Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round to be a Millionaire)

The following is a true story
Only the names have been changed
To protect the guilty

Well I left my job in my home town
And I headed for the smoke
Got a rock n’ roll band and a fast right hand
Gonna get to the top
Nothing’s gonna stop us no nothing

So if you’ve got the money, we’ve got the sound
You put it up and we’ll put it down
If you got the dollar, we got the song
Just want to boogie woogie all night long
Yeah boogie

I got holes in my shoes
I got holes in my teeth
I got holes in my socks
I can’t get no sleep
I’m trying to make a million

-From AC/DC’s ‘Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round to be a Millionaire)’

(Lyrics by Ronald Belford Scott)

…………..

He was the youngest of 8 siblings, born in Cranhill, Glasgow, Scottland. At the age of 8, his father uprooted his wife and four of their children and emigrated to Sydney, Australia, in hopes of finding work. Two of his older brothers played the guitar; after two years of plonking away on a beat up banjo, his mother finally bought him a battered used acoustic. No formal lessons were ever taken; in fact, he dropped out of Ashfield Boy’s High School before his fifteenth birthday.

He soon ended up in a teen gang called the Town Hall Sharps, where he developed a love of Rock & Roll and Blues Music. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jery Lee Lewis were favorites. Before he turned 18, he worked overnights in a butcher shop and declined an apprenticeship as a typesetter. Possessing no marketable skills, his career prospects looked bleak. He bought his first ‘real’ guitar, a ’67 Gibson SG, from Chord Music in Burwood. Like his brothers, he taught himself how to play well enough to work with a few local bands. In 1973, he joined a band formed by one of his older siblings. It was 1973; he was 18 years old.

His chances at making it as a profesional musician weren’t good. For starters, his formal education ended with the 8th grade, and possessed no musical knowledge whatsoever. Secondly, the rock scene in Sydney, and in Australia in general, was desperately aping the UK Glam movement, a sound and style that he and his brother dabbled with but in the end, had very little time for. And finally, even if they were able to break into the tiny Australian music market, their prospects were even dimmer in the UK, where the real fame and noteriety was. And, of course, you never really made it until you made it in America, home to his guitar heroes Leslie West and Buddy Guy, as well as some of his favorite bands, like Cactus and ZZ Top. America… The biggest music market in the world…

But hey, even a uneducated punk from the tenements of Carnhill could dream.

……………

Does your playing constantly progress? Do you ever get into slumps?

“I’ve never gotten in a slump as far as playing, because I never got that serious about it.”

It is a true test for Young to recall the types of picks and strings he uses. While he does know more than he owns up to, his description of himself as a guitar “illiterate” is not far wrong. He learned to solo mainly from watching his elder brother Malcolm play and the idea of scales and figures is foreign to him.

Do you have a fairly good idea of what you’re going to do with solos?

“No, I never work that out before. It’s mainly spontaneous. Soloing was pretty easy for me because it was probably the first thing I’ve ever done. I just used to make up leads. I never even knew any names of chords until Malcolm told me and then I picked it up from there.”

Do you know what you’re doing in musical terms?

“I haven’t a clue.”

You don’t work on scales.

“Nah.”

Uncertain about scales and note names, he has never had difficulty in resisting the lure of the pedal. His sound is uncluttered and pure and one of the true milestones of rock guitar The only accoutrement engaged is a Schaeffer wireless system he obtained in 1977 and has been using ever since.

Do you use any effects?

“No. I found that pedals were too much to fool around with.”

How important is equipment?

“Well, I like it to work.”

Angus makes special visits to the Marshall factory outside of London to play through a series of amps before selecting the proper one(s). He says the units are then doctored to resemble the old-style amps which were very clean and have no master or preamp setting.

“I use a real lot of volume, I turn that up; I turn the treble and bass on about half and middle, the same. I don’t use any presence.”

Do you ever record with guitars other than SGs?

“No. I’ve just used the SGs.”

