British Steal

I few winters back I was working a liquidation for a major national retailer, and was asked by a customer if we had ‘Slade’s Christmas song’ on CD. She had a strong British accent, and I assume she was from the UK, perhaps visiting the States for the holidays. When I told her the store didn’t stock any Slade product, she looked confused. ‘You haven’t any Slade?’ she asked, this time over-pronouncing the band’s name, in case I misheard her the first time. I repeated my answer, and politely offered that while ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ was a personal favorite of mine, Slade weren’t exactly a household name in America, remembered, if at all, for their fluke 1983 hit ‘Run Runaway’, or for supplying Quiet Riot with their 2 best-known songs, ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’ and ‘Cum on Feel The Noize’. She shook her head, no doubt thinking You Yanks just don’t get it, and said ‘No Slade! Amazing! Well, cheers!’ and off she went.

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Slade OWNED the singles charts in the UK from 1971-1975. In that 4-year period, they released a staggering 17 consecutive Top Twenty singles; 12 of which went Top 5, including 6 that hit #1. Six number one singles on four years… They were the first UK band to have 3 singles enter the chart at #1. By contrast, here in the US the band had only 4 singles that broke into the Top 100 during that same period; the highest of which reached #68. And at the height of their success in Britain, Slade made a concerted effort to break in the states by touring through the 2nd half of 1975 and the bulk of ’76 with the likes of Aerosmith, ZZ Top and Black Sabbath, to little avail. While the touring scored them points with concert goers in several major US cities, US radio never got behind Slade. In the US in the 70’s, radio play was make-or-break.

Pity; most of their early records are a hoot. Slade had a way with a ‘rousing chorus’, a infectious, football chant musicality and an all-inclusive generosity of spirit. Their music was custom built for audience participation. And, while they were capable of throwing in a pop balled here, a novelty song there, overall they rocked quite hard for the era. Noddy Holder was a world-class belter, with a voice that could peel paint, and they had one monster musician in bassist Jim Lea. There’s an awful lot of Slade in early Kiss, and tons of other bands from various genres have name-checked them as an influence. Cheap Trick covered “When the Lights Are Out” just a few years ago. Their glammy image would have fit into what was going on in the States nicely. One wonders: Why would a crap band like Quiet Riot have 2 consecutive hits with Slade songs that had previously failed completely in the US? What’s up with that? Were Slade simply ‘too British’? Or was it because they couldn’t spell?

If you’re interested, I recommend you check out the compilation ‘Get Yer Boots On’ (I hate recommending comps, but this one includes all of their non-lp singles, which are excellent and a huge part of the Slade story), their 2nd full-length, “Slayed”, or their ‘wilderness era’ album, aptly titled “Whatever Happened To Slade?”

The debate over who originated twin guitar harmonies, or who first popularized their use, will likely never be settled. Anyway, who cares? Most of the bands that made that particular trope famous (Maiden, Lizzy, etc) will tell you they copped it from Wishbone Ash. 

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Wishbone Ash’s sound was an interesting amalgam of prog, folk and hard rock. Don’t let the ‘folk’ tag scare you; this was the most interesting element of their sound: folk music played with electric guitars.

Lead guitarists Andy Powell and Ted Turner were well ahead of their time, not only in their development of harmonized leads but also in the intricate guitar arrangements found in just about every song. Both displayed a deft touch and knew when to crank it up and when to turn it down. Powell and Turner were arguably the finest pre-Thin Lizzy two-guitar team in hard rock, paving the way for many bands to follow. (See how carefully I worded that last sentence?)

Wishbone Who? Ash’s first 8 albums placed in the UK Top 40. Their 3rd record, entitled ‘Argus’, widely regarded as their finest hour, charted in the UK at #3, and earned the band both ‘Album of the Year’ award from Sounds magazine, and ‘British Album of the Year’ from Melody Maker in 1972. So, kind of a big deal. Here in America, however, Wishbone Ash made no impact at all, with only 2 of their records ever entering the Hot 100. Ironically, their classic-era material (certainly ‘Blowin’ Free’, from ‘Argus’) would fit in quite well on US classic rock radio today.

While neither heavy nor metal, Wishbone Ash clearly influenced several notable metal bands (hello, UFO) and iconic players (hey there, Michael Schenker). And make no mistake: their recorded output contains its fair share of certified (if under-recognized) hard rock classics; the epic ‘Phoenix’ from their 1970 debut comes to mind. Still, I suppose one might need to hear some music to fully grasp the Ash’s unique approach to 70’s hard rock, so I suggest the curious start with the aforementioned ‘Argus’. A rich combination of delicate guitar, intricate arrangements, soaring lead guitars, and sweeping progressive reach, ‘Argus’ is a classic of early British hard rock. From there, I’d hit 1974’s ‘There’s The Rub’, criminally under-rated record that showcases one of my favorite bass players ever, lead vocalist Martin Turner, and closes with the amazing instrumental ‘F.U.B.B.’ If it’s the crunchier stuff that you’re looking for, 1977’s ‘No Smoke Without Fire’ and 1980’s ‘Just Testing’ present with a much more dense, metallic sound, and are also recommended. 

