Year of the Gatefold

Ah, the live album. The gatefold sleeve, plastered with tons of live pics of your favorite band, holding four sides of music recorded live on stage, where it really mattered, performing before an audience of worshiping fans. The best live records drop you in the front row, where the thick, humid air smells like a mixture of weed, puke, and sweat; where your ears take a pounding from a PA system bigger than your house as the crackle and pop of firecrackers echoes through the arena. Some say that the 1970s was the Decade of the Live Album, and if any single year should hold that same distinction, it’s got to be 1978, when an unprecedented number of live sets arrived in record stores (remember them?) to add color to the soundtrack of our youth.
Call it The Frampton Effect. ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’, Peter Frampton’s 1976 double-live release, spawned 2 hit singles and topped the Billboard charts for a whopping 10 weeks, and went on to become the best-selling album of that year. The record remained in the Top 100 for 97 weeks, well into 1977. Live albums by Bob Seger, The J. Geils Band, Joe Walsh, and Rush also reached deep into the Top 40 in 1976. The success of these records had a significant impact on the industry. And in the world of pure Hard Rock, the Top Ten success of Kiss and their ‘Alive!’ and ‘Kiss Alive II’ albums was also hard to ignore.
At a time when the rockers of the era were struggling mightily to get on the radio, the monster success of Frampton’s live album suggested there might be another way to break through. The Record companies saw the gazillions being made from records that cost relatively little to record. And so mobile recording units rolled out for virtually every tour that hit the road in 1977; those recordings would bear fruit the following year. Notable live records from Alice Cooper, Rainbow and Foghat appeared in ’77, but the sheer number of HR/HM live albums released in 1978 is stunning… I count no less than TEN significant live records hitting the market between January ’78 and January ’79.
1978 kicked off with an expanded field recording of Ted Nugent captured in the wilds of America in ’76 and ’77. Unleashed in January, ‘Double Live Gonzo!’ showcases The Nuge’s big guitars and even bigger mouth. His guitar prowess already firmly established, Terrible Ted’s live album is peppered with politically incorrect between-song raps that have become the stuff of legend (just ask Atlanta band Nashville Pussy). But the real value in ‘Gonzo’ lies in it’s capture of Nugent’s classic-era band in a live setting, and how it provides Nugent-the-guitarist the opportunity to put up or shut up… And as we know, Ted never shuts up. I remember walking around with friends, blasting this out of a portable 8-track player, feeling all badass as Nugent’s raunchy raps echoed off my neighbors’ houses.
After the Nugent extravagonzo, there came an almost 5-month lull, the calm before the storm of live releases that would hit in the second half of the year. Thin Lizzy opened the floodgates in June with ‘Live and Dangerous‘, a 2-record set that reached the #2 spot in the UK. While it’s safe to say that Nugent’s ‘Gonzo’ is 100% pure NUGE, Thin Lizzy’s ‘L&D’ is another story. Debate endures regarding just how much of this album is ‘live’… but, seriously, who cares? What matters is the end result, and ‘Dangerous’ is a worthy celebration of the Lizzy experience. Shamefully short at just 50 minutes, it’s overflowing with fantastic songs played with charisma, passion, and flair. Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the show.
Recorded in Japan during guitarist Uli Roth’s final two shows with Scorpions, ‘Tokyo Tapes‘ came out in August as a Japan-only release. Nothing like waiting until the last minute to capture the Uli-era Scorps live! I didn’t catch this one until it was released domestically the following year, but when I did, mind = blown. There is some truly jaw-dropping guitar playing within these grooves, and each and every one of us should take a moment to thank their higher power that Dieter Dierks and RCA records rolled tape during Roth’s final 48 hours with the band. ‘TT’ contains some jarring edits that break the ‘concert experience’ feel, but overall this collection really cooks.
Also in August, Sammy Hagar decides to return to his monstrous Montrose roots and release a live album balls-out with scorching rockers. ‘All Night Long‘ was recorded in San Francisco, San Antonio, San Bernardino, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica… I’m not kidding. I snapped this one up after learning that the band on the record was 3/4 of Montrose, and the track list includes two songs from the mighty Montrose debut. The Red Rocker keeps this single-disc live outing tight and punchy, and Sam reveals himself to be a smokin’ guitarist. ‘All Night’ is the first and only live album that I’m aware of where the final song fades out —while the band is still playing! Like having to leave the concert before it’s over because your ride wants to be home early.
A few weeks later in September, Blue Oyster Cult would offer up their second live album, ‘Some Enchanted Evening‘. Like Hagar, BOC would limit themselves to a single disc, and much to this young listener’s disappointment, include two covers. With a catalog as deep as BOC’s, why waste precious space on somebody else’s tunes? Where’s ‘Tattoo Vampire’? Where’s ‘The Golden Age of Leather’? And what about ‘Dominance & Submission’?? Thankfully, the stellar version of ‘Astronomy’ included is worth the price of admission all by itself. Despite the dubious song selection, ‘SEE’ would somehow become best-selling album in the Cult’s catalog. Go figure!
I remember walking into my local record store in early October and spotting Cheap Trick’s ‘Cheap Trick At Budokan‘ high on the wall behind the counter, with a $27 price sticker on it. CT had just released ‘Heaven Tonight’ in April; I was completely blindsided by this mysterious live record. ’27 bucks!?’ I exclaimed. The clerk explained that it was a Japanese import, and wasn’t coming out in the US. Shit. Somehow the 14-year old me came up with the 30 dollars (I seem to remember rolling coins…) and snagged it off the wall before anyone else did. Woohoo! ‘Budokan’ was another single-disc live record, (in a gatefold sleeve!) and featured three songs we’d never heard before. Allowance money well spent.
I have come to appreciate Aerosmith’s ‘Live! Bootleg‘, but back in October of ’78, I was disappointed. ‘Bootleg’ dispenses with the ‘concert recreation’ feel that most of the live LPs of the era went for; instead, it serves as a live retrospective, featuring recordings from as far back as 1973 and right up to March’s ‘California Jam II’ concert. It’s a mixed bag; performances by young scrappers in Boston clubs segue into recordings from the biggest stadiums on the planet, not in chronological order, all adding up to kind of a jumbled sonic documentary of the band’s heyday. Teenaged me wanted something more like what Lizzy or Cheap Trick had delivered. Still, two live albums from two of my faves in one month was pretty killer. Wait, what? THREE??
With ‘Bootleg’ and ‘Budokan’ still in heavy rotation on my turntable, Australian upstarts AC/DC joined the fray in late October with ‘If You Want Blood… You’ve Got It‘. The band had released their ‘Powerage’ album back in May and I was instantly hooked; this live album followed a mere 5 months later. Recorded at the Glasgow Apollo (see also: Status Quo’s ‘Live!’, portions of Rush’s ‘Exit: Stage Left’) before an absolutely rabid audience (ANGUS! ANGUS! ANGUS!), ‘Blood’ is a sweaty, raunchy workout that captures the band’s stage show as-is. I remember riding my bike home from the record store with this album clutched to my chest, trying not to bang it around and ding up the album cover. Which reminds me of a story…
So I’m at the record shop, and spot the record, marvel at it’s totally awesome front and back covers, and head to the front counter, where the clerk (let’s call him Steve) checks out the cover, and starts laughing. He says ‘You don’t really want to buy this piece of crap do you?’ I say, um, yeah, I do, and he starts yelling to another employee, ‘Hey man, have you seen this cover? HAWHAWHAW!!’ He looks at me once again and says ‘Really?’ Just then an older gent walks up to us (I presume was the owner or manager) and tells Steve ‘meet me out back in a minute’. Steve, with an *Oh Shit* look on his face, heads to the back room. The owner/manager rings up my sale, smiles and says ‘AC/DC! Cool!’ Never saw Steve there again. True story.
At some point in 1978 (details are scant) came a single-disc live LP from Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. This is another record that I didn’t get hip to until a few years after it’s release. Marino was largely written off as a Hendrix clone decades ago, a stigma that prevented him from ever achieving the mainstream success enjoyed by his peers… although Frank Marino is entirely without peer as a rock guitarist. This guy OWNS every other rock player of the era. On the imaginatively-titled ‘Live‘, Marino, backed by his sturdy rhythm section, blazes through hippie-trippy highlights from his catalog, then shoots himself in the foot by including a Hendrix cover. The liner notes for a 2018 re-issue claims that there are no overdubs on this puppy, but hey, who knows. Call this one Single Live Gonzo.
As if to hammer home the fact that 1978 really was the Year of the Live Album, CBS Records released ‘California Jam II‘, a selection of highlights from the second Cal Jam concert that took place back on March 18. The 2-record set included tunes from Aerosmith, Nugent, Heart and Mahogany Rush. Dave Mason, Santana, Jean Michel Jarre and Rubicon (with Jack Blades and Brad Gillis, pre-Night Ranger) also appear. (Bob Welch and Foreigner played the show, but didn’t make the record, as they were not signed to one of CBS’ labels.) But it’s the hard rockers who dominate the set, of course: Nugent gives us live versions of two songs that didn’t show on ‘Gonzo’, Aerosmith gift us with one that didn’t make ‘Bootleg’, and Marino wipes the floor with all the other guitar slingers on the bill. Worth hunting down on vinyl, as the album has never been released on CD.
As if TEN live albums in one calendar year wasn’t enough, the Gonzo just kept on comin’, a residual effect that would carry through much of ’79. First up: I caught Cheap trick at Boston’s Orpheum Theater in December ’78, and was blown away by opener UFO. A few weeks later, I took the bus (it was January; my bike wasn’t feasible) to the record store, headed for the end of the alphabet, and found the just-released ‘Strangers in the Night‘ double album. The lineup I saw featured Paul Chapman on guitar, but ‘SITN” captures Mad Michael Schenker’s final swing with the band. An instant classic, and possibly the finest album covered here. A shame that a re-arranged re-master is the only way to purchase this album today, as the original Chrysalis version is flawless.
Also in January of ’79, Scorpions finally release ‘Tokyo Tapes’ in the US. With both Uli Roth and Michael Schenker long gone before either ‘SITN’ or ‘TT’ are released, the Scorps/UFO live albums became indispensable documents of a bygone era. Then, in early February, the suits at CBS wise up and release Cheap Trick’s ‘Cheap Trick At Budokan’ domestically as well. The Japanese version had become the biggest-selling import album of 1978, so CT’s next studio record (‘Dream Police’) was shelved to allow for ‘Budokan’s release, and the rest is history. Oh, and in April, the Ramones released the double ‘It’s Alive‘ set… but not in The States, where it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on CD.
Queen’s ‘Live Killers‘ hit the bins in June. Here again, the now-15-year-old me was a little disappointed; Queen’s studio records were so elaborately constructed that to me it didn’t sound like Queen (ex: during ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a tape of the operatic a capella section was played after the band hastily exited the stage, and that moment plays very awkwardly on a live album). But what I grew to understand is that it does sound like Queen, as this is exactly what the band really sounds like, and in this context, stripped of the indulgent studio magic that adorned their studio records, a great live band comprised of supremely talented performers is revealed.
The Pat Travers Band kicked our asses over the summer of 79 with their single-disc live set, ‘Go For What You Know‘, and their version of ‘Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)’ became a minor radio hit. A double-disc might have been much, but would have allowed for the inclusion of PTB’s roof-raising live version of ‘Statesboro Blues’, or a live ‘Life in London’. The syngery between guitarists Travers and Thrall is stunning, and the chops on display here are phenomenal. This young lad found the myriad tones and effects the two employed positively hypnotic. But it’s not just the guitars that impress here; some of the drumming on GFWYK has to be heard to be believed. Mars was no slouch on the bass either. Where’s the expanded remaster??
This unprecedented super-cluster of live releases comes to a close in September of 79, when The Beast that is Priest release ‘Unleashed in the East‘. Live? Studio? Overdubbed vocals? Again— WHO CARES. The record is simply awesome. At the time, this was the heaviest metal I had ever heard. This single-disc wonder should have been– and could have been –released as a double album, had all the bonus tracks and B-sides culled from the same shows been utilized. As-is, this record explodes with state-of the art, pure of heart, flag waving HEAVY METAL, released at a time when it was definitely not cool to be tagged as such.
WOW. Fifteen live albums from just about all of my favorite bands in a year and a half! You couldn’t leave your house without stepping on a live album. It was almost as if Heavy Metal’s underlying strategy was to ‘wait out’ Punk Rock; that the hard rockers of the era conspired together to take some time off and reassess. Whatever the reason, this deluge of live gonzo makes 1978 (and half of ’79) a standout year in 70s Metal, despite the fact that the rest of the music world was preoccupied with either Punk or Disco, and most critics and journos had decided that Metal was over… One month after the release of ‘Unleashed in the East’, the cover of the Oct ’79 issue of CREEM Magazine blared: “Is Heavy Metal Dead?” No, stupid, Heavy Metal is LIVE!

