The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Mike Saunders, 1973

by justindburton on April 18, 2012

Once a month, IASPM-US brings you an exclusive piece from the vaults of Rock’s Backpages, the online library of music journalism and pop writing – as used by teachers and students at institutions from Harvard to Berklee College of Music. For info on group subscriptions and free trials, go to http://www.rocksbackpages.com/group.html or email subscriptions@rocksbackpages.com

We kick off with “A Brief Survey Of The State Of Metal Music Today,” a protopunk-gonzoid overview of the genre by Mike Saunders from the April 1973 issue of Phonograph Record Magazine. [HISTORICAL NOTE: “Metal Mike” it was who first accurately applied the William Burroughs term “Heavy Metal” in a 1971 Rolling Stone review of Sir Lord Baltimore’s Kingdom Come. He later fronted the extremely snotty and very funny L.A. punk band Angry Samoans]

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WHEN YOU GET RIGHT DOWN TO IT, the story of heavy metal rock has been the tale of Led Zeppelin. As indicated by its name, Heavy Metal has been an evolution of heavy rock – you know, the stuff that emerged back in 1967.

Heavily revved-up bass, long guitar solos, deluges of fuzzbox and wah-wah. From Cream to Blue Cheer; Jimi Hendrix to the Hook; Jeff Beck to Ten Years After…

The groundwork for this stuff had previously been laid by stunning 1965 second-wave English groups like the Yardbirds and the Who. Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck had been the first guitarists to achieve idol stature in Sixties while rock ‘n’ roll. But somehow, in the interim, the idea of hard, heavy rock had disintegrated into amphetamine blues technology and the wounded elephant guitar shrieks of Iron Butterfly. Worse yet, 1967-8 was the year of Cream.

Cream were monstrously popular among both critics and their myriad of fans. I even remember reading praises of their monochordic, so-called improvisations in Downbeat, the rationale I guess being that rock had grown up, become serious music. My most indelible memory of 1968 is that of being exposed to Wheels Of Fire some 300 times, which would have been enough to send one running for Blue Cheer except for the fact that early Blue Cheer were really just about as bad in their own inimitable way.

What I’m getting at is that Led Zeppelin did not meet with the same sort of audience/critic response as Cream. Led Zeppelin were absolutely slagged by the press. For the first time, a risible chasm had opened in the previously monolithic rock audience (a chasm that was to continue to deepen with Grand Funk, Black Sabbath, and to a lesser extent, Alice Cooper); a gap between, if you will, what was Good Music and what the kids were actually listening to.

THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF HEAVY METAL

It’s easy to note the changes in rock structure that heavy metal groups have employed: increased song length, for one. Five minutes has been about the average metal song duration, often even without any extended solos. Some stompers, like Dust’s ‘From A Dry Camel’ and Led Zep’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’, run upwards of seven minutes, and are none the worse for it.

Another metal innovation, perhaps the most obvious, would be the overwhelming emphasis on instrumental work rather than vocals. Save Uriah Heep, there have hardly been any groups in heavy metal with elaborate group vocals. You just stick a guy up before the mike, preferably the member of the band that can bop around the best, and let him go. As a result there have been some strange vocal styles, from Mark Farner’s quavering shriek to Ozzy Osbourne’s atonal yelp. The general attitude seems to be, what the hell… Robert Plant is about as technically adept as you get among metal vocalists, and the mere mention of Bobby’s name has been known to cause people to break out laughing. Ian Gillan of Deep Purple does have quite a technically impressive voice, but he blows it by acting like an absolute narcissistic idiot on stage.

That the remaining field of heavy metal exploration has been technology – well, that goes without saying. Some of heavy metal rock has simply resembled nothing previously known to man nor beast – mainly the more extreme moments of Led Zep, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, and Blue Öyster Cult – with the main mutation from traditional hard rock being in the rhythm section. A standout metal rhythm section really does resemble a steam press, belching along like a manic bulldozer flattening everything in its way. Sort of like a bass-drums equivalent of all that guitar noise on Kick Out The Jams.

