Alan White is Still a “Yes” Man

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Yes today: Billy Sherwood (bass/vocals), Jon Davison (vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Alan White (drums), and Geoff Downes (keyboard). Photo by Glenn Gottlieb

One of the most egregious exclusions from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was finally remedied last year when Yes joined the list of inductees. Formed in 1968, they are one of the titans of Progressive Rock, mixing classical and symphonic elements, intricate and complex musicianship, and themes of space and fantasy in their lengthy catalog.

Fans were extra thrilled when all of the eight surviving inductees (except keyboardist Tony Kaye) performed several of their biggest hits together. Rush bassist Geddy Lee standing in for co-founder Chris Squire, who died in 2015. With a litany of lineup changes over the years of Yes Men (as well as a bevy of splinter groups with names like law firms, and leavings, and returnings) Squire was the only constant.

For drummer Alan White, that made it a bittersweet moment standing on that podium with his trophy. “Well, it’s been anticipated by a lot of people for a long time. And when we actually got nominated that was great, and when we got inducted, it made a lot of difference for us,” drummer Alan White says. “And everyone was thrilled. It’s just sad that Chris Squire never got to see it. He is sorely missed.”

White has been behind the kit for Yes since 1972 when original drummer Bill Bruford left to join King Crimson. His percussive work has appeared on plenty of classic Yes albums including Tales from Topographic Oceans, Relayer, Drama, and 90125 – the latter of which brought the band a surprise revival in the ‘80s and made them fixtures on MTV.

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Yes onstage recently. Photo by Glenn Gottlieb.

Yes, or at least the main version of it (more on that later) was on the road last summer headlining their own “Yestival” with support acts Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. White has a particularly affinity for fellow skin thumper Palmer, the last surviving member of Prog’s greatest trio (sorry, Rush fans) after the recent deaths of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake.

“I’ve known Carl since the early ‘70s. ELP and Yes always had a little bit of a competition between the bands, and then between us as drummers,” White says. “But we get on really well now, and have developed a relationship over the years.”

But during his band’s set, White was not the only drummer onstage, as guitarist Steve Howe’s son, Dylan, will be behind a second kit. It isn’t the first time that Yes has done this, and they pair are still “working out” the parts.

The three acts that make up Yestival, of course, are a Prog Rock lover’s dream. And all figure prominently in Dave Weigel’s recent history of the genre, The Show That Never Ends.

White doesn’t particularly care for the label “Prog Rock” – or any other labels for the band’s music – like classic rock of symphonic rock. But does realize its usefulness as a sort of musical shorthand.

Finally, one wrinkle that has come up recently is over the name of Yes itself. Prior to the band’s induction into the fall of fame, previous members Jon Anderson (vocals), Rick Wakeman (keyboards), and Trevor Rabin (guitarist), formed a splinter group called ARW, playing mostly Yes material. It’s been reported that Anderson had a sort of gentlemen’s agreement with co-founder Chris Squire that the latter would have sole use of the name.

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Roger Dean – whose work graces the covers of many Yes albums – is the go-to Prog Rock artist. This is the gatefold cover for “Tales of Topographic Oceans.” Atlantic Records cover

Since Squire’s passing, though – and shortly after the induction ceremony – ARW changed their name to law firm sounding “Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman.” Both bands will be on the road this fall, and it has divided Yes fans and members themselves.

This won’t confuse Yes’s more ardent followers, but it’s muddier for the ticket-buying fan who only knows that they like “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround,” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on the radio.

For his part, White is nonplussed and will leave the bickering to his bandmates, current and former, on both lineups. He’s just happy to play.

“I’ve been in the band for 45 years now, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m just carrying on being in Yes. We’re just carrying on doing what we did,” he sums up. “I have no opinion about that…or what [others] do.”

A version of this story originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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The Zombies’ “Time” Continues into Another Season

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The Zombies in 2017: Tom Toomey, Rod Argent, the late Jim Rodford, Colin Blunstone, and Steve Rodford. Photo by Andrew Eccles

The year 2018 is a good time to be a Zombie – of the musical singing and playing kind, not necessarily the walking dead variety. For decades, the group was beloved by a smallish-but-devoted audience, and rarely mentioned in the same breath as better known British Invasion contemporaries like the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Dave Clark Five, Yardbirds…even Herman’s Hermits.

