Christmas of Steel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Volume 50: The End is Nigh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Revenge of the Black Sheep, Pt II: AeroHead

Motorhead and melody were never the best of friends. But destiny would bring them together, in May of 1982…

After ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke left Motorhead only 2 shows in to the band’s 1982 North American tour, Lemmy and Phil needed another guitarist fast. Legend has it that Steve Kudlow (a.k.a. Lips) of Anvil was asked, but declined. If I were close to the band, I would have recommended Ace Frehley, who was still a de facto member of Kiss but hadn’t recorded anything with them since 1981. But I’m not, so I didn’t. I still think that woulda been awesome, but anyway… Enter former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian ‘Robbo’ Robertson. An inspired choice, but the boys were desperate and probably didn’t have many options. Robertson was one half of one of the most acclaimed twin guitar teams in all of rock, AND he had a colorful nickname. Just nine days after Clarke’s departure, the Motorhead machine was rolling again.
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Problems with Robertson became apparent during the completion of the Iron Fist tour, mostly related to his appearance, but also manifesting itself in his unwillingness to learn set list staples like ‘Overkill’, ‘Bomber’, ‘Stay Clean’, etc. Nonetheless, after completing the ‘Iron Fist’ dates and returning to the UK, Lem Phil and Robbo entered the studio together as the New and Improved Motorhead. To many, the addition of Robbo to The Loudest Band in the World looked great on paper; how would it translate onto vinyl? How would Robertson’s skill, musicality and flair jibe with the vicious who-needs-guitars-anyway Kilmister/Taylor rhythm section? Would it work at all? On June 4th, 1983, those questions were answered with the release of Motorhead’s seventh studio album.
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How you interpret APD depends on your point of view on Motorhead in general. If you’re the type of Motor-fan who likes to be beaten about the face and neck with your Motor-music, then you were probably startled by the new additions to the standard Motorhead sound: Subtlety, Dynamics, and *gulp* Melody. The LP’s comic strip insert features a panel depicting Phil asking Lemmy, “He’s a bit musical, isn’t he?” That word balloon sums up APD’s strengths and/or weaknesses, depending which side of the fence you’re on. As far as the new boy’s contributions, ‘Overkill’ is the word that comes to mind. Robertson plays like the legend he is throughout, but the quantity of his guitar playing on APD at least matches, if not surpasses, the quality. And the very first sign that we’re not motorcycling through Kansas anymore comes courtesy of Robbo: the guitar synthesizer featured on album opener ‘Back at the Funny Farm’. Motorhead using synthesizers was akin to a vegetarian ordering a Double Quarter Pounder (w/cheese). The gently picked guitar intros to ‘Dancing on your Grave’ and the album’s title track probably didn’t sit well with many Motorheadbangers, and the boogie-woogie piano on ‘Rockit’ probably raised a few eyebrows as well.

Many were concerned by the album’s first single, the melodic ‘I Got Mine’, which could accurately be described as a ballad (at least lyrically); remove the gnarly vocals and this tune could belong to any number of early 80’s hard rock bands. And couplets like “Come on lover/Go Back to start/I got your picture in my heart” were a far cry from “I’m in your life/I might be in your wife” of “You know you make me vomit/And I ain’t far from it” from a few years earlier. . ‘I Got Mine’ serves as a perfect example of the clash of stylistic approaches on ‘Another Perfect Day’: delicate chorused guitar riff meets savage drums and brutal mid-bass gouging; beauty meets the beast, head on… does it work? Ya, it does, though the song is a bit over-long. But for those who may have been scared away by the record’s first single, the second one, ‘Shine,’ was much more convincing, with it’s double-speed ZZ Top groove, killer guitaring and I’m so badass lyric.
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For some, all of this was too much to take. Fans and critics alike were shouting ‘sell out!’, and throwing the C word around: ‘Commercial’. Yes, it was true; the new Motorhead album was more accessible than anything before it, but any record that starts with ‘Back at the Funny Farm’ and ends with ‘Die You Bastard!’ could hardly be called a sell-out. Frankly, after the lifeless dud known as ‘Iron Fist’, Motorhead needed something… and love it or hate it, Robertson brought something new to the party. But for many, APD was a step too far from the mean and dirty (sloppy?), amphetamine-fueled (fast!) days of yore. I for one welcomed the expansion of Motorhead’s sound, and rate this record in their top 10, although I will admit to being worried at the time by what might come next… But those worries proved unwarranted, as Robbo was ‘fired’ by Lemmy after touring for ‘Another Perfect Day’ was completed. Black Sheep status assured. This is the Motorhead album for people who don’t like Motorhead; a handy way to separate the casual listener from the diehard lifer. But more importantly, ‘APD’ should be recognized as the first indication of how flexible Motorhead’s music, often derided as one dimensional, really is. If you wrote off ‘Another Perfect Day’ as ‘too melodic’ or a ‘sell out’, go back and give it another try. And it it’s your favorite Motorhead album, grow a set and check out ‘Ace of Spades’ or ‘Bastards’.

