Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book Review: Andy Powell's Eyes Wide Open - True Tales of a Wishbone Ash Warrior (2015)

Andy Powell's Eyes Wide Open
Wishbone Ash was one of those 1970s-era “classic rock” British bands who, while undeniably an influence on a legion of artists, remains criminally obscure in the states. The foursome toured the U.S. constantly throughout the ‘70s, and managed to place eight of their ten releases during the decade onto the Billboard Top 200 albums chart (their highest chart successes coming with Wishbone Four at #44 and Live Dates at #82, both in 1973). Yet they never managed more than a modicum of commercial success stateside, remaining much more popular in the U.K. and Europe.

Formed in 1969 by guitarist Andy Powell, bassist Martin Turner, guitarist Ted Turner, and drummer Steve Upton, Wishbone Ash sounded nearly fully-formed from day one, the band’s mix of hard rock, progressive, and folk-rock finding an appreciative audience that largely remains with them to this day. The band released its self-titled debut in 1970, and hit its creative peak early with their third album, the 1972 classic Argus. Wishbone Ash was, arguably, the first band to popularize the twin lead guitar sound later utilized by Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden, and the band’s use of two lead singers – Powell and Martin Turner – created a unique and effective sound that added to the band’s onstage dynamic.

Andy Powell’s Eyes Wide Open

Wishbone Ash's Wishbone Four
The band’s sole remaining member from the founding foursome, Andy Powell has kept Wishbone Ash going strong deep into the new millennium. Some forty-five years after their debut, the band is still releasing creative, entertaining music (check out 2014’s wonderful Blue Horizon album) with Powell at the helm of a rotating cast of musicians. Band members have come and gone through the decades – the original line-up lasted almost four years before Ted Turner departed, replaced by guitarist Laurie Wisefield – and throughout the fallow years of the ‘80s and beyond, Powell has continued to tour and record as Wishbone Ash, enlisting new fans and creating an unshakeable legacy for the band.

Powell has taken time out from a steady tour schedule to pen his version of the rock ‘n’ roll memoir, joining contemporaries like Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, and Bob Dylan in framing his career on his own literary terms. Powell isn’t the first Wishbone Ash founder to push his bio; disgruntled former member Martin Turner published his No Easy Road book back in 2012. As the last man standing, however, Powell has insight and experience provided by decades in the trenches, and as he’s struggled to keep the band rolling throughout the inevitable ups ‘n’ downs of the music biz, Powell has earned the right to offer his own spin on the band’s history.

True Tales of a Wishbone Ash Warrior

Powell’s Eyes Wide Open is an entertaining tome, the writer describing his childhood fascination with music, the making of his first guitar, and playing in his first bands, which provided him with the confidence and stagecraft to forge a career in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s with the formation of Wishbone Ash that the story takes off, though, and Powell goes into depth in talking about the band’s early years, the camaraderie between the members, and the creation of the band’s classic early albums like Pilgrimage, Argus, and Wishbone Four. This isn’t a ‘tell all’ styled bio, though, so while Powell alludes to, and sometimes writes explicitly the band’s extracurricular activities, he seldom goes into all the sordid details. Powell is quite frank about both the successes and the problems the band had with original manager Miles Copeland and the internal tensions that led to, first, Ted Turner’s departure and, later, that of Martin Turner, which opened the revolving door of band members.

Even more interesting are Powell’s memories of those years of struggle during the 1980s and ‘90s, his assumption of the mantle of band leadership through attrition, and the fight to continue creating credible new music (with the sonic experimentation that included) with an ever-changing line-up of talented musicians. The band’s modest success during these later years has only happened via the support of a loyal, worldwide fan base that has allowed Wishbone Ash to continue touring and recording to the present day. Powell acknowledges a large number of the band’s fans and their contributions in the book, also pointing out a few of the more detrimental hangers-on, haters who have attempted to derail Powell’s ongoing efforts, either due to jealousy or simple malevolence.

Blue Horizon

Wishbone Ash's Blue Horizon
One of the biggest ‘haters’ of the Wishbone Ash legacy is former member Martin Turner, whose obviously bruised, but enormous ego won’t allow him to bury the past and move on. Powell goes into detail about the legal battle between he and Turner that eventually arose over the use of the Wishbone Ash name (the former bass player and singer began touring as Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash in 2004 without Powell’s consent), a fight that Powell won. True, Eyes Wide Open provides Powell’s perspective on the issues between himself and his former bandmate, but considering that Turner never developed a significant solo career and, to this day, considers himself as the “key creative force” behind Wishbone Ash while using the band’s name to sell his music, you’ll forgive me if I lean towards Powell’s version of the story as the band’s longtime captain and surviving member.

Powell’s frequent ‘detours’ from his story are welcome, including a chapter on his long-suffering partner of 45+ years, wife Pauline, Powell’s school sweetheart who has stoically kept the home fires burning while the musician was off making money. His chapter on India is simply fascinating, Powell displaying a keen eye and a real talent in talking about touring the country and observing the economic chasm that exists between its poorest and richest citizens. A detour into talking about guitars is also a lot of fun for any gear fanatic, as the guitarist known for his Flying V talks about the various axes he’s had and played through the years. The obligatory chapter on touring (“Road Works”) should be required reading for every young musician, as Powell describes in depth the many obstacles and hazards of the road warrior.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

One doesn’t have to be a Wishbone Ash fan to enjoy Andy Powell’s Eyes Wide Open. Sure, classic rock fans will find a lot to like in Powell’s stories about rock ‘n’ roll during the 1970s, but equally of interest are his efforts in dealing with the changes in the industry through the years, his attempts in keeping the band relevant in this age of instant (and fast-fading celebrity) and, most importantly, the process behind making vital new music like 2011’s Elegant Stealth and the aforementioned Blue Horizon album.

Eyes Wide Open includes an extensive Wishbone Ash discography compiled by music journalist Colin Harper, including an accounting of all the band’s BBC sessions and their studio and live albums (almost three dozen recordings to date), as well as an exhaustive list of the band’s live dates from 1971 through 2015, all of which will certainly appeal to the Wishbone Ash fanatic. For the rest of us, the book defines a legacy of great music, the product of an unheralded rock ‘n’ roll genius that continues to chase the brass ring almost five decades down the road. Grade: A (Jawbone Press, published November 9, 2015)

Buy the book from Andy Powell's Eyes Wide Open

Fossils: Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity (1975)

Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity
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Kraftwerk – Radio-Activity

German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk enjoyed an unexpected level of success when the band’s fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, scored a surprising Top 30 chart hit with its title track. The popularity of “Autobahn,” cut down from the album length of 22+ minutes to a mere 3:27 for radio airplay, pushed the album itself to number five on the Billboard chart. It would be the band’s lone U.S. hit, and although they would continue to make music well into the 1980s, they’d never again achieve this level of commercial success stateside.

