Raging Slab Against the Machine

In a July 2015 issue of The Guardian, Faith No More’s Mike Patton and Billy Gould are asked to reflect upon their career, and recall their record company’s initial reactions to their fourth album ‘Angel Dust’:

“It didn’t totally click,” Patton says drily. “I remember the label saying ‘commercial suicide’.”

“The classic line was: ‘I hope you didn’t just buy houses,’” Gould says.

Maybe ‘commercial suicide’ was a little extreme, but the suits had a point. Artists exist to create art, and labels exist to make money. ‘Angel Dust’ has barely achieved Gold status in the US over the course of 25 years. Having a record universally acclaimed as a masterpiece is no doubt fulfilling to the artists involved, but this alone doesn’t butter anyone’s bread. In the ages-old battle of Art vs Commerce, compromise is key, although the balance of power is heavily skewed toward the biz side, and it’s usually the creators that have to do most of the compromising. In this environment, it’s easy to lose sight of your vision, and sticking to your guns can get you killed.

Consider the saga of New York’s Finest Southern Rock Band (!), Raging Slab. Their 7-album discography (or is that 10?) includes three albums released via the Majors (or was it 6?), and includes the record we’re going to explore here: the Slab’s 5th (8th?) album, ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’, a record that I love dearly, but has beguiled me for many a year. As the follow-up to what many consider Raging Slab’s defining statement, 1993’s ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’, ‘Sing!’ is a wildly careening curve ball, at best a challenging listen for the band’s fan base and a twisted and broken middle-finger farewell to the major label segment of their career arc.

For the uninitiated, ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’ was a potent dose of southern-tinged hard rock with extra helping of musicality and a whole lotta soul. Southern Rock from NYC? Think Heavy Metal Skynyrd with an subversive alt streak and a wickedly obtuse sense of humor. DMBC was released on Rick Rubin’s red-hot Def American label (through Warner Bros), featured strings composed by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones, and the video for lead single ‘Anywhere But Here’ was Beavis and Butthead-approved. In an era when both Grunge and Alternative were slowly creeping into the mainstream, Raging Slab’s ‘Dynamite’ was a welcome blast of 3-guitar, old-school boogie-rock kick-ass, that somehow managed to seem both familiar and thoroughly relevant.

Then why, WHY?? was the follow-up, ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ so … um, different? DMBC seemed to be a perfect foundation on which to build a career, and combined the best of several worlds: Hard Rock, Alt Rock, Southern Rock, even a li’l Alt Country. All the stars looked to be aligned: hot video, buzz band status, a growing live rep… So what the HELL happened? The follow-up to ‘Dynamite’ is a very different animal, almost sounding like the work of a totally different band. Guitarist Gregoryy Strzempka has called ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ ‘one of the most bitter, unlistenable records ever made.’ There must be a reason for the extreme left turn that Raging Slab made here; some explanation for the abrupt transmogrification from funkified Blackfoot to something that might have eminated from Frank Zappa’s Straight label.

‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ is a poke in the eye to to the Powers that Be from a band tired of trying to please desk jockeys and number crunchers. Crammed with obtuse musical angles, algebraic lyrical formulas, and oddball atmospherics, this ugly little album stares at you with a demented smile and dares you to like it… If you don’t dig it: HA! You’re not supposed to! This willfully weird musical mutation was not aimed at you anyway. And if you do: That’s because a truly great band can deliver a bad album that’s still great because it’s supposed to be so bad that it’s great. If this record wasn’t a deliberate career suicide, it was certainly career self-sabotage, a musical hand grenade lobbed at label honcho Rick Rubin and the majors in general. And, boy, did it backfire…

Everything about this album reeks of ‘FUCK YOU’: the album’s title, the strikingly bizarro cover art, and the severely bent anti-boogie within… The queasy, seasick bass throughout ‘Gracious’… the haunted house stabs in ‘Never Comin’ Down’… the wicked witch vocals in ‘Checkyrd Demon’… the throat-shredding chorus of ‘Lay Down’… the disorienting vocal patterns in ‘C’mon N’ On’ and ‘Shoulda Known’… The lyrics are laced with poetic poison, and you don’t even wanna know about the album’s epic 3-part closer. It’s ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’ played upside down and backwards. Don’t worry: The Slab groove is there; it’s just hiding, and the whole mess is delivered with an artfully musical smirk. Once you clue into this record’s genius/dementia, suddenly it all makes a kind of sense. Kind of.

Full Disclosure: I love this much-maligned, misunderstood masterpiece. In fact, it’s one of my favorite albums of all time. And while ‘Dynamite’ might be a ‘better’ record, ‘Sing!’ resonates with me much more. Why? Simply put, backstory. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows it’s all about backstory here. Backstory can deepen one’s appreciation for an album or an artist; at least it can for me. And the story behind Raging Slab’s brief foray into the swirling cesspool of major label Purgatory is a humdinger. A little while back, I reached out to the principles in the Slab saga: Main man Gregory Strzepmka, slide guitarist extraordinaire Elyse Steinman (Strzempka’s wife), and bassist Alec Morton for the straight dope on this curious classic:

The Slabs 1st two indie releases, ‘Assmaster’ and the band-favorite ‘True Death’ EP, are a unique combo of classic 70’s boogie rock with an alt-punk edge and NYC underground attitude…

Alec: We were really proud of True Death. ‘Assmaster’ had been recorded very quickly and chaotically, and with ‘True Death’ we took our time and loved the result. Elyse spent hours at home making cassette dupes of the record; the three of us would load our pockets with them and pass them out to anyone we could when we went out to clubs, trying to get the record heard by as many people as possible.

Elyse: The important factors of our philosophy were humor, groove and to make people think beyond their horizons. ‘True Death’ encapsulated those qualities for me, just like Bowie or Zappa did for me as a kid.

Greg: I imagine my nostalgia regarding “True Death” is due to the fact that it was the last time we’d functioned in a studio without the ‘benefit’ of label input. It’s definitely my favorite Slab release. It was the perfect gel of everything we had envisioned. We all knew it sounded like us and nobody else, and I felt as if we had found our voice. And we had done so with only Elyse, Alec and myself in an 8 track, basement studio in Brooklyn.

Workin’ For RCA: The Slab enter the big leagues, sand down a few sharp edges, and learn a new word: ‘Compromise’, while working on their major label debut…

Alec: For me, the most mainstream thing about the RCA record is the production. Daniel (Rey, producer) had a production deal with RCA, he wanted to make records that sold. No one at RCA was looking for an ‘art’ band; the labels were desperate to find an east coast Guns n Roses. It seemed like a possibility that if we had a big, ‘current’ sounding record, we could succeed on a national level. This was new territory for us, a little intimidating. The final result is slicker than ‘True Death’, but once you’re signed to a corporation, there’s a certain amount of playing ball that goes with it.

Greg: I hope that ‘Raging Slab’ sounds more commercial, because it was intentional! The RCA record was done in two parts: we recorded five songs as part of a ‘development deal’, which was basically a recorded audition. There was a conscious effort to present ourselves as a sign-able act. So the more mainstream material was part of the ‘demo’ sessions. We were offered a contract based on those tunes, and we completed the album three months later, at which point we began our return to quirkier stuff. When the label chose Gary Lyons to mix, it became evident what they wanted us to sound like. RCA were not interested in anything other than having their own Guns n’ Roses.

Elyse: I think this is what we all wanted at the time, not so much to be ‘rock stars’ but to be pioneers in the field of music and art. But like our good friend Lisa Robinson always said, ‘It’s the pioneers that get shot in the back’, a prophesy we would later find to be true… ‘True Death’ indeed.

After some moderate success with their self-titled major label debut, Slab enter the studio with renowned Metal producer Alex Perialas for RCA album #2: ‘From a Southern Space’. Nobody likes what they hear; RCA pulls the plug.

Alec: We only finished 6 songs with Alex Perialas; we weren’t happy, neither was the label, so no full record was done.

Greg: Alex Perialas and Pyramid Studios was entirely an RCA idea. And I recall our agreeing to it because we had no intention of recording in NYC again as the Record Plant had just closed for good. Alex was a nice enough guy, although he didn’t have a clue what to do with us.

Elyse: Well, once again we were outsmarting ourselves. Raging Slab tended to mix it up a little too much and that made the suits very uncomfortable because you just couldn’t pigeonhole us. I think Gregory, Alec and I can be shameless contrarians and we just didn’t want to be a carbon copy of anyone, even ourselves.

Another record, ‘Freeburden’, is begun; this one is completed. There’s a little more of the ‘True Slab’ sound and vibe on this one, and hopes are high…

Alec: There was a lot of pressure to get product out, since we had spent time and money on the Perialas recording. RCA had several suggestions for a producer; we went with Michael Beinhorn. I remember liking the results a lot; we were mixing it in NY, inviting friends to come hear it, getting great reactions across the board. Greg and I were in the room when all the RCA execs heard it, convinced they would be thrilled. When it was done, there was an awkward pause… Someone finally said,’I don’t hear a ‘Don’t Dog Me’. It was a crushing moment.

Greg: We still fully expected most listeners to ‘get it’. Whether it was a musical quote, or a triple entendre, or a heavily veiled lyric, we always gave the record buying public, and especially our fans, the benefit of the doubt that they’d be rewarded for listening closely. We also tried to make sure that it stood up without the intense scrutiny. In some sense, that’s exactly what was wrong. It was our misguided belief that people wanted rock and roll that was subtle, tongue-in-cheek, and unpredictable. Even in our half-hearted attempts at commercializing, I still insisted that the songs not fully surrender themselves after a single listen.

Now with two records in a row rejected by RCA, Slab are dropped from the label, and disillusion sets in…

Alec: I guess they were confused by a couple of acoustic songs; they thought they could farm the record out to the country department. Believe me, it was a full-on hard rock record. We were dropped shortly after. We were frustrated, angry, confused, and we also didn’t have a drummer.

