So, I’ve made a bit of a decision.
With the dawn of the Seventies, rock exploded and splintered into numerous subgenres. The liberation the Sixties generation gave it meant that nothing would be off limits, and there would be something for everybody. The result is that there is just too fucking much rock to enable me to comment on every album. (I have a family, a career and other interests, after all.)
Therefore, I’m going to incrementally take this chronological exploration a bit back towards the intended roots of this blog as a whole, and in light of the inaugural releases by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath at this point in my journey, gradually narrow my writing (though not listening) focus to heavy metal. I say this while listening to the debut album by Budgie, released in 1971 and thus a tad premature. I wasn’t familiar with their work before, but it raises the question: why did some bands become iconic and legendary, while others didn’t? These guys were just as heavy as Sabbath and Zeppelin, and yet they got left in the dust. And why do some bands form part of metal’s story, while others are left out? No idea. But in any event, I won’t completely eschew other rock genres, at least not initially; heavy metal was barely even an identifiable “thing” until the late Seventies anyway. I’ll certainly try to avoid falling into the Chuck Eddy trap (mentioned in a post a couple of years ago) of attaching the label “heavy metal” to a bunch of stuff that has no business bearing the tag, but I can’t give up the broader scope of rock’s evolution entirely just yet. Non-metal stuff will simply become less and less my focus as time goes on.
Mountain have long been given credit for being one of heavy metal’s ancestors, and I suppose there’s some sonic connective tissue there, but really they came across instead – in their early work, at least – as a heavy blues rock band. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; their “official” debut Climbing! (guitarist Leslie West’s solo album Mountain is often considered the titular band’s true first) grinds along with a frantic energy for the most part, propelled most Will Farrell-like by generous smatterings of cowbell and lashings of West’s dirty just-dug-out-of-the-ground riffs. “Silver Paper” grabbed me from the get go, hitting like a louder version of The Band with organ courtesy of Steve Knight. “For Yasgur’s Farm” offers a tribute to Max Yasgur, owner of the Woodstock site where the band performed. But it’s “Mississippi Queen”, with its iconic riff, that would earn the band its spot in rock’s canon.
Fort Worth, Texas supposedly had something of a burgeoning music scene circa 1970 (I say “supposedly” because I, know-it-all and self-appointed arbiter – in my own mind, at least – of what’s worth knowing about rock and what isn’t, didn’t know about it), whence emerged Bloodrock. A band with such a metal name just has to live up to it sonically, right? Maybe. Mostly these guys were late psychedelia mixed with hard rock, a combo which pretty much passed for heavy metal in those days before anybody was even considering defining the term. The opening track on their self titled debut, “Gotta Find A Way”, includes actual honest-to-God backwards messaging a few years before Led Zeppelin and Judas Priest would (wrongly…?) be accused of that sin, though here it’s innocuous: “Anyone who is stupid enough to play this record backwards deserves what he is about to hear”, followed by an excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”. And the oddly named closer “Melvin Laid an Egg” is an eccentric bit of proto-sludge, with some clever keyboard work by Stephen Hill, vocalist/drummer Jeff Rutledge coming off like a cross between Alice Cooper and Ronnie James Dio, and a heavy, plodding, ominous riff courtesy of guitarist Lee Pickens.
Delaney & Bonnie’s On Tour With Eric Clapton was one of those talent-studded albums that planted deep roots, and unappreciatedly (heretofore by me) so. The fact that an album so fundamental to the growing genre of southern rock – especially in its most rollicking, energetic form – would be recorded live in England seems a tad incongruous, but this crew is fucking on fire, especially on tracks like “I Don’t Want To Discuss It” with Clapton raining down dirty bluesy chords like hail. As to the aforementioned roots it planted, well… members of the touring band would shortly feature prominently on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, with Clapton on Layla and other Assorted Love Songs, and with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass.
The public end of the Beatles came on April 9 with Paul McCartney, in the midst of a vociferous falling-out with the other members over the release dates for Let It Be and his and Ringo’s solo debuts, announcing his departure from the band at a press conference. His announcement was interpreted as a full-on band dissolution by the press, and with no denials ensuing, that was that. Paul’s self-titled debut disc was released about a week later. Recorded almost entirely in secret, Paul played all the instruments and performed all vocals, except for some harmonies provided by his wife Linda, and recorded everything via overdubbing. Dismissing Linda’s contribution as simply “some harmonies” is probably unfair, since it’s been said that she pretty much singlehandedly pulled Paul out of his post-Beatles alcohol-fueled depression and encouraged him to write and record again. The album’s relative underproduced simplicity would alienate some critics (“he broke up the Beatles for this?!?!?”) and enchant others, the latter particularly in retrospect. Standouts were “Man We Was Lonely” and, of course, “Maybe I’m Amazed” with its impassioned, shrieked mid-song vocal, dedicated to Linda and now regarded as one of Paul’s greatest works.