Anyone reading this remember the 1967 hit (US #12) single by The Status Quo, “Pictures of Matchstick Men”? Yeah, groovy song, man. Too bad they were never able to follow it up… Depending on which continent you reside on, Status Quo was either a one-hit-wonder, or one of the most successful, long-lived rock bands of all time. Scoring a mammoth 60 UK chart hits, 22 of which reached the Top Ten, Quo have spent more cumulative time on the UK singles charts than the Beatles: 200 weeks. 25 of their 30 studio albums have seen the inside of the UK Top 40; 17 of those made the Top 10, including their 2013 album (#10!). Racking up 4 decades-plus of monstrous chart success, Status Quo is hard rock royalty in Britain and Europe. In the US? Nada.  

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If the only Quo music you’ve ever heard was “…Matchstick Men”, you’ll be floored by the band they became just 4 records later. It only took a few years for Status Quo to transform from British psychedelic pop princes into the heads down, hard-rocking machine they remain to this day. Imagine if Rush’s ‘2112’ and ‘Hold Your Fire’ albums were just 4 years apart, and you have some idea of the drastic stylistic change. The ‘look’ changed as well; gone were the colorful Carnaby Street clothes and acid trip album covers, replaced by jeans and T-shirts and earthy, street level imagery. No one who has heard their first live album ‘Quo Live’ could ever accuse them of faking it; the passion and commitment on display is palpable. Status Quo had finally a music that they felt and understood, and so took a left turn. Once Quo locked onto that 12-bar locomotive boogie rhythm, they never looked back. America, however, couldn’t be bothered.

Like the Ramones, AC/DC and Motorhead, Quo have been accused for decades of making the same album of simple, unimaginative music over and over again, but the standard response from the faithful remains: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In that regard, methinks their chart success speaks for itself. They’ve weathered the decades without changing their sound a whole lot, ignoring trends and sticking to what works, and are always amply rewarded by their British fans. That a band this ‘heavy’ had such success in the mainstream charts, in a music scene where what’s ‘fashionable’ changes every hour, on the hour, says a lot about the powerful loyalty of the British rock fan.

Do yourself a favor; check out any of the ‘classic-era’ albums ‘Piledriver’, ‘Hello!’, ‘Quo’, ‘On the Level’, or ‘Blue for You’. It really doesn’t matter which one of them you chose, ‘cause they’re all the same anyway, right, mate?      

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(Royalty) Check, Please

Sometimes being a professional musician is all about compromise; specifically, about how much of your art you’re willing to compromise toward success in the business of music. Being a fan is about loyalty; and sometimes that loyalty is pushed beyond tolerance by the compromises a musician makes.

Many a rock fan’s loyalties were tested in the 80’s. With the advent of MTv, suddenly what you looked like was at least as important as what you sounded like (and in some cases, maybe more important). Many metal bands that had started in the 70’s but had yet to break through to a mainstream audience saw MTv as a way to do just that. And so we lost several bands to the siren song of mass appeal and mainstream success. All that was required was a greater focus on the image or look of the band, and a slavish adherence to a limited musical template that boiled down to either a) overwrought power ballad, or b) super-dumb rock anthem. Scorpions had virtually invented the power ballad in the mid-70’s, and sadly, made the transition easily. NWOBHM heroes like Krokus, Whitesnake, and Saxon (who actually fired their bass player, who didn’t have ‘the look’) all climbed on board the bandwagon, all hoping to ‘break’ in the states. Perhaps the poster boys for this type of sell-out were the already-image conscious Twisted Sister, who’s debut album was actually a straight-up metal record, but who quickly transformed into bizzarro drag queen cartoons on MTv. In an ironic twist, Kiss, kings of the super-dumb rock anthem, actually had to take make-up OFF to partake in the festivities. But the greatest disappointment had to be The Beast That is Priest.   

I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Turbo’ by Judas Priest. A co-worker had an advance cassette, and let me hear the first song, without telling me who it was I was listening to. After a solid minute I still couldn’t identify who it was, even thought I was listening to a band I had followed for the last 8 or 9 years. When my friend broke the news to me that I had been previewing the new Judas Priest record, I was angry. Not disappointed. Angry.  

Like a lot of metal fans, I take this kind of thing personally; always have. I am tremendously loyal, I invest my time, my money and my passion in the music that I love and in the musicians that make it. Fans aren’t interested in the business that goes on behind their favorite music, they only care about the music, and are grateful to the musicians who make it. For me personally, when an artist makes a calculated business decision to move away from the sound I have committed to, the aesthetic I invested in, I feel betrayed; I’m offended and insulted. And sometimes, shocked; I truly never expected that Metal’s Ambassadors to the world, a band that represented the Heavy Metal genre in much the same way that Metallica would later; would be capable of such silliness.

