Boneheaded proto-metal awesomeness Part I
Decibel immediately scored points with me by placing Grand Funk Railroad's "On Time", an album that was introduced to me by my father, and that I've loved since my high school days, at #2 on their list. Figured I, "if the rest of these albums are even half as good as that one is, I'm doing myself a disservice by not hunting all of them down with the quickness." So, with some help from my friend Brandon (who still has access to the peer-to-peer file-sharing network Soulseek, something I haven't had since moving into a house with no internet last fall), I began hunting these albums down with the quickness. At this point, I've obtained nearly a dozen of them, and have absorbed a bunch of them fully enough to give my own opinion on them. I will do so at this juncture.
Atomic Rooster - Death Walks Behind You: I've known about Atomic Rooster for a while, having read a review of three of their albums in an issue of Ugly Things a few years ago, and having encountered organist/bandleader Vincent Crane's work in the short-lived psychedelic trio The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. In fact, I even downloaded a best-of compilation by them around the time I read the review in Ugly Things, but for whatever reason, it didn't hit me right, and I went away from it thinking that Atomic Rooster weren't that great. However, since all I'd heard was a best-of comp, I went ahead and grabbed this album anyway (in my experience, my idea of what an artist's best tracks are is usually pretty different from anyone else's, so I've learned not to trust best-of's). I'm glad I did, because it's turned out to be pretty fucking outstanding. Before we go any further, let me clear the air about one point: some of you may have heard that Carl Palmer, the P in ELP, began his recording career in this band. It's true, but Palmer only played on Atomic Rooster's first album. "Death Walks Behind You" is their second. The original Rooster trio was rounded out by a bassist/vocalist, but he also departed inbetween the first and second Rooster albums, and on this record, he's replaced by a similar-sounding vocalist, who plays guitar instead of bass. I haven't heard the first Rooster album, but based on the awesomeness of the guitar/organ interplay on this one, it was a good choice. As Decibel points out, it's hard to get past the sheer creepy intensity of the opening title track, but for those who do, there are plenty of treats here. "Sleeping For Years" has a dark groove worthy of early Black Sabbath, mixed with the kind of duelling organ/guitar fireworks that The Doors only wish they could have pulled off. Meanwhile, "I Can't Take No More" is Blue Cheer/Grand Funk-style bluesy thump, with Vincent Crane switching from his usual organ to piano for part of the song with no loss in vitality. Atomic Rooster remind me of Black Sabbath in other ways, too; there's an overwhelming darkness of mood here, present in all of the songs, that has only really stood out to me on a few other albums I've heard in my life, chief among them being Black Sabbath's debut album. Not so coincidentally, another dark, creepy album this one reminds me of is The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown's sole full-length. Without Arthur Brown's over-the-top shrieks, funky arrangements, and Blake-esque Satan-fixated lyrics, "Death Walks Behind You" is less over the top than that album, but this only lends gravity to its persistent dark mood. It may not surprise you, upon listening to this album, that head Rooster Vincent Crane suffered from persistent mental illness, ultimately committing suicide in 1983.
Armageddon - Armageddon/Captain Beyond - Captain Beyond: Maybe the fact that both of these bands featured drummer Bobby Caldwell is not reason enough to lump them together in a single overview, but I also noticed a good deal of musical similarity between these two acts, so it feels appropriate to me. Of the two, Armageddon's 1974 LP holds more historical value, as it was the last album recorded by former Yardbirds vocalist Keith Relf before his untimely death due to electric shock. However, Relf isn't nearly as dominant of a presence here as one might expect--guitarist Martin Pugh is the star of the show. His complex, note-heavy riffing is ahead of its time for 1974, presaging the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and giving this album a decidedly more modern flair than most of the albums from this list that I've heard. With three of the album's eight songs stretching out to more than eight minutes in length, it's probably no surprise that Relf's vocals occupy a much smaller percentage of the total time than do Pugh's guitar workouts, but when they do show up, they're still obviously the work of a talented singer--though they are quite a bit different from what he did in the Yardbirds. What will lead the listener to recognize Relf's Yardbirds pedigree, if anything, is his harmonica playing, which adds a welcome texture to many of the longer jam sections on this record. Captain Beyond are far less prone to launch into long jam sections; in fact, they fit 13 songs into the 37 minute duration of their self-titled album (compared to Armageddon's 8 songs in 41 minutes), and no song goes on longer than 4 minutes. With more standard three and four chord blues progressions taking the place of Pugh's guitar histrionics, Captain Beyond have a much more solid riff-rocking sound, which is still somewhat similar to Armageddon for all of that (probably due to similar rhythmic structures). These guys are more into rocking hard than jamming out, and do so with panache on tracks like "Raging River Of Fear" and the opening "Dancing Madly Backwards (On A Sea Of Air)". In the end, I couldn't tell you which of these albums I like better; both have their charms, and both are worth getting.
