Deep Cuts and Forgotten Songs from the Shadows of Classic Rock
ED NOTE: This is an excerpt from Darren Barakat's book Greatest Misses, which covers great lesser known classic songs of rock music from the 1960's up through the 1990's. You can see all of the rest of the book at Amazon.
By August 1965, the Zombies' career seemed as dead as their name implies.
"When You're Ready"
One of many British Invasion groups that followed the Beatles in 1964, the Zombies reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "She's Not There" and No. 6 with "Tell Her No." Dressed in formal attire, they looked more suited to hold calculators or protractors than guitars, and could have looked less rock 'n' roll only with masking tape on the thick, horn-rimmed eyeglasses two of the five members wore.
The Zombies' third U.S. single, "She's Coming Home," stalled at No. 58, and their fourth, "I Want You Back Again," barely dented the Hot 100 at No. 95.
In August 1965, their fifth single, "Whenever You're Ready," was released and missed the Hot 100. Author Greg Russo in his book Time of the Season: The Zombies Collector's Guide, published by Crossfire Publications, called the failure a "crushing blow to the band" and wrote that the single was "universally praised as having the most overall hit potential of any record in their career."
Music fans had stopped paying attention and missed a treasure. The Zombies were has-beens even though four of five members – singer Colin Blunstone, keyboardist Rod Argent, guitarist Paul Atkinson, and drummer Hugh Grundy – were still too young to drink.
"‘Whenever You're Ready' employed Grundy's cymbal as a hook on verses with syncopated piano chords and vocals forming the song's emphasis," Russo wrote. "With well-defined bass [by Chris White], it was the band's best-sounding Decca single to date, using a descending chorus and good harmony."
One online review site calls "Whenever You're Ready" the "ultimate" Zombies song, even though it's missing from both of the Zombies' 1960s studio albums.
Three years later, the B-side of "Whenever You're Ready," "I Love You," was a top-20 hit for the one-hit-wonder group People. Given the Zombies' struggles after their initial two big hits, Blunstone called that "a heartbreaker."
Argent's lyrics about welcoming a partner back only if he or she changes would more commonly have been sung by a woman in the macho Mad Men era. Blunstone's smooth, slightly feminine voice, with less of his trademark breathiness, is therefore fitting.
"Whenever You're Ready" was the first in a series of commercial failures. The Zombies were absent from the Billboard charts from July 1965 through their breakup in 1968. Their public profile rose from the grave in early 1969 when they returned with the only gold record of their career, the single "Time of the Season," which reached No. 3 on the Hot 100. Its parent album, Odessey and Oracle, contains only one blemish; the unintentionally misspelled word on the cover.
December 6, 1969, might have been, as Rolling Stone magazine called it, "rock 'n' roll's all-time worst day," but it inspired one of rock 'n' roll's Great Misses, "Transmaniacon MC" by Blue Oyster Cult.
Blue Oyster Cult
On that day, Hells Angels stabbed and killed 18-year-old fan Meredith Hunter while the Rolling Stones played at the free concert at Altamont Speedway in California, which was supposed to be the Woodstock of the West but instead was the death of 1960s peace and love.
Singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith, the Godmother of Punk and girlfriend of Blue Oyster Cult keyboardist Allen Lanier, called Altamont the end of 1960's idealism in her book Just Kids. Smith later co-wrote a few songs for Blue Oyster Cult, known by the uninitiated for the More Cowbell skit on Saturday Night Live but known by serious fans for their sophisticated hard rock that explored dark lyrical themes such as vampirism, extraterrestrial life and the occult.
The Hells Angels motorcycle gang, despite their reputation for violence and lawlessness, was hired to surround the stage and provide security at Altamont in exchange for free beer. The crowd and the Hells Angels became increasingly violent throughout the day. A Hells Angel punched Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane in the head during the Airplane's performance. The Grateful Dead refused to take the stage after hearing about it. With the situation deteriorating, the Angels armed themselves with pool cues, and later used them to beat up concert-goers near the stage.
Rather than spontaneous violence by mindless thugs, this Great Miss suggests a cold-blooded conspiracy by an organization called the "Transmaniacon MC." MC, "motorcycle club," can be found on many jacket patches for the Hells Angels and other such gangs. "Transmaniacon MC" is the secret power behind the violence, like the CIA or the mafia pulling the trigger of Lee Harvey Oswald's gun. The song was released just three years after the Charles Manson murders, when thoughts of bloodthirsty killers roaming the California coast were still fresh.