After all, this was a band who scored a possibly career changing #3 hit on the U.S. charts in 1968…after they had already broken up (that would be FM radio staple “Time of the Season” off the album Odessey and Oracle). The Zombies had previously charted with “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.”

Their original incarnation only spanned a handful of years and put out fewer LPs. But their unique brand of smart, snappy pop-rock—anchored by Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals and Rod Argent’s keyboard flourishes and backing vocals—made them cult favorites. But now the word is finally out.

In 2016, the band was included for the first time on the ballot for induction (but did not make the final cut) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their most recent album, 2015’s Still Got That Hunger, garnered mostly positive reviews. There’s even a coffee table book out on the band’s history. And their summer in 2018 is filled with appearances at festivals and headlining shows around the world.

“It’s been exciting to see how the audiences have grown over the past number of years. Just by word of mouth and good playing by professionals. Our profile has definitely grown,” Blunstone – in the most elegant-sounding, PBS-worthy English accent I have ever heard in my life – told me last year.

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The cover of “Still Got that Hunger.” Art by Terry Quirk, a friend of the band who also did the cover for “Odessey and Oracale,” famously misspelling the first word in an error that has never been corrected and part of the band’s lore.

Most importantly, the Zombies last year wound up a tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, with the album played in its entirety. Original members Chris White (bass) and Hugh Grundy (drums) joined the then-current lineup of Blunstone, Argent, Jim Rodford (bass), Steve Rodford (drums), and Tom Toomey (guitar). Original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004. Jim Rodford – an actual early member of the group who left early on, but was a longtime member of the Kinks – died last year. Their new bassist is Soren Koch.

“Those shows were wonderful and emotional, and such vivid memories of the ‘60s came rushing back with Chris and Hugh onstage,” Blunstone adds. “It seems like almost yesterday we were playing together, even though it was a lifetime ago. It plays tricks on your memory.”

Still, it wasn’t an easy or predetermined road to today’s success. When Blunstone and Argent resurrected the Zombies name for concerts and records beginning in 2004, they had to grow an audience. I recall seeing them in Houston on that first tour in a room of about 40 (albeit diehard) local Houston fans. On their last stop, they played to hundreds.

In recording Still Got That Hunger, the Zombies looked back to look forward. “We decided quite purposefully to record the new album like we did with Odessey, which was to rehearse extensively before we set foot in the studio. Back then, it was to save money since we had a limited budget and were recording in Abbey Road Studios, which was expensive!” Blunstone laughs. “So we recorded very quickly, and that’s what we did, playing in separate sound booths, but live together.”

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The original Zombies: Chris White, Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson, Colin Blunstone, and Hugh Grundy

The singer adds that his vocals on the finished album were originally just put down as a guide, but upon hearing them, the band agreed to use them as is. He also gives producer Chris Potter – who has worked with the Verve and the Rolling Stones – a lot of credit for the final work. Writing is already in process for a follow up, possibly also with Potter.

As for live shows, Blunstone is proud that at age 72, he still has his full vocal range, and the band plays all their material in their original keys. He credits a late voice coach – Ian Adam, who also tutored Argent – with creating a series of vocal exercises that he uses to warm up before every show. Although the material went from being on a cassette to a CD to its current home on Blunstone’s smart phone.

Then there’s the matter of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Blunstone hopes that the band will be inducted while four of the five original members “are still around,” adding they’re all in pretty good health.

“But you have to be philosophical about these things. I like to think of us – especially the present incarnation – as jobbing musicians. Our job is to go out and play live. The Hall of Fame would be wonderful, but we enjoy what we’re doing anyway. And we’re incredibly privileged to be doing it at this time in our lives. The Hall of Fame would be the icing on the cake.”

Finally, the Zombies have taken to the high seas on more than one occasion, and will continue to do so on jaunts with titles like The Flower Power Cruise and the Moody Blues Cruise. 2018 will see them play the On the Blue Cruise alongside Moody Blues vocalist Justin Hayward, former Genesis guitar player Steve Hackett, Wishbone Ash, Al Stewart, Dave Mason, and groups with various members and former members of Chicago, ELO, the Alan Parsons Project, and Procol Harum.

While being trapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean with rabid fans might seem like (and likely is) a nightmare for some performers, Blunstone takes it in stride – provided that he’s not hungry as soon as he gets up.

