I missed their first EP, Name Your Poison. None of the local record stores knew who Little Caesar were, but rock magazines like Hit Parader were already tootin’ their horn. When their major label debut Little Caesar hit the shelves, it was none other than Bob Rock in the producer’s chair. “Chain of Fools” was selected for the lead single/video, which was probably a mistep. It did show off Little Caesar’s knack for crossing Skynyrd’s southern rock innards with soul, but a more mainstream rocker like “Down-N-Dirty” would have been less of a shock to the uncultured longhairs of 1990.
Soulful blues rock was all the rage in 1990, with the likes of the Black Crowes and The London Quireboys hitting the charts. Was Little Caesar just one too many bands? They didn’t have the impact of the other two, though they certainly stacked up in the quality department. Lead howler Ron Young’s lungs are enviable, with a southern gritty drawl and authenticity to go.* The rock continues through “Hard Times”, which puts out a killer street rock vibe, able to tangle with any Hollywood competition. “Chain of Fools” serves to show off Young’s limitless talents, but as a hard rock adaptation, falls shy of their original.
Diversity points are earned for a stellar ballad called “In Your Arms”, delivering on a solid soul vibe. Young’s voice is the focus, revealing depth track after track. There’s a darker turn on “From the Start”, foreboding but with anthemic chorus. The first side’s closer puts you in a “Rock and Roll State of Mind” with a harmonica-inflected blues burner.
Gotta big monkey and he’s on my back,
It’s warmer than China, it’s better than crack,
It’s burnin’ like fire, it’s takin’ my soul, yeah,
So damn addicted to rock ‘n’ roll.
You may as well call this one my theme song. The history of rock is delivered in under five minutes.
White boys stole it back in ’55,
Turned in to disco in ’75,
Said it all started with “Blue Suede Shoes”, yeah,
For years brothers called it just rhythm and blues.
Tell it how it is, brother!
Money can’t buy it ’cause it can’t be sold,
If you say it’s too loud, then you’re too fuckin’ old.
Flip the tape. “Drive it Home” takes the car/sex metaphors to a dirtier level. On, Ron, I bet you’d like to drive it home! Another dusky ballad called “Midtown” changes the mood and the groove. A ballad with balls and a banjo? Then, “Cajun Panther” is its own descriptive, but the slippery guitar will hook you right in. Greasy slidey goodness from Creedence county. The next song, “Wrong Side of the Tracks” is actually closer to the mainstream and doesn’t stand out amongst more unique material. Unique like “I Wish It Would Rain”. It may be another ballad but its southern flavouring make it clearly different from anything on the radio in 1990. “Little Queenie” nails the soul-rock vibe one last time, going out in style, but also with a song that doesn’t really sound like a closer. Perhaps a little song shuffling would have put “Little Queenie” in a better spot to showcase its strengths.
Sonically, since this is a Bob Rock production, you already know what it sounds like. It’s a big sounding album that captures the band in top shape and presents them in an appropriately dressed frame. It’s a 12 track album and although that was becoming the norm, Little Caesar would have been a more effective debut if it were 10 songs, focusing on the ones that made it unique.
* Tragically, Ron Young was killed in 1991 by a time-travelling Arnold Schwarzenegger, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. **
** Fake News. But he was in the movie and did get his ass kicked.