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The Ace and Peter (No) Show

KISS was my generation’s initiation into rock music. My own infatuation with KISS was brief but intense. ‘Rock and Roll Over’ was the first record I ever bought, and the first concert I ever attended was KISS in Providence, RI on Feb 2nd, 1978. ‘She’ was the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar. If I’m honest, I’d have to admit that the term ‘hero worship’ might be appropriate in my case. That said, I lost interest in KISS after ‘Alive II’, mainly because I could sense that there was suddenly something …not right… about KISS, but also because I became aware of so many bands that put out better records than the four solo albums, or ‘Dynasty’. And then ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ happened… Even after moving on, I still have a deep love of their early records and fond memories of their impact on my life.

Today, as an adult, and after reflecting on the KISS phenomenon brings up many interesting questions. What does it mean to be a member of a band? What are a band member’s responsibilities? What are a band’s responsibilities to its fans?

In many cases, especially in bands that have reached a certain level of financial success, being a member of a band means being a member of a corporation, or could perhaps include entering into a legal partnership. Cheap Trick became a ‘corporation’ decades ago, and when drummer Bun E. Carlos stepped down from active duty six years ago, he still retained the right to an equal vote in band business, and still earns a 1/4 share of band revenue, even though the band replaced him with another drummer. This was all according to the charter the band members signed back in the ’70s. So sometimes band membership is a complex thing; sometimes exiting a band is not as simple as ‘quitting’ or getting ‘fired’.

In KISS’s case, here was a band who spent years building a façade made of clearly-defined characters, with the band members codified into instantly-recognizable symbols; once the ‘brand’ had been firmly established in popular culture, the band was reluctant to mess with it. But KISS, like Cheap Trick, had become a corporation after the success of ‘Destroyer’, with all four members sharing in the revenue equally and having equal voting power on major band decisions… including decisions relating to terminating a shareholder’s membership. This forced KISS into some difficult situations, when certain band members’ functionality became questionable… starting right around the ‘Alive II’ album.

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KISS’s first three records are the real deal: authentic hard rock albums made by four so-so musicians with a shared vision, forced to crank out 3 records in 13 months, with a bunch of classic songs being the result. Their fourth album, ‘Destroyer’, is an anomaly. It’s really a Bob Ezrin album, and fits in with his own discography better than it fits into Kiss’s. Ezrin co-wrote almost all of the songs, and, as with all Ezrin productions, if you can’t deliver, he’ll find someone who can. Hence the un-credited appearance of Ezrin’s go-to ghost guitarist, Dick Wagner. Admirably, after ‘Destroyer’, KISS again kept it ‘real’ on their next 2 albums, ‘Rock and Roll Over’ and ‘Love Gun’. After that, KISS’s corporate charter would begin to accommodate the band members’ every whim and dysfunction, while the public face of the band remained intact.

