June 17, 2023

If you want to understand how hard rock music came into being, then this box set is the essential place to start.

In these days when it’s easy to churn out yet another compilation, it’s refreshing to see this extraordinarily deep and thorough review of one type of rock music, in one country, and during one relatively brief span of time. Listening to these four hours of music (squeezed into three CDs) while reading the accompanying very detailed 48-page booklet, it sometimes felt more like attending a music history lecture than some casual listening experience. Of the 61 groups/artists represented here, there are around 20 that I personally could claim to know, although even within those 20, often the songs were new to me. The rest represented a journey of discovery, and that’s where the booklet often came in very handy. After all, hearing a song by an unknown group is one thing; hearing a song by a group that at one point practiced in a mental institution, having recruited one of the residents as its singer, puts a whole new spin on things! The booklet, put together by David Wells, is full of such remarkable facts which certainly contributes to this being such an enriching and entertaining package.

Vanilla Fudge in their pioneer days

Oddly, despite claiming to cover the seven-year period from 1967 to 1973, there is only one song from 1967, and just three from 1973. While no explanation of this light touch on these two outer years is given, I suspect the sole track from 1967 is due to the desire to recognize the importance of Vanilla Fudge and their August 67 debut album as one of the first examples of proto-hard rock. Closing with the Grand Funk anthem that reached number one on the American charts and marked the mainstreaming of hard rock music certainly makes a lot of sense, although it’s a shame that more material from the first half of 1973 is not included. Going back to Vanilla Fudge, you would probably expect to find here their top ten hit, a grinding version of The Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On but instead we get the equally grinding cover of The Beatles’ Ticket To Ride. Avoiding the obvious choice of material from the more familiar bands is something that often happens in this compilation and that should sustain the interest of even the most knowledgeable fans.  

The running order across the three CDs is by the official release date which gives a clear overarching view of the gradual emergence of hard rock out of the psychedelic period. Disc One covers the period through to early 1969 and is therefore not surprisingly still very much music mired in the psychedelic sound. Following on from Vanilla Fudge are three names that everyone will know (two bands and one song, to be precise): Iron Butterfly are represented by their well-known instrumental, Iron Butterfly Theme, with its interplay of excellent guitar riffing and organ; Steppenwolf are represented by the enjoyable rhythm and blues cut The Ostrich; and the Eddie Cochran song Summertime Blues is rolled out and somewhat mutilated in proto-punk fashion by Blue Cheer, whose only interest was reputedly to play as loud as possible. Singer/bassist of Blue Cheer Dickie Peterson is quoted in the booklet as saying ‘I wanted our musical to be physical, more than just an audio experience. We just kept adding more and more amps’. The amps in question were the new British Marshall amps which were crucial in the development of hard rock as they had the extra power and volume that bands were looking for.   

The Legend…..or Dragonfly

These days professional copy editors ensure sure that typing mistakes are rare, but back in 1968 it seems there was a certain degree of sloppiness around. That resulted in The Bubble Puppy (a Texan band whose name itself is a deliberate or accidental corruption of the name ‘Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy’ – a game from Huxley’s Brave New World novel) releasing the single Hot Smoke And Sasafrass (rather than the correct spelling, Sassafras). The band Human Beingz had a single released under the misspelled name Human Beinz (without the g) – and it was a top 5 hit which prevented them from ever being allowed to correct the mistake. As for The Legend, they surely take the cake in this ‘competition’. The artwork for their second album had a Dragonfly on it which resulted in the album being credited to a band called Dragonfly! Despite these hilarious errors, all three pieces by these groups are strong songs, especially Crazy Woman by The Legend / Dragonfly which has an irresistible foot-tapping groove to it.  

Perhaps the highlights of the first CD is Black Sheep, the dramatic opening song of the only album released by Detroit outfit SRC. It’s clearly influenced by Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale in the organ playing and I suspect would have been a hit if it had been sung instead by the British band. The way the guitar plays the melodic hook line also reminded me of the technique that John Lees would adopt soon afterwards within Barclay James Harvest. Another strong track is Mister Genie Man, written by a group called Society’s Children. It was a single (they never made an album), driven by wonderful organ playing and it deserved to do better since it was hugely catchy. Very unusually the singer was also the guitarist’s Mum! Amongst the continual pleasant surprises of obscure bands, the most recognizable name on the first CD – Muddy Waters – is a big disappointment. His version of the Stones’ Let’s Spend The Night Together was on his album Electric Mud – an attempt to rework his own material plus other famous songs through a psychedelic lens. So much for the romantic idea that the music industry was innocent and not money-oriented in the ‘60s.

