Christmas of Steel

Nothing cheapens the holiday season like bad Christmas music. And by ‘bad Christmas music’, I mean every Christmas song recorded after Slade’s “Merry X’mas Everybody” from 1973. Okay, ‘Father Christmas’ by the Kinks is pretty great. But let’s face it: the stuff we are forced to listen to every holiday season is 90% dreck. Metalheads looking for respite from the standard holiday fare have no shortage of options; our Heavy Metal heroes are no strangers to the Christmas canon. But is any of it good enough to serve as an effective antidote to the horror of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’?

(Note: This blog post is a TSO-free zone. Trans-Siberian Orchestra exist only to create Christmas-themed music; this post is about firmly established HR/HM icons who have dedicated but a fraction of their ear-splitting, bone-crushing discographies to music celebrating stuff like peace on Earth, goodwill toward man, etc etc.)

If Twisted Sister were aiming for a dumb novelty record with their ‘Twisted Christmas’ album, they totally nailed it. Ten rocked-up renditions of standard yuletide classics, delivered with a simplistic, ham-fisted approach that makes every tune sound like an outtake from their ‘Stay Hungry’ album. In fact, their version of ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ sounds so much like their ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ that it has to heard to be believed. The band wisely play up the similarities, applying the bass line and guitar solo from their 1984 hit with very little adjustment, and there are enough similarities in the melodies of both songs to make one wonder if ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ was indeed based on the 250-year old hymn. But that would perhaps be attributing to these SMFs too much smarts.

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All of the songs on ‘Twisted Christmas’ are reworked into fist-pumping hard rock headbangers, but that doesn’t mean they have to be stupid. Alas, the TS boys render every chord from every song as a fifth chord, or what is more commonly known as a ‘power chord’. So much musical detail is lost in this translation; so many important melodic elements are missing from these boneheaded versions that poor Dee Snider often sounds like he’s having trouble finding the right note to sing, as these timeless songs he’s heard since childhood suddenly sound ‘wrong’. Check out their take on ‘The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)’. If this sounds okay to you, then you should be right at home with the rest of this dopey record. Next!

‘Halford III: Winter Songs’ is a mix of holiday classics and original Christmas-themed Halford material. At least Rob gets the music right. All of the arrangements are excellent, whether in rip-roaring metal mode or in a more traditional musical backing. This is probably due to the presence of Roy Z (Roy Ramirez), the guitarist-producer who’s alliances with Halford and Bruce Dickinson resulted in solo albums from both that were miles better than the Priest and Maiden albums released after they left. For the Christmas covers, the pair opt for familiar traditional hymns, which suit Rob’s voice better than the standard Xmas rock classics. Beyond the screechy original ‘Get Into the Spirit’, Halford sings mostly in his midrange, and the cover of Sarah Bareilles’ ‘Winter Song’ showcases Rob’s voice well, as does the original tune ‘Light of the World’.

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The downside for me is that WS feels like a missed opportunity. Rob Halford, The Metal God, built his career singing over-the-top epics about godlike characters like Sinner, Exciter, Painkiller, and Starbreaker, and created a mythos made of equal parts science fiction and religion. The Nativity story would have been prime fodder for Halford’s brand of campy psuedo-religious melodrama. But on ‘Winter Song’, Halford plays it straight (sorry) and refrains from the comic book Armageddon; coming after decades of messianic visitations and apocalyptic revelations, listening to Halford sing about being late for Christmas dinner is a little dull. A little ‘Fall to your knees by the Christmas Tree please!’ would have been welcome.

Two notable singles also spring to mind: King Diamond’s ‘No Presents for Christmas’ and Spinal Tap’s ‘Christmas With the Devil’. Tap’s single came first, in 1985, in the form of a 7″ picture disc, showing a devil-horned skull wearing a Santa hat. I wish I could say the song is hilarious, but it’s not, and like most of Spinal Tap’s music, it falls apart when held to the standard of actual Metal in 1985. King Diamond’s Christmas single came the following winter. The King’s first-ever solo release, ‘No Presents for Christmas’ sounds just like Mercyful Fate, as does most of KD’s early solo stuff. The ridiculous lyrics by Kim Bendix Petersen (oops!), containing references to Donald Duck and Tom & Jerry, probably diffused a lot of the controversy that might have erupted around an avowed Satanist’s Christmas single. Nonetheless, NPFC was a brilliant way to launch a solo career, and put Roadrunner Records on the map in the US.

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Two compilations are worth mentioning. ‘We Wish You a Metal Christmas (And a Headbanging New Year)’ is filled with good stuff, and features a roster of A-listers who really bring it. Lemmy, Billy Gibbons, and Dave Grohl have their way with Chuck Berry’s ‘Run Rudolph Run’, immediately followed by Alice Cooper, Billy Sheehan and Vinnie Appice turning ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ into a menacing threat. But up next is the CD’s highlight: Ronnie Dio, Tony Iommi, Simon Wright and Rudy Sarzo’s epic reading of the 16th century carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. GRYMG thunders out of the speakers like classic Black Sabbath MkII, all monolithic power chords and avalanche drums, topped off with Dio’s medieval wail. RJD’s delivery of the lyric, which name-checks Satan (bonus!), transforms the centuries-old tune into a cautionary tale, and Iommi’s solo rips.

Also appearing on the collection are Geoff Tate (who’s often painfully flat as he over-sings ‘Silver Bells’), Joe Lynne Turner, Tommy Shaw, ‘Ripper’ Owens, both Kulicks, Carlos Cavazo, Steve Morse, George Lynch, and many more. If there’s a lump of coal in this stocking, it’s Scott Ian’s death metal destruction of ‘Silent Night’, with Testament’s Chuck Billy on Cookie Monster vocals. This probably sounded like fun over beers, but here it’s an ugly mess. Or maybe it’s Stephen Pearcy retching his way through ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’, which he repeatedly sings as ‘ran over’ for some unknown reason. Better than ‘runned over’, I suppose.

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Released three years later, ‘Heavy Metal Christmas’ (also released as ‘A Very Metal Christmas’ and ‘Christmas with the Devil’) is a pile of junk, a bunch of tracks recorded for the Deadline label by 3rd stringers like L.A. Guns, Faster Pussycat, Gilby Clarke, Pretty Boy Floyd, Helix and… Dweezil Zappa? Paul Di’Anno and Eddie Clarke also appear. The inclusion of Jack Russell’s ‘Blue Christmas’ is so fucking offensive it borders on obscene. There’s only one decent track: Glenn Hughes’ somber ‘O Holy Night’. The mere fact that this comp is available in three different versions, with three different titles and three different covers, reeks of cash-in. Avoid.

So after wading through all of this holiday cheese–uh, cheer, what are we left with? Well, for one thing, Heavy Rock doesn’t fare any better than other genres in terms of the quality/crap ratio. Heavy Metal’s dark lyrics and imagery, and its musical expressions of power and nihilism make it largely incompatible with the messages and melodies found in most holiday-themed music. Finding a balance that works is next to impossible. I am aware of only one band that was able to strike that delicate balance perfectly: Manowar.

Yes, Manowar. Everyone’s favorite Warriors of Steel released a CD single in 2013 featuring 2 versions of ‘Silent Night’; one sung in English and one in German. And it’s actually… pretty awesome. The arrangement is excellent, and the performances, especially by vocalist Eric Adams, are impeccable. The production is flawless. In short, it’s a triumph. Musically, I mean. The packaging is another story. Metal to the core, Manowar could not resist throwing a few HM tropes into the CD’s packaging: the cover art features Santa the biker-badass, with one scantily clad babe on each arm; Bad Santa has his hand on one wench’s ass. The band photo depicts the Gods of Metal standing tall as the fires of Hell burn behind them, and the CD was produced in a limited edition of 666 copies… Even with the finest Holiday Heavy Metal, there’s fine line between Santa and Satan.