One could say that Ace Frehley’s solo career started right after he recorded his lead vocal for ‘Shock Me’ in 1977. On everything he recorded with KISS after that, he sang the lead vocals, and played all the guitars and most of the bass. It was a unique arrangement, and one that KISS’s corporate charter apparently allowed. And so on the studio side of KISS’s ‘Alive II’ album, the only song Ace appears on is his ‘Rocket Ride’. This, in turn, implies that charter also allowed for session musicians to ‘ghost’ for the Spaceman, as Bob Kulick plays the solos on the rest of the material, uncredited.

This would be Ace’s modus operandi with KISS’s next three records. Understandably, he sang and played all the guitars on his solo album, but when KISS reconvened for the ‘Dynasty’ album, Ace contributed 3 songs, each recorded separately from the band in his home studio and with solo album session man Anton Fig on drums. Same with ‘Unmasked’.

The Space Ace was absent completely from the sessions for ‘Music from “The Elder”, as Frehley refused to travel to Toronto to work with Bob Ezrin. Ace mailed his recordings to Ezrin, who rejected most of what he heard. Ace went ‘missing’ when the album was completed, and KISS decided not to tour the album. Ace says in his book that he quit the band in 1982, after recording sessions for ‘Elder’ wrapped, but perhaps ‘retired from active duty’ descries it better. KISS would continue to feature him on the covers of albums that he had absolutely nothing to do with for the next few years.

Four new studio recordings appeared on the ‘Killers’ collection, and there was Ace on the cover… but once again an uncredited Bob Kulick played lead guitar on each song. The ‘Creatures of the Night’ album was written and recorded without Frehley’s involvement, but Ace’s face is on the original cover… AND he appeared in the ‘I Love it Loud’ video, perpetuating the lie that all was well in KISSville. Only when KISS planned to hit the road in support of ‘Creatures’ and Frehley declined to participate, were KISS finally forced to announce that Ace had spaced out… over a year after he ‘quit’.

Peter Criss contributed even less. The jury is still out as to whether it’s him playing on Side Four of Alive II, so we’ll leave that one alone, but the sum total of the Cat Man’s contributions to KISS’s post-solo album output is one song: ‘Dirty Livin’ from the ‘Dynasty’ album. Anton Fig played on the rest of the album and on ALL of ‘Unmasked’. Criss stepped off the KISS merry-go-round after the Dynasty tour, sat out ‘Unmasked’ completely, and was (unanimously) finally voted out of the band just before filming a video of the song ‘Shandi’, a song he didn’t play on from an album he had nothing to do with.

KISS’s records at this point should have come with labels: “WARNING: MAY CONTAIN LESS THAN 75% KISS”. The truth is, this band had broken up along time ago. But The KISS Army didn’t need to know that… Here’s a section of Gene Simmons’ biography that explains why the band hid his Ace and Peter’s status from the world for as long as they did:

“We tried to move things along as smoothly as possible. We put (Ace’s) face on the cover and pretended that he played on the album… We were concerned that our fans wouldn’t be able to deal with the departures of two members… It would be devastating to them and to their idea of us.”

Of course, what this boils down to is a fear of line-up changes damaging the brand and having a negative impact on cash flow. To be fair, Ace and Peter both played along too, supporting the sham for years, no doubt also concerned about the gravy train drying up. But continuing the charade didn’t ensure continued success; ‘Unmasked’ tanked even with Criss’ name and face on the cover, as did ‘Elder’ and ‘Creatures’, both sporting Ace’s face and name. The strategy of deception didn’t work. The fraud the band had been perpetrating on its fans had failed.

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KISS’ next move was to totally re-invent themselves by taking the make-up off. But Frehley and Criss remained one-quarter shareholders; Frehley continued to earn his share right up through the ‘Lick it Up’ and ‘Animalize’ albums, and was eventually bought out. Criss’s deal lasted even longer. Did Frehley and Criss deserve to earn their one quarter shares after their material contributions to the corporation ceased? Maybe. Their initial work helped make KISS a pop culture phenomenon, a brand that continues to thrive (and earn) to this day. But small wonder that there’s always been considerable animosity between the Stanley/Simmons and Criss/Frehley camps; one half of the ‘band’ consistently contributed more than the other, yet all four original ‘members’ received an equal share of corporate earnings.

Fast-forward to 1996 and the inevitable ‘Classic KISS’ reunion. No doubt new contracts were signed by Frehley and Criss, but otherwise nothing much had changed. After a monumentally successful reunion tour, the inevitable reunion album was recorded… aaaand session drummer Kevin Valentine plays drums on every song on ‘Psycho Circus’ except ‘Into the Void’. In fact, ‘Void’ has the distinction of being the only song on ‘Circus’ on which all four members of KISS perform. Ace plays three solos on the album, and Bruce Kulick and Tommy Thayer play all the rest. ‘Psycho Circus’ was marketed as the first studio album by the band’s original lineup since 1979’s ‘Dynasty’; with Ace only appearing on 3 tracks and Peter on only one, the ‘Dynasty’ comparison was perhaps more apt than intended.

Having a discussion about the ethics of KISS is a little silly, I know. This part of their history makes more sense when you stop thinking about KISS as a band and start thinking of them as a business. But didn’t that business have a responsibility to its customers? Didn’t KISS fans deserve the truth from their heroes? Did the very fans that supported this commercial juggernaut deserve to have their loyalty exploited?

You Wanted the Best, But Did You Get It? Up until 1978, sure; after that, buyer beware.

Re-master of Reality

AC/DC OFFICIAL NEWS ANNOUNCEMENT

BIGGEST ROCK BAND IN WORLD TO RETIRE ON TOP: AC/DC CALLS IT QUITS   January 28 2009

Hot on the heels of their most successful release ever, fifteenth studio album ‘Black Ice’ (Sony), Australian hard rock band AC/DC have decided to end the band after touring in support of what will now be their final record. The band feels strongly that it would be impossible to top the worldwide success of ‘Black Ice’, and would rather wind up their career on a high note. Despite the fact that Black Ice was released exclusively in physical formats, and only through Walmart in North America, ‘Black Ice’ peaked at No. 1 in 29 countries, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. The record shipped 6 million copies worldwide by December. “This is gonna be tough to beat,” says guitarist Angus Young. “You gotta know when to end it, right? This seems like a pretty good time to call it a day, before we embarrass ourselves!.” Expect AC/DC’s farewell tour to wrap up in 2010, after which the band will enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

AEROSMITH DISBANDS, CITES INABILITY TO WRITE SONGS WHILE SOBER   September 4th, 1986/Framingham, MA

Boston-based Hard Rock band AEROSMITH have announced they are disbanding. After attending rehabs and declaring themselves 100% sober, the band has discovered they are utterly incapable of writing Aerosmith music. Last year’s mediocre ‘Done With Mirrors’ was written while the band tried to appear sober; writing the next record completely without the aid of illicit substances has yielded disappointing results. Manager Tim Collins and Geffen Records A&R John Kalodner enlisted an army of ‘song doctors’ to help write a follow-up, but the band flatly rejected the idea. “Now that I’m straight all the time, I just don’t feel like a badass anymore. We just aren’t Aerosmith without the drugs”, said guitarist Joe Perry. “It’s been a great ride, but I guess it’s over,” added vocalist Steven Tyler. “We’re clean and sober now, but our mojo ain’t workin’. Consider us all on permanent vacation.”

