Ninety-Two Minutes to Midnight, Part 2

Despite having developed into one of the most successful Heavy Metal bands on the planet during the 1980s, Iron Maiden entered the 90s in a state of crisis. The musical climate was changing around them; most notably, Americs’a ‘Big Four’ Thrash Metal bands had erupted from the underground and were making serious inroads into the Metal universe, threatening the Maiden throne. The key to Iron Maiden’s massive global success in their first decade was their blend of 70s Prog rock and Punk-inspired Heavy Metal, and the band closed out the 80s with increasingly prog-leaning albums like ‘Somewhere in Time’ and ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’… Enter the young, angry upstarts from across the pond to ‘smash it up’ and destroy the status quo. Those who know their music history will find plenty of Iron-y (heh) here.

Steve Harris made some decisions. The music on Maiden’s eighth album would be simpler, stripped-down and more direct, closer to the band’s earlier sound. The change in direction was so drastic that Adrian Smith left the band during pre-production. The resultant album, ‘No Prayer for the Dying’, was a near-complete regression back to the street-level, headbanging vibe of Maiden’s early years. The lyrics covered real-world concerns such as oppression, religion and politics, all sung by Bruce Dickinson in a rougher, raspier voice. Even the artwork reflected the ‘new’ direction, depicting Eddie (sans lobotomy bolt and cyborg augmentation) smashing out of his tomb to strangle a hapless gravedigger, a far cry from Eddie the reality-bending cosmic existentialist from the previous album.

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‘Prayer’ rejects ‘Arry’s progressive tendencies and just gets on with it. Not one of the album’s 10 tracks breaks the 6-minute mark, and the whole record runs at a tight (for Maiden) 43:42, almost 10 minutes shorter than both ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Somewhere in Time’. But Harris couldn’t completely resist his Prog compulsion; the album’s closer, ‘Mother Russia’, contains several progressive elements, although it’s multiple movements and ambitious historical sweep are constrained to a mere 5:30. Still, ‘Mother’ feels like an awkward edit of a 10-minute ‘Arry epic, and sounds out of place on an album of much more concise and immediate material.

So Iron Maiden had forced themselves back to square one, denying the Prog beast within and returning to their roots to do battle with Metal’s next wave. Did the change in direction work? In the UK, ‘Prayer’ reached #2 and the album’s second single was Iron Maiden’s first-ever UK #1. In the States, the album held it’s own, but the the Thrash Metal movement was in it’s heyday, and Metallica now dominated the Metal conversation. ‘No Prayer for the Dying’ went Gold in the US, but it would be the last Iron Maiden album ever to do so. Maiden’s return to their roots was perhaps too little, too late.

What to try next, then? How about… everything! On ‘Fear of the Dark’, Maiden’s 9th album, confusion reigns. It’s the first Maiden album not produced by Martin Birch; it’s also the first Maiden record not adorned with the artwork of Derek Riggs. The music within reveals a band struggling for direction, identity and relevance, featuring full-on Metal, a power ballad, and yes, the (welcome?) return of Steve Harris’ beloved Prog. And with the return of progressive elements to Maiden’s music came expanding song lengths: two of ‘Arry’s contributions stretch past 6 minutes, and the total record was the longest ever in Iron Maiden’s history, at 57:58, just shy of an hour.

Regardless of their length, it’s the Harris-penned tunes on ‘Fear of the Dark’ that sound most like classic Maiden. ‘Arry’s ‘Afraid to Shoot Strangers’ and the album’s title track are standouts; both creep past 6 minutes and reach back to the expansive, indulgent sound of just a few years previous. While overall it’s an uneven listen, ‘Fear’ topped the UK charts, giving Maiden their first-ever UK No. 1 album, and charted higher in the US than ‘Prayer’. Hmmm… Maybe re-asserting Steve Harris’ Prog side was the way to go next…

GAAHHHHH! On Maiden’s tenth album, ‘The X Factor’, Harris unleashes the Prog beast, and it runs rampant over this 70-minute disaster. Opening with the 11-minute slog ‘Sign of the Cross’ sets the stage for a looooong, mid-paced trudge through the tortured landscape of Steve Harris’ psyche. The bassist was dealing with a difficult divorce while writing the album, and his name is on 10 of the 11 songs here; only ‘Man on the Edge’, written by new singer Blaze Bayley and guitarist Janick Gers, trots along at a proper Maiden-esque pace. ‘Edge’ is the shortest tune on a record where half the songs move well past the 6-minute mark, and every track feels like a 10-minute epic. Maiden had shown in the past that they could ably hold the listener’s interest through songs of extended lengths… here they fail spectacularly.