The band’s modest achievement didn’t go to their collective heads, as shown by the 1975 release of Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity album. A return to the more electronically-oriented noise-making of their earlier work, the album’s conceptual aesthetic – exploring the subject of radio waves and outer space – was bolstered by scraps of bleeping sound, silent passages, raucous noise, and overall electronic weirdness. The album’s lone concession to commercial reality came in the form of Kraftwerk’s first English language song in the title track. While garnering critical accolades, the album’s lone single (the title track) stiffed badly, and Radio-Activity only rose as high as #140 on the charts.     

Capitol Records really had no idea what to do with Kraftwerk or Radio-Activity, but the simple B&W ad created for the album was oddly effective. Utilizing the simple black box from the album cover, they tacked on a photo of the band in a frame on top. For Krautrock fans, this was more than enough as the announcement of a new Kraftwerk LP was cause for rejoice in certain circles. The band would find a modicum of success with subsequent albums like Trans-Europe Express (1977) and Computer World (1981), especially when their electronic tunes were adapted to 1980s dance culture. Kraftwerk’s influence would be wide-ranging, their musical innovations touching such disparate genres as hip-hop, EDM, keyboards-dominated new wave, and avant-garde composition.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

CD Review: Raging Fire's Everything Is Roses, 1984-1989 (2015)

Raging Fire's Everything Is Roses
Nashville is a far different city in 2015 than it was 30 years ago. The Music City has become far more musically diverse, and the city’s rock music scene no longer exists beneath ground, with performers relegated to dive bars like Elliston Square or Cantrell’s. After all, Jack White lives in Nashville now, as do those two guys from the Black Keys, and the city has recently attracted talented immigrants like bluesman Keb’ Mo’. Even the city’s prodigal son, cult rocker R. Stevie Moore, has returned to Nashville.

These days, homegrown Nashville rock bands like Jeff the Brotherhood and Kings of Leon get glowing mentions in Rolling Stone magazine but, back in the day, as a freelance music journalist championing the city’s non-country music scene, I couldn’t get magazine editors on either coast interested in what was going down in Nashville. Jason & the Nashville Scorchers would score a major label deal, but for every local band that would eventually be beaten up and disappointed by the music biz, there were a dozen talented bands like Practical Stylists, Civic Duty, or Shadow 15 that were left standing outside the gates to heaven looking in…  

Ring of Fire

Raging Fire was one of those bands that deserved more, and during their brief tenure on the local scene – circa 1985 to 1989 – they nevertheless managed to make a bigger splash in our small rock ‘n’ roll pond that just about any other local Nashville band at the time. Originally formed under the name Ring of Fire by singer Melora Zaner, guitarist Michael Godsey (who sadly passed away in 2012), bassist Les Shields, and drummer Mark Medley, and managed by ‘man about town’ (and former Phranks n’ Steins booker) Rick Champion, they changed their name to Raging Fire and began dominating the handful of stages available around town with their high-octane performances.

The members of Raging Fire had come up through the fledgling local scene: Zaner from the band Color Flag; Shields from the Ratz, one of the city’s first punk bands; and Godsey and Medley from Committee for Public Safety (CPS), Nashville’s first hardcore band. Their musical influences were as diverse as the members themselves, ranging from classic rock like Led Zeppelin and the Who to erudite punks like X and psychobilly pioneers the Cramps. Fronted by the diminutive Zaner, whose larger than life vocals exuded raw sexuality, the singer was backed by a hungry, ferocious gang of musicians. The retrospective Everything Is Roses, 1985-1989 looks back at Raging Fire’s too-short career, which included only an EP and a full-length album alongside a handful of compilation tracks by which to remember these Nashville rock trailblazers.

Raging Fire

Raging Fire’s Everything Is Roses

Fond memories of a band don’t mean much if the music hasn’t held up well after a quarter century, and Raging Fire’s unique sound has proven to be as timeless as it is exciting. Everything Is Roses opens with “A Family Thing,” from the band’s 1985 EP of the same. With a deceptive intro dominated by Zaner’s angelic vocals and Godsey’s acoustic strum, the song literally explodes into a tsunami of chaotic instrumentation. Zaner’s vocals bob up and down through the sonic storm like a warning light as the band continues its instrumental barrage, changing directions so frequently as to create a sort of satisfying whiplash. The rhythmic “You Should Read More Books” is of an entirely different construct, with Medley’s knockout drumbeats and Shields’ dynamic bass playing creating an exotic foundation beneath Zaner’s breathless vocals, with shards of Godsey’s imaginative fretwork puncturing the song’s wall of sound.

“Beware of a Man With Manners” changes directions again, the band evincing a fierce punk undercurrent beneath its Southern Gothic lyrical trappings. Zaner’s vocals here sound a lot like Exene Cervenka while her lyrics channel a similar whipsmart literary edge. Godsey’s guitar playing is amazing here, dancing from 1970s-era arena rock histrionics to switchblade-punk thrash while the rhythm section provides an enormous presence, Shields’ bass holding down the arrangement so that it doesn’t fly off the rails while Medley’s reckless percussion threatens to teeter off the tracks at any moment.

Faith Love Was Made Of

The album's title track, “Everything Is Roses,” serves as the band’s signature song, a blinding performance taken from the City Without A Subway album, a 1986 Vanderbilt University radio station (WRVU) compilation. A monster track that made listeners sit up and take notice, Zaner’s vocal performance is pure lightning in a bottle, soaring above a trashy soundtrack fueled by Medley’s machine-gun drums and Godsey’s flamethrower guitar, the song itself an amalgam of punk-rock, Southern roots, and obtuse poetic lyrics that would make Zimmerman proud. By the time that the band recorded it sole full-length album, Faith Love Was Made Of, in 1986, Shields had left the band, replaced by local scene veteran Lee A. Carr (R.I.P.) of the Enemy.

Raging Fire's Faith Love Was Made Of
Carr brought a more anarchic style to the band as opposed to Shields’ strong, soulful rhythms. The other members of Raging Fire had grown, musically, during the interim, the band gradually evolving, as so many do, by performing frequently across the country. “Knee Jerk Response” is a perfect example of this growth, the song a complex blend of Zaner’s vocal gymnastics, Godsey’s razor-blade guitar, and Medley’s more nuanced, but still powerful percussion. By contrast, “You and Me” is sheer punk-rock fury; a runaway arrangement with heavy instrumentation that often buries Zaner’s vocals, Medley’s tribal drumbeats giving way to the blind emotion displayed by Godsey’s screaming strings.

Hear Rock City

Taken from the 1988 CMJ (College Music Journal) compilation LP Ten of a Kind, “The Marrying Kind” was a Raging Fire fan favorite and a constant presence on the WRVU-FM playlist. Raging Fire rubbed elbows on that album with such esteemed “underground” artists as the Gunbunnies and Material Issue as one of the best unsigned bands in the U.S. A more subdued song than some of their milieu, “The Marrying Kind” offers one of Zaner’s best lyrical compositions, with aggressive, emotional vocals to match, Godsey’s six-string work displaying scraps of surf-guitar melody, albeit played with a punkish intensity, Medley’s steady timekeeping supporting the rhythmic playing of new bassist John Reed.