I had been disappointed in how few metal groups have gotten into the aesthetic of a really technocratic rhythm section on record, until I heard Blue Öyster Cult’s recent promo LP, recorded live. The only description of Albert Bouchard’s electrified, heavily-miked drum kit would be that of a runaway locomotive at 250 MPH, and the Cult themselves play like Zeus unleashed. Closest thing to an ultimate heavy metal sound I’ve yet heard.

One other footnote: heavy metal has coincided with a real trend back to rhythm guitar. Power chording is the term coined for the ideal metal rhythm guitar style (Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath was the runaway champion of this art for a while) and when you think about it, the technique dates back to ‘All Day And All Of The Night’ and all those other early Kinks singles. On which all rhythm guitar parts (the leads are still in dispute) were played by… Jimmy Page. The structure of most metal songwriting focuses around riffs and heavy chording, so the emphasis on rhythm guitar makes sense.

In all truth, Ritchie Blackmore and Buck Dharma are just about the only distinctive lead guitarists in heavy metal, the only ones whose major role is on lead guitar rather than rhythm. The rest are chord-bashing crambos, in some ways a tribute to R&R band teamwork, and we’re all better off for it. Unless, that is, you prefer endless lead guitar solos, in which case we would’ve recommended Mountain in concert had they not broken up and joined the world’s greatest white blues (nope, it wasn’t Mark Farner after all, nor Sky Saxon or Captain Beefheart) singer: Jack Bruce. (Anyone disagreeing should be immediately referred to Jack’s interpretations of Howlin’ Wolf, Eddie Boyd, and Albert King, after which the winner of this whole tag-team match will receive a free copy of Supersession featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper).

Now where was I. Why the Raspberries are heavier than Grand Funk. No, that’s not it. Why Dance Of The Lemmings by Amon Düül II is the greatest album in the history of the universe (at least one certain rock critic with the initials HSF thinks so). No, that’s not it either. I don’t know much about Amon Düül. But I do know about Hawkwind. Hawkwind: aluminum: post-metal. Metal! It all eventually leads back to that catch-all of the rock and roll spectrum, heavy metal. If Led Zep would just record ‘Walk Don’t Run’ or ‘Pipeline’, the whole convolution would be complete.

But back to the subject at hand. What’s the difference between Deep Purple and Uriah Heep anyway? Or between a varrrooommm and a blast furnace? In order to help answer such disturbing questions, we’ve enlisted the help of some of rockdom’s foremost sages in order to compile summaries on heavy metal’s most important groups. These summaries do reflect a bias, admittedly. While one segment of metal fandom has long looked down its nose at the Sabbath/GFRR vein, yours truly has more democratic leanings: I like ’em all.

In order to correct for this tendency, PRM has copped a real first: polled a portion of these same sages concerning their favorite metal LPs. Yes, the heaviest albums as chosen by the heaviest critics…wotta exercise in redundancy. Without any further ado, may we present the Heavy Metal Sports Report:

ALICE COOPER: Pretties For You, Easy Action, Love It To Death, Killer, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies

As perfect as their image is, a lot of people I know have had trouble with Alice Cooper’s music. They’ve never been more than only marginally a heavy metal band, and it’s been a rare occasion when anyone I know (myself included) has played an AC album all the way through, from beginning to end.

Still, the five or so great cuts on each of Love It To Death and Killer make them essential albums. School’s Out complicates the Alice Cooper dilemma by being a real stinko of an effort, that is, if they were even trying at all. What saves Alice Cooper, even today when their singles have become completely jive, is their incredible cockiness. You don’t wanta hear a whole Alice Cooper LP, just the three or four best cuts so as to marvel at just how brash and obnoxious these guys are.