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Back to ‘Turbo’: Sequencers, synthesizers, over-processed guitars, predictable hair metal riffs and inane pop metal lyrics, all wrapped up in a cover that looks like a magazine ad for nail polish. This is not what I signed on for. Gone were the ominous pseudo-religious sci-fi lyrics. Dave Holland’s hard hitting, no-nonsense drum sound was replaced by computerized canon fire. And don’t even get me started on KK’s perm. This was a monumental moment in heavy metal history; one of the heaviest bands of the 70’s had sold out and cashed in.

Judas Priest referred to themselves as a Heavy Metal Band when it was very uncool to do so. They had almost single-handedly carried Heavy Metal through its weakest period in the late 70’s; after the old guard had died out, they flew the flag proudly during the punk rock and new wave revolutions, and led metal music straight into the NWOBHM and metal’s resurgence in the early 80’s. And while they had toyed with camp ever since 1979’s ‘Hell Bent For Leather’, they’d successfully navigated the fine line between tongue-in-cheek and parody on several records, right up to ‘Defenders of the Faith’, where production concessions revealed a willingness to go with the 80’s flow. That album worried me; ‘Turbo’ confirmed my fears. 

So Priest decided they no longer needed me as a fan, and had apparently made the calculation that so many other bands of that era made as they entered the MTv era: they’d likely gain more new fans than the number of old fans that would walk away. They were probably right. So: good business decision; bad artistic decision. Very bad. Embarassingly so. Priest eventually tried to self-correct, and spent the next few years chasing trends until a new breed of metal bands rendered them irrelevant. Their iconic image, legendary status and landmark early releases ensured they’d be able to maintain a career for another 2 decades, but after ‘Turbo’ they had lost all credibility with much of their original fan base. ‘Defenders of the Faith’ my ass. Thank God for Thrash Metal.

Speaking of Trash Metal, Metallica was another band that, after years of pioneering, groundbreaking, and breathtaking music, succumbed to the numbers and decided to no longer allow artistic concerns to guide their career path. Correctly deducing that, with just a few ‘minor’ changes, they could go from being the biggest band on Metal to one of the biggest bands on Earth (a much more lucrative position), they hired Motley Crue’s producer and made the transition from being uncompromising standard-bearers to arena rock’s heaviest band.

Metallica_-_Black_Album

I hold a special kind of animosity towards Metallica for ‘Metallica’, aka ‘The Black Album’. For metal once again, change was on the horizon, and bands like Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, and Soundgarden made music that was appealing more and more to metalheads every day. Grunge and Alternative music was everywhere, and some of it was downright metallic, but… It was very much like 1976/77, when punk rock took off and metal’s heavy hitters became… confused. Started experimenting. Made lousy records. What Metal Nation needed badly at the dawn of the 90’s was a band to put an end to the mass defection to Seattle. A band to remind everyone how and what great heavy metal was. What better band to do just that than the mighty Metallica?

Metallica, however, had other ideas. Rather than creating a record that could have led metal through the alterna-grunge swamp and onward toward a new era of global domination, Metallica instead sat out that fight and re-launched their brand, simplifying their songwriting and overall sound, recasting themselves as a Top 40 arena rock band. The singles/videos came one after another, signaling a new willingness to market themselves in ways they had resisted for years. Where once they had led, they now chose to conform. Metallica turned their backs on their art and their fans and made their deal with the devil, becoming megastars while leaving the door wide open for Nirvana and the Alterna-Grunge contingent to further dilute metal’s already fractured fan base.

Yes, dumbing-down their music was a smart career move… if you measure success in dollars and cents. Yes, ‘Metallica’ would not only become Metallica’s biggest-selling album, but one of the biggest selling albums of all time. But these facts speak nothing of its artistic value. I’m aware that, for many reading this, ‘Metallica’ was their first exposure to Metallica, and therefore seen by millions as their defining moment. To understand what a left turn that album was for their original fan base is difficult for those who jumped on the bandwagon after all of the challenge and confrontation was removed from their music. It takes a certain perspective to see this record as the betrayal that it truly was. For us, ‘Metallica’ was a slap in the face; a Fuck You to myself and my friends who had seen them at the Rathskellar in Boston in 1983; who had watched them steadily grow from strength to strength, without radio, without MTv, and without mainstream press, right up to the multi-platinum ‘Master of Puppets’, all without compromising their art. one. single. bit.    

At least with ‘Metallica’ they hadn’t changed their look to conform to the commercial trends of the day. That would come a little later, with their next studio album, the aptly-named ‘Load’.  

Musicians, of course are free to make whatever decisions they wish in the service of their careers. Hopefully they’re aware of how transparent these moves are, no matter how they try to spin it, and how these kinds of moves rightly invoke the wrath of their most fervent fans– although it’s clear that this kind of fan doesn’t factor into the equation when bands do the Devil’s Arithmetic. The bottom line here is that both of these albums suck, and pale in comparison to the records that were made by these bands before potential superstar status was part of the bargain. I understand that surviving in any business requires compromise; ‘evolve or die’, I get it… But, as Stephen King wrote in ‘Pet Sematary’, “Sometimes dead is better.”