“A Desire Scorned,” from the Nashville Entertainment Association’s cassette compilation Hear Rock City: Tennessee Tracks, offers another great example of the band’s growth. The song’s poppy, melodic opening falls behind a delightfully textured arrangement built on the interplay of Godsey’s shimmering fretwork, bassist Glenn Worf’s bass line, and Medley’s cascading drumbeats with Zaner’s vocals displaying more maturity and confidence as they soar effortlessly above the dense instrumental backdrop.

Demos & Live Tracks

The CD and digital download version of Everything Is Roses include a wealth of rare live tracks and demo tapes, the most fetching of these being “Hands of God,” an unreleased 1989 demo with Rusty Watkins on bass and Jerry Dale McFadden (The Mavericks) on keyboards. The song opens with swirls of psychedelic guitar, and offers an explosive light/dark dynamic with Zaner’s vocals often flying solo through the mix only to be eventually overwhelmed by Watkins’ textured bass lines and McFadden’s inspired, 1960s-styled psych-rock B3 riffs.

Recorded in 2015 specifically for this release, “More Than This” is an update of a song originally released on Faith Love was Made Of. With Shields returning on bass, Medley on drums, and Zaner’s still-potent vocals up front, the late Michael Godsey’s role in the band is assumed by twin guitarists Joe Blanton (Royal Court of China, the Bluefields) and Warner Hodges (Jason & the Scorchers, the Bluefields). The result is a muscular rocker with incendiary fretwork layered in beneath Zaner’s voice, which doesn’t seem to have lost a step since 1989. The performance is of a harder style of rock, perhaps, than vintage Raging Fire, proving that Zaner’s distinctive vocal style plays well in any setting.

Collectible Formats

There aren’t many complaints to be made about Everything Is Roses. The band has released this vital slab o’ Nashville rock ‘n’ roll history in various formats, including a limited edition, extremely-collectible eleven-track vinyl album (which includes gems like “A Family Thing,” “Everything Is Roses,” and “The Marrying Kind”) as well as a 22-track compact disc and a 26-song lossless digital download (a download card comes with the vinyl version). All three formats feature an illustrated booklet with informative and insightful liner notes by Nashville music journalist (and friend of the band) Michael McCall.

Much of the production here is thin, which is more a function of the band’s original recording budgets than anything else, and thanks to producers and engineers like Mike Poole, Jeff Johnson, Richie Owens, and Rick Will, the band eschewed the stilted, unbearable production clichés that plague so many 1980s-era rock recordings. The strength of the performances transcends the production, however, jumping off the grooves and grabbing you by the ears. The band’s core members of Zaner, Godsey, and Medley clearly had an artistic vision for Raging Fire that they stuck to through thick and thin, and while they ran through a number of talented bass players during the band’s brief existence, the music never suffered.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Raging Fire was a band far ahead of its time and sadly, they may have given up the ghost too early, just as musical trends were changing from the Aquanet-drenched nerf metal oozing from the gutters of Los Angeles towards the more organic, alt-rock turf of the 1990s that was friendlier to a band with imagination. Nevertheless, Everything Is Roses is more than a mere nostalgia-tinted look backwards at a band that never made it, the compilation instead a worthy snapshot of a time and place when an outfit as original and energetic as Raging Fire, with an enormous musical chemistry, could develop outside of major label demands and expectations.

Fans of Nashville’s early rock scene will appreciate Everything Is Roses as a fond reminder of their misspent youth. For those who of you were never lucky enough to have caught Raging Fire perform live back in the day, or never chanced upon one of their songs playing on a college radio station, the performances here should come as a revelation, the distant sounds of a young band that never failed to deliver smart, passionate, literary music that still rocked like a tornado in a trailer park. Grade: A (Pristine Records, released October 6, 2015)

Everything Is Roses is available for purchase from the Raging Fire website

Related content: archive review of Raging Fire's A Family Thing EP

Archive Review: Raging Fire's A Family Thing EP (1985)

Raging Fire's A Family Thing EP
Raging Fire’s initial recording effort, A Family Thing takes an important step towards establishing an artistic identity for both the band and a rapidly stagnating local scene. In the constant evolution of the “Nashville” rock scene (with the emphasis on ‘rock’), it seems as if the talented and the ballsy are reaching out beyond the limiting confines of the “Music City” and making a name for themselves in the world at large (i.e. the Scorchers, White Animals, precious few others…). All too often, though, promising artists fall prey to despair and throw in the towel, turn to playing the same tired re-tread riffs or worse, following bargain-bin trends already obsolete by the time we get them.

Raging Fire are among those handful of bands possessing the vision and the desire to break-out of Nashville…and it shows in the four songs that they present here. “A Family Thing” begins with a simple guitar line and a slight, quivering voice, suddenly exploding into a fury of instruments. It serves not only as an introduction to the power of the band but as a surefire attention-getter. “You Should Read More Books” utilizes a funkier opening, with Michael Godsey’s guitar and Les Shields’ bass thumping and throbbing like a tell-tale heart into Melora Zaner’s vocals. Side two’s twin numbers also rely on strong, subtle intros, an oft-overlooked method of beginning a successful rocker…deceive the naïve listener into believing that he’s only listening to an exceptionally tasteful beginning to an unexceptional example of Top Forty fodder, then reach up and grab that sucker’s ears by the tender lobes with an all-out rock ‘n’ roll attack; the four numbers here all sink in that aural meathook.

Speaking of that second side, it begins with a sparse, instrumental background which acts as counterpoint for the almost-seductive pouting sound of “4 Tears (Chuch Street).” This all-too-brief EP ends with an energetic rave-up, “Beware of a Man With Manners” a number that must be just hellfire and brimstone to witness live in concert. A Family Thing contains few flaws, and no major ones. Lyrically, if you read the enclosed sheet, the words seem a bit overwrought and self-indulgent…too seemingly smug and symbolistic for the author’s own good. With the musical accompaniment, though, the lyrics take on a new life. Zaner’s passionate vocals dance around and caress the words, creating a sort of poetry in the rhythm. Musically, the band is a lot tighter than three instrumentalists and few months should be, certain to inspire a healthy jealousy in lesser-motivated area artists.

Drawing their influences from a number of well-respected sources (which include, I might add, a dash of X and the spirit of Buddy Holly), Raging Fire have created, in A Family Thing, an interesting and important showcase for four young talents, a rare work emerging from an almost-buried “Music City” rock world, a work that is both exciting and original! Other bands may talk a lot…Raging Fire are doing a lot. (Pristine Records, released 1985)

Album review originally appeared in the Nashville Intelligence Report – thanks to Andy Anderson for publishing the zine and Allen Sullivant for his invaluable online archive

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Real Gone serves up Doug Sahm and Band on vinyl!