Young bought a secondhand Gibson SG as a teen. A brown 1967 model. The instrument was his ‘go-to’ guitar until just a few years ago, when wood rot (due to excessive moisture from sweat) and neck warp forced him to look for a replacement. Young liked the thin neck of his first guitar, and it took some searching to find another to his liking. Another suitable SG was finally located in a pawn shop in NYC; brown, 1967 model, same thin neck.

……………..

Of his three homes, the one he built for his wife in Aalten, in the east of the Netherlands, was his favorite. Perhaps for sentimental reasons; for decades he lived with his wife in the small house directly across the street from the just-completed multi-million dollar mansion. But it was time for an upgrade. The houses in Australia and the UK were fine, but he wanted to do something special for her in her home country. Indeed, it was especially for her, his wife of more than thirty years, as he wasn’t in Denmark for more than 10-12 weeks a year. His wife helped design and decorate.

And so, their new home was built in the quiet little village of Aalten, population 12,000. Aalten, where her parents ran the local blacksmith business. At first, neighbors complained about the building’s size. The local newspapers ran a few stories, but the villagers’ greivenaces didn’t amount to much. He was a very private man, but well-liked in the town by those who knew him. He knew that if he stayed the course, kept quiet about it, the hubub would pass. And so it did.

Villagers who were not acqainted with him personally must have wondered how their mysterious neighbor was able to build such an expensive home for his wife. When the home was completed, and its owner became an official resident of Aalten, Gelderland, all questions were answered, as the papers reported that their mysterious neighbor was one of the 500 richest men in the Netherlands, with a net worth of 140 million dollars. How in God’s name did this odd little man amass a fortune of 140 million dollars? The village blacksmith’s son-in-law? That little man who walks up the road to buy cigarettes at the local garage every morning?

…………….

Worldwide Album Sales: 200 million; US Sales: 71.5 million

‘Back in Black’: 50 million copies worldwide, 22 million copies US

‘Back in Black’ is the second highest-selling album in history.

AC/DC are the fifth-most-certified band in history.

AC/DC are the twelfth-best-selling artist in all of music history.

 

Not bad for a uneducated punk from the tenements of Cranhill.

 

(Contains material from interviews in Guitar Player and Guitar world, both from 1984)

 

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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.

Electric Funeral

September 15, 1974; Moody Coliseum, Dallas, Texas. Uriah Heep is touring the US promoting their 7th album, Wonderworld. About midway through the set, during the epic ‘July Morning’, Bassist Gary Thain suddenly vaults 3 feet off into the air, collapses to the floor unconscious, lying face-first. Uriah Heep’s 1974 US tour is suddenly over.

“All I remember is going to the amplifier to adjust the equalisers, the next thing that happened was I blacked out.”

Thain is rushed to a local hospital, where he is treated for symptoms of electrical shock, including severe burns to both his hands. Thain’s bass rig was poorly grounded, jolting the native New Zealander with enough electricity to end his career. Thain would never fully recover from his injuries, and was fired from Uriah Heep about 4 months later. He was now free to fully indulge his drug addiction, and it killed him.

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Gary Thain died of an respiratory failure due to an overdose of heroin in December of that same year, at that magic rock n’ roll age of 27. He was a fantastic player; next time you hear Heep’s “Easy Livin'” be sure to pay extra attention to the hypnotic, fluid bass parts, which nimbly drive the song forward… Or the bluesy throb that cralws around underneath “Stealin'”, from the ‘Sweet Freedom’ album; yeah, that’s him too.

While it was Gary Thain’s drug use that ended his life, I’d argue that his bass rig was an accessory before the fact.

The name Keith Relf probably isn’t too familiar to with the average rock fan, although his band the Yardbirds were hit makers in the mid 60’s and are often credited as being one of the forerunners of Heavy Metal. If you’re familiar with Yardbirds classics like “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down”, then you’ve heard Relf’s vocals; he also wrote those songs, and many aothers. Not long after guitarist Jimmy Page (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) re-built the Yardbirds as the New Yardbirds, which quickly morphed into Led Zeppelin, Relf found himself in a folk-rock band with his sister Jane called Renaissance.

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On May 14, 1976, Relf was demoing material in his basement recording studio for a reworked version of his group Renaissance. He picked up a guitar that was not grounded properly, and he was electrocuted. His son found him on the floor and brought him to the hospital, where he died soon after. He was 33.