It’s interesting to note that that three songs were recorded for the album, ‘Justice of the Peace’, ‘I Live My Way’, and ‘Judgement Day’, but were not included on the finished product. All three clock in between 3:33 and 4:04, significantly shorter than anything that made the final cut, and all three are up-tempo rockers sporting tight, concise arrangements that hearken back to Maiden’s glory years. This would indicate that building an album comprised of over-long, melodramatic downers was an artistic choice. ‘Arry’s head space has been called into question during critical examinations of ‘X’; obviously Steve Harris was in a very dark place during the creation of this record.

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It’s amazing that Maiden survived the ‘X Factor’ debacle, and a testament to their iconic status and bullet-proof reputation that the album reached #8 in the UK. In the US, however, the record peaked at a dismal #147, where ‘Fear of the Dark’ had climbed to #12 just three years previous. Dickinson’s absence was a factor, as was the album’s repulsive cover art. But 70 minutes of poisonous Prog metal sealed the deal: ‘The X Factor’ was a deal-breaker for many US fans, who walked away from the band for good.

In 1996, Maiden released a non-lp single to promote an compilation album. ‘Virus’ was 6 minutes and 14 seconds of classic ‘Arry Prog indulgence, and it solidified a pattern that would become a template for several (too many) Maiden songs to come: an extended intro featuring whispered vocals, moody synth backdrops and delicately played guitars, kicking into a classic Maiden gallop with harmony guitars on top. The trouble is, the quiet, slow-moving introduction lasts for 2:20, which is 40% of the song. An edit of ‘Virus’ was released to radio, which removed the intro completely, slamming immediately in with the classic Maiden sound of yore. There was a lesson to be learned here; trim the fat, cut the excess, strive for maximum impact… ‘Arry was having none of it.

Maiden’s next, ‘Virtual XI,’ was almost 20-minutes shorter than ‘X’; however, the Prog bloat persisted. The album features 3 extended pieces, one at 8:11, the other two at 9:51 and 9:06, all written solely by (surprise!) Steve Harris. Oddly, the album’s longest song, ‘The Angel and the Gambler’, was chosen as the first single. At over 9 minutes, the song had no chance at commercial radio, so an edit was also released, running at 6:05… also too long for commercial radio. The questionable choice for lead-off single was compounded by the song’s arrangement: the chorus of “Don’t you think I’m a savior? Don’t you think I could save you? Don’t you think I could save your life?” is repeated so many times that it makes me want to stab myself in the eye. Even the edited version sends me searching for sharp objects.

The Blaze era was an artistic and commercial failure when compared to what had come before. Take a second to remember the urgency and immediacy of their early work; a catchy guitar riff, the band kicks in seconds later, and we’re off to the races! Now it seemed that every other song started with an extended atmospheric intro. Grandiose epics had become commonplace, which minimized their impact and strained our patience, when in the early years, longer songs like ‘Phantom’ and ‘Mariner’ were anomalies that felt special and exciting. Without Bruce interpreting his material and Adrian Smith’s pop sensibilities reigning in the songwriting excess, ‘Arry’s progressive streak was barreling out of control and the SS Maiden was sinking under the epic weight of their bassist’s ever-expanding vision.

Someone needed to put the Prog genie back in the bottle. Surely the return of ‘Arry’s old writing partners would right the ship and Iron Maiden would pick up just where they left off with ‘Seventh Son’! Well… Kinda. But not really. Bayley departs, Dickinson and Smith return… but Gers stays put. As if to highlight Harris’ ‘more is more’ philosophy, the band itself expanded to six members. Now armed with three guitarists, was there any chance of more economical song lengths, any hope of more compact arrangements, with three guitarists jockeying for solo spots in every song? Or would the addition of two members from Maiden’s most successful period temper the excess and impose some moderation onto the proceedings?

