Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Highway Robbery - For Love Or Money

Highway Robbery
For Love Or Money


AOTM #61, June 2005ce
Released 1972 on RCA
Side One
  1. Mystery Rider (3.03)
  2. Fifteen (2.57)
  3. All I Need (4.19) not streamed
  4. Lazy Woman (5.44)
Side Two
  1. Bells (3.24) not streamed
  2. Ain’t Gonna Take No More (4.16)
  3. I’ll Do It All Again (4.16)
  4. Promotion Man (6.06)


Note: This Album of the Month is for all you Detroit-obsessed believers in the electric guitar powerdrive as the Uber-Sacrament - the amphetamine pessary, the Jolt Cola enema to the Motherfucking Stars! Yeah, I’m talking to all you dragster slide guitar worshippers at the altar of Ronnie Montrose’s “Bad Motor Scooter”; those whose priapic meditation is mostly upon Jimmy Pagan’s “When The Levee Breaks”, the oozy suicidal G-force descent of The Litter’s “Blue Ice”, and the bucking bronco axe shudder of Sir Lord Baltimore’s “Pumped Up”. And – Laid-Eez and Gentlemunters – so do I have to lay upon y’all ye saddest of tales in the tellbook. For this is the Tragedy of Michael Stevens – songwriter, guitarist and sometime seer of rock’n’roll – whose artistic life was too brief, too imperfect and too beholden to ye money men to make any headway at the time of his actual playing. But for those elite few heavy music fanatix whose lives are en-fuelled by ye aforementioned Utopian hard-driving nose-diving axe-wielding R&R… well, motherfuckers, Ah thunk we gotta live one!!!

Note 2: I’ve chosen to run the album in the same running order as the songs were laid down in the studio, as I felt this better introduced the band to the world than RCA’s early-70s compromise. Two songs, therefore, have been excluded from the streaming of this Album of the Month, specifically because the specially recorded too-soft rock single “All I Need” and the sugary power ballad “Bells” were not only inappropriate to the Highway Robbery trip, but because they were record company devices to capture a wider audience (ha bloody ha), the release of the former as a 45 having effectively killed the band stone deed in the watter!



Professor Longhair, or ‘Sonically Speaking’

It do rage, it do blast, it do spit-roast and baste us, ye outrageous stop-starts of this singular burnt offering does pummel then lambaste us. A cartoon octopus wine waiter on roller skates, its shrieking high octane Un-Beaten Black & Blues burns and blazes, razes us clean to the ground. Here in the grooves of FOR LOVE OR MONEY, greedily we experience the sky-hi-energy guitar complete control of the MC5 (“Looking At You”, “Sonically Speaking”), the bludgeoningly idealistic Stephen Stills-inspired gospel-metal of Grand Funk Railroad’s SURVIVAL, and the doom death march of VINCEBUS ERUPTUM-period Blue Cheer (“Doctor Please”, “Out of Focus”). Furthermore, the songs contained within FOR LOVE OR MONEY even at times attempt to include all of the above extremes in the same tune!

Don Francisco

And so, brothers and sisters, this LP is one hell of a statement to have lain unexcavated for so long. Only slightly flawed by R.C.A.’s typical early-70s record company needs for ‘the radio friendly ballad’, FOR LOVE OR MONEY is almost as intensely out there as Sir Lord Baltimore’s KINGDOM COME debut of two years previous, and contains several performances so extreme that the songs appear at first to be no more than a vehicle for the raging talents of the three musicians – Mike Stevens (guitar/songwriter), Don Francisco (singer/drummer [yowzah!]) and John Livingston Tunison IV (singer/bass player/most immaculately hip aristocat). Led by Stevens, a crazy and psychedelicized Mark Farner wannabe, there were few still alive on the planet during that immediately post-60s period to whom such an incredibly supercharged guitar vision as Highway Robbery could have made any sense at all. One moment faster than The Wig’s “Crackin’ Up” or anything by Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, the next minute as slow and sludgy as Juan De La Cruz’s version of “Wanna Take You Home” and Bang’s “Future Shock” but burning with a slow-building intensity several octanes higher than both, Highway Robbery was a Viet Vet’s wet dream, the ultimate all purpose do-everything ideal off-road sonic vehicle. And dolloped – nay ladled – across this bare bones racket of Red Indian war drums’n’wires was a thawing chocolate sundae of sticky sweet power harmonies brung in to bill’n’coo and Spectorise these heathen proceedings. And yet, several listens into FOR LOVE OR MONEY, it becomes clear that it’s the tough internal structure of each of those songs that allows them to have been so rigorously disassembled during the performance, almost at times to the point of total dissolution. Oo yeah, part Indian Braves and part Dandy Highwaymen, with Stevens acting the war-painted outlaw nine years before Adam Ant, Highway Robbery may have been constructed as a safe house for the loner who led the band, that is: Stevens the ‘real’ songwriter. But as a true power trio, Highway Robbery was also a canny unit of proto-metal artisans with a real eye for facilitating the Release of the Beast.