Damn, electricity!

The late, great Jimmy Dewar wouldn’t have been available to join Robin Trower’s band if electrocution hadn’t intervened. Dewar was in a band called Stone the Crows, with singer Maggie Bell and her husband, Les Harvey (brother of Alex Harvey of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band). Stone the Crows were one of those bands that were 6 degrees from stardom; besides the Trower connection, the band was managed by Peter Grant, Les Harvey’s brother Alex would make waves in the UK with his own band, and Maggie Bell would later sing on Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ lp.

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On 3 May, 1972, as the Stone the Crows soundchecked before a set at Swansea’s Top Rank Ballroom, guitarist Les Harvey touched his lips to a badly grounded (or ‘earthed’ as they say in the UK) mic. The 27 year old (seriously?!) guitarist was killed instantly on stage with his wife standing right beside him.

Instantly. This electricity thing doesn’t fuck around.

There is only one musician that I know of who mainlined the lightning and survived unscathed, and that’s Ace Frehley, of Kiss. During the Lakeland, FL stop of their ‘Rock and Roll Over’ tour in ’76, The Space Ace was starting his walk down from the riser where the band had played it’s opener ‘Detroit Rock City,’ and touched a handrail on the light-up stairs. Something in that electric death-trap of a stage set wasn’t grounded right, and he was immediately zapped with a gazillion volts of the good stuff. His body clentched and convulsed, and for a few several seconds he couldn’t let go of the rail. He eventually broke loose and fell backwards off the rear of the platform to the stage below.

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Who knows how many volts the Spacemen took at that moment? A Kiss show in the late 70’s looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. But Ace Frehley simply shook it off. After a mere 10 minutes backstage, and with no feeling in his left hand, he re-took the stage and played the rest of the set. Ace later wrote a song about the incident, called “Shock Me”, laughing in the face of near-death and taunting electricity to go ahead and try it again.

There is only one explanation: Clearly space travelers from the planet Jendell process electricity through their alien bodies differently than we humans do. I believe that Ace actually absorbed the electricity. According to the Wikipedia entry for ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’:

“Frehley has the ability to shoot lasers and to teleport by making a ‘hitchhiking’ gesture with his thumb.”

But seriously, who really knows how this stuff works, anyway? Amps, volts, watts, ohms… After writing this piece, as a musician who’s played almost 200 gigs, I feel lucky to be alive. I had no idea that a lethal jolt of crackling electric death was always lurking within the wires, waiting for the opportunity to strike. It’s almost enough to make a guy go accoustic.

Almost.

How Can We Miss You if you Won’t Go Away?

Have you ever found yourself wishing Black Sabbath broke up after ‘Never Say Die’? ‘Live Evil’, maybe? Daydreamed of a world in which ‘Music from the Edler’ never happened? If time travel were possible, I know the first two things I would use it for would be to a) kill baby Hitler and b) prevent ELP from recording ‘Love Beach’. My point is that some bands just oughtta have expiration dates. Didn’t someone once sing ‘Hope I die before I get old’? And didn’t he mean that shit?

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We can blame the Rolling Stones, I guess, for continuing to record and perform into their 70’s and showing rock n rollers everywhere that if you can still deliver the goods, and if you’ve still got something valid to say, then there’s no reason to stop. But those are two pretty big ‘ifs’.

This is not ageism. It’s not about how old you are but rather about the quality of your product; the consistency of your brand. I don’t begrudge these bands making a living, or extending their careers as long as physically possible, as long as a market exists for their music. But all of these so-called ‘Legacy bands’ face the same problem, if they are around long enough: they find themselves competing with their glory years. Clearly this gets harder as the band gets older, and usually quality suffers. Are UFO ever going to make another ‘Lights Out’? Doubtful, but they soldier on, age and line-up changes be damned, releasing solid records that still carry forward a semblance of the ‘classic’ UFO sound. But purists like me will always compare anything they do to their heyday output. And they just don’t measure up. But all due props to Mogg and whoever’s in his band this week; more power to ‘em.

