Guitars Optional

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

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

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

 

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UK

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 Bill Bruford had been replaced by Terry Bozzio, while Allan Holdsworth was replaced by …nobody, with keyboard maestro Eddie Jobson covering all of the solo spots with keys and electric violin.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

 

ELP

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

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

 

Quatermass

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

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

 

Atomic Rooster

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

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

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

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

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

Just don’t tell Ted.

. . . . . . . .

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

Who Do We Think We Are? Part Two

After the disastrous tour for their ‘Come Taste the Band’ album wrapped in Japan in March 1976, a burned out, drugged out, and generally down-and-out Deep Purple limped back to the UK and quietly died. it was an ugly ending to one of the greatest and most important HM bands in history.

But wait! Deep would return just a few years later, re-grouped and ready to once again take Hard Rock world by storm! YES!!

Oh, wait… Did you think I meant the MkII reformation that took place in 1984, resulting in the Platinum-selling “Perfect Strangers’ album and the highest grossing tour of 1985? Sorry, no. I was referring to the absolute debacle that occurred in 1980, when a handful of small-time west coast musicians-for-hire put together a bogus DP, booked a North American tour and fooled absolutely no one. Sorry.

Our story actually begins with Steppenwolf. The ‘Wolf broke up in 1972, but various versions of the band persisted for decades, in fact right up to this very day. Just between 1977 and 1980, there were 9 different Steppenwolf line-ups, 8 of which featured at least one original member: usually either Nick St. Nicholas or Goldy McJohn. (One line-up included Frankie Banali!) It was during this revolving door period of band membership that guitarist Tony Flynn and keyboardist Geoff Emery became members of Steppenwolf.

Nick St. Nicholas was the last original member involved in this ongoing ‘New Steppenwolf’ fiasco. When he finally left, one would think that was that… But Flynn and Emery picked up the ball and ran with it, assembling another new line-up and touring clubs as Steppenwolf. With ZERO original members. The band consisted entirely of ‘jobbers’; hired hands picked up by McJohn and Nicholas over the years to fill out a line-up and enable the band to tour. Steppenwho??

Emery and Flynn left in 1980, as John Kay started threatening lawsuits. The pair must have made a few bucks whoring around under the Steppenwolf banner, as they immediately set to work forming a bogus version of another classic (and defunct) band: Deep Purple. Emery (who was also a lawyer, which explains a lot) contacted former DP Mk1 vocalist Rod Evans and original bassist Nick Simper to see if either was interested in ‘reforming’ Purple. According to Simper, “Rod phoned in 1980, when I was not at home, so he told my wife I should call him back, which I – in some wise anticipation – never did.” Smart man.

Rod Evans? Not so smart. Evans climbed aboard the phony express and, along with SteppenWTF alumn Dick Jurgens on drums and fellow anonymous jobber Tom De Rivera on bass, proceeded to do business as Deep Purple. Emery and Co. quickly found out the name ‘Deep Purple’ opened a lot more doors (and would potentially bring in a lot more cash) than the ‘Steppenwolf’ moniker, as Evans’ presence lent this project enough credibility that a tour was booked by the prestigious William Morris Agency, and a record deal was secured with Curb Records, an affiliate with Warner Bros. Records. Deep Purple was back!

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The New Purps managed about 30 shows in the US, Canada and Mexico before the lawyers got involved. The nightly set list contained Mk I staples ‘Hush’, ‘Kentucky Woman’, ‘Mandrake Root’ and ‘Wring that Neck’, but also several Mk II classics, such as ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Highway Star’, ‘Space Truckin’ and ‘Woman From Tokyo’. Mk III’s ‘Might Just Take Your Life ‘ and ‘Burn’ were included as well. But despite the stellar set list, the tour was a disaster. Several stories of near-riots have been related by fans over the years, including this one, posted online by a fan who attended a show at The Factory in Staten Island, NY on July 17:

“I distinctly remember the band coming on stage (although very briefly) sans Ritchie. It was a packed house and the crowd immediately went apeshit and started screaming for Ritchie and within a minute beer bottles started flying toward the band members. It quickly turned into a chaotic scene so I don’t recall for sure, but I believe a few of them were hit and injured. And if that wasn’t bad enough things only escalated once the bouncers tried to intervene…”

In an ironic twist, the opening band that night was a NY group called Samantha; their drummer, Bobby Rondinelli, would join Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow later in the year. Another interesting tidbit: The support band for the Swing Auditorium show in San Bernardino, CA was none other than the 9th bogus version of Steppenwolf! Awkwerrrrrrd!

By the time the tour hit Canada, Promoters began billing the group as ‘The New Deep Purple Featuring Rod Evans’. This didn’t stop Evans from making ludicrous statements like ‘Here is one off our “Burn” album’ when introducing ‘Might Just Take Your Life’ in Quebec City. A fan who attended that show posted this online:

“The fans were expecting Ritchie Blackmore not a fake look alike. The fans were very disappointed and started throwing stuff on stage at them. They even tore out theater seats to throw at them. The place was a mess… They almost caused a riot. It was a very bad concert for them and for the ‘Deep Purple’ name.”

It wasn’t just the fans that were pissed about the charade; promoters were also burned by the overwhelming negative feedback that the shows generated. Gary Perkins, promoter responsible for booking the band into Long Beach Arena, said “I feel like I’ve been duped. We just didn’t know what we were getting into. I though the group was more legitimate.” Robert Boulet, who booked the Quebec City date, said “They do not deserve to be paid, it is revolting.”

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As the tour progressed, the band started feeling the heat. Fake Purple played a festival in Mexico City, where in the band’s defense, Evans claimed in an interview for Sonido magazine that the new DP were using the Deep Purple name:

“In a totally legal form. I was the founding singer of the group and when I decided to form a new one with the guitarist Tony Flynn…. Before this we spoke with Ritchie Blackmore, of Rainbow, and with the people of Whitesnake. And they agreed.”

This proved to be a total lie. Evans changed his tune and sounded defiant in an interview for leading UK music paper Sounds in August, where he stated:

“We haven’t really tried to get hold of Ritchie. Whether Ritchie gives his blessing or not is of no real consequence to me as my blessing to him forming Rainbow would be of no consequence to Ritchie. I mean, if he doesn’t like it I’m sorry, but we’re trying.”

Tony Flynn spoke to a Rolling Stone reporter soon after, defending the sham with:

“(…our group) sounds exactly the same and looks exactly the same. In all respects we are the same product.”

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Evidence to the contrary can be found on Youtube, where footage from the televised Mexico City show can be easily found.