Doug Sahm and Band
By the time he released his solo debut album in 1972, roots-rock pioneer Doug Sahm had already made a name for himself with his acclaimed 1960s-era band the Sir Douglas Quintet. Sahm could count legends like Bob Dylan among his fans, and roots ‘n’ blues artists like Dave Alvin, Steve Earle, and Delbert McClinton, among many others have cited Sahm’s influence on his own music. As such, when Sahm signed with Atlantic Records to record his debut album for the label, the studio was crowded with luminaries like Dylan, Dr. John, David Bromberg, and Flaco Jiménez along with his longtime bandmates Augie Meyers (keyboards) and Jack Barber (bass).

On February 5th, 2016 the good folks at Real Gone Music will reissue Doug Sahm and Band on glorious vinyl in a limited edition of 1,000 gold wax copies of this bona fide classic of American music. Produced by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, the album offers a dozen songs featuring Sahm’s visionary musical blend of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, and Tejano influences. Sahm only wrote three of the dozen songs on Doug Sahm and Band, but his choice in cover tunes is impeccable, and whether he’s singing Dylan (who contributed a new song, “Wallflower,” for the album), Willie Nelson (“Me and Paul”), T-Bone Walker (“Papa Aint’ Salty”), or country gems like Dave Kirby’s classic “(Is Anybody Going To) San Antone,” Sahm grabs each performance and makes it entirely his own.      

In spite of the talented guest musicians and the overall hype surrounding the album, Doug Sahm and Band would rise to only #125 on the Billboard magazine chart, representing the highest chart position in Sahm’s lengthy solo career (even higher than his band the Texas Tornadoes 1990s-era country hits). Although Sahm’s debut enjoyed lukewarm critical response upon release, it has since grown in critical estimation and is today considered a legit and influential Americana classic...and it sounds great on vinyl!

Fossils: Kiss “Spirit of ‘76” (Destroyer tour)

Kiss Spirit of '76
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Kiss “Spirit of ‘76” (Destroyer tour)

Hard rock legends Kiss were riding high by the time of the American bicentennial. The band’s 1975 live double album Alive! was their highest-charting album to date (#9), earning Gold™ Record status for 500,000+ in sales (no mean feat in the mid-1970s). Their much-anticipated fourth studio album, Destroyer, was released in March 1976 to mixed reviews. Working for the first time with producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed), the band expanded its sonic palette beyond the simple hard rock of its earlier efforts, a move rejected and/or ridiculed by critics.

The album sold rapidly on the basis of its predecessor’s success, going Gold™ in a month and peaking at #11 on the charts before seemingly topping out at slightly more than 800,000 copies sold. When deejays began playing “Beth,” the B-side of the album’s under-performing third single, “Detroit Rock City,” it reignited the album’s fortunes, “Beth” rising to #7 on the singles chart and pushing the album to double Platinum™ sales. The album’s initial stumble would be redeemed over the band’s lengthy career, with Destroyer becoming known as an influential hard rock/heavy metal effort on the basis of songs like “Detroit Rock City,” “Shout It Out Loud,” and “King of the Night Time World.”

Rather than hype Destroyer on its own, the band’s label – Casablanca Records – chose instead to promote the band’s 1976 tour with opening act Bob Seger with this generic tour dates ad with just a passing nod to Destroyer and the band’s previous albums. Then again, Casablanca didn’t have much faith in the band’s future after the success of Alive! (which made the label a truckload of cash), re-signing them to a two-album deal rather than taking a flyer on their future efforts. The album’s eventual blockbuster status belies Casablanca’s non-committal advertising, and Kiss would part ways with Seger after just a handful of shows during which the Motor City rocker blew the headliners off the stage night after night with a superior (and rockin’) performances.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

CD Review: Uriah Heep's Totally Driven (2015)

Uriah Heep's Totally Driven
British hard rockers Uriah Heep have defied expectations throughout much of the band’s 45+ year existence. The fact that they’re still rockin’ here in the year 2015 is an impressive feat in itself, Heep continuing to tour the world and release underrated (and largely overlooked) music. Formed in 1969, the band experienced modest commercial success as one of the most popular arena-rock outfits of the 1970s, vying with legends like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple for their share of the youthful, head-banging rock ‘n’ roll audience. They’ve suffered through numerous line-up changes, the tragic results of substance abuse, and ever-changing musical trends that threatened to make the band obsolete more than once.

When punk and new wave took over the pop charts in the 1980s and legions of Heep-influenced “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” bands ruled the underground, Uriah Heep went abroad and developed lucrative markets by touring unlikely locales like Russia, the Balkans, and northern Europe. Heep continued to record throughout these lean years, with bandleader and founding guitarist Mick Box keeping the flame burning brightly through some tumultuous eras for a band that many in the U.S. and the U.K. had given up for dead.

Uriah Heep’s Totally Driven

Uriah Heep’s line-up stabilized in the late ‘80s with the addition of Canadian-born singer Bernie Shaw. Having made his bones with NWOBHM band Praying Mantis, Shaw provided the charismatic, leather-lunged frontman the band had been looking for since the (forced) departure of original vocalist David Byron in 1976. Shaw joined a solid instrumental roster led by the criminally-underrated Box (who is worthy of, but seldom mentioned when all those lists of great rock guitarists are compiled) along with the longtime Heep rhythm section of bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Lee Kerslake, and fleet-fingered keyboardist Phil Lanzon (ex-Grand Prix). It’s this line-up that recorded the material that makes up Totally Driven, the band’s 25th official studio album.

A two-disc set featuring 27 songs, this material was originally recorded in 2001 while the band was preparing for their legendary “Acoustically Driven” and “Electrically Driven” concerts. Previously released with different track sequencing as Remasters: The Official Anthology, that album quickly went out-of-print, and these performances – re-recordings of classic Heep tunes – have sat on the shelf until now. As an anthology, Totally Driven performs admirably, offering two songs each from the band’s first eight albums (three from The Magician’s Birthday), one song from Fallen Angel, and nine songs from the first four Shaw-era albums circa 1989-1998. Curiously missing is any material from the band’s late 1970s/early ‘80s fallow period that includes High and Mighty, Byron’s tragic final album with the band; two of the three LPs featuring singer John Lawton; all three of the Peter Goalby era albums; and the band’s disastrous 13th album, Conquest, the only Heep release with singer John Sloman of Lone Star.     

The Magician’s Birthday

Even if the band’s classic line-up wasn’t set, their sound was almost fully-formed by the time of the 1970 release of their debut LP …very ‘Eavy…very ‘Umble (released as Uriah Heep in the states). “Gypsy” perfectly displays the band’s Gothic-influenced early style, the song’s lush orchestration at odds with its raging hard rock undercurrent. Shaw does a great job in approximating Byron’s over-the-top operatic howl, and the song’s martial rhythms provide an odd dignity to the affair. Plucked from their underrated 1971 sophomore effort Salisbury, “Bird of Prey” is a proto-metal rave-up that, in its original form, paved the road for bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to hot-rod down a few short years later. Shaw again hits the high notes with reckless abandon and the song’s runaway rhythms are complimented by Box’s laser-focused solos.

