American Burn: Bloodrock
Vietnam and the axis of left and right
Passage-era Bloodrock (1972-73). L-R: Cobb, Hill, Grundy, Taylor, Ham
by Barry Stoller (August 2003)John,
What's happening brother head! How ya doing out there in Texas? Got your letter 'bout a week ago and decided to return the blessing. Ft. Bliss sounds like a far out joint. I'm glad you like it. We're out in the middle of Georgia... I've got about six more weeks here. Then I'll go wherever they decide they want me... I'm gonna drive home next weekend. We're going to a Bloodrock concert. That'll be nice.
Your Pal, Dan
(14 August 1972, Co-C 3rd Sch Bde, Ft. Gordon, GA).
In those dark insecure days following the September 11th attacks, I remember the moment when a crack of light - a little unintended levity - emerged, however briefly. The Clear Channel radio conglomerate published a list of 150 songs "best avoided" by its zillions of affiliates in the immediate wake of 9/11.
There were some that were apparently considered too ideologically amped (Barry McGuires' "Eve of Destruction"), too flippant (Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust") and, to the outrage of liberals everywhere, simply too hopeful (Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Trouble Water"). As amusing as the list was, I was thunderstruck to note an incredible omission: Bloodrock's "DOA."
"DOA," a heavy metal chronicle of an airplane crash's bloody aftermath is, after all, the supreme candidate for a "forbidden" 9/11 tune. "I remember - we were flying along, and hit something in the air; laying here, looking at the ceiling, someone lays a sheet across my chest..." And so on - with shrieking sirens - until the vocalist's last gruesome gasp.
Whew! How could Clear Channel have omitted "DOA"? Just because it's been forgotten for decades is no excuse. No station has played "Eve of Destruction" since the Johnson administration, so the list was more an aesthetic document than a real guide to censorship (DJ's haven't been permitted to play songs on a whim since Reagan took office). Talk about lost fame.
I've always loved underdog bands and in such negative sweepstakes, Bloodrock is a major contender. How underdog is Bloodrock? On Grand Funk Railroad's box anthology, the booklet's opening photo shows the boys from Flint embarking on yet another stadium-shaking US tour, standing proudly in front of a GFR jet, surrounded by their "road crew." Whoops - half of the 'road crew' shown is their perennial openers hailing from Fort Worth, Texas: Bloodrock. Ouch.
Like Grand Funk Railroad (with whom they share an association through being initially produced by the infamous hype-meister Terry Knight), 1999 was the year their long-neglected canon was finally reissued. Bad timing, dudes! Unless you happened to live in Belgrade, the final year of the Clinton administration was completely lacking in the vital sturm-ung-drang necessary for the group who gave the world the ultimate death anthem. No, late 2001 would have been much better.
Think about it. There was Michael Jackson, lamely attempting his fifth comeback, promoting his latest performance "to benefit the survivors of the 9/11 attacks." Sir Paul McCartney was out hawking his "fireman's tribute," some lame rocker in the classic lame Mac manner. Was a reincarnation of "That Doggone Girl is Mine" really the best 9/11 could inspire?
9/11 was big and it demanded a big song. "Eve of Destruction," "Another One Bites the Dust," even "Bridge Over Trouble Water" were not bad, but not nearly big enough. The forbidden Clear Channel tunes fell woefully short.
For my money, a Bloodrock reunion singing "DOA" ("to benefit the survivors of the 9/11 attacks," of course) would have been an atomic-sized hit. Tasteless, disrespectful and vaguely subversive? Sure, exactly in the spirit of the song was when it charted #36 on the AM dial (in January 1971) - only 10 times more tasteless, disrespectful and vaguely subversive, all the better to keep up with today's youth.
Listen to a comment left on the Mark Prindle record review site (2002):I loved ["DOA"] in a really dark sick way when I was about 8... I never knew the name of that song. So one day, about two years after I graduated high school and was bored out of my gourd, I called an FM radio station and asked the DJ, "Hey do you remember this song about some dude who survived a plane crash? It was kind of sexy," I said to him. He said, "I'll tell you what... you are a sick person to call and request that song. That song should have been banned from the beginning," and he hung up on me. I felt kind of baked but about two months later it occurred to me that maybe someone he knew had been on a plane flying low that hit something in the air.On the Bloodrock fan site, Chris Taylor - son of Bloodrock's rhythm guitarist Nick Taylor - said on September 17 2001:I am not sure if I can listen to "DOA" ever again without thinking of the disturbing video of those planes hitting the WTC towers.The recontextualization of "DOA" via 911 has already entered US literature. From Clyde Lewis' short story Ground Zero: Waking up Rip Van Winkle (2002):I have decided that I am writing this article to satisfy my curiosity. Did I somehow know that the attacks on the World Trade Center were going to happen? This has been haunting me since the tragedy. I have never claimed to be a psychic or a clairvoyant. I have always chalked up all of my weird experiences to synchronicity."DOA," however, was a Vietnam-era song.
