Unsung: John Gustafson

During the last 12 months or so, the world of rock has lost several notable rockers. Jeff Hanneman, Clive Burr, Lou Reed, Glenn Cornick, Allen Lanier, Tommy Ramone, Trevor Bolder, Johnny Winter… This shouldn’t be a surprise; most of our 70’s hard rock heroes are somewhere in their 60’s, and as much as it pains me to point out, nobody lives forever. Lemmy “That’s the way I like it baby, I don’t want to live forever” Kilmister was forced off the road and into the hospital several times recently. Malcom Young has officially retired, unable to play with AC/DC due to some unspecified ailment. Tony Iommi’s cancer battle was an eye opener, but it was the death of Ronnie James Dio that really hammered it home for me: Living legends are dying. The Age of the Metal God is drawing to a close.

There was no shortage of press surrounding Dio’s passing; RJD’s stellar career warranted the full treatment. He even had a tribute album. The mainstream metal press, both in print and online, are quick to respond to the death of heavy metal icons with career retrospectives, buyer’s guides, archival photos, and ‘final Interviews’. So you know where to go if you want to read about the Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous. But who’s gonna pay tribute to the less-than-legendary rock/metal musos? Who’s gonna memorialize those dudes with names that sound… kinda… familiar… but… Who will remember the sidemen to the superstars? That’s right. This blog. Right here.

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You have heard John Gustafson, even if you have never heard of him. Gustafson was one of those guys who popped up in several middling UK bands in the 70’s but never really became a household name. His association with the Deep Purple extended family tree kept him busy for much of the 1970’s, and I can virtually guarantee that you have heard one song that Gus played on, as he was associated with exactly one US/UK hit single. But the man’s lack of name recognition is in no way related to the man’s talent and abilities as a bass player and lead vocalist. John Gustafson was a phenomenal talent. I make some listening recommendations at the end of this piece; check them out and see if you don’t agree.

In the 1960’s Gustafson played in some important British bands, the first of which was The Big Three, a Merseybeat group that emerged from Liverpool along with the Beatles and the Searchers. The Big Three were managed by one Brian Epstein, and had a UK #37 with their version of ‘Some Other Guy’ in 1963. In ’64 Gustafson joined the Merseybeats, another Merseybeat band (!) who scored two consecutive #13 hits on the UK singles charts. Not a bad start.

In 1969, Gustafson replaced a cat by the name of Roger Glover in a UK pop band called Episode Six. The reason that Glover needed replacing? Glover and Episode Six lead vocalist Ian Gillan had left to join Deep Purple. While playing with E6, Gustafson was invited to appear on the album version of Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Weber’s rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Hard rockers are familiar with this record mainly due to the presence of Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan in the role of Jesus Christ. John Gustafson sang the role of Simon Zealotes on the album, which topped the US Billboard chart in 1970. ‘Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem’ is essentially a duet between Gustafson and Gillan, and, strange as it may sound, it’s not the only vocal duet the pair would record. More on that later.

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As Episode Six fizzled, drummer Mick Underwood, Gustafson and keyboardist Peter Robinson left to form progressive rock trio Quatermass. Quatermass released one excellent album in 1970 and folded. Consisting of only drums, bass, and layered keyboards (no guitars whatsoever), Quatermass is a dynamic, complex, and creative piece of progressive rock, and Gustafsons first true showcase as a hard rock vocalist and bassist. Hard rock without guitars? Believe it. Ritchie Blackmore liked one of the songs on ‘Quatermass’ enough to suggest that Deep Purple record it in 1974; they balked, so he packed up and did it (‘Black Sheep of the Family’) with Rainbow instead.