Ain’t Gonna Brown-nose the Blues No More!

John Livingston Tunison IV

But stranger than all of this is the fact that this mother of all experimental power trios had to be constructed especially for the mainman himself by a high-powered Hollywood management team. Cobbled together from other bands and furnished with an R.C.A. record contract and the services of legendary engineer-producer named Bill Halverson, whose supreme experience had included work with Eric Clapton, Delaney & Bonnie and C, S, N & Y (DÉJÀ VU no less) - the question for Highway Robbery was never ‘if’ but only ever ‘how soon’ it would all take off for them. And yet, just two years before, as the door of the ‘60s had closed shut forever, a similar experiment way over on the East Coast had ended in miserable failure when a group of New York record businessmen – led by impresario Dee Anthony - had brought songwriters Jim Cretecos and future Springsteen manager Mike Appel together with Jimi Hendrix’s engineer producer Eddie Kramer to do a number on that insane power trio by the name of Sir Lord Baltimore. That the artistic results were amazing but resulted in the total ejection from the music business of all the band members will be well-known to all you readers of Unsung’s pages. But both hindsight and an historical overview were unavailable to these illuminated souls about to record FOR LOVE OR MONEY. When yooz standing on the verge of getting it on, guess U-Gotta keep your mind open…

Besides, Stevens felt that he had nothing to lose, having spent his 1960s high school years in a semi-nomadic existence, flitting between the gymnasium, the football field and the basement of his garage band buddies. Consumed by the lost culture of the Plains Indians who had so recently been evicted from this Californian landscape on which he walked, Stevens – like so many other West Coast rockers – believed that he felt the still burning embers of their camp fires beneath his bare feet. And so Stevens remained the loner, his combination of physical fitness and rock’n’roll seemingly mis-matched and impossible to reconcile with any fixed teenage scene. That is until the arrival of Grand Funk Railroad in late September 1969. For Mike Stevens, the bare-chested and fist-waving Mark Farner and his power trio was a massive and magical distillation of everything he’d aspired to. Coming out of Flint, in the heart of the Michigan Motor City conurbation, Grand Funk’s tight and brutally simple soul revue arrangements espoused a Luddite anti-robot revolution in a brazen and basic blue collar manner – and all recorded at such a workaholic pace that their four LPs (ON TIME, GRAND FUNK, CLOSER TO HOME and LIVE ALBUM) had, between September ’69 and Christmas ’70, yielded three top ten albums. And more than even Farner’s songs about modern life, his lyrics about the plight of Native Americans, sung in beautiful harmonies over crude wardance rhythms inspired the romantic Mike Stevens so intensely that he simplified his own songs accordingly to accommodate similarly screeching 90’ rhythm changes, multiple-voiced harmonies and the kind of woven structural arrangements that only the simplicity that a power trio can provide.

