The rockin’ ballad, in which our Mr. Rider is feelin’ really bad, but he has someone to walk together with. The cartoon shows our family huddled under a tarp just enjoying, um, getting wet.
An uplifting anthem for “Our friends in radioland.” How did this not make the book for “Godspell?” But wait! With the last two minutes we get the same fiddle & banjo riffs that opened the album. Does that make this a song cycle? Again, we have our Rider family having achieved some measure of success by singing on a Grand Ole Opry type show.
The final panel is an untitled tableau with Mr. Rider apparently living out his American Dream: sitting on on the porch or a rural shack with a wringer washer next to him, his wife hanging laundry on the line, and his kid hoeing the garden
What it’s all about?
This kind of plays to a particular period when “Southern Rock” could still be mistaken for Prog Rock, with longer, perhaps portentous instrumental pieces amid a sort of narrative. Full orchestrated pieces bring up more of an idea of “Genesis Went Down to Georgia.” This is still from the time when Southern Rock was being defined, when the Allmans and the Marshall Tucker Band were still bringing in influences from all over: R&B, Grateful Dead-type jams, and even a little jazz, like the flute part here on “Can’t You See:”
I probably spent more time pondering this one-hit wonder’s LP than anyone else in the past 40 years, except for the engineers who remastered it for digital release. Considering the number of musicians involved in this LP, perhaps it might have been a one-off project intended to keep the session people at Muscle Shoals occupied between gigs. The Wikipedia entry suggests Wyker and Pickett were a going concern as a band, that had cut a demo tape of the songs on the album, but threw it out; then reconsidered and presented it to Elektra. Sailcat’s trajectory might bear this out. They toured to promote the album during the summer of 1972, usually just Pickett and Wyker and a few backing musicians for TV appearances like “American Bandstand.” The band released one non-album song, “Baby Ruth,” then broke up.
Wyker went on to play for other Southern Rock bands, and was working on a fundraising project to help musicians who had fallen on hard times. He died in 2013, age 68. Pickett issued a solo album, “Fancy Dancer,” on Elektra in 1973.
It’s easy to mock albums that tried to “do something” but failed to make an impression. Frankly, it’s more sporting to mock Genesis.
Recorded at Widget Recording, Muscle Shoals, Ala, Oct. 1971 to Feb 1972.
What One-Hit Wonders would you like to see their LPs dissected from to no good purpose? Should I stay stuck in the 70s? Should I jump forward to those flashes in the pan from Rockwell, or James… or Flash? Please do be a fan and let me know!