Alas, the Prog continued it’s expansion, unabated. Album total run times ballooned with each release:
‘Brave New World’ 66:57
‘Dance of Death’ 67:57
‘A Matter of Life and Death’ 71:53
‘The Final Frontier’ 76:34

Which brings us to 2015 and ‘The Book of Souls’.

While I understand the mindset that says ‘there’s a 4 or 5-year gap between albums so let’s give ’em as much music as we can’, the total length of each album isn’t the only reason that Maiden albums have become so… unwieldy. Nowadays, Maiden songs that run 5 minutes or less are now the anomalies; on ‘The Book of Souls’, there are three songs that sail past the 10-minute mark, and the album contains their longest-ever song, ‘Empire of the Clouds’, an 18-minute super-mega-epic about… zeppelins. ‘Arry’s ‘The Red and the Black’, at `13:33, would be a fitting final tour de force to close any of Maiden’s previous albums; on ‘Souls’, it’s only Track #4 of 11… And the song never ends! Just when you think it’s winding up, it changes up and keeps rolling on… and on… and on…

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While I believe ‘Souls’ to be the best of the last five Maiden releases, my assessment is based on a single listen. Why? It took me days to get all the way through ‘The Book of Souls’ in its entirety. With each visit, I’d inevitably find myself losing focus, especially in the longer songs, as my mind drifted while the music blended with the wallpaper. The monstrous length of the album and most of the songs on it are just too much for me. I’ve considered giving the ‘Souls’ CD(s) a second spin, but always decide against it; the prospect feels too daunting, too massive an undertaking, too much of an investment of time and attention. I liked what I heard the first time through, but it will be a long time before I climb that mountain again.

Yes’ ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’, a polarizing progressive rock milestone notorious for its overwhelming length and complexity, has become a symbol of overblown Prog excess. ‘The Book of Souls’ is 10 minutes longer. The needle on Iron Maiden’s progometer has been ‘in the red’ for about 20 years now, and with ‘Souls’, their progressive readings are off the charts. It’s as if Steve Harris has been steadily working to emulate his favorite piece of music: the 23-minute ‘Supper’s Ready’ by Genesis. Enough, already! News Flash: ‘Run to the Hills’, ‘Sanctuary’, ‘The Trooper’, ‘Wrathchild’, ‘Aces High’, ‘The Evil That Men Do’… All classics… all under 5 minutes! Message to ‘Arry: Every song can’t be ‘Supper’s Eddie’!

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Ninety-Two Minutes to Midnight, Part 1

When Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris stated in a 2015 interview that ‘Supper’s Ready’, the early Prog Rock epic that takes up all of Side Two of Genesis’ ‘Foxtrot’ album, was his favorite piece of music of all time, it shouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. Harris has made no secret of his love of classic Prog, and there’s ample proof in the grooves; Maiden has covered songs by Prog giants like Jethro Tull and Nektar, just to name a few. But the fact that ‘Supper’s Ready’ clocks in at over 23 minutes hints at a troubling trend in Iron Maiden’s music… You see, for decades, ‘Arry has been suffering with a severe case of the Creeping Epics.

It should also come as no surprize that, as a young Prog fan, ‘Arry hated Punk Rock, but his band (and the entire NWOBHM) absorbed it’s furious energy and in-your-face aggression and channeled it into their own music. It was Iron Maiden’s potent mix of Punk and Prog what set them apart from most of their peers; while most of the Punk-inspired NWOBHM movement was mining the catalogues of Thin Lizzy, UFO, Judas Priest and their ilk for inspiration, Steve Harris was reaching beyond mere rock and metal and toward the expansive creativity and technical complexity of his beloved Prog heroes: ELP, Yes, King Crimson, Focus, and of course the aforementioned Jethro Tull and Genesis.