If they blow it, as it appears they will, what we should remember and hold against Alice Cooper above all – forget manipulation, nihilism, and increasing musical ennui, that’s all trivial stuff compared to this – is that they blew the chance to be the most tasteless group since Count Five.

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: Blue Öyster Cult, Tyranny and Mutation

Blue Öyster Cult’s debut album was great, no doubt about that. It lacked mania, though. Those doubts were totally erased by a recent Columbia promotional album (Col. As-40), a four-cut LP consisting of twenty minutes of the Cult live in concert. The most powerful live recording ever, its impact is as crazed as the studio album was calculated; a full studio set of its quality might relegate all previous hard rock, from the Stones to Led Zep, forever to the ranks of the also-rans.

So the strengths of Blue Öyster Cult are obvious: strong songwriting chops, great lyrics by Sandy Pearlman and R. Meltzer, a fine stage act, and an ugly pug-faced kid Don Roeser who changed his marquee name to Buck Dharma to complement his ability as one of the most authoritatively facile and powerful lead guitarists R&R has ever seen. A copy of the Cult’s new album arrived just in time for one quick listen before our deadline, and it sounds far beyond the first studio LP, more on the level of that monstrous promo effort. Check the issue of PRM for details. If any group has the potential to match the recorded work of Led Zep and Black Sabbath – and much more importantly, to possibly transcend the whole heavy metal field – Blue Öyster Cult should be it.

BLACK SABBATH: Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality, Black Sabbath Vol. 4

Bet you thought for sure I’d say a thousand words about what used to be my favorite group. I’m not. Paranoid and Master Of Reality are the ones that matter, and even their debut album had a roaring first side (if sludge can roar). Black Sabbath Vol. 4 is very strange, however, and not in the good sense. For a month or so Vol. 4 sounded okay, but after that it just became more and more depressing to listen to.

Sabbath’s biggest strength for so long was the whooping vengeance of their music, drilling out manic two-chord guitar riffs as they went after the forces of evil, war pigs, and what have you. The feel permeating the music of VOL. 4 is that of numbing defeat, and it’s not pleasant. The stupid little jokes in the liners and lyrics seem to indicate that Vol. 4 was a real coke album. Could be; the music definitely has that numbed-out, desensitized state of mind that characterizes most coke music. From Hand Of Doom to Snow Blind, is the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned. Get back to your roots, boys.

DEEP PURPLE: Deep Purple In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Who Do We Think We Are!

The consensus view on Deep Purple is that In Rock and Machine Head are their best, with Fireball somewhat of a dud. I’ve been listening to Purple a lot lately, and would like to go completely against that appraisal: I think their albums improved up through Machine Head, and that Fireball has some of the most powerful cuts they’ve done. Three years old now, In Rock just sounds dated – the album is very poorly recorded, with aimless solos of all kinds cluttering up songs like ‘Flight Of The Rat’, ‘Into The Fire’, and ‘Hard Lovin’ Man’.

Still, In Rock does have historical value: it made Deep Purple big European stars, and in retrospect shares honors with Led Zep II as the seminal heavy metal album. Justifiably so, since parts of it do scorch, with Purple in places even sounding like an English MC5.

But Fireball is a different matter entirely. It’s their most metallic, best recorded album from the word go – the title cut is supersonic. Ian Gillan’s vocals on this LP, I think, have to be the best in all of recorded metal rock… arrogant, petulant, and sneering. ‘Strange Kind Of Woman’ is Deep Purple’s all-time most arrogant cut, ‘Fools’ their closest to punk rock, and so on. Fireball‘s weakness, and the cause for its bad reputation, was its two or three very bad cuts. Machine Head remedied this by being their best album overall, having only one bum cut. The less said about Who Do We Think We Are, the better. It’s atrocious.

Deep Purple fans generally regard all the group’s LPs through Machine Head as indispensable; those not enamored of the group, vice versa. For the record, Lester Bangs mercilessly bombed In Rock in Rolling Stone when it came out in 1970…he loves the group now. Hi Lester!