Released in 1972, The Magician’s Birthday was the band’s follow-up to their commercial breakthrough, Demons and Wizards, released earlier that year. Three songs from the album, every one of ‘em a gem, are included here, beginning with the melodramatic “Sunrise;” the band’s backing instrumentation is duly elegant while Shaw takes a slightly different (but no less powerful) vocal approach to the lyrics. From here we jump into “Rain,” which closed the first side of the original vinyl (“Sunrise” fittingly opening the album). Lanzon’s wonderfully moody piano intro opens the door for Shaw’s carefully measured and appropriately breathless vocals, the singer perfectly capturing the melancholy of the original. It’s a beautiful Ken Hensley ballad performed nicely by Shaw and Lanzon, with just a hint of background orchestration for ambiance.

Sweet Freedom

Fans remember 1971’s Look At Yourself as the album with the über-cool mirrored cover artwork, but the title track is another locomotive rocker that presages the NWOBHM with its stunning fretwork, soaring vocals, and manic keyboard runs. The modern incarnation of the band does it proud, with Box’s high-flying guitars and Kerslake’s carpet-bomb percussion creating a joyful, chaotic noise. Sweet Freedom, released in 1973, remains the band’s most popular album overall, moving better than four million slabs o’ wax worldwide. The title track from that album is a typical Heep joint, with swelling instrumentation building to an exhilarating crescendo before the vocals kick in. Shaw’s pipes are perfectly-suited to the emotionally-charged lyrics on what is a sort of metallic semi-ballad, with band harmonies and rich instrumentation creating a symphonic vibe. 

Uriah Heep
Uriah Heep circa 1973
Another fan-favorite from Look At Yourself is the Goth-tinged Byron/Hensley track “July Morning,” a guitar-heavy rocker that nonetheless carries itself like a dark, atmospheric dirge. Box’s guitars swing and sting like a hive of angry bees while Shaw’s ethereal vocals hang, hauntingly, above Lanzon’s eerily churchlike keys. Kerslake and Bolder provide a rock-solid rhythmic foundation to the song, their presence subtle but necessary. The aforementioned Demons and Wizards provided the band’s big break, their first LP to hit Top 30 in the states, vaulted onto the charts by the success of the hit single “Easy Livin’,” which rose to #39 on the strength of the song’s infectious melody, galloping rhythms, clashing guitars, and David Byron’s unbelievable vox. Shaw and crew knock it out of the ball park here with a machinegun-paced performance that is guaranteed to have you banging your head against the wall!     

Lady In Black

To be honest, I didn’t find the second half of Totally Driven to be nearly as engaging as the first fourteen tracks, but it certainly has its moments. As I’m personally partial to the 1970s-era Heep material I cut my teeth on as a young rock critic, the second disc’s reliance on late 1980s and ‘90s era material is less appealing, but no less valid. “Between Two Worlds,” from 1998’s Sonic Origami, undeniably hit your ears like a sledgehammer, the performance showcasing all the elements one expects from a Uriah Heep record – molten guitar, dark/light instrumentation, driving rhythms, and lofty vocals. “Love In Silence,” from 1995’s Sea of Light, displays a mature band with phenomenal chemistry that is capable of all sorts of musical surprises. Box’s acoustic strum serves as a backdrop for Shaw’s vocal gymnastics to float above while Lanzon’s fluid keyboard licks paint the canvas with brighter colors.    

Jumping back to the decade of my misspent youth, “Blind Eye,” the third track here from The Magician’s Birthday, is another back catalog treasure worthy of your attention. With razor sharp guitars cutting through the song’s dense instrumentation, Shaw’s nimble vocals evince a barely-contained roar while an uncredited flautist balances on one leg in the background, his dancing notes providing a nice counterpoint to the band’s blustery rhythms. The enormous commercial success of Sweet Freedom came mostly on the back of the AOR hit “Stealin’,” reprised here as close to the original as one can get, with chiming organ providing unlikely grandeur behind Shaw’s vocals on this desperate outlaw tale. The gang vocals on the chorus are just as thrilling as they were 40 years ago, the song’s bludgeoning instrumentation providing bedrock for Box’s screaming guitar licks. Totally Driven closes with another fan fave, “Lady In Black” (from Salisbury), Box’s spry acoustic fretwork perfectly matched to snorting violins and Shaw’s howling, tortured vocals.      

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Totally Driven captures much of the magic of Uriah Heep’s lengthy and prolific career, comprised as it is of new performances of songs culled from better than half of the band’s twenty studio albums (at the time). The Shaw-fronted line-up had been together almost 15 years at the time these songs were captured on tape, and the enormous chemistry between the singer and the players is evident in the grooves. It’s long past time that the critical intelligentsia recognizes Heep’s status as one of the best hard rock bands of the past half-century, Uriah Heep continuing to defy expectations while pursuing a unique rock ‘n’ roll muse. 

While it may seem like heresy to the longtime Heep faithful, Shaw is every bit as good a vocalist as David Byron was, albeit with a different style and technique. While none of the performances on Totally Driven are going to motivate you to trade in that beat-up old vinyl copy of Demons and Wizards, it’s a fine effort nonetheless, and a fitting launch to the band’s new self-titled independent label. By placing their past in a proper context, Uriah Heep has set the stage for the future. Grade: B (Uriah Heep Records, released November 13, 2015)

Buy the CD from Uriah Heep's Totally Driven

Uriah Heep
Uriah Heep, 1986-2007

Saturday, December 12, 2015

New Book! The Reverend's Rollin' 'n' Tumblin' hits the shelves!

Rev. Keith A. Gordon's Rollin' 'n' Tumblin'
Named for the classic Muddy Waters' song, Rollin' 'n' Tumblin' is the second volume in The Reverend's Archives, a collection of over 100 blues-related long-form album and book reviews written by the award-winning music critic, Rev. Keith A. Gordon. From classic blues by legends like B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters to contemporary albums by talents like Walter Trout, Duke Robillard, and George Thorogood, Rollin' 'n' Tumblin' provides a wealth of musical information guaranteed to send you to your local record store in search of new music!

Published on January 5th, 2016 you can buy the book via or order Rollin' 'n' Tumblin' direct from the Reverend for $14.95 postpaid for the U.S. or $24.95 for Canada by using the PayPal buttons below. European orders should be made through Rollin' 'n' Tumblin' is a 5.5" x 8.5" trade paperback, a whoppin' 390 pages and profusely illustrated with album cover artwork.

