Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, the landscape of rock music shifted. Over the course of five or six years, psychedelia gave way to hard rock, and a heavier approach to both blues and rock gave birth to a sound that would eventually be considered the birth of heavy metal. ‘We’re An American Band’, a 3CD set from Cherry Red’s retro subsidiary Grapefruit Records, charts these musical changes on the US rock scene, bringing together various key tracks and fantastic album cuts. In doing so, it ventures far deeper than your average compilation, despite presenting several very familiar names.
Despite including some great material, however, it doesn’t get off to the greatest of starts. Within the first three tracks of disc one, listeners will endure Vanilla Fudge absolutely murdering ‘Ticket To Ride’ at half speed and with the help of Mark Stein wailing uncontrollably, and Iron Butterfly’s ‘Iron Butterfly Theme’ which delivers a deep mix of psych and blues which could be alarming to the unfamiliar. The latter at least features a superb rhythm section and – by the time it bothers to arrive – a decent slab of blues guitar, but much like the Fudge, it leaves behind a feeling that a keen interest soft drugs might well have taken priority over writing an actual tune. A well circulated ‘Summertime Blues’ from Blue Cheer raises the quality threshold, but its unlikely to be new to anyone vaguely interested in a set like this, so it isn’t until track four that things start to get interesting. Step forward Steppenwolf, whose ‘The Ostrich’ works a brilliant blend of blues rock and light psych with a hard edge. The track’s dancing bass work and chopping guitars are very distinctive, certainly enough for even a casual listener to spot elements of ‘Born To Be Wild’ and the fantastic ‘Magic Carpet Ride’, but it’s potentially better than both. Across nearly six minutes, a deftly played fuzz guitar reworks Chuck Berry-ish rhythms for a heavy psych audience; John Kay delivers a suitably gruff vocal, and the drums power through a busy groove with a genuine ease. Sure, it’s all very of its time, but it sounds fantastic, right up until the point where the main melody falls apart via some shoddily applied pub piano. Despite a somewhat wobbly end, it’s still a great track, and certainly one of the lynchpins that makes this set really work.
Quicksilver Messenger Service fly the flag for garage rock on ‘Pride of Man’, a tune that takes the psych drenched vocals of the late 60s and mixes them with a rootsier arrangement where the soulful vibes and horns pre-figure Chicago Transit Authority. As fairly straight late 60s fare goes, it hasn’t aged as well as some things, but still sounds good due to not being over exposed. Compilation regulars The Human Beinz look a little further towards hard rock by adding a really overdriven guitar sound to their punchy post-psych instrumental ‘April 15th’ which, in some ways, opened the door for bands like Grand Funk Railroad, whilst still being indebted to Blue Cheer. It doesn’t really sound ground breaking when heard decades after the fact, but there’s no denying it still sounds punchy, and without such pushing forward, bands like Love and The Stooges wouldn’t be the same.
No journey through this period of American rock would be complete without the legendary Alice Cooper, a man who terrified the nation’s more conservative figures as his marriage of horror theatrics and hard rock became one of the biggest sensations of the early 70s. It’s to Grapefruit Records’ eternal credit that they’ve not just licenced ‘Under My Wheels’ or ‘Is It My Body’ to represent yer Uncle Vince this time out… Instead, they’ve gone out on a limb to unnerve everyone with ‘Fields of Regret’, a complete freakout from the ‘Pretties For You’ LP, released on Frank Zappa’s Straight label in 1969. A number that explores lo-fi blues and garage rock tendencies, its main melody showcases talents much closer to The Doors than the Alice Cooper Band’s later blend of glam and hard rock, particularly through its love of rigid rhythms. A spoken word passage appears far more menacing than anything the Lizard King himself could have envisaged (and he supposedly could “do anything”), since Alice’s voice is all but inaudible as he recites…who knows what…against scratchy guitar noise and some fine bass work. Moving back into the main melody of the track, this dark garage rock sounds even better than before. It’s still hard work, but it has a semi-tuneful charm that’ll likely make you want to listen to The Stooges, who (rather usefully) appear a couple of tracks down the line with the seminal ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, a proto-punk essential that’s an important addition here, despite being a very safe pick.
