The Cassette Chronicles – 38 Special’s ‘Special Forces’

By JAY ROBERTS

The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.

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38 SPECIAL – SPECIAL FORCES (1982)

Sometime back in 2017, I was pawing through the CD racks at my local record shop when I thumbed my way to the 38 Special divider. Unsurprisingly, the only CD the store had available was a greatest hits compilation. I made the decision to purchase that CD because in the band’s commercial heyday, I loved a lot of the songs that I ended up hearing on the radio, particularly the ones that made the singles chart that I would hear played on American Top 40.

But in that time and place I never owned any of the group’s albums (I did pick up their Drivetrain album that was released in 2004 and remains their last studio release to this point). So the compilation was a good way to hear what is considered their best material. And I loved the album! I played it numerous times while rocking out with those “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys” and their great rock and roll style.

But I wanted to hear more of their material, the songs that didn’t make the cut as a “greatest hit”. On one of my small cassette shopping sprees, I was able to grab up a copy of Special Forces and now I’ve finally gotten around to listening to it.

Given that four of the songs were released as singles, it should be no particular kind of surprising that there’s a lot of good stuff on this release. In fact, pretty much most of the album is outstanding. 

The album opens with “Caught Up In You” which for anyone who knows anything about the band will recognize as one of the band’s best known songs. It went to #10 on the pop singles chart while “You Keep Runnin’ Away” landed at #38. The latter song is a decent enough song but I really wasn’t all that captivated by the song, which is probably a bit odd considering that it was a track on the compilation.

What really stands out for me besides the appeal of the songs themselves is how great the guitar work is on Special Forces. Jeff Carlisi shreds all over the place on songs like “Back Door Stranger”, “Back On Track” (another single release) and “Take ‘Em Out”, a song that is an uninhibited rocker that will always be one that blows the doors off a place.

There’s not much in the way of a true ballad type song on the album, the band really does keep their foot on the gas most of the way through. However, with the judicious use of sound effects to simulate a dark and stormy night, they gave “Chain Lightnin'” a wider cinematic scope. You can feel the barely contained energy the song has. The song was released as a single, but I don’t remember hearing it back then, so when I did hear it for what was likely the first time (again, on that compilation), it quickly became one of my personal favorite tracks from 38 Special. 

It should also be noted that with both Don Barnes and Donnie Van Zant providing vocals, the band sounds great there as well. The southern rock stylings with the AOR vocals make for a winning combination in my book.

That song “Back On Track” that I mentioned before was not only notable for the guitar work, it had a grandly intoxicating vibe to the entire song. “Rough-Housin'” stepped lively as well.

Between 1977 and 1988, 38 Special were a huge success. Between charting singles, hit albums and concert tours, the band had it all going for them. I remember being glued to the radio whenever one of their songs start playing. The Special Forces album is a stand out example of just what it was that made the band as great as they were at that time. It’s got the songwriting chops and the electrifying performances. 38 Special were on the top of their game here and this is an album you will find yourself playing over and over again.

NOTES OF INTEREST: Former Survivor keyboardist Jim Peterik is a longtime collaborator with 38 Special and he co-wrote three of the songs on Special Forces. All three (“Caught Up In You”, “Chain Lightnin'” and “You Keep Runnin’ Away”) were released as singles.

Singer Don Barnes recorded a solo album called Ride The Storm in 1989 that was never released due to the record label being sold. However, it finally saw the light of day in 2017 via MelodicRock Records. I can say that it was an outstanding album!

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