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Tons O' Fun

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By Jon Fine

The prepunk late 60s and early 70s constitute one of the most widely loathed periods in music--and if you're one of the shortsighted people who loathe it then I feel sorry for you, because it was a remarkably fertile time. It's when new, physically based approaches to music crystallized. Like heavy hard rock, the crap that punk rock was supposed to erase from the face of the earth. The crap that high-minded musicians of today are supposed to have evolved beyond. The crap that has collectors and DJs alike brawling by the dollar bins for dusty records with pictures of hairy, drowsy looking young men on the covers. They're fighting because they know bass and drums and guitar interlocking and pulling against each other is precisely what makes rock music rock, and that those dusty grooves are durable enough to base modern-day jams on. The bottom line is this: Can you feel it? You can trick the cerebrum, but you can't fool the reptile brain.

The net effect of heavy, as all presently and formerly stoned teenagers know, is to make you want to put your head through the windshield. Heavy is what happened when the rock musicians discovered an instrumental idiom of their own, when electrified folk music and traditional pop forms went 3-D. Garage rock's clattering sound seems centered in the sinuses, but heavy rock is full-body immersion. This is the difference between the Standells' "Dirty Water" and Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" or Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." It's hard to pinpoint exactly when aggressive rock transmuted from garage clang to thick ensemble heft, but the first appearance on the charts of full-fledged heaviness was Vanilla Fudge's severely 'luded remake of the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On" in 1967.

In Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Joe Carducci outlines the aesthetic of heavy at length, at one point calling it "an internally generated resistance" within the music. When bands stack giant unison riffs--preferably on the low strings--on guitar and bass, like on Sabbath's "Iron Man" or Funkadelic's "Super Stupid," that's heavy. Usually heavy is a combined effort, but some skilled musicians can make weight all by themselves: on John Bonham's drum tracks on Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," one of heavy rock's holiest grails, he keeps straight time on his high hat while rushing the beat slightly on his snare drum and dragging behind it slightly on the bass drum. This subtle rhythmic distortion is the fuel of teenage riots.

Guitarists who create heaviness all by themselves, through strategic riffing and thick tone, are more rare. Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi is one of them. Jimmy Page is not, but with Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones behind him he may have recognized that he could concentrate on expanding Led Zeppelin's tonal colors without costing the band a single ounce of weight. AC/DC is heavy, and Angus Young's lead guitar accentuates the band's raw physical thrust--but his lines are not heavy without Phil Rudd behind the drums.

Heavy metal, incidentally, is not the same thing. The terms hard rock and heavy metal get thrown around fairly interchangeably, and Sabbath and Zeppelin got called metal in the 70s. But heavy metal is best used to describe bands from the so-called new wave of British heavy metal in the late 70s and early 80s--like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden--and their stylistic descendants, from Metallica to Deicide. The sine qua non of metal is the rhythm guitar's choked chug-chug-chug. Iommi chugged his way through some Sabbath verses, but his chugs were never central to the song the way Metallica's are. This is why some kids nowadays describe metal groups as "jum-jum" bands.

Metal's vocal styles are more single-mindedly aimed at expressing extreme moods than hard rock's. Metal is the pinched falsetto wail of Rob Halford, the tight growl of James Hetfield and his legions of imitators, the subsonic Cookie Monster gargle of present-day black- and death-metal singers. Metal rhythm sections are exemplified by double-kick drum styles popularized by the 80s speed-metal bands. It is a very rare drummer who can coax a groove from such hyperactive beats, especially since Dave Lombardo quit Slayer. Metal is about impact, not sensuality; it has no hips. It's about the glory of fucking shit up, not the glory of fucking.

Although a Peruvian band called Pax recorded a few songs in 1970 that would have fit pretty seamlessly on an early Black Sabbath record, nothing lurking in the vinyl bins beats Zeppelin or Sabbath (ZZ Top or Blue Cheer or AC/DC) at their own games. But you can find interesting, often idiosyncratic takes on the basic hard-rock blueprint that, for one reason or another, failed to crack the big time or faded fast from the FM airwaves. Some of them still sound striking today: Sir Lord Baltimore and High Tide are road-not-taken bands that were simply too weird or extreme for their time--and maybe ours, too.