“It’s interesting. These ships are huge. They are like a town or a small city that just happens to be on the sea. But you’re actually travelling with your audience,” he says. “I like to get out and speak to people, but you really have to plan your time. It may well take you 45 minutes or an hour just to get to breakfast in the morning because people want to talk to you! But they’re incredibly respectful and enthusiastic and polite.”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

 

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The Sonics’ Boom

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The Sonics today: Freddie Dennis, Evan Foster, Dusty Watson, Rob Lind, and Jake Lords.Photo by Bobbi Barbarich.

The Modelo beer commercial ran for a couple of years beginning in 2013. A guy and his two buddies walk into a new bar, only to be met with glaring faces from the regulars.

Sure, bespectacled, beanie-capped tough guy Tommy “triples” his street cred. And ordering Modelo Especials earns “seven slow nods” from the still-frosty crowd. But it’s ace-in-the hole Dylan with his “encyclopedic knowledge of Garage Rock” who finally gains the interlopers acceptance when he plays a tune on the jukebox to the smiling approval of all gathered.

That tune – with the reverby guitar and screeching vocals – is “Have Love Will Travel” by the Sonics.

“That’s one of the songs I refer to onstage deprecatingly as ‘our hits of the ‘60s!’” laughs Sonics sax/harp player Rob Lind – knowing full well that the Top 40 charts were never bothered by the band. Still, the Sonics’ name and catalog is revered today. Even if the group themselves were among the last to know.

“This is going to make us sound like dummies, but we really didn’t know that until about 2005 when we started getting asked to start playing again,” Lind says, noting that most of the original group rehearsed on and off for nearly two years.

“And we thought we would only do it if we really could pull it off. We didn’t want to go onstage and look like pathetic old fools.”

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Big Beat’s “Psycho-Sonic” CD is the best single-disc anthology. The classic lineup: Rob Lind, Andy Parypa, Larry Parypa, Jerry Roslie, and Bob Bennett.Cover of Big Beat CD/Photo by Jini Dellaccio.

Two New York gigs went so well in 2007 that not even a week later, the group sold out two more in London. “We also met [Garage Rock revivalists] the Hives. And they told us the kids had discovered us. No record shop in London had anything by the Sonics left!”

The Sonics boomed out of Tacoma, Washington in 1960 as a teenage band under the leadership of guitarist Larry Parypa. By 1964, the classic lineup was in place with Parypa, his brother Andy (bass), Rob Lind (sax/harmonica), Bob Bennett (drums), and Jerry Roslie (lead vocals/keyboards).

It was Roslie’s throat-shredding, pitch-screaming, utterly unhinged vocals that became the Sonics’ sonic calling card. In the liner notes to the compilation Psycho-Sonic, the singer would remember that he sang so hard “chunks of meat” would sometimes come out of his throat after gigs.

The band was scouted by Buck Ormsby, bassist for fellow northwest Garage Rockers the Wailers (“Tall Cool One,” “Dirty Robber”) and signed to their Etiquette Label. In fact, the Pacific Northwest was very fertile ground for the genre, producing not only the Wailers and Sonics but the Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Ventures.

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Rob Lind and Jake Lords recreate the frantic and frenetic sounds of the Sonics onstage.Photo by Bobbi Barbarich.

“There were a lot of good bands up there, and a lot of different genres. A lot of musicianship,” Lind recalls. “But it seemed like we were trapped there. Then when it blew up nationally in the ‘90s with [grunge] we were proud of those guys. Eddie Vedder and I talked about that.”

A series of singles and two albums – 1965’s Here Are the Sonics and 1966’s Boom quickly came out. And while commercial success eluded them, a string of forceful originals, often with dark lyrics (“The Witch,” “Strychnine,” “Psycho,” “”Shot Down,” “He’s Waitin’”) and frenetic Little Richard and soul covers (including Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel”) established a unique identity.

The Sonics left Etiquette for Jerden Records, releasing one more album – the oddly titled Introducing the Sonics – before the band fell apart. Not out of disagreement, though: members just drifted into other jobs and professions far outside music. The classic lineup did share the stage one more time at a one-off reunion gig in 1972.

Lind entered the U.S. Navy – which found him spending most of 1973 as a pilot flying missions in South Vietnam and Laos during the war. And then he spent more than 20 years as a commercial pilot for US Airways and Continental. Roslie would briefly revive the band in 1980, releasing the record Sinderella.

