Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: A Chuck Berry Tribute

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: A Chuck Berry Tribute

Today I break with my usual review to pay tribute to the man who made rock and roll what it is: Chuck Berry, who died this past Saturday at 90.

Chuck’s only one peer in rock history was Elvis Presley. Not the Beatles or the Stones, not Led Zeppelin or Metallica. Elvis was the first voice of rock, the man who brought the swagger. Chuck was the first guitar hero and the man who wrote the book of what rock music sounds like. The thing was, Elvis covered so many different styles of music that he only defined rock’s attitude. Chuck only played one type of music: rock and roll.

He wasn’t the first, whether that was Jackie Brenston or Ike Turner or Bill Haley or whoever. However, it was his songbook and his onstage showmanship as rock’s first guitar slinger that built the foundations of rock music. Johnny B. Goode. Roll Over Beethoven. Sweet Little Sixteen. Maybelline. School Days. Around and Around. Rock and Roll Music.

Think back to the first Back to the Future movie. Whose song does Marty McFly play? Whose stage antics? Whose ‘cousin’ is Marty playing with? Chuck Berry is the answer to all those questions!

ChuckBerry_TheGreatTwentyEight.pngIn Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 500 albums of all time, who has the highest rated greatest hits compilation? Chuck’s The Great Twenty-Eight, which they ranked at #21. This has every one of his hits from 1955-1965. While none of the songs are from the 70s, and this compilation wasn’t released until 1982, this is as essential to a rock music fan’s collection as Sgt. Pepper or Back in Black or The Joshua Tree. These songs are the foundation that the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin built their sound on. Without Chuck Berry, rock music might not have survived. At the very least, it certainly would have evolved very differently. So do yourself a favor. Buy this CD or put it into your Spotify rotation and enjoy the true Father of Rock and Roll.

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Renaissance

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Renaissance

I don’t remember the name of the magazine, but I still remember being so impressed by a review of a band I’d never heard of that I went out and bought their new album at my first opportunity. It was an investment at the time, since it was a double-live album, but one that paid off huge for my young ears, opening up the possibilities of what a rock band could be.

That band was Renaissance and the album was Live at Carnegie Hall. Several sounds jumped out as I played it over and over, absorbing the perfect marriage of rock and classical, beginning with the soaring, five-octave range of singer Annie Haslam. I’d never heard anyone in rock music sing like her, with the same power as Robert Plant but always crystal clear and beautiful. I’d discovered Lord of the Rings only a year or two before, and I always thought Annie’s voice was to rock music what Galadriel was to Middle Earth.

The musicians were just as impressive, but most notably, Michael Dunford only played acoustic guitar; that’s right, no electric guitar in an age when a band’s guitar player was a demigod. John Tout’s piano skills were not only on par with Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, but always managed to evoke emotion in me that perfectly matched the lyrics. Jon Camp’s bass was the electric force of the band, a melodic power not unlike Chris Squire in Yes, and Terry Sullivan’s percussion were subtle yet drove the band. His playing was never “over the top” like a Neal Peart, but it wasn’t simple either.

The funny thing, I learned later, is that none of the musicians were original members of the band, with most not joining until after the second Renaissance album was released, and this lineup, which is considered the classic band lineup, did not coalesce until the band’s fourth album,  Turn of the Cards. Also of interest was that the lyrics were written by a woman named Betty Thatcher who wasn’t in the band at all!

renaissanceThe next delight was the band’s sixth member, the orchestra. I grew up in a home where my parents regularly took me to classical concerts so that I developed a strong love of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart, which is why I am such a fan of progressive rock. There had been other bands before Renaissance, beginning with the Moody Blues, that had incorporated orchestras into their sound, and other bands that had experimented with live recordings in front of orchestras, such as Deep Purple or Procol Harum, but no rock band before or since Renaissance has made the orchestra an essential part of their sound.

As attractive as all these elements sound, without the evocative, emotional songs, the band would be nothing. The album opens with Prologue, a tour de force in which the vocals are merely another instrument. The remaining songs on sides one and two all feature beautiful, haunting melodies over rich, complex arrangements, including two of my favorites, Can You Understand? and Mother Russia. Only one song clocks in at less than seven minutes, Carpet of the Sun (which is still twice as long as a typical Beatles single!).

Side 3 was, at the time, the longest rock song I’d ever heard, the Song of Scheherazade. It begins with a three-minute story explaining the story of the Arabian princess before moving through a nine-movement suite that is equal to Tchikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Beethoven’s Symphony 9 in terms of breadth and scope. Even at 25 minutes, no single part ever feels extraneous.

