“They’re prisons Jerry! Man-made prisons!”
–Cosmo Kramer on Marriage
As a child of the 80’s I’m sure that readers who were not raised on country music early in that decade may not get this week’s selection. That’s okay, it only makes the hooks in this song overlooked enough to be featured in this blog.
Alabama was a little different from many of the country acts at the time. Before they appeared on the scene, country bands were unheard of, and they debuted as a band despite the best efforts of record company execs. Front man Randy Owen was offered a recording contract on his own, providing he ditch the other members of his troupe, but he would have none of this and insisted that Alabama be signed as a band. Thus the first country super group was born in 1980 with their debut, My Home’s in Alabama.
By 1981, Alabama was riding high with the success of that debut and anticipation of its follow up, Feels So Right, which included this week’s song, “Love in the First Degree”. A tune penned by Jim Hurt and Tim DuBois, this song stands out for a few reasons. Its melody is undeniably catchy and though its oft-used crime and punishment metaphor for love might make a lawyer cringe, is not too heavy-handed for humans. It’s one of those songs that I find is easy to forget how much I enjoy it until I hear it again.
LITFD could hardly be considered overlooked in ’81 when it peaked at #1 on the country charts and impressive #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, but today, it is often unknown by today’s listeners or forgotten by former fans. What may also contribute to the song’s lack of respect as a country classic is its undeniable 80’s pop sound. While much of the production in the mid 80’s got a little crazy with the synthesizers, for me this song sounds dated just enough to evoke good memories without sounding laughably like an 80’s keytar band joke.
Plenty of barbs to grab your ear on this one. Alabama and producer Harold Shedd helped define the early to mid 80’s country band sound, taking on the processed drum beats of the pop scene and combining them with Randy Owen’s natural drawl to form a smooth fusion of contemporary pop sounds with down home southern twang. From the opening drum beats you’re intrigued as Owen wastes no time in starting the first verse: “I once thought of love as a prison….”. This sets up both the lyrical motif for the song as well as the major hook line that is going to grab you with this melody and pull you in for the rest of the song.
Also notice how Teddy Gentry’s bass starts in the forefront of this production and stays there for the rest of the song, while Jeff Cook’s lead guitar takes on more of a supplemental role until the closing tag where he repeats a great riff to complement the fade out vocals.
The high hook point of the song comes at the end of verse two, where Owen takes some great phrasing from the songwriters and nails every note with just the right timing to burst into the chorus with the rest of the band. After the second chorus we get a call and response that sounds like a fade out, but leads to a surprising resurgence at “Oh yeah….” where the chorus repeats and Jeff’s guitar riff signals the end of the song.
Say what you like about country music, and I admit I can’t find much I like these days on the radio, but if loving this song is a crime, I know that I’m as guilty as a man can be. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist using that line J)