Love legend Arthur Lee is represented as a solo artist, and ‘Love Jumped Through My Window’ (from his 1972 LP ‘Vindicator’) takes root with some really solid hard rock where prominent lead guitars straddle blues and rock in a similar vein to the best Steppenwolf cuts, and in a little under three minutes, Lee demonstrates some huge vocal pipes against a strident guitar. The tune has little room for flab; even the main riff dominates over any temptations for indulgence, and as such, Arthur takes on a booming presence that’s quite different from his late 60s work with Love, but no less impressive. There are also some particularly aggressive sounds from the overlooked Stray Dog, whose ‘You Know’ attempts some very unsubtle Zep-isms combined with a few even bigger lead guitar wails. It often sounds like meat and potatoes generic hard rock at the time of this comp’s release, but Snuffy Walden’s guitar work retains enough bite to make it obvious that in the early 70s, they would’ve sounded like a force of nature. With more of a safety net, ZZ Top’s ‘Neighbor Neighbor’ shows off some brilliant grubby grooves that are a far cry from the commercial vehicle the bearded legends would become, and Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Transmanicon MC’ straddles the gap between dark psychedelia and biker-friendly hard rock with a genuine panache. Stripped of the radio friendly harmonies of some of their hits, this track is the work of a raw, bluesy rock band, working a sound where gruff vocals collide with ringing guitars and driving bass sounds, leaving behind a track that still sounds like the pinnacle of America’s early ventures into hard rock. Cactus (featuring Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice) could never claim to have had anywhere near as much flair, but one listen to them tearing through Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Evil’ is enough to remind anyone of their sheer force. The lesser heard Derek & The Dominos recording of this track could lay a claim for one of the best covers, but this is certainly among the loudest. From the outset, the bass absolutely thunders; the guitars hammer through the groove-oriented riff with maximum intensity, and a less than melodic lead vocal really brings out the frustration in the lyric. Cactus were never the most consistent of blues rock bands, but for an effective introduction to their work, this is pretty hard to beat.
It’s good to hear most of this stuff re-presented via a well curated set such as this, but lovers of late 60s and early 70s rock sounds should find even more to enjoy through some of this box’s lesser known inclusions. Seattle band Easy Chair had their biggest brush with fame supporting Blue Cheer, and their 1968 track ‘My Own Life’ ploughs a similarly distorted blues rock furrow. You’ll find several loose harmonies slavered over fuzzed out riffs, played at maximum volume, but more impressively, a the track’s brief instrumental interlude shares more of an affinity with the darker psych of the period, bringing out some fine bass work and more interesting rhythms. As late 60s tunes go, it won’t set the world afire, but those who enjoy the likes of Ten Years After and the Grateful Dead’s debut will certainly find something of worth here. The Stalk-Forrest Group’s ‘Donovan’s Monkey’ mixes garage rock, blues and a heavy psych sound seamlessly. The arrangement works around some heavy tom work courtesy of drummer Prince Omega, but his aggression shows off an unexpectedly jazzy flair and never comes at the expense of anything else within a rather noisy arrangement. The lead guitars are suitably fiery, and the lead vocal wavers between weird and angry. Somewhere around the end of the first verse, the penny should drop for some listeners, when that vocal starts to sound very familiar. The Stalk-Forrest Group is none other than an early incarnation of the mighty Blue Oyster Cult, and a couple of listens is more than enough to confirm that this is every bit as good as anything from BOC’s debut LP.
