Certain Songs #1066: Lynyrd Skynyrd – “That Smell”

Album: Street Survivors
Year: 1977

Then Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down, killing Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his backup singer sister Cassie. And just like that, a band that blazed bright and hot — putting out an album every year from 1973-1977 — was gone forever.

And yeah, I know that something calling itself “Lynyrd Skynyrd” has been touring and recording for the past three decades, but let’s face it, Ronnie Van Zant was the guiding light and the key figure behind that band, and nothing was ever going to bring him back.

And so the release of Street Survivors was just a few days before the end of the band, and maybe that was why “What’s Your Name?” became a huge hit single and the album their highest charting record, or maybe it was because they were still a great band, able to juxtapose good-timey rockers like “I Know A Little” and “You Got That Right” with one of toughest anti-drug songs ever recorded, “That Smell.”

Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars
Oak tree you’re in my way
There’s too much coke and too much smoke
Look what’s going on inside you

Because of the disaster that struck the band upon its release, “That Smell” always felt weirdly prescient, even though neither drugs nor drink was what killed them. But in the autumn of 1977, when “That Smell” leapt onto the radio that it hasn’t left in 40 years, there was no way to hear the chorus and not think that Van Zant knew, he knew, man.

Ooooh that smell
Can’t you smell that smell?
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you

With background singers JoJo Billingsley, Cassie Gaines and Leslie Hawkins hammering hammering on that chorus and interjecting “Hell yeah!” and “You fool you!” at appropriate moments,”That Smell” would come across as hectoring if you also didn’t realize that it was also partly aimed at Van Zant himself.

And, of course, there were the guitar solos.

Initially, it’s just Steve Gaines for a quick jolt after the first chorus, and then a more extended section where — as Master of Ceremonies Van Zant whistles for our attention — he’s joined by both Allen Collins and Gary Rossington.

But it’s after the final verse where all hell breaks loose, as Rossington careens out of the final dual chorus while Van Zant is muttering “you just a fool just a fool just a fool” and ends up running into himself, repeating the same couple of notes over again while Collins eventually takes over for awhile, accompanied by Gaines, and eventually it turns into a free-for-all — all three guitarists trading licks just for the sheer fuck of it, until the slide back into the main riff one last time.

That last guitar break only lasts for about 1:30, but the first time I heard it on the radio, it completely blew me away: endlessly fascinating, completely inventive, and — best of all — never overstaying its welcome.

And so, with all due respect to both “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird,” I think “That Smell” end up being the definitive Lynyrd Skynyrd song: smart and tough lyrically, tight musically, and with guitar fireworks that do exactly what they need to do. Hell yeah!

“That Smell”

“That Smell” performed live in 1977

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