Presenting themselves as Purple had initially proved more lucrative than their previous scheme, but soon enough the Purple hammer came crashing down, and Emery and his cohorts finally found that messing about with HEC Enterprises (the real DP’s management company, who wholly owned the trademark for ‘Deep Purple’) was a different animal than the under-the-table deals with the ageing hippies that comprised the last remnants of Steppenwolf in the mid-70s.

Emery had actually incorporated the new Purps, and had the balls to call the company “Deep Purple, Inc.” Emery also applied for legal ownership of the “Deep Purple” trademark, the status of which he apparently believed was in question. Wrong. Wasn’t this guy a lawyer? This move brought out the big guns from HEC’s corner, and the whole mess was finally aired in federal court in California in 1981.

HEC’s suit against the imposters named Deep Purple, Inc. as well Evans, Jurgens, Emery and Flynn individually. The case was a slam dunk for the real Deep Purple, with the court awarding HEC/DP compensatory damages of $168,03.11, $504,09.33 in exemplary damages, $103,191.52 in attorney fees for HEC Enterprises’ counsel, and $40,782.00 for the legal fees of other plaintiffs (meaning concert promoters who had joined the suit). None of these dudes had that kind of dough, including Evans, who despite singing on Deep Purple’s 4 million-selling ‘Hush’, was skint.

The real DP knew that would never see any of the money. Stopping the bogus Purple wasn’t really about money. For the members of Deep Purple, it was about others cashing in on their years of hard work and creativity. It was about protecting a legacy. Perhaps Jon Lord summed it up best. For an interview in Hit Parader magazine immediately after the verdict was revealed, Lord said:

“The worst part of the whole thing is the damage it might do to our reputation. If we do get back together and decide to tour, what happens if word gets around saying, ‘Oh yeah, I saw them last year at Long Beach, and they weren’t anything like I remembered.’ The name Deep Purple still means a lot to most rock and roll fans, and I mean to see that it stays that way.”

And in 1998, while responding to postings about the ordeal on a Captain Beyond fansite:

“I did not enjoy having to appear in court against a guy I’d once worked with – but he who steals my purse steals trash; he who steals my good name takes everything I have.”

 

Who Do We Think We Are? Part One

Danny Joe Brown left Molly Hatchet twice. Both times were due to health issues. His first exit took place in 1979, but he returned just a few years after. During his second stint with the band, Brown would watch every other member of the original line-up exit, and then some… Everyone who had written and played on hit albums like the self-titled debut, 2nd LP ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster’ and 3rd successful record in a row, ‘Beatin’ the Odds’, would leave the band during Brown’s 2nd stint as lead vocalist. Brown was indeed the last man standing. But when Brown suffered a stroke in ’96, his permanent exit marked the end of Molly Hatchet. Forever.

No it didn’t. The remaining members of ‘Molly Hatchet’ replaced Brown with Phil McCormack, and continued on, with ZERO original members; NONE of the musicians who wrote or recorded the material that made the band’s name remained. This was a band made up of replacements of replacements. This bogus Molly Hatchet toured relentlessly, and released four albums under the ‘Molly Hatchet’ banner between 1996 and 2005, Including a ‘Best Of/Re-recorded’, which amounts to a Molly Hatchet album of Molly Hatchet covers. But… seriously, was this band really Molly Hatchet?

Legally, yes. Hatchet guitarist Bobby Ingram, who joined the band in 1986 replacing original guitarist Dave Hlubeck, purchased temporary rights to the Molly Hatchet trademark from the band’s manager after Brown’s departure, so this bunch of stunt-doubles was now legally doing business as ‘Molly Hatchet’. But ‘legally’ only means no one could dispute their use of the trademark; that it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right.

During that almost ten year period between ’96 and ’05 (when Hlubeck returned to the fold on a ‘limited basis’), ‘Molly Hatchet’ operated in a very strange area; a twilight zone of quasi-legitimacy somewhere between ‘Multi-Platinum Recording Artists Molly Hatchet’ and every cover band playing ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster’ at the bar down the street. Legal ownership of a band’s name alone doesn’t make the band ‘legit’. But does a certain percentage of ‘original members’ guarantee ‘legitimacy’? What makes Molly Hatchet Molly Hatchet?

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Foreigner founder Mick Jones has had serious health issues of his own to deal with over the last decade, and since 2011 has replaced himself with guitarist Bruce Watson on occasions where he was unable to travel, play or otherwise fulfill commitments to live work. Therefore, on some nights, you might catch Foreigner, helmed by sole remaining original member Mick Jones; on others you may get ‘Foreigner’, a band consisting entirely of replacement musicians, none of whom performed on the original versions of any of songs in the band’s live repertoire.

On the nights when Jones is too ill to perform, is it still Foreigner? Or is it a Foreigner tribute band? No matter how remarkably life-like this band sounds, can they really present themselves to paying customers as Foreigner? No less than THIRTY FOUR musicians are listed on the band’s Wikipedia page as being either ‘Former Members’ or ‘Touring Musicians’. Bruce Watson is listed under ‘Current Members’, but the entry parenthetically states ‘(filling in for Jones)’. So he’s an ‘official member’ of Foreigner, but only when Jones isn’t playing. Hey, it’s a living.

Mick Jones is now 74 years old; what happens when he decides to call it a day? Will Foreigner continue without him, as Molly Hatchet did? Jones is perfectly happy to let Foreigner operate as Foreigner without him performing with the group, so why not just ‘keep the band alive’ and let them continue working the nostalgia circuit without him? Jones would presumably continue to make money from the continued band activity, so it would be a win for everyone. Gene & Paul: Are you listening? Foreigner are piloting your retirement plan.

But there’s another way to ‘keep the band alive’ (which really means ‘keep the money flowing’). Last year, southern rock firebrands Blackfoot released their first album in 20 years, entitled “Southern Native”. Or… did they? There are no founding members of the band in its current lineup, in fact no one in this incarnation of Blackfoot was even born when the original Blackfoot formed, or when any of their charting records were released. These dudes were in diapers when the Ken Hensley era began, which is basically when Blackfoot ended. The record itself contains standard-issue hard rock record, nothing special, kinda bland, and most notably, not very ‘southern’-sounding. But… the lead singer has a Mohawk! Sorry. This sure ain’t Blackfoot.

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Bottom line: This band is only Blackfoot because Rick Medlocke says it is. The ‘foot mainstay ‘put the band together’, although more likely he simply found a young, capable hard rock band, and signed them to a production deal, with the stipulation that they change their name to Blackfoot. The band’s ‘official’ website states that Medlocke joins the band onstage for ‘certain concerts’. Whoop de-do. C’mon, Ricky, give us a break. Shorty Medlocke must be spinning in his grave.