Michael Stevens

The trouble was that Stevens was hardly a great lead singer and the early incarnations of Highway Robbery lacked the craziness required to carry such primeval bombast as he envisaged. However, when the band supported Maurice White’s early incarnation of Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevens’ own performance was exciting enough to convince White’s hot shot Hollywood managers to sign him immediately. Here was the break Stevens had awaited, for his new management team of Robert Cavallo and Joseph Rufallo were already looking after Little Feat, Weather Report and the Loving Spoonful’s John Sebastian, as well as having produced several Hollywood films. And when Stevens declared his intention to unite lightning strike guitar playing with the kind of awe-inspiring harmonies that Steve Stills had brought to his own two solo LPs and the majesty of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s DÉJÀ VU, his managers Cavallo and Rufallo went straight to the engineer of that sound – the legendary Bill Halverson – and booked him as producer. Out went the garage band drummer and in came the immaculately named Don Francisco, whose previous leadership of the now faltering power-trio Crowfoot immediately endeared him to Mike Stevens’ Red Man sensibilities. Born Donald John Francis, this acrobatic and hugely confident singing drummer had taken his stage name from the 17th century religious poet Don Francisco Placido, whose ministry had taken place among the Aztecs. Blond, urbane and supremely confident, the manner in which Francisco sung Stevens’ songs dumped all the blues melodies and replaced them with the kind of spaced-out shrieking vocal acrobatics that John Garner had brought to Sir Lord Baltimore (and which that beautiful cosmic brother the late Ron Goedert would eventually bring to White Witch’s A SPIRITUAL GATHERING). For both Francisco and Stevens, it was an hallucinatory union. Retaining original bass player Jan Tunison, now portentously renamed John Livingston Tunison IV for his Swedish antecedents; Highway Robbery began to record their debut album without so much as one show having been performed. But on the day that the trio entered the recording studio, Mike Stevens pinned up his great manifesto over the doorway. These were to be their sleeve notes and their words to live by. It read:

Declaration

For love or money, Highway Robbery hereby dedicates itself to roar, to drive, to sensitive joy and, above all, the emission of the highest levels of energy rock. Let it be known that Michael Stevens – lead guitarist, vocalist, writer of all material contained herein, child of a gypsy commune – carries out this pledge in the true manner of his forebears. Further be it known that he is in allegiance with Don Francisco – drummer, lead singer and a New York native whose main influences have been traditional New Orleans-based bands such as Robert Parker & the Royals and Deacon John & the Ivories; and with John Livingston Tunison IV – bassman, vocalist and painter, whose first sound memories are of Muddy Waters and B.B. King. FOR LOVE OR MONEY: signed, sealed and created by the aforementioned Highway Robbery, in this age, on this day, in the name o0f storming, beautiful rock and roll.


FOR LOVE OR MONEY was recorded at a furious pace, played as hard as bleeding hands could allow and always at insane volumes, often causing engineer Richie Schmitt to run screaming from the control room. Beginning the proceedings with the incendiary “Ain’t Gonna Take No More”, Schmitt soon found himself unable to bring the soundboard under control as what began as a kind of Uncle Tommin’ Janis-meets-Garner slide blues erupted into a cacophonous jackhammer more akin to LED ZEPPELIN 2 played by Sir Lord Baltimore. With Francisco’s uncannily female banshee wailing off the Richter scale and Stevens’ shameless appropriation of the middle-8 from Jefferson Airplane’s “She Has Funny Cars”, the song then veered off into a double time “Psychotic Reaction” coda longfading with wailingly beautiful multi-tracked power chords - it was as uniquely disturbing a piece of sonic cut & paste as any young band had ever laid down. Next up was “Fifteen”, Stevens’ lament at his discovery at such a young age that adults generally knew shit. And what a lament this was. Imagine Sabs’ “Children of the Grave” played by The Litter during their EMERGE-period with the “School’s Out” riff thrown in every 32 bars. Speeds up, slows down, stops, starts; this motherfucking barrage of relentless yawp is a blow to the cosmic fundament make no mistake. And beats Alice’s “Eighteen” by three full years of incomprehension. The next libretto to be stapled to the Gates of Hell was “Mystery Rider”, the soon-to-be opening track; on which Halverson unleashed a “River Deep, Mountain High” sensibility of multiply-layered vocals that elevated the song into a euphoric initiation into the Underworld. As an opening track, its lyrics appeared to speak directly to the guardian gatekeeper of the album itself, endowing the work with an immediate mysticism. The song was a ride with the Red Man that would end all rides – a Spector soundalike Summum Bonum of Grand Funk’s gospel chorus’d SURVIVAL anthem “I Want Freedom”, created through a laborious and protracted process of harmony vocal multi-tracking, but ultimately still a sonic sinch to achieve for Bill Halverson after his labours with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Schmitt’s shattered hearing must’ve eased considerably when the quiet 6/8 blues of “I’ll Do It Over Again” commenced its squawking. But even with its inward-looking “Signed D.C.” self-reflection, the song held masterful surprises, as the superbly confident Don Francisco let forth lupine yelps of John Garneresque vocal mannerisms guaranteed to tear to shreds the remaining sensibilities of his captive audience, ie: their long-suffering engineer.