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Gustafson then joined Daemon, featuring John Du Cann and Paul Hammond, both former members of Atomic Rooster. Daemon changed their name to Bullet when Gustafson joined, but had to change it yet again, as there was an American by the same name. Now called Hard Stuff, Gustafson and crew jokingly titled their 1972 debut album ‘Bulletproof’. One of early metal’s true lost gems, ‘Bulletproof’ is a solid slab of guitar heavy, loud-ass 70’s hard rock; stripped to bare bones and ragged in all the right places. Hard Stuff’s next album was almost derailed when an auto accident seriously injured both Hammond and Du Cann, almost ending their careers; Gustafson emerged unscathed, but the band barely survived long enough to see the release of the proggier sophomore effort ‘Bolex Dementia’ in ’73.

Gustafson always made himself available as a session man for whatever came his way, and one of these sessions led to a 3-year association with the band Roxy Music. Gustafson appeared on 3 Roxy albums, ‘Stranded’, ‘Country Life’, and ‘Siren’, the latter featuring the UK #2 single ‘Love is the Drug’. The song also hit #30 in the US, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard it. Gustafson was never an ‘official’ member of Roxy Music, but was asked at the end of the ‘Siren’ tour in ’75 if he’d like to join permanently. Gustafson declined, citing his desire to play ‘harder edged’ music.

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While working with Roxy, Roger Glover invited Gustafson to contribute to his ‘Butterfly Ball’ project in 1974. The album was based on a popular children’s poem, with each piece centered on a different woodland animal; Gustafson’s entry was called ‘Watch Out for the Bat’. As Glover wrote all of the music and lyrics on the record, and hired mostly studio musicians to record it, Gus only sang on the song. But at the project’s sole live performance in October of 1975, Ian Gillan (who was enlisted to sing Ronnie Dio’s parts !! for the live presentation) asked Gustafson to join a band he was putting together.

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Gustafson released a solo album in 1976. ‘Goose Grease’ is a funky, jazz-influenced album; part fusion and part prog. Gustafson’s versatile playing shines throughout; fluid, chops-heavy and funky, anchored by a solid 70’s hard rock sensibility. Gustafson joined the Ian Gillan Band later in the year; this album provided the template for that band’s ultimate direction.

The Ian Gillan Band (Not to be confused with Gillan, a very different band) expanded on the sound and style of Gustafson’s solo album, releasing three jazz/rock albums during the height of the UK punk rock explosion. With its focus on texture, chops, and improvisation, jazz-rock was one of the styles that the punks were so vehemently rallying against, and the IGB paid the price for it.

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The IGB’s first album, called ‘Child in Time’, was produced by Roger Glover. Much of the material was written and demo’d between ’72 and ’74, before the IGB formed. The album is a murky mix of slow, dirgey R&B and mellow jazz rock, and the version of ‘Child in Time’ here has to be heard to be believed. Another song worth checking out is ‘Down the Road’, the second vocal duet between Gustafson and Gillan. Trading lines in each verse, the song is remarkable in that Gillan takes a moderate, even sedate, approach to his vocal, letting Gustafson unleash the histrionics usually associated with Deep Purple’s legendary screamer. The two differing approaches compliment each other nicely, and it’s interesting that Gillan let Gustafson loose like this on his first post-DP recording. definitely worth a listen.

Keyboardist Colin Towns joined the IGB in ’76, and on their next two releases, the band solidified their sound significantly. Second record ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ is a prog/fusion monster. Gustafson had found his ultimate rhythmic partner in drummer Mark Nauseef (the guy who filled in for Brian Downey for the Thin Lizzy gig filmed outside the Sydney Opera House in 1978), and their playing together is outstanding. Although lacking in the hard rock department, CAT is both a prime example of mid-70’s jazz-rock noodling and a shining example of what not to play while punk rock is tearing up the music charts.

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Third Album ‘Scarabus’ is just plain excellent. A perfect combination of hard rock muscle, progressive ideas and jazz-influenced playing, ‘Sarabus’ reigns in the song lengths and focuses on standard rock structures. It’s a great album of strong songs and excellent performances by all involved; but nobody cared. IGB couldn’t get arrested in the UK, none of the albums were available in the states, and in 1977, there was nowhere to go but Japan. 1978’s ‘Live at the Budokan’ would be IGB’s swan song. It, too, is excellent.

