1973 was a fantastic year for rock music. Pink Floyd released a world beater with ‘Dark Side of The Moon’; Led Zeppelin offered ‘Houses of The Holy’ – one of their most varied and adventurous works to date – and Queen introduced the world to their mix of pomp and pop with a confident, if flawed, first album. With other superb albums by Paul McCartney & Wings (‘Band On The Run’ and ‘Red Rose Speedway’), two great works from Elton (‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and ‘Don’t Shoot Me’), two from future megastar Bruce Springsteen, the Stones’ branching out on ‘Goat’s Head Soup’, and Yes disappearing up their collective backsides on ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’, the year offered the discerning music fan something interesting at every turn.
Somewhere among the noise, US hard rockers Montrose made their breakthrough. Their self-titled debut album is as powerful as the Van Halen debut from ’77, with riff after riff on a filler free, half hour slab of plastic. As raucous as New York Dolls, and as groove laden as the best Johnny & Edgar Winter tomes, decades on, it remains a near perfect example of American hard rock. In the UK, neither Montrose or their debut album get talked about as often as they should be, but ‘I’ve Got The Fire’, a 6CD box set from Cherry Red certainly aims to change that by shining a massive light upon an all too short time at the top, bringing together pretty much everything the band recorded during a very prolific four years.
The Montrose debut leads off the box set with a selection of tunes that, in many ways, could’ve been an impossible act to follow. Right from the moment that ‘Rock The Nation’ kicks in with an overdriven guitar riff and a world of cowbell, the band assert their musical authority with the balls of an act with far more of a track record. As the opening verse blasts through a riff that falls somewhere between Johnny Winter and Ted Nugent, the track retains a real sense of force that introduces guitarist Ronnie Montrose as a major player – but it’s the vocal prowess of the scene’s new, young arrival, Sammy Hagar, that leaves the most indelible mark. Possessed with a tone that’s three parts blues croon and one part unashamed rock howl, Hagar already sounds like an established talent, and roaring his way through the kind of hook that no-frills rock audiences could easily interpret as a call to arms, there’s no way this band could fail. Sliding quickly into the classic ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ listeners get a further insight into Ronnie’s forceful approach to the guitar as he applies a Hendrix-esque wall of distortion to manipulated sounds aping a revved up engine. When the rest of the band finally decide to join the party, it’s clear that the anthemic opening number really wasn’t a flash in the pan. The track quickly whips up a piece of hard rock underscored by a southern rock groove that allows Hagar more room for vocal manoeuvres and provides a great showcase for a solid bass sound from Bill “Electric” Church. That would be enough to secure a place among future Montrose classics, but a high octane chorus blending old school rock ‘n’ roll rhythms and a proto-metal force really seals the deal. Between a crashing rhythm and huge vocal, it quickly becomes the kind of track you can’t ignore, and by the time Ronnie steps forth with a howling lead, it cements the then new band’s place in the rock history books.
Opting for something a little more sophisticated, ‘Space Station #5’ opens with a selection of electronic treatments and harmonic acoustic guitar sounds, before switching to another full force rocker where a meaty bass and driving riff dominate. This obviously gives Hagar a great platform, and he demonstrates an easy gift for latching onto a huge melody pretty much instantly. By somewhere around the second verse, it’s clear that Montrose would be capable of taking rock to the masses – and even a weird neo-psychedelic interlude does nothing to weaken their riff-based impact. ‘I Don’t Want It’, meanwhile, seems a little more disposable with its bluesy swagger, but a simple and direct approach not only shows off Ronnie’s talents for a riff (in this case, one that would be stolen by Saxon just over a decade later), but also Church’s very muscular approach to providing a bottom end.
After a very strong first side of vinyl, a cover of Roy Brown’s ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ drops into a shameless slab of rock ‘n’ roll and, as expected, Montrose take the old R&B tune and inject it with a real hard rock party spirit – something that would very much inform Hagar’s later career. As cheesy as this might be, there’s a thrill in hearing Sammy cut loose on a trashy lyric, whilst Montrose throws out a few Frank Marino-esque howls and future Heart drummer Denny Carmassi smashes his kit into oblivion. Proving that an album’s sequencing can be everything, the party rocker is quickly contrasted by ‘Rock Candy’, a mid-tempo blues rocker that accentuates some of Ronnie’s darker tones and gives Carmassi’s drums an almost Bonham-esque thud. Across five minutes, the band takes a repetitious groove and hammers it for everything it’s worth, creating their legend as they go, via each overdriven chord and dense beat. Hagar possesses of a voice that’s well beyond his years and – eventually – a massive dirty, blues drenched solo pushes Ronnie into the spotlight with a timeless sound. Blending the sounds of The Guess Who and Blue Cheer with the more streamlined sounds that UFO would soon take to glory in the UK, this is absolutely perfect.