Greg:This was also about the same time that major labels started utilizing third party market testers & data analysis, rather than using their own fucking ears. A&R staff began throwing around terms like ‘the 18 to 24 yr old demographic’ and saying things like ‘That track got bad phones in Atlanta, so we couldn’t use it as a single’. You got the impression that they weren’t even listening. We’d counter this by telling them ‘we play this shit to live people every night, with our fans presumably constituting our most immediate demographic, and we can tell you which songs they respond to!’

Elyse: Very frustrated. I remember when we did the monster truck video (for ‘Raging Slab’s ‘Don’t Dog Me’) the record company wasn’t into it at all. This was still the 80’s, and I had to take them to Madison Square Garden to see a monster truck show and I said ‘count the AC/DC t-shirts in here!’ For goodness sakes, what isn’t rock and roll about monster trucks??

Rick Rubin’s Def American picks up the band, and oversees their next album, ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’. Once again, the band makes concessions to commerciality, and again, a bit of the band’s unique identity is missing. The album is excellent, but the band’s frustration grows…

Alec: I know what you mean about some of the ‘weirdness’ being left behind, although I don’t agree 100 percent. Still, we were in the world of MTv and mainstream rock radio, we were not an indie band. For sure wanted a successful record. For me, ‘Dynamite…’ is more over-produced than the RCA record; keyboards, background singers etc, but it sounded very current for the time. Everyone at the label was convinced if was going to be a huge hit.

Elyse: Rick’s initial motivation seemed honorable, I think he genuinely liked our band, but I’m not sure if he understood it because he seemed to drop the ball quickly; they focused on songs we felt weren’t the strongest ones.

Greg: Unlike RCA, American had a staff that was obnoxiously ‘hip’, but they were still miles away from grasping what we were about. And as far as we were concerned, we were never in need of advice. We had album titles, videos, graphics, all planned out ’til the next millennium. We always had a chip on our shoulder about the ‘art’ of what we did, because we genuinely regarded it as just that. Elyse, Alec and I grew up admiring artists who didn’t ‘sell out’. We were predisposed to not play nice with a major label. Granted, Def did try harder than RCA, but still… And once again, they didn’t trust us enough. The ‘artistic guidance’ that RCA and American dispensed always felt like going clothes shopping with your mom.

After the moderate success of ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’, Raging Slab once again try to assert their true Slab selves on the planned follow-up, ‘Black Belt in Boogie’… a record that is flatly rejected by the label. If you’re keeping count, that’s rejected album #3…

Greg: ‘Black Belt in Boogie’ was started with DC Hardcore producer Don Zientara, that was Rick’s idea, which turned into a long, low-energy ordeal. We had just gotten back from a really gruelling European tour. Marc (Middleton, guitars) and the band parted ways mainly because we wanted to get back to the ‘True Death’ lineup, streamline, strip down, etc. There was a lot of wandering in the dark at that time. We spent a LOT of money, doing what amounted to one and a half CDs of music. They didn’t want it.

Alec: When it was time to do another record, we were eager to not be hemmed in by the “Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Metallica” label. Greg came in with a wide variety of songs, and I liked the eclecticism. Rick had signed us himself, so he had veto power on the material. When he finally heard the stuff, he really disliked it, and told us he wouldn’t put it out. Once again, we were angry and frustrated and felt time passing us by. After Rick rejected the record, our drummer Paul quit. Everything seemed to take forever with us; once step forward two back.

Elyse: Well of course we were frustrated. We had recorded so many songs over and over again and kept being slowed down for one reason or another. It was maddening to say the least, and it was very hard to keep positive. We just kept producing more material and tried to remain focused on the big picture, which was the integrity of the band and making music. But yes, those were very hard times.

Rubin agrees to let Slab work alone for their next album. Spirits are low, but unhindered by label expectations, the band tries hard to shake off the dysfunction, and seizes the opportunity to recapture their original mojo…

Alec: We knew at that point that nobody at the label liked the band, but they wouldn’t release us from our contract, and I felt an atmosphere of freedom and lack of pressure to produce a hit. I loved playing the songs on ‘Sing Monkey’, it’s my favorite Slab record after ‘True Death’.

Elyse: ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ was a conscience effort back to our roots, but it was gravely misunderstood. We had a great time making that album because we knew that nobody at the label gave two shits about us which allowed us the freedom to be totally ourselves. It was great to experiment again, just like on ‘True Death’.

Greg: ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ was essentially a psychotic episode set to music. When you’ve consciously made concessions that ended up being damaging to your career, you overcompensate in the other direction. As a result we began to develop a collective psychosis. The constant rejection began to ferment a climate of paranoia and desperation as well as a really poisonous, bitter outlook towards the music business. It’s impossible to look back at ANY of that material and not feel our anger and frustration all over again.

If all art is self-expression, ‘Sing Monkey, Sing!’ is a window into the soul of a great band… at the very end of their rope. It’s everything the majors didn’t like about the real Raging Slab, and then some. The record has little commercial potential, but its lack of mainstream viability feels wholly intentional yet also completely organic. It’s almost as if, after having 3 of their records rejected, Slab crafted a record intentionally conceived to be rejected. Was there a conscious effort to hand in a ‘difficult’ album?

Greg: Music is all about communicating emotion, and is best when communicating emotions that are beyond words or pictures…so let me congratulate you on your remarkable powers of perception.

Elyse: Thank you so much for noticing, I wasn’t sure anybody did.

Alec: When Greg came in with new songs, I felt there was a toughness and a fuck-you quality that was a response to frustrations with the label. I don’t think we tried to make a difficult record, we just didn’t want to make the same record again. I seem to remember Rick’s take on the album as something like, ‘It’s the best record you guys have done, it won’t sell at all’. Iggy Pop’s album ‘New Values’ was one that we all liked a lot; I always felt that it was lurking in the background on ‘Sing Monkey’.

Rubin tells the group that he ‘didn’t hear any songs’ on ‘Sing!’ Then Rubin’s label ends its relationship with Warner Bros, but neglects to tell the band, and also ‘forgets’ to release the group from its contract. The ‘Sing!’ album is disowned by Rubin and sold to the Columbia Record & Tape Club. Slab has no choice but to wait out the term of their contract, which prevents them from releasing any new music for almost seven years…

Elyse: I really don’t know what Rick’s feeling towards us were at that time, he had clearly moved on, I was very sad about that. But he runs a business, and if you’re not selling product… I heard whispers of ‘not wanting to throw good money after bad’. I understand that but I thought of Raging Slab as something that wasn’t instant bubblegum music, we had more depth to us. We were trying to make meaningful art.

Greg: Rick treated that record with some degree of puzzlement; I think he wasn’t quite sure if it was the worst piece of shit he’d ever heard or if it was our “Trout Mask Replica”. The majority of the American Recordings staff did their best to make sure it was buried. We didn’t even think he’d put it out. It was like ‘if you didn’t like the nice stuff we did for you, here’s this!’ And it didn’t even achieve our intended result, which was to have them drop us. The Columbia Record & Tape club arrangement was their incredibly effective, career-destroying way of saying ‘Fuck you, we own you, you have made us sad and we’re more than happy to set up a few lawn chairs and watch you wither on the vine’. We ended up being under contract to them for another 6-7 years.

Raging Slab waited out their ties to American Recordings, retreated into the underground and released two indie albums: ‘The Dealer’ and ‘(pronounced ēat-shït)’ before calling it a day. Both records are more akin to the band’s 1st two indie slabs than to their major label output. Lessons learned? Perhaps. Strzempka waxes philosophical for a brief moment and offers a cautionary spin on the entire Slab saga…

Greg: There’s nothing inherently wrong with intentionally making “pop” music, but I’d strongly caution anyone from making partial concessions in that direction when it doesn’t feel right. It either has to be one or the other. And in terms of our career, I would have preferred that we lived or died by our own hand. If I have a ‘what if’ moment, it’s: What if we hadn’t conceded anything after ‘True Death’?

In terms of the mainstream record-buying public, Slab might mainly be remembered for RCAs ‘Raging Slab’ and Def American’s ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’, when in fact their major label adventure resulted in 2 albums released, 3 albums rejected, and 1 album buried– Raging Slab’s official discography is gonna have a bunch of asterisks attached. I asked them how this whole adventure looks now that it’s firmly in the rearview…

Elyse: It was a tremendous ride and I’m grateful to everyone who gave us a chance. I do wish the powers that be had a bit more faith in our vision and trusted us a bit more, but I never had any illusions about one indisputable fact, it was called the record business for a reason.

Alec: We certainly were more successful than lots of bands I know; most bands don’t get the chance to not sell records on a major label, I’m well aware of that. There’s no point in my speculating on what would have happened ‘if’… although I’ve done it plenty. If we were a band with a small cult following, so are many of my favorite bands. I’m grateful that I was a part of it.

Greg: If you measure success by album sales then surely RS was a disappointment, however as a music fan I’m comforted by the fact that most of my favorite albums and bands were flops. Frankly, I never wanted to be anything more than a ‘cult band’ and had no interest in fame. If I re-examine our career in those terms it was an undeniable success. Even though we had more material rejected than was released, the fact that the material was recorded counts a lot to me! Not to mention having been signed to two majors over a span of eleven years without landing anything close to a Top Ten… now there’s a trick in itself!

. . . . .

Epilogue
Many sincere thanks to Alec Morton for taking the time to participate in this exploration of a decidedly dark era of his band’s history… And of course to Greg Strzempka & Elyse Steinman, for also doing so during a very difficult time. During my discussions with Greg and Elyse, it was disclosed to me that Elyse was battling Stage Three lung cancer, and that Greg was acting as her primary care-giver. Both agreed to indulge me nonetheless, and I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to these two amazing people.

Elyse Steinman passed away on March 30, 2017, just a few months after our conversations wrapped up. Although we corresponded via email, it was apparent to me that, besides being a truly unique musician, Elyse was also a very special person. This article is dedicated to her memory. Rock on, Slab Chick.