What’s the difference between the 2017 version of Foreigner and Foreigner tribute band Cold As Ice? Not much… other than the ticket prices, that is. Foreigner’s 2017 US tour is asking $75-$200 a head, and it’s a crap shoot as to whether Jones will even appear. You can catch ‘Cold As Ice’ for six bucks at the door… and who gives a shit who’s on stage as long as they sound decent?

It’s all about audience expectations; if everyone who buys a ticket is aware that they are shelling out their dough for a band consisting of nothing more than hired hands and sidemen, then fair enough. Enjoy the show. If not, that’s something close to fraud, is it not? Shouldn’t there be some required standard of disclosure? An asterisk next to the band’s logo in every concert listing, poster or banner ad denoting the ‘authenticity level’ of the act, like *100% Certified Hack-Free or *Contains 20% Ratt.

Do your research! Your favorite band might be just a brand. Sometimes the jukebox in the corner offers you more authenticity than the band on the stage… Buyer beware. As P.T Barnum kinda sorta said: There’s a rocker born every minute

Meanwhile, Back in the States…

Iron Maiden. Angel Witch. Tygers of Pan Tang. Saxon. Def Leppard. All great bands. Each contributed at least one genre-defining album to the NWOBHM, a movement that revived and revitalized the lifeless carcass of Heavy Metal after the Punk Rock explosion near the end of the ’70s. Or… were they simply in the right place at the right time?

“NWOBHM was a fiction, really, an invention of Geoff Barton and Sounds. It was a cunning ruse to boost circulation. Having said that, it did represent a lot of bands that were utterly ignored by the mainstream media. Because of that it became real and people got behind it.”
-Bruce Dickinson

Time and place were crucial, as the media-driven music culture of the UK was waiting for the next ‘thing’ after the Punk furor died out in just a few short years (when the look and sound of Punk became a ‘look’ and a ‘sound’, it was already over). So a random sampling of new (and unsigned) Brit metal bands were exposed to the general public in one of the biggest music weeklies on the continent, and a new musical movement was born. Of course, Metal bands had been forming and breaking up all over the world, as they had been for a decade… just not under the white hot spotlight of the British music press.72de789a455668f93acea7ac5ac4cf12

At the same time in America, Circus Magazine published an article entitled ‘Will Heavy Metal Survive the 70’s?’, while Creem Magazine had basically declared Heavy Metal dead just by asking the question, ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’ on the cover of their October ’79 issue. Having not yet been clued into the burgeoning NWOBHM, Circus and CREEM surveyed the post-Punk Metal landscape and found it wanting. Zeppelin, Sabbath and Purple were all MIA, and the ‘second wave’ of mostly U.S. bands had just dropped a bunch of duds: Aerosmith with ‘Night in the Ruts’, BOC’s ‘Mirrors’, KISS’ ‘Dynasty’, Nugent’s ‘Weekend Warriors’. Something needed to happen, and quickly… Enter the NWOBHM.

According to the popular media on both sides of the Atlantic, it would appear that the NWOBHM really did save HM. And once the press got the ball rolling, it seemed like something exciting was once again happening in the UK. Young metal bands with a new streamlined sound were popping up all over Britain, breathing life into a tired genre. The US Rock press jumped on board in 1980, further validating the movement as a legit musical phenomenon. NOWBHM bands got some US print exposure, and the young British bands started to gain some notoriety across the pond. Metal’s UK resurgence went global. Day: Saved.

But did it actually need saving? As mentioned previously, most established U.S. stadium-fillers were experiencing a serious slump, although Van Halen and Rush managed to put out successful albums during the NWOBHM years. Where these two bands strong enough to carry the American fire? Was there nothing else metallic happening in the good ole’ USA between 1979 and 1981?

To answer that question, we have to duck under the radar just a bit, and also widen the net to include Canada. Yes, several classic albums (and some worthy obscurities) came out of while the NWOetc monopolized Metal Nation’s attention. Most of these North American bands endured the Punk Era only to find that everyone’s attention had instantly shifted to the UK Metal scene, so let’s all pause for a few to pay them a little attention.

Here ya go: a run-down of 12 notable records released by North American bands during the NWOBHM that you may have missed, by year:

Sammy Hagar / Street Machine 1979
After searching for a solid direction on his first 3 post-Montrose solo albums, Hagar becomes the Red Rocker for real on his 4th studio album ‘Street Machine’. What took him so long? Hagar and band kick into high gear with a set of all-original material (his previous solo efforts were peppered with covers) that showcase his guitar playing, his amazing band, and his ballsy R n’ R attitude. Hagar was clearly on a mission here, as ‘Street Machine’ was the first album of material written and produced solely by Sammy himself. ‘Trans Am (Highway Wonderland)’ and ‘This Planet’s on Fire (Burn in Hell)’ are highlights. Hagar would do one more record in this direction (1980’s uneven ‘Danger Zone’) before signing with Geffen and becoming an AOR star.

St. Paradise 1979mi0003247544
Put Denny Carmassi, drummer on all 4 Montrose albums and 2 of Sammy Hagar’s solo records, together with Derek St Homes and Bob Grange, half of the band that made Ted Nugent’s first 3 albums, and what do you get? Well… With John Corey on keyboards, this ‘supergroup’ signed to Warner Bros. and recorded a classy, radio-friendly hard rock record… at the worst possible time. It was great to hear St Homes’ voice again (guy should have been a mega-star) and this record is far better than the Whitford/St Homes album from 1981; but nothing, and I mean nothing happened, and the band barely lasted one year. Curiously includes a ‘cover’ of Nugent’s ‘Live it Up’, a song that St. Holmes co-wrote and sang for Ted’s ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ album in 1977. ‘St. Paradise’ is hard to find but worth it.

Pat Travers Band / Live! Go For What You Know 1979
Canadian Pat Travers solidified his backing band in 1977, adding Tommy Aldridge and Pat Thrall, and hit paydirt with the essential ‘Heat in the Street’ in ’78. For ‘Live! Go for What You Know’, recorded in the US during the ‘Heat’ tour, Travers changed his moniker to ‘The Pat Travers Band’, and rightly so; this line-up kicks serious ass. Thrall and Travers were a match made in heaven, raising the late-70s shred game by several notches, all the while backed by a rhythm section unparalleled in 70s Hard Rock. Wisely held to a single album of faves from Travers’ 4 studio albums, it’s a tight, powerful statement by a band that must have been an intimidating opening act. Non-single ‘Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)’ was a welcome blast of amped-up axework on American radio during the summer of 1979.

