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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Meanwhile, Back in the States…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swords, Tequila, and Sammy Hagar

After leaving Montrose and two historically ass-kicking albums behind him, Sammy Hagar went solo. Sammy’s early solo career was managed by Ed Leffler, who had previously handled the soft rockers like The Carpenters and The Osmonds, so Hagar’s style took an abrupt turn away from hard rock and toward a more FM radio-oriented sound. But Hagar’s three middle-of-the-road solo albums had failed commercially, and by 1979 it was time to take the Red Rocker back to his hard rocking roots. Ed Leffler was smart enough to make sure Hagar secured young, hungry and hard-rocking bands to open his shows and assure ticket sales. New York City’s Riot was one of those bands.

Riot had opened for Sammy on the Texas dates of his 1979 US tour. Texas, specifically San Antonio, was a Riot stronghold, and Leffler was aware that Riot was selling most of the tickets. When it came time for Hagar to take his harder-edged act to the UK later that year, Leffler learned that the NWOBHM was erupting there, and that Riot was featured on some of the most important radio playlists at the epicenter of the current heavy metal explosion. Riot was just the thing Hagar needed to establish some cred with UK rock audiences and, again, to sell some tickets. It seemed like Riot was once again in the right place at the right time.

Riot had recorded and released 2 self-financed records by 1979, ‘Rock City’ and ‘Narita’, although the latter had not been released in the US. Leffler brokered a record deal for the band with Capitol records, a deal that included the provision that the band do the UK tour with Hagar. No problem, thought Mark Reale. We’re signed to Capitol records, we’re touring the UK where we’re red-hot; we’ve made it!

Not so fast, Mr. Reale. The young guitarist quickly learned that his band had to ‘buy-on’ to the Hagar tour, meaning they had to use a significant portion of their meager recording advance to pay for the privilege of participating in the tour that they were now contractually obligated to take part in. And whom did they have to pay that money to? Why, who else but Sammy Hagar’s manager, Ed Leffler.

SammyHagarSoundsAdvert

After the UK tour, Reale contacted Capitol A&R to talk about the promotion of their first release through the label, ‘Narita’. As it turns out, their were no plans. ‘Narita’, a record that had already been recorded, and had been paid for by others, and cost Capitol almost nothing to release; Capitol followed that up by spending nothing to promote it. By this point, Reale and the band had figured out that the Capitol deal was only about ensuring the Hagar tour’s success; that Riot were nothing more than part of Sammy Hagar’s promotional budget, and that the band were probably going to be dropped at any minute. One has to wonder about the nature of Leffler’s relationship with Capitol records…

Reale used the remaining advance money from the Capitol deal to hire every independent radio promotions rep in the country to get Narita airplay. Radio charts from the era show that the plan was successful; Riot was looking like Capitol Records’ hot new up-and-comer on Billboard’s ‘Radio and Records’ chart. Reale hoped to show Capitol that they had a viable property, and that the label would not drop them but instead finance a new record.

The gambit worked… kinda. Capitol picked up the option for a new record; dropping a band that had had such success on US rock radio and on the road overseas just wouldn’t look right. The record company gave the band half the mandated advance to begin recording another record, and promised the other half upon approval of the completed album. Reale and the rest of Riot got to work making the best album possible to seal the deal with Capitol and convince them that sticking with Riot would be in their best interest. That record was ‘Fire Down Under’.

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Riot had delivered a stone cold American metal classic. But still, even when presented with this masterpiece of radio-friendly hard rock, Capitol’s plan continued to unfold… The label refused to accept the record on the grounds that it was ‘not commercially acceptable’. The label never paid the band the second half of the recording advance, and would not drop them because now they owed Capitol for the first half… and an unreleased album would garner no sales to pay the label back the moneys advanced. Capitol’s machinations had progressed beyond simply not spending anything to promote Riot; now they had worked it out that Riot actually owed them money.

Riot were trapped in record company hell. Still under contract with a major label, unable to sign with another label until the debt they owed was paid; unable to pay the debt without releasing the album they had recorded, which the label had shelved. All of this to ensure Sammy Hagar had a successful UK tour. As far as the Leffler/Capitol alliance was concerned, Riot had served their purpose, and now needed to disappear.

Then some cool stuff happened. Fans picked the offices of Capitol records. Thousands of fans signed a petition for the label to release Riot from contractual limbo (among those who signed: Ronnie Montrose). Kids spray-painted cars owned by Capitol Records executives. UK music journalists wrote about Riot’s plight in the big music papers. Smarting from all of the bad publicity, Capitol relented and let Riot go. Tom Zatout and Cliff Bernstein convinced their bosses at Elektra Records to sign the band and pick up the record, and the rest is history. FDU cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and firmly established Riot on US rock radio and on the international Heavy Metal scene.

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Karma took a while to catch up with Ed Leffler. Due to his relationship with Sammy, Leffler went on to become manager of Van Halen, and presided over the band’s business during their most successful period (four consecutive No 1 Hagar-era albums). But: while on tour with VH, Leffler was badly beaten by an unknown assailant in a hotel elevator in Dallas in 1986, putting him in the hospital for weeks. Ed Leffler died at the young age of 57 of thyroid cancer in 1993.

Riot started shedding members during the year after the release of ‘Fire Down Under’, and would never again release an album at such a high level of excellence. Because for FDU, Reale and his band set out to make an album that couldn’t be ignored, and they succeeded, on several levels. Calling this record ‘commercially unacceptable’ is a joke of cosmic proportions. Quite simply, FDU is a landmark in the history of American metal, and belongs right up there beside the Hagar-fronted Montrose debut…