Happy 70th birthday to Robert Clark Seger, who was born just outside of Detroit on May 6, 1945. He’s been rocking the world with his every breath ever since.
Emerging in 1968 from the same Motor City mayhem rock scene that begat the Stooges, the MC5, Ted Nugent, and Alice Cooper, Seger scored an early hit and then stumbled a bit en route to superstardom. His fortunes changed, of course, throughout the following decade. Come the dawn of the ’80s, Bob reigned as one of rock’s supreme icons, crafting an unparalleled catalogue of classics and blowing away concert audiences worldwide on into the present—and the future.
Selecting just ten Bob Seger songs to qualify as “most essential” is an impossible task, but it’s fun to give it a try. Check out our picks, then tell us yours in the comment section. While you’re there, also be sure to with a happy 70th to the entirely winning Mr. Beautiful Loser himself!
“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”
Album: Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man (1968)
Debuting as The Bob Seger System, the title track from Bob’s first album rises up from an instantly boogie-inducing drums-and-keyboard combo. On top of that percussive foundation, which is further bolstered by handclaps, Seger introduces himself as a charming ne’er-do-well who lives and love by a toss of the dice or a spin of the wheel, then hightails it onward once his luck runs out.
The entire Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man LP is pure soul-tinged garage rock bliss studded with standout numbers that herald a rich, brilliant career to come. Large and loud among them is “2 + 2 = ?”, a scabrous, proto-metal wail that questions the madness of war. Is it heavy? It’s the heaviest.
Album: Beautiful Loser (1975)
Seger’s first hit after “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” was a long time coming, and “Katmandu” served as the perfect joyful outburst of liberation. Mixing full-bodied, piano-driven rock-and-roll with a Chuck Berry guitar break and rump-shaking harmonica and saxophone solos, Bob recounts the many places he’s lived and traveled to after announces his plans to depart for the Asian outpost of the title. Wherever he was heading, the world wanted to follow.
Album: Night Moves (1976)
Sad, sweet, soulful, and even spooky, Seger conjures a moment and a milieu in the ballad “Mainstreet” with which anyone who has ever been young and scared and hopeful and frustrated and ambitious can’t help but identify. Bob describes watching a dancer in a window of a smoky downtown club that he’s just not ready to approach, and then following her with his eyes as she walks off alone past the pool halls and street hustlers into the wee hours.
Powered by a keyboard that perfectly matches the song’s beguiling melancholy, Seger concludes by singing, “And even know, when I’m feeling lonely and beat/I drift back in time and find my feet/Down on Mainstreet.” You really can go home again—but only when you close your eyes.
“Roll Me Away”
Album: The Distance (1982)
“Roll Me Away,” Seger’s great anthem of finding hope and redemption on an open highway, appropriately propelled him into the ’80s as a heartland rock alternative to MTV’s pop onslaught. He continued scoring radio hits, packing arenas, and winning over new fans. When Bob returned to the road after ten years with his Face the Promise Tour in 2006, “Roll Me Away” proved a powerfully perfect opening number.
“Old Time Rock and Roll”
Album: Stranger in Town (1978)
Tom Cruise dances alone in his underpants to “Old Time Rock and Roll” in the 1983 teen sex comedy classic Risky Business and, right or wrong, that moment proved absolutely definitive in iconography of Bob Seger.
In fact, we have to ask, what is wrong with that? Risky Business directly implanted “Old Time Rock and Roll” into humanity’s permanent popular consciousness, forever transforming what had been a minor hit into an ongoing universal moment of cutting loose and getting down at bars, parties, weddings, or even situations where you’re at home alone in your underpants.
“Like a Rock”
Album: Like a Rock (1986)
As the ’80s stormed around him, Bob Seger endured, yes indeed, “Like a Rock.” The slow-building, country-tinged title track from Seger’s 1986 album touched something deep not just in his fans, but on an universal scale. Chevy Trucks certainly thought so, as it became the brand’s theme song from 1991 to 2004.