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The undeniable Punk attack of Maiden’s 1980 debut album is accented by several elements borrowed from Progressive Rock: elevated technical skill, complex arrangements, and fantastical subject matter. The clearest example of this unique formula is the mini-epic ‘Phantom of the Opera’. After it’s cryptic opening, ‘Phantom’ blazes across several different movements, twisting and turning through seven minutes and two seconds of neck-breaking tempo changes and intricate instrumental passages. While a song of this length was a bold move for a debut album, Maiden packed more excitement into the 7:02 of ‘Phantom’ than most BHM bands could muster for an entire album, ensuring that the song never overstays its welcome. ‘Phantom’s extended length works to make it the album’s grand statement, ground zero in Maiden’s punk/prog presentation.

The obvious Prog moment on Maiden’s second album ‘Killers’ was ‘Prodigal Son’, a lush, acoustic guitar-laden tune that stands out from the rest of the record with its breezy Wishbone Ash feel and plaintive lyric. As with ‘Phantom’, the song with the strongest Prog influence is also the longest on the record, at 6:05. Maiden would continue to balance creative finesse and snarling aggression on ‘The Number of the Beast’, but by this point, the band’s Punk edge had begun to fade. Their Prog leanings remained, evident in the melodramatic sprawl of album closer ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’. Another mini-epic, ‘Hallowed’ was, at 7:08, longest song the band had ever recorded… Although a few more albums down the line, 7:08 run-times would be commonplace.

On ‘Piece of Mind’, the band’s progressive side was clearly gaining strength, as nearly every song includes that extra bit of complexity, depth and flair, culminating in the final track ‘To Tame a Land’. ‘Land’ is a work of art, miles outside of conventional NWOBHM songwriting standard, snaking through exotic sonic territories as yet unexplored by Maiden. Here, for the first time, Iron Maiden have stepped squarely into the land of Progressive Metal. There were other signs related to ‘Piece’ as well; Jethro Tull’s ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ was recorded for a B-side, and Bruce Dickinson’s ‘Revelations’ speaks for itself. Several songs on ‘Piece of Mind’ passed the 6-minute mark; ‘Tame’ tipped the scales at 7:28 to become the new Longest Maiden Song Ever. ‘Piece of Mind’ was also the Longest Maiden Album Yet, at 45:18.

Are we seeing the trend? As the Prog in Maiden’s music becomes more evident, so do the song lengths expand…

On ‘Powerslave’, Maiden strike the perfect balance of NWOBHM attack and adventurous songcraft. Top-notch writing and spirited performances easily obscure the Prog-creep, with 2 songs at 6 minutes-plus, and one at 7:12… That is, until the mammoth final track, Harris’ adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. Worry not, for ‘Rhyme’ is a Maiden Masterpiece. While the adapted lyrics might be a little over-stuffed, the underlying arrangement is exceedingly well-constructed. ‘Arry was approaching ‘Supper’s Ready’ territory with ‘Rhyme’s 13:45 run time, but the cinematic sweep of it’s middle sections renders any question of ‘prog excess’ moot. After somehow squeezing another 2 songs onto Side Two, ‘Powerslave’ was the Longest Maiden Album So Far, pushing the limits of vinyl mastering with its 51:12 run time.

‘Somewhere In Time’ is a major mis-step. Steve Harris also wrote three of the 8 tunes on ‘SIT’ himself, and his prog mojo is in full effect here, though this time it doesn’t quite work. Each Harris composition is needlessly long and overwritten; the album’s lead-off track runs 7:22, immediately signaling that something’s up, and there’s really no reason why a straightforward tune like ‘Heaven Can Wait’ should last for 7:24. It must also be said that ‘Arry’s ‘Alexander the Great’ is a failure; at 8:35, it’s an uncharacteristically tough slog through ancient history. These three over-long excursions push the total run-time of the album to 51:18, six seconds longer than ‘Powerslave’, and Maiden’s new Longest Maiden Album. The guitar synths that adorn the album push the Prog Metal envelope even further… or reveal a desire to hide the fact that the band are struggling for inspiration.

