Guitars Optional

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

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

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

 

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UK

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 Bill Bruford had been replaced by Terry Bozzio, while Allan Holdsworth was replaced by …nobody, with keyboard maestro Eddie Jobson covering all of the solo spots with keys and electric violin.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

 

ELP

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

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

 

Quatermass

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

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

 

Atomic Rooster

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

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

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

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

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

Just don’t tell Ted.

. . . . . . . .

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

Unsung: John Gustafson

During the last 12 months or so, the world of rock has lost several notable rockers. Jeff Hanneman, Clive Burr, Lou Reed, Glenn Cornick, Allen Lanier, Tommy Ramone, Trevor Bolder, Johnny Winter… This shouldn’t be a surprise; most of our 70’s hard rock heroes are somewhere in their 60’s, and as much as it pains me to point out, nobody lives forever. Lemmy “That’s the way I like it baby, I don’t want to live forever” Kilmister was forced off the road and into the hospital several times recently. Malcom Young has officially retired, unable to play with AC/DC due to some unspecified ailment. Tony Iommi’s cancer battle was an eye opener, but it was the death of Ronnie James Dio that really hammered it home for me: Living legends are dying. The Age of the Metal God is drawing to a close.

There was no shortage of press surrounding Dio’s passing; RJD’s stellar career warranted the full treatment. He even had a tribute album. The mainstream metal press, both in print and online, are quick to respond to the death of heavy metal icons with career retrospectives, buyer’s guides, archival photos, and ‘final Interviews’. So you know where to go if you want to read about the Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous. But who’s gonna pay tribute to the less-than-legendary rock/metal musos? Who’s gonna memorialize those dudes with names that sound… kinda… familiar… but… Who will remember the sidemen to the superstars? That’s right. This blog. Right here.

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You have heard John Gustafson, even if you have never heard of him. Gustafson was one of those guys who popped up in several middling UK bands in the 70’s but never really became a household name. His association with the Deep Purple extended family tree kept him busy for much of the 1970’s, and I can virtually guarantee that you have heard one song that Gus played on, as he was associated with exactly one US/UK hit single. But the man’s lack of name recognition is in no way related to the man’s talent and abilities as a bass player and lead vocalist. John Gustafson was a phenomenal talent. I make some listening recommendations at the end of this piece; check them out and see if you don’t agree.

In the 1960’s Gustafson played in some important British bands, the first of which was The Big Three, a Merseybeat group that emerged from Liverpool along with the Beatles and the Searchers. The Big Three were managed by one Brian Epstein, and had a UK #37 with their version of ‘Some Other Guy’ in 1963. In ’64 Gustafson joined the Merseybeats, another Merseybeat band (!) who scored two consecutive #13 hits on the UK singles charts. Not a bad start.

In 1969, Gustafson replaced a cat by the name of Roger Glover in a UK pop band called Episode Six. The reason that Glover needed replacing? Glover and Episode Six lead vocalist Ian Gillan had left to join Deep Purple. While playing with E6, Gustafson was invited to appear on the album version of Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Weber’s rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Hard rockers are familiar with this record mainly due to the presence of Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan in the role of Jesus Christ. John Gustafson sang the role of Simon Zealotes on the album, which topped the US Billboard chart in 1970. ‘Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem’ is essentially a duet between Gustafson and Gillan, and, strange as it may sound, it’s not the only vocal duet the pair would record. More on that later.

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As Episode Six fizzled, drummer Mick Underwood, Gustafson and keyboardist Peter Robinson left to form progressive rock trio Quatermass. Quatermass released one excellent album in 1970 and folded. Consisting of only drums, bass, and layered keyboards (no guitars whatsoever), Quatermass is a dynamic, complex, and creative piece of progressive rock, and Gustafsons first true showcase as a hard rock vocalist and bassist. Hard rock without guitars? Believe it. Ritchie Blackmore liked one of the songs on ‘Quatermass’ enough to suggest that Deep Purple record it in 1974; they balked, so he packed up and did it (‘Black Sheep of the Family’) with Rainbow instead.

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Gustafson then joined Daemon, featuring John Du Cann and Paul Hammond, both former members of Atomic Rooster. Daemon changed their name to Bullet when Gustafson joined, but had to change it yet again, as there was an American by the same name. Now called Hard Stuff, Gustafson and crew jokingly titled their 1972 debut album ‘Bulletproof’. One of early metal’s true lost gems, ‘Bulletproof’ is a solid slab of guitar heavy, loud-ass 70’s hard rock; stripped to bare bones and ragged in all the right places. Hard Stuff’s next album was almost derailed when an auto accident seriously injured both Hammond and Du Cann, almost ending their careers; Gustafson emerged unscathed, but the band barely survived long enough to see the release of the proggier sophomore effort ‘Bolex Dementia’ in ’73.

Gustafson always made himself available as a session man for whatever came his way, and one of these sessions led to a 3-year association with the band Roxy Music. Gustafson appeared on 3 Roxy albums, ‘Stranded’, ‘Country Life’, and ‘Siren’, the latter featuring the UK #2 single ‘Love is the Drug’. The song also hit #30 in the US, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard it. Gustafson was never an ‘official’ member of Roxy Music, but was asked at the end of the ‘Siren’ tour in ’75 if he’d like to join permanently. Gustafson declined, citing his desire to play ‘harder edged’ music.