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The Axe Factor

Thin Lizzy. UFO. Scorpions. Motorhead. Four of the most prestigious names in Hard Rock/Heavy Metal history. Three of them still exist to this very day; four if you count Black Star Riders (I don’t). Celebrated for decades, their basic histories are pretty well known to the average fan of heavy rock around the world, while hardcore fans will even recognize names like Lucas Fox or Rudy Lenners. What’s not so well-known is how many ex-members these bands share between them. For these bands early on it was all about getting the chemistry just right; about finding that magic missing piece of the puzzle. What follows is an outline of how these four iconic bands hired, fired, borrowed and traded several guitarists before settling on the line-ups that made them famous. Do try to keep up…

Round 1: Gary Moore quits the band he joined at age 16, Skid Row, in 1971, just before a planned tour of the States. Guitarist Eric Bell, then a member of Thin Lizzy, who have just released their debut album, replaces him for some live dates. Welsh guitarist Paul Chapman is hired soon after as Moore’s permanent replacement. Chapman quit in ’72, and the band folded.

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Round 2: UFO have released 3 albums with guitaris Mick Bolton, to modest success. Bolton, however, quits in January of 1972. The band hire Larry Wallis, who lasts until October; UFO never record anything with him in the line-up. Wallis is replaced by Bernie Marsden, who records a 2-song demo with the band before leaving abruptly while on tour with Germany’s Scorpions in mid-1973. Scorps guitarist Michael Schenker, then 17, plays guitar for both bands for the duration of the jaunt. At tour’s end, Schenker is invited to join UFO permanently. He accepts, and Scorpions split up. Klaus Meine and Rudy Schenker join Uli Jon Roth’s band Dawn Road, bringing the Scorpions name with them.

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Round 3: On New Year’s Eve 1973, Eric Bell quits Thin Lizzy. Bell is replaced by ex-Skid Row guitarist Gary Moore (see Round 1). Moore only stays until April of ’74, but the band record three songs with him that would appear on their next album, ‘Nightlife’. Moore is replaced by ex-Atomic Rooster/Hard Stuff guitarist Jon DuCann for live work. DuCann and Lizzy’s Phil Lynott clash, the band’s Phonogram deal is about to expire, so drummer Brian Downey quits the band. Downey eventually rejoins Lynott, who hires guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson to complete the classic Lizzy line-up.

Round 4: Paul Chapman (ex-Skid Row, see Round 1) joins UFO as second guitarist for the ‘Phenomenon’ tour in 1974. He leaves in January of ’75, but evidence of the short-lived 2-guitar UFO can be found on the final four tracks of the ‘BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert’ CD.

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Round 5: Also in ’75, Larry Wallis (ex-UFO; see Round 2) joins Lemmy’s fledgeling Motorhead. Wallis appears on Motorhead’s debut album, which is shelved by United Artists as being ‘unfit for commercial release’ and isn’t released until 1979. Wallis quits a year after joining, in 1976, when 2nd guitarist Eddie Clarke is added to the band.

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So at this point, all four bands have entered a period of relative stability, having finally arrived at what many refer to as their their ‘classic’ line-ups, and release a bunch of undeniably classic albums. For UFO it’s ‘Force It’, ‘No Heavy Petting’, and ‘Lights Out’; Thin Lizzy make ‘Fighting’, ‘Jailbreak’, and ‘Johnny the Fox’. Scorpions release ‘Fly to the Rainbow’, ‘In Trance’, ‘Virgin Killer’ and ‘Taken by Force’. Motorhead’s Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor trio begin making records. And then, Restless Guitar Syndrome set in again…

Round 6: In November 1976, Thin Lizzy’s Brian Robertson (see Round 3) severely injures his hand in a bar fight and has to sit out the band’s US tour with Queen. Robertson is replaced by Gary Moore (see Rounds 1&3). After Robertson recovers, he rejoins the band for another album and tour but he is fired for his excessive drinking, and is replaced once again by Gary Moore in June of 1978. This is Moore’s 3rd go-round w/Lizzy.

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Round 7: In June 1977, after wrapping up the UK leg of the ‘Lights Out’ tour, troubled UFO guitarist Michael Schenker (Round 2) disappears. Paul Chapman (Rounds 1 & 4) rejoins the band again at the height of their US polularity. Schenker is coaxed back to complete the tour, and Chapman steps down. A year later, Schenker quits UFO, while at the same time, Uli Roth (Round 3) leaves Scorpions. Scorps hire Matthias Jabs to replace Roth, but after Schenker becomes available, Jabs is kicked to the curb, and Michael Schenker rejoins his brother in Scorpions after 7 years. Schenker plays a handfull of shows with Scorpions but soon flakes out yet again, and is replaced permanently by Jabs. Oh, and Paul Chapman, on his third tour of duty with UFO, finally becomes a permamnent member.

Scorps go on to fame and fortune as a very different kind of band with Jabs. Lizzy will never be the same, with a revolving door of guitarists that never quite recapture the Gorham/Robertson magic. UFO continue onward with some great records but the ‘Chapman Era’ will always be unfairly compared against the ‘Schenker Era’, and usually not-so-favorably… And what of Motorhead?

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Round 8: Fast Eddie Clarke (Round 5), disgusted with his band’s collabration with punk band The Plasmatics, quits Motorhead during the 1982 US tour promoting the ‘Iron Fist’ album. Mere days later, ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson (Rounds 3&6) is on stage in New York with Philthy & Lemmy, and remains in Motorhead until November 1983. It would be another 13 years before Lemmy and Co. would arrive at the satable 3-piece line-up that still exists to this day.

So what have we learned here?

1) There’s considerably less than ‘six degrees of separation’ between these four bands. The most moves required here to connect any two of these groups is 3.

2) This post is in dire need of a flow chart.

2) Guitarists are mercurial, ego-centric prima donnas.

3) Guitarists may be mercurial, ego-centric prima donnas, but finding the right one was essential to the chesmistry that created the four of the greatest bands and some the greatest music in Heavy Rock history.

 

The Gift and the Curse of James Marshall Hendrix

Virtually every rock guitarist of the 70s era was influenced somehow or another by Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix defined rock guitar for the ensuing decade, exploring possibilities and expanding its parameters like no one before him. Agreed? Great.

Marty Friedman (ex-Megadeth shredder) recently caused a minor stir when he stated that he ‘never got’ Jimi Hendrix, and further stating that he always found Jimi’s music ‘primitive’. He says he ‘grew up really loving Frank Marino, Uli Roth and Robin Trower’, which loosely translates to ‘I like Hendrix-inspired music, but not Hendrix’s music itself’. It’s a generational thing; those who weren’t able to experience the whole Experience experience got to experience it some years later through musicians directly inspired by Jimi. Hendrix left us just as the decade began, but his music was alive and well throughout the 1970’s, interpreted and re-expressed by others. Here’s how Jimi’s spirit survived his passing, threading through the work of three phenomenally gifted musicians…

Robin Trower
As a member of Procul Harum, Robin Trower played several shows opening for Hendrix in 1970, including The Isle of Wight Festival and the Sept. 4 gig in Berlin. Hendrix died two weeks later; when Trower heard the news, he decided to write a song for Jimi. Trower studied Henrdix’s records for a few days, in order to become more acquainted with his playing, and wrote ‘Song for a Dreamer’, which became the final track on Trower’s last album with Procol Harum, ‘Broken Barricades’. Trower had already been a fan, enthralled as he watched Hendrix from the side of the stage each night on tour. But after studying Hendrix’s style for ‘Dreamer’, Trower’s approach to the guitar was changed forever. He traded in his Les Paul for a white Strat and left Procol Harum for a solo career.