These weird and unexplained coincidences show up in the weirdest places and at the weirdest times. In fact a reporter named Bill Frost was doing an article for an independent paper about my radio show. To demonstrate how synchronicity haunts me I will give you a piece of his 1996 article "Party at Ground Zero."
He explains that on the night he was at the studio doing an interview I coincidentally chose a song to play on my show. The song was "DOA" by Bloodrock. Just minutes before airtime a small plane carrying some Salt Lake businessmen crashed in a blinding snow storm. It crashed only blocks away from the radio station. I debated on whether or not to play the song. I played it because I had no other song or prepared piece to fill the void.
Bloodrock drummer Rick Cobb (July 3 2003) told me, "I had to subject myself to some pretty vile tactics to evade the draft. It was a real rite of passage."
Listening in to the DCRTV Mailbag (August 2002):The song "DOA" was just wretched. "DOA" had no value for radio or the listener that I can see. Other songs [confronting death] like "Seasons in the Sun," "Wildfire," and "Run Joey Run," at least had a good radio intro, and arguably pleasant melodies for AM radio. Not "DOA." The song was just sickening. The instrumentals were annoying to say the least, it had stomach turning lyrics, and an overall grotesque je ne sais quois filled the air when the song was played. Goldmine magazine declared it the worst song ever to be put on vinyl. There is a lot of truth to their rating because the song has become barely a footnote in the history of rock music. If the song "DOA" was so reprehensible - listen to it today, you will agree - why was it even played on the radio 30 years ago? Wouldn't you think listeners would turn the dial not wanting to hear the song a second time? Was it a anti-establishment or Vietnam protest kind of thing?Henry C Berkner recalls the era in his online memoirs, The Holy City (2002):8 tracks and AM radio... My Volkswagen's $29.00 Jensen air-suspension speakers strained out Bloodrock's "DOA"... Senior year, 1971, I wore paisley shirts, bell bottoms and wire rims.... I remember being scared about Vietnam. Scared about getting a low lottery number. Scared about dying. Scared about living - damaged.Listening in to the message board of the Bloodrock fan site (2002):I have a friend who was in 'Nam and he was telling me that guys would get their albums sent to them, then communications would put some away so when they got bored they could listen to some rock out in the stick. Well my friend tells me that they used to hook up the PA system to some extra speakers and blast the song "DOA" out to the bush so as the Viet Cong wouldn't come in at night. He said the sirens used to scare the crap out of them so they would crank it up louder. Pretty strange huh.I wonder who would be more frightened - the soldiers who did not understood the lyrics, or the ones who did. Although Dave Rabbit famously broadcasted "the hard-assed sound of today's American youth" - including "DOA" - from the airwaves of his pirate "Radio First Termer" in Saigon, the average Bloodrock fan was about 11 or 12 at the time of their "DOA" fame. The AM hit version of the song was popularized by the siblings of older brothers - some of whom were serving in Vietnam.
"DOA" was a qualitative leap from all the previous AM teen death anthems because all sentimentality was absent. Bloodrock vocalist Jim Rutledge catalogs the "sheet across my chest," the numbness of his arms, the attendant's "face as pale as it can be" with the dispassion of clinical shock. The narration of the victim is as businesslike as a black and white TV news report - the very sort that described Vietnam casualties.
Bloodrock lead guitarist Lee Pickens (interviewed by Roy Long and Carl Bratcher, October 29 1997) recalled the origins of "DOA":I had a friend die in a small plane crash right in front of my eyes. From there we elaborated...The lyrics, according to Rutledge (in a Rolling Stone, September 11[!] 1986 "where are they now" feature), "were pretty tame compared to the original song - blood and guts, about throwing up and arms getting ripped off. It was real descriptive."
"DOA" is utterly blunt - and remarkably simple. The main motif is Bloodrock keyboardist Steve Hill's Hammond B-3 appropriating an ambulance siren with his melody hand and pounding a dirging three chord bassline with his left. Real sirens are added at the top of each verse. The chorus introduces a strangely serene (and melodic) bass, drums and backing vocals to the famous last utterance, "I remember, we were flying along and hit something in the air."