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Year of the Gatefold

Ah, the live album. The gatefold sleeve, plastered with tons of live pics of your favorite band, holding four sides of music recorded live on stage, where it really mattered, performing before an audience of worshiping fans. The best live records drop you in the front row, where the thick, humid air smells like a mixture of weed, puke, and sweat; where your ears take a pounding from a PA system bigger than your house as the crackle and pop of firecrackers echoes through the arena. Some say that the 1970s was the Decade of the Live Album, and if any single year should hold that same distinction, it’s got to be 1978, when an unprecedented number of live sets arrived in record stores (remember them?) to add color to the soundtrack of our youth.
Call it The Frampton Effect. ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’, Peter Frampton’s 1976 double-live release, spawned 2 hit singles and topped the Billboard charts for a whopping 10 weeks, and went on to become the best-selling album of that year. The record remained in the Top 100 for 97 weeks, well into 1977. Live albums by Bob Seger, The J. Geils Band, Joe Walsh, and Rush also reached deep into the Top 40 in 1976. The success of these records had a significant impact on the industry. And in the world of pure Hard Rock, the Top Ten success of Kiss and their ‘Alive!’ and ‘Kiss Alive II’ albums was also hard to ignore.
At a time when the rockers of the era were struggling mightily to get on the radio, the monster success of Frampton’s live album suggested there might be another way to break through. The Record companies saw the gazillions being made from records that cost relatively little to record. And so mobile recording units rolled out for virtually every tour that hit the road in 1977; those recordings would bear fruit the following year. Notable live records from Alice Cooper, Rainbow and Foghat appeared in ’77, but the sheer number of HR/HM live albums released in 1978 is stunning… I count no less than TEN significant live records hitting the market between January ’78 and January ’79.
1978 kicked off with an expanded field recording of Ted Nugent captured in the wilds of America in ’76 and ’77. Unleashed in January, ‘Double Live Gonzo!’ showcases The Nuge’s big guitars and even bigger mouth. His guitar prowess already firmly established, Terrible Ted’s live album is peppered with politically incorrect between-song raps that have become the stuff of legend (just ask Atlanta band Nashville Pussy). But the real value in ‘Gonzo’ lies in it’s capture of Nugent’s classic-era band in a live setting, and how it provides Nugent-the-guitarist the opportunity to put up or shut up… And as we know, Ted never shuts up. I remember walking around with friends, blasting this out of a portable 8-track player, feeling all badass as Nugent’s raunchy raps echoed off my neighbors’ houses.
After the Nugent extravagonzo, there came an almost 5-month lull, the calm before the storm of live releases that would hit in the second half of the year. Thin Lizzy opened the floodgates in June with ‘Live and Dangerous‘, a 2-record set that reached the #2 spot in the UK. While it’s safe to say that Nugent’s ‘Gonzo’ is 100% pure NUGE, Thin Lizzy’s ‘L&D’ is another story. Debate endures regarding just how much of this album is ‘live’… but, seriously, who cares? What matters is the end result, and ‘Dangerous’ is a worthy celebration of the Lizzy experience. Shamefully short at just 50 minutes, it’s overflowing with fantastic songs played with charisma, passion, and flair. Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the show.
Recorded in Japan during guitarist Uli Roth’s final two shows with Scorpions, ‘Tokyo Tapes‘ came out in August as a Japan-only release. Nothing like waiting until the last minute to capture the Uli-era Scorps live! I didn’t catch this one until it was released domestically the following year, but when I did, mind = blown. There is some truly jaw-dropping guitar playing within these grooves, and each and every one of us should take a moment to thank their higher power that Dieter Dierks and RCA records rolled tape during Roth’s final 48 hours with the band. ‘TT’ contains some jarring edits that break the ‘concert experience’ feel, but overall this collection really cooks.
Also in August, Sammy Hagar decides to return to his monstrous Montrose roots and release a live album balls-out with scorching rockers. ‘All Night Long‘ was recorded in San Francisco, San Antonio, San Bernardino, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica… I’m not kidding. I snapped this one up after learning that the band on the record was 3/4 of Montrose, and the track list includes two songs from the mighty Montrose debut. The Red Rocker keeps this single-disc live outing tight and punchy, and Sam reveals himself to be a smokin’ guitarist. ‘All Night’ is the first and only live album that I’m aware of where the final song fades out —while the band is still playing! Like having to leave the concert before it’s over because your ride wants to be home early.
A few weeks later in September, Blue Oyster Cult would offer up their second live album, ‘Some Enchanted Evening‘. Like Hagar, BOC would limit themselves to a single disc, and much to this young listener’s disappointment, include two covers. With a catalog as deep as BOC’s, why waste precious space on somebody else’s tunes? Where’s ‘Tattoo Vampire’? Where’s ‘The Golden Age of Leather’? And what about ‘Dominance & Submission’?? Thankfully, the stellar version of ‘Astronomy’ included is worth the price of admission all by itself. Despite the dubious song selection, ‘SEE’ would somehow become best-selling album in the Cult’s catalog. Go figure!
I remember walking into my local record store in early October and spotting Cheap Trick’s ‘Cheap Trick At Budokan‘ high on the wall behind the counter, with a $27 price sticker on it. CT had just released ‘Heaven Tonight’ in April; I was completely blindsided by this mysterious live record. ’27 bucks!?’ I exclaimed. The clerk explained that it was a Japanese import, and wasn’t coming out in the US. Shit. Somehow the 14-year old me came up with the 30 dollars (I seem to remember rolling coins…) and snagged it off the wall before anyone else did. Woohoo! ‘Budokan’ was another single-disc live record, (in a gatefold sleeve!) and featured three songs we’d never heard before. Allowance money well spent.
I have come to appreciate Aerosmith’s ‘Live! Bootleg‘, but back in October of ’78, I was disappointed. ‘Bootleg’ dispenses with the ‘concert recreation’ feel that most of the live LPs of the era went for; instead, it serves as a live retrospective, featuring recordings from as far back as 1973 and right up to March’s ‘California Jam II’ concert. It’s a mixed bag; performances by young scrappers in Boston clubs segue into recordings from the biggest stadiums on the planet, not in chronological order, all adding up to kind of a jumbled sonic documentary of the band’s heyday. Teenaged me wanted something more like what Lizzy or Cheap Trick had delivered. Still, two live albums from two of my faves in one month was pretty killer. Wait, what? THREE??
With ‘Bootleg’ and ‘Budokan’ still in heavy rotation on my turntable, Australian upstarts AC/DC joined the fray in late October with ‘If You Want Blood… You’ve Got It‘. The band had released their ‘Powerage’ album back in May and I was instantly hooked; this live album followed a mere 5 months later. Recorded at the Glasgow Apollo (see also: Status Quo’s ‘Live!’, portions of Rush’s ‘Exit: Stage Left’) before an absolutely rabid audience (ANGUS! ANGUS! ANGUS!), ‘Blood’ is a sweaty, raunchy workout that captures the band’s stage show as-is. I remember riding my bike home from the record store with this album clutched to my chest, trying not to bang it around and ding up the album cover. Which reminds me of a story…
So I’m at the record shop, and spot the record, marvel at it’s totally awesome front and back covers, and head to the front counter, where the clerk (let’s call him Steve) checks out the cover, and starts laughing. He says ‘You don’t really want to buy this piece of crap do you?’ I say, um, yeah, I do, and he starts yelling to another employee, ‘Hey man, have you seen this cover? HAWHAWHAW!!’ He looks at me once again and says ‘Really?’ Just then an older gent walks up to us (I presume was the owner or manager) and tells Steve ‘meet me out back in a minute’. Steve, with an *Oh Shit* look on his face, heads to the back room. The owner/manager rings up my sale, smiles and says ‘AC/DC! Cool!’ Never saw Steve there again. True story.
At some point in 1978 (details are scant) came a single-disc live LP from Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. This is another record that I didn’t get hip to until a few years after it’s release. Marino was largely written off as a Hendrix clone decades ago, a stigma that prevented him from ever achieving the mainstream success enjoyed by his peers… although Frank Marino is entirely without peer as a rock guitarist. This guy OWNS every other rock player of the era. On the imaginatively-titled ‘Live‘, Marino, backed by his sturdy rhythm section, blazes through hippie-trippy highlights from his catalog, then shoots himself in the foot by including a Hendrix cover. The liner notes for a 2018 re-issue claims that there are no overdubs on this puppy, but hey, who knows. Call this one Single Live Gonzo.
As if to hammer home the fact that 1978 really was the Year of the Live Album, CBS Records released ‘California Jam II‘, a selection of highlights from the second Cal Jam concert that took place back on March 18. The 2-record set included tunes from Aerosmith, Nugent, Heart and Mahogany Rush. Dave Mason, Santana, Jean Michel Jarre and Rubicon (with Jack Blades and Brad Gillis, pre-Night Ranger) also appear. (Bob Welch and Foreigner played the show, but didn’t make the record, as they were not signed to one of CBS’ labels.) But it’s the hard rockers who dominate the set, of course: Nugent gives us live versions of two songs that didn’t show on ‘Gonzo’, Aerosmith gift us with one that didn’t make ‘Bootleg’, and Marino wipes the floor with all the other guitar slingers on the bill. Worth hunting down on vinyl, as the album has never been released on CD.
As if TEN live albums in one calendar year wasn’t enough, the Gonzo just kept on comin’, a residual effect that would carry through much of ’79. First up: I caught Cheap trick at Boston’s Orpheum Theater in December ’78, and was blown away by opener UFO. A few weeks later, I took the bus (it was January; my bike wasn’t feasible) to the record store, headed for the end of the alphabet, and found the just-released ‘Strangers in the Night‘ double album. The lineup I saw featured Paul Chapman on guitar, but ‘SITN” captures Mad Michael Schenker’s final swing with the band. An instant classic, and possibly the finest album covered here. A shame that a re-arranged re-master is the only way to purchase this album today, as the original Chrysalis version is flawless.
Also in January of ’79, Scorpions finally release ‘Tokyo Tapes’ in the US. With both Uli Roth and Michael Schenker long gone before either ‘SITN’ or ‘TT’ are released, the Scorps/UFO live albums became indispensable documents of a bygone era. Then, in early February, the suits at CBS wise up and release Cheap Trick’s ‘Cheap Trick At Budokan’ domestically as well. The Japanese version had become the biggest-selling import album of 1978, so CT’s next studio record (‘Dream Police’) was shelved to allow for ‘Budokan’s release, and the rest is history. Oh, and in April, the Ramones released the double ‘It’s Alive‘ set… but not in The States, where it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on CD.
Queen’s ‘Live Killers‘ hit the bins in June. Here again, the now-15-year-old me was a little disappointed; Queen’s studio records were so elaborately constructed that to me it didn’t sound like Queen (ex: during ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a tape of the operatic a capella section was played after the band hastily exited the stage, and that moment plays very awkwardly on a live album). But what I grew to understand is that it does sound like Queen, as this is exactly what the band really sounds like, and in this context, stripped of the indulgent studio magic that adorned their studio records, a great live band comprised of supremely talented performers is revealed.
The Pat Travers Band kicked our asses over the summer of 79 with their single-disc live set, ‘Go For What You Know‘, and their version of ‘Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)’ became a minor radio hit. A double-disc might have been much, but would have allowed for the inclusion of PTB’s roof-raising live version of ‘Statesboro Blues’, or a live ‘Life in London’. The syngery between guitarists Travers and Thrall is stunning, and the chops on display here are phenomenal. This young lad found the myriad tones and effects the two employed positively hypnotic. But it’s not just the guitars that impress here; some of the drumming on GFWYK has to be heard to be believed. Mars was no slouch on the bass either. Where’s the expanded remaster??
This unprecedented super-cluster of live releases comes to a close in September of 79, when The Beast that is Priest release ‘Unleashed in the East‘. Live? Studio? Overdubbed vocals? Again— WHO CARES. The record is simply awesome. At the time, this was the heaviest metal I had ever heard. This single-disc wonder should have been– and could have been –released as a double album, had all the bonus tracks and B-sides culled from the same shows been utilized. As-is, this record explodes with state-of the art, pure of heart, flag waving HEAVY METAL, released at a time when it was definitely not cool to be tagged as such.
WOW. Fifteen live albums from just about all of my favorite bands in a year and a half! You couldn’t leave your house without stepping on a live album. It was almost as if Heavy Metal’s underlying strategy was to ‘wait out’ Punk Rock; that the hard rockers of the era conspired together to take some time off and reassess. Whatever the reason, this deluge of live gonzo makes 1978 (and half of ’79) a standout year in 70s Metal, despite the fact that the rest of the music world was preoccupied with either Punk or Disco, and most critics and journos had decided that Metal was over… One month after the release of ‘Unleashed in the East’, the cover of the Oct ’79 issue of CREEM Magazine blared: “Is Heavy Metal Dead?” No, stupid, Heavy Metal is LIVE!

