Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Armageddon

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Armageddon

One album. No hits. Only five songs. A cult classic.

Armageddon is the result of two guys who wanted to play folk and two guys who wanted to play heavy metal. Keith Relf, lead singer of The Yardbirds and the original Renaissance, and Louis Cennamo, bass player for the original Renaissance and Steamhammer, joined forces, hoping to continue what they’d started in Renaissance before both got sidetracked. Instead of bringing in players with similar taste, Louis brought in the guitar player from Steamhammer, Martin Pugh, who had far more in common with Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) than Bob Dylan. Martin knew Bobby Caldwell, a drummer who had not only played with Johnny Winter, but had been in Captain Beyond, writing almost all of the music for that band’s legendary debut album.

It was a mix that shouldn’t have worked; indeed, the band barely lasted long enough to record this single album in late 1974 and a handful of shows in 1975 before falling apart, but what an album! A&M Records gave them a contract simply on the promise of the musicians involved, and Ahmet Ertegun (the “E” in A&E) was set to turn them into the next superstar band, including fancy apartments with swimming pools in Los Angeles, but the chemistry that works so well for about 42 minutes of vinyl fell apart almost as quickly as it came together, ending forever when Keith Relf was accidentally electrocuted in early 1976.

armageddon.jpgFour of the songs are built on blistering heavy riffs that Jimmy Page must’ve drooled over. Indeed, he even showed up during the recording sessions to visit Relf, his former band mate in The Yardbirds. The opening track, Buzzard, frantically changes pace multiple times, and Pugh’s guitar attack is almost unrelenting, backing off at times to allow Relf room to sing, before bludgeoning the listener again at twice the speed of the heaviest riffs of Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath). Underneath it all is Caldwell’s superb rhythmic swagger, with all the muscle of John Bonham (Zeppelin) but topped with the same jazz skills that Ian Paice (Deep Purple) exhibits. Indeed, fans of Captain Beyond will recognize his unique stylings immediately.

The next song, Silver Tightrope, is a surprisingly beautiful ballad that holds its own against the best heavy metal ballads of the 70s, such as Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven or Uriah Heep’s Circle of Hands. This is the type of song Relf and Cennamo had wanted to write, and one can easily see why, with its shimmering, delicate guitar lines and Relf’s almost ethereal vocals that allow his poetic lyrics to shine. Another highlight of this album, Relf paints pictures with every song, and this poem about dying and the afterlife is possibly his finest.

Side One ends with Paths and Planes and Future Gains. It’s the most Zeppelin-esque of all the tracks and just as heavy as Buzzard. What surprised me the most when I discovered this album was Relf’s voice. Next to all the other hard rocking 60s bands such as the Rolling Stones, Pretty Things, or the Animals, his singing always seemed too gentle to me, like he would’ve been better off singing in a pop band like the Beatles. Yet on this album, his voice has aged (he had emphysema) and had gained a rasp that fits perfectly.

Side Two starts off with Last Stand Before, a heavy blues boogie shuffle in a Foghat or Status Quo vein. It showcases Relf’s harmonica playing in an extended call-and-response with Pugh’s guitar. Then the album closes with the band’s epic Basking in the White of the Midnight Sun, a four-part tour de force that begins with a long, urgent intro of the main theme that snakes and slithers through multiple moods before settling into a slow groove in part three that builds back up into the relentless reprise, leaving the listener almost gasping for breath by the end.

Okay, I think I may have overstated my case, but of all the bands with a similar one-album output, Armageddon was the finest the 70s produced. Even today, it still holds its own against not only Zeppelin’s best, but can sit just as proudly on your shelf next to Metallica or Avenged Sevenfold. If you’ve got Amazon Prime, go here to stream the first two songs or download it for a reasonable price (although Amazon has broken up the final song into its four parts, presumably so they can charge you more $$).

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Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Sweet 

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Sweet 

Few bands have metamorphosed more times than Sweet (and sometimes, The Sweet) did during the heyday, which lasted from the late 60s until the early 80s. In their early years, they were mostly a bubblegum pop band with a string of hits in the UK and Europe, and one monster hit in the US: Little Willy. All of these hits were written for them. Their b-sides, however, gave a glimpse of the powerhouse band they’d become in the mid 70s, and these were actually written by the band.

On stage, the band’s colorful outfits and outrageous stage show helped them develop the reputation of one of the best glam rock bands in Europe. In the US, however, they were still a one-hit wonder.

The band’s classic lineup throughout the 70s was lead singer and heartthrob Brian Connolly, guitarist Andy Scott, bassist Steve Priest, and drummer Mick Tucker. Scott and Priest provided strong harmony vocals, adding another level of texture that helped set them apart from most metal bands.