Less than three months after the release of ‘Another Perfect Day’, Aerosmith released their seventh studio album, aptly titled ‘Rock in a Hard Place’. It took Aerosmith three years to complete a follow-up to their previous album, the half-assed ‘Night in the Ruts’; Joe Perry left before that album was finished, and the chaotic, drug-addled circus the band had become was too busy killing itself to get its shit together and work on a record. Sessions for ‘Hard Place’ limped along for over a year, eventually leading to the departure of Brad Whitford, who, after all that studio time ($1.5 million dollars worth), had only recorded guitars for one song. It kinda sounded like the end for A-smith. But the Bad Boys From Boston pulled it off, and released the one-and-only Aerosmith album without Joe Perry and Brad Whitford’s involvement.
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‘Rock in a Hard Place’ fell on largely apathetic ears. Much had changed during Aerosmith’s three almost-permanent vacation (Hello, Van Halen!). The 70’s had turned into the 80’s, and Hard Rock fans were getting into Even Harder Rock. The conspicuous absence of the names “Perry” and ‘Whitford’ on the record ensured that even many old-school fans wrote the album off. The dwindling ranks of the Aero-faithful supported the album, which peaked at #32, making it Aerosmith’s lowest-charting record since their sophomore album ‘Get Your Wings’. The disastrous tour that followed, which was riddled with on-stage collapses, cancelled shows, and low ticket sales, did nothing to help the record’s profile (See: Deep Purple’s ‘Come Taste the Band’). I didn’t buy it, and I ignored it completely for 32 years; in fact, I’d never heard it start to finish until I started working on these ‘Black Sheep’ posts.

So: Three decades later, what do we have here? Simply stated, ‘Rock in a Hard Place’ is a better album than both ‘Night in the Ruts’ and ‘Done With Mirrors’. Yes. It’s also a better Aerosmith album than both. How can this be? How can an Aerosmith album without Whitford & Perry’s songwriting or playing be more Aerosmith-y than the album that preceded it and the one that followed it? Chemistry, my friends, chemistry… and I ain’t talkin’ about drugs. Most of the writing credits read ‘Tyler/Crespo’, and somehow the pair managed to conjure up more of the old A-smith magic than the Toxic Twins had been able to for several years. The rhythm section of Kramer and Hamilton anchors the record firmly in classic Aerosmith’s blues/rock/R&B wheelhouse, and Crespo plays with the same laid-back-but-red-hot vibe as Perry. And Tyler is Tyler, which is an impressive feat for someone so firmly in the clutches of a heroin addiction. Perry & Whitford eventually returned, and ‘Done with Mirrors’ showed encouraging signs of life, but this band would never again produce an album with the patented nasty-ass swagger of classic Aerosmith after ‘Rock in a Hard Place’.
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In his book, Joey Kramer unfairly dismisses RiaHP as “not a real Aerosmith record because it’s just me, Steven, and Tom — with a fill-in guitar player…. It’s Jimmy Crespo doing the guitar work.” I disagree with Mr. Kramer. ‘Rock in a Hard Place’ is a Real Aerosmith Album, no matter who’s on it. Or who’s not on it. It ain’t ‘Rocks’, or ‘Toys’, but it could rightfully be considered the last album of Aerosmith’s classic era. It could also be considered the first album of Aerosmith’s post-classic era. Or, in true Black Sheep style, it could belong to neither era. And like all Black Sheep records, it could use a little love. Revisit this album, pronto.

Motorhead: The First Three Years

Shortly after his firing from UK space rock pioneers Hawkwind, Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister adopted the biker motto ‘Born to Lose, Live to Win’ and made it his new band’s mission statement. As luck (both good and bad) would have it, he would spend the next few years living both sides of that creedo, earning the right to make it his own every day while struggling to get his new band, Motorhead, off the ground.

Motorhead was doomed from day one. But Motorhead was also destined for greatness. Lemmy knew both of these statements to be true even at the very beginning. Motorhead survived more drama and disaster in their first few years of existence than most bands suffer in decades, all through the sheer force of one man’s will. Lemmy’s bold self-belief, dogged perserverance, and abject refusal to give up and go home kept Motorhead alive during the nearly complete clusterfuck of their first three years.

Of course, being 49% motherfucker and 51% son of a bitch didn’t hurt either.

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Born To Lose: In May of 1975, Lemmy is arrested at the Canadian border for possession of amphetamine sulfate. Management bails him out and puts him on a flight to Toronto. At 4am after the Toronto show, he is fired from the band he once performed with on Top of the Pops, singing lead on their Top Ten (#3) single ‘Silver Machine’ in 1972.

