SHELTER – First Stop

For a legion of AOR fans, Joe Lamont’s 1985 LP ‘Secrets You Keep’ is heralded as a classic. A solid melodic rock affair, the album featured contributions from Vinnie Colaiuta and future Giant men Dann Huff and Alan Pasqua. It’d taken vocalist Joe Lamont a few years to break through; as Joe Lament, he recorded a soft rock album with Steeplechase in 1981 (a brilliant but now hard to find gem), before jumping ship and joining melodic rock/AOR band Shelter the following year. Signed to major label Polydor, Shelter only recorded the one album, but 1983’s ‘First Stop’ is a vinyl era rock classic.

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VIRGINIA WOLF – Virginia Wolf

Originally released in 1986, Virginia Wolf’s self-titled album is the album which first introduced rock audiences to the vocal talents of British AOR legend Chris Ousey. Its place in rock history is assured, since it features a young Jason Bonham (the son of Led Zeppelin legend John Bonham) on drums. Interestingly though, given the absolute power behind his father’s style of drumming – a style in which Jason is also capable of playing – you’d hardly recognise the drum work on this album as being that of anyone with the Bonham name. Under the album’s 80s sheen, the drum sound is thin and has no real oomph behind it and (as with a lot of other rock albums from the period) the bass drum is non-existent; in fact, for the majority of the album, the drums are such a non-event, they may as well have been programmed). The finger of blame there should be pointed at producer Roger Taylor (yes, the Queen guy); although the slightly synthetic approach was very in keeping with the times.
Those complaints aside, some songs hold up fairly well. The opening number, ‘Are We Playing With Fire?’ offers a hard rhythmic workout. Nick Bold’s spiky guitar chops are well suited to Ousey’s vocal style. ‘Livin’ on a Knife Edge’ again finds Ousey in good form and aside from a pompy bridge section leading into the guitar solo, it’d be the track most comparable to his later musical direction. The punchy ‘Take a Chance’ offers a strong chorus and some great vocal harmonies as well as a great guitar solo from Nick Bold. Okay, some of the more heavy-handed keyboard sounds let the side down a little, but that’s a minor point. ‘Only Love’ utilises classic stabbing keyboards during the intro and chorus, balanced by quiet verses featuring subtle, ringing guitar work. Even by 1986 this approach was unoriginal in the world of melodic rock, but there’s a reason it’s considered classic.

The album’s strongest offering ‘Goodbye Don’t Mean Forever’ features Ousey’s greatest vocal performance; musically it hints at other melodic rock of the times. Elsewhere, the rock balladry of ‘It’s In Your Eyes’ provides a decent listen. Again, it’s melodic rock by numbers and I’ll even forgive the saxophone creeping in at the end. With 80s melodic rock, it’s the mid-paced tracks which hold up best and this is no exception. During the feel-good ‘Waiting For Your Love’, Ousey has moments where he sounds like Eric Martin (not as good though, obviously); it would also be up there with the album’s best moments, since it’s musical arrangement is strong, but some overblown female backing vocals let the side down.

The band followed this with a second album ‘Push’ in 1987, which offered more of the same (although with a slightly warmer feel, thanks to a better production). To be honest, even though both the Virginia Wolf albums have enjoyable moments, they’re not the greatest examples of British AOR. They sound a little weak when held up against the albums Magnum released during a similar period and they’re certainly nowhere near as great as Dare’s ‘Out of The Silence’ (rightly regarded as one of the best British examples of the genre).

After the band’s demise, Jason Bonham moved towards a harder musical direction with his own eponymously named band. As well documented, Chris Ousey became the vocalist with Heartland, whose musical journey continued on a similar path as Virginia Wolf.As a footnote, some CD reissues of the Virginia Wolf albums proudly state “featuring Jason Bonham” on the sleeves. It seems for some people, Jason is the band’s main attraction: frankly, if that’s your only reason for investigating them, you’re likely to be disappointed. For Chris Ousey and Heartland fans, though, the Virginia Wolf albums are well worth checking out, even though they’re both hit ‘n’ miss.

