JENNINGS: 40th anniversary of a great year for classic rock

Ricky Phillips, James “J.Y.” Young and Tommy Shaw of Styx perform during a show at Artpark in 2016. (Thom Jennings/contributor)

Many music writers and fans have noted that 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest years in recorded music history, 1971. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of some classic albums released a decade later.

In 1981, the music industry was grappling with the threat of home taping. Much like the fight over illegal downloads, home recording of albums onto cassette tapes was seen by some in the recording industry as a form of bootlegging that robbed artists of royalties.

Cassettes were not popular long enough for the issue to get resolved, and whatever damage cassettes did to album sales was offset by the positive impact MTV had on the careers of an entire generation of new and established artists in the 1980s.

1981 was a banner year for classic rock acts, five of whom released what is arguably the best albums of their careers. Journey’s “Escape,” Foreigner “4”, Styx’s “Paradise Theatre”, Rush’s “Moving Pictures” and Triumph’s “Allied Forces” all came out in 1981.

Journey’s “Escape” includes the hits “Don’t Stop Believin',” "Who’s Crying Now” and “Open Arms.” Journey had undergone a significant lineup change when Jonathan Cain, a former member of The Babys, took over for longtime member Gregg Rolie. “Escape” sold over 9,000,000 copies. The group never achieved the same level of success, and within 5 years the band underwent major changes in their lineup, and by 1987 they split up.

Foreigner’s story is similar. “4” was the group’s only album to reach number one on the Billboard charts. It sold over 6,000,000 copies and includes the hits “Jukebox Hero” and “Urgent.” The album’s success solidified the band’s place as one of the best-selling artists of all-time. By the end of the decade the band split up for the first time, and while they remain a solid concert draw, they never achieved the same level of commercial success again.

In 1981 Styx released “Paradise Theatre,” a concept album that featured the hits “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “The Best of Times.” The album was Styx’s best-selling and only album to reach number one on the Billboard album’s chart. The band split shortly after the release of the follow-up album, “Kilroy Was Here.”

Journey, Styx and Foreigner all reformed after their initial split, and are all still actively touring with sound-alike lead vocalists.

All of Rush’s 19 studio albums achieved Gold or Platinum status in Canada, but 1981’s “Moving Pictures” is the band’s best-selling album of all-time. The Canadian power trio were at their commercial peak in 1981, which also saw the release of the band’s second live album, “Exit Stage Left.” “Moving Pictures” includes the iconic “Tom Sawyer” and fan favorites “YYZ” and “Red Barchetta.” Unlike Journey, Styx, and Foreigner, their lineup remained intact until they retired from touring in 2015.

Triumph hit their commercial peak in 1981 with “Allied Forces” which includes the songs “Magic Power” and “Fight the Good Fight.” After the disappointing sales of their 1980 release “Progressions of Power,” Triumph built their own recording studio and made good use of it. The group was known for its groundbreaking live presentation filled with flashpots and lasers, and “Allied Forces” solidified them as a top concert draw. That lasted until 1988, when the group split. An attempted reformation without guitarist Rik Emmett in 1993 was short-lived. Since 1988 the original trio has only performed together publicly three times, including a short performance recorded for an upcoming documentary about the band. A limited edition “Allied Forces” box set is being released on June 12 for Record Store Day.

Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.

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