Maiden’s average song length had almost doubled over the course of six albums; on ‘Killers’ it was around 3.72 minutes; on both ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Somewhere’ it was 6.37. Album lengths had steadily expanded from the admittedly short 37:35 of their debut to ‘Somewhere in Time’s 51:18. Ironically, Maiden would make some wise adjustments to the excess on their next album, restraining their tendency for epic sprawl while, at the same time, raising the stakes thematically.

Iron Maiden’s seventh album, ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, is quite a rebound. IMHO, It’s their last great album, and a Prog Metal masterwork. The songwriting this time out was a much more collaborative effort, with Bruce Dickinson garnering several credits, where on ‘Somewhere’ he wrote contributed nada. It’s a concept album (how Prog is that?) that succeeds both musically and thematically. The music still contains plenty of fire & brimstone, and there’s a feeling that the band is once again firing on all cylinders. Song lengths had been paired down to more concise lengths, with one exception: the excellent Harris-penned title track, which works as the centerpiece of the album at a whopping 9:52.

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Fans of the early NWOBHM-era Maiden bemoaned the use of synths, the commercial-sounding first single (‘Can I Play With Madness?’) and the slick production. But Steve Harris said, in Mick Wall’s band bio, “I thought it was the best album we did since ‘Piece of Mind’. I loved it because it was more progressive… ‘cause that’s the influences I grew up with.’ Like it or not, the axe-wielding, Thatcher-stabbing, Devil-beheading Iron Maiden was long gone; Eddie was no longer a shadowy figure lurking in dark alleys, he was a time travelling clairvoyant cyborg… Maiden had gone Full Prog. Where to go next?

The average length of a Maiden song had grown by almost 3 minutes, album capacities were being stretched to the limits of manufacturing standards, the epics on each record had gotten even more …epic, the lyrical themes more grandiose. But so far, Iron Maiden had more or less successfully balanced Steve Harris’ Prog Rock tendencies with their NWOBHM roots to become the biggest Metal band on the planet. That delicate balance is the defining element of classic-era Iron Maiden. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll look at how (if?) that balance is maintained during the 1990s and beyond…

Long Distance Runaround

Legend has it that DJs in the 70s used to spin Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute opus ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ to free up time for an extended bathroom break… or maybe that was a smoke break. The song had been edited down to 2:52 to allow for radio airplay and released as a single in July of 1968, but DJs overwhelmingly prefered to air the 17-minute monster (Hey, man, removing the seeds from a dime bag takes a little bit of time, OK?) Repeated airings of the unedited track would help sell 3 million copies of the edited version in the first 18 months of its release; the ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ album would hit #4 and become the first-ever album to be certified Platinum. Yay, drugs!

Of course, ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ has a lot more going for it than just its epic length. The music in an extended piece like ‘Vida’ has to work as a proper ‘song’ in order to appeal to listeners. With rock music in general, when you push past the limits of accepted time frames for Top 40 radio play (3:00-3:30) or, years ago, 7″ record production (3:00-5:00), and kissing Top 40 airplay goodbye, an artist had better keep things interesting. ‘Da Vida is basically a 5-minute song with a couple of extended (reeeeeally extended) solos in it, but the underlying song itself works and the solos add much to the experience. Even if you’re not stoned.

Pushing a song past the 10-minute mark is a true test of what makes a song a song. When a band decides to dedicate an entire side of their record to one ‘song’, they are often attempting a grand, artistic statement, and hoping to hold your interest and attention. Hard Rock/Heavy Prog music has its share of side-long epics… but how many of them are worth the time it takes to listen? Pack a lunch, this is going to take a while…

As the 60s became the 70s, and Psychedelic Rock evolved into Progressive Rock, the ‘side-long epic’ seemed to be the ‘in’ thing. Side Two of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ follows the same path as Iron Butterfly’s magnum opus, as the masterful ‘Echoes’ seemingly slows the rotation of the Earth by extending an already-hypnotic song into otherworldly proportions by unspooling loooooong instrumental improv sections before briefly returning to its intial song structure to wrap up. Seriously, you can get lost in the middle of this song… And there’s some stuff hiding in there that’s scarier than anything Black Sabbath ever recorded. Be careful.

