In 1975, hot on the heels of the breakout success of Lynyrd Skynyrd, another band from Jacksonville, Florida, would make their way to the top of the charts with their own brand of southern rock. They were friends with the Skynyrd folks. In fact, their bassist had been the original bassist for Skynyrd and the lead singers the bands knew each other rather well: This band’s lead singer, Donnie, is Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother.
By 1977, 38 Special had recorded and released their first album on A&M records, called simply 38 Special. There were no major hits from the album, and it only made it to 148 on the charts, but it did establish them as a solid up-and-coming act.
But it turned into difficult year for the band; now that they were finally getting some recognition, just as plane crash took the life of Donnie’s brother and other members of Skynyrd. But the band kept it together and recorded their next album, Special Delivery.
Special Delivery turned out to be not very special. It never even official charted, but A&M records stuck with the band in a way that is all but impossible these days, and back into the studio they went for their third effort, Rockin’ Into the Night. The title single finally found an audience for 38 Special as they shifted to a more pop rock, arena style of music. With 1981′s Wild-Eyed Southern Boys, 38 Special was hitting a stride that would make them one of the biggest bands of the early ’80s and an MTV staple for years to come.
The followup album, Special Forces, would give 38 Special their first number one hit with “Caught Up in You,” reinforced by the release of ”Chain Lightnin,’” which reached the 7th position on the charts and became a live favorite for the band. 38 Special became a major concert draw as well.
“Chain Lightnin’” starts with a thunderclap, fading to an edgy guitar to get things rolling. Van Zant’s vocals are nicely understated at first, just flowing along with the dark guitars and drums.
“On a rainy night you showed up at my door. Child of the night – down and forlorn,
Still I took you in – it’s in the stars above. All girls are made the same – they all need a little love.”
Then things really start to happen.
“And the magic of the moment exploded with desire.
When the time is right the sparks ignite to set the night on fire.”
In one of the most aggressive-sounding songs the band, ever did “Chain Lightnin’” really hits hard for a southern rock band, with guitars that wouldn’t be out of place on a Whitesnake record from the same time, and all the while Van Zant’s intensity on vocals is through the roof. But he never lets it get close to a hard rock vocal. He’s walking a fine line here and doing it well, keeping his vocals just restrained enough to keep that southern-fried feel to it.
When it’s time for the bridge Van Zant is really killin’ it and the music feels like it can’t wait to explode waiting for the inevitable guitar solo.
“And, Lord, it’s so hot when a chain reaction is set up with a kiss.
And it’s so tough when the satisfaction is greater than the risk.
When you look in her eyes and you realize this time you can’t resist.”
Jeff Carlisi’s solo shows that 38 Special could run with the big boys of rock and thrash a song to within an inch of its life while still keeping true to their roots. All in all, a pretty cool mixture of heavy metal head-banging with a southern drawl.