 

 

Attn: Marketing Dept

 

Ever wonder why Scorpions’ ‘Taken By Force’ cover art is so ridiculously bad? Great record, but the album cover looks like it was thrown together by an uncaring record label, unwilling to spend any coin on anything half-decent, and assembled by art department interns. And, in fact, that’s exactly what happened. But why?

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‘Taken By Force’ was the third consecutive Scorpions album that the U.S. arm of RCA Records decided to change for the stateside market. Their third record, ‘In Trance’, needed only minimal altering; but their fourth, ‘Virgin Killer’, is a different story altogether. Featuring a completely nude prepubescent girl in an unquestionably provocative pose, ‘Virgin Killer’s artwork was and still is blatantly inappropriate and offensive. Yes, sensitivities to this type of imagery in the 70’s (especially when used on a rock album cover) were different than they are today; remember the Blind Faith album? But even back in 1976, several different territories issued the record with a completely different cover.

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So, when the Scorps handed the ‘Taken By Force’ artwork to RCA, the label wasn’t willing to take any chances. The US and UK branches of RCA rejected the cover. “Two kids playing with guns in a military cemetery” (as Francis Bucholz characterized the shot in a recent interview) was once again too much for the label bosses to deal with. In the 1970’s, Scorpions was RCA’s token heavy metal band, their records tossed out into the US and UK markets without any discernable promotion. Clearly Scorpions were not a priority for RCA; the label didn’t need all of this ‘cover controversy’ hassle. And, as they established with the towering mediocrity of the ‘Virgin Killer’ replacement art, they certainly weren’t willing to replace the original with anything challenging or even the least bit artistically valid.

Kiss Destroyer Resurrected

When Kiss broke through with their ‘Alive!’ album, their label paired them with Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin for their next studio album ‘Destroyer’. Massive mainstream success was just one ballad away. Casablanca Records was taking no chances, however, and demanded changes to cover art that they felt was “too violent”. And so, Kiss dancing while a city burns was changed to Kiss dancing in the ruins of a destroyed city. The original is definitely more badass, with the red and orange fire-inspired color scheme (‘Flaming Youth’, after all), now famously replaced by cool blues and pale yellows.

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The opportunity was also taken to depict Kiss in their new stage costumes, which makes sense. Simmons’ new Godzilla boots always made for a pretty striking image. But I have such an emotional attachment to the replacement cover, having spent countless hours staring at it as a kid, that it’s hard for me to acknowledge that there’s a better version. But even the 13 year old in me agrees: The original has flames!

The Beast that is Judas Priest was no stranger to record company foolishness. Their third album for CBS, ‘Killing Machine’, was retitled for the US when record company execs objected to the “murderous Implications” of the original title. The title to the song ‘Killing Machine’ remained unchanged, but another song title was used for the title of the US version: ‘Hell Bent for Leather’.

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After the global success of the band’s 4th studio album ‘British Steel’, which featured one of the most iconic album covers in heavy metal history, Priest followed up with the rather left-field ‘Point of Entry’.  The cover featured an abstract representation of the title concept; not a very ‘metal’ image, but a cool, futuristic image with a slightly scifi look.

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Why on earth anyone decided to change the original cover to the one we got here in the US has to be one of Metal’s Greatest Mysteries. A never ending trail of computer paper unfolding down the middle of a highway and leading into the horizon. Ok. Plain white cardboard boxes of various sizes placed on the ground in the desert. Um… Not exactly making Hipgnosis nervous here, fellas. Someday, someone will explain this to me… and I will still think it sucks

1978

It’s 2013, the Chinese year of the snake. Year of the Black Water Snake, to be precise. Didn’t know they got that specific.

For me, 1978 will always be Year of the Metal, because it was a hugely-impactful year for me, music-wise.

Before 1978, I had been listening to bits of hard rock on the radio for a few years, as a lot of hard rock bands had big singles that were played on AM Top 40 Radio back in 1976 and ‘77. Anything on the radio that featured loud guitars caught my ear back then: Aerosmith, Nugent, Rick Derringer, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Foghat. Also my older sister had Zeppelin albums!! But the mighty Kiss reigned supreme in my music universe. Kiss had spent the last few years brainwashing me and kids all over the world into believing that they were, in total fact, “The Hottest Band In The Land”. (Gene Simmons probably just got paid because I typed all of those public domain words in that sequence.) And on February 2nd of 1978, I saw them live on the ‘Alive II’ tour at the Providence Civic Center (since renamed the ‘Dunkin Donuts Center’…wtf?) in Rhode Island. Yes, my head exploded; yes, NOW I was a super-fan for life! It sure would take one helluva band to knock Kiss off the throne. No one could ever tell me that Kiss were not actually the Hottest you-know-what in the you-know-where.

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The weekend after I saw Kiss live, I accidentally recorded (on a blank 8-track!) a portion of WAAF’s ‘Friday Night Six Pack’ while playing around with my dad’s brand new stereo system. The ‘Six Pack’ played 6 complete albums during the overnight hours overnight every Friday, some of which were due to be released the following week. I woke up Saturday morning and saw that I had recorded something, and played it all back, and my world changed forever. I had captured most of Van Halen’s as yet unreleased debut album. I bought my copy at Music Machine the following Tuesday; $5.77 plus tax. That record knocked me flat on my ass every time I put it on. Suddenly Kiss seemed silly, tame, juvenile; even cheesy. I still loved Kiss (and still do, up through side four of ‘Alive II’ anyway), but I no longer felt that they were The Greatest Rock Band Of All Time. My mind sufficiently blown, I found that I was suddenly much more receptive to music made by bands that were not Kiss.