The Rods/ Rock Hard 1980rods-the-rock-hard
The Rods were a scrappy 3-piece from NYC who played hard-as-nails, meat and potatoes street metal, with the occasional harmony vocal and catchy chorus. In 1980, the band put together some demos and self-released their first LP ‘Rock Hard’, limited to 1,000 copies. Packed with simple, driving hard rock, with bar band chops and dum-dum lyrics, ‘Rock Hard’, um… rocks hard. This is what we’d always hoped the Godz sounded like. (Godz/Rods? Hmmm…) ‘Rock Hard’ was an underground hit, and was picked up by Arista, remixed, re-sequenced and re-released with a Ramones-like cover pic in 1981 as ‘The Rods’. Guitarist/vocalist David ‘Rock’ Feinstein is the cousin of one Ronald Padavona, and played on the first Elf album in 1974.

Gamma / Gamma 2 1980
Montrose (the band) ended after two mediocre post-Hagar records, and after releasing an excellent instrumental solo album (‘Open Fire’), Ronnie Montrose updated his sound with a new band: Gamma. Featuring the very latest in synthesizer technology, Gamma sounded hi-tech and thoroughly modern. Montrose’s guitar sound and playing style had also evolved, and as the techno-flash 80s arrived, Ronnie was ahead of the game. Gamma had achieved the impossible: synthesizer-heavy hard rock. It was a daring move for Montrose, and this new sound worked best on ‘Gamma 2’. Album openers ‘Meanstreak’ and ‘The Four Horsemen’ pack a serious punch, While ‘Cat on a Leash’ and ‘Skin and Bone’ stretch the band’s sound boldly into the future. One of the coolest album covers ever. Rest in Peace, Ronnie.

Blackfoot / Tomcattin’ 1980
Blackfoot had been kickin’ around for a few years before the NWOBHM arrived, releasing albums on Island and Columbia before moving to Atlantic and cranking up the crunch on their third, ‘Strikes’. ‘Strikes’ is probably the ‘go-to’ Blackfoot record for many, as it contains ‘Train, Train’ and ‘Highway Song’, two radio hits that earned the band their first ‘Gold’ record. But ‘Strikes’ at a very short 33 minutes and contains only 5 original tunes… Might I suggest the follow-up, ‘Tomcattin’? A solid southern ass-whoopin’ from start to finish, Rick Medlocke and gang power through what is probably the hardest southern rock album ever, leaving Molly Hatchet and their ilk in the dust. Medlocke leads the way with a confident swagger, and the guitars are 10 feet tall. A much more satisfying record than ‘Strikes’.

Y&T / Earthshaker 198152283045_1
Y&T were the missing link between Montrose and Van Halen; in fact, the mighty VH used to open for them. After two promising albums as Yesterday and Today, the band signed to the majors (A&M), shortened their name to Y&T (A&M… Y&T…!) and finally nailed their sound. Earthshaker roars out of the speakers, a powerhouse of crunchy SoCal party rock honed in countless California dive bars. Earthshaker’s winning balance between power ballad harmonies and scorching hard rock would prove very influential as the 80’s progressed. Y&T broke through to the 80’s Metal mainstream with their next two albums ‘Black Tiger’ and ‘Mean Streak’, but their true breakthrough was ‘Earthshaker’…a record that could only have been made by an American band.

Riot / Fire Down Under 1981
Despite hailing from New York, Riot were awarded ‘honorary’ NWOBHM status due to the UK underground’s embrace of their first two indie albums ‘Rock City’ and ‘Narita’, their frequent appearance on DJ Neal Kay’s metal playlist in ‘Sounds’, and their obvious musical inspiration to many young UK bands of the era. All of this led to their appearance at the first Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donnington, on of the key events in the development of the NWOBHM. But their popularity with the movement was a double-edged sword… The story of ‘Fire Down Under’ is a tragic one, and I’ve written in-depth about the record here: https://wordpress.com/post/mayobat.wordpress.com/726, but if you are inclined to check out any of the records discussed here, start with this one. ‘FDU’ is not only Riot’s finest album, it is one of the greatest American metal albums of all time, with only Montrose’s debut keeping it out of the top slot.

Frank Marino / The Power of Rock and Roll 1981
Yes, this is Marino’s 8th album, it’s also his most straight-ahead metal record. It’s Marino’s first with out the ‘Mahogany Rush’ tag, first with brother Vince on 2nd guitar, and most of the jazz noodling and Hendrix influence, so prevalent on previous albums, is now largely absent. But it’s the presence of one specific track, ‘Ain’t Dead Yet’, that demands attention here; not just because Marino rips through the song with an urgency and fluidity that is seriously scary, but the song’s lyrics answer CREEM Magazine’s ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’ headline and encapsulates the frustration and futility felt by many North American bands that survived the Punk era, as well as the hope for a resurgence fueled by the NWOBHM:

All around we hear the sound the voices in our ears
They try to bring our whole world down playin’ on our fears
Designing rules, deciding who, they’re gonna give the chance to
And all the while, the phony smile, they just want to romance you
It’s time that we fight now
The timing is right now
Well did you hear what they said?
They’re tellin’ us rock is dead
Well we ain’t dead yet!’

So there’s your proof! A handful of solid listening from an oft-overlooked time period in American Hard Rock/Heavy Metal history. How do they stack up against the records released at the same time by the young upstarts across the pond? Well… any comparisons wouldn’t be fair, because most of the records highlighted here were made by seasoned veterans; the youthful energy and freshness inherent in the NWOBHM’s best records make them hard to beat. But there’s a lot of worthy music here that has been unfairly ignored and neglected. Frank Marino was right: American Metal wasn’t dead during the NWOBHM… Maybe on life support, but not dead. Tell it, Frank!

1977: Love Guns vs. Sex Pistols

If you follow Metal’s timeline from its origins in the late ’60s, and continue through its classic early-to-mid ’70s heyday, you will eventually encounter something of a dead end near the end of the decade: The Punk era. Metal was at it’s lowest ebb near the end of the 70’s, as most of the giants had either gone missing (Zeppelin), broken up (Purple) or gotten seriously off-track (Sabbath), while their American ‘Second Wave’ counterparts (Aerosmith, Kiss, BOC) were ‘experimenting’ with Disco, Pop, or hard drugs. Enter: Punk Rock, to point out how tired, overblown and boring mainstream Rock music had gotten, and wipe the slate clean and make way for something new. The situation was so dire that in October of 1979, Creem Magazine ran a cover story entitled ‘Is Heavy Metal Dead?’

