Certain Songs #1536: Peter Case – “Steel Strings (Acoustic)”

Album: Selections From Peter Case EP.
Year: 1986.

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There was definitely some anticipation for the solo debut of Plimsouls frontman Peter Case, so when Geffen put out an advance promotional EP, it got a lot of airplay on KFSR, especially the two lead tracks of the EP — which were also the lead tracks on the eventual album — “Echo Wars” and “Steel Strings.”

Both songs emphasized Case’s new direction. Moving away from the power pop that defined The Plimsouls, these songs were full of acoustic instruments, off-beat percussion and Case’s pure, clear voice.

There were two versions of “Steel Strings” on that EP: the album version, which is dominated by steel drums and electric guitars, and the “acoustic” version, which I actually preferred. Absent the steel drums which tied the album version together, the acoustic “Steel Strings” is a never-ending surprise, where just about anything should show up, as Case sings about some aging rockers who’ve fallen on harder times.

They used to be on every schoolgirl’s wall
And they never dropped the beat at all
They could make it soar, they could make it hot
Once they got started they could never stop

The beat, which you eventually realize is a Bo Diddley, is driven by the acoustic guitars and a particularly solid implementation of The Handclap Rule (Handclaps make good songs great and great songs immortal), while also finding time for random other percussions and some pretty cool slide guitar. Oh, and an instantly hooky chorus.

Singing do you want a man of steel?
Or do you want a man that’s real
They used to play in the courts of kings
Now they’re only made of steel when they’re
On steel strings

What I love about this recording is how all of the space at the beginning — the guitars drop in and out, the handclaps stop and start seemingly at random, and Case himself leaves plenty of room in between each line — slowly gets filled, but this acoustic version of “Steel Strings” never gets overstuffed, even as it barrels towards the ending, where he repeats “playing the man on steel strings” over and over again.

Look, “Steel Strings” is a great enough song that even the album version — with a full drumkit and electric guitars — would be my favorite song from Peter Case (and my second favorite song by Peter Case), but I just think this version is so fucking cool on every level.

“Steel Strings (Acoustic)”

“Steel Strings” (Album version)

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