Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Montrose

Montrose


AOTM #8, January 2001ce
Released 1973 on Warner Bros
The first time I played this LP to my American wife, she was furious. As a proto-Rock Teen Chick of the ‘70s, Dorian couldn’t believe that this record had not been massive in the U.S. But no, this first Montrose release was ignored and chartless in America, though it hit the Top 50 here in Britain in spring 1974, and caused a real stir amongst heads at my school when we saw Hagar und cohorts parping and hollering through the BBC's geriatrically sedated Old Grey Whistle Test. And it was a yawpy and incendiary almost Detroit-type credibility which saw them through punk and later accepted enough to have Stiff Little Fingers nick the opening of their “Space Station No. 5” for the latecomer punk anthem “Alternative Ulster.” I commented in Head-On that revisionists had written the longhairs out of the beginnings of Punk. Well, here’s another missing link, and it’s a primal example of how bad-asses were cutting the cheese in those early mid-70s. This isn’t Righteous-music-in-the-face-of-Altamont like the MC5 and Funkadelic, nor is it Un-Righteous like the Stooges always were. No, this is far more unconscious than that – for a start, its political agenda was about as token as the vegetarian menu on a North Sea ferry. So I’m not judging it in that way – this album was, after all, just the soundtrack to every 1970s Sat’day Night nutjob’s failed blowjob. Too drunk to fuck? U-Betcha! But, even during this legendary time when guitar masters of Rock were the new alchemists, this Montrose album was the Philosopher’s Stone. Yes, Montrose was never a Wanna Be – they wuz always a Gonna Be. So file away your Neu albums and strap back, it’s time to partayyy!

For years, Ronnie Montrose had been a Your-time-is-gonna-come Jimmy Page-rising, until his part in the freakazoid success of Edgar Winter's glam-blooz They Only Come Out At Night LP, (with its attendant “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” hit 45s) left him with a big Warner Bros. contract, and lots of high expectations all around. So, like J. Page did with Zeppelin, the hugely experienced Montrose picked two young unknowns and one session vet, with whom he formed this brilliant quartet around his own surname.

Like Montrose himself, the bass player Bill Church had played on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, and the jacket of this first LP features these two most prominently in the photographs. In contrast, the drummer Denny Carmassi is given a secondary billing, whilst an extremely shy-looking and nervous young Sammy Hagar hangs even more in the background.

But the songs of this album are split evenly between Hagar and Montrose, and even the cosmic Beefheartian Big-Eyed blues powerdrive which fuels the whole sound is still secondary to these obvious and damn-catchy riffathons.
Warners house producer Ted Templeman co-produced this album, but it is Ronnie Montrose’s co-production and sense of space and thrill which made the record into a Guitar Dream from the Beyond. Throughout the length of this too brief assault, fuzz guitars, phasers and all manner of stereo FX heave and sweat, while the bass climbs the walls and undercuts the massive drums. It is also the strut and yawp and 30s gangster side-of-the-mouth young-teen-being-a-fax-of-a-man which defines this whole sound.

The 2 minutes and 57 seconds (great length!) of “Rock the Nation” opens the album with all the ur-klang of The Who Live at Leeds. Lean spacious metal chord-riffs peal off a monstrous bootboy beat, as Sammy Hagar muses cool cool mutterings about how he's going to give us the business. And he surely does. His asides and vocal inflections are those of a young man walking down the street saying hello to every local he meets, assured and adored in his own environment. Like the easy confidence of Ian Gillan on Purple's “Highway Star”; like the strut/saunter rhythm of Hendrix’s “Highway Chile” (hell, the song even quotes licks from Neil Young’s “The Loner”), the song doesn't make any attempt to shoot its load then and there. Instead, it's a declaration of intent. It says we're-gonna-shoot-our-load-but-we-won't-tell-you-when-and-where. And for the next 35 minutes, they do it again and again and fucking again. The second half of the song introduces a wildly catchy Zeppelin’d Abbey Road guitar arpeggio and it's gone. Boom!

Next up is “Bad Motor Scooter”, which they did on the Whistle Test. Super stereo stun guitar intro FX powerhouse into a Texan Elevators-styled rave-up with lyrics to write home to your Ma about. “If you get lonely on your daddy’s farm, just remember I don’t live too far.” Rock! As the rarely proud 1974-76 owner of a 1964 Lambretta Li150 scooter with no Mod/Northern Soul/post-Suedehead affiliations whatsoever, it was only this song which made my lonely late evening 2-stroke refuellings behind Tamworth’s one shopping precinct seem more acceptable1. And Sammy was a true punk in this song, leaving the bravado way behind with the killer admission: “I’d come over to your place but I’m afraid of your dad”. Then it’s time for Ronnie to “zip up my guitar” in an overt “Sun Zoom Spark”-stylee, before a bumping-car-crash dodgem-shunt guitar solo, like the whole track suddenly has taken the tea-cup ride. And as the song finishes, he lets out a long looming note … and lets it float.