Live To Win: Within two weeks of returning to England, Lemmy steals his equipment back from Hawkwind’s rehearsal space, repaints his psychedelic amps black, and forms a band he calls Bastard. He retains his Hawkwind-era manager, who persuades him to change the name. He re-christens his new band Motorhead, naming it after the last song he wrote for his previous band.

BTL: In July, Motorhead’s live debut takes place at the Roundhouse, a high-profile UK venue. Lemmy himself states the band were “bloody awful”. After a 10-show trek across Britain in August, the band opens for Blue Oyster Cult at the Hammersmith Odeon in October. In December, based on the Hammersmith performance, Motorhead wins “Best Worst Band in the World” in the reader’s poll featured in the year-end issue of the respected UK music paper Sounds.

LTW: Motorhead manages to secure a record deal with Hawkwind’s label United Artists. Dave Edmunds, one of Lemmy’s heroes, is set to produce. The band prep their originals and a few covers and enter the studio In December.

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BTL: After recording only four songs, Edmunds abandons the project. Drummer Lucas Fox, trying to keep up with Lemmy’s speed habit, is a disaster in the studio. His drum tracks are not workable and his behavior is erratic, even dangerous; he is fired before the record is complete.

LTW: 21 year old drummer Phillip Taylor is drafted in as Fox’s replacement. Taylor overdubs all of Fox’s drum tracks (except one) and the album is completed with producer Fritz Freyer.

BTL: United Artists shelve the album, deeming it ‘unfit for release’. Motorhead, still under contract with UA, cannot record for another label. In the Spring of 1976, immediately after Lemmy drafts Eddie Clarke in to the band as rhythm guitarist; Larry Wallis quits.

LTW: Motorhead hire a new manager, who arranges another recording. In July, Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor record a single for Stiff Records, ‘White Line Fever’/’Leaving Here’.

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BTL: Motorhead are still under contract with United Artists, who block the release of the Stiff single. Motorhead have now recorded music for 2 labels and neither label has released anything. They limp through the rest of 1976 with one-off gigs, living in squats and starving. Just a few months into 1977, Phil and Eddie decide to call it a day.

LTW: A farewell performance is booked at the Marquee in London in April ’77. Lemmy convinces Ted Carroll of Chiswick Records to record the show in a last-ditch attempt to get anything with the Motorhead name on it released.

BTL: The mobile studio promised by Carroll never materializes at the Marquee gig; the farewell show is not recorded.

LTW: Carroll shows up backstage after the show and by way of apology, offers the band 2 days of studio time to record a single. The band instead record basics for 11 songs, and their single deal with Chiswick becomes an album deal. Carroll gave the band the cash to complete the unfinished tracks, with which Motorhead records 2 additional songs, for a total of 13. The album, called ‘Motorhead’, released in August of 1977, peaked at #43 in the UK.

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BTL: About a week into the headlining tour to promote their ‘debut’ album, Phil Taylor breaks his wrist in a fight and the rest of the tour is cancelled. The band is unable to do any live work until a November gig at the Marquee. Motorhead’s manager cuts ties with Chiswick, citing lack of support, and the band, in turn, fires him. Phil and Eddie throw together another band, The Muggers, and once again consider leaving Motorhead.

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LTW: Motorhead hire manager Doug Smith, who secures the band a deal with Bronze Records for a single. In August 1978, ‘Louie Louie’/’Tear Ya Down’ was released, and hit #68 on the UK Singles chart. The success of the single resulted in Morohead’s first appearance on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops program. It was Lemmy’s 2nd appearance on the show, his first having been to promote Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’.

So: After three years of struggle, Lemmy had come full circle. He had dragged himself and his new band through a minefield of bad deals, bad breaks and plain old bad luck. Lemmy never wavered. Each and every time he was kicked, he kicked back; every setback was met with a grim determination and a raised middle finger. Lemmy made his own good luck by constantly pushing against any and all obstructions, ignoring his detractors and doing plenty of good old fashioned hustling.

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All of this led up to their watershed moment: the release of their seminal ‘Overkill’ album. Lemmy (and Motorhead) ultimately won. Of course, all of the rejected material that was recorded during this time period was eventually released by labels eager to cash in on the Motorhead’s chart success a few years later. Hawkwind has even re-released ‘Silver Machine’ 3 times, and each time it has charted again. Lemmy of course never saw a dime from any of this thievery, but the vindication is priceless. As if the ongoing success of Motorhead, some 40 years on now, weren’t vindication enough.