But when Don Francisco refused to sing two of Mike Stevens’ most powerful songs on account of their crass lyrical content, both “Lazy Woman” and “Promotion Man” were more than successfully bawled out by bassist John Livingston Tunison IV, whose hilarious and unforgettably balls-to-the-wall style gives us all an idea of how Steve Jones and Michael Anthony would have fared as lead singers. Both songs were chosen as side closers because who the fuck could follow that? Despite its Todd Rundgren-like phased descending harmony vocals on the chorus, the furious adolescent rush and roar of “Lazy Woman” is pure Detroit teen riffery, a Kiss-take on Hendrix that Mountain woulda died for. And that guitar coda? Motherfucker, this is a faster more distilled version of Hendrix, Page or Beck that even Louis Dambra coulda conjured up; indeed it’s up there with Gary Rowles’ solo on Love’s “Love is more than Words (or Better Late Than Never)”. Better still was the album’s epic closer “Promotion Man”, and funny as fuck, too. Played with a desperation and last stand violence that only those on the edge of oblivion could muster up, “Promotion Man” was Michael Stevens’ plea to the record people to make him a motherfucking star at any cost.

We need the dues…

We need the exposure…

Hell, we’ll take anything you got, barks the ornery Tunison.

And in the final verse, after singing to an audience of 50,000 people (“I really love this crowd”), the singer hears his postman downstairs and… realises it was all a dream! A fucking dream… ending the song just the way the teachers always tell you not to – but then I woke up! Perhaps it’s too much to suggest that the band members knew this was to be their only chance. But upon hearing the sessions, the executives at R.C.A first shelved the album, then asked Stevens for a couple of radio hits to sugar this bitter sonic pessary. Naturally, when the naïve Stevens obliged, it was to the sanctuary of the bland “All I Need” that the marketing team ran, ensuring that Highway Robbery’s first and only 7” single bore no resemblance to the rest of their work. It makes you wonder what woulda happened had this piece of crap by some fluke given the band a Top 40 hit. Would those people have then returned the LP because it blew their fucking arms off?

As the obvious disaster unfolded, the management team of Cavallo and Rufallo realised that their all-or-nothing approach had hit a brick wall. Still, they had plenty of other projects to keep them busy if their golden Cherokee could not deliver for them; whilst the ever professionally minded Don Francisco jumped ship and settled for the simpler role as drummer with Wha-Koo, led by original Steely Dan singer David Palmer. The marketing people had said all along there was no focal point in the group, that singing drummers had always failed, and that a coupla songs having been sung by the bass player was even more confusing when the super talented Pete Townshend-type guy who’s trip propelled it all was nowhere near enough in evidence. And so, after one superb LP Highway Robbery were dropped by both R.C.A. and its management company Cavallo-Rufallo Enterprises, and promptly forgotten. Unlike Deep Purple, who’d got to make four shockingly average LPs before they managed to muster up IN ROCK, and even Sir Lord Baltimore, who’d managed to squeeze out a hugely toned down second helping, Highway Robbery were in truth shafted by the sheer high calibre of their representatives, whose Hollywood credentials ensured that the hype was just that; briefly full-on but momentary with nothing left over for Michael Stevens to build upon.

And so it seems that a truthful description of this music by Highway Robbery should most accurately be described as Over The Top, for verily its leader did vault WWI-style into the Music Business minefield and was reported missing in action just days into the war. But for those of you who dig the mayhem unleashed by this lost trio, I’ll wager we all return to their performances again and again, and that FOR LOVE OR MONEY will grow into a future barbarian classic guaranteed to occupy in all of our heads The Larger Place.




Discography

FOR LOVE OR MONEY (RCA 1972)
“All I Need” b/w “Mystery Rider” (RCA 7” 1972)