A month later came the Fab Four’s final, posthumous studio album, Let It Be. The jacket spoke volumes: a photo of each band member, evidently taken on four different occasions, with Lennon and McCartney in full flight in their new solo careers, Starr with a forlorn look of “oh shit what do I do now”, and Harrison overjoyed at finally being in control of his own destiny. Not surprisingly the title track is the standout, a simple plea for patience and understanding in the midst of the rancour that was the Beatles’ protracted breakup and which, like several other tracks, was given Phil Spector’s treatment to varying degrees of pleasure and displeasure from Lennon and McCartney, respectively. “I Me Mine” is a bit of a grungy rocker, recalling Lennon’s pleasing experience playing stripped-down bluesy rock on the Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus. Appropriately enough, the album’s final track, “Get Back”, another no-frills rocker, was performed during the band’s last ever public performance on the roof of the Apple Corps office on January 30, 1969. The last we hear from the group is Lennon’s jokey little hearkening-back to their early days: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.” Exeunt omnes.
I doubt I’ll be devoting much attention to prog rock as this project moves forward (except where it crosses with heavy metal), but in the meantime…. well, I honestly tried to like King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon, but overall I couldn’t. The bizarre little tune “Cat Food” is an exception, one of those suburban English slice-of-life vignettes of housewives seemingly borrowed from Monty Python’s ubiquitous pepperpots. But eleven-minute instrumental “The Devil’s Triangle” has been charitably described as “chaotic” while really just being a mishmash of classical noise inspired, supposedly, by Gustav Holst’s “Mars: Bringer of War”. I find little to appreciate in “noise rock” at the best of times, and I doubt I ever will. What can I say… I’m a philistine, I guess.
I have to admit, I’ve never consciously or with intention listened to anything by Uriah Heep before now. With that in mind, I embarked on their debut …Very ‘Eavy, …Very ‘Umble, with what was certainly the most creepy-ass album cover ever up to that point in rock history, and it’s a mixed bag of styles as the band confronted the changing times for popular music and sought to find a direction. So there’s some early proto-metal (“Gypsy”), blues (“Lucy Blues”), and a lot of prog touches courtesy of Ken Hensley’s organ work. It’s a shame that British fans had to wait nearly a year till Heep’s second album, Salisbury, to hear “Bird of Prey”, easily the heaviest track on the US release, because it’s a gripper full of heavy riffing and apocalyptic, King Diamond-esque falsetto courtesy of vocalist David Byron. Being an album from the early Seventies that happens to be slightly heavier than The Who or the Stones, the album got slagged critically (Rolling Stone’s Melissa Mills threatened in her review to commit suicide if the band realized success), but like so many of those same albums, it’s since come to be regarded as an early metal classic.
A quick shout out to a quirky discovery, stumbled upon only because I was listening to Grand Funk Railroad’s Closer to Home (more on that below) and learned that two of its songs were covered by the very short-lived South African band Suck on their only studio album. The album, the irresistibly-entitled Time To Suck, was supposedly recorded in Johannesburg in less than six hours, but still manages to sound fairly slick and well-produced, with vocalist Andrew Ionnides’ style suggesting Robert Plant. Other than “The Whip”, the album is entirely covers of the likes of everything from Deep Purple (“Into the Fire”) to Donovan. The band remained essentially unknown in the Northern Hemisphere until 2007 when Classic Rock magazine referred to them as one of the “lost pioneers of heavy metal”; appropriate given the apocalyptic cover of Sabbath’s already apocalyptic “War Pigs” which ends the album. Solid stuff, and unexpectedly so.
Anyway, back to Grand Funk Railroad. It’s always a bit incongruous when a slab of pop culture manages to attract popular success in the midst of critical revulsion (although, arguably, less incongruous as time goes on). However, that was pretty much Grand Funk’s story: their work is heavy blues rock, chock full of distorted riffs, frantic energy, and good harmonies, and that kind of thing, it seems, never failed to attract derision in Rolling Stone in those days. Closer To Home, their third, blew the door off from the get-go with “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother”, and closed out with the iconic get-your-lighters-out “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home)”. The latter track in particular, deliberately ambiguous in its meaning, became an unofficial anti-war anthem and has maintained a sizeable following among Vietnam veterans. And for popular consumption, the album was famously promoted with a fucking massive billboard in Times Square, leading to packed venues and, ultimately, a sell-out crowd at Shea Stadium the following year that broke the Beatles’ record.
Excessive adulation for a band’s “classic lineup” always risks doing injustice to their prior and subsequent work, but I’ll assume that risk with Deep Purple In Rock, the band’s fourth album and the first with said lineup – Mark II – comprised of Blackmore, Paice, Gillan, Glover and Lord. And what a glorious step forward into hard rock/early metal it was, right out of the gate with “Speed King” and its tribute to the early days of rock n’ roll. Ian Gillan represented a significant improvement on Rod Evans, with his powerful pipes and a vocal range approaching – if not quite reaching – Robert Plant’s shrieking heights (“Bloodsucker”, e.g.). Indeed, Zeppelin comparisons are not only inevitable but also fair, with the band specifically seeking a heavier direction after hearing Zep’s debut. And similarly, even if “Flight of the Rat” isn’t quite the speed metal progenitor that is “Communication Breakdown”, it comes damn close.