Early Trower channeled the blues/funk/soul elements of Hendrix’s sound. He often drenched his lead playing in effects, but never lost that raw, emotive Strat tone. Check out the intro to ‘Victims of the Fury’, from the 1979 album of the same name, for a sublime example of the kind of atmosphere Trower can summon with his artistic use of effects. His solos can achieve the timbre and cadence of the human voice, meandering in and out of time while searching for hidden microtones. When Eddie Van Halen arrived in 1978, quickly overshadowing the previous generation of guitar heroes, someone wrote to Guitar Player magazine defending the old school, stating (I’m paraphrasing) ‘These new hot shots need a million notes to say what Robin Trower can say with just one’. True dat.

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Trower’s Hendrix leanings were both a blessing and a curse. Comparisons in the press were seldom favorable, with words like ‘mimic’ and ‘clone’ used often. But those searching for more ‘Hendrix music’ found it here. Trower’s writing and playing effectively carried Jimi’s sound forward into the world of early 1970s hard rock. In the UK, Robin Trower was hailed as the second coming; in the U.S. his 2nd LP, ‘Bridge of Sighs’ went Gold in 1974, and spent 31 weeks in the Top 100. But Trower can’t be dismissed as a mere copyist; no mere ‘clone’ could ever deliver the emotional content and depth of feeling infused within Trower’s lead playing.

‘Bridge of Sighs’ is perhaps the obvious choice of album to recommend, so I’m going to go left field and suggest ‘King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Robin Trower’, a live recording from 1977. While most of the KBFH releases are junk, I’d rate this release as the best live RT album ever. Recorded in Connecticut on the ‘In City Dreams’ tour, it features all of Trower’s strongest material to date, the production is mint, and the performances are sublime. Long out of print, but well worth hunting down. Bonus Points: Best guitar-face ever. Oh, and Robert Fripp once took lessons from him. For realz.

Uli Jon Roth
Uli Roth plays like Hendrix… If Jimi Hendrix was a vampire from Mars. Roth’s playing reimagines Hendrix as a neo-classical shredder with a psychedelic streak and technique to burn. A classically trained musician, Roth joined Germany’s Scorpions in 1974, and played up the Hendrixisms to the hilt. Roth borrowed the Aeolian mode from Ritchie Blackmore, married it to the acid rock freak-out of Jimi at his most experimental, and came up with a truly monstrous sound and style that was deeply indebted to Hendrix but also light years ahead of its time.

The four studio albums Roth recorded with Scorpions are, to this day, untouchable rock guitar showcases, thanks to Roth’s fiery playing and forward-thinking creativity. I’ll recommend ‘In Trance’ here, which showcases Uli Roth at his most face-meltingly obnoxious. No doubt this album resulted in many heads exploding back in 1975 (I can guaran-fucking-tee you that Eddie Van Halen had a few Uli Scorps albums as a teen). But over the course of the four Roth-Era studio albums, the Scorpions sound began to split into two ever-more distinct styles: the melodic but crunchy Schenker/Meine material and the Uli Roth-does-Hendrix songs; a divide most evident on Roth’s final studio album with Scorps, ‘Taken by Force’.

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Roth left Scorpions after ‘Force’ and formed Electric Sun, where he let his Hendrix flag fly. All three Electric Sun albums feature heavily orchestrated guitars, ambitious arrangements, and absolutely horrible lead vocals, all sung by the maestro himself. It must be stated here that Electric Sun’s second album, ‘Fire Wind’, contains the worst lead vocals on any rock record in my collection, often achieving extreme levels of unintentional hilarity. His occasional lead vox on Scorps albums were a tough listen, but here they come close to overshadowing Roth’s otherworldly guitaring.

Roth let his worship of Jimi Hendrix spill outside of mere guitar playing. He dressed like Jimi, and even dated Monica Danneman, who was also Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time of his death. Roth wrote several songs with Danneman, notable the outstanding ‘We’ll Burn the Sky’ from the aforementioned ‘Taken by Force’. Danneman committed suicide while living with Roth; perhaps he sings in his sleep.

Frank Marino
Frank Marino’s tale at once comic and tragic. At the age of 14, the Montreal-born Marino was hospitalized for an LSD overdose and admitted to the hospital for several weeks, with only a guitar to keep him occupied. He taught himself how to play the instrument, and at 15, started a band called Mahogany Rush. He turned 17 while in the studio recording the first MR album ‘Maxoom’. These are the elements of the story that Marino maintains are true to this very day. But back in 1972, the story was quite different…

Someone on Frank’s team; manager, agent, or perhaps the young Marino himself (although he denies this) concocted the story that Marino, while recovering from his bad trip, was visited by the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, after which Marino suddenly became a prodigy on the instrument. This myth has morphed and mutated; the version I read (in Creem Magazine!) stated that Marino ‘claimed’ that he was in a car crash and was visited by Hendrix’s ‘ghost’ while in a coma, and that Marino claimed to be ‘possessed’ by Jimi’s spirit. Even as a kid, I knew this was total horseshit. This stunt would haunt Marino and his band throughout the 70s, preventing him from being taken seriously as a musician by the mainstream press.

All of that ‘spirit’ nonsense may have garnered the young guitarist some valuable attention early on; his 2nd and 3rd LPs, ‘Child of the Novelty’ and ‘Strange Universe’, both released on Canadian indie labels, achieved his highest-ever chart placings in the U.S. But when MR was picked up by CBS, both Marino’s music and his unfortunate mythology went worldwide. The backlash came quickly. CBS hooked MR up with hard rock kings Leber-Krebs Management (Aerosmith, Ted Nugent) and secured them opening slots on many primo mid-70s tours and high profile festivals (Cal Jam II in ’78, A Day on the Green in ’79), but Marino couldn’t shake off the bad vibes from that early publicity ploy.

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Sometimes Marino was his own worst enemy. Early on, he dedicated the ‘Maxoom’ album to Hendrix and included a tribute song to Jimi (‘Buddy’), but also years later while on CBS, Frank made Jimi’s ‘Purple Haze’ and a section of ‘Machine Gun’ (retitled ‘Electric Reflections of War’) permanent parts of his live show. Moves like this didn’t make it any easier for Marino to break free of the Hendrix comparisons even as his music gradually evolved away from Jimi’s sound. By the time of 1980’s ‘What’s Next?’, the band had become a jazz-inflected heavy metal monster. The label dropped the ‘Mahogany Rush’ name and their last 2 CBS albums were released as ‘Frank Marino’ solo albums. It didn’t help sales. The ghost of Jimi still haunted.

Several generations of guitar freaks and rock critics have now come and gone, and Marino is just now starting to achieve the recognition he’s deserved for decades. Frank Marino is an absolute master of the instrument, and those who leave him out of discussions of the Great Guitar Gods of the 1970s are either woefully mistaken or willfully ignorant. As much jazz-informed as it is blues-based, Marino’s playing can be astonishingly fast and fluid, while managing somehow to be both unrelentingly fierce and impeccably tasteful. He wears his Hendrix on his sleeve, but a unique voice emerges through his stunning fluency in several different styles of guitar playing. Pick up either ‘Strange Universe’, for the prog-psych Jimi-esque side of Marino’s work, or ‘Juggernaut’, for a sample of his later, shred-tasticly metallic period.

Such is was love of Jimi Hendrix’s music and the grief over his loss that anyone stylistically similar was immediately branded a rip-off, unworthy of our respect and attention. To be sure, Trower, Roth, and Marino flew a little two close to the sun, and each of them paid a price. But by keeping the Hendrix sound alive as a genre all its own, these three were able to influence the Marty Freedman generation with their own Hendrix-infused music, which in turn speaks to the enormity of the Hendrix legacy, and of the depth and power of Jimi’s music. Hopefully Marty Friedman understands that, even if he doesn’t ‘get’ Jimi’s music, he’s been influenced by it all the same, via three gifted and creative guitarists who stood on the shoulders of a giant.

Volume 50: The End is Nigh!