Powerage

The following month, March of ‘78, I heard AC/DC’s ‘Powerage’ in it’s entirety on the same radio show. I was hooked in the first 30 seconds and listened to the rest of it without moving a muscle, fearing I might lose the great reception I was lucky to be getting on my touch-and-go portable am/fm radio. ‘Powerage’ has been my favorite album of all time since March of 1978. Now, thirty-five years after it was released, I seriously doubt that I’m going to hear anything that’s going to change that.

There are a handful of other great records that came out that year and I worked hard to stay in the loop. It was hard being a fan back then… but if you put the work in, you were amply rewarded. There was no internet in 1978; all we had was WBCN & WAAF, late night TV and Circus, Hit Parader & Creem magazine. I had heard ‘Walk This Way’ 100 times before I had ever even seen a picture of Aerosmith. In those days, if you liked the single or the picture accompanying the article you just read (for free, while thumbing through a copy at the drug store; hardly ever buying) then you rolled the dice, saved your allowance and scrounged for change, and bought the album, hoping the rest of it was good.

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Late night TV was a goldmine. Of course, you had to sit through a lot of disco and R&B to see anyone holding a guitar. I saw Cheap Trick on the TV show ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ in March and bought their ‘in Color’ record the following week; ‘Heaven Tonight’ came out in May and bought it without hearing a note. UFO appeared on Kirshner’s show with a video of ‘Only You Can Rock Me’—one more copy of ‘Obsession’ sold. In October, Ted Nugent hosted an airing of ‘Midnight Special’ that featured AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith, Golden Earring, and of course, His Nugeness. That same month, AC/DC’s first live album, ‘If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It’ was a no-brainer. I remember riding my bike back from the mall in the rain with ‘If You Want Blood…’ in a plastic bag (an awkward thing to try to carry while riding a bike, let me tell you), afraid the I was going to drop it or wreck my bike… but more worried about the record.

It was a huge year for new discoveries. I snapped up Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’, Rush’s ‘Hemispheres’, Judas Priest’s ‘Stained Class’, all released in 1978.  So many excellent live records that year as well: Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush’s ‘Live’, Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, Scorpions’ ‘Tokyo Tapes’, Aerosmith’s ‘Live Bootleg’ and Thin Lizzy (who also had an extended live showing on ‘Kirshner’s’ in October) released their legendary ‘Live and Dangerous’. Even the newer generation of ‘second tier’ hard rockers like Angel and Starz put out strong albums (‘White Hot’ and ‘Coliseum Rock’, respectively). What a fucking year.

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Needless to say, my musical tastes were formed that year, and truth be told, they haven’t changed all that much. 1978 was the year I moved from slavish worship of a single band to an enduring fascination with an entire genre. Kiss validated my decision to move on by releasing 4 solo albums, which were 75% junk, and then by unleashing the complete disaster ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ TV debacle. But I suppose one could say that for many, Kiss served a valuable purpose: initiating those of us in a certain age group into the world of rock n’ roll. Kiss was like a ‘gateway drug’, first getting you hooked and then leading you to the harder stuff.

Epic Fail

His track record is unassailable: He’s earned 23 Gold & Platinum albums. As A&R for Epic records in the 70’s, he signed Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet, Ted Nugent, Boston, and REO Speedwagon. As a producer for Epic Records from 1970-1982, he produced career-making records by all of the iconic rockers mentioned above. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you own an album with his name on it. “Heaven Tonight”, anyone? “Cat Scratch Fever”? “Boston”? Maybe some of his 80’s work… Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry”? Dokken’s “Tooth and Nail”? Motley Crue’s “Theatre of Pain”?

Tom Werman practically produced the soundtrack to my teens.

Werman brought Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rush to CBS, and was turned down in all three cases. Tell me, did this guy not OWN hard rock in the mid 70’s?

Most of the bands Werman worked with had their biggest albums with him; their commercial breakthroughs. Most bands he worked with stayed with him for a number of albums before changing producers. Motley Crue and Cheap Trick each did three records with Werman; Molly Hatchet 5, Nugent 6. And… most bands began their commercial decline after moving on to work with other producers.

Tom Werman’s job was, as he described it, to ‘get bands on the radio’. ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. ‘Surrender’. ‘Flirtin’ with Disaster’… I’ll bet you first heard these songs on the radio. And they are still played on the radio today, 35 years later. Is there any question as to how well this guy did his job?

Yes.

A few years back it somehow became fashionable to dump on Tom Werman. Musicians he had worked with 2 or 3 decades previous were suddenly complaining that the records they made with him were too safe, too commercial, ‘not an accurate representation of our sound’. Why these established rock stars feel the need to look back on their most successful period and complain about the records that established their careers, ‘blaming’ Werman for their biggest hits, is just plain bizarre.