There were supergroups that didn't last, like West, Bruce & Laing, which was two-thirds Mountain and one-third Cream. The quiet stuff on their Why Dontcha (reissued by Columbia in 1990) is unlistenable, but their best tunes are better than the hits from the players' previous bands. Some hard-rock bands signed with half-assed record companies that exemplified the worst aspects of what we'd call indie labels today. Others got buried on vanity labels of big-name British acts who were more adept at playing music than selling it. Deep Purple signed Hard Stuff to their Purple Records. Hard Stuff weren't always great, but their drummer, Paul Hammond, was. On their debut, Bulletproof (licensed by Mercury in the U.S. in 1972), he's as good as any of the big names of his day.

There were period grotesqueries, like Budgie, whose appeal was in part an almost willful badness. They achieved posthumous fame when Metallica covered two of their songs, but they mostly deserve recognition for how their records pit first-rate ideas in desperate, losing battles against harebrained notions and an audible ineptitude that persisted well into their career. And some bands had the misfortune of being born in the wrong place, like Australia's Buffalo, who failed to win a European or American label for their best work.

All of the following hard-rock rarities have been rereleased, with varying degrees of legitimacy, in recent years. Web sites like Twisted Village (www.twistedvillage.com), Delerium Records (www.delerium.co.uk), and Aether/Or (www.aether-or.com) can help you buy or hunt them down over the Internet. If you can't find them there, of course, there's always the dollar bins.

Randy Holden Population II

Original release: Hobbitt, 1969

Reissue: bootleg on Flashback, 1996

Every well-traveled hard-rock loner-stoner wishes he'd made this record. Holden's name is typically preceded by "Blue Cheer guitarist," but the characterization is a bit of a stretch. He appears only on half their third album, New! Improved! Holden went through several bands in the 60s, from the garagey Sons of Adam to the heavy psychedelic act Savage Resurrection, on whose album he's mysteriously identified as "Randy Hammond." Shortly after his stint in Blue Cheer, Holden recorded this masterpiece with drummer Chris Lockheed, playing bass as well as guitar; shortly after that he moved to Hawaii and faded away. The legend is that he didn't even know Population II had come out until some collectors tracked him down a couple decades later to tell him the album traded hands for steep sums. The sleeve shot of Holden and Lockheed dwarfed by enough speaker stacks for a few Woodstocks' worth of bands is appropriate--Population II has a wondrous, cavernous vibe. It has the feel of a lone (albeit highly amplified) voice wailing in the wilderness, as if Holden lived in an enormous cave and had to invent rock music to fill all that dead space. Thirty years later there are still few albums that fill a room quite like it.

Firebirds Light My Fire

Original release: Crown, 1969

Reissue: no-label bootleg, 1991

No one knows anything about these guys. They're believed to be from Los Angeles. They're suspected to be the same band as the Electric Firebirds, although the Electric Firebirds record I have sounds nothing like this. To complicate matters, they seem to have released some of the same material under the name 31 Flavors. Crown's modus operandi was to release tons of quickie records built on cover versions of hit singles or vague catchphrases--the Electric Firebirds record is called Dance Party Time. Accordingly, Light My Fire leads off with a not-quite-ept instrumental cover of the Doors hit. But patience pays off: after that the Firebirds disgorge several brilliant examples of dunderheaded psych rock. The guitarist employs distortion that sounds like it was found at the 99-cent store, and the lyrics are pure hippiedada ("I live beneath / A sea of gray / I ride upon / A purple wave / And sink beneath / The dream I save"). The playing ranges from excellent to staggeringly lame; it's like Greg Ginn fronting the Jimi Hendrix Experience rhythm section after a lengthy cough syrup party during which the bassist and drummer broke several fingers. The spastic drum fills underneath the sick guitar runs on "Reflections" and the barely together elephantine stomp that kicks off "No Tomorrows" are as inspired and singular as "Are You Experienced?" Maybe someone will finally find these stoned savants, but I fear they all died long ago in low-speed motorcycle crashes.

High Tide Sea Shanties

Original release: Liberty, 1969

Reissue: Repertoire, 1994

Weirdos, but not like the Firebirds. It's hard to know whether to describe this short-lived quartet as progressive, psychedelic, protometal, or simply heavy rock. Front man Tony Hill sings a bit like Jim Morrison, but his vocals are often drowned out by his own heavily distorted guitar and Simon House's electric violin. Hill and House's mud defines High Tide the way Iommi and Geezer Butler's mud defined Sabbath. Hill solos for nearly the entire record and the songs are long and complex, but the rhythm section somehow channels all the muck into the right place. Like the Firebirds record or Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum, it still sounds crazed today. Rockers allergic to "progressive" shouldn't shy away from Sea Shanties; it's so visceral you can practically see the guts hanging from the speakers. House later ended up in Hawkwind.

