30 Years Ago: Bob Seger Grows Older With ‘Like a Rock’
With 1982's The Distance, Bob Seger notched his fourth straight Top 10 album, continuing a multi-platinum hot streak of regularly scheduled releases that seemed likely to go on indefinitely. But the journey to his next LP took far longer than expected.
Seger's 13th studio album, Like a Rock, finally arrived in April 1986, closing a four-year gap between releases that seemed like an eternity during an era in which many pop and rock artists were still putting out new records every 18 to 24 months. As he explained, it was never part of his plan to stay away so long; in fact, he'd been working on new material at a fairly feverish pace during much of his hiatus.
"I never planned to take this long to make the record, but I wanted to produce it myself and it took me months just to learn how everything worked in the studio," Seger told the Los Angeles Times. "It was an experiment and the whole thing got out of hand. There was nobody to say 'no' to me and I ended up recording 25 songs in four different cities."
Those 25 songs formed the backbone of two different LPs. The first had been originally scheduled for release in 1984, but Seger changed his mind and scrapped the bulk of the material. As he told the Detroit Free Press, only two tracks were left standing after the purge: "American Storm," a heartfelt indictment of the cocaine culture of the '80s, and a gently surging anthem titled "Like a Rock."
Seger initially planned to call the album American Storm, but altered course after watching a number of his peers, including Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne, score hit records with politically themed tracks like Born in the U.S.A. and Lives in the Balance. Already leery of being lumped in with superficially similar "heartland rockers" like Springsteen and John Mellencamp, he went with Like a Rock instead, naming the record after a prototypical Seger song about looking back wistfully on lost youth.
Although much of Seger's most popular work had often been tinged with nostalgia and a sense of looming mortality, Like a Rock caught him at a particularly pensive juncture. Aside from studio woes, the years between albums had also been pockmarked by love troubles for Seger, who coped with the end of a pair of longterm relationships as the songs came together. The result was a record that, while not without its share of optimism and a handful of modern production touches, offered a fairly sober perspective from a guy who wasn't shy about feeling his age.
"It's a matter of growing up. From the time I was 20 until I was 30, I didn't sell a whole lot of records, but I was doing a lot of rock 'n' roll. That's the way I felt at the time," Seger suggested in conversation with Creem. "Maybe during the period when I was 30 to 40, I was getting more mature, writing about older themes. I'm sure 'Like a Rock' doesn't mean much to someone who's 20, but I gotta write what I know about."
Like a Rock — and "Like a Rock" — meant plenty to Seger's audience, who turned out again in droves for the new record. The album peaked at No. 3, going platinum, and spun off a series of pop, rock, and AC hits, including "American Storm," "It's You," and the title track, which would gain new life in later years as the soundtrack of a long-running ad campaign for Chevy trucks.
Somewhat frustratingly for Seger's fans, Like a Rock's success didn't spur him toward a quick follow-up. Aside from a couple of soundtrack cuts (including the Beverly Hills Cop II single "Shakedown," which gave him his only No. 1 hit), he wouldn't be heard from again for another five years. Hard as he'd worked to achieve his success, Seger was old enough to appreciate what he'd given up along the way, and even as the crowds continued to beckon, he admitted he was feeling the pull of a more "normal" life, off the road and out of the studio.
"The band doesn't quite make as much money as I do, so I'm thinking one more for them, so they're set, y'know? But I never say never. I could split now, but I'm, more or less, the cash register," Seger told Creem. "So we'll do another big one and, after that, I'm basically not promising anything. I'm more or less doing this for the fans and the band, because they make most of their money when we're on tour."
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