Rollin' 'n' Tumblin' $14.95 (US)

Rollin' 'n' Tumblin' $24.95 (Canadian)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

CD Review: The Dictators' The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! (40th anniversary edition, 2015)

The Dictators' The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!
The year was 1975, and the Reverend graduated from high school in June, preparing for college by dealing dope, mowing half a dozen yards each week, and working the local Shoney’s Big Boy over the summer. A fervid follower of (and future contributor to) the great Creem magazine, I kept running into mentions of the Dictators, a NYC five-piece rock band beloved by critics. Figuring that the rag hadn’t steered me wrong when it hipped me to the New York Dolls, I picked up a copy of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! and found the tonic for my troubles. I listened to the album constantly (much as I had with the two Dolls LPs), the band’s lyrical preoccupation with cars, girls, pop culture, and rock ‘n’ roll appealing to me like cream to a cat.

Much like their friends and cross-town predecessors the New York Dolls, the Dictators were a “band out of time” (songwriter and bassist Andy “Adny” Shernoff’s own words). Formed in 1973 by a group of friends that included Shernoff, guitarists Ross “The Boss” Funichello (née Friedman) and Scott “Top Ten” Kempner, and drummer Stu Boy King, roadie “Handsome” Dick Manitoba was added to the band by producers Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash) to be the Dictators’ secret weapon onstage and in the studio.

When released in March 1975, the album earned widespread critical acclaim for its proto-punk sound and irreverent lyrics. But the LP went absolutely nowhere commercially, tours opening for bands like Nazareth and Rush were minor disasters, and the band was soon thereafter dumped by Epic Records. After a hiatus of a couple years, the Dictators would sign with Asylum Records and release two more albums before splintering in the late 1970s. Like a creeping mold that can’t be washed away, the album continued to make friends and influence people over the years, and now – four decades after its original release – The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! has received a deluxe, re-mastered 40th anniversary reissue courtesy of Real Gone Music.

The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!

Opening with the sound of applause, the listener gets their first taste of “Handsome” Dick Manitoba, the trash-talking, fast-walking pro wrestler alter-ego of the band’s former roadie, Richard Blum. Manitoba’s album-opening rant gives way to a muscular guitar line that intros “The Next Big Thing,” a boastful, tuff-as-nails rocker that bristles with more attitude than a porcupine drinking malt liquor. The twin fretwork of Ross the Boss and Top Ten is stunning, with drummer Stu Boy King driving the rhythm with the subtlety of a subway car careening off the tracks and into the darkness. Shernoff’s defiant lyrics announced to the world that “the Dictators are here!”

So what does the band do for song number two? They cleverly re-imagine Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” years before Joey Ramone would do it proud with Holly Beth Vincent. Manitoba’s caterwauled vocals are crooned over a slow-grinding, often chaotic soundtrack that turns the 1960s pop gem into a punk standard. King’s solid percussion work opens “Back To Africa,” a slightly tongue-in-cheek love song that offers up some of Funichello’s most incendiary guitar playing alongside poppy group harmonies and deceptively complex backing instrumentation built entirely around flamethrower six-string and jackhammer drumbeats.

“Master Race Rock” is one of the Dictators’ most controversial songs, a ragged-but-rockin’ jam that could only be misunderstood by somebody who didn’t bother to listen to Shernoff’s satirical lyrics. Riding a slash ‘n’ burn soundtrack to ‘nowheresville,’ the band boldly declares itself the leaders of teenaged America, i.e. the “Master Race.” Funichello’s scorching leads push the amps to eleven, and the song rings its way out with shards of delicious feedback. By contrast, the thematically-similar “Teengenerate” is provided a softer, more melodic, ‘60s-era sound that hides the intents of its malevolent teen protagonist beneath a sunshine-pop sheen; even the twin guitars are more subdued here than elsewhere on the LP, chiming like a bell rather than crashing into a plate glass window.

The Dictators NYC

(I Live For) Cars and Girls

Channeling their inner surfer dude, the Dictators tackle a second cover on the album, the Rivieras’ upbeat “California Sun,” with an energy and aplomb equal to their take on “I Got You Babe.” With Manitoba’s yelping vox riding high in the mix, the band bashes its way through the song with reckless (and nearly criminal) abandon. “Two Tub Man” is one of the first songs that Shernoff penned for the band, and it remains a fan favorite to this day. A classic Manitoba rant introduced the song, the “Handsome” one spitting out boasts like “Nature Boy” Rick Flair in his prime as the song’s riff-happy opening explodes into a pure punk-rock supernova. With clashing guitars piercing the mix like an angry switchblade, along with the band’s over-amped energy, gang vocals, and overall nasty attitude, “Two Tub Man” delivers the blueprint so many British bands would follow just a couple years later. Oi, indeed!

The anti-social teenage angst of Shernoff’s “Weekend” is concealed even better than with “Teengenerate,” the band ripping off a familiar Buddy Holly riff to add a bit of shiny, wholesome, early rock ‘n’ roll energy to their otherwise shaggy construct of distorted guitars, bombastic percussion, and overall cacophonic instrumentation. “(I Live For) Cars and Girls” is the song that received the most airplay from The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! A clever pastiche of Beach Boys-styled pop; crude, irreverent humor; whip-smart, teen-oriented lyrics; and a lean, mean pop-rock soundtrack that only soars into absurdity a couple of times, the song was a work of satirical genius. Spot-on in its poetic depiction of mid-1970s teenage obsessions and malaise, the song also works as a sort of jaded commentary on the false innocence portrayed by the pop music of the ‘60s era.

This 40th anniversary reissue of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! includes several bonus tracks, including a pair of remixes by rocker Andrew W.K., who does a fine job of re-imagining the tracks he chose, “Two Tub Man” and “Weekend.” Working from the original tapes, he doesn’t enlist the songs into the witness relocation program as much as he just plugs in little of his unique electric attitude into the re-mixes, amplifying the original intent rather than smothering it with a pillow. Both remixes are quite effective, and show how much Dictators’ DNA exists in Andrew’s own work. Of the numerous outtakes here, “Backseat Boogie” is interesting ‘cause it doesn’t appear on the album proper. A fierce jolt of booger-rock driven by King’s machine-gun rhythms (which are said to have flayed his hands during the recording), it’s a fine performance that should have been appended to the original LP. Instrumental takes on “Master Race Rock” and “California Sun” are a hoot, displaying both the band’s relative musical amateurism as well as their unbridled enthusiasm, the Dictators making a joyous noise as the tape rolls on...

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Throughout the summer of ’75 and well extending into the next summer, when I moved out of the parents’ house (for the first time) and into an apartment with a biker buddy of mine, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! shared equal time on the turntable with Springsteen’s Born To Run and, later, Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. All three albums shared a certain amount of manic energy, devil-may-care attitude, and purist belief in the power of rock ‘n’ roll to free us from a mundane working class rut.

