Elliott Murphy‘s early LPs have for years been high on his fans’ can’t-wait-for-the-CD lists. Now, finally and suddenly, several labels have reissued three of his first four albums, plus five discs of demos and outtakes from the same period.
The cream of the crop is 1975’s Lost Generation, in which Murphy takes on everything from Hollywood to Hitler, from mercy to the music business. You won’t find more rock ‘n’ roll spriti this side of Between the Buttons-era Stones; the recipe also includes exuberant melodies, an attitude reminiscent of Lou Reed and a lyrical bent that led Rolling Stone to call Murphy’s first LP the best Dylan album in four years.
Murphy isn’t on a par with Dylan (who is?) and in these early lyrics, his poetry occasionally seems forced and pretentious. Like Dylan, though, Murphy writes so cleverly that his lyrics are fun even when you don’t have a clue what he means. Like Dylan, also, he punctuates powerfully with harmonica and often seems as if he has so many words in his head that he can’t get them out fast enough.
Packaged with Lost Generation on a two-CD reissue (along with 11 mostly unessential outtakes) is Night Lights, the 1976 third album that Murphy calls “perhaps my purest New York work.” Less Dylanesque than its predecessor but almost as good, it finds Murphy sounding at times like a more streetwise Billy Joel, particularly on the anthemic “Diamonds by the Yard.”
Just a Story from America, which appeared a year later, reveals the musical and lyrical adventurousness that would foster Murphy’s growth in the decades ahead. Granted, a few of the lyrics read like soap-opera scripts and offer about as much depth. But even those numbers will have you singing along, and the album contains many more hits than misses, including “Rock Ballad,” “Caught Short in the Long Run,” “Summer House,” and “Drive All Night,” a sort of Long Island variation on “Born to Run.”
The Vintage Series discs—a collection of previously unreleased early recordings—are more than casual listeners need. For serious fans, though, it’s a treasure trove. Start with Vol. 1, which includes terrific, stripped-down versions of Murphy’s early songs, and Vol. 3, which preserves a memorable radio concert from 1974.