Metal Tongue

 

With over 100 million albums sold worldwide, it can safely be said that Scorpions (there’s no ‘The’; it’s just ‘Scorpions’) are the most successful hard rock/metal band to have ever originated from Continental Europe. Why is this geographic distinction important? That the Scorps hail from Germany is interesting because English is NOT the native language spoken in that country. Critical to the band’s massive international success is the fact that all of their lyrics are sung in English. The only other non-anglophone group to have had that kind of global impact has to be Abba (360m sold), whose records are also sung in English. Would either band have had such massive international success if they delivered their lyrics in their native languages? Doubtful. Let’s face it: English is the globally accepted language of Rock and Roll.

 
Scorpions learned the language or Rock early on; not just English but all of the useful signifiers and tropes of Western Hard Rock: cars, girls & R’n’R, along with a healthy dose of hippy-esque existential poetry for good measure. There were a few clunkers in the early-early days, with some lyrics obviously translated from the German and coming out more than a little wonky in English:

 
‘Test the mend, devil melt / Bloody money when it’s lent / Scum repair everywhere / They want money, oh’

 
Overall though, Scorpions had a pretty firm handle on English right out of the gate, which allowed the band to find early success outside of Germany (in Japan!), rub shoulders with UK greats like UFO, Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest in Europe and the UK toward the end of the 70s, and then to break through commercially word-wide in the 80s. Their international success, as well as Metal’s resurgence with the NWOBHM in 79/80, opened the doors for bands from many other countries on the Continent and in Japan, including some that had been releasing records for years in their native languages. These younger European bands were watching the NWOBHM explode in the UK, and saw Great Britain as their target to expand their audience and made the necessary linguistic adjustments.

 
Spain’s Baron Rojo (‘Red Baron’ in English) had established themselves in their homeland with a Gold certification for their debut album ‘Larga vida al Rock and Roll’ (‘Long Live Rock and Roll’) before setting their sights on the UK. The Baron was apparently well-connected in Britain; second effort ‘Volumen Brutal’ was recorded at Ian Gillan’s Kingsway Studios in late 1981, and Gillan member Colin Townes contributed keyboards to the record. Vocals were recorded in both Spanish and English, and BR had some notable help in dealing with the language barrier; Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson is credited in the sleeves notes as having assisted with their English lyrics.

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Baron Rojo’s UK connections created a sufficient buzz to land the band on the cover of Kerrang! magazine and garner them a slot on the 1981 Reading Festival, where they played 4th from the top on Night One under Budgie, Trust, and Praying Mantis. A NWOBHM-ish single, ‘Stand Up’ (the English version of album track ‘Resistere’) was released to the UK market. By all accounts, Baron Rojo sat poised on the brink of breakout success at the end of 1982… However, BR’s 3rd record, ‘Metalmorfosis’, while again recorded at Kingsway, featured Spanish lyrics. In fact, Baron Rojo would never revisit English again, and, predictably, would sink into obscurity immediately thereafter.

 
Did someone mention Trust? This French band’s potent NWOBHM-ready mix of Punk and Hard Rock had gotten their debut album noticed outside of France, French lyrics and all. An English language version of 2nd album ‘Repression’ was cut. But Trust’s volatile socio-political message (justice for the oppressed) hit hard enough to get several of their songs banned in France; such was the importance of Trust’s staunchly political lyrics that a genuine UK Punk Rocker was sought to interpret their lyrics for Anglo ears: Jimmy Pursey of Sham ’69. No stranger to political controversy, the Sham attracted a large skinhead following. Their concerts were plagued by violence, and the band stopped performing live after a 1979 concert at the Rainbow was broken up by white power skinheads fighting and rushing the stage.

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Pursey translated ‘Repression’s lyrics, including ‘Antisocial’, which Anthrax covered to much acclaim years later utilizing Pursey’s lyrics. Ironically, the standout track from ‘Répression’ is ‘Le Mitard’, which was the only song not translated for the English version. It’s likely that Pursey found the song untranslatable, as it’s subject matter is uniquely French; some of the lyrics were taken from the memoirs of Jacques Mesrine, a career criminal who was controversially killed by French police in 1979. Trust’s next two albums, ‘Marche ou Creve’, and a self-titled 4th album, were both released in English language versions (‘Savage’ and ‘Man’s Trap’, respectively), but failed to catch fire outside of France; fifth and final album ‘Rock and Roll’ was sung mostly in French and released in Canada and France only.

 
Japan’s Loudness broke the language barrier in 1983, when they left their homeland for the first time to tour the US and Europe without ever having released an album outside of Japan. To prime foreign audiences for the tour, their single ‘Road Racer’ was released in those territories with English lyrics. The following year, the band once again headed to Europe, this time to record their 4th studio album, ‘Disillusion’, in 2 languages. Both versions of ‘Disillusion’ became the first Loudness album(s) released outside of Japan. Ironically, it was the version sung in the band’s native tongue that sold the most in the UK & Europe, and is considered by many to be the band’s best album.

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In truth, the first three Loudness albums were sung in a style known as ‘Japanglish’; an mix of Japanese and English commonly used in Japanese entertainment and advertising, consisting mainly of Japanese interspersed with key English words and phrases. All song titles (and most choruses) were in in English, but verses were sung in Japanglish. After ‘Disillusion’, the next three Loudness records would be released as English-only throughout the world… Although, in an ironic twist, after the US success of their ‘Thunder in the East’ album, a backlash at home saw homegrown fans upset over the band’s apparent abandonment of Japan, and a Japanese-language version of seventh LP ‘Hurricane Eyes’ was hastily assembled and released there to appease an angry Japanese fan base.

 
But the most fascinating language barrier story brings us back to Germany and those Teutonic terrors, Accept. Accept followed the template set by Scorpions, with all of their lyrics sung in English. The band’s early material is rife with awkward, poorly translated lines and phrases that hinted at a willingness to provoke the listener with vulgarity/profanity… ‘Take Him In My Heart’, from the band’s 1979 debut tells the story of a beautiful young girl who decides it’s time to lose her virginity:

 
“One morning she was feeling bad and didn’t go to school She went to town to find a man who fucks her very cool”

 
Another track from the album, ‘Glad to be Alone’, starts off with the line ‘I don’t like your fucked up bunch’. Is this clumsy translation or something more? Then there’s Accept’s third album ‘Breaker’, and the infamous ‘Son of a Bitch’:

 
“Son of a bitch/Kiss my ass/Son of a bitch Son of a bitch/You asshole/Son of a bitch Cock suckin’ motherfucker I was right – take this”

 
It’s pretty clear that there was something more to Accept’s blunt use of profanity than sloppy translation. The language here is blatant and the message is clear: Fuck You! Here was a band unafraid to use vulgar/provocative language to communicate their ideas.

 
Enter Gaby Hauke. Hauke, a self-described ‘journalist and poet’, became the band’s manager after the release of ‘Breaker’. While they readied material for their 4th album ‘Restless and Wild’, the band worked with outside writers to polish up their English lyrics. Robert A. Smith-Diesel contributed to five of the album’s ten songs, and Hauke, credited under the pseudonym ‘Deaffy’, contributed two complete poems, which became ‘Neon Nights’ and ‘Princess of the Dawn’. Hauke’s poetry worked well as lyrics, adding a depth and fluency missing from Accept’s first three records. With Accept’s next album, Hauke would become the band’s sole lyricist, and come to embrace the bluntly sexual elements of the band’s vision… with controversial results.

