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

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