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD: On Time, Grand Funk, Closer To Home, Live Album, Survival, E Pluribus Funk, Phoenix

Yours truly driveled on for 5,000 words about Grand Funk in Fusion. What it all reduced to was this: Live Album is 50% rocking, 50% awful, E Pluribus Funk is a killer if you can stand Mark Farner’s voice, and Phoenix is largely good mainstream rock but it ain’t the same.

DUST

Dust’s debut album was beyond fault, save for one snag: they had the same problem any group using a relatively trebly heavy metal sound runs into. Namely, how to compensate for the lack of a sheet metal bass-drums sound. Dust haven’t solved the problem yet; their rhythm section just doesn’t have the punch of some metal groups.

At that, Dust’s first album is a raucous stomper, one of the finest ’70s hard rock LPs to date. Unfortunately, Hard Attack is not nearly as good. The rockers are fine, but there are a couple of terrible ballads, and the album lacks coherency altogether. Coming from Dust, Hard Attack as a whole seems pretentious, the last thing you would’ve expected from such a group. Hope they loosen up and get back into the crass New York street clatter they’re so capable of.

LED ZEPPELIN

Sure enough, these limeys were the fathers of it all, with Led Zeppelin II – that crucial first step away from blues and excess jerkoff solos, and towards the sheet metal noise we all know and love today. It sold some umpteen million copies as well, making it a crucial trendsetter in heavy metal development.

Still, Led Zep II had three real bummers – ‘The Lemon Song’, ‘Ramble On’, and ‘Moby Dick’ – and comparison with the Zep’s fourth album is interesting. The fourth album demonstrates how far Seventies rock has evolved in the last couple years: incredible as it may seem, it has twice as much pure sound as Led Zeppelin II. And ‘Four Sticks’ is the only mediocre cut. ‘Black Dog’, ‘Rock And Roll’, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’, ‘Stairway To Heaven’, and ‘When The Levee Breaks’ are as powerful as rock and roll ever gets. When these guys try, they’ve got it (Led Zep I and III are for fanatics only).

MC5, STOOGES: All Albums

De boogie was invented a long time ago, way back in Mississippi by the famous Blind Lester Crawdad…Actually, that’s bullshit. As anyone knows, Heavy Metal came out of the automobile factories where the MC5 and Stooges toiled by day, only to go home at night and struggle to duplicate the whine of the pressing plants with their primitive Marshall amplifiers. The roots. Iggy Pop, the Robert Johnson of metal music. A group called the Who (not to be confused with the current group of the same name), back in the Dark Ages, had a bit to do with it too.

TEN YEARS AFTER: Watt

All I want to say here: this was ace! I’m not that keen on Alvin Lee’s other efforts, but half of Watt sounds just like the Stooges – Alvin even gets off a great dog bark on ‘I’m Coming On’. The second side of Watt is dull jazz-oriented jamming, but who cares. The simplistic, rocking half makes up for it, and TYA’s version of ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ is precisely the way Chuck Berry ought to be played: with no reverence whatsoever! Fine stuff. One of the most meaningless albums ever conceived.

UFO: UFO 1, Flying, Live In Japan

If you think Dust or the Stooges were simplistic, you never heard UFO’s first album. The Stooges were TIGHT compared to these guys! Bedrock sludgy bass, guitar work that would make Ron Asheton blanch; the whole works. There’re eight fine three-minute hard rock cuts, plus two other vagarities (a good ballad and a galling 7:43 ‘Who Do You Love’) – sort of the English heavy metal version of the Frut. To top it all off, 3/4ths of UFO were still in their teens at the time of the album.

Yes, this was the group that sent British trade papers into a panic, shrieking that if UFO became stars it would set rock back ten years. Unfortunately, UFO must have let that sort of praise go to their heads, because their second LP (released only in England) is one of the worst sets I’ve ever heard. Having only five cuts, Flying consists almost entirely of soporific off-key jamming, the lead singer only coming in around every seventh minute. Their third album, a live LP recorded in Japan, is even worse. For the time being, another potentially brilliant group down the tube.

