As I was about to graduate high school in the spring of 1985, I saw Lone Justice open for U2 at the Capital Centre in Maryland. I lived in Southern Maryland at the time and most of the area where I lived still didn't have cable yet, and this was a good year or two before I discovered magazines like Option and NME. So without MTV, or decent music magazines, you had to work to find the good stuff that was coming out, or maybe wait for it to be played on D.C.'s legendary WHFS radio station.
Recalling some tidbits about U2's opener gleaned from the pages of Rolling Stone, I sat in my nosebleed seat and wrapped my head around this new band. Maria McKee's voice filled that big stadium and the band behind her played like they were in a sweaty roadhouse and not a gleaming amphitheater. There were echoes of Loretta Lynn in McKee's performance, and even a hint of stuff like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker in her vocal delivery, and I had heard plenty of those singers as a kid thanks to my parents and grandparents.
Which is all a long way of saying that it was easy for me to love Lone Justice in April 1985.
But, like with many bands in those days, I was sort of alone in my fandom. After the concert I remember asking some HS mates what they thought of the openers and one of them said: "I didn't like that country shit!"
What makes that comment hysterical is not so much the speaker's lack of good taste but the fact that we both lived in Southern Maryland...the epicentre of "country shit", both musically and culturally. But in an era when Duran Duran was still ruling the airwaves, his reaction to something decidedly genuine like Lone Justice isn't too surprising in hindsight.
What rankled some about Lone Justice was that they were peddling not the soft, safe country music heard on the radio then and now but, instead, something primal. And in the process they were turning out the fiercest sort of roots rock just as that mini-wave was entering its own heyday.
Now listeners are rewarded with perhaps the clearest peak yet into that ferocious rock of Lone Justice. This Is Lone Justice, out now on Omnivore Recordings, is quite possibly one of the most significant reissues of any genre of the last few years.
This direct-to-two-track set provides a glimpse of what made this band so vital and urgent long before AOR stations -- even the ones in this area -- started playing "Ways to be Wicked" later in 1985.
Recorded primarily to serve as a demo for the band in 1983, This is Lone Justice is more Patti Smith than Shelter. Lone Justice rock with raw abandon on this release. There's something wickedly uncompromising about the band here.
Example one: "Soup, Soap and Salvation" which here roars like X covering Them. Hearing this version makes one realize that the version eventually released on Lone Justice's 1985 eponymous debut could never be anything less than over-produced. Blurring the lines of a few genres, the tune succeeds still precisely 'cause it's unlike most of the stuff that was out there then. And, thanks to the release of This is Lone Justice by Omnivore Recordings, this 1983 version can now be rightly regarded as the definitive version of this set staple for the LA group.
"Nothing Can Stop My Loving You" has a rhythm that reminds one of some Smiths tracks, oddly, but this cover of the George Jones/Roger Miller tune is also a good example of just how much more honkytonk spirit was in the music of these kids than either of their 2 studio records ever captured.
A rendition of "Jackson" adds more to the band's country bona fides but in case you were somehow still in doubt, check out this high praise from Dolly Parton, quoted in the informative liner notes:
"I have loved Lone Justice and Maria McKee since they first started out as a group. I remember going to see them at The Music Machine in Los Angeles in 1983; I was so impressed. I especially love this album. It has some of my favorite old songs on it and some new favorites that I've never heard. Hope you enjoy Lone Justice, everybody! I know I will."
The wonderful "When Love Comes Home to Stay" is a lost classic for any fan of Lone Justice. Listening to this now 30+ years after it was recorded even a casual fan must wonder why it wasn't included on either of the band's 2 studio records. A sort of pastiche of some obvious overtly country tropes, the cut has a unique interplay between Maria and guitarist Ryan Hedgecock that hints at something great that was never captured on their studio records. Add some very Los Lobos-styled mandolin (?) runs from Hedgecock, I presume, and you've got a cut that at once sounds like the Lone Justice the world knows from the first album and another, altogether looser band.
There's only so much I can write about This is Lone Justice. Put simply, it is a revelation. The record provides an entirely new angle from which to view a band so many of us cherished in that era. Even in 1985, there was a sense that Lone Justice was too polished. And by the time that Shelter came out, that polish was even thicker. Seeing Maria McKee and the band genuinely rock out on "I Found Love" on TV's "Saturday Night Live" only made the second album harder to take in 1987 or so. As a listener I felt like the band was being diluted even if I had no idea of what they really sounded like prior to being over-produced.
Well, now I do! This is Lone Justice should by all rights serve as the introduction to this band for anyone who missed out on them the first time around.
Make no mistake: I still like the 2 studio albums these folks put out but I actually like this collection more than either of those "proper" records.
This is Lone Justice is out now on Omnivore Recordings.
Here's a song that appears on This is Lone Justice and should give you an indication of the fire of this pre-Geffen version of the band.