High Tide - Sea Shanties: Based on what I'd read in Decibel about this band, I was a bit put off at first by what I got when I listened to their album. I wouldn't expect anything described as "ludicrously loud and violent" to feature vocals that remind me of nothing so much as Jim Morrison. In fact, one thing this list has taught me is that The Doors were a much bigger influence on their contemporaries than I ever would have expected, based on the way they're looked at today.
See, the thing is, I like a lot of the music that comes from the late 60s and early 70s, which is often thought of as "the classic rock era". But I don't tend to like many of the bands from that time that are critically acclaimed and remain in heavy rotation on classic rock radio today. The bands that are singled out for that kind of praise (which can at times verge on totally uncritical worship) seem to receive their status based on qualities that aren't the same as the qualities I enjoy in the bands from that era. Specifically, we're coming up on the explanation for a word I used in the title of this post: "Bonehead". No matter the intelligence level of the performers (certainly not something I'm in any position to ascertain), the music from that time that I like the most tends to have in common a certain element of glorious ignorance (not to say stupidity). A lot of these musicians who had records out at the time were untutored teenagers who'd bashed on instruments for a year, maybe two at the most, in their parents' garages, then gotten a record deal and knocked out some singles and/or albums. Most of them had regional hits at best, never attaining the kind of stardom received by the groups that are critically revered today. Today, listening back to groups from that era, I find myself using that stardom as a bullshit detector, often writing off groups like The Doors, Cream, The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, based on just how popular they continue to be. Sometimes, an eventual honest reappraisal of the music of these bands makes me feel like I was justified all along (The Grateful Dead). Other times, I berate myself as a fool for wasting any time not appreciating a band's sheer brilliance (Cream). Mostly, though, I find that things aren't so cut and dried--that all of these bands have both good and bad moments (though sometimes the bad far outnumber the good). And no matter what I find, I certainly can't ever hold it against a band from that same time period if they took influence from one of these currently worshipped bands. After all, how could High Tide have known that The Doors would come to seem odious in their ubiquity, nearly 40 years after they made an album that showed a marked influence from that band?
Besides, when I went back and listened to the High Tide album a second time, I enjoyed it a lot more. Being prepared for the vocalist's resemblance to Jim Morrison allowed me to look past it and appreciate them on their own merits, which are considerable. After all, they don't sound that much like The Doors. Maybe if Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek had replaced the rest of their band with the original, "Vincebus Eruptum"-era lineup of Blue Cheer, and then added the electric violinist from pre-Crazy Horse band The Rockets, it would be somewhere close to this. But they didn't, and that left things wide open for High Tide. They do resemble The Doors quite closely on the quieter tracks here, but the 15-minute opening one-two punch of "Futilist's Lament" and "Death Warmed Up" really does approach ludicrous levels of violent volume, which is more than enough to make up for the occasional sidetrip into ballad territory.
MC5 - Starship: Live At Sturgis Armory: I've actually been looking for this one for a while, as the MC5 are a big favorite of mine, and I've read about them sufficiently enough to be well aware that their debut album, "Kick Out The Jams", was heavily weighted towards the most commercial aspects of the MC5's diverse live sound at the time of recording. "Starship" begins with Rob Tyner gasping, "Kick out the jams, motherfu-fu-fu...", then BANG! Dennis Thompson hits his snare drum once, and the band launches into their signature tune. I find myself missing "Rambling Rose", which begins the debut album, but hey, if I do want to hear that song, I still have a vinyl copy of "Kick Out the Jams" that I can put on anytime. Nearly every other song from that album is here, along with a good many of the MC5's live staples that were left off of it--another free jazz cover (Pharoah Sanders' "Upper Egypt", which joins the title track, a Sun Ra cover), a medley of James Brown covers, including "Cold Sweat" and "I Can't Stand Myself", and the notorious "Black To Comm", an original composition that ended MC5 sets for years but was never officially released, and which, for all of my MC5 fandom, I'd never heard prior to acquiring this CD. It's basically what I expected--starts out as a simple blues riff, ends up turning into feedback/amp destruction by halfway through. That doesn't make it, or this CD as a whole, any less awesome. If I have any quibble, it's that I wish this CD was recorded as clearly as "Kick Out The Jams" was. But hey, I'll take what I can get.
Pink Fairies - Kings Of Oblivion: The Pink Fairies are another band that I heard about long before I heard, originally because of The Rollins Band covering "Do It", and later because of the involvement of Mick Farren and Twink. About 6 months ago, I downloaded their first album, "Never Neverland", and found myself underwhelmed. For a little while, I figured that maybe the Pink Fairies were overrated, but then I read an Ugly Things review of several reissues of theirs, and learned that "Never Neverland" was widely considered to be spotty and mediocre, and that the Pink Fairies reached their peak on this, their third album. Sounds about right to me; where the first album bogged down quickly, this one rocks, moving more quickly than most of the others on this list and featuring a lot more catchy melodies. Guitarist Larry Wallis, who apparently joined the Pink Fairies for this album, wrote many of the songs here. This includes the excellent opener "City Kids", which he took with him several years later when he became Motorhead's founding guitarist. Really, though, this album reminds me more of stuff like The Flamin' Groovies than anything I would have expected from the list I found it on. That said, that's certainly fine with me.
