Then and Now: Lone Justice/Maria McKee

This new semi-weekly feature on Py Korry grows out of last week’s Mix Six and Robbie Robertson’s video – which featured former Lone Justice lead singer, Maria McKee. I can’t say that I was a huge fan of Lone Justice (so don’t start pelting me with arcane trivial bits of info about her life. You can go to Wikipedia for that!), but I started looking at their videos on You Tube and I realized that I did like some of their songs (enough to buy both of their albums back in the day).

The band’s existence was short-lived, and after the release of Shelter in 1986, they called it quits and Maria became a solo artist with enough of a following that she’s still recording and performing. MTV really got behind both Lone Justice albums, and the band opened for U2, but they just couldn’t break into the top 40. They had a lot of support from their musical colleagues (like Tom Petty, who penned their first single, “Ways To Be Wicked,” and Linda Ronstadt, who sang their praises until they were signed to a record contract).

Country-tinged pop and punk was very much part of the music scene of the early to mid-80s. Bands like X, The Blasters, The Rave Ups, Los Lobos, Dire Straits, Tom Petty, John Cougar Mellencamp, and a whole host of other bands you can list in the comments section were fusing elements of punk’s energy with a roots vibe — or going straight for the pop hook. Lone Justice was poised to ride that wave to the top 40, but, like I said before, they didn’t hit.

It’s difficult to know why certain songs “hit” and others miss with the public, but one thing is clear: revisiting near “hits” like “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)” makes me hear things that I hadn’t back when it was originally released. First off, this is a great pop song with a catchy chorus, upbeat music, a good use of background singers, and, of course, passionate singing by McKee. Oddly enough, what I found grating was McKee’s vocals. Producer, Jimmy Iovine, should have pulled her vocals down an octave because there’s a lot of shouting on this track. But shouting isn’t the reason this song didn’t “hit”– because if shouting were a prerequisite for a loser of a single, Christina Aguilera would have been a one-hit wonder a long time ago. No, I think it’s that Maria was singing so high to begin with that it produced a subconscious wince in the listener – at least in this listener.

Fast forward one year later, and Stephen Van Zandt comes in to co-produce their follow up, Shelter. Well, he was able to tone down McKee’s piercing vocals, but he layered the lead single with so much 80s synth, that the band was hardly recognizable to those who liked their “Cowpop” sound. “Shelter” is a flaccid single that must have had a lot of payola behind it, because this song was in high rotation at the station I was working at in the 80s. I played this song so much that all I could hear after the millionth time was the chorus of “Shelter…shelter…shelter.” No verses, just that “Shelter…shelter…shelter” fragment. Christ, it was painful! But I forgave Lone Justice for going the extreme commercial route hoping that the rest of the album was more like their debut. Sadly, it was hit and miss. Van Zandt’s production was so over the top in terms of pushing the instruments to the front of the mix that that I just felt beat up by the bombardment of over-processed sounds. It was clear that Maria had talent, but in the hands of Iovine or Van Zandt, the strength of the songs became mired in slick and trendy production techniques. It wasn’t until I heard “Shelter” stripped of 80s synth, that I reconsidered my assessment of it as flaccid commercial pap.

Okay, so have a listen to “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling) HERE. And then check out the two version of “Shelter” and let me know which one you like better.

Listen to “Shelter” (1986) HERE

Listen to “Shelter” (Acoustic and Live) HERE

–PK

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