Line-up changes, in-house acrimony, contract disputes, drug battles, publicized lawsuits, and even original member ratios are other indications that a band may have exceeded it’s expiration date. And nowadays it’s played out for all to see over the internet. Witness the recent public disintegration of Queensryche, in which years of dirty laundry were aired out online for all their fans to see. It was ugly. Every court document, every testimony transcript and legal brief accompanying that drama was available within hours on Blabbermouth. I’m sure this type of thing has occurred hundreds of times over the years but before the advent of the internet, we never knew about it. We were better off. Van Halen were finally able to get to the point of releasing a pretty decent album, ‘A Different Kind of Truth’, after years of very public mud-slinging, trash talking, back stabbing and even Gary Cherone. It’s hard to listen to anything after ‘1984’ after reading Sammy Hagar’s bio, though. Although honestly, it was hard to listen to that stuff before that too.

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Clearly if bands hang on long enough, sooner or later the members will begin suing each other. Cheap Trick are in the midst of an in-house legal battle; lawsuits and counter-suits are circulating between band members who have been playing together since high school. Pretty sad. Their post-major label records have been of very high quality, and their live show just seemed to get better and better over the years; now this. CT are currently touring with guitarist Rick Nielsen’s son Daxx on drums while the lawsuits simmer. To their credit, neither side has let loose online, and have remained pretty classy about the whole thing. Speaking of classy, Aerosmith had to sue Steven Tyler to get him into the studio and get their most recent record done. How UN-rock n roll is that? Of course the record wasn’t very rock n roll either, despite the year-long hype campaign that insisted that A-smith were working with Jack Douglas (‘Toys’, ‘Rocks’) and getting back to the ‘old school Aerosmith’ vibe. Promises, promises. Even the band members themselves have recently referred to ‘Music From Another Dimension’ as having ‘missed the mark’. Someone tell Aerosmith that if you have to sue a member of your band to get him motivated to work on a record, your band is no longer a band; it’s time to start gardening. News Flash: Corporate board members, business advisors and their legal counsel just don’t make great rock records. Duh.

Okay, so, if you’re not going to break up, maybe a name change is in order? That would have worked for Sabbath; also for Deep Purple more than once. That said, Purple’s latest, called ‘Now What?!’ is among their very best, and does the name ‘Deep Purple’ proud while validating their hanging in there for 45 years. I also salute Scott Gorham for finally coming to his senses (probably received one too many death threats) and changing the name of his downright sacrilegious version of Thin Lizzy to Black Star Riders (an ironically fitting and therefore unfortunate name) just before releasing a record. And then there’s poor old Tony and Geezer, who had to stop calling their band Black Sabbath because Ozzy wasn’t a member, and change the name of the band to Heaven and Hell while they continued touring and recording with Ronnie Dio. As much as I despise puppet master Sharon Osbourne, and love the Dio-era Sabbath albums, I felt good about that name change, and, as alluded to earlier in this post, feel like they should have done it sooner. ‘Cause it’s really not Black Sabbath without Ozzy. Or Bill Ward. D’oh!

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So when a ‘legacy’ band finally does decide to retire, just how long does it take to say ‘Farewell’? Scorpions announced their retirement in March of 2010, and are still on tour today; their ‘farewell tour’ is now stretching past the 4 year mark, with no end in sight. At time of writing they have dates scheduled through March of this year. They’ve released 3 albums since their announcement; none of which are compilations or best-ofs. Goodbye, already! Judas Priest made the same announcement in December of 2010, and played shows right through 2012, though guitarist KK Downing decided to skip the farewell nonsense, indicating that he felt the band was becoming a nostalgia act. A DVD was culled from the tour, ironically titled ‘Epitaph’; ironic because the band refuses to die, and in fact are currently booked to appear at Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp (whatever that is) in Las Vegas this February and March. Priest in Vegas? KK was right. A new JP album will appear in 2014… No one cared about their last handful of records; expect more not-caring later this year.

Kiss has put the ultimate plan in place: Cloning. When you lose members, replace them with younger versions. They did it with Ace and Peter, and I promise you Gene and Paul will do it for themselves too, when they can no longer walk in those platform boots without a cane.

