Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Cactus - Cactus

Cactus


Released 1970 on Atlantic
Reviewed by Brandon Tenold, 21/05/2008ce


Cactus’ story is one filled with a series of what if’s, a sadly overlooked sleaze rock juggernaut that like so many other proto-metal bands of the era showed a lot of promise only to fizzle out after a couple of years. The plan was for the lumbering, dinosaurian Vanilla Fudge rhythm section of bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice to join up with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart in a super group that would presumably conquer the emerging hard rock market in a post-Cream, Zeppelin-ascendant world.

However, it was not to be.

Beck was sidelined with a broken neck and Stewart jumped ship for the Faces and eventual dominance of the dinner jacket crowd. Not wanting to wait and be left behind, Bogert and Appice joined up with Mitch Ryder guitarist Jim McCarty and Amboy Dukes vocalist Rusty Day to form Cactus, a fuzz and boogie worshipping bunch of hell-raisers that made Grand Funk Railroad look like scholars by comparison. Although McCarty couldn’t match Hendrix’s interstellar flights of fancy (who could?) he still knew how to get the blood pumping during a solo, while Day had one of the harshest voices of the time period, his singing voice sounding like he had a wild west leather tanner living in his throat. But fear not, o’ hungry hard rock fans, for though these boys may have been lunk of head, they were also quite fleet of finger, a fact they prove right out of the gate with the first song on their debut, a cover of Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm”.

Much like Blue Cheers cover of “Parchman Farm”, Allison’s mellow piano blues is rendered nigh unrecognizable save the lyrics, and while Cactus’ version doesn’t quite match that one for sheer fuzz-scuzz, they definitely have them beat in terms of forward momentum. Although the formation of the group was Bogert and Appice’s idea, their Michigan band mates seem to have had a significant influence over the groups sound, favouring an MC5/Stooges style velocity. Starting at full speed with Carmine’s insistent drum fills, the track doesn’t let up for the entire songs duration. After a couple verses and a brief bit of harmonica vamping, McCarty lets loose with a frenzied solo, spitting pentatonic licks all over the place, the huge amount of unnecessary notes merely adding to the rampaging effect. The song breaks down into some noodly bits from McCarty and Appice before everybody gives a final big crash. At just over 3 minutes, the effect is disorienting in that great proto-punk way.

Next come two slow songs, and as can be expected from a group like this, they are the low point of the album. Although “My Lady from South of Detroit” has a bit of “Lady Jane” style prettiness to it, “Bro. Bill” just doesn’t have enough hooks to be memorable in spite of its lack of bite. Although I wish the group could have stuck to their strengths and made an entire album of full on shit-kickers, I don’t hold these songs inclusion against them, as very few bands of the day were able to escape a least a couple ballads per album. Besides, I highly doubt it was our knuckle dragging gang of boogie monsters idea anyway, and they were probably quickly written at the urging of a record exec who thought there should be something for the girlfriends of the longhaired freaks and headbangers in training who bought the album.

We’re back to blues cover land with “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover”, and just like “Parchman Farm”, the band blasts the Willie Dixon standard right out of the park. Opening with some pastoral acoustic plucking and some faint harmonica flourishes, the song at first seems like it’s going to be another mellow one, but right after Day yells out the title, the electric guitars kick in and the band rocks out for the chorus. This mixture of soft acoustic verses and loud choruses continues until about the halfway point when McCarty starts to solo in his trademark giant radioactive mosquito fuzz tone, continuing to alternate between electric rave up and acoustic come down until the track fades out.

The heavy but upbeat “Let Me Swim” is next, a song filled with more water related sexual metaphors than one would think possible in a single song. Lines like “There’s a river inside me honey, let it flow to your sea” are the type of pea-brained but hilarious lyrics that more scholarly musicians would probably think up in the studio, laugh, and then discard, only admitting they thought of them in the first place to their friends over drinks. But not these boys, oh no. It’s concise, sleazy and considerably better than the next track, “No need to Worry”, a slow blues that despite some decent effort from the band never quite rises above the pedestrian.

The album wraps up with “Oleo” and “Feel so Good”, a bass solo song and a drum solo song, respectively. Yes, you read that right. This was a group with the unmitigated audacity to put BOTH cardinal “okay in concert, not okay in the studio” sins on one album. Right next to each other. At the end of their debut.

First up is “Oleo”, a nice little blues ditty about rocking out as soon as you wake up…or something to that effect. Despite the lyrical shortcomings, the song succeeds as a catchy and rocking boogie tune, and after a few minutes, the band quiets down with only Appice’s drums left. Suddenly Day barks out “Grease it down Timmy!” and we’re onto the bass solo. Starting out fairly quiet, Bogert suddenly hits his distortion pedal and kicks into high gear. Nothing against Geezer Butler, but his distorted bass solo from Sabbath’s debut is not even close to the overdriven roar Bogert gets on this song, with overtones hanging overtop of the notes like a jungle canopy. There’s no funk here, just fuzz.

Then comes Appice’s showcase “Feel So Good”, but unlike the “Moby Dicks” and “Toads” of the world, we actually get a full song here and not just a riff to go along with the skin bashing. One of the heaviest numbers on the album, it contains a furious octave riff and some echoed howling from Day. When Carmines drum solo comes in it’s more than tolerable both in terms of technical flash and length. I’ve always had a soft spot for the way Carmine can make even a jazzy Gene Krupa beat sound like it was being played by a caveman. A couple minutes later they’re back to the song proper, and that’s all she wrote.

Although not quite a classic on a par with Sabbath’s debut or The Stooges “Funhouse” (you know, those OTHER scuzzed-out classics from 1970), the best parts of Cactus’ debut truly rock. If Blue Cheer can be considered sub-Hendrix and Grand Funk sub-Cream, than Cactus’ bad mother boogie is sub-ZZ Top…and that’s a compliment.


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