With the end of the original LP’s second side filled by the straight boogie rock of ‘One Thing On My Mind’ – a simple number that showcases a solid rhythm section throughout and has enough musical muscle to detract from some of Hagar’s trashier lyrics – and ‘Make It Last’, a slow and stodgy rocker that’s big on drums and bigger on vocals, ‘Montrose’ shows no signs of tailing off. Although the last track is far more of a slow burner, some fine slide work and a vocal that sounds like a future echo of a Hagar solo work from the late 70s provides enough evidence of a band with some severe clout, even when approaching everything at half power.
Helping to create a full picture of the classic debut’s creation, the second disc presents a selection of demos and an archive live recording from 1973. The demos, in many ways, are much of a muchness. It’s good to hear familiar material in an earlier guise, but sound quality aside, most of the recordings offer very little that’s different to the finished product. The main exceptions are ‘I Don’t Want It’ which has more of a Westcoast/Edgar Winter feel with some clean chords in place of the album track’s heavier edge, and ‘Shoot Us Down’, a number that didn’t make the final cut. Musically, at least to begin with, this out-take is not too far removed from ‘Rock Candy’ with its slow and methodical approach, underscored by massive bass. It’s only with the chorus it takes on more of its own identity, but given the size of the riff in hand, there’s something about the chorus that doesn’t quite fit. The melody is there; Hagar is more than assured, and the howling guitar work lends a genuine anger, but the hook just doesn’t feel big enough. With the debut only clocking in at thirty two minutes, there would’ve been room for the finished track, but as it stands, it’s fairly easy to understand why it was abandoned before coming to full fruition.
The aforementioned live set, recorded at the New York Record Plant in 1973, actually captured the band before the release of the album. They were a last minute substitution for a Van Morrison cancellation, which shows how much faith the record label had in them at the time. The debut itself is a near flawless work: a half hour of power; eight songs capturing the burgeoning hard rock of the era in such a way that the sheer force of the band comes through almost every note. However, this live set really is something else, since the tracks that would fill the debut are presented with a raw energy; a full scale bluster where the huge sounds and huge vocals can really soar. This is especially the case with the opening ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ which plays more like a statement of intent with Hagar chewing through the lyric with a real confidence, and the band’s own ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ which gives Ronnie a platform for some massive guitar histrionics. It’s interesting to hear ‘Shoot Us Down’ (credited on earlier bootlegs as ‘Roll Me Nice’) played with a little more gusto, and the also unreleased ‘You’re Out of Time’ providing some really taut boogie rock interspersed with bluesy licks. It’s one of those performances that acts as a reminder that Ronnie Montrose had previously served a musical apprenticeship with The Edgar Winter Group. If anything really captures the mood of the day, though, it’s a ripping version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ which is afforded the same amount of volume and grit as the earlier ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ with Ronnie and company absolutely tearing through the rock standard.
Some have claimed over the years that this well circulated Record Plant live set is of average sound quality. Only uptight Steve Hoffman forum frequenters would claim such a thing. Yes, the live recording has a certain rawness compared to its studio counterpart – that’s to be expected – and there are a few moments where Ronnie’s guitar takes more of a back seat to the bass, but there’s nothing about it you could call “rough” or even sub-standard. Its inclusion here isn’t just welcome – it’s utterly essential.