As I sit and write this, my 50th post for MayoNoise, the metallic corners of the internet are all a-buzz with the announcement that Black Sabbath will embark on their final world tour. This final trek has been officially dubbed ‘The End’, and it was announced via a striking advert that reads “THE FINAL TOUR BY THE GREATEST HEAVY METAL BAND OF ALL TIME”. Listed just under that pronouncement are the names OZZY OSBOURNE, TONY IOMMI, and GEEZER BUTLER. Bill Ward’s name is conspicuous in its absence.

If you read my blog, you know this already. You also know why Ward’s name isn’t on the poster. It’s early yet; maybe they will wrap the tour in Birmingham and have Ward play that set, or a short set at the end of the show(s)… Hopefully they will do the right thing; I sincerely hope everyone involved can find a way to do end Black Sabbath that will include Bill Ward. But regardless; Black Sabbath have announced ‘The End’, and after The End, for me, Metal is over.

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Two days previous to announcing ‘The End’, Lemmy ended a Motorhead set in Austin, Texas after just three songs, saying “I can’t do it” and walking off the stage. Cancelled gigs and postponed tours have become commonplace for Motorhead since 2013, when a plethora of health issues began to plague their fearless leader. Lemmy has stated that he’ll probably die on stage, and, looking back over the last 7 days, it looks like Lem meant what he said and said what he meant. As ever. “I don’t wanna live forever!” indeed. Still, how sad was it to see Lemmy, who turns 70 in December, hobble off stage, with the aid of a cane, after apologizing to the Texas crowd. Lemmy: We love you. Go home and take it easy. Job done.

Bruce Dickinson and Tony Iommi have had recent cancer scares; Malcom Young succumbed to dementia. Bun E. Carlos and Bill Ward have both had to watch their bands carry on without them due to diminished physical capabilities brought on by aging (and, in the case of Ward, likely compounded by years of substance abuse). Craig Gruber, AJ Pero, Allen Lanier, Trevor Bolder, and RJD… It’s as if the Grim Reaper stepped out of one of the gazillion album covers he adorns and began stalking our heroes, ending their lives and/or careers. Who will be the Figure in Black’s next Chosen One? Motorhead resumed the tour in St. Louis a few days after the Texas walk-off… but how much longer can he soldier on?

Ronnie James Dio’s death was a wake up call for me. I have been listening to Heavy Metal seriously since 1976. After forty years of music from these guys, you kind of get used to having them around. These bands and the people in them become part of your life. My favorite bands: AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Motorhead, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Rush… these bands have been with me for 4 decades. Like good friends, they have always been there when I needed them, during good times and bad. It’s a unique relationship; Metal fans are more passionate about their music and the musicians that make it than fans of any other genre of music. And with Dio’s passing, I realized that if The Man on the Silver Mountain could die, then all of my heroes were really just men; men who will grow old. Men who will eventually die. My Favorite Bands of All Time are dancing perilously close to the edge…

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Some of them are growing old gracefully: Rush are acknowledging that playing such physically demanding music gets tougher with the passage of each year, and are tailoring their final years to accommodate this reality. If ‘Clockwork Angels’ is the last Rush album, I’m ok with that. And how long can Iron Maiden continue to perform at their standard level of intensity? Their current strategy of staging shorter tours with longer breaks will buy them a few years, but cancer has already intervened once… As far as their current music, I don’t know what to make of IM’s latest 92-minute opus; it will probably take me the next five years to absorb it. Motorhead may now have no choice in the matter, but if they are in fact all done, they’ve left us with a real scorcher of an album in ‘Bad Magic’, with music full of piss and vinegar, and lyrics filled with thinly veiled goodbyes.

Now would be an excellent time to end it. I mean right now. Deep Purple’s ‘Now What?!’ album is one of their very best records, but the band are planning to do another. Don’t! End your 40+ year career on a high note! Don’t wind the band up with another ‘Bananas’! And I really don’t want to live in a world where a Cheap Trick album exists that does NOT include Bun E. Carlos on the drums. Their last record, ‘The Latest’, was strong; in fact, all of their albums since ‘going indie’ in 1996 have been strong… But a Bun-less CT album will be unwelcome in my home. AC/DC may have hung around for one album too many; ‘Black Ice’ broke records across the globe, but ‘Rock or Bust’ wasn’t quite the global phenomenon expected, and, while I like the album a lot, an AC/DC album without any contributions from Malcom Young needs to be considered carefully… Also, Angus Young, everybody’s favorite naughty schoolboy, is now 60 years old… Class Dismissed!

Lo, ‘The End’ will surely be the end. When the Pantheon of Old Gods is gone, who will be the New Gods? Slayer released a new album this week; just after a much-publicized spat between guitarist Kerry King and Mayhem Festival organizer Kevin Lyman. Lyman was bitching about low attendance during this year’s tour. While Lyman blamed the ‘metal scene’ in general, his issue was clearly with his aging headliners:

“The bands at the top all demand a certain level of fee to be on a tour. Unlike punk rock, metal never knows how to take a step back to move the whole scene forward…What happened was metal chased girls away because what happened was metal aged. Metal got gray, bald and fat.”

King came back with a statement calling Lyman’s remarks ‘business suicide’, and he was right: The 2015 Mayhem run was the last. But Lyman failed to acknowledge the lack of young bands developing into headliners over the past 20 years. During the eight year existence of his festival, which launched in 2008, the festival organizer soon found himself resorting to adding ‘older’ bands to key positions on the bill. Lyman wouldn’t have to resort to costly ‘grey, bald and fat’ bands if there were younger bands capable of filling arenas. When the old guard is gone, who’s gonna sell tickets?

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It saddens me to think that, in our lifetimes, we will live in a world with no Lemmy, no Alice Cooper or Ozzy, no Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Rob Halford… No Schenkers, no Youngs… No larger-than-life characters, no living legends, no more heroes. Of course we’ll still have Dave Grohl, but he’ll have no one to jam with! Slash, maybe? Kiss will still be around though. I’m willing to bet that Gene Simmons has been grooming his son Nick for years to take over as Bat Lizard 2.0. The inevitable reality TV show to find the next Starchild will surprise no one.

Most of my favorite bands originated in the 1970s. That they survived the MTV ’80s and the alternative ’90s is nothing short of a miracle. I am grateful that they’ve been able to continue their careers so far beyond their original expiration dates. Back in 1978, no one would have guessed that any of these bands would still be touring and releasing viable music in 2015. I value everything they have given us over the last three or four decades, both good and bad, and I truly wish it could go on forever, that all of my heroes were immortal. But when Sabbath reaches the end of ‘The End’, it will likely be 2017. By then, my friends, the glory days will be well and truly over. How perfect that the band that started it all will be the band that presides over the funeral services.

Ghost Music

Jimmy page recently complained about the sound quality of mp3s. He told Kerrang! Radio: “They (the Led Zeppelin albums) were mixed in stereo with a depth-of-field to them, with everything in focus,” he says. “To have it squashed down is not how it was intended to be.” He lamented the sad fact that all of the painstaking work he had recently done on the Zeppelin remasters would be ruined by todays technology; tech that is geared toward today’s listening culture. But is sound quality the only thing we’ve lost with the advent of the mp3?

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Backstory. If this blog is ‘about’ anything, it’s about backstory. A song, an album, or even an entire discography has always been but a part of a larger story. Music without a backstory is one-dimensional; flat. Like wallpaper. Doesn’t the saga and setting of Deep Purple’s ‘Machine Head’ sessions inform the way the you perceive the record? Wouldn’t your listening experience differ significantly if you thought ‘Perfect Strangers’ was DP’s debut, and not a reunion album? The guitars sound different on ‘Come Taste the Band’… Is this Blackmore? If not, who is it? And where’s Ritchie?

To me, backstory is essential. And a significant portion of whatever backstory we were able to put together before the internet era came from all of the minutiea that accompanied physical media. Musicians, songwriters, producers, locations, dates, even ‘thanks’ lists. All of this information directly effected our perception of the music we listened to; enriched it, colored it, deepened it. Think about it: Most of us spent countless hours listening to records and staring at the packaging, reading every word, desperate to know whatever there was to know about what we were experiencing. You probably even know what an album cover smells like. What does an mp3 look like? Feel like in your hands? Smell like?