A fourth IGB album was underway when Gillan finally saw the writing on the wall and decided to get with the program and start rocking again. Retaining only Colin Towns, Gillan dumped the rest of the band, changed its name to (what else?) Gillan, and proceeded to jump headlong into the emerging NWOBHM movement. Released in 2003, a CD compilation called ‘Rarites 1975-1977’, includes 3 songs recorded for that unfinished fourth IGB album. All three songs (‘Vindaloo’, ‘You Get What You Ask For’, and ‘Raped by Aliens’) feature John Gustafson on lead vocals, with Gillan nowhere to be found. Gus more than carries the material; in fact, it sounds like the Ian Gillan Band could have carried on quite nicely without Ian Gillan… After a name change, of course.

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Recordings after 1980 were few and far between; mainly some session work (Steve Hackett, Rick Wakeman, Ian Hunter) and reunions with some of his 1960’s bands (The Pirates). But his 70’s work is where you’ll find the real Johnny Gustafson. While his legacy is as rich as it is obscure, the respect and appreciation long due the man is now overdue: John Gustafson died at age 72 on September 12, 2014. Honor the man and check out some of his music:

John Gustafson/Ian Gillan, ‘Simon Zealotes/Poor Jarusalem’, from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ 1969

Quatermass, ‘Quatermass’ album, 1970

Hard Stuff, ‘Bulletptoof’ album, 1972

John Gustafson, ‘Watch Out for the Bat’, from Roger Glover’s ‘The Butterfly Ball’ 1974

Roxy Music, ‘Love is the Drug’ single 1975

Ian Gillan Band, ‘Down the Road’ from ‘Child in Time’ 1975

Ian Gillan Band ‘Scarabus’ album, 1977

Ian Gillan Band, ‘Vindaloo’/’You Get What You Ask For’/’Raped by Aliens’, from ‘Rarities 1975-1977’ 2003

The Big Four vs The Big Hair

Of all the unfortunate musical developments of the 1980’s, MTv had to be rock bottom. One of the worst things to even happen to Heavy Metal, MTv split the genre down the middle, and forced our heroes to take sides: Go glam or go underground. Some of the greatest hard rock and metal bands of the late 70’s/early 80’s succumbed to the allure of big hair and big bucks… Def Leppard, Krokus, Scorpions, Saxon, Whitesnake, Y&T, even Judas Priest all upped their image ante while sugar-coating their music for a new generation of fans who learned about metal on the visual medium of TV, rather than from their older brother’s record collection.

While the old guard of mostly British and European metal bands abandoned their artistic integrity for a chance to crack the lucrative American market, a new breed of metal band began to develop in America. These bands picked up where the early years of the NWOBHM had left off, injecting a dose of hardcore into an already punk-informed movement. This new sound and style was also a response to the MTv-driven rise of glam; metal fans who weren’t into the whole pretty-boy thing had nowhere to go but down, meaning underground. Gentlemen, this is Thrash.

The gulf between these two styles was enormous. Thrash was about precision, speed, and aggression, where Glam was about surface flash, image, and style over substance. Thrash lyrics dealt with fighting the corrupt system and dystopian futures; glam lyrics concerned themselves with sex, love, partying, and …sex. To be fair, the thrashers were image conscious, too; their tough-guy uniform consisted of long hair, torn jeans, leather jackets, and denim vests. The glam contingent favored gender-bending make-up, big hair, and flashy clothing. There was virtually zero common ground between these two musical movements. Which side were you on?

Although not accessible enough be played on commercial radio or MTv, thrash nonetheless found its own way to success. When Metallica achieved Gold status for their 2nd LP ‘Ride the Lightning’ in 1984, the genre began to be recognized as valid not only by the metal mainstream, but also by the major record companies. The labels felt that a band that could sell 500,000 copies of a record without commercial radio support was a band worth looking at. Metallica was picked up by Elektra; Megadeth by Capitol, Anthrax by Island, and Slayer by Sony offshoot Def Jam. These four bands were about to graduate from the underground to the big leagues, where they would seriously threaten faltering stalwarts like Priest and Maiden; their impact and success would lead to these pioneering bands being dubbed ‘The Big Four’.

