Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[KamerTunesBlog presents Compilation Or Catalog?. Sometimes the only album I own by an artist is a compilation, which can be a stepping-stone to exploring more of their work, but occasionally a “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” is all I’ve heard. With this series I’ll be asking my readers to let me know if the compilation I have is sufficient or if there are specific albums I should check out. Normally I revisit the entire recorded output of a particular artist over numerous posts, which is the main purpose of this blog, but this will give me an opportunity to learn more about some lesser-known artists in my collection. I look forward to your input]
Montrose was one of those bands I had heard about over the years, mainly because they were known as the launching pad for Sammy Hagar’s career, but none of the rock stations I listened to during my teenage years (the late-‘70s and early-‘80s) played their music. In 1981, I was a big fan of Hagar’s Standing Hampton LP (an underrated album that’s worth checking out if you’ve never heard it), and I thought he was a great choice to replace David Lee Roth as Van Halen’s lead vocalist in 1986, but I never went back to hear where he started. It wasn’t until 2008, when Rhino Records reissued The Very Best Of Montrose (2000) on CD, that I finally decided it was time to check out the music Hagar made with guitarist, and fellow Californian, Ronnie Montrose in the early- to mid-‘70s. What I heard was some solid ‘70s hard rock with clear influences from British bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and although I enjoyed a lot of the songs, after a couple of listens I filed away the CD and hadn’t thought about it until recently. The last couple of days I played it several times and found more to love with each listen. One of the things I hadn’t realized is that Hagar left the band after only two albums: 1973’s Montrose and 1974’s Paper Money. He was replaced by the less distinctive Bob James (not the jazz pianist) on 1975’s Warner Bros. Presents Montrose! and 1976’s Jump On It, after which the band dissolved before being resurrected by Ronnie with a completely fresh lineup for 1987’s Mean. The unsung weapon in this band was drummer Denny Carmassi, who played like a cross between Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Deep Purple’s Ian Paice. He later gained fame as the drummer for Heart during their ‘80s MTV era, and also played on one of my favorite overlooked albums, 1993’s Coverdale-Page.
All four songs from the debut album are classic hard rockers. “Rock The Nation” has fuzzy guitar, a straight-ahead rhythm and wailing vocals, and sounds like a blend of ‘60s garage rock, Stooges-like energy and ‘70s stadium rock. “Bad Motor Scooter” features proto-Eddie Van Halen guitar pyrotechnics in the intro & outro and the driving rhythm has a similar feel to Ted Nugent & The Amboy Dukes’ “Journey To The Center Of The Mind.” I love the shifts from half time to driving 4/4 groove and the searing guitar solo.
The intro to “Space Station #5” features crazy sound effects & acoustic guitar before giving way to a staccato guitar riff and a steady beat. It’s not as immediate as the first two songs but it’s a slow grower. I really enjoy the psychedelic phased effect during the middle section. “Rock Candy” is the most Zeppelin-sounding song, with a huge Bonham-esque drum sound and a killer Jimmy Page-inspired riff. Even Hagar’s “Looooord” intro recalls Robert Plant on “Whole Lotta Love.” This is a monster track that might be better known by the lyrics “hard, sweet and sticky.” You have to love ‘70s hard rock lyrics.
Four songs are featured from their second album. “I Got The Fire” is a driving rocker with an extended melodic riff and a big fat guitar solo that recalls the best of Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. “Spaceage Sacrifice” is more dynamic and subtle, with a subdued production and sparse rhythm section. It also has a bluesier vibe and a more melancholy feel than anything else here. “We’re Going Home” features Ronnie on lead vocals. Like the previous track, it’s moody and sparse, and the faux strings of the mellotron add a new flavor. Late guitar great Gary Moore was surely inspired by the blistering guitar solo here during his ‘80s hard rock period. The tribal drums on “Paper Money” recall Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice, with Carmassi’s percussion work really shining. The lyrical/melodic hook here is “Take away all my silver, take away all my gold.” Not sure if it’s just me, but Rush’s mid-‘80s song “The Big Money” bears a slight resemblance to this track.