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Looks like only Led Zeppelin got it right. But there are a few notable cases of bands keeping it together for the long haul: Thank you, Rush, for hanging in long enough to be around when the rest of the world finally caught up to you, and doing so with your sound, your chops, and your roster intact. Thank you Motorhead, and thank you AC/DC, for showing us how a metal band can grow old gracefully, stay consistent, and command the respect and appreciation of millions in the process. Both bands have weathered major line-up changes, decades of significant trends in popular music, and monumental changes in the music business, all the while retaining their character, their sound and their integrity. We may have just enjoyed the final Motorhead album in ‘Aftershock’, while AC/DC are apparently working towards another record/touring cycle, but it can’t go on forever… that kid in the schoolboy outfit is 59 years old…

It’s almost over, folks; the era of our 70’s hard rock heroes is fading, and there’s no one, I mean NO ONE waiting in the wings to carry the flame forward. Two guys dressed as robots won 5 Grammys this year. That’s the future, folks.

By the way, the guy who wrote ‘Hope I die before I get old’ performed with his band the Who during the closing ceremonies at the 2012 Winter Olympics in London, at age 67.

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(Royalty) Check, Please

Sometimes being a professional musician is all about compromise; specifically, about how much of your art you’re willing to compromise toward success in the business of music. Being a fan is about loyalty; and sometimes that loyalty is pushed beyond tolerance by the compromises a musician makes.

Many a rock fan’s loyalties were tested in the 80’s. With the advent of MTv, suddenly what you looked like was at least as important as what you sounded like (and in some cases, maybe more important). Many metal bands that had started in the 70’s but had yet to break through to a mainstream audience saw MTv as a way to do just that. And so we lost several bands to the siren song of mass appeal and mainstream success. All that was required was a greater focus on the image or look of the band, and a slavish adherence to a limited musical template that boiled down to either a) overwrought power ballad, or b) super-dumb rock anthem. Scorpions had virtually invented the power ballad in the mid-70’s, and sadly, made the transition easily. NWOBHM heroes like Krokus, Whitesnake, and Saxon (who actually fired their bass player, who didn’t have ‘the look’) all climbed on board the bandwagon, all hoping to ‘break’ in the states. Perhaps the poster boys for this type of sell-out were the already-image conscious Twisted Sister, who’s debut album was actually a straight-up metal record, but who quickly transformed into bizzarro drag queen cartoons on MTv. In an ironic twist, Kiss, kings of the super-dumb rock anthem, actually had to take make-up OFF to partake in the festivities. But the greatest disappointment had to be The Beast That is Priest.   

I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Turbo’ by Judas Priest. A co-worker had an advance cassette, and let me hear the first song, without telling me who it was I was listening to. After a solid minute I still couldn’t identify who it was, even thought I was listening to a band I had followed for the last 8 or 9 years. When my friend broke the news to me that I had been previewing the new Judas Priest record, I was angry. Not disappointed. Angry.  

Like a lot of metal fans, I take this kind of thing personally; always have. I am tremendously loyal, I invest my time, my money and my passion in the music that I love and in the musicians that make it. Fans aren’t interested in the business that goes on behind their favorite music, they only care about the music, and are grateful to the musicians who make it. For me personally, when an artist makes a calculated business decision to move away from the sound I have committed to, the aesthetic I invested in, I feel betrayed; I’m offended and insulted. And sometimes, shocked; I truly never expected that Metal’s Ambassadors to the world, a band that represented the Heavy Metal genre in much the same way that Metallica would later; would be capable of such silliness.

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Back to ‘Turbo’: Sequencers, synthesizers, over-processed guitars, predictable hair metal riffs and inane pop metal lyrics, all wrapped up in a cover that looks like a magazine ad for nail polish. This is not what I signed on for. Gone were the ominous pseudo-religious sci-fi lyrics. Dave Holland’s hard hitting, no-nonsense drum sound was replaced by computerized canon fire. And don’t even get me started on KK’s perm. This was a monumental moment in heavy metal history; one of the heaviest bands of the 70’s had sold out and cashed in.