But a funny thing happened over the ensuing years: The Sonics became a cult band, their pre-CD compilation albums fetched high prices, there was talk of them as the “original punk rock band,” and their music began popping up in TV and movies. The Cramps and The Flaming Lips covered “Strychnine.” And Kurt Cobain and Jack White sang their praises.

In 2007, the band reformed with Larry Parypa, Roslie, and Lind (Andy Parypa and Bennett choosing not to go back into music). An EP with live and new songs, 8 came out. The lineup was settled with Freddie Dennis on bass and Dusty Watson (who spent 30+ years with Dick Dale) on drums.

This lineup released the critically acclaimed comeback This is the Sonics in 2015. The current set list includes about half ‘60s and half from this album, tracks like “Bad Betty” and covers of “Sugaree” and “Look at Little Sister.”

However, beginning in 2016, Roslie and Parypa chose to leave life on the road behind for either health or travel reasons, leaving Lind as the only original member onstage. Dennis has taken over lead vocals, and Evan Foster of the Boss Martians (guitar) and Jake Lords of the Lords of Altamont (keyboards) have been added.

“We’re thinking about a new album,” Lind says. “I’m doing some writing and Jerry’s doing some writing and then he and Larry could come in and be on the record.”

Part of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Eric Bloom: Cult Leader

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Still Burnin’ For You: Eric Bloom, Richie Castellano, Jules Radino and Buck Dharma. Photo courtesy of Blue Oyster Cult

Though he was born to be wild, he (Or she? Theories abound.) is still an unlikely protagonist for a rock and roll song. This now 64-year-old amphibious reptile who stands around 300 feet tall and has breath you don’t want to be on the receiving end of. But at least he (or she?) keeps urban architects of the Far East both dismayed and continually employed.

Nonetheless, 1977’s “Godzilla” is one of the biggest hits for Blue Öyster Cult (don’t forget the umlaut) and a classic rock warhorse and written by lead guitarist/singer Buck Dharma. But according to the group’s Eric Bloom, don’t think there are banking it for every airplay or multi-media usage of the tune.

“Buck wrote the song, but when he did, he wasn’t thinking about the movies or royalties or ownership. We just recorded it,” the lead singer/rhythm guitarist says. “Out of the blue jumps Toho Films who own the rights [to Godzilla] that says we can’t do that unless we paid them. So we had to give away a big chunk of the music publishing in perpetuity to the film company. We can’t even use a likeness of The Guy himself on T-shirt or record cover, or they will come after us.”

“The Guy” (Or girl!) will undoubtedly make an appearance – at least in song – at the upcoming BÖC show along with other big hits “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” “Burnin’ For You,” and perhaps other tales of sci-fi and S&M like “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll,” “The Red and the Black,” “7 Screaming Diz-Busters,” “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” “Flaming Telepath,” “Stairway to the Stars,” and “Transmaniacon MC.”

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The classic lineup: (top row) Joe Bouchard, Albert Bouchard, Allen Lanier. (bottom) Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma.

The band’ story stretches back 50 years. After members began to coalesce in the late ‘60s around the campus of Long Island’s Stony Brook University – playing in early groups with names like Soft White Underbelly and the Stalk-Forrest Group, Blue Öyster Cult began life in 1971.

And the classic lineup of Bloom, Dharma, Allen Lanier (keyboards/guitar), Albert Bouchard (drums), and brother Joe Bouchard (bass) put out a string of records in the decade that became…well…cult favorites for their mixture of hard rock music and lyrics with otherworldly topics and subversive humor in discs like Secret Treaties, Agents of Fortune, Spectres, and Fire of Unknown Origin.

Take “Career of Evil,” written by Albert Bouchard and his then-girlfriend, singer/songwriter Patti Smith. Among the litany of crimes and socially unacceptable practices the devious narrator says he wants to perpetuate comes the immortal line “I want to do it to your daughter on a dirt road.” Though, as Bloom mentions, with up to three generations of fans coming to current shows, sentiments like that can get a little sticky.

“Patti was going to do that song with us for our 40th anniversary show and we even rehearsed it – there’s footage on YouTube,” Bloom says. “But then she had a change of heart and said she didn’t want to sing it – because she had a daughter!”