Side 4 closes with Ashes Are Burning, which was originally an 11-minute epic, but is here expanded to twice that. It’s the band’s chance to open up and jam, especially Jon Camp, who has an extensive bass solo at one point. It’s the one song that might feel a bit out of place, since the orchestra is left out, but by the end, I’m left with a satisfied feeling that I’ve enjoyed a complete music set, a pleasure I still enjoy today listening to it again for possibly the thousandth time.

The classic lineup fell apart in 1980 and today, Annie is the only member left. Sadly, Michael, John Tout, and Betty Thatcher have all passed in the past few years. Their latest album, Symphony of Light, is as good as any of their classic albums from the 70s, however, and well worth picking up. For more information, visit the band’s website here.

 

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 $$).

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.

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Starcastle

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Starcastle

Starcastle is one of those bands I had no idea existed during the 1970s but discovered their music later in life. In the mid 90s, I read about their style being similar to progressive rock giants Yes, a band that I’ve loved for a very long time and decided to buy their self-titled debut album, which had just recently been released on CD for the first time.

Starcastle.jpgThe moment the keyboard intro to track one, Lady of the Lake, began, I knew I’d discovered a keeper. The similarities to Yes are immediately obvious: Herb Schlitt’s keyboard stylings are heavily influenced by Rick Wakeman, Gary Strater’s bass playing is clearly from the school of Chris Squire, and Terry Luttrell sings more like Jon Anderson than any of Anderson’s replacements in Yes.

The band featured two guitarists instead of one, but by the time I’d finished the seven-track album, I felt like I’d discovered a lost Yes album. That, however, is not a complaint, but an acknowledgment of what Starcastle had achieved: an American progressive rock album equal to anything that Kansas had created, and an album that could hold its own with the epics produced by the European giants.

Many critics of Starcastle rightfully point to how similar the album is to a Yes album, but they fail to mention how good the songwriting is. Lady of the Lake can hold its own with almost anything Yes or Genesis has ever produced. The vocal harmonies throughout are superb and better than most progressive rock bands. The musicianship is top notch. The song arrangements are varied but effortless with layers of texture that allow multiple listens to catch all of what is happening.

I think my favorite part of this album is the sensation of light that it creates. Not light in terms of the heaviness of the music or arrangements, but literally feeling at times like I’m listening to light. It’s a quality that Jon Anderson has often tried to create with his solo albums, yet never as successfully as Starcastle does on their debut album.

The band released three more albums before falling apart. Fountains of Light is more original and I recommend that as a starting point for hard-core prog fans. Citadel is also good, but doesn’t match the first two. Around 2000, Chronos I was released, which was an archive album of demos that predate the debut and is easily as good as Citadel. Several members reunited to released Song of Times in 2007, which provides a nice bookend to the band’s career.

Forgotten Rock Bands of the 70s: Uriah Heep

Today, I’m going to start what I hope is something I write about once a week, something that’s near and dear to my heart and ears: 1970s rock, the era I grew up in. So much great music that has been forgotten or never known to the generations that have grown up since the arrival of Nirvana.

My rock collection dates back to the late 40s and early 50s, and I love much of the 60s, but the music of the 70s is what formed much of who I am, and I’d like to share some of what’s been forgotten. Maybe not by old rockers, but surely by those younger than 30.

I’ll start with my favorite band, Uriah Heep. They formed in the late 60s as Spice, developed from a typical R&B band to one of the earliest of proto-progressive metal bands. Then they added organist/guitarist Ken Hensley, and changed their name to Uriah Heep in early 1970, releasing their first album Very ‘Eavy Very ‘Umble (or just Uriah Heep in the US). The band centered around Ken’s songwriting and heavy Hammond B3, David Byron’s soaring vocals, Mick Box’s wah-wah drenched guitar, Paul Newton’s melodic bass, and an ever-changing lineup of drummers (four over the first three albums). Their albums were on par with early Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, but with vocal harmonies that rivaled the Beach Boys or Three Dog Night.

demons_and_wizardsThe biggest change came in 1972 when Gary Thain replaced Paul Newton and Lee Kerslake became their permanent drummer. This lineup created the band’s most famous album, Demons and Wizards, which included two of their biggest hits, Easy Livin’ and The Wizard. It also includes two of their biggest epics, Circle of Hands and Paradise/The Spell, the latter a progressive rock masterpiece. In fact, there’s not a single weak song on the album, and the non-album b-side (which is now included on most reissues), Why, features one of the best bass solos in rock history.

Uriah Heep’s sound had quite an impact on many bands, including Queen and Styx. The sound on both of those bands’ early albums owes a great deal to Heep’s early albums, but especially Demons and Wizards.

The band continued to release high quality albums throughout the 70s even as the lineup changed several times. Eventually, even Ken Hensley left, leaving Mick Box as the sole founding member. He has soldiered on, the band continuing to this day. The band is still releasing high quality albums, especially beginning with 1995’s Sea of Light up through 2014’s Outsider. You can check out more information at uriah-heep.com.