The first two discs of Cherry Red’s 6CD Montrose anthology are so strong it could’ve made the remainder feel like a case of diminishing returns. As any fan knows, though, there was more to Montrose than a career defining debut, and even if it isn’t quite as immediate, 1974’s ‘Paper Money’ brings another round of great material. ‘I Got The Fire’, especially, captures all of the fire and fury of Montrose at their best with the kind of riff that revisits the raw rock ‘n’ roll energies of the debut and augments it with a tougher bassline. Ronnie throws out massive power chords during the verse and slides effortlessly into a supercharged Chuck Berry riff on the chorus, before dropping a scorching lead break. As impressive as that might all be, though, it’s hard to draw attention away from Hagar. At this point, his young and raw voice has gone up a couple of notches, capable of delivering a couple of huge wails between his blues rock croons. Another highlight ‘Spaceage Sacrifice’ is almost the polar opposite, with its quieter moments filled with clean toned rhythms and a greater sense of atmosphere. It’s still recognisable as Montrose, but it also shows the prototype for some of Ron’s later works with Gamma. The marriage of ringing guitar and soulful vocal is perfect: the louder hard rock riffs bridge those verses with huge swagger, and Sammy is able to convey power without too much volume. A chorus of any sort would have been nice, but then a swaggering groove would’ve had to have given way for a bigger vocal. As it is, hearing Ronnie channelling Marino once more via a tasteful lead break whilst new bassist Alan Fitzgerald anchors everything with a hefty lower register is reward enough.
An instant classic, a cover of Chunky’s ‘Underground’ presents a smoother sounding Montrose, as they temper their hard rock with a semi-funky bassline and general mood that hints at the AM radio sounds of bands like Head East. Hagar’s voice is more restrained too, showing more of a tone that would soon become familiar through some much-loved solo releases. Although the likes of ‘Rock Candy’ and ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ will forever be the definitive Montrose sound, this number’s increased reliance on AOR harmonies and a little pop sheen shows a fine maturity. A slowed down, countryfied cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Connection’ changes the mood yet again for a slow workout where elements of Led Zeppelin circa 1973 meet traces of Little Feat. The acoustic work is intricate without being flashy; occasional piano flourishes suggest more of a roots vibe, and Sammy’s heartfelt vocal performance conveys a fragility previously unheard on a Montrose recording. It’s a strange slow burner of a track that’d almost nothing like the Montrose people loved before – and almost unrecognisable as the Jagger/Richards composition – but if nothing else, it shows that Montrose were unafraid of experimenting and of change.
For those who loved the chunkier aspects of the debut, ‘The Dreamer’ presents an instant hit via a chunky 70s hard rock riff and forthright vocal, before the epic instrumental ‘Starliner’ throws another curveball when mixing an old time rock ‘n’ roll sound with a couple of space age, prog-ish keyboard noises and a section that sounds like an obvious lift from Zeppelin’s ‘Song Remains The Same’. It’s adventurous, yet never classic, and nearing the tail end of the original LP, ‘We’re Going Home’ hands lead vocal duties to Ronnie Montrose for yet another mood changer. His very 60s inflected voice is a brilliant fit for a quiet, atmosphere heavy workout that sounds far more like a Moody Blues deep cut than a hard rock band who’d not long dropped the furious ‘I Got The Fire’, but its mellotron drones, harmonic guitar fills and hippie-ish throwbacks join the Stones cover in showing how Montrose were not about to be pigeonholed. In closing, the title cut fills five minutes with a very rhythmic slab of rock that pushes the drums into the spotlight. Throughout, Carmassi locks into an almost tribal groove, which gives Fitzgerald ample opportunity to throw out hard plucked bass notes. As if realising this is solid enough, Ronnie merely adds occasion power chords until its time for a heavily affected solo. It’s hardly a sing-along treat, and is certainly a far cry from the debut’s party rock stance, but there’s always something here worth hearing. The fact that the main riff barely changes from its first notes to the last should have made for something a little dull, so its to the eternal credit of superior musicians (and their obvious confidence) that this actually works.
With its short running time of thirty five minutes bolstered by two covers and an instrumental, there’s a lot that suggests that Montrose didn’t have quite enough material at the point when it was time to record that “difficult second album”. However, as it stands – even if it is a little patchwork in its construction – ‘Paper Money’ is a strange and fascinating record that, somehow, despite itself, plays brilliantly, and still sounds like the work of a band going places.
As with the debut, ‘Paper Money’ was promoted with another radio session recorded live at the Record Plant. The collection of tracks sourced from the KSAN broadcast on disc four of this box set are every bit as good as the earlier show, with great performances of ‘I Got The Fire’ and ‘Spaceage Sacrifice’ pushing forth Ron’s guitar and further showcasing Hagar as one of rock’s rising talents.
