Rock Candy, delivered as a sort of Zeppelin-ish swagger, has lyrics so dumbed-down they could be comprehensively analysed by a class of hamsters, but it doesn’t matter a jot … [The whole debut album] is music stripped down to its bare, teenage, acne-ridden, hard-rocking essentials, and it never fails to work.
Sometimes you get the phenomenon whereby a band’s career is completely overshadowed by the success, quality and/or reputation of one particular album. Not a case such as Pink Floyd with Dark Side Of The Moon or the like, as clearly their whole career is celebrated to one degree or another. No, I am thinking of cases whereby a band record a few albums but are remembered almost exclusively for one. To some degree the argument could be used for, say, Wishbone Ash with Argus, or even Meat Loaf with Bat Out Of Hell, such were the impact of those albums in the mainstream consciousness as opposed to most of their other releases which tend now to be more the province of the fans. Surely there can be few greater examples of ‘overshadowing albums syndrome’ than Montrose’s self-titled 1973 debut, however. Launching the career of young vocalist Sammy Hagar as well as wunderkind guitarist Ronnie Montrose, the album has had reams written about it over the years. It regularly tops lists of greatest hard rock albums, and has come to be regarded as a virtual template for how to make a particular sort of no-frills, live-in-the-studio, party-time American heavy rock, and with good reason, as it does what it does almost to perfection. What of Montrose’s other releases, however? How many of those with the Montrose album in their collection, or who at least know its most popular tracks, also remember their other ’70s albums Paper Money, Warner Bros Presents Montrose! or Jump On It? Well, with the release of this definitive set, they can. And in the main, they should.
Let’s cover THAT debut album first though. If ever a young band came together with what seemed like the perfect chemistry and mix of tight playing and garage-band enthusiasm, this was it. Ronnie Montrose was unknown but brilliant as a guitarist, and Sammy Hagar was, even within the confines of the vinyl grooves, clearly a charismatic frontman and powerful vocalist of the first order. Match that up to a tight-as-you-like rhythm section of bassist Bill Church and drummer Denny Carmassi, and you had something very special. When they went in to record their debut album, it’s as if they knew they had a magic about them, and that any such niceties as lyrical complexity, carefully constructed songwriting or visual packaging and image were very much secondary to the sheer force of the music. And, remarkably, it worked. To take a look at the album is to find little which appears very inspiring to say the least. A cover design which is nothing but a bare-chested band photo and a logo. No gatefold. Eight tracks only, with titles such as Rock The Nation, Rock Candy, Make It Last and Good Rockin’ Tonight. Looking further, there are lyrics here which make Kiss appear like Proust in comparison. But then, you put the album on and the scales fall from your eyes (or ears as it should be), as the intro to Rock The Nation crashes from the speakers as if it can’t wait to get hold of you and make sure you damn well rock. Montrose’s guitar is astonishing in its effortless and instinctive quality, the riff is solid gold, and the song’s simple chorus is simply irresistible, delivered in such a confident fashion by Hagar that within a minute you really do, very very strongly, want to rock the nation. So much so that you wonder why you didn’t before. And from there it only gets better, with the timeless classic Bad Motor Scooter an absolute barnstormer. Hagar spins a tale of a girl who lives on ‘her daddy’s farm’ and owns said poor quality motor scooter. In a great line he explains that ‘I’d come out to your place / But I’m afraid of your dad…’ before urging her to get on the aforementioned scooter and come to his. And that’s the plot. Ronnie somehow conjures up the perfect sound of the vehicle’s engine in the unstoppable chorus, and while the motor scooter may not be the fastest thing on two wheels, the song itself is a monster. You might not want to love it. But you will. Resistance is utterly futile. The third part of the incredible opening triumvirate, which makes up twelve of the best rock and roll minutes to be committed to plastic, is the best of them all. Space Station #5 has what is without doubt one of the greatest guitar riffs ever conjured up, and the whole package of this one – from the production to the vocal to the arrangement – is textbook 1970s hard rock heaven. It should be in a space probe ready for beings from another planet to discover. That and Beethoven.
