40 Years Ago: Lynyrd Skynyrd Mix Things Up for ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’
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Lynyrd Skynyrd found a formula for mainstream success with their first three albums — and then they mixed things up for their fourth, 1976’s Gimme Back My Bullets.
The months that followed the recording of the group’s third LP, 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy, found the members of Skynyrd at a personal as well as artistic crossroads. Parting ways with longtime producer Al Kooper after butting heads once too often during the Fancy sessions, they looked for a musical change of pace that might help temper their rowdy image, which threatened to overshadow their growth as a band.
“I’ve seen Allen get hit in the head with a boot one time,” recalled singer Ronnie Van Zant in a 1976 interview. “Staggered the poor boy, buckled his knees. We were laughing like hell, and he was coming round about 12 bars later. … Crazy. It can get out of hand. We’ve had enough of it, you know? It’s been carried a little bit too far. I’d rather talk about the music.”
To help them on their way, Skynyrd turned to producer Tom Dowd, whose recent credits included records for Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and the James Gang. They convened in the studio in early September 1975, with Dowd quickly proving himself to be the kindred spirit they’d sought.
“It was our album. We were gonna have to suffer the consequences so we wanted to do it our way. Tom is more helpful, encourages us and suggests things, but forces nothing. He works with us,” Van Zant told Melody Maker. “We’ll say to him, ‘We want the snare to sound like Charlie Watts‘ snare on ‘Satisfaction.’ We want the bass to sound like something from the Grateful Dead. We want the rhythm to sound like John Fogerty,’ and he just goes, ‘Okay.’ He’s that good. He’s a genius.”
Fans would hear the results on Feb. 2, 1976, when the new album — named Gimme Back My Bullets, after the lead-off track and second single — arrived in stores. Unfortunately, while Dowd’s methods were more to the band’s liking, their increased satisfaction in the studio didn’t translate to higher sales: Bullets peaked at No. 20, a comedown from the Top 10 success of Nuthin’ Fancy, and the first single, “Double Trouble,” brought the album its only real radio play, stalling out at No. 80.
What the record-buying public initially failed to hear, however, would eventually join the ranks of Skynyrd’s stronger efforts, thanks to a nine-song track listing that included future favorites such as “Searching,” “Double Trouble,” “Cry for the Bad Man” and the title track. And while some groups might have taken the sales setback as a sign that they needed to retrace their steps, Skynyrd never wavered in their determination to stick with Dowd as long as he’d have them.
“Tom is still the best and only producer for this group,” said Van Zant. “We were going for a completely different sound … and it didn’t work. We had always been so heavy and muddy, we decided to make a clean Lynyrd Skynyrd album. The material was good, it was just too … refined.”
To capture more of that signature Skynyrd energy, the group opted to make their next effort a live LP, and that double-disc set — titled One More From the Road — would send the band soaring to a whole new level of commercial clout when it arrived in the fall of 1976. Yet even as they went multi-platinum with Road, tragedy loomed on the horizon — something Van Zant almost seemed to be aware of on a subconscious level in the weeks after Gimme Back My Bullets was released.
“I can see an end to Lynyrd Skynyrd. I know I won’t be doing this forever. I can’t keep on screaming like this much longer,” Van Zant told Creem. “I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years, and my body can’t take abuse much longer. It’s scary to me because this is the way I make my living and it’s destroying my body. You know, I can’t sing as strong as I used to – it’s a bad combination of whiskey and ‘playing’ Lynyrd Skynyrd. You can’t keep up in a style like mine.”
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