The lyrics describe looking back, through a filter of twenty years, on youthful strength, vigor, and feelings of immortality. “And I stood arrow straight/onencumbered by the weight/of all these hustlers and their schemes/I stood proud/I stood proud/I still believed in dreams.”
“It expresses my feeling,” Bob told the New York Times, “that the best years of your life are in your late teens when you have no special commitments and no career. It’s your last blast of fun before heading into the cruel world.”
“Against the Wind”
Album: Against the Wind (1980)
Inspired by Bob Seger’s epic treks as a cross-country runner in high school, “Against the Wind” is a wistful, deeply affecting meditation about lost love, wrong turns, bygone possibilities, and, above all, the hope that keeps us driving forward, away from that past.
In the song’s most famous passage, Seger sings: “And I remember what she said to me / How she swore that it would never end / I remember how she held me oh so tight / Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”
“Against the Wind” has resonated with particular profundity, inspiring popular covers by Brooks and Dunn and the Highwaymen, a supergroup consisting of no lesser luminaries than Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson.
“Still the Same”
Album: Stranger in Town (1978)
When it comes to selecting “essential songs” from Bob Seger’s 1978 masterpiece Stranger in Town, good luck. The album opens with “Hollywood Nights,” and also features “We’ve Got Tonight,” “Feel Like a Number,” and “Old Time Rock and Roll.”
“Still the Same,” the first single from Stranger in Town, rocketed off the momentum built by Seger’s 1976 breakthrough Live Bullet all the way up to #4 on the pop chart.
It’s a driving takedown of a character very much like the one Seger rhapsodized in his original hit, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” sung from a vantage point of long years and hard experience, as exemplified by the lyrics: There you stood/everybody watched you play/I just turned and walked away/I had nothing left to say/’Cause you’re still the same… Moving game to game.”
As for the target of the song’s ire, Seger said: “People have asked me for years who this is about. It’s an amalgam of characters I met when I first went to Hollywood. All ’Type A’ personalities, overachieving, driven.”
Album: Night Moves (1976)
The year 1962 is a pivotal one in some of the best and most beloved works of nostalgia. In film, it’s the setting for both American Graffiti and Animal House; on TV, it’s when the first season of Mad Men takes place; and in music, 1962 sets the tone for Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”
Culturally, ’62 felt perhaps even more “1950s” than any given moment in the previous decade, a final peak for America’s Eisenhower-era experience as the JFK assassination and the advent of the Beatles loom just a year or so in the future.
To contend with teenage affairs of the heart, let alone hormones, circa the summer of 1962, then, was no small endeavor. That’s what the sprawling, tempo-changing “Night Moves” is about. Young guy, young girl, stealing off whenever and wherever they can, building up to a literally climactic moment in the back of his ’60 Chevy.
Rolling Stone named “Night Moves” its Single of the Year. That likely came as no surprise to Seger, who once noted of the classic: “When people ask ’Do you know when you’ve written a hit?’ the usual answer is no. This song was an exception.”
“Turn the Page”
Album: Live Bullet (1976)
The sax wails, and that’s it. Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” has got you and for the next five minutes you’re all in for its steady-building, slow-boil drive through its gripping glimpses of weariness and exhaustion of cross-country touring with a rock-and-roll road show, its flashes of pent-up rage, and its final crescendo into acceptance that ends, as it began, with that sax wail.
Turn the Page originally appeared on Seger’s overlooked 1973 effort Back in ’72 and then took off as hit when it was included on his 1976 breakout, Live Bullet. It has remained the single most audience-intoxicating highpoint of Seger’s live show ever since.
In an odd bit of coincidence, Jackson Browne had almost identical success with his own song about the same topic, “The Load Out/Stay,” at almost the same time. The late ’70s was the right moment for the public to really be feeling their favorite rock stars’ pain, apparently.
Two decades later, Metallica scored a smash with their 1998 “Turn the Page” cover.