An instant hit, Fever Tree’s ‘Man Who Paints The Pictures’ (an LP cut from ’68) sounds like Foghat with a mood on, to the point where the main riff pre-figures their boogie oriented cover of ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ in both style and sharp tone. This, obviously, isn’t a bad thing; it gives this track a brilliant energy, and a musical backdrop worthy of the slightly gruff vocal tones present. It won’t sound particularly ground breaking for fans of Canned Heat and their ilk, but in terms of capturing a fiery blues rock sound, this is one of this anthology’s highlights, whilst the peculiarly named Damnation of Adam Blessing manage to capture a Sweetwater style in a slightly heavier way on their 1970 cut ‘Death of A Virgin’. Tight harmonies flow against a brilliantly punchy musical base where a huge bass sound takes the lead. That’ll be enough for most fans of late 60s rock to sit up and take notice, but repeated plays suggest this neglected cut is a superb rediscovery. Somehow sounding like all of your favourite Woodstock era bands all at once, it’s a mystery as to why these guys aren’t a fixture in the rock history books.
Changing the mood a little, the Estes Brothers’ ‘Never Coming Down’ initially promises an almost Latin-y shuffle, but it isn’t long before they show their true colours as a Nuggets-worthy garage rock band – all pumping bass grooves and wah-ed guitars. The number wouldn’t sound wrong in an Electric Prunes set, despite being harder around the edges. It’s a little stodgy, sure, but the lead guitar work and heady rhythms that grab a hold make this feel like a really full bodied three minute workout. Cold Sun, meanwhile, play more like obvious filler when ‘Twisted Flower’ presents little more than a Doors knock off. It could be said that the bass and keyboard interplay is fine, but the vocals are fairly horrible, and the fuzzy guitar sounds only have half the charm of Robby Krieger at his best. Sometimes it’s obvious why history has forgotten some bands, and this is definitely one of those times…
Another deep cut from the early 70s, B.F. Trike’s ‘Time & Changes’ hits upon an angry garage rock sound and marries that to overwrought vocals that sound like they’ve been inspired by a stage production of ‘Hair’, before an aggressive lead guitar evokes Hendrix and Alvin Lee. It’s not an especially striking track, but played loudly, it has an early 70s charm that just about works. It’s here – perhaps more than anywhere else – the listener will be reminded of how different the US’s rock bands sounded from their UK counterparts. It’s almost like the California sun and Viet Nam War paranoia have created a tumultuous conflict that fuels everything. Those looking for more of a proto metal sound, Sudden Death should appeal with their world of jagged guitar riffs and impassioned wails, and although it’s unlikely that anyone would ever prefer their overblown sound to the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, the lead guitar sound present throughout ‘My Time Is Over’ suggests this was a band who could really blow away the cobwebs on stage. The Flow, on the other hand, aren’t concerned with anything so appealing. Their ‘They Swallowed The Sun’ is almost a tuneless wreck, shifting between the atonal blues rock of Arthur Brown, jazz interludes, overblown solos and spooky vocals, making five minutes feel like an eternity. It’s very much the sort of thing that would have been massively out of fashion by the mid 70s, and even a nod to the mighty Black Sabbath at the end doesn’t really redress any outright messiness elsewhere.
For those who still can’t get enough early 70s excess, tracks by well known musicians Todd Rundgren, Grand Funk Railroad (giving the anthology its name), Kim Fowley, Muddy Waters, MC5 and the ever-wonderful Love all contribute to a four hour journey through a post Kingsmen/pre-yacht rock landscape that, thankfully, is more a pleasing diversion than an exercise in archival drudgery.
Much like the label’s ‘Riding The Rock Machine’ box set which charted the growth of rock music in the UK, ‘We’re An American Band’ doesn’t offer anything unreleased or a huge amount that’s particularly rare. However, it still plays excellently as a compilation, and gives the listener a great reminder of several overlooked tracks alongside a handful of genuine well loved, well worn classics. For those who’ve previously found great value in compilations like ‘I’m A Freak Baby’ and Esoteric’s comprehensive 8CD Steppenwolf box set, there’s plenty here to enjoy, even with Vanilla Fudge trying their best to immediately make people think otherwise…
Buy the box set here: We’re An American Band box set