Monday, September 24, 2007

Bill Nelson, Ross the Boss & Scott Kempner, Gary Cox & Herrewig, Ritchie Ranno & Brendan Harkin

Be Bop Deluxe, The Dictators, Artful Dodger, and Starz are four near misses from the Mid 70s that you should know.

Bill Nelson, Ross The Boss Freidman, Ritchie Ranno, Brendan Harkin, Gary Cox, Gary Herriweg. Not a household name in the bunch, though each has to his eternal credit the fact that they played on at least one near perfect rock and roll record.

Nelson was the brain-trust of Brit glam rockers Be Bop Deluxe. Before giving birth to death metal with legendary metallers Manowar, Ross The Boss played lead in the first punk/metal band, New York city’s The Dictators. Ranno and Harkin toiled in the shadows of KISS, while making Starz a hard to follow opening act for headliners Nugent, Aerosmith, and the aforementioned clown faced legends. Cox and Herrewig were making power pop albums with Artful Dodger that surely turned Alex Chilton green with envy.

Four bands that each recorded one album that is pure rock genius. None reached gold, let alone platinum sales, or ever headlined a major tour. This was a sad loss for rock fans and the musicians, as both deserved better. There’s a particular logic, even in rock and roll that says, “Don’t be too smart, don’t be too unique, don’t be a threat to the haves, and don’t be too big a smart ass.” Some things never change.

The Dictators were doomed from the word go. Formed by fanzine writer Adny Shernoff, the ‘Tators were the first punk rockers to get a record out. Their entire schtick was stolen by fellow New Yorkers The Ramones. From the leather jackets to smart guys playing dumb, Shernoff’s bunch was too damned good and too damned early. They had a lead singer/mascot/pro wrestler frontman in “Handsome” Dick Manitoba who still runs the most popular bar in Manhattan, but was not understood outside the city limits. Their songs bristled with energy, made you laugh, and rocked like a son of a bitch. The rock was supplied by young Ross Freidman, better known as “Ross the Boss.”

Re-naming himself FUNicello, Ross is one of the coolest rock guitarists I’ve ever heard. The Dictator’s 1975 debut, Go Girl Crazy! opens with a proclamation entitled “The Next Big Thing.” I must have spent half the summer trying to figure out Freidman/Funicello’s stunning solo on this tune. Melodic, fast, and perfect for the track, a new guitar god is stillborn. There should have been an investigation into why Epic Records couldn’t figure out how to make these guys stars. On every track the guitars are ruthlessly rocking and snap your head to attention at every turn, dropping your jaw with every molten lick out of Ross’s Marshall amplifier. His tone was incredibly hot, using just a Les Paul, his Marshall, and a cable. Scott Kempner (Del Lords) smashed out staggering power chords that brilliantly provided a launch pad for the monster soloing. No effects, no tremolos, just seriously great straight ahead rock and roll. Freidman supplies many great single note fills, crystal clear arpeggios (check out their re-make of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You, Babe”), and sizzling solo work for every tune on the record.

There is a song on The Dictator’s follow up album, Manifest Destiny called “Young, Fast, and Scientific.” They should have named it “Too Young, Too Fast, and Too Scientific.” The American public was not able to get its brain around this Bronx sensation. The Dictators were last seen in 2006, closing the late CBGBs in lower Manhattan, playing the clubs last two nights.

Just around the time I had figured out the solo to “The Next Big Thing”, my mind was blown by….the next big thing. Following closely in the footsteps of Bowie, singer/guitarist Bill Nelson perfected his formula of glam rock nirvana with Be Bop Deluxe’s third record, Sunburst Finish. Nelson had everything necessary too become a HUGE star. He could write witty, memorable tunes, sang like a bird, and played guitar as well as anyone since Hendrix. Though it’s not truly a ‘concept’ record, this is one of the most fully realized statements by any band of the seventies. “Fair Exchange” kicks off the proceedings by stating the premise that the band was basically selling their soul to their audience, and it was indeed a fair exchange. Nelson’s guitar work starts off with some Chuck Berry double stops, jumps to some flamenco-like chording, and finishes up with a heart stopping, breath taking solo. He ends the solo brilliantly and so the song, which cascades into the beautiful ballad, “Heavenly Homes.” This song will let you know why Nelson was a favorite of a young Los Angeles guitarist, Randy Rhoades.