BULLETIN: DATELINE 6 NOV 1978

KISS ANOUNCES RETIREMENT, FRANCHISE PLANS

Legendary theatrical rock group KISS will retire from writing and performing early next year, inside sources say. The infamous shock rock quartet plan to expand KISS-related activities in other avenues. All four band members have signed on to star in a Saturday morning children’s variety show called ‘The Rockin’ Adventures of KISS!’, which is slated to debut in June of next year on. KISS will also enter the franchise market, with different musicians from across the country donning the costumes and make-up, allowing different versions of KISS to operate in different regions (KISS Vegas, KISS LA, etc). KISS has also signed an agreement with Disney to present nightly KISS concerts using animatronic versions of KISS in both theme park locations. Says Gene Simmons, “While there will be no more KISS records, the brand will continue and expand. Because it’s all about the brand. And the fans, right. The brand and the fans.”

June 12 1984 Hollywood CA

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: GUITARIST TONY IOMMI ANNOUNCES NEW GROUP ‘THE END’

Former Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi has put together a new band, The End. “Doing my solo album (‘Seventh Star’) was great fun, but I want to get back to a band situation. I’m happy to be working with Geezer again, and excited to see what kind of music comes of it.” Joining Iommi in The End will be former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan and ex-ELO/Move drummer Bev Bevan. “Geezer and I talked about having Bill Ward in, but we thought the better of it. The record companies would probably try to slap the old Sabbath name on it, and after Ozzy died in that horrible plane incident, there will never be another Black Sabbath record. Besides, Bill’s in rehab.” The new group is planning an album for the spring of next year, tentatively titled ‘Born Again’.

BULLETIN / BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND DEC 18 1985

JUDAS PRIEST ABANDON NEW ALBUM SESSIONS, HALFORD ENTERS REHAB

Judas Priest lead vocalist Rob Halford has entered a rehab in Van Nuys, California to address an addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. A spokesman for the singer states that Halford ‘…has taken the steps necessary to get himself together and will return to the band early in the new year.’ This move has halted recording sessions for the follow-up to Priest’s highly successful ‘Defenders of the Faith’ album. The band began recording material for a double album, tentatively titled ‘Twin Turbos’, but bassist Ian Hill says the band will “probably scrap everything and start over when Rob is back.” Hill continued, “We’re going to take this time to reassess where we are right now. There’s a lot of change happening in heavy music right now, and we want to be sure not to get caught up in the current trends or fads or what have you. We have to stay true to ourselves and our fans, and make sure we are honoring what Priest is really all about.”

7 April 1998 Huddersfield, UK / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

STEVE HARRIS REPORTS: IRON MAIDEN GUITARIST SITUATION SORTED

JUST ANNOUNCED: Iron Maiden guitarist Janick Gers has decided to leave the band. In a statement released today, Gers stated “I had heard that Bruce (Dickinson) was coming back, everybody knew it would happen, but I wasn’t aware that they’d been talking to Adrian (Smith) as well. Maiden’s not a 3-guitar band, it’s a little much, isn’t it? I thought ‘If I step down, then it will be a proper reunion, won’t it?’ I don’t want to be the one standing in the way of that, you know.” Despite the fact that Gers’ tenure in the band included what some would say were Maiden’s weakest records, Harris has nothing but respect for the guitarist. Harris: “Janick feels he is doing the right thing, and we support him 100%. We thank him for the years he gave to Maiden and wish him all the best.” Harris has also dismisses claims that Gers was ‘forced out’ to accommodate Smith “Nonsense. I would have done with 3 guitars, ’cause it was a difficult situation and firing anybody wouldn’t have been right,  but Janick stepped up of his own accord and saved us from having to do that.”  Gers is reportedly planning to re-form White Spirit.

May the 13th, 1996/Via New Musical Express

Ex-Lizzy Man to Honor Mother’s Wishes; Lizzy-Without-Lynott Will Not Happen

American guitarist Scott Gorham wishes it to be known that he no longer intends ‘re-activate’ beloved rock group ‘Thin Lizzy’, as he had stated earlier this year in several music papers. Gorham’s change of heart comes soon after Philomena Lynott, the mother of Thin Lizzy frontman Phillip Lynott, made several public pleas for Gorham and fellow ex-Lizzy member John Sykes to “stop this madness before it starts”, and to “respect my son, who you have called your brother” (see NME March 26). Gorham reportedly met with Mrs. Lynott at her home in Howth some weeks ago, and finally made a public announcement yesterday. “We have all agreed to honor Philomena’s wishes.” said Gorham, during a short press conference on MTv UK. “She actually made us swear to it… We all took a vow and swore to let the legend of Thin Lizzy rest in peace.”

24 January 2010 HANOVER, GERMANY / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SCORPIONS ANNOUNCE 3 FINAL ALBUMS AND 6 FAREWELL TOURS!

German hard rockers SCORPIONS have decided that their upcoming album, titled ‘Sting in the Tail’, will be their last. The band will then launch their final world tour to promote the album and to thank their loyal fans for supporting them for almost 50 years. SCORPIONS will then release another final album, called ‘Comeblack’, and embark on yet another farewell tour. This tour will be filmed for release on DVD, to be entitled ‘Get Your Sting’, and will showcase the SCORPIONS last-ever concert performances. Next up is another DVD, ‘Unplugged in Athens’, filmed on either the fifteenth or sixteenth leg of the band’s last tour ever. SCORPIONS final final album, to be called ‘Return to Forever’, will follow, followed by another string of final farewell world tours. SCORPIONS fans can expect the band to continue breaking up well into 2016, six years after first announcing their retirement.

September 1986, SOUNDS: “What’s Next for Purple People?”

After conquering the hard rock world with their one-off reunion album, ‘Perfect Strangers’, the members of Deep Purple are weighing their options. The first Deep Purple MkII album in 11 years went Top 20 in 9 countries, and has been certified Gold or Platinum in 6 countries, while the US leg of the Perfect Strangers tour was the 2nd highest-grossing tour of 1985. But no one seems to feel much like celebrating. “I have no idea what I’m going to do next, but I have to tell you I’m glad this Purple thing is finally over. Again.” The singer won’t confirm, but rumors of a post-show punch-up between Gillan and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore after their final Wembley show are circulating, and none of the other members are talking. Bassist Roger Glover: “Well, all I can say about that is there’s always been sort of a volatile chemistry within this band, and I think we were wise when we all agreed to limit this to one album. Anything more than that and it just wouldn’t work.” Jon Lord agrees. “Of course, I’m very proud of this album. We all are. But let’s leave it be, shall we? Time to move on to other things.”

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT October 31, 1986   Metallica HQ, San Rafael, CA

METALLICA BREAK UP AFTER TRAGIC LOSS OF BASS PLAYER

Following the tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton, the remaining members of pioneering thrash metal band Metallica have decided to call it quits. “Cliff is irreplaceable”, said drummer Lars Ulrich. “Trying to do so would be ridiculous. We’re going to what Zeppelin did; just end it. Honestly, we were running out of Dave Mustaine riffs anyway.” The pair plan to break the news to Kirk Hammett “pretty soon”. Ulrich plans to spend his free time learning how to play the drums. Frontman James Hetfield is rumored to be planning an as-yet-untitled 2-part country music concept album, centered around his gun collection. Dave Mustaine could not be reached for comment.

MUSICNEWS.COM: MAY 19 1996

VAN HALEN REVEAL IDENTITY OF NEW LEAD SINGER

The VAN HALEN NEWS DESK (http://www.vhnd.com) announced this morning that storied hard rockers VAN HALEN have hired a new lead singer. Despite rumors of auditioning several ‘big names’ over the past 5 months (Meatloaf, Iggy Pop, Regis Philbin, Elmer Fudd), the VH brothers have instead decided on a virtual unknown with no experience or ability, but with one important qualification: Malcom Van Halen is drummer Alex Van Halen’s son. On hiring his nephew, a professional photographer without any sort of musical track record, Eddie Van Halen remarked, “So what? He’s family. Besides, who cares? Roth sucked last time around and we still sold tickets. No one listens to this band for the vocals. And if Mal doesn’t work out, there’s always my nephew Aric.”

