Take a good look at the cover of this 1977 album. (At the Princeton Record Exchange, there are enough copies of it in the dollar bins to wallpaper your entire apartment—something I’ve admittedly considered.) There’s more sleaze packed into those 144 square inches than in a hundred days in the life of Tommy Lee. Welch, balding but with the long scraggly wisps of the middle-aged man who won’t give up, wears pleated white pants and what looks to be a misbegotten cross between a track suit and a rugby shirt, opened to expose his sparsely haired chest. He seems barely able to stand as he tries to… what? At first it looks like he’s trying to ignite some unidentified smokeable object (cigar? roach clip? gnarly half-smoked butt from the ashtray?) but then it looks like it’s just trying to throw a lit match into mouth. He has these oversized, burgundy-tinted sunglasses on that almost but not quite conceal his heavy-lidded, utterly wasted eyes, which stare vacantly out at the photographer.
Draped over him is a tall heavily made-up woman who’s an object lesson in coke-whore chic: She wears a red dress (or is it a bathrobe?) that exposes her leg up to the very top of her thigh, where her bronze tan begins to fade. Her spindly fingers, with their long blood-red nails, are stretched across Welch’s chest—both she and Welch are wearing rings on their ring finger, but you certainly don’t get the impression they are married to each other. And most strikingly, she is tonguing his face, or perhaps his earlobe. (I know the album is called French Kiss, but isn’t then when you put your tongue in someone’s mouth?). The left half of the album cover seems to have set itself on fire to cleanse itself of the seedy filthiness of what’s happening on the right. This picture tells you everything you need to know about the self-indulgent ‘70s ideal: It gloriously conjures up cocaine spoons and key parties, empty promises made in hot tubs, interchangeable and indifferent bodies letting it all hang out in discos, sex in sports cars and hotel rooms while the 8-track of this album repeats and repeats.
One thing this cover tells you immediately is that French Kiss is not for children. It’s a rock album for adults—for those who aren’t embarrassed or reluctant to have left youth behind. Today, most rock albums that aren’t explicitly aimed at high school kids are suffused with nostalgia for when its middle-aged audience was teenagers. They imply that those were inevitably the best years of our lives and that being grown up is one compromise, one sellout, one dreary responsibility after another. But on this cover, Welch embodies the idea that adulthood can be one endless party too, a better one, since everyone has more money, better drugs and fewer inhibitions.
This mood is epitomized by Welch’s signature song, “Sentimental Lady,” which opens the album and encapsulates the era’s zeitgeist perfectly. Earlier, Welch had recorded the song as a member of Fleetwood Mac for its Bare Trees album. After guitarist Jeremy Spencer left to join a religious cult, the California-born Welch had taken over for him and piloted the Mac through its lean (but somewhat underrated) early ‘70s period. He quit in late 1974, only to see Fleetwood Mac become the most popular rock band on earth after his departure. Perhaps feeling sorry for him, Lindsey Buckingham produced this Welch re-recording of “Sentimental Lady” and gave him the biggest hit of his career. From the shimmering arpeggios that open the track to the pillowy backing vocals from Christie McVie to Buckingham’s spare solo over the bridge to the elegant, contrapuntal layers of sound during the fadeout, “Sentimental Lady” is as perfect a specimen of the California soft-rock sound as ever blessed FM radio, and it surely must have mellowed many a midlife crisis. Welch is no one’s idea of a strong singer; he has a wispy, whiny voice, equal parts Neil Young and Glenn Frey. But “Sentimental Lady” makes his weakness a strength, as the indifference built in to his lazy intonations takes the cloying edge off the sappy lyrics (“You are here and warm / But I could look away and you’d be gone / That’s why I’ve traveled far / Because I feel so together where you are”) and generates a bracing undercurrent of tension: He seems both deeply in love and deeply bored.
The rest of French Kiss doesn’t live up to “Sentimental Lady”. Welch had a second hit with “Ebony Eyes”, which has a nifty opening guitar hook and a laconic chorus punctuated with a string arrangement typical of the many attempts to assimilate disco to soft rock. In the 1980s, these ornamental string-section doodles would be replaced with much cheaper synthesizer licks. “Hot Love, Cold World,” the album’s third single, is less memorable—an awkward stab at funk with unsettling pauses between verse and chorus and some wildly inappropriate soloing that recalls Welch’s work with his ill-fated progressive-metal band, Paris. “Mystery Train” (no relation to the Elvis song) and “Lose My Heart” (and its reprises, “Lose Your…” and “Lose Your Heart”) sounds like the Elton John material from these years—“Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”, bicentennial anthem “Philadelphia Freedom”—peppy and synthetic, replete with choppy bursts of strings and overexuberant backing vocals (often Welch himself, multi-tracked unmercifully). This was the AOR-certified hit-making formula of the day, and Welch adheres to it with a vengeance. Welch is the polar opposite of soulful; throughout this album he’s a black hole of professional pandering. The cynical expediency with which Welch dispatches tracks like these seem like a taunt, as if he’s daring you to call him on merely going through the motions. But his barely disguised jadedness is part of what makes the album such a piquant 1970s memento now: This suits the way we’ve been trained to remember it, as a time of soulless selfishness and narcissism, of baby-boomer egomania gone amuck. He makes selling out—agreeing to the compromises of adult life—seem like a grand fuck-you gesture whose material rewards always garner you the last laugh on the earnest. For this reason, French Kiss remains darkly compulsive and irresistible; it’s as bleakly compelling as that one last line when it’s already five in the morning and you’re way past strung out. You can’t even feel anymore, but that’s no reason to stop.