The most infamous instance was probably the war of words between Werman and Nikki Sixx (feel so silly typing that name). Sixx (tee hee) wrote a book about what a super-cool guy he is and how heroin is bad but it’s also very rock ‘n roll, so hey, that’s what decadent rock stars do, dude. In this book, in between blaming his girlfriend for every drug relapse and blaming every drug relapse on his girlfriend, ‘ol Nikk talks trash about Werman, accusing him of spending more time on the phone than producing the Crue’s record. Super-hero Nikki than had to assume control and see the album through. Riiiiight. Werman felt the need to defend himself, and wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Times refuting Sixx’s story and pointing out the inherent absurdities in the version of events as described by Nikki. This, in turn, prompted Nikki to post a response on blabbermouth.com, in which he threatened to ‘out’ Werman to his wife for the partying he allegedly did during the recording of the album. What a douche. Werman responded again. The whole sad saga is encapsulated here:

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/producer-tom-werman-fires-back-at-nikki-sixx/

Dee Snider played the same game while promoting Twisted Sister’s re-recording of their triple-platinum “Stay Hungry”, titled “Still Hungry”. Besides his production credit, Werman is also credited as ‘co-arranger’ on “Stay Hungry”, and it’s widely known that he reworked some of the songs to make them more commercial. Based on the results, I’d say he was successful. But not Dee. Snider claims that Werman had nothing to do with the success of “Stay Hungry”, that his work on the record came close to ‘ruining’ it, and that he didn’t want ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and I Wanna Rock’ to be on the record… Really, Dee? This is the guy who gets hard rock bands on the radio. The guy who’s number one priority is making sure there’s a single on the record. He didn’t think those 2 tunes were viable? Sounds like somebody’s trying to spark some controversy to sell their new album (which ultimately sold about 30,00 units, just a tad short of triple platinum). Snider goes on to claim that working with Werman was the reason that Twisted Sister’s next album (produced by Dieter Dierks) completely sucked, as poor Dee was too busy fighting against bad ol’ Tom Werman’s commercial considerations while recording “Stay Hungry” to write decent songs for the follow-up record. Really. Dee Snider’s take on Werman and “Stay Hungry” can be found here:

http://www.bullz-eye.com/music/interviews/2009/dee_snider.htm

Cheap Trick, who Werman continues to speak very highly of, have stated publicly that they were displeased with the sound of their Werman-produced records– but only started talking about it after about 25 years. Interesting that they did their 3rd and 4th lps with Werman, as well… Like Twisted Sister, they too, re-recorded one of their ‘Werman Era’ albums, “In Color”, with infamous indie producer Steve Albini; however, they have never released the record. I’ve heard it; it’s a lot more live-sounding than Werman’s recording, a lot more raw, much like CT’s first album, and maybe a lot closer to what the band were hoping for sonically back in 1977. But is it a better record than Werman’s? No. If the Albini version of “In Color” were released in ’77 as Cheap Trick’s second album, things would have been very different for this band. The Albini “In Color” leaked onto the internet years ago and is fairly easy to obtain. Just not here.

What we have here is the classic battle of art vs. commerce, with musicians on the ‘art’ side and record producers representing ‘commerce’. While Werman undoubtedly steered these bands in a more commercial direction than they were comfortable with, no one can argue that he didn’t do his job (‘getting bands on the radio’) exceedingly well. And perhaps these musicians need to take a moment, as they look back on their 30-year careers, and ask themselves if they’d even have 30-year careers to look back on if they hadn’t had the good fortune to work with Tom Werman… Would they really trade the gold and platinum albums and the hit singles that were the foundation of their success, assured their longevity and cemented their iconic status for generations to come, for complete creative control over their records, commercial success be damned?      

Tom Werman’s track record speaks for itself. However, if you want to read Werman’s story as told by Werman, he writes a regular column at popdose.com where he relates his experiences recording some of the greatest records by the greatest rock bands of all time, before they went all douche-y. I highly recommend that you read his stuff here:

http://popdose.com/the-producers-tom-werman-chapter-one/

Werman now owns and runs a bed & breakfast out in Lenox, MA, called Stonover Farm. He once posted his personal email on popdose, but has since changed it to an unpublished address (he can, however, be contacted through the Stover Farm site). If you email him, he will likely answer. I highly recommend that you do so. Thank him for all the great music. I did.

 

 

Van Halen: The Ramones of Heavy Metal

OK, calm down… Allow me to explain.

Punk Rock was a largely a reaction to the excessive, overblown rock music of the 70’s. Bands like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, with their orchestrated side-long concept pieces, and the endless improvisational ego trip jamming of bands like Deep Purple and King Crimson. Tales from Topographic Oceans… Need I say more? Actually, Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt said it all. Punk cleared away everything that came before it and re-set the table with a new aesthetic, new ethos, new rules (or no rules). No matter how you feel about it, it was a fresh start for rock n roll, and a sorely needed one.