With ‘Space Station #5’ having quickly matured into a full eleven minute jam, and a carefree approach to covering Elvis Presley’s classic ‘Trouble’, it’s much easier to appreciate how much the band had grown in just a year. They really had perfected a no-nonsense stance when playing live. They were clearly keen to show off a much broader range of styles at this time too; the acoustic ‘One & A Half’ (previously titled ‘Acoustic Solo’) captures a twin acoustic guitar workout that blends the finer points of Jimmy Page circa 1970 with elements of the British folk rock boom. It’s a world away from hearing them blast through ‘Rock Candy’, but certainly just as impressive in its own way. For anyone half interested in the Hagar era of Montrose, this live set provides thrill after thrill – forty five perfect minutes of a band at the peak of their powers.
From herein, this box set is aimed more at fans only, with a pair of albums from the second era of the band presented on discs 5 & 6. Sammy Hagar departed in 1975 for a solo career, and on Montrose’s third album, ‘Warner Bros. Presents…’, his absence is notable. It was only to be expected, since the band effectively lost one of the greatest performers to ever grab a microphone. He would be a hard act to follow, but Bob James does a reasonable job. Granted, the album doesn’t give the listener anything with the immediacy of ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ or ‘I Got The Fire’, but there’s enough to recommend it. Of particular note, ‘O Lucky Man’, an album highlight, shows how effortlessly this line up of the band can tackle heartland US rock, drawing from bands like Head East as well as their own signature style. The combination of Ronnie’s natural guitar tones colliding with a bright sounding piano throughout the track sets up a solid sound, but its the pompier edges derived from an unexpected organ that helps to create something truly distinctive. Those hoping to hear Montrose firing on all six, as they had in ’73, are given a real treat via ‘Black Train’, a high octane workout that fuses hard rock with a proto-metal sound, giving Ron ample room to wield a circular riff and for Fitzgerald to throw out fat bass sounds throughout. It’s no-nonsense, sweaty approach is the kind of thing that would work brilliantly live, and new boy Bob gets to shift between a bluesy croon and full rock squeal, sounding enthused whatever is asked of him. Despite his finest efforts, there are still moments – particularly during a middle eight with descending melody – where you’d wonder how Hagar would’ve tackled it, but as a showcase for Montrose in ’75, it’s pretty rock solid.
Those looking for more variety will certainly feel drawn towards ‘Whaler’, a sprawling piece of pomp/prog that borrows keyboard sounds from Richard Wright to underscore a nautical tale driven by a massive Michael des Barres-esque wail, and big ballad ‘All I Need’ appears to pre-empt the pomp of Boston with a brilliant marriage of acoustic and electric sounds, and a slower tempo that allows Bob’s vocals to stretch out. It’s here that it becomes clear that he’s far more than the no-frills rocker that’s often being presented, and the rest of the band seem to relish the opportunity to stretch out accordingly. Chances are it’ll never be your favourite Montrose number, but in the context of this third LP, it’s a real gem, with a few guitar harmonics on the verse and Carmassi’s drums crashing into the chorus providing the most interesting elements.
At less inspiring end of the scale, A cover of ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ is a sharp reminder of Montrose’s party rock core – played straight, but loudly, the band gives their all, its fine but disposable – and ‘Matriach’ isn’t always much more than the sound of Montrose on autopilot, but even then, the marriage of Ron’s chugging guitar strokes and the blues rock bluster of new boy Bob’s vocal strains are enough to keep things trucking.‘Clown Woman’ boasts some fine piano playing from Jim Acivar, but is otherwise a stodgy slab of roots-ish rock, playing out like Foghat in a bad mood, and ‘Dancin’ Feet’ is little more than throwaway boogie rock, and yet there’s still a certain retro charm even when Montrose are on half power. Again, the latter might have sounded better with Sammy’s genuine gusto, but we’ll never know. Rounding out the album, a massively scaled down ‘One & A Half’ (clocking in, indeed, at 1:30ish, presumably giving it its final title) is a welcome reminder of how brilliant Ron was as a guitarist, even when not relying on noise and bluster.
A strong case can be made for ‘Warner Bros. Presents…’ being the weakest of the Montrose albums. It’s likely that it coming at a pivotal time in the band’s history has a lot to answer for, but with the instrumental already existing in a far superior recording and a couple of other cheap and cheesy rockers obviously padding out an already short album, it’s definitely not on the same level as its predecessors. Half of it is great, though, and half a great album in a box set such as this still makes it an enjoyable listen.