SQUATNEY, LONDON, UK

FOR ALL MEDIA-22/05/2016

HEAVY METAL LEGENDS SPINAL TAP TO RE-REUNITE, TOUR IMMINENT

Veteran British rockers SPINAL TAP have reunited once again. The band will launch a world tour on July 1st, weather permitting. The crowd-funded ‘Where Are We Now?’ tour will feature the band’s ‘smallest production yet’, and each show will include the classic album ‘Shark Sandwich’ (Polymer, 1977) played in its entirety. Select shows ‘may’ ‘perhaps’ ‘possibly’ be recorded for a live album. The band are currently auditioning drummers (interested parties should contact eatonhoggprod@tap.com.uk, must be able to play the drums by July 1). Support on the ‘Where Are We Now?’ tour will be UFO and Blue Oyster Cult. #gofundyourself/taptour

 

Three Great Albums That Sound Like Shit

Blue Oyster Cult’s first three albums: A masterclass in 70’s hard rock songwriting and tasteful playing, equal parts nuance and bombast, delivered with both menace with considerable wit. But let’s face it: they sound like shit. Words like ‘thin’, ‘flat’, and ‘tepid’ are often used to describe the sound quality of these records. Imagine the impact this trio of albums would have had if they shared the production value of other contemporary US hard rock bands; say, Aerosmith or Montrose. Methinks BOC would have had a much better chance of achieving their initial goal of becoming ‘The American Black Sabbath’ had these records sounded like what they looked like.

The sub-par sound doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of these records at all; in fact, ‘Secret Treaties’ is one of my top three favorite albums of all time. Production value is only one element of a record’s overall success; if the songwriting’s great, and the playing’s stellar, it’s easy to overlook a record’s sonic shortcomings. Most of us grew up listening to badly-produced records before we really knew or cared about the sound quality of the music we listened to. Some of us still don’t care. I do; when I hear a record like ‘Tyranny and Mutation’, and those crazy, crafty and cryptic tunes, I hear a missed opportunity; I want it to knock me flat on my ass, but it just doesn’t have the visceral impact that it could.

Of course this is all just my opinion. In my own musical universe, there are a handful of albums that frustrate me endlessly because, to my mind, the sonics just don’t live up to the caliber of the material or the level of the performances. But I get it: inadequate budgets, inexperienced producers, bad decisions and drugs happen. Truth be told, I wouldn’t change a single second of any of these records… I love them all dearly… But it’s hard not to lament what might have been. Here are my three favorite examples:

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Kiss/Hotter Than Hell
So many things went wrong for Kiss in 1974, it’s a wonder they made it to ’75. Sales of the debut failed to live up to expectations, so a mere six months after the release of their debut, their label, Casablanca, pulled them off the road and shoved them back into the studio for a quick follow-up. The production duo of Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise were again tapped to produce, but had both moved to California, so the four New Yorkers flew to sunny Los Angeles to record their all-important 2nd record. The project was regarded by Casablanca as ‘make or break’; not only for Kiss, but for the label as well. The fledgling label had just lost it’s distribution deal with Warner Brothers Records, and Warner’s promotional budget with it. A lot was riding on this record…

Several books have been written on the early days of Kiss, including biographies by all four members. Each tells the same story about how difficult the sessions for ‘Hotter than Hell’ were: the band hated LA, Kerner and Wise hated the studio, Ace wrecked his rental car and was injured, Paul Stanley’s custom-made Flying V was stolen on the day the sessions began. Wah. None of this had anything to do with why this record sounds like a garbage can filled with forks rolling down a stairwell. The real culprits were Kerner and Wise.

While the pair had done a decent job on Kiss’ debut, Wise wanted to move the band’s sound in a different direction. Hoping to better align their music with their image, Wise planned to move the band away from their rock n roll core and toward a heavier, more menacing sound. This was Stupid Idea #1. Stupid Idea #2 was to record everything ‘hot’, meaning distorted, needle-in-the-red ‘hot’. As in ‘Hotter Than Hell’. Get it? Wise stated in the book “Kiss: Behind the Mask” that ‘It’s the worst-sounding album I ever recorded. It was overly compressed and overdriven. I’ll take the blame for wanting to make it heavy and distorted… The intent was to make a Black Sabbath kind of sounding record, but it just didn’t pan out sonically.’ He also called it ‘…very harsh and just disgusting.’ Paul Stanley’s bio also acknowledges that the distortion in the recording was intended.

Several songs on ‘Hotter than Hell’ have risen from the murk and gone on to become bona fide Kiss Klassics; a testament to the strength of the material. Unfortunately this clusterfuck recording renders them almost unlistenable. Even with huge advances in recording technology, this recording simply cannot be fixed. When Kiss put out their ‘Double Platinum’ best-of in 1978, most of the songs included were remixed, but the two from HtH were not… because it wouldn’t have helped. The distorted signal that Wise was after is printed on the original tapes, and it’s there to stay. The Kiss catalog was remastered in 1997, allowing Kiss fans to hear this godawful sludgy mess with crystal clarity.

The Kiss story almost ended right there in the control room of Village Recorders in West Los Angeles, California. ‘Hotter Than Hell’ flopped hard, peaking on the charts even lower than the debut. After the failure of HtH, Kiss faced losing their recording contract, and Casablanca faced bankruptcy. Four months later, Kiss was once again forced off the road and into the studio. Dressed to Kill was Kiss’ third album in 13 months, was NOT produced by Kerner and Wise, and peaked at #32. The rest is history.

Rainbow-Rising

Rainbow/Rising
What could one say about Rainbow’s 1976 classic, ‘Rising’, that hasn’t already been said? How about this: ‘It sounds like shit.’ Some of Metal’s greatest performers deliver some of their strongest performances here, and there’s a handful of indisputably classic songs on hand (side two is flawless). However, all of the epic grandeur of Blackmore/Dio’s finest hour (34 minutes, actually) is buried in a resoundingly flat, one-dimensional mix, devoid of any discernable bottom end, and utterly lacking the clarity and depth that this material calls for. The strength of the songs and the musicianship shines through, making this record an absolute classic of the genre… But sonically, it sucks.

‘Rising’ was recorded at Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany; same studio that hosted the ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’ sessions a year earlier. Martin Birch helmed both records. So how come the sonics on ‘Rising’ are so… crappy? Well… Birch’s initial mix (completed in LA) was rejected by the band’s label as being ‘too bass-heavy’, and the album was remixed (in NY). It’s the NY remix of the record that was pressed onto plastic. What went wrong here? Cozy Powell sounds like he’s playing in a separate room; bassist Jimmy Bain in another zip code. Dio’s vocals sound phoned-in… literally. In the louder, busier passages (and what’s HM if not loud n’ busy), the sound dissolves into an annoying grey mess.

Things were rectified somewhat in 1986, with ‘Rising’s first appearance on CD. Birch’s original LA mix was utilized when the record was mastered, as Polydor were unable to locate the master tapes of the NY mix. This version of the album sounds pretty great, with Bain’s bass loud and clear, Dios vox are warmer and several layers of guitar and keyboard overdubs apparent that were barely audible on the NY mix. This version was available commercially for a little over a decade, until Polydor remastered the entire Rainbow catalog in 1999.

‘Rising’s ’99 remaster utilized Birch’s NY remix… But how, if the original tapes weren’t available? The mastering engineers at Polydor utilized the ‘needle-drop’ method; they used a vinyl copy of the album, plus tons of noise reduction and digital tweaking. This was done mainly so the label could market the remaster as the ‘original mix’. But the original ‘original’ mix was in fact the LA mix… Are ya confused yet? The ’99 remaster does sound decent, considering it’s source material. Thankfully, this epic saga has a happy ending.