As Creem magazine phrased it (reviewing the Bloodrock Live album a year later), "these guys out Blacked the Sabbaths and out Funked the Grands with their monolithic vision of the future called 'DOA'."
All terrifying times call for terrifying tunes: base and superstructure.
"Bloodrock's story is the violence that the world has engendered today" (Mike Clifford, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, 1983).
Shortly after their notorious (and musically underdeveloped) top 40 hit, they started to get artistic with their particular brand of unpatriotic nihilism. The heavy metal thunder of their first LP's began to branch out and extend perverse little shoots of jazz, easy listening, prog and pop. These guys got to be good players within a year (of constant touring) and subsequently produced three long-playing cult classics.
Bloodrock 3, their first notable LP, cashed in on the notoriety of the earlier "DOA," earning them a large, receptive audience. The record was briefly Capitol's biggest-ever seller. The LP cover (designed by Knight) remains a pop art milestone: "Bloodrock" spelled out with an American flag font - a top stripe of blue with white stars, a second stripe of white and, finally, a third stripe of red... only it's blood dripping off the letters.
That alone spoke volumes about Vietnam.
Yet there was more. Rollicking Hammond B-3 and Les Paul-driven boogie with a dash of the 1960's - real Easy Rider stuff, complete with tambourine. Weird unfinished ballads, too. And, most importantly: "Breach of Lease," a 9-minute anthem of total apocalypse. Somewhere between The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and mid-period Pink Floyd, a quiet walking bass (supported by ghostly organ) morphs into a brontosaurus riff while singer Jim Rutledge growls: "The Lord has promised all his children he was gonna take back his world someday... Man has disobeyed his leader, man has sorely breached his lease." Whoo, did someone just blow out the last candle? Only Aphrodites Child's truly satanic 666 topped that.
What was the effect of those anthems of total apocalypse upon children, say, with brothers in Vietnam, who were waiting for their turn to fill their brothers' boots? Recall that American font dripping with blood and it becomes obvious that Bloodrock - reaching the ears of the lumpenproletariat one black-lit basement room at a time - was doing more for the mass anti-war movement than any of Alan Ginsberg's chanted om's.
Next up comes early 1972 and, fresh from severing their ties with Knight (and his cheapo Cleveland sound), Bloodrock delivers a smashing masterpiece: Bloodrock USA. Here we have Grand Funk Railroad's warm-up band answering the MC5's Back in the USA - and, unbelievably enough, surpassing it.
While the big names of the age were either downshifting with raunch (Exile on Main Street) or piling up lushness (Dark Side of the Moon), Bloodrock came out swinging with a diamond sharp sound and tightly coiled arrangements. If Bloodrock 3 was recorded in the foggy murk of closing time, and much of it sounds like it, then Bloodrock USA was recorded in the full glare of high noon. It's actually one of the best productions of the entire decade.
Bloodrock USA starts off with the majestic pop of "It's a Sad World" ("too many people have died without reason" the peak line), a sound somewhere between Jethro Tull and side three of the White Album. Asked about the song, writer (and future Bloodrock vocalist) Warren Ham surmised (July 10, 2003) the tune was "probably indirectly about Vietnam and other issues of the day."
The LP races into a set of stadium new wave (Pickens possessed the same burnished fluidity displayed later by The Cars' Elliot Easton), the best of which is "Abracadaver" ("I'm feeling good, but you're looking pale"). The set finishes off with a menacing blues merging "Riders on the Storm" with Carlos Castaneda. A ripping good rockout.
The sound and the tunes harmonized brilliantly with their LP cover - a comic book illustration of Mephistopheles enveloping the U.S. Capitol (on the jacket back), his long reptilian hand turning into a gun all the better to blast the plasma out of his hapless victim's head (on the jacket front). Splat! "Another amazing adventure!" reads the caption - drawn by John Lockart who, the year earlier, contributed illustrations to Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.
So harmonious was the art and music that the track "American Burn" is a description of the cover. "It isn't really a tight concept album. It's... just all the ways all the different ways we've learned that you can get shafted" said Rutledge (in Creem magazine, April 1972). Bloodrock's primary complaint throughout that article concerns their recording company, which suggests the cover wasn't so much about the U.S. government (e.g., the U.S. Capitol) as it was with Capitol records (which once included the U.S. Capitol in their logo).