Over the years, 1976’s ‘Jump On It’ has become somewhat overlooked. Part of that comes from the relative difficulty of finding it on CD in the past; part of it comes from it yielding no outright classics. However, if you can make it past an album cover Nigel Tufnel would consider “sexy”, there’s some gold to be found. Perhaps the most important thing about ‘Jump On It’ is how much more at ease James sounds in his role; there are at least four tracks that seem to be written with his style and range far more in mind. Ronnie, too, appears to be thinking more broadly in terms of arrangements with racks like ‘Rich Man’ adopting a keyboard heavy pomposity that is a far cry from the debut’s basic approach – all droning backline and emotive vocals sounding like an uneasy marriage between ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’ era Daryl Hall & John Oates and a deep cut from Michael Stanley – and ‘Tufts-Edge’ experimenting with an almost film score feel, rather than your common or garden widdly guitar instrumental.
If there’s anything that makes ‘Jump On It’ worth owning, though, it’s the epic ‘Music Man’ which uses orchestration brilliantly to bolster an emotive ballad. From the opening notes where strident piano chords are a match for any 70s AOR ballad, and a semi-acoustic guitar counterpoint suggests heartbreak, it’s clearly very special. Bob’s opening lines are sung with a real passion as if he knows this is his moment, and swelling strings show a greater care and confidence than anything from the previous album. Eventually Ronnie plays some mean bluesy lead guitar (augmented by expensive sounding brass) and Bob cries as if he’s channelling every great rock singer of the era, in some kind of misguided effort to take a dominant role over the strings. He’s unable to do that, of course, but if it weren’t clear before, this shows him as a man with a fine set of vocal pipes; the kind of voice that could tackle anything. Sammy’s boots were almost impossible to fill, but even he would’ve been unlikely to suit this gradually swelling, heart wrenching slab of 70s excess so perfectly. There’s little to nothing about this track that most would even recognise as Montrose, and somehow, that makes it even more special. It truly is one of the great “lost” performances of the 70s.
Of course, there are times when ‘Jump On It’ is very clearly Montrose at work, last knockings or otherwise. The title cut offers some high octane hard rock that could have easily fit on any of the prior long players, ‘Let’s Go’ works a huge, dirty stomp that values a massive riff over everything else, and ‘Merry Go Round’ is a traditional, radio friendly hard rocker replete with howling lead guitar break and punchy rhythms used to evoke something that might have fit on Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Secret Treaties’. In the instrumental break of that number, in particular, Ronnie sounds like one of the finest lead players of his generation, and chances are you’ll find yourself wondering where he could’ve taken the band after this, had things worked out differently. As history has shown, though, fans were given something very much more exciting on his 1978 solo debut ‘Open Fire’ – a record packed with instrumentals ranging from rock to jazz fusion, and even featuring a grandiose cover of ‘Town Without Pity’. You could probably say everything worked out for the best. As for ‘Jump On It’, it’s a fine, fine LP, without troubling anyone for classic status. Its inclusion here is bound to give it a new lease of life in some circles, and it certainly deserves that.
There have been deluxe sets of Montrose albums before – two disc sets of the debut and ‘Paper Money’ coupled with the KSAN/Record Plant live sets, and a no-frills package bringing together the studio works – but never has the band’s catalogue been given the love and care it’s been afforded here. The sources used sound great, the accompanying notes are functional but nice to have, and – above all – the small, clam shell package just makes everything feel as concise and well formed as the debut itself. If you’ve had a much loved copy of ‘Montrose’ in your album collection for years, or perhaps been on the lookout for a decent recording of the first Record Plant set, then purchasing this box should be a no-brainer. Likewise, if you’ve enjoyed some of Hagar’s solo work and Van Halen recordings across the decades, but still haven’t got around to buying the Montrose debut or ‘Paper Money’, the first four discs in this six CD tome will represent money well spent. With classic studio and live material bolstered by some welcome hard to find demos and promotional edits of a few singles along the way, ‘I Got The Fire: Complete Recordings 1973-1976’ is pretty much the final word on Montrose, and a perfect example of how to curate an affordable box set.
Buy the box set here: MONTROSE – I Got The Fire (6CD Box Set)