In 2011, 35 years after the album’s original release, a Deluxe Edition of Rainbow’s ‘Rising’ was issued in a two-CD set. Both the NY and LA versions are featured, both newly mastered, providing nerds like me a great way to compare both mixes. The remaster of Birch’s original LA mix wins hands-down. On disc 2, a rough mix of the entire album is included, and even it sounds better than the NY remix ordered by the label. Moral of the story? Don’t mess with a Martin Birch Mix. Perhaps the Mystery of the New York Mix will be explained in Birch’s book…

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UFO/Obsession
Okay, this one’s probably just personal preference.

UFO’s fifth Schenker-riffic album, Obsession, contains some of the greatest lead guitar playing of the 1970’s. To capture it, producer Ron Nevison located a disused post office building just outside of Los Angeles, set up Schenker’s favorite 50-watt Marshall head on top of 2 a Marshall 4×12 cabinet and let the German genius wail away at will into the cavernous space. The sublime tone and fiery attack of Schenker’s lead work never sounded better.

Nevison’s approach to recording the rhythm guitar tracks was a bit different. The famed British producer had previously produced and/or engineered records by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and The Rolling Stones, so nobody argued when the legendary producer set up microphones around a Pignose amplifier.

The ‘Pignose’ amplifier is a small, portable, battery-operated 5-watt amp that employs a single 5-inch speaker. It was created as a practice amp that could be used in a variety of places and situations without having to plug in to a power outlet. The Pignose ‘sound’ at it’s best is a mid-to-high end processed fuzz/crunch; nasal and treble-y, but certainly decent enough for warming up backstage or practicing quietly at home without disturbing Mom and Dad. But when it comes to 70s Hard Rock, isn’t disturbing Mom and Dad mandatory?

To these ears, the rhythm guitars on ‘Obsession’ sound barely demo-worthy. The riffs written into the harder songs sound limp, fuzzy… almost comical. The Pignose was used by Nevison on UFO’s previous album ‘Lights Out’, but merely as one more guitar sound for that record’s expansive sonic palate. On ‘Obsession’, the Pignose’s signature ‘sound’ is harnessed and expressly highlighted, removing the crunch and punch from some potentially monstrous riffs and creating several infuriating moments of near-parody, subverting the very idea of riff rock itself. Perhaps Nevison was aiming to play with the contrast between the two sounds; it doesn’t work.

Where the Pignose works well is in the record’s quieter moments; the li’l champ adds some textured delicacy to the chorus of ‘Born to Lose’ and to the intro to ‘I Ain’t No Baby, as well as some brassy, trumpet-like sass to ‘Lookin’ Out for No. 1 (Reprise)’. But Oh, how I would LOVE to hear the balls-out rockers like ‘Hot n’ Ready’, ‘Pack It Up (and Go)’, or ‘One more for the Rodeo’ played through Schenker’s own equipment, or maybe (since we’re daydreaming here) through brother Rudy’s Scorps gear. Imagine if the Mad Axeman had rejected that rizzy little box with the Radio Shack speaker, and instead tore into ‘Only You Can Rock Me’ with the ‘post office’ set-up… Talk about ‘going postal’!

Number One with a Bullet(belt)

If you’re my age, you discovered music on the radio. And, like me, you were probably listening on an AM Top 40 station; in the 1970s, Top 40 radio was almost exclusively found on the AM band. A glance back at the charts from that era reveals a pretty bizarre musical landscape; country music rubbing shoulders with soul and disco, hard funk fraternizing with soft rock, weepy ballads mixing with crunchy hard rock. A little bit of everything could be found on Top 40 radio in the 1970s… And if you were willing, as I was, to listen to 30 minutes of schlock in search of one hard rocking gem, the payoff was worth it.

Placement in the Billboard Top 40 in the 1970s was based on a combination of airplay and sales. Sales were largely driven by airplay; airplay was dictated by what appeared on the charts. Record company manipulation was also a major factor. But however dysfunctional these formulae were, this was the system many of us grew up with, and the way most of us found our music in the 1970s. This was how it was for me, and this is what I found…

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If we limit our look back to only the hardest and heaviest tunes ever to rough up the Top 40, there’s still a surprising number that make the cut. Let’s start with The Birth of Heavy, and Blue Cheer’s epic meltdown ‘Summertime Blues’, which peaked at #14 in 1968. This has got to be the heaviest song ever to feature in the Top 20. Also in ’68, Cream made the Top 10 with ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (#6), Iron Butterfly hit #30 with ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’, and Mountain climbed to #21 in 1970 with ‘Mississippi Queen’. In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ made it to #4. Zeppelin continued to appear in the Top 40 into the early years of the 70s; ‘Immigrant Song’/’Hey Hey, What Can I Do’ hit #16 in 1970, ‘Black Dog’ reached #15 in ’71, and ‘Trampled Under Foot’ crept in at #38 in 1975.

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While Black Sabbath never achieved Top 40 status with any of their singles, they were there in spirit. Bloodrock’s ‘D.O.A.’ hit #36; a truly unsettling song (at it’s core, it’s a re-write of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’), ‘D.O.A’.’ was banned from many radio stations due to it’s graphically gory lyrics and dark musicality… which only helped boost its popularity. Alice Cooper hit #7 with ‘School’s Out’, another song that radio stations banned. With its subversive lyric, including a line about blowing up a school, it’s doubtful that this song would even be recorded today. The Edgar Winter Group’s monster instrumental ‘Frankenstein’ topped the charts (that’s #1, kids) in 1972. Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 masterpiece ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ (#12) may not qualify as ‘heavy’, but its epic middle section and morbid lyrics certainly do; the song caused a minor uproar when it was (correctly?) labeled a ‘pro-suicide anthem’. This was seriously heavy stuff, kids, and it was also considered pop music.

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Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ was only ever released as a single in the ‘double-A-side’ format, with the live version from ‘Made in Japan’ on the A-side and the studio version from the previous year’s ‘Machine Head’ on the B. Released in May of 1973, it climbed to #4; radio stations played both sides. Also in ’73, Rick Derringer’s kick-ass ‘Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo’ placed at #23, and Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’ reached #5; Sweet would hit again in 1975 with ‘Fox on the Run’ (#5) and ‘Action’ (#20). Alice came back in ’73 with three Top 40 placings from the ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ album: ‘Elected’ (#26), ‘Hello, Hurray’ (#35) and ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ (#25), before a bizarre run of four consecutive Top 40 ballads. Not bizarre because the ballads were bad; bizarre because … he was Alice Cooper. And these were ballads.

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Aerosmith were a dominant presence in the Top 40 for a few years, but didn’t exactly play fair… ‘Dream On’ originally peaked at #59 in 1973, but after the success of the ‘Sweet Emotion’ single (#36), Columbia re-released ‘Dream On’ again in 1976, and the song hit #6. ‘Walk This Way’ has a similar history: when originally released in 1975, the single didn’t even chart. In 1976, it was re-released in between the ‘Last Child’ (#21) and ‘Back in the Saddle’ (#38) singles, and this time ‘Walk This Way’ would hit #10. Aerosmith’s last visit to the Top 40 in the 70’s would be with their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ (#23) in 1978, from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. Aerosmith would re-appear as chart darlings a decade later, but as a drastically different kind of band (sob).