Picture: Bloodrock ad (detail) in Billboard magazine, 1971
The point works both ways. There's plenty of reason to question whether (all) the members of Bloodrock were raising the flag of the left or simply acting out in the indomitable spirit of rock 'n' roll. They came from Texas, after all. Rutledge went on to "make a bundle" in the oil industry and Pickens went on to found a car wash business (claiming once to be a "slave to the government," a Reagan code term). However, the defining consciousness of the Vietnam era embraced a current common to left and right-wing elements - libertarianism.
The left wanted "freedom," freedom to conspire against capitalism under cover of popular dissent, while the right also wanted "freedom," freedom from dying in a war which was beginning to jeopardize capitalism. Vietnam promoted an uneasy alliance between freak and redneck, an axis of left and right. This transitory phenomena explains why Country Joe types hate to hear anti-war classics of the Vietnam era reanimated for modern consumption (say, opposing the Iraq war).
Vietnam was unpopular (with the masses) not because of any inherent sympathy for the NLF, or any principled stand against war or (god forbid) imperialism, but simply because U.S. boys weren't too psyched to have their intestines exploded (everything is different, commendable even, when the killing is done by a volunteer army).
Looking at Bloodrock's particular brand of unpatriotic nihilism, it wouldn't much matter if they knew or didn't know what sort of vein they were tapping into with "DOA" (and later releases).
The cultural manifestation of society is erected by and reflects the material basis supporting society - but that doesn't necessarily mean it understands why it's doing so. Reinforcement theory: get a reward for leaning in one direction and, sure enough, another lean in the same direction follows. Bloodrock didn't create the current, they were merely a fascinating display of the current.
However, there is indication some of the members of Bloodrock were raising the flag of the left. Which brings us to their last great LP, Passage - reviled amongst heavy Bloodrock fans because Rutledge and Pickens dropped out, to be replaced by the crooning Warren Ham, and a general sound shift towards late Traffic.
Left credentials are provided by two songs, the liberal "Thank You Daniel Ellsberg" (which earned the band an entry in Lee Andresen's book Battle Notes: Music of the Vietnam War (2000) - right along with John Lennon and Pete Seeger) and the Marxist "The Power" ("They're in a labor army, that's working for the power, they're all put here at the prime evil hour... But the means they don't control"). Plus, there's the Lennonesque hippie ballad which opens the record, "Help Is On the Way," which is nothing short of gorgeous, however unheavy.
And, from there, commercial oblivion. Breakup. Backup gigs. Day jobs.["DOA"] "was a commercial success," said bassist Ed Grundy [in the 1986 Rolling Stone "where are they now" feature]. "But it wasn't the most wonderful music to play. I have mixed emotions about my career," he continues. "On one hand, people go 'Gosh, you got to live the American dream.' But it was really like being in the army, with no benefits when you get through and no training to help you in everyday life."Although keyboardist Steve Hill disdained "DOA" in the past, he admits it remains a benchmark of success. As he said to me (August 10 2003):Capitol wanted a sequel to "DOA," and if we could have rewritten that song, our careers - our commercial arc - would have gone up. We totally painted ourselves in a corner with "DOA." I had no concept of how to write a song that is the same, yet different - and I think that speaks well of the song.Bloodrock briefly reemerged in, 1999 when the "specialty" company One Way began pressing their LP's onto CD's. A one-off performance transpired (by three out of six members) in some low-rent saloon for a fan convention. Then, back to the silence of the crypt...
Too bad - timing and a little bravado is everything in the biz! If Bloodrock (or One Way) wanted a real splash, they should have recontracted with Knight (that alone would have been news) who, being the cynical sharpie that he is, would have no doubt boldly recommended a marketing strategy as lurid as... exploiting 9/11 for fame and fortune (they could have even resurrected their Billboard ad, one of Knight's graphics for the group, which featured a cross-haired bullseye on the center of a U.S. map).
Why the hell not? Who rose above exploiting 911 for fame and fortune? Certainly not Michael Jackson, certainly not Sir Paul - and certainly not that snake oil salesman who calls himself the president. "Take all you can it's your turn, it's called the American Burn."
Barry Stoller has previously published work on the ideology of pop music in Monthly Review and Scram. He is presently at work on a full biography of Bloodrock.
Steve Hill has continued his career in music. His latest release, Vignette, is a 3-song CD EP of his piano compositions (sung by Warren Ham).
Also see the Bloodrock website for more info about the band.
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