Utilizing a Gibson ES series guitar with a Bigsby tailpiece, Nelson coaxed tones out of the axe that are still astonishing in their complexity and beauty. Track number four, “Crying to the Sky” teaches Robin Trower everything he should have learned from Hendrix. Massively overdriven and echo laden, Nelson’s solo on this tune boggles the minds of every guitarist I’ve ever had the pleasure of turning on to this superb chunk of vinyl. This might just be my favorite record ever. Every song a masterpiece, no filler, and best of all, Bill Nelson, soon to be done with life as a guitar hero, records his epic statement of guitar grace. The world is a better place with a huge regular dose of Sunburst Finish.

I bought this album on a whim, due to the cover, which depicts a beautiful naked woman holding a burning guitar. It beckoned me like a siren, and I gladly took the bait. Thirty one years later, I think it’s the best fishing trip I ever took.

My first glimpse at Washington DC’s Artful Dodger was at a radio station sponsored show that cost me a whopping $1.04. WTUEwas at 104 on the FM dial and that’s what they charged for these Columbia recording artists. The promo pictures looked great, from left handed Telecasters to Les Paul TVs, to a leather jacketed lead singer with a Rod Stewart styled coiffure.

Artful Dodger is without a doubt the best power pop band of all time. That’s right Big Star fans, I said it. The Dodgers kick the crap out of Chilton’s band. Go ahead, put ‘em up, track to track, record to record and see if this isn’t true. Honor Among Thieves was the band’s second big label effort, coming on the heels of their brilliant self titled debut of a year earlier. Co-produced by Jack Douglas (engineered Who’s Next, produced Cheap Trick’s debut) and Eddie Leonetti, the album sounds as crisp, clear, and rockingly tough as it did in 1976. Every sound on this record is right on the money. Guitars are settled in perfectly between the inventive rhythm section and singer Billy Pasirelli’s tuneful rasp. This is about rock and roll cohesion, more like The Faces or The Stones than a display of Herculean chops. Guitarists Cox and Herrewig sound like they were born of the same guitaristic soul. They compliment each other like southern politicians at a picnic, literally dancing hand in hand throughout the album. Chord voicings are crystal clear and not blurred or muddy at any point, and when they do solo as in the power ballad “Scream,” it’s pretty enough to bring a tear. The tones are a textbook of tube guitar amp bliss.

Starz were destined for big things. They had KISS’s management and Aerosmith’s record company. And that’s where they made their mistake. Being third in line at a family picnic means you are going get leftovers, after the bigger kids have eaten. Never able to quite get their parents full attention, Starz languished in the minor leagues and still managed to put out several remarkable records.

Made up from the remains of early 70s hit makers Looking Glass (Brandy), and Stories (Brother Louie), the band recruited Atlanta born singer/writer Michael Lee Smith and stepped up to the plate. After their debut 1977 release the band hit the road, making life hell for headliners who had no idea of Starz’s sheer power. These guys had all of KISS’s catchiness, but with better singing and playing. After opening shows for everyone from KISS, Aerosmith, Nugent, Foghat, and others, Smith and his band found they were often no longer welcome at the party. Upstaging every band you open for is not always a ticket to success, leading Starz back to the studio, where they then proceeded to paint their masterpiece.

Violation, released in early 1977 was a concept piece about the coming of big brother and the death of rock and roll. “Cherry Baby” opened the album and actually saw some chart action and radio play. Straddling heavy metal and power pop with grace and aplomb, the single is a great start to an album that is both wickedly heavy in some places, and sweetly beautiful in others. Ritchie Ranno wears the hat of the guitar hero here, showing why he was Gene Simmons’ player of choice for much of his solo record. Ranno’s solos drip with saturated feedback coaxed from his humbucker equipped Strat. His playing is very controlled, but explosive and unexpected in some places. He may have been the first guy to start the Strat with a humbucker thing that became almost a law amongst 80s shredders. Without knowing it Ranno invented a whole subculture of rock guitar. His playing over the whole record is brash and stylish, maybe beating Ace Frehley at the pentatonic sweepstakes. Ranno was said to be KISS’ first choice as a replacement for the sometimes unreliable Space Ace.

None of these bands or the guitarists who played on these incredible records ever claimed the brass ring. Superstardom shunned them, refused to let them in. Their legend remains on every track of every album they sweated blood to produce. There’s enough here to set you on a search for four records that will certainly entertain your rock and roll urges and perhaps reinvigorate your restless rock guitar soul. Find these records and give them a whirl. There’s still time to add these to your list of classic rock guitar releases.

If you need help finding these gems, drop me a note, as they can all be found. My life is better for having heard these four remarkable discs and I thank the makers profusely!


steffo said...
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steffo said...

Only 9 yrs late in reading/commenting, but this is great writing & thanks Tony for re-turning me on to this titanic rock/powerpop foursome!!!