Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Bob Seger is one of rock's most potent performers, insightful lyricists and admired vocalists. He was born Robert Clark Seger on May 6, 1945 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he cut his teeth – and first singles for local imprint Hideout – on the Motor City's rough and tumble scene. Seger lived the life of an archetypal rock and roll journeyman, recording such exceptional albums as 1970’s Mongrel while doggedly working the road. When Seger finally broke through, assuming a rightful place among such fellow travelers as the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen, it was sweet vindication for all the years spent in the shadows. Moreover, a string of multiplatinum albums – including Stranger in Town, Against the Wind, The Distance and Like a Rock – kept him on top. As Seger's career approaches the 50-year mark, having released more than 20 studio and compilation albums with sales exceeding 50 million, the Rock Hall looks at 10 essential Bob Seger songs.
Released in 1968 under the Bob Seger System moniker, "2 + 2 = ?" was Seger's first single for Capitol Records and helped the band further cultivate a loyal following in the Detroit area. Its lyrics were an unapologetic protest against the Vietnam war, as Seger sang of hometown reality (Well I knew a guy in high school / Just an average friendly guy / And he had himself a girlfriend / And you made them say goodbye / Now he's buried in the mud) and outright objection (I'm no prophet I'm no rebel / I'm just asking you why / I just want a simple answer / Why it is I 've got to die). Musically, the arrangement was as fiery as the message, marked by a garage rock aesthetic with a slow bassline and hushed vocals that lit the wick on an explosion of charging drums, repeated distorted guitar riff and Seger's howl – with a deliberate stop toward the end that added to the song's dramatics.
Originally released as a single, "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" became the title track of the Bob Seger System's debut full-length in 1969 (which also included "2 + 2 = ?"). While the previous single had largely been relegated to a regional hit, "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" reached Number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1969 and spent 14 weeks on the chart. The song kicks off with a thunderous drum beat before Seger's vocals and indelible organ riff enter the the mix and play out against a steady rhythm, gospel-inspired chorus and perhaps semi-autobiographical verses that reflected the title: I was just 13 when I had to leave home / Knew I couldn't stick around, I had to roam.
The Bob Seger System's third studio album, Mongrel, released in 1970, was filled with spare, bluesy rockers, and among the most blistering was "Lucifer." Seger's gruff emotings, which continued to reflect on itinerant notions and freewheelin' ways (Every night I'm barrelhousin' till the moon is low / Shoutin blues and payin' dues and throwin' way my dough / Ramblin, Gamblin, lovin, shovin' probably won't end up with nothin'), dominated a dirty, pummeling groove.
Although originally released as a single by the Bob Seger System that peaked at Number 96 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971, for many, the definitive version of "Lookin' Back" would emerge five years later in 1976, as part of the set featured on the powerful Live Bullet, a performance recorded at Detroit's Cobo Hall in 1975 with Seger's Silver Bullet Band. On both versions, a punchy rhythm and Seger's fluid organ playing provided the musical backbone, while Seger's lyrics continued to serve as a voice of the rebel: Because you're different / Because you're free / Because you're everything deep down they wish they could be.
Few if any songs have so poignantly captured the monotony, exhaustion, frustration and apathy of life on the road as well as "Turn The Page." Although the consummate journeyman rock performer, Seger penned this somber piece for his aptly titled 1972 release, Back in '72. The track's instantly recognizable saxophone line was played by longtime Silver Bullet band member Alto Reed, and it provided a stirring complement to the droning mellotron and Seger's harrowing, almost painfully detailed account: Later in the evening / As you lie awake in bed / With the echoes from the amplifiers / Ringin' in your head / You smoke the day's last cigarette / Rememberin' what she said. The song was covered by 2009 Hall of Fame Inductees Metallica on their 1998 album Garage Inc.
Although "Night Moves" – the title track of Seger's 1976 album – is rumored to have been inspired by George Lucas' American Graffiti, the nostalgia of Seger's song is a bit more lurid, centered on two young lovers, simply fumbling around, trying to get the sexual mechanics down before moving on to more complex questions, like how long they're going to be together. Led by its laconic three-chord acoustic guitar strum and Seger's lyrical delivery, "Night Moves'" fittingly juvenile remberances ("Points of her own sittin' way up high") add to the song's authenticity. The song poetically captured a familiar snapshot of adolescence and the reflection it begets: Ain't it funny how the night moves / When you just don't seem to have as much to lose / Strange how the night moves / With autumn closing in.
Kicking off 1978's Stranger in Town, "Hollywood Nights" addressed Seger's newfound celebrity after Live Bullet and Night Moves brought him a national audience. It came from an honest perspective, reflecting Seger's Midwestern roots as he sang: He spent all night staring down at the lights of L.A. / Wondering if he could ever go home. The music was frenetic and unrelenting, with guitar, organ, percussion and bass chugging along and evoking the high-paced world at the heart of Seger's impressionistic portrait of a new life on the West Coast.
As its title suggests, "Old Time Rock and Roll" found Seger paying homage to the nascent days of rock and roll. Recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and credited to George Jackson and Thomas Jones, the song was included on 1978's Stranger in Town. "Old Time Rock and Roll" found Seger proclaiming Today's music ain't got the same soul / I like that old time rock and roll, and his mastery of the subject matter meant that the accompaniment had the gusty, rollicking bravado to match. Many remember the song as the soundtrack to Tom Cruise's famous dancing scene in 1983's Risky Business.
The title track of Seger's 1980 album, "Against The Wind" was one of two songs from that album to break the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100, reaching Number Five ("Fire Lake" reached Number Six) and staying on the chart for 17 weeks. With its wistfully sentimental lyrics (And I remember what she said to me / How she swore that it would never end / I remember how she held me oh so tight / Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then) and breezy acoustic strum and piano passages, "Against The Wind" was indicative of the gentler direction Seger would take throughout the 80s.
Arguably the most recognizable track from Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band's album of the same name (thanks in no small part to its inclusion in a long-running series of commercials for one American marque's line of pickup trucks), "Like A Rock" was a country-tinged, slowly building track where Seger simultaneously lamented for days past (Twenty years now / Where'd they go? / Twenty years / I don't know / Sit and I wonder sometimes where they've gone) and looked ahead to the future (Like a rock, the sun upon my skin / Like a rock, hard against the wind / Like a rock, I see myself again).