The second CD, which covers the period through to October 70, gets off with a bang with Kick Out The Jams by MC5. It’s a bona fide classic and seems way ahead of its time with its hard rock edge that has shed the psychedelic bells and whistles that are heard throughout the first CD. Other well-known names on the second disc include Mountain, represented here by the heavy riffing of Mississippi Queen, and The Stooges with a song called I Wanna Be Your Dog (Iggy Pop was apparently inspired by seeing an attractive young lady out walking her dog….). And then there are the not-so-famous Stalk-Forrest Group, who became better known as Soft White Underbelly before eventually becoming world-famous as Blue Öyster Cult. Donald Roeser and Eric Bloom were already in the band but to be honest, the Stalk-Forrest Group song, Donovon’s Monkey, is not memorable and is positively limp compared to Transmaniacon MC issued just over a year later on Blue Öyster Cult’s debut album (and included on the third CD in this set).

MC5 with the flag in case you’re not sure where they are from

As with Blue Öyster Cult, the Alice Cooper song included here, Fields Of Regret, is a precursor to classics to come rather than a classic in itself. It’s a moody Doors-influenced piece and is nothing to write home about. It’s hard to believe that the same group would go on to global stardom within two years with a very different sound. In 1970, Alice Cooper had just adopted their well-known name, after having previously been known as Nazz. They made the change because they came across another band of the same name – headed by Todd Rundgren, no less. Todd’s Nazz band are here too with the restrained but enjoyable heavy blues of Under The Ice. The song came from their second album, entitled Nazz Nazz. That was after their debut album called Nazz, and before their third album – thankfully not called Nazz Nazz Nazz, but Nazz III! Another highlight on the second CD is Wicked Woman by Coven, a group who followed the satanic imagery of Black Sabbath – to the extent of including a song called Black Sabbath on their one and only album, Witchcraft. It’s a polished hard rock number with impressive vocals by Esther Dawson. Oddly their bass player went by the name of Oz Osborne! The most famous song in this whole compilation must surely be House Of The Rising Sun – but it is not the Animals version (which was from 1964) but instead one from Detroit outfit Frijid Pink who turned it into a heavily fuzzed psychedelic trip. It was anything but commercial and yet the song itself is so strong that it still managed to reach the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic.

The second disc perfectly captures the transition phase around the turn of the decade, leading to the material on the third disc which is recognisable both as hard rock and as music of the ‘70s. There is the usual eclectic mix here of known and obscure groups. As well as Blue Öyster Cult and Grand Funk, more familiar names include ZZ Top (Neighbor, Neighbor from their debut album), Todd Rundgren, here as a solo artist after his time with Nazz with the slightly chaotic Is It My Name, and  Stray Dog who had the honour of being on the first single released by ELP’s Manticore label – an excellent song called You Know with a fast riff that one suspects might have been heard by Ritchie Blackmore since it bears a quite striking resemblance to Deep Purple’s Stormbringer.  

Again, some of the more obscure bands are delightful finds. Suicide by an outfit called Dust is a groovy rocker, perhaps influenced by Free. Dust’s drummer was Marc Bell who went on to join The Ramones. Then there is My Time Is Over by Sudden Death, a solid heavy metal track with multiple Sabbath-like riffing sections and a strong Ozzy Osbourne feel to the vocal delivery too. That Sabbath similarity is no coincidence since Columbia were looking to sign a band that could compete with Black Sabbath at the time and asked Sudden Death to make a demo. Sudden Death made it all the way to a shortlist of two bands, but the other band won. The winning band, by the way, was Blue Öyster Cult. There are such fine margins between becoming famous or being consigned to the dustbin of forgotten bands!

One unexpected highlight is the overtly Christian song, You Can by Earthen Vessel. The heavy use of wah-wah on the guitar is reminiscent of Mick Box, and along with good use of harmonies and organ, means that British band Uriah Heep were probably an influence.  Other surprises, at least relative to the size of their distribution, include the Estes Brothers whose sleek and Blue Öyster Cult sounding Never Coming Down was on their debut (and last) album which had a print run of just 100! Still, they did better than The Flow who, ending up penniless and hungry, only managed to produce a one-sided album, even if it included the very promising It Swallowed The Sun with its striking Floydian introduction. Along with these bands that sadly failed to reach anything like their full potential, the third CD also shows how some artists struggled to adapt to the rapidly changing times.  Arthur Lee from Love had gone solo but Love Jumped Through My Window is a rather anonymous rocker. Ex-members of Vanilla Fudge didn’t fare much better with Mark Stein’s Boomerang playing Montreal Jail, a pleasant but routine rock-n-roll boogie, and his co-Fudgers Tim Bogert and Carmine Apice settling for a pleasant cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s Evil with their band Cactus.  The path from trailblazers to journeymen was rapid for these musicians.

While there are inevitably musical highs and lows in this compilation, the overall quality level is surprisingly high, especially given the large number of lesser-known groups included. Between the music and the booklet, what emerges is the incredibly rich tapestry of stories, good breaks, bad luck stories and bizarre circumstances that resulted in hard rock music taking the from that we know and love. We sometimes look back in history as a given, as if someone said one day, ‘let’s invent hard rock’, but the reality shown in this compilation is that it emerged over time because of the interleaving influences of countless bands across the USA, and of course with external influences from the UK. If you want to understand how hard rock music came into being, then this box set is the essential place to start.

Grand Funk’s chart topping single