"I had created a paranoid explanation for a conspiracy theory, or a proto-conspiracy theory explanation for the events at Altamont. And this was to be like the drinking song, or club song, or whatever, the Mickey Mouse song of the people who were really responsible for Altamont, who were indeed the ‘Transmaniacon MC,' the club at the secret core of the heart of the Angels," lyric writer Sandy Pearlman told author Martin Popoff for his book Blue Oyster Cult: Secrets Revealed, published by Power Chord Press.
The music (no cowbell), written by drummer Albert Bouchard and guitarists/vocalists Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom, is appropriately sinister without being overly heavy or aggressive. It's controlled violence, quiet words through clenched lips. The guitar riff that follows the chorus will stick in your skull like a knife.
The New York City quintet, which also featured Bouchard's brother Joe on bass, found commercial success with the Top 40 singles and FM rock classics "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" in 1976 and "Burnin' for You" in 1981, while "Transmaniacon MC" remains a Great Miss. It is on one of their commercially least-successful albums, their 1972 debut, which peaked at No. 172 in Billboard, and it never appeared on any of BOC's live albums or compilations.
In his book Permanent Midnight Jerry Stahl wrote extensively about his career as a drug-addicted TV writer in Hollywood and his previous job writing salacious copy for Hustler magazine, but did not address his brief stint as a rock 'n' roll lyricist.
Nonetheless, it's a pretty good guess he wrote the lyrics to this Great Miss by the California rock outfit Gamma about the strange and distant relationship he shared with his wife and the general feeling of alienation he covered in Permanent Midnight His drug habit got so bad he found himself rummaging through actress Cybil Shepherd's medicine cabinet looking for pills, brought his infant daughter into an unfamiliar crack house well after midnight, and eventually could no longer find work.
Guitarist Ronnie Montrose formed hard-rocking Gamma in the late 1970's after playing with Van Morrison, the Edgar Winter Group on their No. 1 hit "Frankenstein," and his own band, Montrose, whose 1973 debut featured then-unknown "Sam" Hagar on lead vocals.
For Gamma's third album, 1982's Gamma 3, Montrose hired a new keyboard player, Mitchell Froom, and pursued a wider audience with a more "futuristic" sound dominated by Froom's keyboards. Singer Davey Pattison, bassist Glenn Letsch, and drummer Denny Carmassi remained from Gamma 2.
Froom, who later produced hit albums by Crowded House, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, and Paul McCartney, and was nominated for a Grammy, wrote the music for "Stranger." To contribute lyrics, he invited his old friend Stahl, fresh off co-writing "Nightdreams," which Playboy magazine called "the first avant-garde adult film." Stahl is listed as a co-writer on six of the nine songs on Gamma 3.
"Stranger" begins and ends with the title in Morse code, fading out in the beginning and fading in at the end. Pattison sings about a relationship with someone strange, becoming stranger, and starting to feel like a stranger, three minutes of sweet pop-rock unlike anything Montrose had been associated with before this album.
Despite the abundance of literary and musical talent working together, Gamma's new approach did not bring the desired results.
The single from Gamma 3 was "Right the First Time," which made it to No. 77 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Stranger" never made it to the radio. Gamma 3, which peaked at No. 72 in Billboard, was commercially no more successful than Gamma 2 (No. 65), and the group broke up.
"Gamma disbanded because during the Gamma 3 recording there was such an attempt to manufacture a hit single that it was again seeming to me like the music business was again becoming to me, upper case ‘BUSINESS,' and lower case ‘music' and the ‘music' was even in parenthesis!" Montrose told John Wardlaw in an interview published at www.anti-m.com.
Clinically depressed most of his life, Montrose committed suicide at home in Millbrae, Calif., by shooting himself with a .38-caliber revolver on March 3, 2012.
Permanent Midnight was turned into a movie starring Ben Stiller in 1998. Stahl, whose career and lifestyle choices differ greatly from those of his father, Pennsylvania's attorney general in the early 1960s, has since written six novels and more TV and film scripts.
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