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 Bill Bruford had been replaced by Terry Bozzio, while Allan Holdsworth was replaced by …nobody, with keyboard maestro Eddie Jobson covering all of the solo spots with keys and electric violin.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.

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