In their ‘70s heyday, Blue Öyster Cult was also known for their pioneering the then cutting-edge laser shows during their concerts. The technology was so new at the time that for awhile, the U.S. government sent a representative from OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) on tour to check things out.

“That was during the Carter administration, and we were these longhaired hippie with lasers! So the government sent these scientists out tour with us with measuring equipment to be sure we weren’t blinding the youth of America,” Bloom laughs.

“And they ended up writing a 100-page report. We had to have a licensed laserist on the tour. He eventually had to go to Washington [to testify], and they still found fault with what we were doing! We were the band that changed all the rules about using [lasers] during a show.”

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BOC today: Richie Castellano, Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma, Jules Radino, and Kasim Sulton. Photo courtesy of Blue Oyster Cult.

The group’s current lineup includes original members Bloom and Dharma (whose real name is Donald Roeser, but was the only band member who decided to keep the more colorful moniker early manager Sandy Pearlman gave each member). Along with keyboardist/guitarist Richie Castellano and drummer Jules Radino. For the current tour, Danny Miranda is handling bass duties while Kasim Sulton is on the road with Todd Rundgren.

The band’s last studio effort came out all the way back in 2001, but Bloom says the band is currently in negotiations with “several record companies” whose end result could be a new BÖC record for 2018. And the band will start writing and/or polishing new material that could end up in future shows.

Bloom is responsible for writing the band’s set list each gig, something he does about a half an hour before they hit the stage. And he tries to tailor each show to their audience. Headlining or theater shows that bring out more hardcore fans get a sprinkling of deeper cuts, while when they play festivals or serve as an opening act, the group sticks their most familiar material.

He says it’s sometimes a struggle to try and please everyone, something that seemingly most classic rock era bands face. “I go to this pizza place, and the girl that runs it I’ve known for 40 years,” Bloom says. “And she says ‘I went to see this band and they played new stuff. I don’t want to hear that!’ So you get it from both sides!’”

In bringing up the band’s exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – an institution that seems to have bias against, hard, heavy, and/or  “meat and potatoes” rock (just ask Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad or Randy Bachman of the Guess Who/Bachman-Turner Overdrive) – Bloom says it’s not something that weighs heavily upon him.

“I really don’t think about that type of things. I know that there are petitions out there from fans on Facebook,” he offers. “We are hopeful, but it’s nothing I lose sleep over.”

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that Blue Öyster Cult has always had one of the greatest introductions in the annals of live rock and roll, as an offstage announcer would exhort the audience – already in a fever pitch – to get “On your FEET or on your KNEES for BLUE ÖYSTER CULT!” The group even used this proclamation for the title of their 1975 live record.

Sadly, though, Bloom says they haven’t utilized that intro in years. “Nah, we don’t use it anymore,” he laughs. “It’s just some music and then we go right into the show!”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Gettin’ Down with Savoy Brown

 

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Savoy Brown in 2017: Garnet Grimm, co-founder Kim Simmonds and Pat DeSalvo. Photo by Candie Kates.

Kim Simmonds remembers the first time he met the blues. Sure, growing up in 1950’s England he had some sonic encounters with homeboy Cliff Richard. But it was his brother’s magical record collection that introduced him to the wild, American sounds of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, and Little Richard.

“I had been brought up since I was 6 years old listening to that type of music. I think the first one he played for me was Johnnie Ray’s ‘Cry.’ And he took me to see the movie Rock Around the Clock,” Simmonds recalls today.

Then he dug deeper into his brother’s stash to discover the masters of the Chicago blues sound—especially the music of Earl Hooker and Otis Rush—and it was a “come to Jesus” moment. “My brother’s love for and dedication to music then led me to R&B and blues and gospel. That’s when things really [clicked] for me. I loved the Beatles, but when they did ‘Twist and Shout,’ I had already heard the 45 by the Isley Brothers. That was actually the first record that I ever bought!”

Simmonds’ interest coalesced on a higher level in 1965 when he co-founded the Savoy Brown Blues Band with harmonica player John O’Leary, later shortened to Savoy Brown. But they were not to trade in the acoustic/folk blues. “Chicago electric blues, that style…it had weight and honesty and girth to it,” he says. “Just because you love one kind of blues doesn’t mean you have to love all of it. But there’s an honesty there that is of most importance to me, that is most satisfying.”

