Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Replacements: Not the band

Writing last week about the gifted Glenn Hughes, and previously Ronnie Wood, it got me to thinking about pinch hitters.  Musicians who replace established players in established bands.  A tough situation for both band and fan. 

I just listened to no less a talent than Steve Vai getting mercilessly hounded by Yngwie fans at his first show with Alcatrazz back in 1984.  At that time Vai had little sway in the metal community, being better known amongst guitar geeks and Zappa fans.  Steve was greeted with a chorus of, "Where's Yngwie," and "You suck," before he had so much as played a note.

On the other hand Ronnie Wood was hugely lauded by Stones fans based largely on the word of Keith Richard's championing his old drinking buddy.  Artistically, it set up the great debate amongst Stones' fans as to which version of the band was best, the Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, or Ronnie Woods versions.  That's how the eras of the band became known in fact.  I'm a Mick Taylor guy, being a fan of the classic lead player, but can see the validity of all three.  Jones brought great versatility and experimentation to the early bluesiness of the band.  Then finally, along came Woods who outlasted them all by a great margin, remaining with the band longer than both predecessors combined. 

Deep Purple replaced two members at the height of their glory and suffered little, in fact becoming a more versatile, interesting band, as David Coverdale's vocals were routinely challenged by Glenn Hughes's almost unearthly vocal skills.  They were the Everlys of british hard rock, and the pair brought a funky swagger to the band that served them well, allowing the band to stylistically forge ahead, breathing new air.  Their second album together, Stormbringer, may still be the best blues rock album to ever come out of England, an amazing stew of funky keyboard, rhythms and vocals doing battle with Ritchie Blackmore's rebellious hard rock guitaring.  It may have contained no smash singles, but every song is a winner and I defy you to find a more exciting record.  Coverdale and Hughes mixed and matched vocals better than any duo in hard rock history.  The band also saw huge success as headliners at '74's California Jam, which culminated with a furious Blackmore destroying a network camera and another nice Strat.

Germany's teutonic rock opera of The Schenker brothers has made for interesting comings and goings, as brother Michael flew in and out of The Scorpions and UFO with dizzying regularity.  Artistically, The Scorpions couldn't have done better than replacing Rudolph's younger brother with uber guitar wiz Ulrich (Uli Jon) Roth.  Roth took the band to new levels of sophistication, and almost singlehandedly took heavy metal guitar playing into the world of classical influence.  Half Hendrix/half Paginini, Roth's use of exotic scales, mixed with exceptional trem bar histrionics had to have influenced Yngwie Malmsteen as much as Blackmore. 

The Scorpions huge success the world over didn't occur, however, until both Schenker and Roth had exited, to finally be supplanted by Matthias Jabs, a fine player by any measure, though not as innovative as either of the band's earlier axemen.  Jabs was in, then out, then in again finally, as Schenker struggled between sibling loyalty and his draw towards his own muse.  In the end, the band profited by being finally lead by the artistic vision of Rudolph Schenker.  Rudy wrote, Matthias played solos and that was that.  While never again as exciting and innovative, the band found a focus previously unseen, and it took them to the top of the charts across the planet.  It's hard to argue with success, though I still pine for albums like 1977's, Taken By Force.

UFO also had many issues with replacement players over the years, as they tried and ultimately failed to keep Michael Schenker on board through a great many trials and tribulations.  Paul Chapman came and went several times, never achieving either the popularity or the musical success that the band had with Schenker.  Several guitarists made appearances over the years, including non-descript outings with Lawrence Archer, and fine but unnoticed records with Atomic Tommy McClendon, a fabulous player who never got a decent listening I'm afraid.  Now the band carries on with long time replacement Vinnie Moore, a fine player, but one without a strong identity of his own.

The name of Steve Vai always arises when discussing the role of the pinch hitting gunslinger, having followed his stint as Yngwie's replacement in Graham Bonnet's Alcatrazz (which netted the band their finest record, Disturbing the Peace), with perhaps the gutsiest of all replacement missions, that of following Eddie Van Halen as David Lee Roth's right hand man.  Vai did fantastic work on both occasions, then surprisingly failed miseably when he replaced the fiery John Sykes with David Coverdale's Whitesnake.  This I blame on a bad premise, that of thinking that Vai's otherworldly, etheric guitar atmospherics would meld well with Coverdale's bluesy songs and vocals.  Sometimes two rights can make a wrong.

Replacing a guitarist in an established band is never easy, given the stylistic peculiarities of individual players.  Jake E. Lee never quite got out from Randy Rhoads shadow with Ozzie Osbourne, but time heals all, and  over time Zakk Wylde became Osbourne's musical voice, as the world eventually got beyond Rhoads's death.  Zakk's harmonic squalls have become as much a part of Ozzie's sound as Rhoads's astounding solos and unique riffing.  Had Wylde immediately followed Randy's departure, he'd have had it much rougher.

Sometimes, changing guitarists can sound a band's death, as it did in the mid-'70s for England's Mott the Hoople.  While Mick Ralphs took his burgeoning songwriting talents to platinum success alongside Paul Rodgers in Bad Company, the Hoople died, as Ralph's replacement, Ariel Bender (Spooky Tooth's renamed Luther Grovsner) proved to be a better drinking partner for Ian Hunter than a musical foil, proving to be barely functional in the studio.  Then to finally put the band in it's grave (perhaps intentionally), Hunter brought in the ultimate rock and roll Tonto, David Bowie's brilliant guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson.  Though Hunter and Ronson remained partnered for the rest of Ronson's all too short life, with Mott they only made a few shows and one single, their glorious goodbye, Saturday Gigs.  Ronson came into Mott and took too much power and influence from the remainder of the band and proceeded to sink an all ready teetering ship.

Speaking again briefly of Deep Purple, Blackmore's departure (his first of several) was followed by Tommy Bolin, a guitarist who's reputation far outweighs any evidence of greatness.  Terribly out of place in a hard rock band, and terrifically hampered by drug problems, Bolin never fulfilled his promise.  I saw the band shortly before Bolin's death, and it was pathetic.  Never had I been so disgusted by a performance.  The man could barely walk, let alone play.  Live recordings bear this out as well, with Bolin buried under Jon Lord's keyboards.  This was a shame and a tragedy, as Bolin had been touted as such an amazing replacement and seemingly had such potenial that never came to fruition, aside from his work with Billy Cobham.  Deep Purple now soldiers on admirably with virtuouso Steve Morse, but they aren't remotely the same band (not that they need be,oe even should be - hat's off to them here) as the one that gave the world, Made in Japan.  For some fans this is fine, for some it is near heresy.  Such is life.

This parade of pinch hitters probably began with Clapton, Beck, and Page with the Yardbirds.  Ever since, there's always been great discussion controversy and interest whenever a major band replaces their guitarist, or a guitarist departs from a band.  It certainly keeps things interesting and provides a fascinating look at what we like and why we like it.  I didn't even get into Thin Lizzy, Humble Pie, Yes, or a hundred other interesting examples.  Or singers, drummers, or even keyboardists (Yes?).

peace, tc


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