Fifty percent of Yes’ 5th album, ‘Close to the Edge’, is dedicated to the album’s title track, which clocks in at 18:12. Perhaps Yes’ most acclaimed recording, ‘Close to the Edge’ is a fantastic composition, with key musical themes asserting themselves, then reappearing further into the song. The composition is divided up into four sections, which flow and morph in and out of each other so well that in the end, the experience is that of a single song. Methinks we have found our benchmark.

Yes take another crack at the enormous on their 1975 ‘Relayer’ album, with ‘The Gates of Delirium’, a 21-minute, 55-second tale of war and peace that was actually inspired by Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, a novel that has become a reference point in popular culture to any work of literature of intimidating length. ‘Gates’ breezes along pretty swiftly, although it’s lightness of tone fails to reflect the weighty subject matter related through what is likely Jon Anderson’s darkest lyric. The ‘battle’ sequences are fuision-y fun, and the whole thing lopes along in that engaging, loose ‘Yes’ kind of way, until the final section (which was lifted as the album’s single, and titled ‘Soon’), resolves the hectic near-chaos of the first two thirds.

Pink Floyd’s ‘Sine on You Crazy Diamond’ kinda works as a side-long epic; if you remove the three standard-length songs in the middle of the record and snap Parts I – V together with Parts VI – IX, you get a single work clocking in at 26:01, longer than most mastering studios would recommend for cutting a vinyl LP. Experienced as one single piece of uninterrupted music, ‘Shine On’ is an amazing work, beautifully constructed and exquisitely executed. Although composed as one continuous piece of music*, splitting it in two actually benefits the song; with the two halves separated by three unconnected songs, ‘Diamond’s recurring themes don’t wear out their welcome, and revisiting them after ‘Wish You Were Here’s swirling synth-wind fade is a blast as they re-emerge and express themselves in new ways.

*David Gilmour argued against splitting the song; he was out-voted 3 to 1.

After toying with extended run-times with ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’ in 1974, Rush go for it on their 1975 album ‘Caress of Steel’. ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’ is a suite of six unique segments, each cross-fading into the next. This awkward method of flow makes ‘Lamneth’ a bit of a clunker. A unifying lyrical theme is threaded through the movements, but some early cassettes completely fucked that up, changing the intended track listing by switching the ‘Didacts and Narpets’ movement of ‘Lamneth’ with ‘I Think I’m Going Bald’ (a completely unrelated song from Side One) to balance out both sides of the tape. Rush: The Rodney Dangerfield of Rock.

Rush would follow-up immediately with their ‘2112’ opus, correcting ‘Lamneth’s mistakes and creating a true Hard Rock masterpiece. It was a bold move starting an album with a 20-minute and 33 second song suite (Really? They couldn’t extend the space noises at the intro for another 39 seconds???), but the move paid off, as ‘2112’ gave Rush their commercial breakthrough. The songs on Side Two are Good to Very Good, but that didn’t matter; Side One was all anyone talked about. ‘2112’ loses points for the story’s oft-misunderstood ending, where the Elder Race returns to liberate the people of the Solar Federation…Oops! SPOILER ALERT

Lerxst, Dirk and Pratt (that’s Rush, stay with me) would tempt fate with third side-long epic on 1978’s ‘Hemispheres’, with less than stellar results. But what’s interesting here is that the song ‘Hemispheres’ is actually a continuation of a song from a previous album, entitled ‘Cygnus X-1’. So in reality, the complete title of ‘Hemispheres’ is ‘Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres’, as stated on the album. Musical themes and ‘samples’ from the former song are featured in the latter, connecting the two works, but thematically… that’s where things get nuts. Rush apparently agreed, and would never write another side-long epic, but would redeem themselves with the much shorter (9:17) and much more effective multi-part ‘Natural Science’ on their next record.