February 2010


SAMMY HAGAR – Street Machine

Between leaving Montrose in 1975 and joining Van Halen a decade later, Sammy Hagar was a busy man. During that decade he embarked upon a solo career whereby he released eight studio albums and two live albums, as well as a collaboration with Neal Schon, Kenny Aaronson and Mike Shreive (released as HSAS: ‘Through The Fire’).

A great deal of this work represents quantity over quality as far as I’m concerned.Most of those studio albums contain three or four really great numbers, bolstered by approx half a dozen dispensable ones to bring things up to album length.1977’s ‘Musical Chairs’ doesn’t even stretch that far. After the opening good times of ‘Turn Up The Music’, most of what follows is lacklustre; even a deliberate attempt to rock during ‘Reckless’ feels a little flat, due to an over-reliance of Alan Fitzgerald’s organ, played like a limp Jon Lord. (It’s also worth mentioning that any decent material from fan favourite ‘Danger Zone’ [1980] is killed by a really flat production job from Geoff Workman).

Among Sammy’s pre-VH solo work though, you’ll find one genuine gem.1979’s ‘Street Machine’ is a solid offering which no fan of late 70s hard rock should be without.The Red Rocker and his band are firing on all six here right from the opening number, the simple boogie-rocker ‘Growing Pains’.The no-nonsense rock vibe carries through ‘Trans Am (Highway Wonderland)’, where the rhythm section of Chuck Ruff (drums) and bassist Bill Church (who’d previously worked with Hagar in Montrose) are the real stars.Chuck’s drumming style is very natural; he knows how to rock out, but never in a way which upstages Hagar.Bill Church’s bass style here – and throughout ‘Street Machine’ generally – is solid.He could be compared to a hard rock John McVie: you know the style, a firm anchor – plodding but never dull.

‘This Planet’s on Fire’ (one of the album’s better known numbers) is a full-on rocker, driven by Gary Pihl’s circular riff on lead guitar.He also gets to turn in a fairly hard edged solo – this will undoubtedly be one of the standout tracks for those wanting Sammy and co to rock in the way that Montrose’s ‘Bad Motor Scooter’ and ‘Space Station #5’ had previously.The ballad ‘Child to Man’ offers one of Hagar’s strongest performances, but it’s Gary Pihl’s guitar touches which makes it so memorable.Its subtle bluesy notes compliment Hagar’s voice perfectly.Also more reflective, ‘Never Say Die’ provides another standout.Here, Hagar and the whole band are at their absolute strongest: Sammy’s voice retains its hard rock qualities but he sings like a man who’s been let down, his voice showing a passionate side not quite so evident elsewhere.

Musically, ‘Plain Jane’ is a decent slice of 70s power pop, matching handclaps and a singalong element with hard rock guitars, reminiscent of work by Rick Derringer on his ‘Face To Face’ LP (recorded at a similar time).Hagar’s voice though remains hard and a little husky, so it’s likely this’ll always be far more associated with the hard rock tag.

The rest of the album’s material also passes muster. ‘Wounded In Love’ and ‘Feels Like Love’ both offer decent mid-paced rock stompers; ‘Falling In Love’, driven by ringing guitars features backing vocals by Boston members Brad Delp, Barry Goudreau and Sib Hashain giving it a slightly overblown late 70s vibe and ‘Straight To The Top’ is a fun workout with more than a nod to fifties style rock ‘n’ roll.

The difference in quality between ‘Street Machine’ and any of Sammy’s previous solo albums is astounding. Although Hagar’s best solo albums wouldn’t appear until sometime later (1987’s self-titled album, aka ‘I Never Said Goodbye’ and 1997’s ‘Marching To Mars’), ‘Street Machine’ – like the Montrose debut – does a decent job in highlighting why Hagar was a hero to US rock fans a long time before his alliance with Van Halen.

February 2010