Judas Priest referred to themselves as a Heavy Metal Band when it was very uncool to do so. They had almost single-handedly carried Heavy Metal through its weakest period in the late 70’s; after the old guard had died out, they flew the flag proudly during the punk rock and new wave revolutions, and led metal music straight into the NWOBHM and metal’s resurgence in the early 80’s. And while they had toyed with camp ever since 1979’s ‘Hell Bent For Leather’, they’d successfully navigated the fine line between tongue-in-cheek and parody on several records, right up to ‘Defenders of the Faith’, where production concessions revealed a willingness to go with the 80’s flow. That album worried me; ‘Turbo’ confirmed my fears. 

So Priest decided they no longer needed me as a fan, and had apparently made the calculation that so many other bands of that era made as they entered the MTv era: they’d likely gain more new fans than the number of old fans that would walk away. They were probably right. So: good business decision; bad artistic decision. Very bad. Embarassingly so. Priest eventually tried to self-correct, and spent the next few years chasing trends until a new breed of metal bands rendered them irrelevant. Their iconic image, legendary status and landmark early releases ensured they’d be able to maintain a career for another 2 decades, but after ‘Turbo’ they had lost all credibility with much of their original fan base. ‘Defenders of the Faith’ my ass. Thank God for Thrash Metal.

Speaking of Trash Metal, Metallica was another band that, after years of pioneering, groundbreaking, and breathtaking music, succumbed to the numbers and decided to no longer allow artistic concerns to guide their career path. Correctly deducing that, with just a few ‘minor’ changes, they could go from being the biggest band on Metal to one of the biggest bands on Earth (a much more lucrative position), they hired Motley Crue’s producer and made the transition from being uncompromising standard-bearers to arena rock’s heaviest band.

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I hold a special kind of animosity towards Metallica for ‘Metallica’, aka ‘The Black Album’. For metal once again, change was on the horizon, and bands like Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, and Soundgarden made music that was appealing more and more to metalheads every day. Grunge and Alternative music was everywhere, and some of it was downright metallic, but… It was very much like 1976/77, when punk rock took off and metal’s heavy hitters became… confused. Started experimenting. Made lousy records. What Metal Nation needed badly at the dawn of the 90’s was a band to put an end to the mass defection to Seattle. A band to remind everyone how and what great heavy metal was. What better band to do just that than the mighty Metallica?

Metallica, however, had other ideas. Rather than creating a record that could have led metal through the alterna-grunge swamp and onward toward a new era of global domination, Metallica instead sat out that fight and re-launched their brand, simplifying their songwriting and overall sound, recasting themselves as a Top 40 arena rock band. The singles/videos came one after another, signaling a new willingness to market themselves in ways they had resisted for years. Where once they had led, they now chose to conform. Metallica turned their backs on their art and their fans and made their deal with the devil, becoming megastars while leaving the door wide open for Nirvana and the Alterna-Grunge contingent to further dilute metal’s already fractured fan base.

Yes, dumbing-down their music was a smart career move… if you measure success in dollars and cents. Yes, ‘Metallica’ would not only become Metallica’s biggest-selling album, but one of the biggest selling albums of all time. But these facts speak nothing of its artistic value. I’m aware that, for many reading this, ‘Metallica’ was their first exposure to Metallica, and therefore seen by millions as their defining moment. To understand what a left turn that album was for their original fan base is difficult for those who jumped on the bandwagon after all of the challenge and confrontation was removed from their music. It takes a certain perspective to see this record as the betrayal that it truly was. For us, ‘Metallica’ was a slap in the face; a Fuck You to myself and my friends who had seen them at the Rathskellar in Boston in 1983; who had watched them steadily grow from strength to strength, without radio, without MTv, and without mainstream press, right up to the multi-platinum ‘Master of Puppets’, all without compromising their art. one. single. bit.    

At least with ‘Metallica’ they hadn’t changed their look to conform to the commercial trends of the day. That would come a little later, with their next studio album, the aptly-named ‘Load’.  