 While the rise of Savoy Brown coincided with the boom in the British blues and blues-rock scene of the time, they did not achieve a fraction of the fame contemporaries like the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, and even the Pretty Things did.

That’s partially due to near-constant lineup changes. Wikipedia lists more than 60 members through the years, including future or past members of Yes, Foghat, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, the Kinks, and Black Sabbath.

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Kim Simmonds with one of his Chicago blues heroes, Muddy Waters, sometime in the ’70s. Photo courtesy of SavoyBrown.com.

They also did not find that elusive U.S. hit – though singles “I’m Tired,” “Tell Mama” and “Street Corner Talking” probably came closest. And no, they are not to be confused with the similarly color hued-named Brownsville Station, best known for “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.” In fact, Simmonds says that Savoy Brown is most often confused with country act Sawyer Brown.

Accompanying lead vocalist/guitarist Simmonds in the current power trio lineup since 2009 are Pat DeSalvo (bass) and Garnet Grimm (drums). Their last studio album was 2015’s The Devil to Pay (billed as “Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown”). And the band is about to release Still Live After 50 Years, Vol. 2. This year indeed marks a half-century since the release of their debut album, Shake Down (though it was not issued in the U.S.).

The Devil to Pay is similar to the Delta-influenced album before, and I tried to keep it no-frills, and live in the studio,” Simmonds offers. “But here, the songs weren’t road-tested before we recorded them. And we had to keep them [shorter] than we maybe would live, where we ‘concertize’ things.”

The only original or classic lineup member of the band left, Simmonds says there is sometimes extra pressure that he is the living embodiment of Savoy Brown’s history and legacy, carrying 50+ years on stage. But generally, if the crowd is with the music and the vibe is good, that pressure falls away quickly.

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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John Kay’s Magic Carpet Ride with Steppenwolf

 

Steppenwolf today: Gary Link, co-founder John Kay, Ron Hurst, Danny Johnson, and Michael Wilk.Photo by Albert Normandin/Courtesy of Paradise Artists

To the members of the band Steppenwolf, it was just one track out of 11 recorded for their 1967 self-titled debut LP. And one that didn’t seem to get any more or less reaction when played in concert than any other song did.

But after the tune appeared as the seemingly perfectly-suited theme for the seminal 1969 hippie biker flick Easy Rider, its profile began to grow. The song would become the band’s signature number, and be used in scores of films, TV shows, and commercials—most recently in an ad for Mercedes shown during this year’s Super Bowl.

But for lead singer John Kay, it wasn’t until decades later that the real fame and impact of “Born to Be Wild” hit him. And it had nothing to do with record sales or soundtracks.

“I was in Burma on a trip and after 10 days, my guide asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a musician and told him and the name of my band, but there was no recognition,” Kay recalls today. “But after I mentioned ‘Born to Be Wild.’ His eyes widened and he got excited and smiled and told me ‘Every bar band in Yangon must know that song or they won’t be hired!’”

Kay recalls similar incidents in places as far-flung as Botswana and Scandinavia. He was even presented with a 45 record that was specially pressed for African fighters to use as inspiration during the Angolan Civil War. That’s not surprising, given his frequent travels over the years with his wife on behalf of their Maue Kay Foundation, which supports individuals and organizations who fight for environmental, wildlife, and human rights causes around the world.

Steppenwolf in 1971. John Kay is in the center.Wikimedia Commons via ABC/Dunhill Records

It’s those causes – not music – that move the 73-year-old Kay today. He and the current incarnation of Steppenwolf (of which he is the only original member) only play a dozen or so dates a year. But to celebrate the 50th anniversary that debut LP, they will be more active in 2017 and 2018.

Taking their name from the Herman Hesse novel (which was de rigeur reading for the ‘60s counterculture), the original Steppenwolf’s run lasted until 1972, producing six albums and other hits including “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Sookie Sookie,” “Rock Me,” and “Hey Lawdy Mama.” Various legit reunions, questionable lineups, and a Kay solo career followed, before things coalesced as John Kay and Steppenwolf in the early ‘80s.

But while their hits could be classified as party anthems, Steppenwolf’s deeper cuts also tackled weightier issues about hard drugs (a cover of Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher,” which also appeared in Easy Rider), soft drugs (“Don’t Step On the Grass, Sam”), and social/political issues of the day (“The Ostrich,” “Move Over”).