 
‘Balls to the Wall’ was the band’s breakthrough, and the only Accept album to be certified Gold in the US. Metal’s early-80s resurgence was a factor, as was MTv’s exposure of the album’s title track. But a significant factor in the album’s success, and its’ notoriety 35 years later, was the record’s flirtation with homoerotic imagery in the artwork and lyrics. A minor controversy erupted in the pages of many Metal mags and in the minds of headbangers across the globe… “Is Accept Gay?” To be sure, there was a lot here to potentially cause folks to at wonder whether BttW was a ‘pro-Gay’ record, and by extension, if Accept were Gay themselves.

 
First and foremost, let’s remember that Gaby Hauke was responsible for 100% of the lyrics on BttW. This alone explains a lot. When lyrics such as ‘Feel the power of lust as these guys passing by’ are delivered by a male, one might make some reasonable assumptions about the song’s message. When one considers that these lyrics were written by a woman, suddenly they make a very different kind of sense. The song ‘London Leatherboys’ added to this with ‘Got some kind of feeling/Looking in his eyes/I feel the power surge to a head’, and of course with it’s title. It would have been easy to change a few pronouns or alter the gender of the narrative voice in Hauke’s lyrics; clearly there was a conscious decision not to. Accept had to realize this would cause some controversy. Controversy is not always a bad thing… Hauke & Accept embraced the dynamic and ran with it.

 
R-1963527-1426685157-4801.jpegOther elements were tied in, such as the title track: the phrase ‘balls to the wall’ originated as an aviation term, and has evolved to mean ‘all-out’ or ‘to the limit’; in the context of the song it means ‘you must fight oppression with everything you’ve got’. This fit the loose political theme of the album; that the phrase contained the word ‘balls’ worked well with the daring presentation, and so the phrase also became the album’s title. The cover art seals the deal, with fashion photographer Dieter Eikelpoth’s b&w cover photo of a decidedly male …um, area, clad in bondage gear and clutching a ball in his hand… It’s a very provocative package. The’ cover idea’ is credited to Deaffy, indicating that ‘management’ was behind the entire scheme. A band pic was also included featuring the band shirtless (except for Udo), and Wolf Hoffmann and Stefan Kaufmann with arms intertwined.

 
What’s fascinating about the use of Hauke’s lyrics is that, for a time, while working to deliver their lyrics in another language, Accept also ended up delivering some of them in another gender. There are some raunchy hetero-derived lyrics on BttW, like ‘Why don’t you screw the girls that’s next to you’ from ‘Losers and Winners’, but nobody noticed; it was material perceived as ‘pro-Gay’ that got all the attention. Again: It was 1983. This was a bold stance; one that could have backfired badly. Instead, it helped give Accept (‘accept’ what, by the way?) their well-deserved breakthrough. Hauke also wrote the words for Accept’s next five albums, but on ‘Balls to the Wall’, Accept and their manager/lyricist fucked with our heads, pushed the envelope, and made us think. All of that, delivered in a language we can all understand: Metal.

 

 

NOTES


Baron Rojo:
-‘Gold’ in Spain = 20,000 copies sold

 
Loudness:
-Producer Max Normal reportedly had a major role in shaping the lyrics for both the ‘Thunder in the East’ and ‘Lightning Strikes’ albums.

 
-Just what does ‘M.Z.A.’ stand for? A highlight of Loudness’ biggest hit ‘Crazy Nights’ is the band chanting these letters, begging the question— W.T.F.? Here’s the official explanation:

 
“Actually it does not have any meaning. When we were doing pre-production for the Thunder in the East album, I did not have any lyrics for Crazy Night then, so I sung total nonsense as a guide vocal for the demo recording. I sung “M.Z.A.” by accident and the producer Max Norman liked the line, even though that did not have any meaning. We were trying to create some cool line but we could not beat “MZA.” Max ended up deciding to use ”M.Z.A.” for the real take.” -Minoru Niihara

 
Accept:
-The album’s title track contains the familiar lines “Happiness he cannot feel/And love to him is so unreal”… Hmm… feels vaguely familiar…)

 
-‘Son of a Bitch’ was altered for the UK market; the title and chorus were changed to ‘Born to be Whipped’, and the more graphic lines quoted here were translated into yet another language: nonsense.

 
-Hauke and Accept guitarist Wolf Hoffman married at some point in the 80s.

Ninety-Two Minutes to Midnight, Part 2

Despite having developed into one of the most successful Heavy Metal bands on the planet during the 1980s, Iron Maiden entered the 90s in a state of crisis. The musical climate was changing around them; most notably, Americs’a ‘Big Four’ Thrash Metal bands had erupted from the underground and were making serious inroads into the Metal universe, threatening the Maiden throne. The key to Iron Maiden’s massive global success in their first decade was their blend of 70s Prog rock and Punk-inspired Heavy Metal, and the band closed out the 80s with increasingly prog-leaning albums like ‘Somewhere in Time’ and ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’… Enter the young, angry upstarts from across the pond to ‘smash it up’ and destroy the status quo. Those who know their music history will find plenty of Iron-y (heh) here.

Steve Harris made some decisions. The music on Maiden’s eighth album would be simpler, stripped-down and more direct, closer to the band’s earlier sound. The change in direction was so drastic that Adrian Smith left the band during pre-production. The resultant album, ‘No Prayer for the Dying’, was a near-complete regression back to the street-level, headbanging vibe of Maiden’s early years. The lyrics covered real-world concerns such as oppression, religion and politics, all sung by Bruce Dickinson in a rougher, raspier voice. Even the artwork reflected the ‘new’ direction, depicting Eddie (sans lobotomy bolt and cyborg augmentation) smashing out of his tomb to strangle a hapless gravedigger, a far cry from Eddie the reality-bending cosmic existentialist from the previous album.

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‘Prayer’ rejects ‘Arry’s progressive tendencies and just gets on with it. Not one of the album’s 10 tracks breaks the 6-minute mark, and the whole record runs at a tight (for Maiden) 43:42, almost 10 minutes shorter than both ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Somewhere in Time’. But Harris couldn’t completely resist his Prog compulsion; the album’s closer, ‘Mother Russia’, contains several progressive elements, although it’s multiple movements and ambitious historical sweep are constrained to a mere 5:30. Still, ‘Mother’ feels like an awkward edit of a 10-minute ‘Arry epic, and sounds out of place on an album of much more concise and immediate material.

So Iron Maiden had forced themselves back to square one, denying the Prog beast within and returning to their roots to do battle with Metal’s next wave. Did the change in direction work? In the UK, ‘Prayer’ reached #2 and the album’s second single was Iron Maiden’s first-ever UK #1. In the States, the album held it’s own, but the the Thrash Metal movement was in it’s heyday, and Metallica now dominated the Metal conversation. ‘No Prayer for the Dying’ went Gold in the US, but it would be the last Iron Maiden album ever to do so. Maiden’s return to their roots was perhaps too little, too late.

What to try next, then? How about… everything! On ‘Fear of the Dark’, Maiden’s 9th album, confusion reigns. It’s the first Maiden album not produced by Martin Birch; it’s also the first Maiden record not adorned with the artwork of Derek Riggs. The music within reveals a band struggling for direction, identity and relevance, featuring full-on Metal, a power ballad, and yes, the (welcome?) return of Steve Harris’ beloved Prog. And with the return of progressive elements to Maiden’s music came expanding song lengths: two of ‘Arry’s contributions stretch past 6 minutes, and the total record was the longest ever in Iron Maiden’s history, at 57:58, just shy of an hour.

Regardless of their length, it’s the Harris-penned tunes on ‘Fear of the Dark’ that sound most like classic Maiden. ‘Arry’s ‘Afraid to Shoot Strangers’ and the album’s title track are standouts; both creep past 6 minutes and reach back to the expansive, indulgent sound of just a few years previous. While overall it’s an uneven listen, ‘Fear’ topped the UK charts, giving Maiden their first-ever UK No. 1 album, and charted higher in the US than ‘Prayer’. Hmmm… Maybe re-asserting Steve Harris’ Prog side was the way to go next…

GAAHHHHH! On Maiden’s tenth album, ‘The X Factor’, Harris unleashes the Prog beast, and it runs rampant over this 70-minute disaster. Opening with the 11-minute slog ‘Sign of the Cross’ sets the stage for a looooong, mid-paced trudge through the tortured landscape of Steve Harris’ psyche. The bassist was dealing with a difficult divorce while writing the album, and his name is on 10 of the 11 songs here; only ‘Man on the Edge’, written by new singer Blaze Bayley and guitarist Janick Gers, trots along at a proper Maiden-esque pace. ‘Edge’ is the shortest tune on a record where half the songs move well past the 6-minute mark, and every track feels like a 10-minute epic. Maiden had shown in the past that they could ably hold the listener’s interest through songs of extended lengths… here they fail spectacularly.

It’s interesting to note that that three songs were recorded for the album, ‘Justice of the Peace’, ‘I Live My Way’, and ‘Judgement Day’, but were not included on the finished product. All three clock in between 3:33 and 4:04, significantly shorter than anything that made the final cut, and all three are up-tempo rockers sporting tight, concise arrangements that hearken back to Maiden’s glory years. This would indicate that building an album comprised of over-long, melodramatic downers was an artistic choice. ‘Arry’s head space has been called into question during critical examinations of ‘X’; obviously Steve Harris was in a very dark place during the creation of this record.

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It’s amazing that Maiden survived the ‘X Factor’ debacle, and a testament to their iconic status and bullet-proof reputation that the album reached #8 in the UK. In the US, however, the record peaked at a dismal #147, where ‘Fear of the Dark’ had climbed to #12 just three years previous. Dickinson’s absence was a factor, as was the album’s repulsive cover art. But 70 minutes of poisonous Prog metal sealed the deal: ‘The X Factor’ was a deal-breaker for many US fans, who walked away from the band for good.