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This new aesthetic crystallized in the form of the 1976 debut album by the Ramones. The Ramones used elements of the music they grew up with as a template, specifically the surf, bubblegum and girl groups of the 50’s and 60’s, and stripped rock music down to its basic elements while adding a primitive, just-the-basics delivery. The resulting record, simply titled ‘Ramones’, is a masterpiece of economy and raw intensity. The longest song on the record clocks in at an epic 2:35; the brevity of the songs maximized their impact. There are no guitar solos anywhere to be found, in a deliberate attempt to distance the band from the hard rock guitar wizards of the day. Guitars were placed on the right channel; the bass on the left, adding to the street level, bargain basement vibe. The ‘Ramones’ version of rock and roll was a slap in the face to the mid-70’s status quo; it reminded us all of what was great about rock and roll, and how far away from that it had evolved.

Heavy Metal was out of gas toward the end of the 70’s. The punk rock explosion had changed the rules, drastically changed the landscape, and generally shaken things up in a major way for most of the hard rock and heavy metal bands that had dominated the scene in the early 70’s. Most of metal’s standard bearers had either gone the way of the dinosaurs, or drastically lost their way; Led Zeppelin was MIA, Deep Purple had imploded, and Black Sabbath had forgotten how to be Black Sabbath. Once-mighty hard rock bands became… confused, and reacted in interesting ways to being knocked off the throne. Ian Gillan was fronting a jazz-rock combo. Several bands had given in and ‘gone disco’; others tried to maintain credibility by dabbling in the punk ethos themselves (if Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” from their 1977 album ‘News of the World’ isn’t a direct response to the Ramones, then I don’t know what is). Lyrically, the impact was also evident, as in Robin Trower’s ‘Victims of the Fury’, or the entire concept of Pink Floyd’s “Animals”, or the title of Rush’s 1977 album, “A Farewell to Kings”. Many young metal fans (like me) were waiting for a new band to emerge and end the meandering experimentation, and re-invent, redefine, re-energize heavy metal music.

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Blasting out of nowhere in 1978, Van Halen’s debut album did all of that and more. A true wake-up call to the metal faithful, ‘Van Halen’ blew the doors off of the hard rock scene and rewrote the rule book for a new generation of metal bands. VH took the music they grew up with, mainly early metal, AM top 40, Soul and Funk, placed it all in a hard rock context by playing it with the basic guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, and created a sound and style that changed the course of rock music forever.

Like ‘Ramones’, the sound of ‘Van Halen’ was itself a reaction to the played out, unfocused hard rock produced in the years just before its release. If ‘Ramones’ was a slap in the face, then ‘Van Halen’ was a swift kick in the ass. The collection of short, powerful songs explodes with a dynamic intensity. The production is stark, sounding like four guys playing together with minimal overdubs, guitar on one side; bass on the other… Hmmm… but the performances are jam-packed with excitement. Van Halen didn’t invent heavy metal on ‘Van Halen’, but rather re-invented it for a new generation. The record single-handedly jump-started the metal movement on the US side of the pond, just as the NWOBHM (itself a reaction to Punk) would on the UK side. Simply put, it was a game-changing debut, and one that “reminded us all of what was great about heavy metal, and how far away from that it had evolved.”

Oh, and, uh, contrary to the Ramones’ debut, there are a few guitar solos on the VH debut… So yes, musically, the differences between these two records are obvious, but the level of impact and influence they had on their respective genres is equal and enormous. Punk Rock’s seismic shockwave had crossed genre borders and had taken root in the realm of Heavy Metal (or, what Creem Magazine once called ‘Dinosaur Music’ in 1977), where its impact would manifest itself in a young upstart band from California that would itself shake up a complacent and confused Metal Nation. Thus, Van Halen became the Ramones of Heavy Metal. Need I mention Track 2, Side 2?

No Sleep ‘til Made in Japan

Merriam-Webster defines ‘completist’ as ‘one who wants to make something (as a collection) complete’. Hmmm. When I looked up the word, I was sure it would be listed as a medical term, because this affliction has been causing me great pain and suffering for most of my life.

My name is Bob Mayo, and I’m a Completist.

Deep_Purple_Made_in_Japan

Deep Purple’s landmark live lp ‘Made in Japan’ was originally released on double-vinyl in December of 1972 (April of ’73 in the US). I bought it sometime around 1979, and it’s been in my personal Top Ten ever since. It’s my sincere belief that this album contains rock music’s greatest recorded performances (my late friend Larry Boyd would disagree, and insist that the Who’s ‘Live at Leeds’ holds that title; I’ll grant it’s a strong contender). As an avid reader of liner notes and credits for all of my lps in those days, I knew that the album was culled from 3 shows: Osaka on August 15 & 16, and Tokyo on August 17, and that the best versions of the songs performed would have been chosen for the album. I never felt the need to hear the unused tracks, and never thought I would ever get the chance anyway. I was not yet fully in the grip of completism.