It’s ironic that, in the ‘Information Age’, we get so little information with our music. You download an ‘album’… and there’s a file folder showing on your screen that’s really not a file folder, it’s just a group of pixels representing a pathway to a cluster of digital information… How UN-rock n’ roll is that??? We get ‘tags’ indicating a song title, an artist, an album title… but that’s all. Mp3s are intangible phantoms with neither form nor shape, and the minimal ancillary information they carry does nothing to enhance our enjoyment. Who wrote these songs? Who’s in this band? When was it recorded?

Mp3s devalue art. But they go even further than that; they disrespect artists. Rock music changed the world; it has saved lives, transformed global culture, inspired millions. The very least you could do is tell us the name of the fucking bass player. Are the people who create music really irrelevant, their names insignificant? Take all the names and dates out of your kids’ history books. What will they learn? “Some stuff happened. Some of it was pretty cool; most of it was boring.” This, my friends, is the future history of Rock and Roll. By presenting music this way, without any credits attached whatsoever, we are being told that none of that information matters; that it makes no difference who created the art they are enjoying. And to many, sadly, this is true. I’m here to tell you that it’s not true; that it does matter.

Yes, my attitude is party the result of growing up with tangible music: LPs, CDs, and cassettes, with artwork and credits and, if you were a KISS fan, stickers and love guns and tattoos. Kids today are growing up with easy access to free portable music, anytime, anywhere… but just the music. They don’t even know there’s anything behind the wallpaper to care about or to be interested in. Yes, there will be some curious, adventurous kids, who, by some fluke of nature or accident of genetic engineering, find the antiquated sound of hard rock from the 70s and 80s appealing. And when those kids start digging on the internet for ‘that old shit’ (because where else would kids in the future look for anything?), all they’re going to find are mp3s. Misspelled artist’s names and incomplete song titles. Bits of digital code with no tether to the rich musical history from which they originated. Ghost Music. Cheap wallpaper. That’s all.

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Check out Nazareth’s songwriting credits. Three of Naz’s six Top 20 UK singles were covers, including ‘Love Hurts’. In fact, Nazareth made a habit of including a couple of well-chosen covers on each of their classic-era albums; interpretations of songs by Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Little Feat, Nils Lofgren, Bob Dylan, JJ Cale, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Woodie Guthrie, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Yardbirds, and more, indicating a wisdom and depth rarely seen in the glut of dime-a-dozen hard rock bands from the 70s… Maybe there was more to this band than we thought… but if you’re downloading Nazareth’s discography from Napster, you’re not gonna know any of this, and you’re not gonna be able to fully appreciate this smart and tasteful band.

Casual rock fans rock fans of the future will come to the conclusion that drugs were the best thing that ever happened to Aerosmith, because the albums they released after getting sober are all fucking terrible. But it’s wasn’t the drugs, or lack thereof; it was the writers. There are only 3 songs written exclusively by members of ‘Smith on their first ‘sober’ album, ‘Permanent Vacation’ (and one’s an instrumental); the remaining 9 were written or co-written by outside ‘song doctors’. Without the songwriting credits, A-smith takes the blame for the cheesy, pop-infused, overwritten crap polluting their records up to the present day, when blame should instead be placed with Desmond Child, JIm Vallance, Mark Hudson, Jack Blades, Tommy Shaw, Richie Supa… even Lenny Kravitz. And, yes, also on Aerosmith, for allowing these collaborations to happen at all… while sober! You’d have to inject me with drugs to get me to write a song with Jack Blades.

The early albums by Germany’s Accept had their fair share of clunkers, but go back and revisit a song called ‘I’m a Rebel’ from their album of the same name. ‘Rebel’ sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the record, and for good reason. A glance at the songwriting credit reveals that the song was written by ‘George Alexander’, a pseudonym for Alexander Young, one of the brothers Young, as in Malcom and Angus. Young’s ‘I’m a Rebel’ was originally recorded in 1976 by AC/DC but was shelved; three years later it was offered to Accept, who recorded a cover version based on AC/DC’s recording. Without that songwriting credit, it’s just more awkward ‘early Accept’.

Not that they need it, but does it not lend a bit of extra badass credibility to Motorhead’s ‘Overkill’ and ”Bomber’ albums after you discover that they were produced by Jimmy Miller, the man who produced The Rolling Stones’ ‘Beggar’s Banquet’, ‘Let it Bleed’, ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Exile on Main Street’, and ‘Goat’s Head Soup’?

The story of Cheap Trick’s catalog is largely one of producers: Jack Douglas wanted their debut to sound live; Tom Werman cleaned them up for rock radio; desperate attempts to replicate Budokan’s sales led the hiring of George Martin (‘All Shook Up’), Roy Thomas Baker (‘One on One’), and Todd Rundgren (‘Next Position, Please’). All of those albums sound markedly different. Doesn’t an awareness of their ‘Next Producer, Please’ syndrome explain these differences, and lend a better understanding of the CT story, allowing one to appreciate the arc of their recording career in greater depth?

So you think you might download some Whitesnake? The ‘Snake line-up responsible for the ‘Ready an’ Willing’ album features Ian Paice, Jon Lord, and David Coverdale; that’s three fifths of Deep Purple, Mks III & IV… If you count producer Martin Birch, that means four of the six folks responsible for DP’s ‘Burn/Stormbringer/Come Taste the band albums do their thing on ‘Ready an’ Willing’, perhaps making it the Whitesnake album to gamble on, if you’re curious. But if you’re browsing iTunes, how do you know who plays on what? You might end up buying ‘Slip of the Tongue’, or even worse: ‘The Purple Album’. Buyer beware!

Minutia is a big deal. Listen to ‘Under My Wheels’ from Alice Cooper’s ‘Killer’ album. Now listen again, with the understanding that the guitar solo at around the 1:00 mark was played by Rick Derringer. It’s a different experience, isn’t it? In a few short years, no one will know this; no one will care. No one will be able to fully appreciate Scorpions’ ‘Lovedrive’ album because they will not know that UFO’s Michael Schenker played on it… Nor will they care that they guy who sang the majority of Ted Nugent’s ‘Free-For-All’ album later had several hit singles afterwards, including ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ and ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’, adding a hefty dose of irony to the Nugent experience. And won’t Sharon be pleased when, in a future without songwriting credits, the world finally recognizes Ozzy Osbourne for the musical genius she’s always wanted us to believe that he is?

Even ‘Thank You’ lists reveal nuggets of useful information. Perhaps the most infamous Thank You in the history of Metal, Black Sabbath’s ‘Vol.4’ thanks “the great COKE Cola Company of Los Angeles”, perhaps lending some level of understanding as to why that classic album sounds a bit ragged, edgy and rushed. Or, sometimes they add to the overall character of the album they appeared on: Motorhead’s Thank Yous always lend a little levity to the proceedings. On 1987’s Rock and Roll, Lem announces the return of Phil Talyor to the band with “Welcome Home Philthy! And by the way…If you had a face like mine, you’d punch me right on the nose… And I’m just the guy to do it!”

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iTunes attaches reviews from the All Music Guide to most of the albums available in their store, because they know buyers require at least a little bit of background information when making buying decisions. They also post customer reviews, as does Amazon. These reviews are rife with misinformation, uninformed opinion, and factual errors, just like the rest of the internet, so they are not to be trusted. Just like the rest of the internet. Streaming services offer nothing in the form of performance or production credits. If you hear a song you dig, all you get is the title of the song, that title of the album it originated from, and the name of the artist. Kids growing up in this listening culture will not care or wonder about anything else.