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Of course, this standardized version of the history of that era is of course a gross oversimplification: Heavy Metal did not ‘die’ at the hands of the punks, only to be ‘reborn’ in the UK (with the NWOBHM) after punk self-destructed. The truth of the matter is that Metal continued to operate, albeit in a diminished capacity, throughout the uproar. The Punk Rock explosion posed the biggest threat in the UK, where its impact was felt as a genuine cultural phenomenon; Punk bands dominated the UK press, and Punk singles and albums charted high. Punk’s raison d’etre, to ‘Smash It Up’, with ‘it’ being Rock’s status quo, was a direct shot across the bow to the established UK Rock and Metal bands of the day.

Some HR/HM bands just starting out in ’76 wisely ignored Punk completely; Rainbow’s ‘On Stage’, released in the summer of 1977, raised the bar for never-ending, self-indulgent soloing, and Judas Priest released ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’, a record that helped shape the template for the HM genre, and then soldiered forth as the ailing genre’s standard-bearers. But most of the established UK HR/HM bands of the 1970s could mark the end of their ‘classic era’ right around 1976/77; aside from the aforementioned, consider Foghat, Uriah Heep, Status Quo, Wishbone Ash… all emerged from the fray mortally wounded, some searching for a new direction, some just sounding tired and obsolete, setting the stage for the NWOBHM.

mi0001448346As an example of just how drastically things changed in Britain’s music scene, consider Slade. After a long string of hit singles (a stunning seventeen consecutive Top Twenty hits, twelve of them Top Five, and six of those were Number Ones!), Slade headed off to try to break America in 1976. After returning to England in ’77, Slade quickly discovered that they were old news and nearly forgotten. Three of their next four singles charted at #53, #48, and #32; one didn’t chart at all. Their next six singles failed to chart at all in the UK. The title of their first LP after returning to England says it all: ‘Whatever Happened to Slade?’ It, too, failed to trouble the UK charts. In the space of 12 months, the single most successful Hard Rock band in Britain had been rendered irrelevant.

Other well-established bands responded, even if only by commenting on the fray through their music. ‘Lights Out’, UFO’s sixth record, came out in May of 1977. For the album’s title track, UFO’s lyricist, Phil Mogg, referenced the punk uprising through military imagery:

‘From the back streets there’s a rumbling
Smell of anarchy
No more nice time, black boy shoe shines
Pie in the sky dreams’

And of course, the title of the song/album is a direct nod to blackout regulations imposed during The Battle of Britain, aka ‘the Blitz’, where Londoners were urged to extinguish all lights to hamper German nighttime bombing raids:

‘Lights out, lights out in London, hold on tight till the end

UFO released ‘Lights Out’ just as the Sex Pistols’ 2nd single, ‘God Save the Queen’, hit #2 in the UK singles chart. Six months earlier, the Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single had climbed to #26. None of UFO’s 9 singles had charted in the UK. Mogg and his band, having seen Punk singles climbing the charts and the movement dominating the press, knew another Battle of Britain was underway.nmecover_july2_1977

Queen’s ‘News of the World’ came out in July of 1977. The title of the album is a reference to the British tabloid paper News of the World, an infamously trashy broadsheet that regularly featured the most scandalous and sensational national stories of the day. Here Queen were referencing the top UK music papers, such as Sounds and the NME, who were at that time thoroughly enamored with the Punk phenomenon; not only reporting on the musical and cultural shifts but also capitalizing on the sensational aspects of the movement by plastering ‘shocking’ headlines and ‘alarming’ pictures of punks in full mohawk & safety pin regalia.

The cover art for Queen’s 5th album also comments on the Punk movement. Queen are depicted as dead, having been killed by a giant robot as a panicked crowd below flees in terror. Inside the gatefold, the robot reaches for more victims. It’s not difficult to decipher the ironic message here: Monster destroys beloved band; you’re next. But the music on ‘News of the World’ also contains a few nods to Punk Rock, most obvious of which is the song ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, which is flat-out Punk. Roger Taylor said in 1991:

“It’s quite interesting, because we were making an album next-door to a punk band, the Sex Pistols, and it really fit into that punk explosion that was happening at the time, which was happening right then. It was actually better that it happened that it came out on the ‘News of the World’ album.”

newsoftheworldOn ‘News of the World’, Queen take on several forms of music: Salsa, Psychedelic Rock, Torch Balladry, the Blues, even football chants, so throwing in a take on Punk would not have been out of place in the least. But ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ is more than Queen showing their versatility; here, it’s cultural commentary. With lyrics like ‘Well you’re just 17 and all you wanna do is disappear/You know what I mean there’s a lot of space between your ears/I feel so ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-inarticulate’, it wasn’t hard to read exactly how lyricist Roger Taylor felt about the Punk Rock audience.

Interestingly, Taylor rights the scales on his ‘Fight From the Inside’, by taking on the point of view of a punk rocker and pointing the finger at the pop stars of the pre-punk era (I.e., himself/his band), and urging the listener to fight to change the status quo:

‘You’re just another picture on a teenage wall
You’re just another sucker ready for a fall
You’re just another money-spinner tool
You’re just another fool 

You gotta fight from the inside
Attack from the rear
Fight from the inside
You can’t win with your hands tied’

Queen’s next album, ‘Jazz’ would include more commentary by Taylor on the transformation of the UK music scene and his band’s place in it. In the album’s final song, called ‘More of That Jazz’, Taylor seems to be complaining about being spoon-fed the same old thing:

‘If you’re feeling tired and lonely
Uninspired and lonely
If you’re thinking how the days seem long
All you’re given
Is what you’ve been given a thousand times before
Just more more
More of that jazz
More no more of that jazz
Give me no more
No more of that jazz’

The song winds up with several snippets from the album’s previous songs, edited together in a montage of the album’s highlights, in effect giving the listener more of ‘Jazz’… and implying that the album you just listened to is just ‘more of that jazz’. For Taylor, always Queen’s resident ‘punk’, the Punk movement clearly instigated some serious self-examination. Queen were at a crossroads during the Punk era; the band would survive the upheaval and move from strength to strength, but would never be the same.

