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.
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.
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.
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!