Illegal download sites are even worse, as you might imagine. While doing internet searches for blog material, I have seen Foghat’s ‘Slow Ride’ attributed to Kiss on more than one torrent site… April Wine’s ‘Roller’ credited to Queen… Frank Marino’s ‘Dragonfly’ tagged as a Pat Travers tune. I found a song called ‘Harley Davidson’ that was attributed to AC/DC… But guess what? It wasn’t AC/DC. It wasn’t even Krokus. Misinformation abounds out there in the illegal downloading underground, and maybe misinformation is worse than no information at all. As music becomes less and less important, so will accurate information.

Do you have any idea who designed the wallpaper in your living room? When or where it was manufactured? Which wallpaper company produced it? Probably not. In the near future, people’s interest in their music will be no different. For the listeners of tomorrow, there will only be two kinds of music: Good and Bad. Perhaps artists’ names and song titles should just be done away with, and download sites and streaming services should just label their wares with generic genre tags; ‘Rock and Roll’. ‘Jazz’. ‘Heavy Metal’. Before another mp3 of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ by the Rolling Stones is downloaded to someone’s iPhone… More Ghost Music, doomed to roam the internet for eternity, haunting the playlists of the uninformed.

Never Say Die

Tony Iommi, living legend. Metal pioneer. Riff machine. Cancer survivor. Solely responsible for keeping the greatest Heavy Metal band of all time, Black Sabbath, alive for 45 years, withstanding decades of changing musical trends and never-ending line-up changes. But is this last bit something we should applaud Iommi for? Looking over Sabbath’s long history and vast body of work, how much of it really lives up to the legacy? Can Black Sabbath even be called a ‘band’ after 1983? Do half of these records even qualify as ‘Black Sabbath’ records?

Let’s start the discussion with something we can all agree on: Those first 6 albums are untouchable. Every one of them should form the core of any self-respecting metalhead’s music collection. They are the reason that the name ‘Black Sabbath’ will be among the few 20th century music artists that will be remembered hundreds of years in the future. Is this not a fact? Is there anyone out there that would argue this?

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We can debate about ‘Technical Ecstasy’ and ‘Never Say Die!’; both are often included when discussing Sabbath’s unquestionable classics, as both feature the band’s original/classic line-up. But there is no consensus of opinion on these 2 albums, and fact that their relative worth is constantly debated means that there is significant doubt about their status in the Sab’s discography.

We may also argue about the Dio era, especially since the line-up that included Vinnie Appice on drums actually dropped Black Sabbath name and began calling themselves ‘Heaven and Hell’ in 2006. Some fans think a name change should have come with the release of the ‘Heaven and Hell’ album in 1979; changing it in 2006 created an interesting conundrum… Is ‘Mob Rules’ a Heaven and Hell album? Is ‘The Devil You Know’ a Black Sabbath album? Shades of grey abound.

Perhaps even more questionable is 1983’s ‘Born Again’, an album that both Iommi and Geezer Butler claim was not originally intended to be released as a Black Sabbath album. So BA carries with it some controversy, but is now seen by most as just as worthy of the Black Sabbath name as the 2 that came before it. However, having arrived at ‘Born Again’, and taking a look back at those unquestionable Original Six, one can see clearly just how far off track we have drifted. That said, I still include ‘Born Again’ in the larger discussion of ‘legit’ Sabbath albums, in fact, for me it is the final album by Black Sabbath proper.

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The post-‘Born Again’ Sabbath story is a fucking circus, with Tony Iommi the Ringmaster. After Gillan and Butler departed, American singer David Donato was hired and demos were recorded, with Bob Ezrin producing. A Black Sabbath album produced by the producer of Kiss’ ‘Destroyer’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, and all of Alice Cooper’s classic albums would likely have been amazing, regardless of who Iommi had in the line-up at the time. Alas, this all led to …nothing. Donato did an interview with Kerrang! as Sabbath’s new lead vocalist, before he was officially hired… and was promptly fired.

Iommi planned his next project as a solo album, but the suits at Warner Brothers insisted it be released under the Black Sabbath banner. Despite the ploy, we all know better, and the ‘Seventh Star’ album is now widely acknowledged as an Iommi solo record, no matter what’s printed on the sleeve or CD insert. Moreover, all five of the ‘Tony Martin Era’ albums that followed are also Iommi solo albums. Aren’t they? When the musicians who contribute to an album aren’t properly credited; when the recording line-up is different than the touring line-up, and when the list of players in your ‘band’ changes each album/year in an never-ending revolving door of musicians, putting even Rainbow to shame… That’s not a band. So let’s call these records what they are: solo albums.

Another Deep Purple singer, Glenn Hughes sang on ‘Seventh Star’, but was fired 5 dates into the world tour and replaced by the unknown Ray Gillen. That’s Gillen with an ‘E’. Eric Singer and Dave ‘The Beast’ Spitz played drums and bass. That Spitz gets to forever promote himself as a ‘former member of Black Sabbath’ simply because Warners forced the Sabbath name onto the record irks me to no end. And what’s the real difference between ‘Seventh Star’ and the five ‘Black Sabbath’ albums that followed? Not much.

Spitz was replaced by Bob Daisley after the first sessions for the next album ‘The Eternal Idol’. Daisley also wrote the album’s lyrics, but Ray Gillen quit shortly after recording them. New recruit Tony Martin then recorded new vocal tracks. Bev Bevan and Geezer Butler returned to the band for the tour, but Butler quit after learning that the band were booked to play in South Africa (wtf?), and was replaced by Jo Burt. Then Bevan was out, swiftly replaced by former Clash drummer Terry Chimes…! As I said, fucking circus. ‘The Eternal Idol’ would be the last ‘Black Sabbath’ album for both Warner Brothers and Vertigo, as the labels dropped the ‘band’ after 18 years. It would be the last ‘Black Sabbath’ record released on a major label for 25 years.

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‘Headless Cross’ appeared in 1989 on I.R.S. Records. Chimes was out, Cozy Powell was in. Jo Burton was out, Lawrence Cottle was in, but only for the album; Neil Murray played bass on the tour. Murray stuck around for the next album, ‘TYR’, as did Powell and Martin. The album featured lyrics about Norse mythology; the cover featured Nordic runes that for some strange reason spell out ‘TMR’. Someone didn’t do their homework. Lyrics about Norse mythology? Hey, ‘Born Again’ haters: how you like me now?

in 1992, Geezer, Ronnie Dio and Vinnie Appice were coaxed back into the fold, reuniting the 1982 ‘Mob Rules’ line-up for ‘Dehumanizer’. Thankfully, this record breathed a little life into the tired Sabbath carcass with a pile of strong songs and a successful tour. ‘Dehumanizer’ entered the UK Top Forty and hit #44 in the US. But is this the 16th Black Sabbath album? Or is it the second ‘Heaven and Hell’ album?

Ronnie Dio left again, after refusing to appear with Sabbath as support for Ozzy Osbourne’s two ‘final’ shows in November; Dio called Ozzy a ‘clown’ and quit. This turn of events led to Rob Halford, who had just recently departed Judas Priest, being drafted at the last minute to sing both sets. Everyone involved acknowledges that there was talk of Halford joining the band permanently. How amazing would that have been? Halford fronting Sabbath, looking all Anton LaVey, with a vocal range the band’s previous few singers could only dream of… And he certainly would have nailed it in the lyrics department. But it didn’t happen; surely he was touched by Sharon Osbourne’s Hand of Doom. On the second of those two shows in Costa Mesa, Ward, Butler and Iommi joined Ozzy at the end of his set and played four songs as Black Sabbath. And this led to …absolutely nothing.