The lesson in all this? As the slogan on the back side of the picture sleeve for the ‘Louie Louie’ single reads, “NIL ILLEGITIMUM CARBORUNDUM”.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

A Deal With the Devil

June 1981. When Motorhead learned that their live album, ‘No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith’, had reached the top of the UK charts, Lemmy and the lads were slogging around the USA opening for Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Oz. It was a huge opportunity for Motorhead, who’d had a number of charting albums and singles at home in England but were virtually unknown in America.

August 8, 1981. The Heavy Metal Holocaust at Port Vale Football Stadium, Stoke on Trent, England. The bill for the year’s biggest UK Metal festival was originally to have been topped by Black Sabbath. Motorhead, still riding high on the success of their number one album, were to co-headline the event. When the Sabs pulled out due to recording commitments (or fear of a red-hot Motorhead, depending on which story you believe), ‘head were slotted at the top and, in an ironic twist, Ozzy Osbourne’s band was added and slotted in just under the headliner. This would be the UK’s first look at the Aldridge/Sarzo version of Ozzy’s new band. Lemmy introduced a nervous Ozzy’s set that night; Ozzy intro’d Motorhead’s, as several bootleg recordings of the event reveal.

Now jump forward a decade to 1991. Ozzy and Lemmy are both signed to Epic/Sony Records, and a deal of sorts is struck between the two old friends. Lemmy is asked to co-write songs for Ozzy’s forthcoming ‘No More Tears’ album. In return, Ozzy agrees to appear on Motorhead’s ‘March or Die’ album. Who got the better of the deal is a matter of opinion.

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What did Ozzy get? Lemmy wrote the lyrics for four of the songs included on the ‘No More Tears’ album. One of these songs, ‘Mama I’m Coming Home’, became Ozzy’s only solo Top 40 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at number 28. The ‘NMT’ recording of another of Lemmy’s contributions, ‘I Don’t Want to Change the World’, would be nominated for a Grammy for Best Metal/Hard Rock Performance. On the strength of this single and the Grammy hooplah, the record would reach double-platinum certification by September of 1992. Lemmy’s other two offerings, ‘Desire’ and ‘Hellraiser’, were also quality songs, and undoubtedly contributed to the overall success of the record. It’s a strong album overall, though a bit mainstream for my tastes; far stronger than it’s predecessor ‘No Rest For the Wicked’, which took 9 years to reach double-platinum status. Simply put, it’s hard to dispute the impact of Lemmy’s contributions to the success of ‘No More Tears’.

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What did Lemmy get? On 1992’s ‘March Or Die’, Motorhead’s second and, thankfully, final foray into the world of major label bullshit, Ozzy appeared as a guest vocalist on the power ballad ‘I Ain’t No Nice Guy’ (Slash also contributed a guitar solo), which garnered some airplay despite record company apathy. Sony pushed the godawful cover of Ted Nugent’s ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ to radio instead. Ozzy also appeared in the ‘Nice Guy’ video. Motorhead recorded their own version of ‘Hellraiser’ for ‘MoD’ and actually got their version featured in the film ‘Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth’ and it’s soundtrack album.

The brief Lemmy/Ozzy/Epic partnership positioned Motorhead for their biggest successes ever. But it wasn’t to be, as none of it worked in Motorhead’s favor. Truth be told, ‘March or Die’ sucks. The record is a typical over-produced major label mess; two producers, three drummers, a radio-friendly cover version, a power ballad, and guest stars galore (Ozzy actually guests on two songs, Slash also appears on two). And the Hellraiser movie flopped. Despite the record company machinations, MoD failed commercially as well as failing completely as a Motorhead album. Motorhead were never suited to play the kind of game that a major label, and mainstream success, demands.

So: who got the better of the deal? It all depends on what your definition of success is, and what your goals are. Me, I’d call it a draw.

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Deep Purple’s Jon Lord said in an interview in 1996 that his royalties for ‘Smoke on the Water’ add up to ‘a tidy six figures’ annually. And that was almost 25 years after the song was a hit. Similarly, Lemmy’s been quoted as saying that ‘the Ozzy checks’ will pay his rent in LA for the rest of his life. In his autobiography, Lemmy states, ‘I made more money out of writing those four songs than I made out of fifteen years of Motörhead – ludicrous, isn’t it?!’

I hear ‘Mama I’m Coming Home’ on my local rock/metal station regularly, and while it’s no ‘Smoke…’, it is firmly established as a minor classic rock radio staple. For Lemmy, Ozzy’s ‘No More Tears’ was such a success that the failure of Motorhead’s ‘March or Die’ was irrelevant. Lemmy, the ultimate rock and roll survivor, would walk away from his flirtation with major label success, soul intact, and release the excellent ‘Bastards’ on indie label XYZ in 1993. Lemmy Kilmister may be the only musician in history to ever have made his deal with the devil (or she-devil, as we all know who is really calling the shots for the Ozzman) and walked away unscathed.