By Adam Waldman
On March 30, 1979, Canadian power trio Triumph released their third studio album, Just A Game. This is the album that exposed the band to American audiences with hit songs like “Hold On” and “Lay It On The Line” (which is still a staple on classic rock radio today).
Like the younger brother of an all-star professional athlete or an accomplished actor, this Canadian power trio (unfairly) spent their entire career in the larger-than-life shadow cast by Rush. To quote the Rush classic “The Trees”…
“The trouble with the maples, and they’re quite convinced they’re right. They say the oaks are just too lofty, and they grab up all the light.”
To be fair, the might oak that is Rush earned their share of the (lime)light, and the maple that is Triumph probably doesn’t harbor any ill will towards their Canadian brethren. However, as a diehard Triumph fan, I have always felt like the band never got the respect that they deserved (at least in the U.S.). You have to wonder what the band’s ceiling would have been if they were from the United States, far beyond the shadow of Rush.
The title track of Just A Game may or may not be doing so intentionally, but the message is a perfect description of the politics in the music business that help to make or break an artist’s career. The lyrics can also be interpreted as actual political disenchantment. Regardless, the message is delivered with the bittersweet emotions that few (if any) can deliver like Triumph’s Rik Emmett. The beauty and passion of his voice uplifts you even when the message that he is delivering is anything but positive. In this case, the message seems to be a self-realization…“it’s just a game, and all I can do is play.”
The underappreciated genius of Triumph is that they can blend songs like “Just A Game” and uplifting arena rock anthems like “Lay It On The Line” with acoustic classical guitar interludes (“Fantasy Serenade”) and smoky blues rock songs like “Young Enough To Cry” on one album and make it feel like a musical journey, rather than a collection of unrelated songs.
From the roar of the crowd and the cowbell on “Movin’ On” to open the album, to the last note of “Hold On” – a song about the power of music to inspire – and everything in between, Just A Game is one of the best hard rock albums of an era that was filled with classics.
Aside from Just A Game being the album that introduced me to Triumph in my youth (and my overall favorite from the band), it also features the most impressive (and meaningful) album cover in their catalog. The vinyl version of the record featured a sleeve that folded out into a board game. Emmett came up with the concept and bassist Mike Levine designed it, but he made it impossible to win (which seems to go back to the message of the title track). Each symbol placed on the game board of a futuristic world on the cover represents a song on the album.
Triumph played “the game” as well as they could. Depending on your outlook, it’s up to you to decide if they won or lost. In some ways, it’s probably a little bit of both. Emmett, Levine and (drummer/vocalist) Gil Moore enjoyed a successful run, but based on their talent and songwriting ability, they should have been one of the most successful bands to emerge from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The music business (and life for that matter) really is Just A Game, and it isn’t always fair.
When you listen to the title track and “Hold On” (below), pay close attention to the lyrics of each. They speak volumes…