URIAH HEEP: Uriah Heep, Salisbury, Look At Yourself, Demons And Wizards, The Magician’s Birthday

In five tries, these guys have come up with two good albums. Does that say something or does it? Look At Yourself and Demons And Wizards were Uriah Heep’s two good ones, both with excellent first sides. Their new one, The Magician’s Birthday, is partially similar to Demons And Wizards, and partially the most pretentious dud since the Moody Blues’ most recent opus.

Live, Uriah Heep have been much closer visually to faceless punkoids like Black Sabbath than to the Led Zep/Deep Purple theatrical end of the spectrum – self-effacing, but they still move around and put on a fine show. Six months ago it could’ve been speculated that the whole key to heavy metal’s future would be whether enough solid, above-average groups (like Heep at the time) could emerge to make the field a lasting phenomenon…and not to make Heep scapegoats or anything, but therein lies the rub. Those two good albums are essential, though.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND

Nothing metallic about the Velvets’ first album; recorded in early and mid-1966 at Scepter/Wand studios, it still sounds today like a brash New York punk rock item. White Light/White Heat was indeed a metal roots LP, however. Sterling Morrison’s bass throughout has a heavy, clanking tone, and ‘Sister Ray’ may have been the first combination of heavy rhythm and pure noise. The Velvets’ influence has shown up in the Stooges, David Bowie, and Alice Cooper, in decreasing order of magnitude. Maybe they’ll keep the torch going now that Lou Reed sounds fit for embalming.

THE WHO, THE YARDBIRDS

Well, yeah. If the Stones were the mainstream of 1965 rock, the Who and Yardbirds were the avant garde. The Stones were good, but it was the latter two that were really exciting. The Who are a tough band to figure out. The Who Sings My Generation was a bizarre combination of Beach Boys, James Brown, and primordial metallic noise. When released in Spring 1966, it was the farthest-out hard rock album extent on the planet; ask anyone who was around then. For some reason the Who completely steered away from this style starting with ‘I’m A Boy’, never to return to it.

The Yardbirds’ recording career was mostly a muddle. Their most consistent work, hence arguably the best I suppose, was with Eric Clapton as a solid R&B band. Save for scattered things like ‘Jeff’s Boogie’, the Yardbirds era with Jeff Beck never got captured quite right on vinyl. Beck had flashes of brilliance, no doubt, and the idea seemed to be that of attaining the ultimate kineticism via virtuosity – you had better believe that guy was one – but I dunno. There honestly just isn’t a single cut I could play today that would overwhelmingly convince you why all us pubes back then were so hot over the Yardbirds.

With Beck, I didn’t mention Beck and Page. ‘Stroll On’ (i.e. ‘Train Kept A Rollin”) from Blow-Up was the only recorded legacy of the Yardbirds with both Beck and Page in the group, and it just happens to be the earliest recorded instance of a clear-cut heavy metal style. Jimmy Page plays heavy, fuzzbox bass riffs on his guitar, drowning out Dreja’s bass in the process, then joins Beck during the bridge for a great twin lead guitar rave up.

What the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck were groping for was heavy metal; whether sheer intuition or otherwise, Page had the idea of metal visualized much clearer than anyone else. Or it might’ve just been the right place at the right time brilliance that lands a guy on ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘I Can’t Explain’, and ‘Mystic Eyes’. Live Yardbirds with Page was pretty much a mess, but the whole setup turned into Led Zep and eventually came through with the goods. If you wanta talk about unsung rock wizards, just consider a guy who was rocking out in 1965, still is in 1973, and if anyone invented heavy metal, he did: Jimmy Page.