Kiss-Rock-and-Roll-All-Nite

The Hottest Band in the Land paid frequent visits to the Top 40. Kiss hit #12 in 1975 with the ‘Alive!’ version of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, with ‘Shout it Out Loud’ (#31) in ’76, and with ‘Calling Dr. Love’ (#16) and ‘Christine Sixteen’ (#25) in 1977. Two other Kiss singles charted just as high or higher; one was a ballad produced by Bob Ezrin (it worked for Alice). Neither single rocked, so they will not be acknowledged here. For about two years, Foghat were huge; ‘Slow Ride’ (#20), ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ (#34), and the live version of ‘I Just Want To Make Love to You’ (#33) were all over the radio. Heart showed up big with ‘Crazy on You’ (#35) and ‘Magic Man’ (#9) in ’76, and the absolutely awesome ‘Barracuda’ (#11), another solid candidate for the heaviest Top 20 song evah, a year later. Just goes to show: you can’t judge a 45 by its picture sleeve.

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I’ll round out our research here with a few more notable one-offs: The manic flute freak-out of ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus reached #9 in 1973, BTO’s ‘Let it Ride’ got to #12 in, and ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ reached #20 in 1975. In 1976, Thin Lizzy broke big with ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ (#12), and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ topped out at #9. In 1977, Ted Nugent returned to the Top 40 (The Amboy Dukes’ ‘Journey to the Center of Your Mind’ hit #16 in 1968) with ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ (#30), and Ram Jam’s recording of the blues tune ‘Black Betty’ caused the NAACP to call for a national boycott. ‘Black Betty’ hit #17, which seems to indicate that the boycott failed…

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It sounds improbable today, but in the 1970s, the place to go to for hard rock and heavy metal was Top 40 radio. In 1978, the Top 40 format began migrating to the FM dial, where singles mingled with album cuts, diluting the power of the ‘Hit Single’. As touring became big business, the hard and heavy bands began working the road the way they had previously worked radio. It was the end of the era when the Top 40 ruled the AM airwaves.

…Until today. The Top 40 format rules the airwaves once again, although these days it seems as though there are only 5 or 6 songs ever aired on the radio, played over and over and over. Today, there is ZERO rock music on Top 40 radio. Kids are finding their rock and metal music on the internet, acquiring it for free, and deleting it when they tire of it. To a child of the 70s sitting on his bed, staring at his battery-powered radio, waiting for the DJ to play ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ (Kansas, #11/’77) again, the music culture of today would seem like pure science fiction.

(Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything; everything that appears here is based on my (subjective) opinion of what constitutes hard rock and heavy metal during this era. Besides the omissions specifically mentioned in the article, some Top 40 singles by Jethro Tull, Queen and Nazareth were left out because imho, they just didn’t ROCK to a sufficient degree.)

 

Martin Birch: Engineering History

I’ve got books on my shelves about Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, Rush, and Judas Priest. About The Ramones, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cheap Trick. Books about classic albums like Led Zeppelin IV, ‘Master of Reality’, and ‘Deep Purple In Rock’. I have bios written by Gillan, Iommi and Lemmy. One each by Steven Tyler and by Joe Perry. By all 4 members of KISS. The rock books in my personal library range from trashy tell-alls to insightful and historically accurate journalism. The career arcs of my heroes and critical analysis of their works is something I study with great interest. The one book I don’t have, and the book I am most anxious to read, is one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been written yet.

Martin Birch: Write your bloody book already.

The name ‘Martin Birch’ appears on several of the most important hard rock/heavy metal albums of all time. At the end of this post, I’ve included a list of just some of Birch’s production credits. This gentleman has produced/engineered/mixed the soundtracks to our youths He has worked with many of our musical heroes for extensive periods of time; he could probably fill a book with his experiences with Deep Purple alone (seven studio albums), and make his work with Iron Maiden (eight) his Volume II… And still not even scratch the surface of his experience.

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You know he’s got stories to tell. Working with Ritchie Blackmore in the studio on a whopping 10 records… Witnessing the sad disintegration of legends like Bill Ward, Tommy Bolin, and Michael Schenker… And being present at the creation of new legends like Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie Dio. Dude was hand-picked to rebuild the stature of a born again Black Sabbath, and of a floundering Blue Oyster Cult. This guy was the first to record the harmonizing guitars of Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell and Ted Turner, and the first to capture the harmonizing voices of Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale. Birch was behind the board in Munich as Ritchie Blackmore’s solo single became a solo album, and helmed the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio outside Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan in August of 1972… not just witnessing history being made, but recording it… And not merely recording history, but taking part in it; shaping it.

Birch was often credited as producer/engineer as well as for mixing, meaning he was solely responsible for the overall sound of his projects. This often meant getting workable performances from drug addicts, volatile personalities, and in some cases, people with very little talent. In other cases, it meant recording under extremely difficult circumstances, including sessions held in a barn in Steve Harris’ backyard (No Prayer for the Dying’), and in the freezing cold hallways of empty hotel in Switzerland (‘Machine Head’). Ya, this guy’s got stories.

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And nicknames! Birch appears in album/single credits with various band-bestowed nicknames sandwiched between his first and last names, such as Black Night, Sir Larry, Basher, Big Ears, Court Jester, Doc, The Farmer, The Wasp, Headmaster, Jah, Live Animal, Masa, Mummy’s Curse, Plan B, Pool Bully, The Bishop, The Juggler, The Ninja, and my two favorites: Martin ‘Phantom of the Jolly Cricketers’ Birch, as he’s credited on the Iron Maiden Single ‘Run to the Hills’ (Live)/’Phantom of the Opera’ (Live), and Martin ‘Disappearing Armchair’ Birch, as credited on Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ lp. Note: This is not a complete list. A guy with this many nicknames has some great life experiences to share.

But what is it about this man that put him in the same room with these musicians time and again? What does he bring to the table that sets him apart from his peers? I would love to read his own take on why he was the go-to guy for so many iconic bands. Clearly the man has an excellent set of ears, but also must possess an extraordinary talent for inspiring and motivating artistic people. Deep Purple MkII dedicated a song to him on ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ (‘Hard Lovin’ Man’) and called him ‘a catalyst’ in the liner notes; high praise coming from one of the more creative and progressive heavy bands of the era. There is a compelling, historically significant story here: how one man helped mold and shape an entire genre for more than 2 decades.

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Is there a ‘Martin Birch Sound’? Birch’s productions do all share a similar overall ‘presence’; it’s all about sonic space, and balance within that space; much of it happens in the mix, and (as you’re noticing as you read this), it’s very difficult to describe. To my own ears, Birch creates a space where every instrument can clearly be heard perfectly, and where every element has exactly the ‘right’ shape and presence in the mix, and works together to create an almost solid, 3-dimensional sound. I would suggest Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’, Iron Maiden’s ‘Piece of Mind’, and Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ as prime examples of what a Martin Birch production/mix sounds like. Three very different bands with three vastly different sounds; one consistent sonic presentation.

After Whitesnake’s ‘Slide it In’ in 1984, Birch was commandeered to work exclusively for Iron Maiden. Some have called him Iron Maiden’s ‘Fifth Member’. Wouldn’t Eddie be the fifth? That would make Birch the sixth member, unless you acknowledge Janick Gers, which I don’t… But I digress. Martin Birch retired permanently in 1992, after his umpteenth album with Maiden, ‘Fear of the Dark’. Drastic changes in recording technology led to subtle changes in Martin Birch’s signature presentation, evident in Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son…’ and ‘Somewhere in Time’ albums, and perhaps Birch knew that his era was drawing to a close. He was a mere 42 years old when he walked away from the business; today, he’s a bit past his mid-60’s… Mr. Birch, we suggest you add ‘The Author’ to your impressive collection of nicknames.

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Deep Purple: Deep Purple In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Made in Japan, Who Do we Think we Are?, Burn, Stormbringer, Made in Europe, Come Taste the Band, Last Concert in Japan

Black Sabbath: Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules

Rainbow: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rising, On Stage, Long Live Rock and Roll

Whitesnake: Lovehunter, Ready an’ Willing, Live in the Heart of the City, Come an’ Get it, Saints an’ Sinners, Slide it In

Blue Oyster Cult: Cultosaurus Erectus, Fire of Unknown Origin

Michael Schenker Group: Assault Attack

Iron Maiden: Killers, The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, etc etc etc.