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While working with Roxy, Roger Glover invited Gustafson to contribute to his ‘Butterfly Ball’ project in 1974. The album was based on a popular children’s poem, with each piece centered on a different woodland animal; Gustafson’s entry was called ‘Watch Out for the Bat’. As Glover wrote all of the music and lyrics on the record, and hired mostly studio musicians to record it, Gus only sang on the song. But at the project’s sole live performance in October of 1975, Ian Gillan (who was enlisted to sing Ronnie Dio’s parts !! for the live presentation) asked Gustafson to join a band he was putting together.

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Gustafson released a solo album in 1976. ‘Goose Grease’ is a funky, jazz-influenced album; part fusion and part prog. Gustafson’s versatile playing shines throughout; fluid, chops-heavy and funky, anchored by a solid 70’s hard rock sensibility. Gustafson joined the Ian Gillan Band later in the year; this album provided the template for that band’s ultimate direction.

The Ian Gillan Band (Not to be confused with Gillan, a very different band) expanded on the sound and style of Gustafson’s solo album, releasing three jazz/rock albums during the height of the UK punk rock explosion. With its focus on texture, chops, and improvisation, jazz-rock was one of the styles that the punks were so vehemently rallying against, and the IGB paid the price for it.

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The IGB’s first album, called ‘Child in Time’, was produced by Roger Glover. Much of the material was written and demo’d between ’72 and ’74, before the IGB formed. The album is a murky mix of slow, dirgey R&B and mellow jazz rock, and the version of ‘Child in Time’ here has to be heard to be believed. Another song worth checking out is ‘Down the Road’, the second vocal duet between Gustafson and Gillan. Trading lines in each verse, the song is remarkable in that Gillan takes a moderate, even sedate, approach to his vocal, letting Gustafson unleash the histrionics usually associated with Deep Purple’s legendary screamer. The two differing approaches compliment each other nicely, and it’s interesting that Gillan let Gustafson loose like this on his first post-DP recording. definitely worth a listen.

Keyboardist Colin Towns joined the IGB in ’76, and on their next two releases, the band solidified their sound significantly. Second record ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ is a prog/fusion monster. Gustafson had found his ultimate rhythmic partner in drummer Mark Nauseef (the guy who filled in for Brian Downey for the Thin Lizzy gig filmed outside the Sydney Opera House in 1978), and their playing together is outstanding. Although lacking in the hard rock department, CAT is both a prime example of mid-70’s jazz-rock noodling and a shining example of what not to play while punk rock is tearing up the music charts.

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Third Album ‘Scarabus’ is just plain excellent. A perfect combination of hard rock muscle, progressive ideas and jazz-influenced playing, ‘Sarabus’ reigns in the song lengths and focuses on standard rock structures. It’s a great album of strong songs and excellent performances by all involved; but nobody cared. IGB couldn’t get arrested in the UK, none of the albums were available in the states, and in 1977, there was nowhere to go but Japan. 1978’s ‘Live at the Budokan’ would be IGB’s swan song. It, too, is excellent.

A fourth IGB album was underway when Gillan finally saw the writing on the wall and decided to get with the program and start rocking again. Retaining only Colin Towns, Gillan dumped the rest of the band, changed its name to (what else?) Gillan, and proceeded to jump headlong into the emerging NWOBHM movement. Released in 2003, a CD compilation called ‘Rarites 1975-1977’, includes 3 songs recorded for that unfinished fourth IGB album. All three songs (‘Vindaloo’, ‘You Get What You Ask For’, and ‘Raped by Aliens’) feature John Gustafson on lead vocals, with Gillan nowhere to be found. Gus more than carries the material; in fact, it sounds like the Ian Gillan Band could have carried on quite nicely without Ian Gillan… After a name change, of course.

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Recordings after 1980 were few and far between; mainly some session work (Steve Hackett, Rick Wakeman, Ian Hunter) and reunions with some of his 1960’s bands (The Pirates). But his 70’s work is where you’ll find the real Johnny Gustafson. While his legacy is as rich as it is obscure, the respect and appreciation long due the man is now overdue: John Gustafson died at age 72 on September 12, 2014. Honor the man and check out some of his music:

John Gustafson/Ian Gillan, ‘Simon Zealotes/Poor Jarusalem’, from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ 1969

Quatermass, ‘Quatermass’ album, 1970

Hard Stuff, ‘Bulletptoof’ album, 1972

John Gustafson, ‘Watch Out for the Bat’, from Roger Glover’s ‘The Butterfly Ball’ 1974

Roxy Music, ‘Love is the Drug’ single 1975

Ian Gillan Band, ‘Down the Road’ from ‘Child in Time’ 1975

Ian Gillan Band ‘Scarabus’ album, 1977

Ian Gillan Band, ‘Vindaloo’/’You Get What You Ask For’/’Raped by Aliens’, from ‘Rarities 1975-1977’ 2003