“Space Station Number 5” starts with all the Lonesome Crow hammy mysticism of very early Scorpions, and it works. Indeed it’s great and it makes you want to reach out your hands to imaginary laser lights tracking across the ceiling. Then the bludgeoning of the soon-to-be “Alternative Ulster” riff looms large and pumps out of the dirge, until we’re trammelling along like Sabotage-period Black Sabbath playing “Paranoid”. We even get a kind of sub-Granicus’ Woody Leffel/Zoso Zeppelin side 2 bogus stream of consciousness spoken word. It’s what Stephen Holden would have called “Hi-amp speech song”, and it still sounds effective and real even in these early 21st century days. The rise in the middle of the chorus has always reminded me of a cross between the Bunnymen’s “Crocodiles” title-track and Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan Nirvana-esque version of “Come On, Come On”. The Primary Riff then speeds up and up and up into a whirling dervish tape-effect conclusion in the same tradition as Sabbath’s “Wheels of Confusion”.

I suppose “I Don’t Want it” is an almost mundane and perfunctory way to end side one after such all out assault. As Sammy states so succinctly on this Black Sabbath boogie: “Well I gave it a chance and it shit back in my face”. But oh jah, you gott to allow Hagar the Horrible his Iron Age metaphor in order to allow him to truly creep into your heart. And even though Sammy’s “making toothpicks out of logs”, and praying hurts his knees, he's working his thing out with such success that we can only benefit. And, seen in terms of a-truly-great-singer-can-sing-the-back-of-a-menu-and-get-away-with-it, Sammy Hagar is up there on the B+ list, alongside Sir Lord Baltimore’s John Garner, Ash Ra Tempel’s John L. and Granicus’ Woody Leffel, and just below Iggy, Ozzie, Damo and the Lizard King.

Side 2 jumps starts with the Utopian “Good Rockin’ Tonight”; an ascending and bubbling frat-boogie ”All Right Now” sung in anticipatory Lee Roth-voice. It’s a fresh and clean-sounding Townshendian “Long Live Rock”-ian clarion call to the pure mod-youth shamanic act of getting Saturday Night fucked up seven evenings a week. In contrast, “Rock Candy” is a Rock of Gibraltar – it’s “When the Levee Breaks” played by a 2-ton drummer in slo-mo; broad-based and tight/fat-assed as Kiss would get on their classic “I Love it Loud” 45 (and probably the inspiration for High Rise’s ultra-monolithic “Door”). I'd guess that ‘Bonhamian’ should be the term for this earthbound piece of Kashmir. This song surely can’t fly so it won’t bomb you. But it invades like a horde nation sweeping across your open plains.

Now, I’d argue that the Ted Templeman production and formatting of this album became the actual set-in-stone modus operandi for almost every Van Halen album. But not only that, even the lyric of the Utopian sounding and Who-ian “One thing on my Mind” predates by half a decade David Lee Roth’s method of writing seduction lyrics to some invisible female in a way which totally reduces the band to a back-up role. By 1980 and Van Halen’s third album Women and Children First, Diamond Dave had surpassed himself with the hysterical lyrics of “Everybody Wants Some.” But the roots of his muse are right here, and it’s interesting that Van Halen graduated to Sammy Hagar when Diamond Dave TV became just too too fucking eclectic for even his biggest fans (I say graduated because Sammy Hagar is much better at articulating his muse that Diamond Dave. And even though the David Lee Roth autobiography proves him to be in many ways a true mystic2, the proof of the trip in rock‘n’roll is shown simply by listening to the fucking music).

By the time the genius of “Make it Last” kicks off, I’m a foamer. The Rock-solid Bonhamian beat crosses the Polish border at the average speed of a 1939 Panther Tank. The slab guitar chords pave it in instant drying sonic concrete which dry on the feet of huge Viking weather gods stomping across the landscape in their new instant fancy piston boots. It’s an “I Love Rock‘n’roll” Joan Jett-riding-a-real-lead-zeppelin way to finish the album, and it’s all over.

Tragically, Montrose never maintained the heights of this debut. By the time of their second album Paper Money just six months later, Bill Church had gone, and Sammy Hagar quit soon after that. But for that brief period in late 73/early 74, Montrose could surely rock any place.



FOOTNOTES:
  1. In 1974, my Lambretta Li150 was shit because:
    1. you couldn’t bank without grinding the rubber footboard trim off the base of the barely-retractable stand;
    2. you couldn’t roughride it without caking up the wheelarches so much that the whole thing resembled a scrawny long-necked adolescent mallard duck straining to escape from some polluted beach oil spill;
    3. I hated the knobhounds who covered their scooters with multiple mirrors, but became inexorably associated with them as some lesser cousin because I didn’t play the game, preferring instead to spray paint the whole thing matt black with gold side panels;
    4. in the cold, those gold side panels regularly fell off on the A5 between Atherstone and Wilnecote (late at night), because the spring contraptions which held them on were hard to click into place all the way without cutting yourself, when still covered in oily gunk from rough riding around the Tamworth mound;
    5. the riding position was about as Rock as arriving in a sedan chair. The long foamy sit-up-and-beg bench seat conspired with the ribbed footboard to make you feel you were no more out-of-doors than if you’d been waiting to jump down from the back of a double decker bus.
  2. At 50,000 seater arenas, David Lee Roth would ignore the jibes of Edward and Alex Van Halen, and clean the stage himself with a brush and pail in order to better communicate with his surroundings and audience. After shows, he would cycle the midnight streets of cities he had played in further efforts to communicate with them. In his autobiography, his flip attitude is constantly undercut by genuinely mystical phrases such as: “We are only at our best when we are ascending towards something.” Right ON!