Wishbone Ash: Wishbone Ash, Pilgrimage, Argus

 

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

As the hard rocking 1970’s drew to a close, American bands ruled. Aerosmith and Kiss were all over the radio; Blue Oyster Cult and Ted Nugent were routinely selling out enormo-domes across the country, and relative newbies Boston and Cheap Trick broke in a big way. Readers of the popular rock rags of the day couldn’t escape pictures of Gene Simmons’ tongue or The Nuge’s loincloth. Soft rock hits by Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles rubbed shoulders with Ram Jam’s ‘Black Betty’ in the Top 40.

With this kind of massive success, U.S. record companies did what record companies always do: milked it to death. Labels signed up anything that rocked, plucking average bar bands from relative obscurity, packaging them as arena rockers, and marketing them as the next big thing. The Machine wanted what Creem magazine referred to as ‘AeroKiss’; and that’s exactly how these bands were marketed to young buyers. While most of these bands would never have gotten a shot at the big leagues without allowing themselves to be molded into the styles and shapes of the bigger bands of the era, this ‘devil’s bargain’ denied them the possibility of ever making it on their own merits. This dynamic made for an interesting bunch of bands; here are a few of my favorite examples…

Starz

New Jersey’s Starz evolved from the remnants of pop band Looking Glass, who had a #1 hit with ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)’ in 1972, and Stories, who also hit #1 with ‘Brother Louie’ in ’73. The unofficial ‘5th member’ of Kiss, Sean Delaney, recommended Starz to Kiss’, manager Bill Aucoin, who secured the band a deal with Capitol Records. In order to make sure this new band sounded nothing like Stories or Looking Glass, Aucoin secured legendary hard rock producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, the Runaways) to toughen up their overall sound. Aucoin, always image-conscious, had a killer logo designed, tweaked their look (lead singer Michael Lee Smith, brother of Rex Smith, had the frontman appeal of Paul Stanley… and the lips of Steven Tyler) and the transformation into AeroKiss was complete.

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The debut album by Starz is a decent enough arena rock debut; a little clunky here and there in the songwriting department (Delaney gets a co-writing credit), but weren’t the debuts from Aerosmith and Kiss, as well? Second record ‘Violation’ is widely considered their best. Two songs from ‘Violation’ got a decent amount of radio play; check out ‘Sing It, Shout It’ and ‘Cherry Baby’ and see if they don’t sound familiar. The third record, ‘Attention Shoppers!’ suffers from the absence of Jack Douglas in the producer’s chair, and trades hard rock muscle for power pop bounce. After a line-up shift, 1978’s ‘Coliseum Rock’ returned Starz to a hard rock sound. It’s a solid, confident record, and the single ‘So Young, So Bad’, returned the band to rock radio. Unfortunately, ‘SY,SB’ sounded so much like Kiss that it confirmed this band was never going to make it past the ‘AeroKiss’ jokes. They split in 1979 after being dropped by Capitol.

Angel

Angel’s origin story doesn’t include any #1 hits, and can be traced back to a band working the bars on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. BUX included guitarist Edwin Lionel Meadows (soon to be immortalized as ‘Punky’) and bassist Mickey Jones, as well as singer Ralph Mormon. BUX were managed by Frank Connolly, who was also managing Aerosmith at the time; Connolly managed to secure the band a deal with Capitol Records. The band recorded their debut in 1973, but the label shelved it after the band split, with Meadows and Jones decamping to DC and forming Angel. The BUX album was finally released in 1976 to capitalize on Angel’s second album buzz. Mormon moved to Boston and eventually became the frontman for the Joe Perry Project (you know, Joe Perry of Aerosmith?).

As the story goes, none other than Gene Simmons saw Angel play in a nightclub in DC, and quicker then you can say ‘Bat-Lizard’, the band were signed to Casablanca. Angel’s 1975 debut is devoid of the usual Casablanca gimmickry (that would come later) and is an amazingly strong debut. If these guys had been left alone to sound and look as they saw fit, their music would have been taken a lot more seriously. Alas, Casablanca being Casablanca, Angel were transformed into shtick for the artwork for their second album ‘Helluva Band’. Again, the visuals took over: another nifty (ambigrammatic!) logo was designed, ridiculous outfits and spectacular stage show were conceived, and Angel became too much of a joke for their music to be taken seriously.

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‘Helluva Band’ is a GREAT album, and deserves to be appreciated without all of the Casablanca-bullshit attached. Combine Styx’s ‘Equinox’ with Rainbow’s ‘Rising’ and you’ll get a close approximation. But it’s a lot more fun than either of those two records, and so ‘HB’ deserves its status as a cult classic. Third record ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’ rocks as well, and contains some of the band’s strongest material (including an old BUX tune, ‘White Lightning’). Sure, there’s a Queen rip here, a Boston steal there… but it’s still a great record. ‘White Hot’ followed in 1978 and earned the band some airplay, most notably via ‘The Winter Song’, which hit #44 on the Billboard Hot 100. A Christma-tized version of the song was released, as ‘The Christmas Song’, but strangely enough, that one never got any play. ‘White Hot’ is good fun, an adventurous hard rock record with a overall commercial feel. Things were looking good for the ‘Anti-Kiss’…

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… Until their fifth and final studio album, ‘Sinful’. Originally titled ‘Bad Publicity’, the album art was to depict the band in street clothes, partying with some hot babes in a wrecked hotel room while members of the press observe (a few promos did sneak out with this title and cover art). This cover concept was scotched at the final minute, and the record was re-titled ‘Sinful’. The cover art was changed to something much less ‘dangerous’: a soft-focus black and white shot of the band in full angel regalia. The music itself was decidedly more commercial than on Angel’s previous releases, with each song sounding like a stab at pop rock radio. Coming packaged in what looked like a magazine add for hi-end shampoo, the relative ‘wimpiness’ of the record was magnified. For fans of the band’s earlier music, their credibility was now all but gone. A waste-of-time double live album followed, but a disco single (‘Twentieth Century Foxes’, featured in the 1980 movie ‘Foxes’) sealed the deal.

The Godz

Midwestern biker band The Godz were no better/no worse than a thousand other bar bands in America in 1977, but someone in the Kiss organization saw God knows what, and booked them as the opening act for Midwestern leg of Kiss’ Love Gun Tour. Soon after, they were signed to Casablanca Records and a debut record followed in 1978. Truth be told, The Godz were a pretty terrible band, possessed of exactly ONE great song, ‘Gotta Keep A Running’. The Casablanca marketing machine, well known for pushing style over substance, played up the tough guy biker image but forgot that people would eventually listen to the records.

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‘The Godz’, produced by Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer, is the sound of a band that doesn’t get it’s own joke. It’s truly dumb record, with dumb songs, dumb lyrics , and a (dumb) 11-minute cover of Golden Earring’s ‘Candy’s Going Bad’. Somehow this record has gained some sort of cult stature; I’m a huge fan of the aforementioned ‘Gotta Keep A Running’, but after that, there is absolutely nothing on this record that I can recommend. Second album ‘Nothing’s Sacred’ rips off its cover art from Judas Priest, playfully mis-spells almost every word in its song titles a ‘la Slade, and somehow manages to be even more dumberer than the debut.

The Aerosmith/Kiss connections are inescapable. It’s as if the monster success of these two bands created opportunities for anyone even peripherally connected to them. It’s also apparent that the Kiss mafia had its fingers in a lot of pies. Hey, those two arena champs needed opening acts, so why not just make them to order? Unfortunately, some decent bands got caught between the gears in the process, with a few brief brushes with greatness their only reward. I love all of these records dearly (yes, even the two by the Godz), due to the both quality of the music and the undeniable cheese factor. Nothing wrong with a little American cheese in your musical diet.

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