In 1996, Maiden released a non-lp single to promote an compilation album. ‘Virus’ was 6 minutes and 14 seconds of classic ‘Arry Prog indulgence, and it solidified a pattern that would become a template for several (too many) Maiden songs to come: an extended intro featuring whispered vocals, moody synth backdrops and delicately played guitars, kicking into a classic Maiden gallop with harmony guitars on top. The trouble is, the quiet, slow-moving introduction lasts for 2:20, which is 40% of the song. An edit of ‘Virus’ was released to radio, which removed the intro completely, slamming immediately in with the classic Maiden sound of yore. There was a lesson to be learned here; trim the fat, cut the excess, strive for maximum impact… ‘Arry was having none of it.

Maiden’s next, ‘Virtual XI,’ was almost 20-minutes shorter than ‘X’; however, the Prog bloat persisted. The album features 3 extended pieces, one at 8:11, the other two at 9:51 and 9:06, all written solely by (surprise!) Steve Harris. Oddly, the album’s longest song, ‘The Angel and the Gambler’, was chosen as the first single. At over 9 minutes, the song had no chance at commercial radio, so an edit was also released, running at 6:05… also too long for commercial radio. The questionable choice for lead-off single was compounded by the song’s arrangement: the chorus of “Don’t you think I’m a savior? Don’t you think I could save you? Don’t you think I could save your life?” is repeated so many times that it makes me want to stab myself in the eye. Even the edited version sends me searching for sharp objects.

The Blaze era was an artistic and commercial failure when compared to what had come before. Take a second to remember the urgency and immediacy of their early work; a catchy guitar riff, the band kicks in seconds later, and we’re off to the races! Now it seemed that every other song started with an extended atmospheric intro. Grandiose epics had become commonplace, which minimized their impact and strained our patience, when in the early years, longer songs like ‘Phantom’ and ‘Mariner’ were anomalies that felt special and exciting. Without Bruce interpreting his material and Adrian Smith’s pop sensibilities reigning in the songwriting excess, ‘Arry’s progressive streak was barreling out of control and the SS Maiden was sinking under the epic weight of their bassist’s ever-expanding vision.

Someone needed to put the Prog genie back in the bottle. Surely the return of ‘Arry’s old writing partners would right the ship and Iron Maiden would pick up just where they left off with ‘Seventh Son’! Well… Kinda. But not really. Bayley departs, Dickinson and Smith return… but Gers stays put. As if to highlight Harris’ ‘more is more’ philosophy, the band itself expanded to six members. Now armed with three guitarists, was there any chance of more economical song lengths, any hope of more compact arrangements, with three guitarists jockeying for solo spots in every song? Or would the addition of two members from Maiden’s most successful period temper the excess and impose some moderation onto the proceedings?

Alas, the Prog continued it’s expansion, unabated. Album total run times ballooned with each release:
‘Brave New World’ 66:57
‘Dance of Death’ 67:57
‘A Matter of Life and Death’ 71:53
‘The Final Frontier’ 76:34

Which brings us to 2015 and ‘The Book of Souls’.

While I understand the mindset that says ‘there’s a 4 or 5-year gap between albums so let’s give ’em as much music as we can’, the total length of each album isn’t the only reason that Maiden albums have become so… unwieldy. Nowadays, Maiden songs that run 5 minutes or less are now the anomalies; on ‘The Book of Souls’, there are three songs that sail past the 10-minute mark, and the album contains their longest-ever song, ‘Empire of the Clouds’, an 18-minute super-mega-epic about… zeppelins. ‘Arry’s ‘The Red and the Black’, at `13:33, would be a fitting final tour de force to close any of Maiden’s previous albums; on ‘Souls’, it’s only Track #4 of 11… And the song never ends! Just when you think it’s winding up, it changes up and keeps rolling on… and on… and on…

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While I believe ‘Souls’ to be the best of the last five Maiden releases, my assessment is based on a single listen. Why? It took me days to get all the way through ‘The Book of Souls’ in its entirety. With each visit, I’d inevitably find myself losing focus, especially in the longer songs, as my mind drifted while the music blended with the wallpaper. The monstrous length of the album and most of the songs on it are just too much for me. I’ve considered giving the ‘Souls’ CD(s) a second spin, but always decide against it; the prospect feels too daunting, too massive an undertaking, too much of an investment of time and attention. I liked what I heard the first time through, but it will be a long time before I climb that mountain again.

Yes’ ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, a polarizing progressive rock milestone notorious for its overwhelming length and complexity, has become a symbol of overblown Prog excess. ‘The Book of Souls’ is 10 minutes longer. The needle on Iron Maiden’s progometer has been ‘in the red’ for about 20 years now, and with ‘Souls’, their progressive readings are off the charts. It’s as if Steve Harris has been steadily working to emulate his favorite piece of music: the 23-minute ‘Supper’s Ready’ by Genesis. Enough, already! News Flash: ‘Run to the Hills’, ‘Sanctuary’, ‘The Trooper’, ‘Wrathchild’, ‘Aces High’, ‘The Evil That Men Do’… All classics… all under 5 minutes! Message to ‘Arry: Every song can’t be ‘Supper’s Eddie’!

Ninety-Two Minutes to Midnight, Part 1

When Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris stated in a 2015 interview that ‘Supper’s Ready’, the early Prog Rock epic that takes up all of Side Two of Genesis’ ‘Foxtrot’ album, was his favorite piece of music of all time, it shouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. Harris has made no secret of his love of classic Prog, and there’s ample proof in the grooves; Maiden has covered songs by Prog giants like Jethro Tull and Nektar, just to name a few. But the fact that ‘Supper’s Ready’ clocks in at over 23 minutes hints at a troubling trend in Iron Maiden’s music… You see, for decades, ‘Arry has been suffering with a severe case of the Creeping Epics.

It should also come as no surprize that, as a young Prog fan, ‘Arry hated Punk Rock, but his band (and the entire NWOBHM) absorbed it’s furious energy and in-your-face aggression and channeled it into their own music. It was Iron Maiden’s potent mix of Punk and Prog what set them apart from most of their peers; while most of the Punk-inspired NWOBHM movement was mining the catalogues of Thin Lizzy, UFO, Judas Priest and their ilk for inspiration, Steve Harris was reaching beyond mere rock and metal and toward the expansive creativity and technical complexity of his beloved Prog heroes: ELP, Yes, King Crimson, Focus, and of course the aforementioned Jethro Tull and Genesis.

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The undeniable Punk attack of Maiden’s 1980 debut album is accented by several elements borrowed from Progressive Rock: elevated technical skill, complex arrangements, and fantastical subject matter. The clearest example of this unique formula is the mini-epic ‘Phantom of the Opera’. After it’s cryptic opening, ‘Phantom’ blazes across several different movements, twisting and turning through seven minutes and two seconds of neck-breaking tempo changes and intricate instrumental passages. While a song of this length was a bold move for a debut album, Maiden packed more excitement into the 7:02 of ‘Phantom’ than most BHM bands could muster for an entire album, ensuring that the song never overstays its welcome. ‘Phantom’s extended length works to make it the album’s grand statement, ground zero in Maiden’s punk/prog presentation.

The obvious Prog moment on Maiden’s second album ‘Killers’ was ‘Prodigal Son’, a lush, acoustic guitar-laden tune that stands out from the rest of the record with its breezy Wishbone Ash feel and plaintive lyric. As with ‘Phantom’, the song with the strongest Prog influence is also the longest on the record, at 6:05. Maiden would continue to balance creative finesse and snarling aggression on ‘The Number of the Beast’, but by this point, the band’s Punk edge had begun to fade. Their Prog leanings remained, evident in the melodramatic sprawl of album closer ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’. Another mini-epic, ‘Hallowed’ was, at 7:08, longest song the band had ever recorded… Although a few more albums down the line, 7:08 run-times would be commonplace.

On ‘Piece of Mind’, the band’s progressive side was clearly gaining strength, as nearly every song includes that extra bit of complexity, depth and flair, culminating in the final track ‘To Tame a Land’. ‘Land’ is a work of art, miles outside of conventional NWOBHM songwriting standard, snaking through exotic sonic territories as yet unexplored by Maiden. Here, for the first time, Iron Maiden have stepped squarely into the land of Progressive Metal. There were other signs related to ‘Piece’ as well; Jethro Tull’s ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ was recorded for a B-side, and Bruce Dickinson’s ‘Revelations’ speaks for itself. Several songs on ‘Piece of Mind’ passed the 6-minute mark; ‘Tame’ tipped the scales at 7:28 to become the new Longest Maiden Song Ever. ‘Piece of Mind’ was also the Longest Maiden Album Yet, at 45:18.

Are we seeing the trend? As the Prog in Maiden’s music becomes more evident, so do the song lengths expand…

On ‘Powerslave’, Maiden strike the perfect balance of NWOBHM attack and adventurous songcraft. Top-notch writing and spirited performances easily obscure the Prog-creep, with 2 songs at 6 minutes-plus, and one at 7:12… That is, until the mammoth final track, Harris’ adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. Worry not, for ‘Rhyme’ is a Maiden Masterpiece. While the adapted lyrics might be a little over-stuffed, the underlying arrangement is exceedingly well-constructed. ‘Arry was approaching ‘Supper’s Ready’ territory with ‘Rhyme’s 13:45 run time, but the cinematic sweep of it’s middle sections renders any question of ‘prog excess’ moot. After somehow squeezing another 2 songs onto Side Two, ‘Powerslave’ was the Longest Maiden Album So Far, pushing the limits of vinyl mastering with its 51:12 run time.

‘Somewhere In Time’ is a major mis-step. Steve Harris also wrote three of the 8 tunes on ‘SIT’ himself, and his prog mojo is in full effect here, though this time it doesn’t quite work. Each Harris composition is needlessly long and overwritten; the album’s lead-off track runs 7:22, immediately signaling that something’s up, and there’s really no reason why a straightforward tune like ‘Heaven Can Wait’ should last for 7:24. It must also be said that ‘Arry’s ‘Alexander the Great’ is a failure; at 8:35, it’s an uncharacteristically tough slog through ancient history. These three over-long excursions push the total run-time of the album to 51:18, six seconds longer than ‘Powerslave’, and Maiden’s new Longest Maiden Album. The guitar synths that adorn the album push the Prog Metal envelope even further… or reveal a desire to hide the fact that the band are struggling for inspiration.