With Punk Rock’s disdain for virtuosity and technical ability came the death of the guitar hero. One of the UK’s biggest was Robin Trower, who charted high in the Top 40 with his 3rd and 4th albums… Then the punk bomb exploded, knocking him down into the low 50’s and then off the charts completely for his 1978 album ‘Caravan to Midnight’. Robin who? His next record would be titled ‘Victims of the Fury’, in a pointed reference to his own diminished stature, and feature a stripped-down, earthy sound, with few overdubs and a renewed abrasive energy. The title track’s lyrics told the tale:

‘We were blessed as though in heaven
We were messengers of joy
There were angels all around us
There was none who dared destroy

Then the world collapsed around us
And the tables overturned
We were lambs before the slaughter
We were driven out and burned

Victims of the fury
Shadows in the dark
Victims of the fury
Arrows found their mark’

Pat Travers, a young Canadian guitarist who emigrated to the UK to seek fame and fortune, found it; he scored a record deal with Polydor and appeared at the Reading Festival before 35,000 in 1976, just before all hell broke loose. On his third album, ‘Putting it Straight’, he explains why he decided to hightail it to America in 1977, in a song called ‘Life in London’:

‘Life in London is bittersweet
Spray can slogans along the street
Some kind of revolution in the town
Razor blades and safety pins make you look like a clown’

Prog Rock gods Yes were an obvious target for Punk rockers’ derision, with their ‘pretentious’ this and their ‘self-indulgent’ that… But Yes’ success was unhindered by the advent of Punk, with their 1977 album ‘Going for the One’ reaching the top of the UK charts and it’s follow-up, 1978’s ‘Tormato’ going Top Ten. ‘Tormato’, however, contains some artistic commentary on the goings on of the previous 18 months, beginning with it’s cover, where a picture of man dressed in period clothing and using divining rods is pelted with a tomato. This can be interpreted as a blatant rejection of ‘the old ways’, or, if we view the man with the divining rods as employing ‘divination’, or searching for something using ‘magical’ methods… an artist following his muse, perhaps… Splat!

tormato_cd_germany_booklet0‘Tormato’ contains a song called ‘Release, Release’, which is as punk a song as Yes would ever be capable of. Its odd time signatures, multiple key changes, and super-busy arrangement prevent it from ever being confused with a Ramones tune, but its stripped-down rock and roll feel, up-tempo delivery and surprisingly direct delivery reflect the energy of the Punk phenom; also Jon Anderson’s spacey lyrics contain ample evidence of an awareness of the turmoil, and perhaps a plea for us to rise above the conflict:

‘Have you heard before, hit it out, don’t look back
Rock is the medium of our generation
Stand for every right, kick it out, hear you shout
For the right of all of creation

Power defy our needs, lift us up, show us now
Show us how amid the rack of confusion Power at first to the needs of each others’ days
Simple to lose in the void sounds of anarchy’s calling ways

Straight jacket, freedom’s march, is it all, far beyond
Our reason of understanding
Campaign everything, anti-right, anti-left Release, release, enough controllers’

At about 2:57, the song left-turns into that most dreaded of all arena-rock staples: a drum solo, played out over a recording of a cheering stadium audience. This self-deprecating gesture added a welcome touch of irony to the album, as the band that brought us ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, perhaps the absolute pinnacle of Prog excess, struggled to find footing in a hostile musical landscape.

Love it or hate it, Punk Rock was a game changer. UK Heavy Rock’s response to Punk Rock made 1977 a truly fascinating year in Heavy music, forcing many of the established bands of the day to react artistically in one way or another, and giving us a handful of records that stand out as unique in the HR/HM canon. If they’re not your cup of tea, don’t forget: many Rock bands that didn’t face the Punk movement head on were instead ‘experimenting’ with Disco…

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Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round to be a Millionaire)

The following is a true story
Only the names have been changed
To protect the guilty

Well I left my job in my home town
And I headed for the smoke
Got a rock n’ roll band and a fast right hand
Gonna get to the top
Nothing’s gonna stop us no nothing

So if you’ve got the money, we’ve got the sound
You put it up and we’ll put it down
If you got the dollar, we got the song
Just want to boogie woogie all night long
Yeah boogie

I got holes in my shoes
I got holes in my teeth
I got holes in my socks
I can’t get no sleep
I’m trying to make a million

-From AC/DC’s ‘Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round to be a Millionaire)’

(Lyrics by Ronald Belford Scott)

…………..

He was the youngest of 8 siblings, born in Cranhill, Glasgow, Scottland. At the age of 8, his father uprooted his wife and four of their children and emigrated to Sydney, Australia, in hopes of finding work. Two of his older brothers played the guitar; after two years of plonking away on a beat up banjo, his mother finally bought him a battered used acoustic. No formal lessons were ever taken; in fact, he dropped out of Ashfield Boy’s High School before his fifteenth birthday.

He soon ended up in a teen gang called the Town Hall Sharps, where he developed a love of Rock & Roll and Blues Music. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jery Lee Lewis were favorites. Before he turned 18, he worked overnights in a butcher shop and declined an apprenticeship as a typesetter. Possessing no marketable skills, his career prospects looked bleak. He bought his first ‘real’ guitar, a ’67 Gibson SG, from Chord Music in Burwood. Like his brothers, he taught himself how to play well enough to work with a few local bands. In 1973, he joined a band formed by one of his older siblings. It was 1973; he was 18 years old.

His chances at making it as a profesional musician weren’t good. For starters, his formal education ended with the 8th grade, and possessed no musical knowledge whatsoever. Secondly, the rock scene in Sydney, and in Australia in general, was desperately aping the UK Glam movement, a sound and style that he and his brother dabbled with but in the end, had very little time for. And finally, even if they were able to break into the tiny Australian music market, their prospects were even dimmer in the UK, where the real fame and noteriety was. And, of course, you never really made it until you made it in America, home to his guitar heroes Leslie West and Buddy Guy, as well as some of his favorite bands, like Cactus and ZZ Top. America… The biggest music market in the world…

But hey, even a uneducated punk from the tenements of Carnhill could dream.

……………

Does your playing constantly progress? Do you ever get into slumps?

“I’ve never gotten in a slump as far as playing, because I never got that serious about it.”

It is a true test for Young to recall the types of picks and strings he uses. While he does know more than he owns up to, his description of himself as a guitar “illiterate” is not far wrong. He learned to solo mainly from watching his elder brother Malcolm play and the idea of scales and figures is foreign to him.

Do you have a fairly good idea of what you’re going to do with solos?

“No, I never work that out before. It’s mainly spontaneous. Soloing was pretty easy for me because it was probably the first thing I’ve ever done. I just used to make up leads. I never even knew any names of chords until Malcolm told me and then I picked it up from there.”

Do you know what you’re doing in musical terms?