Musicians, of course are free to make whatever decisions they wish in the service of their careers. Hopefully they’re aware of how transparent these moves are, no matter how they try to spin it, and how these kinds of moves rightly invoke the wrath of their most fervent fans– although it’s clear that this kind of fan doesn’t factor into the equation when bands do the Devil’s Arithmetic. The bottom line here is that both of these albums suck, and pale in comparison to the records that were made by these bands before potential superstar status was part of the bargain. I understand that surviving in any business requires compromise; ‘evolve or die’, I get it… But, as Stephen King wrote in ‘Pet Sematary’, “Sometimes dead is better.”

 

 

Attn: Marketing Dept

 

Ever wonder why Scorpions’ ‘Taken By Force’ cover art is so ridiculously bad? Great record, but the album cover looks like it was thrown together by an uncaring record label, unwilling to spend any coin on anything half-decent, and assembled by art department interns. And, in fact, that’s exactly what happened. But why?

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‘Taken By Force’ was the third consecutive Scorpions album that the U.S. arm of RCA Records decided to change for the stateside market. Their third record, ‘In Trance’, needed only minimal altering; but their fourth, ‘Virgin Killer’, is a different story altogether. Featuring a completely nude prepubescent girl in an unquestionably provocative pose, ‘Virgin Killer’s artwork was and still is blatantly inappropriate and offensive. Yes, sensitivities to this type of imagery in the 70’s (especially when used on a rock album cover) were different than they are today; remember the Blind Faith album? But even back in 1976, several different territories issued the record with a completely different cover.

Taken_By_Force

So, when the Scorps handed the ‘Taken By Force’ artwork to RCA, the label wasn’t willing to take any chances. The US and UK branches of RCA rejected the cover. “Two kids playing with guns in a military cemetery” (as Francis Bucholz characterized the shot in a recent interview) was once again too much for the label bosses to deal with. In the 1970’s, Scorpions was RCA’s token heavy metal band, their records tossed out into the US and UK markets without any discernable promotion. Clearly Scorpions were not a priority for RCA; the label didn’t need all of this ‘cover controversy’ hassle. And, as they established with the towering mediocrity of the ‘Virgin Killer’ replacement art, they certainly weren’t willing to replace the original with anything challenging or even the least bit artistically valid.

Kiss Destroyer Resurrected

When Kiss broke through with their ‘Alive!’ album, their label paired them with Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin for their next studio album ‘Destroyer’. Massive mainstream success was just one ballad away. Casablanca Records was taking no chances, however, and demanded changes to cover art that they felt was “too violent”. And so, Kiss dancing while a city burns was changed to Kiss dancing in the ruins of a destroyed city. The original is definitely more badass, with the red and orange fire-inspired color scheme (‘Flaming Youth’, after all), now famously replaced by cool blues and pale yellows.

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The opportunity was also taken to depict Kiss in their new stage costumes, which makes sense. Simmons’ new Godzilla boots always made for a pretty striking image. But I have such an emotional attachment to the replacement cover, having spent countless hours staring at it as a kid, that it’s hard for me to acknowledge that there’s a better version. But even the 13 year old in me agrees: The original has flames!

The Beast that is Judas Priest was no stranger to record company foolishness. Their third album for CBS, ‘Killing Machine’, was retitled for the US when record company execs objected to the “murderous Implications” of the original title. The title to the song ‘Killing Machine’ remained unchanged, but another song title was used for the title of the US version: ‘Hell Bent for Leather’.

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After the global success of the band’s 4th studio album ‘British Steel’, which featured one of the most iconic album covers in heavy metal history, Priest followed up with the rather left-field ‘Point of Entry’.  The cover featured an abstract representation of the title concept; not a very ‘metal’ image, but a cool, futuristic image with a slightly scifi look.

judas priest_point of entry

Why on earth anyone decided to change the original cover to the one we got here in the US has to be one of Metal’s Greatest Mysteries. A never ending trail of computer paper unfolding down the middle of a highway and leading into the horizon. Ok. Plain white cardboard boxes of various sizes placed on the ground in the desert. Um… Not exactly making Hipgnosis nervous here, fellas. Someday, someone will explain this to me… and I will still think it sucks