Meanwhile, back in Hair Metal Hell, a different formula for success had established itself. Bands with zero talent were selling millions of records based on their looks alone, while their wildly expensive and artistically vacant music videos bombarded the masses in heavy rotation on MTv. By the mid-’80’s, this ‘pop’ metal ruled the airwaves, both on TV and on the radio. By 1986, Pop/Glam/Hair metal was the most popular form of rock music in the world. The stage was set for a battle of epic proportions.

In the 13 months between February 1986 and March of ’87, the so-called ‘Big Four’ would make their grand statements, releasing four genre-defining albums that would establish thrash metal as a valid sub-genre of heavy metal forever. That very same year, in a parallel universe, Hair Metal’s elite forces would detonate 4 highly successful glamma bombs of their own. Heavy Metal had torn itself in two. Peaceful coexistence was out of the question. It was the girlz against the boys in the battle for the soul of Heavy Metal.

February 1986: A Declaration of War

Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’

By 1986, Metallica were already recognized as the leader of underground metal. With the colossal ‘Master of Puppets’, they led that niche genre out of the underground, into the mainstream, and forward into battle. This band had come a long way as writers in just a few records, and MOP showcases the full extent of their full reach and scope. Everything about this album screams ‘Epic’; the riffs, the arrangements, the sounds, the song lengths. While ‘Tallica still steadfastly refusing to release a single or video to promote their work, ‘Puppets’ nonetheless reached #29 in the US. Thrash Metal was moshing up the American Top 40… The young upstarts had become the conquering heroes. Metallica seemed unstoppable. Just seven months later, they would face their greatest challenge.

May 1986: Counter Strike

Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’

How many countdowns are there, anyway? And if this one was final, how come I keep hearing this song, 28 years later? This impossibly cute Swedish band somehow found the formula for the perfect earworm in the album’s title track, a song that has gone on to become the ultimate anthem. Second single Carrie (following the standard hair metal formula of 1st single: anthem, 2nd single: power-ballad) was a bigger hit, but ‘TFC’ has firmly established itself as an inescapable piece of modern pop culture. That, my friends is the definition of evil.

August 1986: Trilateral Offensive (and I do mean offensive)

Cinderella’s ‘Night Songs’

Hidden under all of that hair, Cinderella was probably a halfway decent bar band before MTv changed the game. While the front cover pic instantly takes this album out of the running for any serious consideration, the tunes and the playing inside are fairly solid. Having friends in high places certainly helped Cinderella; Jon Bon Jovi got the band signed to Polygram, sang backups on ‘Night Songs’, and arranged to have them appear as the opening act on the entire 7-month ‘Slippery When Wet’ tour. Second single ‘Nobody’s Fool’, a virtual rewrite of Def Leppard’s ‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak’, hit the Top Twenty. Thanks, JBJ.

Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’

Hair Metal’s biggest album. It’s interesting to speculate about where JBJ’s career would have gone had he not enlisted the songwriting assistance of veteran hit maker Desmond Child to write for ‘SWW’… Child, the infamous ‘song doctor’ who later co-wrote several key songs for post-make-up KISS and post-drugs Aerosmith, among many others, co-wrote ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. Both songs were worldwide smashes, and the primary factor in the record’s mega-success. Ya, these guys could play, but more importantly, the time was right for a gang of pretty boys (and Tico Torres) with catchy tunes, cowboy boots and fringe leather jackets.

Poison’s ‘Look What the Cat Dragged In’

Poison, on the other hand, had zero musical ability, zero songwriting skills, and zero shame. ‘LWtCDI’ was similar to Motley Crue’s debut from just a few years before, in that it was a crappy album, released by an independent label, recorded on a shoestring budget by a bunch of talentless hacks, but still made a pretty big splash because of the band’s ‘look’. This time around, however, the timing was perfect and the market primed and ready to eat this crap up, to the tune of a Billboard #3 slot and 3 million copies sold. The cover is notorious for confusing and embarrassing thousands of hetero guys (‘Check out the hot chicks!’) and the music within is 100% garbage (more on garbage later in this post). Perhaps a better title would have been ‘Look What the Cat Coughed Up’.