“I haven’t a clue.”

You don’t work on scales.

“Nah.”

Uncertain about scales and note names, he has never had difficulty in resisting the lure of the pedal. His sound is uncluttered and pure and one of the true milestones of rock guitar The only accoutrement engaged is a Schaeffer wireless system he obtained in 1977 and has been using ever since.

Do you use any effects?

“No. I found that pedals were too much to fool around with.”

How important is equipment?

“Well, I like it to work.”

Angus makes special visits to the Marshall factory outside of London to play through a series of amps before selecting the proper one(s). He says the units are then doctored to resemble the old-style amps which were very clean and have no master or preamp setting.

“I use a real lot of volume, I turn that up; I turn the treble and bass on about half and middle, the same. I don’t use any presence.”

Do you ever record with guitars other than SGs?

“No. I’ve just used the SGs.”

Young bought a secondhand Gibson SG as a teen. A brown 1967 model. The instrument was his ‘go-to’ guitar until just a few years ago, when wood rot (due to excessive moisture from sweat) and neck warp forced him to look for a replacement. Young liked the thin neck of his first guitar, and it took some searching to find another to his liking. Another suitable SG was finally located in a pawn shop in NYC; brown, 1967 model, same thin neck.

……………..

Of his three homes, the one he built for his wife in Aalten, in the east of the Netherlands, was his favorite. Perhaps for sentimental reasons; for decades he lived with his wife in the small house directly across the street from the just-completed multi-million dollar mansion. But it was time for an upgrade. The houses in Australia and the UK were fine, but he wanted to do something special for her in her home country. Indeed, it was especially for her, his wife of more than thirty years, as he wasn’t in Denmark for more than 10-12 weeks a year. His wife helped design and decorate.

And so, their new home was built in the quiet little village of Aalten, population 12,000. Aalten, where her parents ran the local blacksmith business. At first, neighbors complained about the building’s size. The local newspapers ran a few stories, but the villagers’ greivenaces didn’t amount to much. He was a very private man, but well-liked in the town by those who knew him. He knew that if he stayed the course, kept quiet about it, the hubub would pass. And so it did.

Villagers who were not acqainted with him personally must have wondered how their mysterious neighbor was able to build such an expensive home for his wife. When the home was completed, and its owner became an official resident of Aalten, Gelderland, all questions were answered, as the papers reported that their mysterious neighbor was one of the 500 richest men in the Netherlands, with a net worth of 140 million dollars. How in God’s name did this odd little man amass a fortune of 140 million dollars? The village blacksmith’s son-in-law? That little man who walks up the road to buy cigarettes at the local garage every morning?

…………….

Worldwide Album Sales: 200 million; US Sales: 71.5 million

‘Back in Black’: 50 million copies worldwide, 22 million copies US

‘Back in Black’ is the second highest-selling album in history.

AC/DC are the fifth-most-certified band in history.

AC/DC are the twelfth-best-selling artist in all of music history.

 

Not bad for a uneducated punk from the tenements of Cranhill.

 

(Contains material from interviews in Guitar Player and Guitar world, both from 1984)

 

Alex and the Imaginary Guitar

Today, it’s common knowledge among fans of heavy rock that Rush, aka The Best Band Ever, has a great sense of humor. But it wasn’t always this way. Rush’s first ten years revealed little in the way of yucks. Their philosophical lyrical slant and their ultra-advanced musicianship indicated a more cerebral approach, and the band’s overall vibe was a bit stiff, a little dour even. The gradual influx of humor into the Rush universe went a long way toward making the band more relatable as they achieved mainstream success. But well before this element of the band’s personality became firmly established, a certain little joke one member of the band made was taken seriously by a whole lotta people, and over the decades has taken on a life of its’ own. Here’s what happened:

The first inklings of Rush’s penchant for in-jokes and Python-esque silliness began to emerge through guitarist Alex Lifeson, as the band entered the 1980s. Lifeson is renowned these days as Rush’s resident funnyman (watch their 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speeches for a notable sample), but the programme from the band’s 1982 ‘Signals’ tour is where Lifeson’s sense of the absurd first appeared in full bloom. In stark counterpoint to Neil and Geddy’s studious (and boring) listing of their touring equipment, Alex uses his space to get downright goofy. Here it is:

I‘ve broken down the equipment I’m using into three categories; amplification, guitarification and effectification. It is truly an amazing coincidence how similar all three categories are to each other. For instance, through my keen sense of awareness, I’ve noticed all three have a series of knobs! Can you believe it? Also the amps and assorted effects all have glowing lights! Incredible! The amps I’m using are four Marshall Combos which we jokingly refer to as the Marshall Combos. In the guitar department I’m down to four, a black one, a red one, a white one and a brownish one. They all have six strings and a long wooden piece sticking out from the body. I also have two acoustic guitars both with six strings, one steel string and the other plastic (or something like that). Both the guitars have rounded bodies to make them impossible to play sitting down. They also have holes all over the sound board which is sort of like a diving board I think. My double neck guitar was recently crushed by an elephant. Too bad.”

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“For effects, I have many. Two Yamaha E1010 Analog Delays, Delta Lab DL-5 Harmonizer, Loft Analog Delays, Advanced Audio Digital Delay, Roland Boss Chorus, Electric Mistress Flanger, Mutron Octave Divider, M.X.R. Distortion Plus, Westinghouse Blender, Cry Baby Wah Wah, two Amana Freezers, Morely Volume Pedal, a gas pedal, a flower pedal, Maestro Parametric Filter, Cigarette Filter, six nozzles, three lungs and a M.X.R. Micro Amp. All of these effects are capable of producing a wide range of sounds. Some are scary while some are awful. I prefer the scary sounds. Also I’d just like to mention that I … ah, um, uh, … I have to go now.”

Even the pic accompanying the gear rundown is a little silly. Maybe Lifeson was just bored after 8 years of touring; maybe felt a little free after reaching the level of success that he and his band had recently achieved. Whatever the reason, Lifeson had found a place to begin asserting some true personality.