Sir Lord Baltimore Kingdom Come

Original release: Mercury, 1970

Reissue: Polygram, 1994 (CD also includes the follow-up, Sir Lord Baltimore)

Brooklyn's Sir Lord Baltimore blazed bold new trails for heavy rock. Unfortunately, nobody followed. Shrill, howling, ridiculously bombastic, and jittery like the tail end of a meth jag, Kingdom Come is studded with overloud guitar fills that sometimes sound like they were spliced in on another planet. Its rough structures and aneurysm-inducing intensity presage punk as much as metal, though Sir Lord Baltimore are a sore-thumb band no matter where you stick 'em. They're the kind of gloriously wrongheaded outfit that shows up on worst-ever lists, but tagging them "worst ever" suggests a very narrow notion of what constitutes good music. Lots of the songs stick, and they rocked madly, albeit clumsily. On this basis one can forgive grievous misfires like the harpsichord-accompanied "Lake Isle of Innersfree" on Kingdom Come or the ten-minute-plus mini-opera "Man From Manhattan" on the follow-up. Sometimes I imagine a practical joker playing Kingdom Come excruciatingly loud through the PA at some sold-out Joan Baez concert, and it's just like sunshine on my motherfucking shoulders.

Trapeze Medusa

Original release: Threshold, 1970

Reissue: Mercury, 1994

Trapeze played a slow, spare hard rock typically called "bluesy," though neither the sound nor the chord structures resemble traditional blues. It's meditative rather than bludgeoning; it's so minimal that any shortcomings become glaring. Free and Bad Company sold a lot of records with it. But I don't think either made an album as good, or as minimal, as Medusa. "Touch My Life" has one guitar riff to last its four minutes and six seconds, yet the song never drags or gets dull. Medusa is heavy musically, but not sonically: the guitar sound is clean more often than it's distorted, neither bass nor drums are particularly walloping, and the recording is so transparent it feels like you could reach out and scoop up the dropped guitar picks. Trapeze's ambitions are modest and very specific, but every modest move is damn near perfect. The band is now the answer to a couple of trivia questions: it's where Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes and Judas Priest drummer Dave Holland got their start, and in the early 80s singer-guitarist Mel Galley briefly played in Whitesnake. Which is a horrifying notion, but, if one believes The Rough Guide to Rock, his exit from that band partially redeems him: he left in midtour, after punching a bandmate so hard he hurt his hand.

Groundhogs Split

Original release: Liberty, 1971

Reissue: Beat Goes On, 1990; more recently on Akarma

The Groundhogs weren't as consistently or coherently heavy as many other groups on this list. But Split's songwriting is great--in a parallel world, "Cherry Red" still gets played twice a day on rock radio--and you can feel the musicians' ecstasy during the lengthy instrumental passages. Led by guitarist Tony McPhee, the Groundhogs recorded an album and a single as John Lee Hooker's backing band, but had the imagination not to end up as just another British group playing slavish blues tributes. The conventional wisdom is that their best cycle of studio albums runs from Blues Obituary (Imperial, 1969) to Who Will Save the World? (United Artists, 1972), but later stuff like Crosscut Saw (United Artists, 1976) is pretty good too. In its own way, the Groundhogs' best stuff is as classic and direct as the Stones'. Given their longevity and their records' relative availability, it's hard to understand how they ended up essentially unknown in America.

Two other noteworthy albums made by refugees from the British blues scene are Taste's eponymously titled debut (Polydor, 1969; reissued on Polydor in '93) and Chicken Shack's Imagination Lady (Deram, 1971; reissued on Indigo in '97). The liner notes of the latter call the band "power blues," which aptly describes the former as well. Both bands demonstrate that the musical possibilities of electrifying the blues are significantly augmented if the players do more than just, well, electrify the blues. Taste, formed by Rory Gallagher in 1966 and broken up by 1970, was heavier, but Chicken Shack made a better album, even if some of the tracks hew too closely to 12-bar tradition, and get extra heavy points for the ludicrously long drum solo on "Telling Your Fortune." Both bands were trios with flashy, fluid guitarists. Chicken Shack's was Stan Webb, who sounds like he wore out several wah-wahs while recording Imagination Lady. The incarnation of the band on this record does not feature former singer Christine Perfect, who got famous later as Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie.