In early 1974, they released their third album, Sweet Fanny Adams, which still featured a handful of songs written by others, but Sweet arranged these to sound as heavy as their b-sides. They followed this in late 1974 with Desolation Boulevard. This album, as released in Europe, is not the same as the US.

For the American audience, Capitol Records cobbled the best songs from the band’s last two albums, adding two more songs that hadn’t appeared on a Sweet album, and released the US version of Desolation Boulevard. Normally, this kind of effort is usually weaker than the original albums; however, in Sweet’s case, it ended up becoming possibly their finest album ever. As a ninth grader, it had a lasting impact on me. Many people know what a metalhead I am. This album was my introduction to heavy metal.

To start with, one of the new songs was classic glam, a perfect mix of fun outrageousness with Sweet’s unique metal sound. Ballroom Blitz was an instant worldwide hit, a song that even today cannot be confused with any other pop or rock song, whether Mick’s drum shuffle, Brian’s spoken “Are you ready, Steve?” intro, the quirky lyrics about the man in the back and the girl in the corner, or the memorable chorus.

The follow-up hit was Fox on the Run, another smash that successfully straddled both pop and rock, but this one was written by the band, proving that they could write as well as any outside writers. The song re-entered the charts just last year, hitting #1 on iTunes’ rock charts when it was included in the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and has been covered by numerous artists, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Those aren’t the only strong songs on the album, however. In fact, there are several songs that many fans prefer, most notably, the first track on side 2, Sweet F.A., which might possibly be the best song the band ever created. A 6+-minute epic that opens with a tremendously heavy riff that always feels on the verge of rumbling out of control but manages to just stay on the tracks, it twists and turns several times in mood from heavy metal to pop to progressive rock. Other notable songs include No You Don’t (covered by Pat Benatar) and Set Me Free (covered by many bands, including Saxon), but there are no weak songs on the album.

Overall, this album still holds up well against not only the best glam rock albums of the era, such as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, but against any metal album of the mid70s, including Black Sabbath’s Sabotage, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, or Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny. Sweet’s follow-up album, Give Us a Wink, is nearly as good, so check that album out as well. In fact, members of Kiss, Motley Crue, and Def Leppard have all gone on record saying that Sweet is one of their primary influences,

Andy Scott has kept the band alive, and Steve Priest has had his own lineup for a while, but sadly, both Brian Connolly and Mick Tucker passed several years ago. You can learn more at thesweet.com (Andy Scott’s Sweet) or thesweetband.com (Steve Priest’s Sweet).

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Nazareth

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Nazareth

Long before there was AC/DC or Krokus or Guns n’ Roses, there was a band from Scotland that established the sound of heavy blues riffs topped by a raspy, full-throated singer. That band was Nazareth.

Founded in 1968 with their first album in 1971, they came on the music scene about the same time that the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart formed, but were at the same time heavier and more varied in sound, with strong hints of country and acoustic sounds, especially on their first two albums (not unlike Led Zeppelin’s third album).

Their sound began to change with their third album, Razamanaz, which spawned hits in Britain such as My White Bicycle, but success in the United States eluded them until 1975 when they released their sixth album, Hair of the Dog, which is when I discovered them.

The album opens with one of rock music’s most instantly recognizable riffs, the title track (aka Now You’re Messin’ With a Son of a Bitch), and a song that can still be heard almost every day on classic rock radio. It’s followed by a song as heavy as anything Black Sabbath ever produced, Miss Misery. It was the third song, however, that turned Nazareth into a household name for a brief period, the original power ballad, Love Hurts.

nazareth.jpgIt was their only song to reach the US Top 10 (and number 1 in Canada) and a featured song at every junior high dance. Its lyrics still resonate today, a reason its on regular rotation on many playlists:

Love hurts
Love scars
Love wounds and marks
Any heart not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud, it holds a lot of rain
Love hurts

That isn’t the only great song on the album, of course. Beggar’s Day is a song for AC/DC to drool over while Rose in the Heather is another acoustic classic with strong hints of their Scottish background.

The album ends with my favorite Nazareth song, Please Don’t Judas Me, a 10-minute epic with Middle East overtones not unlike Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir or Rainbow’s Stargazer from the same period. The lyrics are surprisingly effective in using Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, as a verb for the song’s protagonist to plead for his friend or lover to not betray him. For anyone who has gone through an intense betrayal, as I have, this song is especially poignant.

Nazareth has released more than 20 albums, most of which are outstanding, although Hair of the Dog remains my favorite. Their most recent, Rock ‘n Roll Telephone (2014) was, unfortunately, their last with original singer Dan McCafferty, who had to retire for health reasons. However, the band continues on! For more information, check out their website here.