Their longest effort in this vein is the 1969 concept album Monster, about the tumultuous state of politics and culture America. It bombed at the time, but has found renewed interest for its eerily prescient subject matter that a writer for Rolling Stone discovered and wrote about during the 2008-era economic crisis.

“There’s a strong emotional response to that song, it’s 10 minutes and we have a film to goes along with it,” Kay offers, before going into a detailed and lengthy side polemic.

“We have to speak out with like minded tribal members. What is a democracy if you’re powered into silence? We are unfortunately a tremendously divided country right now,” he says, voice rising. “In the end, for me, as long as we deal with blue and red states instead of the United States, our enemies are grinning and rubbing their hands. Lincoln said a house divided against itself cannot stand. We see each other as enemies instead of fellow citizens. We cannot treat democracy as a spectator sport. And we have Mr. Trump to thank for a new, energized populace.”

John Kay back in the day. Courtesy of Paradise Artists.

Another Steppenwolf deep cut that could be ripped from today’s headlines is “Renegade.” It’s about the plight of refugees, an area that Kay has intimate personal experience with.

Kay was born Joachim Fritz Krauledat in East Prussia, Germany toward the end of World War II, and after his father died fighting in Russia. Less than a year old, his mother took her newborn son and escaped first to East Germany, then West Germany when he was four during a covert midnight operation, eventually settling in Canada.

“I know how hard it is to leave all you’ve known in the hopes of finding a better life somewhere else,” Kay says. “The refugee crisis is an enormous problem not only now, but will become even more important and prevalent. Europe is having a [reckoning] with all the refugees from the Middle East and west Africa, and they cannot absorb everyone into their economies.”

He adds that the current climate of immigration in America is neither in step with the ideals presented by American history nor represented in that large lady with the crown and the torch standing on that island in New York harbor.

“We shouldn’t assume you are guilty of terrorist or planning it just because you come from a certain place. But we do need to be vigilant, and a country has an obligation to its citizenry to control its border,” he says. “It’s a very difficult balancing act. I don’t agree with either sides’ extremism.”

Regardless, the current lineup of Steppenwolf  – Kay (lead vocals), Michael Wilk (keyboards), Ron Hurst (drummer), Danny Johnson (guitar), and Gary Link (bass) will play a variety of hits, covers, and deep cuts. And – of course – “Born to Be Wild.”

The song, and its “heavy metal thunder” was written by Mars Bonfire, the stage name of original Steppenwolf guitarist Dennis Edmonton. Although that Red Planet would play another role in the song’s legacy.

“Years ago, I was on an African trip and was kind of off the grid for awhile. When I got home, there were all these messages congratulating me on ‘the Mars thing,’” Kay laughs. “It turns out that when one of the Mars Rover landed on the planet during a mission, the door opened and two robots came down the ramp – and they were playing ‘Born to Be Wild!’”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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The Many Musical Moods of Todd Rundgren

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Todd Rundgren today – eccentric, but well-dressed! Photo by Brian Callan.

The era of the Great Trump Protest Songs has not yet materialized. However, Todd Rundgren – along with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen – were early out of the gate with the satiric “Tin Foil Hat” off Rundgren’s new album, White Knight.

The jazzy-as-hell tune makes a comparison between our Commander in Chief with the silver chapeau popular (at least in pop culture) with paranoid conspiracy nuts who feel the chapeau will prevent their minds from being read.

Lyrical references include a man coming down an escalator with a girl “east of here” who’s “tweeting like a teenage girl,” along with phrases like “alternative facts,” “drain the swamp,” “tiny little hands,” “make the country greater,” and “YUGE!”

But, given all that has happened since the song’s May release, Rundgren says he could easily rewrite the song with all new words again. And again.

“We could do updates every week!” he laughs, before discussion the tune’s genesis. “The first thing Donald and I did was sit down and write down all the bizarre things that have been said by or about him, then tried to make them rhyme. It was really such an embarrassment of riches. It almost wrote itself!”

White Knight also includes plenty of other collaborations with people like Daryl Hall, Joe Walsh, Joe Satriani, Bettye Lavette, and other singers and rappers in addition to Rundgren-only tunes. And while he didn’t get everyone on his wish list, it was close.