Of course there are lesser tracks – it couldn’t keep up that level throughout – and the version of the old chestnut Good Rocking Tonight and side one closer I Don’t Want It aren’t quite as essential. But they are still so enjoyable that you can’t call them filler, while other classics await on the second side of the original vinyl. Rock Candy, delivered as a sort of Zeppelin-ish swagger, has lyrics so dumbed-down they could be comprehensively analysed by a class of hamsters, but it doesn’t matter a jot. Hagar lasciviously compares the female object of his adolescent hormones to the titular sweet, describing her in the chorus as ‘hard, sweet and sticky’ – which to be honest doesn’t really seem to be the three qualities you’d look for first in a woman. But again, it doesn’t matter. You’re in the zone, and you’re immediately fifteen years old. You won’t find any fancy stuff like acoustic guitars or keyboards here, no sir – they are strange things and not to be trusted. One Thing On My Mind, meanwhile, has a groove to it so insidious that it doesn’t so much compel you to dance as it does to strut. And I mean ‘compel’. I listened to this on headphones while out walking, and I swear that any onlookers might have wondered whether the Monty Python Ministry Of Silly Walks sketch was being enthusiastically re-enacted. This whole album is music stripped down to its bare, teenage, acne-ridden, hard-rocking essentials, and it never fails to work.
So, that’s the album that everyone talks about. And everyone remembers. But following that they managed to conjure up three more albums that a far smaller number of people ever discuss. So, they shot their bolt and failed to ever follow it up then, right? Well no, in actual fact quite wrong. They never matched that release again, but wisely, they didn’t try.
Before we get to album number two, however, there is a gem of a bonus disc, containing a radio broadcast session which is the very first concert played by the band, roped in as a last minute replacement for the scheduled guest Van Morrison, after he pulled out on the afternoon of the session claiming his band were insufficiently rehearsed. One has to ask the old curmudgeon whose fault that was exactly, but no matter, as the historic show we get here is Montrose before they even had a name and before they had performed to anyone in public. Some of it is raw and rough, of course, but what a find! There are also a clutch of early demo versions of the songs, including one which didn’t make the album called Shoot Us Down, which isn’t quite a classic, but given that the album was only around 33 minutes long really wouldn’t have hurt to be included. Anyhow, following that comes the second album Paper Money, which was clearly in a no-win situation after the success of the debut. If they tried to retread the first album’s footsteps they would be attacked for producing a second rate copy, while if they broadened their sound they would get criticised in the press for straying from their roots and what they did best. They chose the second option, and guess the reaction. Yep, that’s right. Release the hounds…
All of which is grossly unfair, as Paper Money is an excellent record. The sophistication of the songwriting and performance is a huge advance on the debut, which is only right for an ambitious band, and for the most part it’s great. The hard rock marries perfectly with the greater sophistication on standouts such as Underground, I Got The Fire, the title track and the superb Connection, The Dreamer is epic heavy metal pomp, while elsewhere there is real development with the instrumental Starliner, the unfairly savaged ballad We’re Going Home (sung by Ronnie, as the cracks between him and Hagar began to show), and the exceptional Spaceage Sacrifice. Now, a lot of utter rubbish has been written about this latter track over the years, the most recurringly stupid of which has been the unflattering comparisons to Space Station #5, dismissing it as a poor man’s version of that track. The reason this sort of criticism indicates the kind of writer who probably needs a Thinking Dog to do his work for him is that, apart from the word ‘Space’, the two songs bear no relationship to each other, stylistically, instrumentally or lyrically. Honestly, you might as well write off Smoke On The Water as a poor man’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Or perhaps dismiss Tchaikovsky, because his works share the word ‘Symphony’ with Mozart. Well, I’m here to set the record straight. Paper Money is a fine record, and the only one the band could have made, artistically, without going into a creative cul-de-sac as next door neighbours to AC/DC. Okay, the cover is so bare it makes the debut look like Sgt Pepper, but that’s beside the point. Bill Church has been replaced on bass by Alan Fitzgerald, but they get away with it seamlessly.