In 1982, I was stunned when I first saw an imported copy of a compilation album called ’24 Carat Purple’ from 1975 that contained a live version of ‘Black Night’, recorded in Tokyo on 17 August, 1972. So… ‘they’ decided to release another track from the MIJ gigs? Knowing it was out there, I had to have it. That may have been the moment where I was bitten by the completist bug. Sometime around 1991, I obtained a bootleg cassette of the entire August 16 Osaka show, which despite the terrible audio quality and increased pitch/speed due to multiple generations, at least revealed that the legendary ‘no overdubs’ claim is true (at least for the August 16 show). As the CD Age dawned, and I bought ‘MIJ’ on compact disc, I wondered, with the increased capacity of the format, why the cruel, unfeeling monsters at EMI hadn’t made it a 2-disc set and included some of the unreleased material. My completist tendencies were beginning to manifest themselves.

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While in Europe in 1993, I stumbled across a 3-disc Deep Purple set CD called ‘Live in Japan’. I was completely unaware of its existence (this was before the internet), and I snapped it up and clutched it to my chest lest another rabid MIJ fan try to pry it away from me. A feverish read of the booklet revealed that it contained almost all of the material recorded in Japan in 1972. Almost. Sure, it presented more than what was included on the original ‘MIJ’, a lot more, actually; but it still wasn’t everything. Each CD in the set contained a different show, and so 5 recordings originally released on ‘MIJ’ were included here, in an attempt to reassemble the running order of each gig. Still, 4 recordings (mainly the encores) could not be included due to time constraints. So while the set contained a total of 16 previously unheard recordings from DP’s August ’72 tour, we also get 5 ‘MIJ’ versions we’ve all known for decades, occupying the space that could have been given to the final 4 unreleased recordings. Maddening. I was at this point, a total completist. Or complete totalist. Or raving lunatic.

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In 1998, the depraved, sadistic subhuman slime at EMI Europe announced the release of a 25th anniversary edition of ‘Made in Japan’, newly remastered and featuring a second disc of…. The Missing Encores! YES!! FINALY! Hurrah! Wait, wha—?

Deep breaths…

Of the 6 encores performed over 3 nights, 2 of them were released on the 3-cd Live In Japan, and 3 were included on the remastered ‘MIJ’… leaving only ONE SONG from the three 1972 Japanese Purple gigs as yet unreleased. It was a version of ‘Black Nigh’t from the August 16 Osaka show. The wicked, degenerate cretins who control Deep Purple’s catalog were clearly plotting to see how much torture I could take before my head exploded. Soon after getting the CD in the mail, I also noticed that this 25th anniversary edition has most of Ian Gillan’s stage banter edited out. Happy Anniversary! The classic line “Can we have everything louder than everything else?” was GONE. To save 23 seconds of running time. Who was making these decisions? Names! I needed NAMES!!

I eventually remembered that I had a cassette of the August 16 Osaka show, which contained the missing ‘Black Night’. It was 1998, and not everyone had the desktop equivalent of a recording studio on their laptop just yet, so I took the cassette to a local recording studio, where the engineer transferred the song onto 4” tape, slowed the tape speed to correct the speed and pitch, and used some of his other magic electric doohickeys to clarify and otherwise improve the sound quality. He burned the resulting track onto a CD. THERE!! I DID IT! YOU BASTARDS!!

With the advent of iTunes, I was finally able to group together all of the related tracks from several disparate sources, and recreate the Japanese Purple gigs in their correct running order. Yes, one of the encores still kinda sounded like shit, but I had come as close as humanly possible to recreating the audio from those 3 nights.

And then…

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‘Listen, Learn, Read On’, a 6-cd box set, was released in 2002. It was and remains the biggest and most comprehensive set of Deep Purple material ever released at 74 tracks total, 24 of them previously unreleased at that point. One of them was the Holy Grail: ‘Black Night’, August 16, Osaka. In all its pristine, mixed and mastered glory. I replaced my cleaned-up bootleg version of ‘Black Night’ with this version. The tremors stopped; I started sleeping through the night again.

Soon after spending about one hundred bucks on the 6-disc set, it dawned on me why the depraved inbred reprobates at EMI had withheld that one final song for so long. Holding it back for the ‘L,L,RO’ box set was added incentive for folks to shell out big money for a massive 6-disc set that was 64% material that potential buyers likely already owned. But what the wicked, soulless cretins in charge didn’t understand was that we Purple fans (completists) would have had no issue spending 100 bucks on 24 unreleased Deep Purple tracks, Holy Grail of not. I’ve spent more on less.

You still can’t buy a complete version of the audio from Deep Purple’s three nights in Japan in August of 1972. You’d have to buy the Made in Japan 25th Anniversary Remaster, the 3-CD Live In Japan set, and the 6-CD Listen Learn, Read On box (ooooh, sorry; it’s now out-of-print). iTunes is currently selling a woefully incomplete version of ‘Live in Japan’, with only 14 tracks and absolutely zilch in the way of liner notes, credits or recording info. It’s listed as a ‘partial album’. WTF good is that? There has been internet chatter about the corrupt, villainous perverts at Warner Bros. releasing a 40th Anniversary set, but as we head into Autumn of 2013 with nothing confirmed, this looks doubtful.

Jon Lord R.I.P.