The Dictators would go on to release a pair of fine albums – 1977’s Manifest Destiny (a solid ‘B’ grade) and the following year’s Bloodbrothers (a bona fide A+ classic) – before breaking up, but their undeniable influence can be heard in fellow travelers like the Ramones, the Fleshtones, Twisted Sister, the Beastie Boys, and many other bands on both sides of the pond. They would become more proficient with their instruments, playing even faster ‘n’ louder, and Shernoff would develop a keen eye as a lyricist…but never again would the Dictators make music as naïve, cheeky, and as fun as they did with The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! Grade: B+ (Real Gone Music, released December 4, 2015)

Buy the CD from The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! 40th anniversary edition

Archive Review: The Dictators' Bloodbrothers (1999 reissue)

The Dictators' Bloodbrothers
Maybe they didn't create punk rock, but the Dictators – one of the greatest lost rock 'n' roll bands of the '70s – certainly helped to define the genre. Hitting the streets running in 1973 with their debut, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, the Dictators bucked the musical trends of the time with a stripped-down, hardcore rock assault that was equal parts garage band fervor and metallic overkill. Owing more to the MC5 and the Stooges than to the singer/songwriter trend that dominated the mid-70s commercially before the onslaught of punk, the Dictators made three great albums before the members moved onto other challenges.

Sadly, for many years, only the first of the band's trio of hard rocking elpees remained in print. Since the labels that originally issued these gems had no interest in putting the other two Dictators albums out on CD, the band took it upon themselves to grab the rights to Bloodbrothers, their third (and, arguably, their best) album and reissued it their own damn selves.

Bloodbrothers is full of great songs. “Faster & Louder” is hardcore punk stripped bare, more an affirmation of the band's musical philosophy than an attempt at cultural documentation. “The Minnesota Strip” lyrically visits that infamous section of New York City, known for its youthful population of runaways, junkies and whores of both genders. Punctuated by the razor-sharp twin guitars of Ross “The Boss” and Scott “Top Ten” Kempner, the song is as haunting as the dark streets it evokes. “Stay With Me” is the sort of harmony-filled pop/rock ditty that the Del Lords would later perfect (remaking this song on their last album). The band ends the disc with as much energy as they started it, burning through a savage rendering of the Flamin' Groovies' “Slow Death.” All told, Bloodbrothers simply bristles with energy, an album made by a band shooting for the big time with absolutely nothing to lose.

Although Kempner would go on to found the Del Lords, and most of the rest of the Dictators would reunite as Manitoba's Wild Kingdom for an album with lead singer “Handsome” Dick Manitoba, the work that these guys did with the Dictators is priceless, straight-ahead classic rock straight from the streets. Dictators Forever, Forever Dictators! (Dictators Multimedia, released November 1998)

Fossils: Jo Jo Gunne's Bite Down Hard (1973)

Jo Jo Gunne's Bite Down Hard
[click to embiggen]
Jo Jo Gunne – Bite Down Hard

Boogie rockers Jo Jo Gunne were formed in 1971 by former Spirit members Jay Ferguson (vocals) and Mark Andes (bass), with Mark’s brother Matt (guitar) and Curly Smith (drums) rounding out the line-up. The band’s self-titled 1972 debut scored a Top 30 U.S. hit with the single “Run Run Run” (Top 10 in the U.K.), the album itself hitting a respectable #57 on the U.S. charts. Mark Andes fell out with his brother and Ferguson after the debut album’s release and left the band for a stint with Firefall before hooking up with Heart for an extended run.

Undaunted, Jo Jo Gunne brought in new bassist Jimmie Randall, who would stay with the band through its bloody end, and they rushed into the studio to record a follow-up to their debut in order to capitalize on its relative success. Bite Down Hard was the result, a similarly boogie-based high-octane set that nevertheless sounds rushed, tired, and repetitive. There was too much of the same raucous vibe that fueled the debut, but no single song popped and crackled like “Run Run Run” and, lacking an obvious hit single, the album struggled to hit #75 on the charts.

Asylum Records certainly supplied an eye-catching advertisement to push the new album, even if it did little to improve the band’s diminishing fortunes. Featuring a pair of cartoon teeth chomping down on a bullet and the tagline “music you can really get your teeth into,” it’s an irreverent attempt to introduce rock fans to Bite Down Hard while making a cheeky play on the album’s title.

The band’s third album in two years, Jumpin’ The Gunne, was essential a Jay Ferguson solo album and would be saddled with atrocious cover artwork that did nothing to help it barely squirm its way onto the charts (peaking at #169). Matt Andes left after this third album, to be replaced by John Staehley, another Spirit alumnus. One more LP would emerge – 1974’s So…Where’s The Show – which would be the band’s hardest rocking and most consistent album. It was a case of too little, too late, however as Jo Jo Gunne burned out from too much touring, too many records, and only one hit song to show for their work.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Get You Some O’ This (Free Tunes)!

Walter Trout's Battle Scars
Everybody agrees that Walter Trout and Leslie West are two of the most electrifying, dynamic, and entertaining blues-rock guitarists roaming the Earth today. So, how would you like a copy of Walter Trout’s excellent Battle Scars or Leslie West’s acclaimed Soundcheck CD?

We have a limited number of copies of both CDs to give away courtesy of Provogue Records. To enter for a chance to win one of these rockin’ discs (our choice), email the Reverend the name of your favorite blues-rock guitarist to [at] (yes, the ‘dot com’ will work) before December 16th, 2015.

Leslie West's SoundcheckI will pick winners at random and notify you by email for your mailing info; your free CD will be sent out at the end of the year. In the meantime, check out the Rev’s review of Leslie West’s Soundcheck album…

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Book Review: Martin Popoff's Swords & Tequila - Riot's Classic First Decade (2015)

Martin Popoff's Swords & Tequila
The reputation of American heavy metal pioneers Riot, the high esteem in which they’ve long been held by metal fans, far outpaces the band’s meager album sales over the decades. Formed in 1975 by the late guitarist Mark Reale and drummer Phil Bitelli, the pair added bassist Phil Feit and frontman Guy Speranza and Riot was born. There were changes in the line-up in the years before the band recorded its well-received 1977 debut, Rock City, and the story of Riot itself is one of tumultuous relationships, an ever-revolving roster of musicians, and an ‘underdog’ status, with band founder Reale remaining the one constant.

Rock critic and heavy metal historian Martin Popoff counts himself among the band’s loyal fans, and his latest literary project is Swords & Tequila, an album-by-album Riot biography that, provided its limited sales potential, is surely a labor of love on the behalf of the writer. Martin’s a buddy of mine – we’ve broken bread and drank more than a few beers together – and I have a lot of respect for his immense body of work, which includes better than four-dozen informative, insightful, and entertaining books on classic rock bands like Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, and Black Sabbath, among many others (really, just check out the list on his website).