The fourth disc has another live show for the same radio station, this time with a mix of material from the two albums, plus a run through the standards Trouble and Roll Over Beethoven, and a preview of an acoustic guitar instrumental called One And A Half which would appear on the next album. There’s a version of Space Station #5 which clocks in at about 11 minutes, which really whets the appetite, but unfortunately doesn’t live up to the expectations, as half of that time is spent in a meanderingly noodling instrumental section which tries the patience. From there, it’s on to the last two albums, and at this point things change a bit as we lose Sammy Hagar, who left after a lot of conflict with Ronnie Montrose, and went on to a successful solo career and, of course, Van Halen. His replacement on vocals was Bob James, who isn’t as impressive and, judging by the way his vocals are mixed low to the point of being lyrically indecipherable at times, one wonders whether the band lacked confidence in him also. The album, Warner Bros Presents Montrose!, is still an enjoyable listen, but it is undeniably a slight step down. There is great material but unfortunately clear filler as well. First the big positives: the sophistication and ambition of the songwriting continues to develop, with the prog-rock touches of the side one closing track Whaler and the final song Black Train being as good as anything which had come before. The opening Matriarch is also fine for what it is, although what it is does turn out to be Black Sabbath’s Children Of The Grave with a new haircut and a ‘Happy To Help’ badge. Dancin’ Feet is better than the title would lead you believe, as is the oddly named Clown Woman. Where the album really slips up is the faintly desperate presence of two cover versions. The surreal presence of Alan Price’s O! Lucky Man, reimagined as a heavy rock battering ram, gets away with it to an extent through its sheer unexpectedness, but elsewhere we must ask whether anyone, anywhere needed another version of Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock. The answer is no, and doubly so as regards this ham-fisted shouty demolition of the song, which ranks as comfortably the worst thing the band ever committed to tape. The instrumental One And A Half, incidentally, gets that name because it lasts one and a half minutes. The album cover this time goes from sparse to resplendent, as it takes the form of a parody of a vintage movie poster, all winged monsters, spooky castles and romantic leads. It’s a nice change in that regard, that’s for sure.
With the final album, 1976’s Jump On It, the cover art reverts to as bad as you could want it to be. The drawing of a woman’s bikini-clad thigh area goes with the title ‘Jump On It’ about as subtly as a sledgehammer to the face, and before you wonder, yes, the back cover does show exactly what you think it will. Let’s move on. In actual fact, the album comes as something of a pleasant surprise, as the obvious impression from the cover and the title is that the band have gone for leering adolescent hard-rock-by-numbers, but in fact that is far from the case. Of course, it is unsurprisingly a little uneven, and far too short, as the band were clearly struggling for ideas, but a lot of what is here is very good. There is more intelligent songwriting chops on display in the closing Merry Go-Round, while tracks such as Rich Man even feature a string section to pretty good effect. Even the title track isn’t the lyrical trip through puberty that one might fear, being an exhortation to grab life by the horns and ‘jump on it, before it jumps on you’, which are fairly sage words of advice. It shows a band running on empty somewhat inspiration-wise, but the mixing of Bob James’ vocals is much better at least.
Overall what you have here is two classic albums and two more which could be compiled together to make one great one. Add to that two excellent discs of bonus material showing the band absolutely going for it live with carefree abandon, and you’ve got a wealth of great music and, perhaps more importantly, proof positive that there WAS more to Montrose than that debut album. The biggest shame is that the gifted Ronnie Montrose never fulfilled his potential after the band split, going from one project to another with moderate success while dealing with a set of personal demons, until he finally passed away due to cancer in 2012. His legacy and reputation as a musician should be far, far greater than it is, but his is not the first such tale, and nor will it be the last. At least this set shows us that, for a time at least he really did have ‘the fire’. And then some.