Maiden’s average song length had almost doubled over the course of six albums; on ‘Killers’ it was around 3.72 minutes; on both ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Somewhere’ it was 6.37. Album lengths had steadily expanded from the admittedly short 37:35 of their debut to ‘Somewhere in Time’s 51:18. Ironically, Maiden would make some wise adjustments to the excess on their next album, restraining their tendency for epic sprawl while, at the same time, raising the stakes thematically.

Iron Maiden’s seventh album, ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, is quite a rebound. IMHO, It’s their last great album, and a Prog Metal masterwork. The songwriting this time out was a much more collaborative effort, with Bruce Dickinson garnering several credits, where on ‘Somewhere’ he wrote contributed nada. It’s a concept album (how Prog is that?) that succeeds both musically and thematically. The music still contains plenty of fire & brimstone, and there’s a feeling that the band is once again firing on all cylinders. Song lengths had been paired down to more concise lengths, with one exception: the excellent Harris-penned title track, which works as the centerpiece of the album at a whopping 9:52.

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Fans of the early NWOBHM-era Maiden bemoaned the use of synths, the commercial-sounding first single (‘Can I Play With Madness?’) and the slick production. But Steve Harris said, in Mick Wall’s band bio, “I thought it was the best album we did since ‘Piece of Mind’. I loved it because it was more progressive… ‘cause that’s the influences I grew up with.’ Like it or not, the axe-wielding, Thatcher-stabbing, Devil-beheading Iron Maiden was long gone; Eddie was no longer a shadowy figure lurking in dark alleys, he was a time travelling clairvoyant cyborg… Maiden had gone Full Prog. Where to go next?

The average length of a Maiden song had grown by almost 3 minutes, album capacities were being stretched to the limits of manufacturing standards, the epics on each record had gotten even more …epic, the lyrical themes more grandiose. But so far, Iron Maiden had more or less successfully balanced Steve Harris’ Prog Rock tendencies with their NWOBHM roots to become the biggest Metal band on the planet. That delicate balance is the defining element of classic-era Iron Maiden. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll look at how (if?) that balance is maintained during the 1990s and beyond…

Long Distance Runaround

Legend has it that DJs in the 70s used to spin Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute opus ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ to free up time for an extended bathroom break… or maybe that was a smoke break. The song had been edited down to 2:52 to allow for radio airplay and released as a single in July of 1968, but DJs overwhelmingly prefered to air the 17-minute monster (Hey, man, removing the seeds from a dime bag takes a little bit of time, OK?) Repeated airings of the unedited track would help sell 3 million copies of the edited version in the first 18 months of its release; the ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ album would hit #4 and become the first-ever album to be certified Platinum. Yay, drugs!

Of course, ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ has a lot more going for it than just its epic length. The music in an extended piece like ‘Vida’ has to work as a proper ‘song’ in order to appeal to listeners. With rock music in general, when you push past the limits of accepted time frames for Top 40 radio play (3:00-3:30) or, years ago, 7″ record production (3:00-5:00), and kissing Top 40 airplay goodbye, an artist had better keep things interesting. ‘Da Vida is basically a 5-minute song with a couple of extended (reeeeeally extended) solos in it, but the underlying song itself works and the solos add much to the experience. Even if you’re not stoned.

Pushing a song past the 10-minute mark is a true test of what makes a song a song. When a band decides to dedicate an entire side of their record to one ‘song’, they are often attempting a grand, artistic statement, and hoping to hold your interest and attention. Hard Rock/Heavy Prog music has its share of side-long epics… but how many of them are worth the time it takes to listen? Pack a lunch, this is going to take a while…

As the 60s became the 70s, and Psychedelic Rock evolved into Progressive Rock, the ‘side-long epic’ seemed to be the ‘in’ thing. Side Two of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ follows the same path as Iron Butterfly’s magnum opus, as the masterful ‘Echoes’ seemingly slows the rotation of the Earth by extending an already-hypnotic song into otherworldly proportions by unspooling loooooong instrumental improv sections before briefly returning to its intial song structure to wrap up. Seriously, you can get lost in the middle of this song… And there’s some stuff hiding in there that’s scarier than anything Black Sabbath ever recorded. Be careful.

Fifty percent of Yes’ 5th album, ‘Close to the Edge’, is dedicated to the album’s title track, which clocks in at 18:12. Perhaps Yes’ most acclaimed recording, ‘Close to the Edge’ is a fantastic composition, with key musical themes asserting themselves, then reappearing further into the song. The composition is divided up into four sections, which flow and morph in and out of each other so well that in the end, the experience is that of a single song. Methinks we have found our benchmark.

Yes take another crack at the enormous on their 1975 ‘Relayer’ album, with ‘The Gates of Delirium’, a 21-minute, 55-second tale of war and peace that was actually inspired by Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, a novel that has become a reference point in popular culture to any work of literature of intimidating length. ‘Gates’ breezes along pretty swiftly, although it’s lightness of tone fails to reflect the weighty subject matter related through what is likely Jon Anderson’s darkest lyric. The ‘battle’ sequences are fuision-y fun, and the whole thing lopes along in that engaging, loose ‘Yes’ kind of way, until the final section (which was lifted as the album’s single, and titled ‘Soon’), resolves the hectic near-chaos of the first two thirds.

Pink Floyd’s ‘Sine on You Crazy Diamond’ kinda works as a side-long epic; if you remove the three standard-length songs in the middle of the record and snap Parts I – V together with Parts VI – IX, you get a single work clocking in at 26:01, longer than most mastering studios would recommend for cutting a vinyl LP. Experienced as one single piece of uninterrupted music, ‘Shine On’ is an amazing work, beautifully constructed and exquisitely executed. Although composed as one continuous piece of music*, splitting it in two actually benefits the song; with the two halves separated by three unconnected songs, ‘Diamond’s recurring themes don’t wear out their welcome, and revisiting them after ‘Wish You Were Here’s swirling synth-wind fade is a blast as they re-emerge and express themselves in new ways.

*David Gilmour argued against splitting the song; he was out-voted 3 to 1.

After toying with extended run-times with ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’ in 1974, Rush go for it on their 1975 album ‘Caress of Steel’. ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’ is a suite of six unique segments, each cross-fading into the next. This awkward method of flow makes ‘Lamneth’ a bit of a clunker. A unifying lyrical theme is threaded through the movements, but some early cassettes completely fucked that up, changing the intended track listing by switching the ‘Didacts and Narpets’ movement of ‘Lamneth’ with ‘I Think I’m Going Bald’ (a completely unrelated song from Side One) to balance out both sides of the tape. Rush: The Rodney Dangerfield of Rock.

Rush would follow-up immediately with their ‘2112’ opus, correcting ‘Lamneth’s mistakes and creating a true Hard Rock masterpiece. It was a bold move starting an album with a 20-minute and 33 second song suite (Really? They couldn’t extend the space noises at the intro for another 39 seconds???), but the move paid off, as ‘2112’ gave Rush their commercial breakthrough. The songs on Side Two are Good to Very Good, but that didn’t matter; Side One was all anyone talked about. ‘2112’ loses points for the story’s oft-misunderstood ending, where the Elder Race returns to liberate the people of the Solar Federation…Oops! SPOILER ALERT

Lerxst, Dirk and Pratt (that’s Rush, stay with me) would tempt fate with third side-long epic on 1978’s ‘Hemispheres’, with less than stellar results. But what’s interesting here is that the song ‘Hemispheres’ is actually a continuation of a song from a previous album, entitled ‘Cygnus X-1’. So in reality, the complete title of ‘Hemispheres’ is ‘Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres’, as stated on the album. Musical themes and ‘samples’ from the former song are featured in the latter, connecting the two works, but thematically… that’s where things get nuts. Rush apparently agreed, and would never write another side-long epic, but would redeem themselves with the much shorter (9:17) and much more effective multi-part ‘Natural Science’ on their next record.

So far we’ve imagined a combined 26-minute ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, which never would have fit on one side of an LP, and envisioned an uninterrupted ‘Cygnus X-1 Books I & II’ which would also break the side-long barrier at a monstrous 28:33… But, Ladies and Gents, breaking the single-side barrier is not merely an interesting thought experiment; it’s actually happened, several times…

Ever wonder why Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1973 radio hit ‘Karn Evil 9’ starts off with the lyric ‘Welcome back my friends…’? ‘Welcome back’ from where? From Side One! The album version of ‘Karn’, found on ELP’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ album, consists of three ‘impressions’, and due to the limitations of the vinyl format, the first impression starts at the end of Side One and completes on Side Two. The two parts are listed as ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part One’ and ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part Two’. It was Part 2 that we all heard on the radio in ’73. The ‘Welcome back’ intro was directed at listeners of the LP who had just flipped the record over to hear the other half of the piece.

The whole of ‘Karn Evil 9’ rolls out at 29:39. Thankfully, in the CD age, this having-to-flip-the-record-over nonsense was dispensed with, and CD editions of ‘Brain Salad’ combine ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part One’ with ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part Two’ into one unbroken audio track, entitled simply ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression’… rendering the nifty ‘Welcome back, my friends’ lyrical device moot.

Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, both the album and the ‘song’ (…well, really, there is no difference between the two; the song is the album, the album is the song), was composed as one continuous piece of music spanning both sides of the record, although as with ELP’s ‘Karn Evil 9’, concessions were made to the realities of the vinyl and cassette formats. Side One ends with a repeated section of music that slowly fades into synth hiss; Side Two opens with distant echoes of that same section, serving as a brief reminder of where we were before we had to flip the record. The 1985 CD version of the album combines both parts as one seamless track (43:46), but then that transition section just doesn’t work…

Tull would find a better way to cross the side barrier with their next album, ‘A Passion Play’, which is constructed as an opera composed of nine songs combined into one continuous piece of music. This time, Tull found a clever way of acknowledging the need to flip the record: by including an intermission. ‘Interlude – The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles’, is a short piece designed to resemble a children’s storytelling record. Halfway through the story, an electronic tone sounds, signaling the ‘child’ to turn the record over; the ‘Hare’ fable then completes at the start of Side Two. The complete work (with ‘Interlude’) clocks in at 45:05. Some CD versions remove the tone, and combine the two parts of the ‘Interlude’ device, which exists an unnecessary interruption within the larger work.