Martin Popoff’s Swords & Tequila

The founding editor of Brave Words, & Bloody Knuckles magazine, Popoff has forgotten more about hard rock and heavy metal than the Reverend will ever know, so I tend to follow his lead on bands like Riot that I’m unfamiliar with. Martin has chosen to focus the narrative of Swords & Tequila on “Riot’s classic first decade,” which covers the band’s first five studio albums and its short-lived major label tenure...their glory years, really. He constructs the book via interviews with band members and Riot’s longtime manager/producer/Svengali Steve Loeb as well as using archived materials, crafting the sympathetic story of a talented band that, for a myriad of reasons, never quite made it to the top.

The band’s story begins with the lead up to, and the making of Rock City, the 1977 album released by the band’s manager on his independent Fire Sign label. With the skilled, but lacking-in-confidence Speranza on the microphone, and featuring the underrated Reale’s explosive six-string talents, Riot was building a solid reputation in the mid-1970s by playing metallic hard rock in clubs around its NYC hometown. They would be signed to a dubious deal by Loeb and his partner Billy Arnell. As the story eventually unfolds, we’ll find that this was Riot’s first mistake, and rhythm guitarist Lou Kouvaris warned the band against signing the all-encompassing management/production deal with Loeb.

Riot's Narita
Rock City earned Riot a modicum of much-needed attention outside of Brooklyn, and opening slots playing in front of bands like Journey and Mahogany Rush expanded their fan-base outside of the five boroughs. In a lot of ways, however, Riot was swimming upstream against the current. In 1977-79, punk-rock ruled the roost and across town, CBGBs – with its regular fare of bands like the Ramones and the Dead Boys – was the Mecca of loud ‘n’ fast music. The band’s fortunes would lay overseas, with the fledgling “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” scene created by bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon, and their fans would embrace Riot as one of their own.

Riot’s Fire Down Under

Popoff delves into the major label politics behind the band’s two classic recordings – 1979’s Narita and 1981’s Fire Down Under – the former of which was (begrudgingly) released by Capitol Records, the latter by Elektra Records, both of which have subsequently grown in esteem since their release. Narita also sealed up the Japanese market for the hard-rocking quintet. Guitarist Rick Ventura had replaced Kouvaris (axed by management for insolence) for the recording of the album, which represented a major step in the evolution of the band’s proto-metal sound. Speranza’s vocals on the album are more confident, Reale’s fretwork more fluid and inventive. The band’s songwriting was solid, its performances heavier (staying apace of metal trends at the time), and Narita earned Riot important opening slots on a couple of major U.K. festivals.

Riot's Fire Down Under
It would be with Fire Down Under that Riot would finally hit on (almost) all cylinders. Featuring a new rhythm section, but still fronted by the one-two punch that was Speranza and Reale, Riot created a minor heavy metal masterpiece that, although taking its cue from the NWOBHM, nevertheless spoke with an American accent, influencing a generation of bands to follow. Popoff explores the difficult birthing of the album, the band’s fractured relationship with its manager/producer, and the internal dynamics of the band that helped create Riot’s best-selling album. Riot’s modest fame, moderate LP sales, and several tours opening for headliners like Black Sabbath did little to improve their fortunes and, broke and dissatisfied, Speranza left the band in the wake of Fire Down Under.

Riot thought that they’d found the perfect replacement in singer Rhett Forrester. Whereas Speranza always seemed hesitant and sometimes timid on stage, the golden-maned Forrester was seemingly built in a lab to become a rock star. The band followed its acclaimed Fire Down Under with 1982’s Restless Breed, their first album with Forrester and its last for Elektra Records. The band’s sound changed somewhat with the addition of Forrester’s bluesy swagger and a lack of promotional support by the label and an inability to tour beyond a limited region would severely impact the band’s forward momentum. One more album with Forrester would follow – 1983’s Born In America – again produced by Loeb and licensed to a dance-music oriented Canadian label for North American release.   

Epilogue – Riot’s Second Decade

Riot basically imploded by 1985, with Forrester going on to an ill-fated solo career, and Reale moving to San Antonio, Texas, a town that had been very hospitable to the band during its career. This is the end of the band’s first decade, but Popoff doesn’t end the story here – as outlined in an Epilogue chapter, Reale re-created Riot with new musicians and, for a while, it seemed as if the band would rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its former incarnation. Riot’s 1988 major label album Thundersteel would re-establish the band as a significant force in American metal, in spite of Loeb’s smell all over the thing, and although a number of albums featuring different versions of Riot would be released well into the 2000s, it was all mostly downhill from Thundersteel.

Riot's Thundersteel
So why did a talented, innovative band like Riot run off the rails, ending up so far from its goals? Popoff doesn’t offer any judgments, content to merely outline the story and allowing the various parties, including Steve Loeb, to have their (sometimes conflicting) say on the band’s history. In my mind, Riot’s biggest problem was Loeb, whose protestations of sacrifice on behalf of the band ring hollow and read as self-serving revisionism. It’s always a bad idea for a band to hook up with a single person for management and production, and Loeb’s lack of imagination in the studio definitely held the band back creatively. Loeb’s inability to provide the band members a living wage is, sadly, a recurring issue, one that undoubtedly caused more turmoil in the ranks than was necessary.

Mark Reale’s continued devotion to Loeb, even after the band broke-up and re-formed three years later, was self-sabotaging. Loeb seems to have alienated nearly every powerful music biz mover ‘n’ shaker with his antics through the years, and his production deal with the band created a bad situation where he leased their recordings to whoever would have them instead getting them signed to an established label. And what’s up with those horrible Riot album covers? I understand that Loeb was going for a marketable theme with the band’s recognizable, seal-headed mascot (which Martin lets us know is named ‘Mighty Tior’). But all the LP covers accomplished was to make the albums look cut-rate and amateurish…and how in the hell did the suits at Elektra ever sign off on such god-awful LP jackets as those that adorned Fire Down Under and Restless Breed?          

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Popoff’s Swords & Tequila accomplishes what the author set out to do – it tells the very human tale of a rock ‘n’ roll band that tried and failed. Riot failed not because of its own missteps, or because of any lack of talent, but rather because the music business is a brutal, savage undertaking that often eats artists alive, grinds them up, and spits them out into the gutter if they don’t live up to (sales) expectations. By capturing the oral history of Riot as told by the people who were there, Popoff gets as close to the heart of the matter as is journalistically possible, and the format of Swords & Tequila – with the band’s story framed album by album – provides a lot of meat for Riot fans to chew on.

As mentioned above, Swords & Tequila is a labor of love on the part of Martin Popoff, and he writes about these relatively obscure, albeit important bands like Riot because few other music historians of his stature deem them worthy of an investment of time and effort. Riot was an ill-fated outfit (three of its core members – Speranza, Reale, and Forrester – have all passed away too young), but Reale’s vision of for Riot lives on with his most recent band members continuing under the name Riot V after the guitarist’s 2012 death. Riot’s legacy, as it exists, will only be enhanced by Popoff’s biographical effort; the band’s still-growing reputation built one hard-fought album at a time. Grade: A (Power Chord Books, November 2015)

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