October 1986: Shock and Awe

Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells (But Who’s Buying?)’

When Dave Mustaine recruited players for his post-Metallica band, he purposely chose musicians with a jazz/fusion background. The result: Megadeth reached new levels of technicality and precision, raising the bar for musicianship in metal in the process. ‘Deth’s second album, ‘Peace Sells…’ features a plethora of meticulously arranged, impeccably played songs that featured a boatload of classic Mustaine riffs that Metallica would soon sorely miss. This mixture of dynamic ensemble playing and muscular musical menace, along with a healthy dose of politically aware lyrics, further established thrash metal’s mainstream credibility.

Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’

The intensity level of Slayer’s music is truly frightening. That’s Slayer’s thing: scaring people. Slayer scared lots of people with their third album ‘Reign in Blood’, including the suits at Columbia Records, who, at the last minute, decided they didn’t want to distribute the album due to its artwork and lyrics; Geffen/WB stepped in and the rest is history. At a brief but harrowing 29 minutes, ‘RIB’ is never boring, not for one single second; each song a short blast of unprecedented intensity, disorienting solos, and panic attack vocals all delivered with crystal clear, in-your-face production. ‘Reign in Blood’ so successfully achieves everything it set out to accomplish that it is rightfully recognized as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, no matter the genre.

March 1987: Reinforcements from the Eastern Front

Anthrax’s ‘Among the Living’

Anthrax may have been late to the party with ‘Among’, but it’s no less important a record than the other Big Four entries. Anthrax was the only B4 band with a credible lead vocalist (at least in conventional rock music terms), and a viable single in ‘Indians’, which gave ‘Among’ had the best shot at radio play. Anthrax was also the only band of the Four with any discernible sense of humor, throwing in a few yucks while bringing the noise. The songwriting may get a little clunky here and there, but the chops on display are truly monstrous. The mix of melodic vocals and hardcore speed/thrash crunch on ‘Among’ would prove to be hugely influential. Arriving to bat clean-up, ‘Among the Living’ is another groundbreaking thrash album and a worthy bookend to the 13 month Great Thrash Offensive.

It’s widely acknowledged that 1991’s ‘Clash of the Titans’ tour, featuring Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (Metallica was filling arenas on their own) was the height of trash metal’s popularity, but by 1992, both genres were in serious trouble. Metallica, who almost single-handedly led the thrash movement from its ‘Garage Days’ origins to mainstream acceptance and multi-platinum successes, abandoned thrash metal on their untitled 5th album, and as the public tired of a never-ending parade of ‘power ballads’, most of the major hair bands had either fizzled or self-destructed. Then along came Grunge. Game over, man.

So as the dry ice cleared, who could we declare the victor? The glammy stuff certainly sold more records than the scary stuff did by ’92. If sales are your only criteria, then the poodles won overall. If influence, longevity, and continued relevance count, then the story has a very different ending. Released at the height of hair metal’s popularity, BJ’s ‘Slippery’ went on to sell 12 million copies to ‘Master’s 2 million; but 25 years later, Metallica’s 2008 album ‘Death Magnetic’ has racked up over 2 million units sold; Bon Jovi’s latest, ‘What About Now’, has sold just over 1 million. While Jovi’s last few have hit #1, the remaining 3 Big Four bands have been consistently nipping at BJ’s heels, with each of their most current records climbing to at least #12 on the Billboard Top 200. And what of Cinderella, Poison, and Europe? Please.

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Perhaps the most interesting fact I discovered while researching this post was that the cover art used for Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’ was a photograph of a wet garbage bag with the title written in the water. That’s fitting; I mean, everyone knows what you find inside garbage bags, right?