Exhausted yet? Well, gear up, because we have arrived at the Everest of epics… a record that defies evaluation, but still must be included: Yes’ ultra-humongous ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’.

To refer to ‘TFTO’ as a double album is a massive understatement. If you find side-long epics to be a tough slog, imagine an album of FOUR sidelong-epics, each based on a sacred Hindu text, with a total running time of 81:15! After the success of ‘Close to the Edge’, had Yes decided that creating protracted pieces of music was the way to go? Well, yes and no; Rick Wakeman said in 2006, “…because of the format of how records used to be we had too much for a single album but not enough for a double, so we padded it out and the padding is awful …” Once again, ambition clashes with the constraints of contemporary media formats. But by constantly testing the limits of physical format, Yes were also testing the patience and the attention spans of their critics and their fans.

But while critical reactions to the record were mixed, and despite its excessive weight, ‘TFTO’ became the first album to ever ship Platinum, topped the UK charts for 2 weeks, and hit #6 in the US. By all accounts, the record was a massive (heh) success. On the corresponding tour, Yes performed the ‘TFTO’ album in its entirety, along with the ‘Close to the Edge’ epic, night after night. But Rick Wakeman announced he was leaving the band during the tour, which included 2 sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden, citing ‘boredom’. I totally get it.

I have never made it 100% through this record in one sitting, and I am certain that I never will. Who has that kind of time?? This album and it’s ilk sealed Prog Rock’s fate, establishing the genre as an obnoxiously bloated Progosaurus, dragging its ponderous weight across the landscape, a sitting duck just waiting for a white-hot musical meteor to strike and render it extinct. Oh, hello, Punk Rock!

Note: I had a paragraph on Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ (23:06) prepared for this piece, but I felt the article was too long…

 

Guitars Optional

I was just re-reading an old issue of CREEM magazine from September 1977; specifically an interview with Ted Nugent. In that interview, Susan Whitall shares with Ted a recent anecdote from an chat she recently had recently with Steve Miller. In response to Whitall’s questioning Miller’s extensive use of synthesizers on his ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ and ‘Book of Dreams’ albums, Miller stated that he was bored with the sound of the guitar and that everything had been said with it. Hearing this, Nugent completely loses his shit, and threatens to throw the writer out the window if she feels the same way. It’s a hilarious interview, but Nugent’s passion for music and especially the guitar shines through the crazy cartoon bluster.

‘Bored with the guitar’, hmmm… I seem to remember Eddie Van Halen making similar remarks at one point, probably sometime in 1984… But anyway, after re-reading the Nugent interview, I wondered… Were there ever any Rock/Metal bands formed without a guitarist? Would a band even qualify as ‘rock’ if there were no guitars on it? Could Heavy Metal exist in an 100% guitar-free environment? Few would argue that the electric guitar is a key element, in Rock music; that the exploration/exploitation of the electric guitar is indeed THE defining characteristic of Heavy Metal music. So… Is it possible that Rock music can still qualify as ‘hard’ or ‘heavy’ without guitars?

Researching the answer to that question led me to a small handful of rock records made by some very unique power trios, all hailing from the UK (and one band actually named UK). All of these records dared the improbable: Rock music made without guitars. Each of these records is generally considered to fall under the ‘Prog Rock’ umbrella; makes sense, as attempting to create Rock music using a template so far outside the norm would have to be considered ‘progressive’, right? So let’s explore there records and see if we can’t find some music that rocks hard enough to truly qualify as Hard Rock or Heavy Metal.

 

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This short-lived supergroup (Bruford, Holdsworth, Wetton, Jobson… ’nuff said) had paired down to a 3-piece in 1978 for their 2nd and final studio album ‘Danger Money’. Bill Bruford had been replaced by Terry Bozzio, while Allan Holdsworth was replaced by …nobody, with keyboard maestro Eddie Jobson covering all of the solo spots with keys and electric violin. Bozzio’s presence on ‘Danger Money’ adds punch to the proceedings, and the material here sounds much tighter and more focused than on the more expansive debut. But while the title track is fairly direct in a ‘Hard Rock’ sort of way, similar to what Styx and Kansas had on the radio at the time, it’s built on an off-kilter time signature, and clocks in at around 8 minutes… both key Prog signifiers. So does ‘Danger Money’ rock hard enough to be called hard rock? Nah… I view this record as somewhat-commercially-minded Prog Rock.

 

ELP

While ELP did employ guitars quite often ( and Keith Emerson’s on-stage Hammond abuse is right up there with that of Hendrix or Blackmore), the majority of their classic-era catalogue is guitar-free. But is any of it Metal? Does it rock hard? Moments of extreme (for the day) drama and intensity appear throughout the ELP catalog, and the group threatens to enter the Metal Zone on several of their recordings… I would submit that ‘Living Sin’ from ‘Trilogy’ at least qualifies as ‘Heavy’, with it’s diabolical snake-like riff and sinister vocals. But the clearest example of near-metal by ELP is ‘Toccata and Fugue’ from ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, a furious onslaught of aggressive Prog that unquestionably pushes the needle to the red and squarely into metallic territory.

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ELP’s ‘Toccata’ is an adaptation of Italian composer Alberto Ginastera’s ‘1st Piano Concerto, 4th Movement’, and is one of the heaviest pieces of music committed to record in 1973. Hell, it was used as the TV theme for WLVI’s ‘Creature Double Feature’ for years, playing under footage of Godzilla stomping on Japan, because that’s exactly what it sounds like. Sure, there are moments of subtlety and dynamics, and of course they work to make the heavy sections even heaver. Several of ELP’s material would fit nicely on a compilation of Early 70’s Proto-Metal… with nary an axe in sight. ‘Toccata and Fugue’, however, is their true Metal Moment.

 

Quatermass

Full Disclosure: Bassist/vocalist John Gustafson (Ian Gillan Band, Roxy Music, Hard Stuff) is a musical hero of mine, so before we get to the lone album from Quatermass, just know that. Come to think of it, drummer Mick Underwood was in Gillan, which makes him sorta heroic in my my eyes as well… Although keyboardist J. Peter Robinson is probably the muso whose work has been heard by more people, as he went on to score a whole bunch of big movies (Cocktail, Wayne’s World, Encino Man are just a few examples) beginning in the mid-80s, and continues to do so well into the new millennium (See Also: Colin Townes. ex-Gillan).

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Anyway, 1970’s ‘Quatermass’ is a criminally overlooked and under-appreciated record that has an awful lot to recommend it beyond the pedigree of the players. And while much of the album is comprised of epic-length songs seemingly evolved from extended jams, there are some solid Hard Rock songs to be found among the proggy excess. Ritchie Blackmore liked ‘Black Sheep of the Family’ enough to cover it on his first Rainbow album, with guitars; here without guitars it rocks just as hard, if not harder. But if we’re looking for guitar-free Hard Rock/Heavy Metal, single ‘One Blind Mice’ wins the prize. I’d wager that this rollicking hard rocker might cause even Terrible Ted to strap on a keytar. Okay, well… I said ‘might’.

 

Atomic Rooster

When Vincent Crane left The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (of “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE!” fame) in 1969, he took drummer Carl Palmer with him. The pair added bassist/vocalist Nick Graham, and emerged as one of the strangest power trios in all of Heavy Rock. Why ‘strange’? No Guitarist! While the Crazy World band was also comprised of just keyboards/drums/bass (albeit augmented by strings and brass), their sole album was 100% wigged-out Psychedelic Rock. Atomic Rooster’s 1970 debut, curiously titled ‘Atomic Roooster’ (note the extra ‘o’) was a different beast altogether.

‘Atomic Roooster’ is an interesting album to examine during our quest, as there are two versions of the record: one with guitar, and one without. Just a month after Rooster’s debut album was released in the UK and Europe, Graham left the band and was replaced by guitarist John Du Cann. As the album was prepped for a US release, somebody felt that the current configuration of the band should be featured on the record… OR someone felt that US audiences would be more receptive to the album if it contained some gee-tar. Du Cann overdubbed guitar (and some vox) onto 3 songs, and so the version of ‘Atomic Roooster’ that was released in America sits just a little bit more comfortably beside the potent keyboard/guitar assault of early Purple and Heep.

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Du Cann was a fine guitarist, but his guitars didn’t add much to the record, as he mainly copied keyboard lines and replaced two solos originally played on bass and flute. The guitar-ified version of the instrumental ‘S.L.Y.’ is a cacophonous mess. But ‘Atomic Roooster’ didn’t need guitars to qualify as ‘Heavy’, as even without Du Cann’s axework, ‘Atomic Roooster’ shares more in common with ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ and ‘Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble’ than it does with most Psychedelic Rock/early Prog releases of the day. The songs are riff-based, the lyrics are dark and fatalistic, and the overall tone is oppressive and dire (see slso: Black Sabbath). In the context of 1970s rock music, it fits squarely into the emerging genre that would soon be recognized as ‘Heavy Metal’.

It must be said, however, that neither version of the album deserves the ‘Proto-Metal Classic’ tag, as both are actually a bit of a tough listen. But, to these ears, the original version of ‘AR’ is the earliest example of Guitar-Free HR/HM in either genre’s history, which at the very least qualifies it as an historically-important footnote.

So: After exploring the work of these mutant power trios in a less-than-scientific fashion, it is the finding of this writer that, while an exceedingly rare occurrence, Hard Rock & Heavy Metal can exist in a guitar-free environment.

Just don’t tell Ted.

. . . . . . . .

WARNING: Playing in a bass/drums/keys 3-piece may be detrimental to one’s life expectancy; Vincent Crane, John Gustafson, John Wetton, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson & John Du Cann: R.I.P.