For their third album, and first with singer Bob James, the music is still stomping hard rock…at least based on the four songs included here. James’s vocal style is more raw & raspy than Hagar’s, and less distinctive…but I still enjoy a lot of the songs he appears on. “All I Need” starts off soft & pretty with fingerpicked guitar, but gets into a killer groove after James wails “Ohh, ohhh, baby.” Ronnie’s guitar tone in the solo is fantastic. Their version of the Eddie Cochran classic “Twenty Flight Rock” has a lot of energy but is inessential. “Clown Woman” is a typical stomping mid-‘70s rocker. I like it but it’s a bit too generic. “Dancin’ Feet” is my favorite of these four. It has a nice driving groove & speedy guitar licks during the verses, and I like the way the chorus shifts gears: it’s less riff-based with cool funky bass, and I especially enjoy the harmonies on “dancin’ feeeeet.”
Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas came on board for the fourth album and gave it (or at least the three songs included on this collection) a punchier production than the first three. “Let’s Go” has a driving tom-tom intro giving it a tribal feel similar to “Paper Money,” and Ronnie introduces some tasty slide guitar. “Jump On It” is a fast-driving song with uplifting, inspirational lyrics. It sounds like a combination of so many other bands that I couldn’t put my finger on a particular reference point, so maybe that means this sound is truly their own. There’s a great “washy” sound during the guitar solo and a cool voice box effect (made famous by Peter Frampton) when they sing “jump on it.” “Music Man” is the quietest, most subtle song on this compilation, yet features a guitar solo that’s equal parts Page & Blackmore.
Ronnie resurrected the Montrose band name once last time in ’87, but the songs included here from that album don’t do much to enhance their legacy. “M For Machine,” which was originally submitted as a song for the film Robocop, could be any number of ‘80s rock bands. “Stand” is a midtempo rocker with an inspirational feel. It’s a little too generic, but does have a strong, melodic guitar solo. Ronnie obviously still had his chops. This collection closes with “Ready Willing And Able,” which appropriately sounds like a ‘70s rock band trying to recreate their original magic years later but sounding out of place in the new decade. None of these songs are terrible, but there’s nothing to distinguish them from any number of faceless bands of that era.
Unfortunately, Ronnie Montrose died earlier this year. Looking at his session discography, it’s amazing to see all the great musicians he played with, including Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs, Herbie Hancock, Gary Wright, The Edgar Winter Band (he played on “Free Ride” and “Frankenstein,” enough to earn him “legend” status) and so many others. Between the last two Montrose albums, Ronnie released some solo albums and formed another short-lived band called Gamma. I’ve never heard anything from those records, but knowing now what a talented & diverse guitar player and songwriter he was, I have to imagine there’s some great music to be found there. I’d love to hear from anyone who can confirm that, and possibly recommend where to begin. Also, is The Very Best Of Montrose all I need from that band, or are any of their individual albums worth listening to in their entirety? Based on reviews I’ve read, their self-titled debut is a classic, so I’m expecting some hearty recommendations for that one. Thanks for your help. I hope you enjoyed this summary of a great compilation.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 14, 2013: Since I posted this “Compilation Or Catalog?” entry in November 2012, I heard from a lot of passionate Montrose fans. The consensus was that their self-titled debut album is an all-time classic and an essential purchase. Some recommended their other albums to a lesser extent, and a number of fans suggested I explore Ronnie Montrose’s work outside of the band that bore his last name. Based on that feedback, I’ve already gotten two of Ronnie’s solo albums (Open Fire and The Speed Of Sound) as well as all four records by Gamma (simply titled 1, 2, 3 and 4). Both solo albums are excellent, with Open Fire being a particular favorite, and even though the Gamma albums are hit-and-miss, there are some spectacular songs on all of them (along with consistently brilliant guitar work from Ronnie). I’ve been seeking out the first Montrose album on vinyl for over a year but have been unable to find a copy at a reasonable price. So recently I ordered the 5-CD Original Album Series mini box set, which includes the four original Montrose albums along with Ronnie’s Open Fire, all in CD-sized replica LP sleeves. Needless to say I’m excited to finally hear their debut album in its entirety, and I’m sure the others will be enjoyable too. Thanks so much to everyone who shared their opinions & helped me to decide that, when it comes to Montrose, it’s Catalog rather than Compilation.