So far we’ve imagined a combined 26-minute ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, which never would have fit on one side of an LP, and envisioned an uninterrupted ‘Cygnus X-1 Books I & II’ which would also break the side-long barrier at a monstrous 28:33… But, Ladies and Gents, breaking the single-side barrier is not merely an interesting thought experiment; it’s actually happened, several times…

Ever wonder why Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1973 radio hit ‘Karn Evil 9’ starts off with the lyric ‘Welcome back my friends…’? ‘Welcome back’ from where? From Side One! The album version of ‘Karn’, found on ELP’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ album, consists of three ‘impressions’, and due to the limitations of the vinyl format, the first impression starts at the end of Side One and completes on Side Two. The two parts are listed as ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part One’ and ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part Two’. It was Part 2 that we all heard on the radio in ’73. The ‘Welcome back’ intro was directed at listeners of the LP who had just flipped the record over to hear the other half of the piece.

The whole of ‘Karn Evil 9’ rolls out at 29:39. Thankfully, in the CD age, this having-to-flip-the-record-over nonsense was dispensed with, and CD editions of ‘Brain Salad’ combine ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part One’ with ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part Two’ into one unbroken audio track, entitled simply ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression’… rendering the nifty ‘Welcome back, my friends’ lyrical device moot.

Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, both the album and the ‘song’ (…well, really, there is no difference between the two; the song is the album, the album is the song), was composed as one continuous piece of music spanning both sides of the record, although as with ELP’s ‘Karn Evil 9’, concessions were made to the realities of the vinyl and cassette formats. Side One ends with a repeated section of music that slowly fades into synth hiss; Side Two opens with distant echoes of that same section, serving as a brief reminder of where we were before we had to flip the record. The 1985 CD version of the album combines both parts as one seamless track (43:46), but then that transition section just doesn’t work…

Tull would find a better way to cross the side barrier with their next album, ‘A Passion Play’, which is constructed as an opera composed of nine songs combined into one continuous piece of music. This time, Tull found a clever way of acknowledging the need to flip the record: by including an intermission. ‘Interlude – The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles’, is a short piece designed to resemble a children’s storytelling record. Halfway through the story, an electronic tone sounds, signaling the ‘child’ to turn the record over; the ‘Hare’ fable then completes at the start of Side Two. The complete work (with ‘Interlude’) clocks in at 45:05. Some CD versions remove the tone, and combine the two parts of the ‘Interlude’ device, which exists an unnecessary interruption within the larger work.

Exhausted yet? Well, gear up, because we have arrived at the Everest of epics… a record that defies evaluation, but still must be included: Yes’ ultra-humongous ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’.

To refer to ‘TFTO’ as a double album is a massive understatement. If you find side-long epics to be a tough slog, imagine an album of FOUR sidelong-epics, each based on a sacred Hindu text, with a total running time of 81:15! After the success of ‘Close to the Edge’, had Yes decided that creating protracted pieces of music was the way to go? Well, yes and no; Rick Wakeman said in 2006, “…because of the format of how records used to be we had too much for a single album but not enough for a double, so we padded it out and the padding is awful …” Once again, ambition clashes with the constraints of contemporary media formats. But by constantly testing the limits of physical format, Yes were also testing the patience and the attention spans of their critics and their fans.

But while critical reactions to the record were mixed, and despite its excessive weight, ‘TFTO’ became the first album to ever ship Platinum, topped the UK charts for 2 weeks, and hit #6 in the US. By all accounts, the record was a massive (heh) success. On the corresponding tour, Yes performed the ‘TFTO’ album in its entirety, along with the ‘Close to the Edge’ epic, night after night. But Rick Wakeman announced he was leaving the band during the tour, which included 2 sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden, citing ‘boredom’. I totally get it.

I have never made it 100% through this record in one sitting, and I am certain that I never will. Who has that kind of time?? This album and it’s ilk sealed Prog Rock’s fate, establishing the genre as an obnoxiously bloated Progosaurus, dragging its ponderous weight across the landscape, a sitting duck just waiting for a white-hot musical meteor to strike and render it extinct. Oh, hello, Punk Rock!

Note: I had a paragraph on Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ (23:06) prepared for this piece, but I felt the article was too long…

 

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!