Road Road

Original release: Motown/Natural Resources, 1972

Reissue: source unknown, but the CD is currently available through Delerium

Late hippie-era hard rock with overt environmentalist flourishes: "Save our open spaces," reads the cover, beneath a picture of the band in flower-child garb superimposed on Monument Valley, and the label on the vinyl promises "Natural Sounds for Natural People." Ex-Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding and ex-Rare Earth guitarist Rod Richards (neither of whom you could really call a natural singer) snagged one of Britain's best young drummers, Leslie Sampson, and managed to squeeze out this album before Redding fled to Ireland. The seven songs are so laden with drug references that it's suspicious when Redding refers to a "little girl in white" in "Friends"--after all, "Man Dressed in Red" turns out to be a tangled reference to mixing quaaludes and Seconal. Sampson ended up being put to much better use in Stray Dog (see below), but only Road gave him a drum solo. Road gave Redding a bass solo, too. Richards? Hell, he solos for half the fucking album. The lengthy title track (drug reference: cocaine) is little more than an excuse for him to endlessly ride his wah-wah toward some nirvana only he can see. The excellent psychedelic "Mushroom Man" (drug reference: what, I gotta draw you a picture?) should have been a radio hit.

Bang Mother/Bow to the King

Original release: Capitol, 1972

Reissue: recent CD bootleg, allegedly European, is circulating; it's presumably not the one for sale on the band's Web site, www.bangmusic.com

The most melodically accomplished record on this list. Perhaps that's why the production is so pop, stressing the vocals, downplaying everything but the lead guitar, and neglecting to amplify the luscious, crunching riffs of "Humble" and "Idealist Realist." Mother/Bow to the King (each side of the record, for some reason, has its own title) is an unusual heavy rock album from this era for two reasons. One, most of the songs are quiet. Two, the quiet songs are as good as the heavy ones, letting Bang show off their smarts and range. The band gives "Tomorrow" swing and impact behind acoustic guitars, and builds "Bow to the King" to a rousing coda before gently taking it down once more. Rock historian Doug Sheppard (who's written for the likes of Ugly Things and Goldmine) confirms that the Bruce Gary who drummed on a few songs is the same guy who ended up in the Knack. He adds that the drummer, who'd been through a jillion bands before banging out the deathless intro to "My Sharona," barely remembers Bang at all.

Buffalo Volcanic Rock

Original release: Vertigo, 1973

Reissue: undated bootleg on Gema

From the single-entendre dick joke on the cover to the relentlessly neck-down music, Buffalo's Volcanic Rock plays into nearly every European stereotype of Australians as halfwits--which is why it's so great. Though decidedly unpolished, Buffalo aren't crude the way the Firebirds are. Their power doesn't come from Bonham-esque beats or Sir Lord Baltimore-style bombast or relentless chording a la their countrymen AC/DC. Volcanic Rock's oomph comes from a few simple riffs single-mindedly plowed into the ground over and over and over again with a sort of static grandeur. The beauty of it is that doubtless Buffalo did not head into the studio with the notion of exploring minimalism in a rock context. All riffs and rhythm section grind, with no instrumental flash or lyrical wit or hooks to distract, this record epitomizes what one female friend of mine calls "stupid boy rock." "It's real dumb," said the record store clerk approvingly when I bought it. Yet another argument for instinct over reason, especially where a good rhythm section is involved.

Stray Dog Stray Dog

Original release: Manticore, 1973

Reissue: Renaissance, 1993; a Stray Dog retrospective with previously unreleased tracks may follow this year

Imagine a Texas band in the early 70s having the balls to cover ZZ Top. Stray Dog did--and ate "Chevrolet" for breakfast. Bold, brilliant, and brimming with confidence, they sound like they were burning for the chance to get their jams on wax and detonated perfectly when the chance came. Bass is often the bonehead part of even good 70s hard rock, but here Alan Roberts molds the music as expertly as guitarist Snuffy Walden and drummer Leslie Sampson. With the exception of "Speak of the Devil" the songs are uniformly excellent, and even "Devil" is redeemed by the performances. And there are left-field surprises, like the insane King Crimson-esque vamp embedded in the Texas-bluesy "Crazy." God only knows how something this earthy and American ended up on the label run by pompous Brits Emerson, Lake & Palmer--and produced by Greg Lake, no less. It's easier to pinpoint Lake's involvement in the disappointing follow-up, While You're Down There, with its intrusive keyboards and restrained guitars. You've since heard Walden score the likes of Thirtysomething, The Wonder Years, and My So-Called Life. A little while back he spoke at a BMI seminar on composing for television. "This is not where I intended to be," he sighed. Cheer up, Snuffy--you could have disappeared with the Firebirds.

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