“Most of the artists I contacted were open to doing some collaboration. But actually getting it done was easier said! You have to catch them at the right moment and get them to focus,” he offers.

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Todd Rundgren in 1978 when “Hello, It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light” made him a soft rock radio staple. Photo by Mitchell Weinstock/Wiki Commons.

“Often, I would have an artist in mind and they were interested in composing or co-composing. But if not, I came up with an idea for them. But they were mostly not bilateral situations. In Daryl’s song, I left spaces for him to fill in. Donald’s song was the only track where we were in the same place at the same time.”

Another sharp-edged tune, “Buy My T,” posits the wholly factual situation that a musician can make more selling T-shirts than records. Or, as he calls the former, “cotton goodies” up to size 5XL and available in limited editions. And if they’re sold out at the show? Just buy it online.

“The reality is that for a lot of artists, performing is a central part of their career, and then merchandising they sell at the shows to a captive audience,” Rundgren says. “The so-called record business that everyone thinks in the center part is more fringe exploitation!”

Most recently, Rundgren was on the road this fall as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. The current All-Starrs have been together intact since 2012, and also include Gregg Rolie (Santana), Steve Lukather (Toto), and Richard Page (Mr. Mister). He says that the joke among the group is that they are rapidly approaching a milestone of playing Beatles songs longer than the Beatles themselves did.

It’s been a busy year for Todd.  Rundgren began 2017 with a solo tour in the spring. Then the summer saw him as the middle act in “Yestival,” sandwiched between opening act Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy and headliners Yes. This made the show something of a Prog Rock dream (or…wet dream) bill. Rundgren was interviewed by Dave Weigel for the reporter’s recent book on the history of the genre and doesn’t seem to take issue with the term.

“I think ‘Prog Rock’ does indicate certain things. I’ve done a few of these shows with Yes and Carl Palmer, and one thing you can definitely say is…there’s a LOT of fast playing and a lot of notes! That’s one aspect,” Rundgren laughs. “The other is sort of unusual subject matter from the purely philosophical to tales of dwarves and dragons. Prog Rock is the music that goes with ‘Game of Thrones!’ But you have to have chops and play intricately. And Prog Rock does have [very] dedicated fans.”

Todd Rundgren has long been an enthusiastic student of and performer with a deep knowledge and usage of technology, computers, and synthesizers in his music. He says this came from childhood, when this son of a DuPont engineer would tinker with scientific experiments and home radio kits. At one point, he was so heavily into robots that he planned on building his own as sort of a “personal companion.”

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Todd Rundgren: For Your Crooning Pleasures. Photo by Todd Callan.

“Everyone is at some point in the continuum of technophobia. There are those who are scared of things because they seem difficult or learn, and then I’m at the other end where I have a real interest in it. And that can turn into a fixation!” he says.

“So it didn’t seem as challenging to me maybe as other people. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily adopt the latest technology as soon as it is new. I have to figure out what works best for me. Like I remained analog when everyone else was going digital, then switched when it was convenient and dependable enough.”

One thing Rundgren says technology has killed is his offers of work as a record producer. Or for any producer. That’s not a small thing given that Rundgren has over the years guided albums from behind the glass for artists as diverse as the Band, the New York Dolls, Badfinger, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, XTC, the Tubes, and Meat Loaf (that would be Bat Out of Hell. It has sold a few copies over the years).

“I’m no longer the gatekeeper to the studio for musicians,” he offers. “The studio is their bedroom now. And you don’t have to jump through as many hurdles to get signed. They would have never seen someone like [EDM DJ] Skrillex coming.”

Finally, there’s the matter of a certain pyramid-shaped building in Cleveland that many believe should have a place for Todd Rundgren. But while he’s often on short lists of musicians who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but aren’t, there’s at least one person not losing any sleep over the situation: Todd Rundgren.

“It’s more about the fans, for them it would be some sort of vindication. For me, it doesn’t matter at all. I always maintain that these institutions that are formed during your lifetime, you don’t have the same respect for them,” he says, before adding that even the title “Rock and Roll” for the institution is a misnomer.

“Rock and roll essentially died when Elvis got back from the army and started singing with choirs and stuff. Anything after that has been an evolution of the foundation of rock and roll, from Chuck Berry. And if there was something true about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Madonna would never be in it.”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

 

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