Leslie West's Mountain-ous riffs.
Everyone knows the song "Mississippi Queen", I'm sure. It's one of those old classic rock songs that people hear and recognize immediately and can sing along with the choruses and all that. In this particular case, I'm sure there are plenty of irony merchants out there who are stoked about the cowbell that's in it. And in all sincerity, the cowbell actually is pretty cool. But personally, I just like that song because it's a thick, pounding monster of a riff. It appeals to me in the same way that a lot of early 70s proto-metal does. And I'm sure there are people out there who would think, "Fuck yeah, 'Mississippi Queen'! Who did that song?" As you guys have probably figured out by now, that's something that never really troubles me. I always know who did a song. And "Mississippi Queen", I could tell you without trouble, was by Mountain.
Mountain's leader was a guy named Leslie West, who started out playing guitar in the 60s garage group The Vagrants. When they broke up in 1968, he joined forces with Felix Pappalardi, a bass player most famous at the time for producing Cream's second and third albums. The two of them, along with the drummer for The Remains, made a solo record for West, entitled "Mountain." This arrangement apparently worked out well for West and Pappalardi, as they decided to turn their one-off arrangement into a full-time band, also named Mountain. I'm assuming the name came from West's physical appearance--he's a big, heavy guy--but I really don't know. Anyway, with West singing and playing guitar, Pappalardi playing bass and producing, Corky Laing on drums, and Steve Knight on organ, Mountain made their first record, "Climbing," and opened the album with "Mississippi Queen."
There's nothing I can really tell you about "Mississippi Queen" that you don't already know. I mean, that riff! That cowbell! Those awesomely stupid lyrics! That raunchy guitar sound! It's an awesome song, and we all know it. And last week, I had it stuck in my head. So I decided to do a blog search. Now, I talked in my Comus post from yesterday about the blogs that are out there. Some are focused on psych, some on prog, some on garage, some on proto-metal, but whatever you might be looking for, if it dates anytime from the early dawning of rock n' roll to 1980 or so, you can probably find a blog where the full album was posted. You just have to know how to google the right terms, and believe me, that's a skill I've long since learned. So I punched the appropriate terms into a google window, found a blog post with Mountain's "Climbing" LP in it, and as a bonus, Leslie West's "Mountain" album. Then I downloaded them both, burned them to a CD-R, with "Climbing" up first and "Mountain" following it (yes, they both fit on one CD), put it into my CD player, and hit play. And I got to listen to "Mississippi Queen," and it ruled.
For me, the act of doing all that just to hear one song was worth it. I didn't know what else I'd hear on the CD, but I've downloaded plenty of proto-metal stoner-boogie albums, not to mention garage, psych, surf, and whatever other genres might apply here, where the song I got the album for stands head and shoulders above anything else on the album. I was fully ready for an awesome song followed by over an hour of disappointment. It still all would have been gravy, because of just how awesome that awesome song is. But I got lucky--both "Climbing" and "Mountain" are excellent albums.
Oh, sure, there are some duds; anytime a band made an album like this back in the early 70s, they'd try to throw in a couple of ballads, hoping for airplay, and these Mountain albums are no exception. Hell, neither is "Black Sabbath Volume 4", and that record rules. That said, not every slow song on these Mountain albums is skippable. The Jack Bruce-penned "Theme From An Imaginary Western" follows "Mississippi Queen," and though it sounds completely different, it's still an excellent song. Steve Knight gets a chance to shine here, as well as on "Silver Paper", another slow, melodic jam that rules just as much in its own way as "Mississippi Queen." The acoustic track "To My Friend," which begins the second half of the album, is pretty limp, and provides a good example of a skippable track on this album, as does "Laird," which follows it. However, "Sittin' On A Rainbow," which follows these two relative duds, is awesome, with West laying down a propulsive guitar riff over a percussion-heavy rhythmic groove. There's plenty of cowbell here, too, and this song is definitely the equal of "Mississippi Queen," despite being considerably less known.
Leslie West's "Mountain" album, the one that started it all, is if anything even grimier and heavier than "Climbing." Opening track "Blood Of The Sun" doesn't have any organ on it to get in the way of West's high-gain rhythm guitar, and his howling R&B vocals are of an intensity that he almost never approaches on the Mountain album. Now, not every song on here is a slab of stoner-boogie jamming; "Blood Of The Sun" is followed by "Long Red," a slower ballad that nonetheless is built on a heavy foundation. But for the most part, these songs are dirty rock jams, and a lot closer to the whole proto-metal sound that one would expect from the band that produced "Mississippi Queen" than some of "Climbing" would indicate. In fact, various internet writings I can find about Mountain mention that organist Steve Knight was added to the band in order to increase their commercial potential. I guess they knew that what they'd produced on West's solo "Mountain" was too heavy to be commercial. Far as I'm concerned, though, it's exactly what I was looking for. In fact, while in terms of "Mississippi Queen" itself, it's "Climbing" that I had to get, if I'd been looking for a more generally awesome proto-metal album, "Mountain"'s the one I would now reach for. Songs like the slow, groovy "Blind Man," the riff monster "Dreams Of Milk And Honey," and "Baby I'm Down," a track rewritten by West and the band Clutch as "Immortal," a song on Clutch's album "Pure Rock Fury." I'm not particularly a Clutch fan, at least at that point in their career, so I have no idea how the rewritten version of the song turned out, but this original is awesome.
"Mountain"'s closing track, "Because You Are My Friend," is very reminiscent of "To My Friend," from "Climbing," as it is an acoustic ballad. That said, "Because You Are My Friend" works much better as a change-of-pace album closer than "To My Friend" did as a momentum killer in the midst of "Climbing." It's funny; now that I've heard both "Mountain" and "Climbing" a few times, I can tell you that, if I had it to do over again, I'd have put "Mountain" first on the CD-R I burned. It's a much heavier and more consistent album, and it would probably be pretty awesome, when I'm in the mood for some serious cowbell-laden proto-metal crunch, to play "Mountain" all the way through, then hear "Mississippi Queen" right on the heels of that. As it is, I'm sure there will be times when I put this CD on, listen to "Mississippi Queen," and then skip right to track 10. Of course, "Climbing" has some pretty great tracks on it too, so it's not like that's always the best course of action. Either way, these are a couple of great records, and if you always thought of "Mississippi Queen" as a good song by a one-hit wonder, you should revise your estimation with the quickness.
Mountain - Sittin' On A Rainbow
Leslie West - Blood Of The Sun