Iommi assembled yet another line-up, finally convincing Geezer to stick around and reactivating Tony Martin. Bobby Rondinelli was hired on as drummer. ‘Cross Purposes’ featured cover art blatantly stolen from Scorpions’ ‘Send me an Angel’ single from three years earlier. As the Sabbath circus lurched through 1994, Rondinelli quit and was replaced by Bill Ward for the final five shows of the tour. Immediately after the tour ended, Geezer left again, forming GZR; their debut album contained a song called ‘Giving up the Ghost’, which featured the following lyrics:

“You plagiarized and parodied the magic of our meaning/A legend in your own mind, left all your friends behind/You can’t admit that you’re wrong, the spirit is dead and gone”

Ward also quit. Iommi called Cozy Powell and Neil Murray back, which resulted in a reunion of the ‘TYR’ line-up (yay?). But none could foresee that right around the corner lurked the worst nightmare ever conjured under the name of Black Sabbath… ‘Forbidden’.

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Some context: The mid-’90s were not exactly kind to ‘old school’ metal bands. I’ve written previously about the struggles of bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in this time period, and steering the SS Sabbath through these Grunge-infested waters couldn’t have been easy. The sad truth is, in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, several bands were utilizing the classic Sabbath sound, at times sounding more like Black Sabbath than Iommi’s ‘Black Sabbath’ records did. Corrosion of Conformity, Trouble, Electric Wizard, Cathedral, Candlemass, and others all clearly worshipped at the altar of the Original Six, while Iommi seemed stuck on plodding rehashes of ‘Heaven and Hell’.

By the time of ‘Forbidden’, Iommi had tired of keeping the Sabbath flag flying single-handedly and was eager to take get a full-on Black Sabbath reunion underway. A return to the original Sabbath line-up had been in the planning stages since Ozzy’s 1992’s Costa Mesa gigs, but Iommi was obligated to deliver one more album to I.R.S. The label knew it would be their last chance to do business with the prestigious Black Sabbath name and were ready to take some chances.

Everyone involved in this debacle should have known better. ‘Rap Sabbath’? Seriously?? The band were summoned to London for a meeting to discuss the direction of the album. Iommi was told that Sabbath needed to regain some street cred, get hip with the times, and other such bullshit. Ernie C., guitarist for Body Count, the infamous ‘metal’ band fronted by hip hop icon Ice-T, was drafted in as producer for ‘Forbidden’. That the record sounds awful is of secondary concern. The real issue here is that the the song that opens the album, ‘The Illusion of Power’, features a rap by Ice-T. Here it is again in all caps: THE SONG THAT OPENS THE ALBUM, ‘THE ILLUSION OF POWER’, FEATURES A RAP BY ICE-T. Even Tony Martin raps/speaks his verses in the song. It’s godawful. And it’s only the first song…

After the Forbidden tour, Iommi was, once again, the last Sab standing. Since recording ‘Born Again’ in 1983, Iommi had burned through 6 drummers, 6 bass players, and 5 singers. The fact is that Ozzy Osbourne, ‘solo artist’, had more changes in his line-up between 1983 and 1995 than Black Sabbath, the ‘band’. Take that, Blackmore! Rather than gather another bunch of hired hands (who was left? Rudy Sarzo? Tommy Aldridge? Oh no, no, please God help me!) he wisely opted to put the Sabbath name on hold and until the inevitable reunion. You know, the reunion that started coming together at the Costa Mesa gigs in 1992; the reunion that, according to Iommi’s book, ‘Iron Man’, was being ‘managed’ by Sharon Osbourne?

Here’s how a snapshot of Sharon’s ‘management strategy’: After the band first reunited for Ozzy’s ‘final shows’, six years passed before the original Black Sabbath met with Rick Rubin to discuss an album and then entered the studio to write new material… but Sharon put everything on hold so she could turn her husband into a clown on TV. Ronnie Dio warned us of the danger! Because making herself a TV star by whoring out her family and presenting Ozzy to the world as a mindless drug-addled idiot was more important than a new Black Sabbath album. So talking, planning and writing was as close as we ever got.

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Today, 17 years later, we’re no closer. In fact, at this point, it may never happen. The Dio-era line-up, reunited as Heaven and Hell, wrote 3 new songs for a comp, then recorded a new album, and toured the world twice, all in just 4 years. Sharon has had 23 years to put a reunion together with all four original members of Black Sabbath. The original Black Sabbath only worked together for 8 of those years, and under Sharon’s ‘management’ were only able to produce one proper tour, a few jaunts as part of Ozzfest, one live album, and one recording of one new song. It’s almost as if she’s been working to prevent a reunion from ever happening. Hmm…

To my mind, the epic Black Sabbath run can be broken into three distinct ‘eras’: the ‘Original Six/Subsequent Six’ era, the ‘Tony Iommi Solo Albums’ era, and the ‘Sharon Osbourne-Controlled, Utterly Fruitless, Nearly-Twenty-Year, So-Called Reunion’ era. That third period is the longest of the three. Thirty years after ‘Never Say Die!’; I’m thinking that, all things considered, maybe it would’ve been OK to say ‘Die’ after all.

There Goes Tokyo

When KISS launched their 10-date ‘Sneak Attack Tour’ of Japan in 1977, legendary Japanese promoter Mr. Udo ensured that Japan’s biggest hard rock band would be the opening act on every date of the tour. But wait— Didn’t Loudness form in 1981? Could it be that there was another metal band from Japan? One that came BEFORE Loudness??

Yup. Bow Wow formed in 1975, and at the time they were invited to open on the KISS tour, they were already promoting their second (and best) album ‘Signal Fire’. While the ‘who was the first metal band’ debate will never be settled, it’s fairly safe to say that the first Japanese metal band was Bow Wow. Not the most successful; not the most well-known, but definitely the first, and because of that, perhaps the most important. Bow Wow blazed a trail that Loudness (and other Japanese bands) followed to much greater success… But Bow Wow was there first.

First, a few words about Japanese rock music: Rock and Roll did not begin to permeate into Japanese culture until the 1960s, with the arrival of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. These influences were mixed with American folk music, psychedelic rock and even mod, and emerged as a Japanese version of Rock music called Group Sounds. To these ‘western’ ears, this is some of the most bizarre rock music I have ever heard. The 1970s were dominated by Japanese singer-songwriters, making the appearance of a band like Bow Wow, who emulated American and European Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, quite the anomaly.

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Back to Bow Wow. The band was put together by Yoshimi Ueno, a young manager and wanna-be producer. Ueno built Bow Wow around two musicians he had previously managed: guitarist/vocalist Mitsuhiro Saito and drummer Toshihiro Niimi, and completed the band with guitarist Kyoji Yamamoto and bassist Kenji Sano, who were found attending Yamaha Music School. The band were signed to Victor in Japan and released their first album ‘Hoero!’ in 1976. That’s not a typo. It’s decent, but the follow-up ‘Signal Fire’ is excellent. Third album ‘Charge’ leans a little more in the ‘rock n’ roll’ direction, but still kicks ass. All three albums featured English language song titles, and lyrics that veered between Japanese verses and English choruses. Then, after a live album (‘Super Live’) in 1978, disaster struck…

No, nobody died. It was much worse… Bow Wow’s next three albums, ‘Guarantee’ (1978), ‘Telephone’, and ‘The Glorious Road’ (both 1980), completely changed direction. Disco, Pop, New Wave, wistful ballads and even a stab at Rockabilly indicated a band desperately flailing for a new direction. The band abandoned English altogether, and began using 100% Japanese titles and lyrics. Bow wow had inexplicably left Hard Rock and Heavy Metal behind them. The pioneering continued, however, when the band became the first Japanese rock band to play ‘overseas’ when they performed in Hong Kong in 1978 and the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

When the NWOBHM finally hit Japan, another change in direction was suggested by new manager and renowned music producer Touru Yazawa. This guy saw big things in Bow Wow in their previous incarnation as hard rockers, and worked hard to get the band international exposure. Step one was a switch back to Metal with 1981’s pretty-OK ‘Hard Dog’. ‘Asian Volcano’ and ‘Warning From Stardust’ followed in 1982, and after an appearance at the Reading Festival that same year, Bow Wow decided to do some serious roadwork outside of Japan and toured the UK with Hanoi Rocks. A headlining show at London’s Marquee Club was sold out, heavily covered by the UK rock press, and recorded. The gig was released as the ‘Holy Expedition’ lp. Then things got stupid again.

