This release is a great insight into one of those bands in the late 60s that genuinely underachieved despite producing music that was as good as most of the bigger bands around them at the time.
Let’s start with a quick question: how many bands can you list with an animal as part of their name? Some might be obvious (Scorpions? Whitesnake?) and some a little more subtle (Cat Stevens? Hawkwind?). You can probably think of many – I found one Internet site that went to the trouble of listing circa 150(!) – but Rhinoceros is probably not one of them. So, who are they, you might well be wondering, and are they worth listening to? Well, you can now answer the question yourself thanks to those wonderful folk at Esoteric who enjoy nothing more than digging around for gems in the dark cellars of rock history. This time, they have come up with a three CD set consisting of the three studio albums that constitute the entire catalogue of Rhinoceros, all nicely remastered to boot.
Rock is full of stories of chance meetings in bars or gigs that led to famous bands being born. I’m afraid there is no such romantic tale for Rhinoceros because they were a “manufactured” band. The story goes as follows: in the late 1960s, the producer Paul Rothchild had been so successful with bands like The Doors and Love that Elektra founder Jac Holzman gave Rothchild the freedom to suggest projects he felt had merit. With fellow producer Frazier Mohawk (who had been involved with Buffalo Springfield), he decided to assemble a new band from scratch, selecting the finest musicians in the Los Angeles area. Rothchild and Mohawk then organised painstaking auditions which dragged on for months and by the start of 1968 the first Rhinoceros line-up was finally formed. That line-up consisted of (take a deep breath): John Finlay on vocals (ex- Jon and Lee and The Checkmates), Danny Weis on guitar and piano (ex-Iron Butterfly), Doug Hastings on guitars (ex-Daily Flash and Buffalo Springfield), Michael Fonfara on organ and piano (ex-The Electric Flag, and Jon and Lee and The Checkmates), Jerry Penrod on bass (ex-Iron Butterfly), and Billy Mundi on drums (ex-Mothers of Invention). The seventh and final member of the new band was the only rookie: 18 years old Alan Gerber on piano and vocals who gave up on university to join the band. To call them a supergroup might be a slight misuse of the term but expectations for the band were certainly high, fuelled also by a big marketing campaign by Elektra.
The self-titled debut album was released towards the end of 1968. The multicoloured rhinoceros that graces the cover will easily make you believe that this is a psychedelic album – it is 1968 after all – but musically the band mix almost every late 1960s style but that one: rhythm and blues, soul, country and funk. Of those, rhythm and blues is the primary sound of the band. The album has been described as being influenced by Buffalo Springfield, although to these ears they seem a little harder and rockier than Buffalo Springfield and are perhaps closer to The Band in style. Opener When You Say You’re Sorry is a typical Rhinoceros track, strongly rhythmic and with seven in the band there’s always lots of interesting interplay between the instruments. The song was written by Gerber too – not bad for a teenager. This is followed by Same Old Way which sandwiches a bizarre hillbilly section between two short languid bluesy sections. Very strange indeed. The band’s trademark song is Apricot Brandy, an instrumental that’s just one second shy of two minutes. It’s organ and guitar interplay is impressive but at the same time it perhaps highlights one of the shortcoming of the band: the inability to turn a good song into a truly great one. In the hands of say The Allman Brothers Band, the same track would have been a five-minute classic and a twenty-minute live epic. Still, the track made number 46 on the US singles chart which is not bad. The slower tracks on the album work particularly well, especially the bluesy That Time Of The Year and I’ve Been There which has a touch of Procol Harum to it. The album closes with I Will Serenade, another excellent song that doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Three Dog Night subsequently took it, changed the tempo (and title to Let Me Serenade You). and had a Top 20 hit with it which tends to prove the band underachieved with the raw material they had in hand. Overall, this was a very interesting album full of quality musicianship and a fine and promising effort for a debut album.
There had been disputes between Rothchild and the band about how the album was mixed and ultimately this led to the band sacking Rothchild. Bassist Penrod also left but mostly the same band decided to up sticks from Los Angeles and head for New York. With new producer David Anderle, the band put together their second album called Satin Chickens. That title sounds like another psychedelic inspiration but its origins are more mundane: it’s just a lazy play on the titles of two of the tracks on the album – the sub-minute snippet of Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll which opens the album, and one slightly insane instrumental called Chickens which includes reciting a few animal names and then mimicking the noises they make (I jest not!). Musically, the album doesn’t try to be different from the band’s debut but the coherent musical melting pot of the first album seems to have been broken into clearly different styles and the songs are not quite at the same level either. It’s not all as bad as I’m making it sound though. There’s the mournful Gerber-penned ballad Find My Hand, adorned by great organ playing and bluesy guitar, which builds up to a satisfying climax. It’s perhaps the best song the band made. The album also closes neatly with the stomping soul of Back Door which would have graced any James Brown album. In retrospect, the decision to drop Rothchild was not a clever one. Satin Chickens ultimately saw them treading water when they really needed to build on the good base of the first album.
It was at this point the band had a real sliding doors moment. Their management got an agreement to play at an upcoming festival at an obscure location called…….Woodstock. Yes, that one. But without informing the band, the management weren’t happy with the money on offer to play Woodstock so declined it and proudly told the band they’d earned them $3,500 to play a routine prom event instead. That was twice as much as they’d have earned at Woodstock, tells Finley in the informative sixteen-page booklet that accompanies this release. He adds “I still wonder what might have happened had we played and kicked ass”. Bad luck guys!
Yet more band chances occurred after that with the most important being the departure of Gerber. The third and final album, optimistically called Better Times Are Coming, was released in 1970. The producer changed again; this time Guy Draper taking the chair. Guy was even more controlling than Rothchild had been – he even insisted on writing half the songs for the album – and the relationship with the band was apparently not too good. There’s certainly a lot more energy on this album than Satin Chickens even if the quality remains uneven. There’s not the insanity of the track Chicken but there is instead a good instrumental track called Insanity! Opener Better Times rocks along in a surprisingly cheerful way, as if those better times were indeed on their way, and that’s followed by Old Age which has an infectious bass line not totally dissimilar to Another One Bites The Dust. But on many of the songs the band seem to be going through the motions. They hit rock bottom on Let’s Party which I can only describe as sounding like Kool & The Gang on a very bad night. Just to confirm their schizophrenic nature, the band follow Let’s Party with the album closer Rain Child, a slow heavy blues song which ends the album on a high note.
Sales of Better Times Are Coming were poor, and despite half-hearted attempts to keep the band going, it all fell apart. We are so used to reading about bands that make it to the top against the odds, that we sometimes forget about the thousands of bands who nearly made it to the top, but for a mixture of lack of ability or lack of luck didn’t quite make it. In the case of Rhinoceros, the ability was undoubtedly there but the luck certainly wasn’t. This release is a great insight into one of those bands in the late 60s that genuinely underachieved despite producing music that was as good as most of the bigger bands around them at the time.