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A Pop Force : .38 Special Aims For A New Image

November 13, 1986|DUNCAN STRAUSS

There was a time when .38 Special was proud ato be a Southern rock band, carrying on in the tradition of its heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band.

But mention Southern Rock to .38 Special now and you hit a nerve.

"Well, it's pretty much a passe term," observed singer-guitarist Don Barnes. "So we've been fighting this identity problem, being lumped in as just another Southern rock band.

"We feel like we have more to offer than just some of the stereotypical Southern rock bands that were singing about cowboys, whiskey, alligators and bad women."

Following that thinly veiled poke at Dixie-fried headbangers like Molly Hatchet, Barnes elaborated on the problems with Southern rock--and .38 Special's efforts to disassociate itself from the genre.

.38 Special, which headlines tonight at the Long Beach Arena, has become a mainstream pop-rock band whose music slides easily into a radio set alongside Journey, Glass Tiger and Toto.

"Coming from a certain region of the country shouldn't place any limitations on the appeal of the music," Barnes continued during a recent telephone interview. "We felt there was a difference between a Southern rock band and just a band from the South.

"Growing up, we had been big Beatles fans and big radio fans. Basically, we really liked hit songs and the elements of hit songs in the '60s and '70s."

The problem was that the music the Jacksonville, Fla., natives had enjoyed as fans was nothing like what they were creating as a band. For evidence, they looked at the way radio programmers and record buyers ignored the first two LPs they released in the late '70s.

"Our first two albums failed miserably, and we started trying any kind of thing we could to win at this," Barnes recalled.

By comparison, the group's third album, "Rockin' Into the Night," was a huge success, scoring a Top 40 single with the title track and racking up a nearly tenfold increase in record sales.

What accounted for the dramatic difference? The most succinct answer is Don Barnes . You won't hear it from this team player, but Barnes' increased songwriting contributions enabled .38 Special to start crafting romantic, catchy little love songs.

The crucial change, though, was that Barnes also began singing some lead vocals, once the exclusive domain of Donnie Van Zant. It was the songs that Barnes sang--and had a big hand in writing--that got played on the radio, transforming .38 Special into a commercial pop force.

"It just happened that the commercial appeal of the sound of my voice is something that really surprised us all," Barnes explained. "We always felt like we were a team and as long as we were winning as a team, it didn't matter who carried the ball."

Ironically, it was Van Zant who first suggested Barnes try a lead vocal. Now, Barnes talks about how he and Van Zant "support each other immensely" and points out that "Donnie sings the earthier side of our music."

But .38 Special's music has evolved farther and farther away from its "earthier side." On the new "Strength in Numbers" LP, that side is all but gone, relegating Van Zant to essentially a supporting role.

Likewise, the once-fiery twin-guitar dynamics have pretty much disappeared--nearly all the early traits have been supplanted by short, carefully crafted pieces of generic rock. Detractors might even suggest that .38 Special has simply turned its back on one highly formulaic brand of rock in pursuit of another.

But those detractors might be surprised to learn which band most influenced .38 Special in making that shift: Boston's electro-new-wavers the Cars.

"It was a real revelation to us to hear the Cars do something like straight eighth notes--just dun-dun-dun-dun-dun straight on--then put great melodies with it and put across such a great feel," Barnes said.

"We felt that was so basic, that you can really get the essence of a great melody that way. And we've always been fans of great melodies.

"Our whole approach is to have great backing tracks with a lot of personality and character--and a great melody. That's something that always wins."

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