Randy Holden - Population II: Another one I've been looking for for years. I discovered Randy Holden due to his brief tenure in Blue Cheer (he played guitar, sang, and wrote the three songs on side two of their third album, "New! Improved!"--an album title that only would have been accurate had Holden remained in the band for longer than one side of an album), and while his work in that band was quite different than that of the original lineup, it's still awesome. That said, word has always been that it's nowhere near as awesome as this album is. I wasn't sure whether to believe that or not, but one listen to opening track "Guitar Song", and I was converted. This shit is ridiculous. The first time I listened to it, I was at work, and I had to keep turning the store boombox down, because of just how piercingly loud the lead guitar work on this album is. "Guitar Song" is a great example, in fact; over a slow, plodding backbeat, Holden sings a verse or so, then launches into the stratosphere, blasting his fiery leads out of eight Sunn full-stacks with the aid of a mysterious silver gain pedal that apparently doubled his volume without adding any distortion (see Holden's chapter in Richie Unterberger's "Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers" for more on this). Drummer Chris Lockheed is the only other performer on this album, and his minimal beats do little more than keep the songs moving. This is Holden's show, and throughout the album, he demonstrates that any additional collaborators would only hold him back. Nowhere is this more obvious than on "Fruit And Iceburgs", a song that originally appeared on "New! Improved!" The version here sounds like the Blue Cheer version on steroids. Unfortunately, Holden's label did such a terrible job of releasing this album (some accounts have it that it was never officially released until sometime in the 90s) that he quit music in frustration. But thankfully, revived interest in Holden's music within the last decade has led to its official (re)release, and now everyone can enjoy this slab of brilliant guitar noise.
Leigh Stephens - Red Weather: Unfortunately, the other Blue Cheer guitarist on this list doesn't put in nearly as good a showing on his solo effort. Opening track "Another Dose Of Life", while not retaining the sheer pulverizing power of "Vincebus Eruptum", is nonetheless a pretty great proto-metal rocker. However, things trail off sharply from there, with most of the rest of the album being devoted either to pointless instrumentals or acoustic hippie twaddle. Sometimes it's both at the same time. How disappointing. I'm going to keep listening to this one and hope that it reveals its brilliance eventually, because at this point I'm unable to accept that Leigh Stephens, who is responsible for one of the most idiotically brilliant moments in garage/psych/proto-metal history (I am referring, of course, to the duelling guitar leads on Blue Cheer's version of "Parchment [sic] Farm", which have nothing to do with each other and are barely even in the same key) could less than two years later produce as boring an album as this appears to be. However, I'm not hopeful.
Sam Gopal - Escalator: Man... I really wish I could like this more than I do. See, this is the first album Lemmy ever played on. He sings and plays lead guitar, and was apparently the main songwriter in this particular ensemble. And nothing that Lemmy does here bothers me. The problem is Sam Gopal himself. He's the bongo player. And no, that doesn't mean he plays auxiliary percussion alongside a full-kit drummer. That means that there are no full-kit drums on this album--just bongos. And no matter how good the songs are, hearing them with bongos instead of regular drums just seems to pull the rug out from under them, every time. This isn't a terrible record, by any means. But it's just not all that good. And I doubt that either of us will listen to it very often. Oh well.
Valhalla - Valhalla: Here I am, all set to write about how this album was disappointing too. And now I'm listening to it again, for the third time, and it's sounding a lot better than it did on the first two listens. On those two listens, I thought this sounded a good bit more like The Doors than High Tide did, to a point where I wasn't comfortable with the influence. This time, though, I'm hearing a good bit of Hawkwind. Maybe I'm not actually ready to judge this one yet. Or maybe it'll start wearing on me after I've listened to a few songs. But as it is, I don't think I can offer a completely reliable opinion on this album right now. Points in its favor: heavy guitar, pounding rhythms. Points against it: dominant organ, somewhat wimpy vocals. I'll get back to you on this one.
So there you go: that's 10 out of the 50 albums on that list covered (and if my prevaricating comments on Valhalla make it not count, then my unqualified endorsement of Grand Funk Railroad's "On Time" can stand in for it). I'm already copping other albums from the list (Dust, Bob Seger System, and Groundhogs are all on my hard drive, with more on the way if it's at all possible), so there'll at least be one more round. Watch this space.
Atomic Rooster - Sleeping For Years
High Tide - Futilist's Lament
Randy Holden - Guitar Song
Pink Fairies - City Kids
Sam Gopal - The Dark Lord