The Bob Seger Paradox – How Is the Same Artist Responsible for One of the Best & Worst Songs Ever?

The perfectly penned Night Moves and the saccharine-nostalgia-baiting musical platitude of Old Time Rock and Roll.

At the time that Bob Seger released the song (and album) Night Moves in 1976 he had been playing in various bands for fifteen years, well before The Beatles made their commercial breakthrough and triggered the evolution of rock music away from that old time stuff. Bob Seger was making old time rock and roll when it was still relatively new, which makes it all the more difficult to understand how his reminisce of that era got it so completely wrong.

Seger’s first taste of commercial success first came in 1969 with ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man’ from his solo debut. While bands like Cream and Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath were taking blues-based rock in a far heavier direction, Bob Seger was packaging it in a glossy nostalgia for people who wanted to make safe listening choices and still get a little taste of rock music’s rebellion. At his worst, and usually most successful, Seger employs this trick like he invented it. He did not, but he did create a blueprint for artists like Billy Joel, John Cougar Mellencamp and Phil Collins. I do not mean that as a compliment.

In 1974 Seger formed The Silver Bullet Band to back him on the road and sometimes in the studio – more on that later. In this new configuration he released the album Beautiful Loser and followed it up with Live Bullet. While these two albums produced what are now classic rock radio staples, they failed to break him into the top ten. It wasn’t until he released Night Moves in 1976 that he would finally reach commercial and critical heights.

Seger says he had been hanging out with Glenn Fry of The Eagles, who had encouraged him to be a bit more bold and experimental. Night Moves, the song and the album, were the result. The album is a bit toothier than his previous work. While still dripping with nostalgia and sentimentality, it adds an edge of darkness and depth that makes it feel more authentic than his other attempts to dredge up the past. And the title track is perhaps the best evidence of this.

As a song Night Moves is perfect, and I say this as someone who is not a fan of Bob Seger. Lyrically it is the same old subject, but with more poetic flare than his usual prose. However where he really breaks his own mold is musically. While he uses all the same elements he had been recycling for years, the arrangement and production imbue it with more mood and movement than he has ever been able to pull off elsewhere. I could use a hundred adjectives and still not touch upon the ephemeral brilliance of Night Moves. It’s greatness defies explanation and can only be understood by listening.

It can be easy to not hear that greatness now, since the song has been played to death on radio for forty five years at this point, but it’s still there. I took years away from the radio for just this reason, and a few years back I listened to Night Moves with fresh ears and was delighted. It didn’t change my mind about Bob Seger. I don’t think there is anything that could change my mind about the merciless mediocrity of the Godfather of Dad Rock, but nonetheless, Night Moves rocks. Softly, but beautifully.

I once shared this opinion in social media and managed to attract a handful of others who love Night Moves but are far less generous towards Seger as a whole. One of them shared an article which contained a quote from Bob which states that even he felt he never managed to get even close to recapturing the essence and perfection of that song. I was hoping to share that link, but I cannot find it, and search results for ‘bob seger never recaptured night moves’ and other similar phrases doesn’t bring it up – so if you find it, please leave it in the comments!

In 1978 Seger released his follow up album, Stranger In Town, hoping to capitalize on the formula he created with his prior album. Stranger In Town was another commercial and critical success, and produced several chart-topping singles. To me it is cookie cutter Seger, and I would only regard it as mediocre album, and not a blight against humanity, if it wasn’t for one song that was recorded at the tail end as an afterthought – Old Time Rock and Roll.

Earlier I mentioned that the Silver Bullet Band only sometimes worked with Seger in the studio, and the reason for this is that about half the time Seger employed the legendary studio musicians from Muscle Shoals Studio to back him up on recordings. Two of those musicians had written Old Time Rock and Roll, and I guess they just thought it was so bad they should pin it on Seger. Bob recorded his vocals over their demo and the song was tacked onto the album as filler. A year later, as nostalgia for early rock music was trending, his record company released the song as a single and it became one of his signature tunes, and was propelled to even greater heights a few years later when it was featured in the barfingly-bourgeois teen sex comedy Risky Business, which launched the unfortunate superstardom of Tom Cruise. The scene which featured that song has become so iconic that you probably cannot even hear it without visualizing Cruise sliding across the floor looking like a suburban caricature of rock music – which is exactly how the song sounds.

If you are going to subject yourself to this terrible tune, might as well go full audio masochist, right?

My own hatred for the song began in the 4th grade, where in vocal class we were forced to practice this song for months (among others) for an end of year recital. At this time Ozzy and KISS were my favorite bands and I was just about to graduate to Metallica and Suicidal Tendencies on the heavy scale, so Bob Seger seemed like a total candy ass to me. However I was also really into Little Richard and The Troggs and a bunch of actual old time rock and roll. This song was an affront to music past, present and future – and I drove the teacher nuts by purposely singing it terribly, which I also did with the Mellencamp song we had to sing. I was down af with La Bamba though, and made up for the others by really leaning into the Spanish lyrics.

Old Time Rock and Roll sounds like a bad impersonation of old time rock and roll. It reduces it to a handful of tropes and then punishes you with them via barely-veiled insincerity and wooden, blaring overproduction. On top of this it’s ‘get-off-my-lawn’ cynicism is completely uncalled for, since in the late seventies rock music was being reinvigorated with all kinds of soul via punk rock and new wave. The only music his accusations really apply to is the sort of Dad Rock he gave birth to, presumably by C-section, including this song itself, which is a soulless replica of the kind of music it opportunistically champions.

The only thing I can say in it’s favor is at least Seger doesn’t have to take responsibility as the songs writer, although he claims (contested) to have rewritten all the lyrics for the verses and regrets not taking a portion of the writing credit, considering how much of a cash cow the tune became. If I was Seger I would have let everyone continue to believe I didn’t have anything to do with writing it. That was a missed opportunity, just like the Scorpions messed up by not letting the CIA take credit for Winds of Change when conspiracy rumors claiming such made the rounds a few years back.

During the 1980s Seger began transitioning into a legacy act and never made it to #1 on the charts, until 1987 when he recorded the vocals to Shakedown from the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack, after his old buddy Glenn Fry played hooky (probably) to avoid being attached to that ear turd. Seger has continued to enjoy continued success based on his classic catalogue and is remembered whenever truck commercials, silky mullets or megalomaniacal actors who belong to an insane cult cross our collective minds. For better and worse he is a legend. Don’t forget to turn the page.

Now enjoy Ween roasting Night Moves with a short track mocking Seger’s raspy vocal articulation.

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