They Also Served: Bang, Budgie, Cactus, Head Over Heels (‘Roadrunner’ on their one LP was a metal classic), Highway Robbery, Bull Angus, Nitzinger, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Sir Lord Baltimore, Atomic Rooster…

Now for some generalizations concerning the last couple years of heavy metal.

1971, at the time, seemed to mark the emergence of heavy metal as a major force in rock. Alice Cooper, Led Zep, Black Sabbath, and Grand Funk all made a huge jump over erratic previous releases, while Dust emerged full-blown from the womb as crazed metal rockers. Master of Reality, Love It To Death, Killer, Led Zep IV, Paranoid, E Pluribus Funk: these were all products of the same year. Add Look At Yourself by Uriah Heep, UFO’s fine first album, the great things on Deep Purple’s Fireball, and you had, well, what else but…a trend.

A year later, the outlook has changed drastically. 1972 was not a good year for heavy metal. Dust were the first to bite it, with their infuriatingly uneven and pretentious album Hard Attack. Alice Cooper came next in the washout category, followed by Grand Funk’s abandonment of metal for mainstream rock and Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, a disturbingly unpleasant and depressing effort. Topping it all off, Led Zep failed to show, a huge disappointment when their double album was postponed until this February or so. Nitzinger had a good debut album and Uriah Heep had Demons And Wizards, but both wiped out badly with their following releases. New groups have not arisen to replace all these aging stalwarts, mainly because record companies have just not signed many metal groups and don’t seem interested in changing this policy.

So the state of metal music today can be summed up in one word: stagnant. Outside of Blue Öyster Cult, The Stooges (whose stunning comeback is more than I’d dared even dream of), and hopefully Led Zep (their LP still not out as I write this), the field is simply in a state of outright decay. Many groups are either well past their peak or in a temporary slump – Grand Funk, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, possibly Alice Cooper, and particularly Black Sabbath, in whose case I really have extreme difficulty imagining any sort of viable future.

So where’s that leave rock and roll, if heavy metal was decided to be R&R? Well, there’s still three-minute AM oriented pop, amply covered in the pages of this journal over the past year: great singles by Slade, the Raspberries, Mott the Hoople, the Move, and David Bowie, all on a level matched by few 45s in a long, long time. The only thing standing in the way of a real R&R resurgence at this point are the program directors of America, that and Bill Drake.

That sort of turns the question around: where does that leave heavy metal? Metal has had very little in common with great pop – relying as it does on force rather than ingeniousness, elephant stomper riffs rather than mere hooks, power rather than melody. Still, there’s Slade, whose singles are rawer, much more distorted than anything the Stones have done in the last five years (or for that matter, since ‘It’s All Over Now’), not since the mid-60’s Who and Stones have hard rock 45s of such quality topped the English charts. Slade’s new studio LP is a must for anyone with the faintest interest in hard rock: Slade tread the edge of having a metallic sound, but at the same time possess that extra consciousness – the kind of spark that makes the most natural thing in the world songs about dancing (or drinking, or…you name it).

It all seems to point to heavy metal’s having been a transitional phase. A possible development might be the amalgamation of metal techniques into the three-minute pop form of the aforementioned current groups – such a trend could be quite incredible, making most of the old metal groups sound like dinosaurs. It’s my bet that such a style would come from a new generation of metal rockers, though. None of today’s metal groups seem capable of such a switch, with the possible exceptions of Led Zep and Blue Öyster Cult. Anyhow, it’s all speculation, and we know where that leads. Into the void.

All in all, heavy metal has been – and may continue to be for a while more – an important transitional chapter in rock and roll history. The scoffers to the contrary, Led Zep and company have seen to it that rock and roll will never quite be the same again.

The potentialities, the things you can do with slabs of bass and a million amps, have been tested to the utmost, and exploited quite well by many groups. There’s something intriguing about the fact that the punk rock of the early 1970’s wasn’t left undiscovered until five years later, but was revered just shortly after its high water mark. Maybe it’s just that we’re all five years older.

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