The following year would see the release of ‘Grace Under Pressure’, more touring, and another tour programme. This time around, Lifeson once again used the equipment page to have a little fun:

“So another tour, huh? Well let’s see. I’ve got these great new guitars. You may have heard of them; they’re Hentors. They’re named after Devidip Hentor who was a very interesting character. He was born some years ago and grew to amazing lengths. Instead of body hair he grew a kind of green woolly substance all over his upper torso which resembled a sweater. He was a brilliant man who could sit in a chair all day and think of a million great things to do without actually doing them. He was an inspiration until his unfortunate accident whilst jogging in three feet of snow wearing cheap snowboots and light summer cottons. Two models were built and I’m lucky enough to have them both. One is a “Sportscaster” and the other is I’m not going to tell you. (Hey, check Geddy’s page and see if he mentions his Hentor Barbarian bass!) Anyway, these guitars look a lot like the guitars I had on the last 47 tours. So much so that if someone was really stupid they’d think they were different guitars. I also got a new Jimmy Johnson and I haven’t seen one of those in at least eight years. Otherwise everything’s the same. So, here we go…I use amps! And magic guitars that have no long black wires; and talk about strings! I have at least six on all my guitars. I also use expensive boxes with knobs and lights on them and instructions in more than five languages except English. I also have these piano-like things but I’m not sure on how to switch them on. You have to use a special Jack for that. Finally, all the equipment I use is made in factories.”

Lifeson’s mention of his ‘Hentor’ guitars, and specifically the ‘Hentor Sportscaster’, triggered a minor earthquake in the world of guitar nerd-dom. The mention of getting ‘a new Jimmy Johnson’ didn’t raise any eyebrows, as it was assumed by many to be a reference to the Fender Telecaster, which Muscle Shoals session guitarist Jimmy Johnson was known to play frequently. The ‘Hentor’ mention was different, as just above Lifeson’s gear list entry was a picture of the guitarist himself holding a guitar… According to the lettering on the headstock, it was a gen-u-wine Hentor Sportscaster. Soon, gearheads all over the world were scratching their heads and attempting to research this mysterious instrument.

graceunderpressure-7-ss

 

Thousands were seeing and hearing Alex Lifeson play a white Hentor Sportscaster every night on the GUP world tour… driving guitar nerds out of their minds with curiosity. Guitar Player Magazine was deluged with letters asking for information about Hentor guitars. The influx of queries prompted the editors to publish a response, stating that they had no information on the guitar and no knowledge of a company by that name. Perhaps they were custom-built? Rush HQ were slammed with mail on Hentors as well. Meanwhile, an interview with Lifeson in the August issue of Guitar Player Magazine provided some clues. Firstly, Lifeson confirms the ‘Jimmy Johnson’/Fender Tele connection:

 

“I used a Tele for the first time ever in my life for rhythm on ‘Kid Gloves’ and ‘The Enemy Within’… The Tele is less than a year old.”

Then Alex goes on to discuss modifications done on three Fender Strats:

“I put in a Gibson-type toggle switch on the horn of my Strats and moved the volume and one tone control down a bit and got rid of the other tone control. I also have custom pickguards that are a little bit different. I changed the toggle switch because I didn’t like where the stock Fender one was… The necks are different, too. They were made by a company in Ottawa called Shark. The fingerboards are just bare rosewood, with no finish on them whatsoever… I have a Bill Lawrence L-500 lead pickup in the back position of all my guitars, and standard Fenders in the rhythm and bass positions. The white Strat has DiMarzios.”

Lifeson played these modified Strats from 1981-1986. The white model was used for the ‘Permanent Waves’ album, and the red and black versions were added and used on ‘Moving Pictures’, ‘Signals’, ‘Grace Under Pressure’, and ‘Power Windows’. All three were ‘retired’ after the ‘Power Windows’ tour. The black mod can be seen in the ‘Limelight’ video, the cherry red (w/mirrored pickguard) is played in the ‘Distant Early Warning’ video, and the white guitar, which he played most extensively, is featured several times in the ‘Grace Under Pressure’ live DVD.

 

The Hentor Sportscasters had been right there in front of our noses.

After unleashing two years of confusion and frustration into the guitar community, Alex Lifeson casually confirmed that his three modified Strats were re-christened as ‘Hentors’ while recording the ‘GUP’ album in 1986. In a feature published in Guitar Player in ’86, Rush’s jolly jokester delivers the punchline:

“‘Hentor’ was the name that we had for Peter Henderson, the producer of ‘Grace Under Pressure.’ When he wrote his name out to leave us his number, it looked like Peter Hentor instead of Peter Henderson, so we nicknamed him Hentor The Barbarian. I got some Letraset (label-maker tape) and put it on this white Strat that I had. It has a Shark neck – these are unlabeled replacement necks – so I threw ‘Hentor Sportscaster’ on there. Amazing all the mail we used to get over that [laughs]: ‘Where can I buy a Hentor? How much does a Hentor cost?'”

Mystery solved. But the story’s not over… Fast Forward a decade or so, where guitar building hobbyists are building duplicates of their favorite guitarist’s axes, working from information gleaned from interviews, and photographs and videos of the real thing. In internet chat groups and fan forums, amateur builders compare notes and pics, sharing construction details and comparing their work online. The Hentor ‘brand’ is thriving in the gearhead replica underground, with fans getting as close as they can to Lifeson’s three modified Strats using replacement parts and home-made paint jobs.

The replica phenomenon also happens at a higher level: several renowned guitar brands and professional luthiers have stepped into the specialty replica market over the years, reverse-engineering some truly historic guitars, and producing high-quality replicas, duplicated right down to the scratched-up paint and rusted screws, for sale in limited numbers. Brian May’s home-made ‘Red Special’, Rory Gallagher’s battered 1961 Fender Strat, and perhaps most notably, Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Frankenstrat’. We are talking high-end here, folks; three hundred meticulously-detailed replicas of the red-and-black-and-white-striped Frankenstrat were made by Fender Custom Shop in 2007 and offered by Van Halen’s EVH brand… For $25,000 each.

The Hentor’s transition from Alex Lifeson’s three Hentor ‘prototypes’ to a line of commercially-available guitars happened somewhere in between these two worlds. In 2008, Freddy Gabrsek, a luthier based in Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario, requested permission to replicate and sell Alex Lifeson’s white Sportscaster. Lifeson, who revealed in a 2005 Guitar Player article that he was still frequently asked about his Hentors, granted permission, with the stipulation that a portion of the sales be funneled to Lifeson’s ‘Grapes Under Pressure’ charitable foundation. Lifeson loaned his white ‘Caster to Freddy for six months, and viola: a genuine, authentic Hentor Sportscaster is born, serial number (‘1’) and all.

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So if you’re in the market for a 100% legit Hentor Sportscaster, do an internet search for Freddy’s Frets and Freddy will hook you up. Gabrsek makes it abundantly clear on his web page that, although the Hentor started out as a humorous in-joke, these guitars are nothing to laugh at. And anyone who says that Hentor Sportscasters are merely copies of modified Strats has no sense of humor.