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Vocalist Mitsuhiro Saito left the band in 1983, and the band changed their name to Vow Wow to avoid confusion with the UK’s Bow Wow Wow… The name and line-up change signaled another change in musical direction to a more commercial, keyboard-oriented rock sound. Bye bye, Bow Wow. Vow Wow adopted the UK as their home base and began career building there, with some success. But something else had happened on Bow Wow’s European vacation… Another metal band had formed in 1981 back home in Japan, and by the time Bow Wow had become Vow Wow, this new band were making some serious waves.

Enter: Loudness. While Bow Wow were ‘overseas’ establishing themselves outside of Japan and capitalizing on the recent surge in metal’s popularity in other countries, Loudness were honing their chops and building a fan base with their first three albums, ‘The Birthday Eve’, Devil Soldier’, and ‘Law of the Devil’s Land’. Each record was better than the one previous, ‘Devil’s Land’ being particularly strong. ‘Devil’s’ drew a strong international response, with positive reviews from outside of Japan and imports selling well in Europe, and so Loudness began their westward expansion campaign.

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The timing couldn’t have been better. Bow Wow had just lost their lead vocalist, changed their name and commercialized their sound (again!). Following the trail that Bow Wow had pioneered, Loudness’ third single ‘ロード・レーサ’ (‘Road Racer’) was released in Europe in an English language version. Around the time that Bow became Vow, Loudness was touring America, which Bow Wow had never done. Fourth studio album ‘Disillusion’ was recorded in London in 1983 and released in Japan as “Disillusion~撃剣霊化” in January of 1984, with both English and Japanese lyrics. Loudness broke new ground themselves when an all-English language version of ‘Disillusion’ was licensed for a UK release by Music for Nations and in Europe by Roadrunner in July. The English version was also released in Japan…! Roadrunner re-released ‘Law of the Devil’s Land’ as-is in Europe.

Any metal fan alive in the ’80s know what happened next: ‘Crazy Night’. The success of the previous two years led to Loudness singing a deal with US label Atco, making them the first Japanese rock band to sign with a ‘major label’. The band’s fifth lp ‘Thunder in the East’ was recorded in California and released in January of ’85, where it peaked at #74, making Loudness the first Japanese band to break into the Top 100. ‘Crazy Night’ (listed as ‘Crazy Nights’ on the album) was the right song at the right time; Heavy Metal of the more commercial variety was enjoying a popularity spike after Quiet Riot’s ‘Metal Health’ topped the charts in 1983. The novelty of the band’s nationality was certainly a factor in the song’s success, especially on MTv, but ‘Crazy Night’ and the ‘Thunder’ album were solid, radio-friendly ’80s Metal that packed plenty of punch.

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Loudness had done what Bow Wow set out to do: Take Japanese Metal worldwide. But, as history shows, along with major success, comes major label meddling… ‘Thunder’ was followed-up with by ‘Shadows of War’, released in Japan in March of 1986, and the first single, ‘Let it Go’, featured lyrics in Japanese. Stateside, Atco balked at the album’s title, nervous about invoking bad memories of WWII. Really?? The album was re-titled ‘Lightning Strikes’; also changed was the album’s former title track, now re-titled ‘Ashes in the Sky’. LS was released in the States in July, and charted even higher than ‘Thunder in the East’. So far, so good. What could go wrong?

Here’s what: Because of their massive success in America, a backlash was brewing back home in Japan. To address this, Loudness released a Japanese language version of their next album ‘Hurricane Eyes’ for the Asian market. ‘Eyes’ failed miserably on both sides of the Pacific, peaking in the US at a dismal #190, and Atco promptly dropped the band. Loudness retreated to their homeland and released the Japan-only ‘Jealousy’ EP, hoping to appease unhappy fans crying still sell-out. Next, producer Max Norman arranged for the band to be re-signed to Atco… but only if vocalist Minoru Niihara was replaced with a vocalist more familiar with English. If the band’s Japanese fans were upset about all the attention their homegrown heroes were giving to America, how would they feel about Niihara’s Connecticut-born replacement? Nonetheless, Niihara was out, and American singer Mike Viscera was in.

Can you say ‘Kamikaze’? 1989’s ‘Soldier of Fortune’, the first Loudness album without Minoru Niihara on board, was released on Atco in the US… and failed to intrude upon the Billboard charts. How about ‘Hari Kari’? Eight of the ten songs on the second Viscera-era album ‘On the Prowl’ were ‘cover versions’ of songs from the first four Loudness albums, with new lyrics written by Viscera. Another commercial (and dare I say artistic?) failure. Dropped by Atco once again, Loudness would spend the next decade fading from international view, and focusing solely on the Japanese market.

My listening recommendations come with some qualifications: On their ‘metal records’, Bow Wow titled their songs in English (resulting in some amusing titles like “James in My Casket” and ‘My Dear Alarm Clock’), but their execution of English highlighted a major hurdle: Any singer who is not fluent in the language of his lyrics can be an awkward listen, but he differences between the English and Japanese languages are particularly significant. This is more of an issue on Bow Wow’s second set of metal albums, by which point Mitsuhiro Saito had actually begun to learn to speak and sing in English, than on their first three, where he was reciting English lyrics phonetically and successfully emulating the standard western rock vox delivery. Bow Wow’s struggle with the English language was probably the primary issue that ultimately held them back from true international renown.

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That said, second album ‘Signal Fire’ is their finest moment. Coming just 3 months after their debut, and immediately after opening for Aerosmith on their first tour of Japan (hey, there were no other hard rock bands for the American heavyweights to chose from!), SF displays a mastery of mid-’70s metal tropes, a high-energy vibe, and chops to burn. On ‘Signal Fire’, Mitsuhiro Saito’s vocals are at their most convincing and natural, and as a guitarist, I’d rate Kyoji Yamamoto’s guitar playing in the same league as any of the big name axemen of the era— seriously. In fact, I’d rate ‘Signal Fire’ as one of the best HR/HM albums of 1977.

Loudness had zero issues with languages and lyrics. Singer Minoru Niihara was a vocal dynamo, attacking lyrics in both languages with gusto and rendering the entire language point moot through the natural power and charisma in his voice. Guitarist Akira Takasaki picked up where Kyoji Yamamoto left off, and quickly developed into an 80s guitar monster, spewing out a crazy amalgam of Gary Moore, EVH and Ritchie Blackmore via a unique guitar sound. Loudness started off sounding like a NWOBHM band but without the punk, and quickly grew into a high-energy neo-classical powerhouse. They wrote and played with authority, exhibiting a complete command of early 80’s metal. Their best? 1984’s ‘Disillusion’. Hands down.

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‘Disillusion’ is a GREAT record. Loudness came into their own here; while the band’s influences are obvious on previous records, with ‘Disillusion’ they elevated their sound into something unique and compelling. It’s the last album by Loudness before American ‘commercial considerations’ entered the picture; it’s heavy as hell and it rocks hard. Amazing chops, powerful performances, a stellar batch of high-energy tunes, and an excellent recording engineered by Julian Mendelsohn (Yes, Elton John, Jimmy Page, Bob Marley!) all add up to a killer listen. So listen! I’d grab the English version, but only because it has an extra song: ‘Anthem (Loudness Overture)’.

For both of these bands, it was a matter of timing. Bad for Bow Wow; good for Loudness. The international success that Loudness attained was significant (if brief); significant enough that when most people think ‘Japanese Metal’, the first and likely first thing that comes to mind is “M.Z.A.” …er, I mean Loudness. But would there have been a Loudness if it weren’t for Bow Wow? Alas, Japan’s first Heavy Metal export will have to forever settle for historical importance, footnote status, and trivia question obscurity: The price a band pays for being so far ahead of its time.

“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