After four albums in two years, Creedence Clearwater Revival could do naught but continue their hot streak and release a fifth. Cosmo’s Factory (named after drummer Doug “Cosmo” Clifford’s dubbing of their rehearsal space as “The Factory” due to John Fogerty’s highly disciplined work ethic) would be the band’s creative pinnacle. “Ramble Tamble” opens things off with an energetic, high speed riff bookending a four minute instrumental section. As to the rest, well, there aren’t many bands outside of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin with an album on which most of the tracks are instantly recognizable and iconic. From the popularly-about-Vietnam-but-really-about-gun-proliferation-in-America “Run Through The Jungle” with its terrifying bad trip opening, to “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” and its supposedly Dr. Seuss-inspired weirdness, to “Who’ll Stop The Rain” and its plea for somebody to do something about all the bad shit going on in the world, the album established CCR as the most popular band in America in mid-1970. But I hold a special place in my heart for “Up Around The Bend” with its squeally opening riff that hooked me the first time I heard the song as a teenager in the late Eighties. Still my go-to favourite Creedence song.
Sophomore efforts by bands tend to fare much better than their equivalent in film. Such was the case with James Gang Rides Again, a showcase for Joe Walsh’s mastery of riff-driven rock. “Funk #49” opens the album and has since become one of Seventies rock’s cultural touchstones, turning up numerous times in popular media. After side one’s axe attack by Walsh, side two changes tacks a bit out of the gate, working more complexity into the mix while still churning out relentless driving riffs (“Tend My Garden” being an excellent example).
Speaking of sophomore efforts, on Fun House the Stooges continued their simplistic, noisy, nihilistic assault on America as she existed at the dawn of the Seventies. “T.V. Eye”, which may be about a girl or a cat looking at Iggy sideways, features a guitar tone that suggests something Metallica may have taken inspiration from in the early days, though they’d probably never admit it if they had. And “1970” is a bit more upbeat (and a lot more lusty) than their debut’s “1969”; this time they want to bang the girl all night because they’re “feeling alright”. So much so, in fact, that the sentiment spills over into the title track one song later. Nothing terribly cerebral at work here, to be sure, but there’s something happening. And hey, why the hell not throw in some surprise sax on a proto-punk album? Besides, it’s far better than the noisy shit that makes up the inaccurately titled “L.A. Blues”.
By coincidence, the day after listening to Fun House, I happened to start reading Lester Bangs’ book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, wherein the legendary music scribe offers full-throated praise of Iggy and the lads. Well deserved praise, to be sure (though can’t say I share his views about Fun House). But in his inimitably curmudgeonly style, Bangs’ view boils down to this: because the Stooges crossed all possible boundaries between band and audience, they were inherently genuine and thus, if not a band for the ages (because nothing contemporary can be “for the ages”, he assures us), surely one of rock’s saviours way back in 1971 or so. He allows a bit of the same praise for Alice Cooper too, while slagging Led Zeppelin, the Stones and Jim Morrison. Is that his overall point? Does a rock band dispense with any merit the moment it outgrows the club scene? No idea. If so, how needlessly limiting. Anyway…. digression over.
Humble Pie’s eponymous third album marked a transition of sorts for the band, being noticeably louder, grungier and raunchier than its predecessor. The country-twanged “Only a Roach” offers a paean to cannabis, while “One Eyed Trouser Snake Rumba” presents as a mashup of Zeppelin-esque lyrics with vocal stylings closer to Kiss. Meanwhile the cover of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready” turns up the volume and the distortion, with Steve Marriott’s vocals sounding most Plant-like and reviving the question of why Plant’s band became so huge while Humble Pie were a spent force by 1975. Such, I suppose, is the fickleness of the listening public…..
“Brand New Day” off Al Kooper’s third solo effort Easy Does It blazes out of the gate with the most jangly post-Byrds pre-mid-Seventies guitar tone thus encountered on this journey. Didn’t hurt either that, in an era of heightening popular opposition to the neverending war in Vietnam, the lyrics offered an upbeat, almost happy exhortation to change. Plus a seeming paean to the recent past on “Sad, Sad Sunshine”, mostly sitar and violin with CSN-style vocals and sounding like something right out of the Summer of Love. On “She Gets Me Where I Live”, Kooper offers a surprisingly faithful take on the soul stylings of Bobby Womack. And Kooper can’t resist a bizarre little organ coda on album closer “God Sheds His Grace On Thee”, followed by him shouting “AH SHIT” to a chorus of disproportionate applause.
I’m probably asking for a few smacks in the mouth when I say this, but…. having just listened to Close To You, I’m quite confident that I can never listen to another album by the Carpenters and still die a happy man. That being said, I’ll wrap up this installment in order to steel myself for said smacks.